Learning from a sunken battleship

The discovery of the sunken battleship Musashi — the Imperial Japanese Navy’s biggest warship — by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen last week should serve as an opportunity for the Japanese or any people, for that matter, to contemplate the real face of war — its absurdity and cruelty. People should try to understand the lessons of the silent wreckage, which has been lying one km below the surface of the Philippines’ Sibuyan Sea for the past 71 years.

The Musashi embodied the best shipbuilding and weapons technologies that wartime Japan had. The second of the Yamato-class battleships, and the last battleship to be constructed by the Imperial Japanese Navy, the Musashi had a standard displacement of 65,000 tons, much heavier than the Iowa-class battleships, the U.S. Navy’s latest and largest battleships, whose standard displacement was 45,000 tons.

Although shorter than the Iowa-class battleships — 263 meters versus 270 meters, both the Musashi and the Yamato were equipped with nine mammoth 18.1 inch (46 cm) guns, the most powerful guns ever mounted on a battleship and much more powerful than the Iowa-class’ nine 16-inch (40.6 cm) guns. Each three-gun turret weighed more than 2,700 tons — as much as a large destroyer.

But the concept under which the Musashi was designed — using battleships as a main force to fight and defeat the enemy’s battleships in a decisive sea battle — was becoming outdated by rapid developments in military technology. Even when the Yamato-class battleships were being planned, the basic approach to naval fighting was moving away from the belief that large warships and superior firepower would lead to victory to the idea that explosives dropped by land- or carrier-based aircraft would play a decisive role.

In late 1941, less than a year before the Musashi was commissioned, Japan had 10 aircraft carriers, compared with eight each for the United States and Britain. It was not battleships’ big guns but rather bombs and torpedoes dropped by aircraft from aircraft carriers that brought Japan a tactical victory in the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. Instead of taking on enemy battleships, both the Musashi and Yamato primarily fought U.S. aircraft, and both were sunk by American carrier-based dive bombers and torpedo bombers.

With some 2,400 officers and men aboard, the Musashi, together with the Yamato and other warships, took part in the fateful Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944. In that operation the Imperial Navy tried to strike back at U.S. forces that had started landing on Leyte Island but suffered a devastating defeat instead, losing more than a dozen large warships and its ability to carry out large organized attacks in the future.

The Musashi suffered five waves of air attacks on Oct. 24 from morning to afternoon. According to “Senkan Musashi no Saigo” (The Last Moment of the Battleship Musashi) written by Kiyoshi Watanabe — at the time an 18-year-old anti-aircraft machine gunner on the Musashi — it took 26 direct bomb hits and 21 torpedo hits. At 7:35 p.m., it toppled to the left and sank with two explosions, ending its short life — two years and two months after it was commissioned.

Watanabe wrote, “Engulfed with black smokes like a mourning dress, the Musashi in mass of flames sank, down by the bow. At that time, many seriously injured men and those sailors who failed to escape were trapped inside the ship … Perhaps they were alive for some time after it reached the sea bottom. But nobody can know what their agony of death throes in pitch-blackness in the deep sea was like.”

When he discovered the Musashi, Allen tweeted “RIP [rest in peace] crew of Musashi, approximately 1,023 lost.”

The Yamato, which survived the Battle of Leyte Gulf, also experienced a tragic fate. It took part in an absurd operation in April 1945, which envisaged the Yamato being beached on Okinawa Island to serve as an unsinkable gun battery and fight the invading American forces until it was destroyed. But instead it was sunk on the afternoon of April 7 after being hit by some 10 torpedoes and several bombs in fierce air attacks, with more than 3,000 lives lost.

The Musashi and the Yamato represented the pinnacle of Japanese technology and were the pride of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Some Japanese still admire them because of their size, power, speed and beauty in silhouette.

But both ordinary citizens and political leaders alike should reflect on what Watanabe wrote: “The death [of the Musashi’s officers and enlisted men] was neither dignified nor beautiful as I had expected. All of them died like crushed worms or pebbles. I saw what war was like with my own eyes.” The cruelty of war must not be forgotten.