FUKUYAMA, HIROSHIMA PREF. – Yasuo Yasugi was a 17-year-old seaman aboard the Imperial Japanese Navy’s proud battleship Yamato when it was sunk off Kagoshima Prefecture on April 7, 1945.
When Yasugi was ordered in January of that year to board the battleship, a mission that he had longed for, he was told by his commander: “The Yamato will never sink. If it were to sink, that would mean Japan’s fall,” according to the 87-year-old, who lives in Fukuyama, Hiroshima Prefecture.
The 263-meter-long battleship, the largest dreadnought ever made, boasted three-gun main turrets, each with three 46 cm guns. In a rare duty for such a young sailor, Yasugi was selected to gauge the firing range to enemy ships and inform the gunners.
Yamato departed from Kure port in Hiroshima Prefecture on March 29 to join the Battle of Okinawa.
On April 6, the Yamato’s crew sang a military song and said goodbye while looking toward their hometowns, knowing they were on a suicide mission.
Yasugi had never imagined that the Yamato would be used for a suicide attack. He sensed that because the world’s largest battleship was going to be sacrificed, Japan was losing the war.
On April 7, it was cloudy from morning. Yasugi braced himself for the coming battle. “I told myself, ‘We’re ready to shoot down every enemy aircraft,'” he recalled.
During lunch mess, a watch spotted enemy planes. As Yasugi looked through the lens of his rangefinder, he saw a dark cluster of aircraft.
When he tried to measure the distance to the enemy planes, they were obscured behind thick clouds. He could do nothing.
The U.S. warplanes began their attack from just above the Yamato at around 12:30 p.m., rendering the main guns, which couldn’t aim high enough, useless in the battleship’s defense.
The Yamato was struck by torpedoes on its port side and began to list, while on deck lay many wounded and dead crewmen. Corpsmen threw legs and arms into the sea.
In front of Yasugi, a second lieutenant abruptly plunged a Japanese sword into his own belly, splashing blood. Frightened, Yasugi could not find words, so he saluted him.
As the Yamato was sinking, Yasugi decided to abandon ship and dived into the sea from the bridge. But he was trapped in the huge eddy caused by the sinking battleship. He felt water pressure on his chest.
At 2:23 p.m., the Yamato exploded and went below the surface. Due to the impact, Yasugi was buoyed to the surface, but he found his right leg injured by a piece of metal.
With leaked fuel oil covering the sea, he struggled to keep afloat. “I shouted, ‘Help!'” Yasugi recalled. Then, he saw the Yamato’s anti-aircraft chief holding on to a log and coming toward him.
“Calm down. It’s all right now,” the chief said, according to Yasugi. “You’re young, so survive.” He pushed the log to Yasugi.
After drifting for about four hours, Yasugi saw a Japanese destroyer arrive in the late afternoon and begin rescue work. Survivors flocked to the vessel.
Avoiding areas crowded with other survivors, Yasugi swam to an area at the back of the ship, where he found the anti-aircraft chief.
He gestured with his chin, apparently telling Yasugi to go, then began swimming toward the spot where the Yamato went down. “I shouted to him repeatedly, ‘Koshacho (anti-aircraft artillery chief)!'” Yasugi said.
Yasugi understood that he had chosen to share the same fate as the Yamato as he was responsible for defending the ship from enemy planes.
Dying with the Yamato would be an honor, Yasugi had believed. After he survived the war, he became determined to tell the world stories about the battleship. Of the Yamato’s 3,332 crew members, 3,056 died.
Yasugi said he hopes he can meet the anti-aircraft chief and other Yamato crew members again in the afterworld and tell them, “I did my best with the rest of my life.”