Yesterday, I wrote a piece about the discovery of the wreckage of the Imperial Japanese Navy battleship Musashi. That vessel, together with its sister ship, the Yamato, were the largest and most heavily armed battleships constructed in naval history (Robert Farley has written about the Yamato here). The Musashi was sunk during World War II and was discovered in the Sibuyan Sea off the Philippines on March 1. Given the significance of the find, which also comes as we commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII, I thought I would briefly expand on the significance of the Musashi in a separate post.
The Musashi was built as part of the Yamato class of vessels planned in 1937, of which there only were two battleships. They were designed to offset projected American numerical superiority in an ongoing U.S.-Japan naval race, which intensified following Japan’s withdrawal from the Washington Naval Treaty and the League of Nations. They were also built in secrecy – the United States did not know about the ongoing construction despite the fact that it was going on close to its consulate in Japan. Akira Yoshimura, in the book Battleship Musashi: The Making and Sinking of the World’s Biggest Battleship, goes through the construction process in in detail. Personnel who worked on the ship at the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Nagasaki Shipyard were reportedly required take a secret oath which read as follows:
I am aware that all work involving the construction of the No. 2 Battleship is vital to national security. I will make the utmost effort to maintain the secrecy of the project, and swear that I will leak no information relating to the said battleship, even to relatives and close friends. In the event that I should violate this oath, I will submit to the punishment determined by the company and the Navy.
Commissioned in 1942, the Musashi weighed 72,800 tons full, measured 862 feet in length, and had a speed of 27 knots. Two traits in particular stood out. The first was its sheer size. As I noted in the previous piece, the World War II Database has some historical accounts of U.S. personnel marveling at how big the ship was when they encountered it a few years later in battle. “[Musashi] was huge!” exclaimed gunner Russ Dustan of the USS Franklin. “I had never seen anything as big in my entire life. It was a magnificent sight.”
The second was the amount of armor and weaponry, which included a thick armor plate and the largest-caliber guns ever fitted onto a warship. While it was powerful in terms of size and firepower, the tradeoff was the Musashi was quite slow. As James Holmes noted before in his piece about the Yamato class, the idea was that this combination of heavy armament and shielding would make these vessels effective in high-seas combat. However, the development of naval technology, including naval aviation and torpedoes, empowered the battleships’ deadly new enemies and foreshadowed the Musashi’s demise.
On October 24, 1944, the Musashi’s short life as the flagship of the Imperial Japanese Navy came to an end during the Battle of Sibuyan Sea. According to historical accounts, Aircraft from the U.S. carrier Intrepid located the Japanese fleet, and before long it was swarmed by 30 incoming hostile aircraft. Severely lacking in air cover, the Musashi fired its guns into the sea, which sent out massive geysers intended to knock U.S. torpedo bombers out of the sky. However, the Musashi was pummeled with torpedoes and bombs and eventually sank in the Sibuyan Sea, taking 1,023 lives. The Battle of Sibuyan Sea, which sank the Musashi, was one of several battles fought as part of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, which is considered by some standards to be the largest naval battle in history.