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THE MUSASHI

Floating fortress Musashi, symbol of Japan’s naval ambitions, now a war grave

by

Staff Writer

The super-dreadnought that once served as the flagship of the Imperial Japanese Navy has been found lying in sections in the dark ocean depths of the Philippines, 70 years after the end of World War II.

Billionaire Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen announced on March 3 that his research team located the wreck of the Musashi, one of the two largest and most technologically advanced battleships in naval history, 1,000 meters below the surface of the Sibuyan Sea.

The news immediately made headlines in Japan, with video clips and photos taken by a remotely operated undersea vehicle repeatedly aired on television, drawing reactions of awe and surprise.

But what was the Musashi? What made the warship so special? Why was such a formidable vessel built and how did it meet its end?

Following are some questions and answers about the Musashi, a symbol of Japan’s advanced engineering capabilities, the nation’s tragedies and a colossal failure in war strategy that made the vessel obsolete before it even set sail:

What was the Musashi?

It was one of two Yamato-class battleships of the Imperial navy, the other being the Yamato, and was also one of the world’s largest and most powerful ever built.

Built in 1942, the Musashi was the last battleship Japan built. Its predecessor, the Yamato, was commissioned on Dec. 16, 1941, just days after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor to start the Pacific War.

The Musashi, which was commissioned on Aug. 5, 1942, became the flagship of Japan’s main fleet on Feb. 11, 1943, following the Yamato.

Both the Musashi and Yamato displaced 64,000 tons. Their 46-cm main guns were the largest and most powerful ever to be mounted on a warship.

The two ships, each capable of carrying six reconnaissance aircraft, were 263 meters long. (The diameter of Tokyo Dome is 201 meters.)

The ships had a maximum height of 56 meters, about the same as a 16-story building, and could reach a maximum cruising speed of 50 kph.

The main guns could lob a 1½-ton shell 42 km, meaning a round fired from Tokyo Tower in Minato Ward could reach Kamakura Station in Kanagawa Prefecture.

The existence and specifications of the Musashi and Yamato, in particular those of the main guns, were designated top military secrets.

Why were such mammoth battleships planned in the first place?

Before World War II, it was generally believed having large warships with long-range guns offered a critical military advantage in naval warfare.

Naval air power was still in its early stages and carrier aircraft were not believed capable of sinking a large, heavily armored battleship.

The Imperial Japanese Navy in particular turned to size and powerful guns because of the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty and 1930 London Naval Treaty, which allowed Japan, a rising power and perceived threat, in the Pacific to possess much fewer major warships than the United States, its main hypothetical naval foe at the time.

Did the Musashi and Yamato contribute greatly to Japan’s war effort?

Not really. The Imperial navy, which considered both vessels symbols of Japan’s naval prowess, was initially reluctant to deploy the ships to major battle zones.

The two battleships, with elite commanders, stayed safe in port at the Truck Islands (now Chuuk Islands) until spring 1944. While idle, they were dubbed “Inn Musashi” and “Hotel Yamato,” given their well-appointed interiors and lavish meals for elite officers.

Only after Japan lost its main aircraft carriers and numerous skilled pilots in the 1942 Battle of Midway and the 1944 Battle of the Philippine Sea, and other battles started to go against the country, did the navy start to put the two battleships in harm’s way.

Lacking the protection of fighter planes, the Musashi was sunk on Oct. 24, 1944, after being hit by an estimated 20 to 30 torpedoes and 17 bombs from enemy aircraft.

Of the 2,400 or so crew members aboard the Musashi, only 1,376 reportedly survived the battle.

The Yamato, later dispatched on a suicide mission at the start of the Battle of Okinawa, was sunk by U.S. forces on April 7, 1945, off Kagoshima Prefecture.

Were the Yamato-type battleships the products of flawed strategic thinking?

Yes. Large, heavily armored battleships were designed for surface warfare, based on the concept that they could not be sunk by aircraft.

World War II, particularly in the Pacific, saw the ascent of the concept of naval air superiority. Long-range land-based warplanes also doomed the battleship.

When the Yamato-class ships were designed, it wasn’t thought possible that aircraft could deliver the powerful bombs and torpedoes needed to sink them, according to “Senkan Musashi Kenzo Kiroku” (“Construction of The Musashi”), published in 1994.

When the Imperial navy realized the threat of air power, it initially only sought to deploy the Musashi and Yamato to locations where Japan maintained air superiority.

The designers had assumed the Musashi would be at risk from torpedoes launched by enemy ships and submarines, but not airplanes, the book said.

Ironically, it was the Imperial navy that first demonstrated to the world that carrier aircraft, not battleships, would be the key to prevailing in naval warfare during World War II.

Japan, which for a while had the most modern and largest aircraft carrier fleet, demonstrated its naval air power with the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941 (Dec. 8 in Japan).

Two days later, Japanese aircraft again shocked the world by sinking Britain’s powerful battleship the Prince of Wales and battle cruiser Repulse off the Malay Peninsula.

Today’s military experts say the sinking of the Prince of Wales marked the end of the era of huge battleships in naval warfare.

  • Nevin Thompson

    It should also be said that three keels were laid down: the Yamato, the Musashi, and a third for a ship that would become the Shinano aircraft carrier (or aircraft transporter). It was sunk on its maiden voyage, yet again a testamount to the futile, hopeless, sorrowful waste of lives and resources that went into these three ships.