North to Seoul – Imjin War

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Drawing of a Panokseon, the backbone of Joseon (Korea) Navy during its conflict with Japan in late 16th century.

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The Japanese landing on Busan

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It began on May 23, 1592. A dense mist hung over the sea off Pusan early that morning, obscuring any sign of activity offshore. Chong Pal, the sixty-year-old commander of the Pusan garrison, left the port early for a day of hunting on Cholyong-do, a forested island at the mouth of the harbor so named for its population of deer. Emerging from the trees some time in the afternoon, he was one of the first to spy the armada, “covering all of the sea,” approaching from the direction of Daema-do, as Tsushima was known to the Koreans. Suspecting that this could be the Japanese invasion that everyone was expecting and yet did not expect, Chong rushed back to Pusan to raise the alarm and prepare for the worst. Any doubts as to what he had seen were soon dispelled by corroborative reports from a lighthouse keeper farther along the coast and from a beacon-fire tender on a hill behind Pusan: a long battle line of ships, ninety in number, approaching from the south.

The lead ships of the Japanese armada soon reached the waters off Pusan harbor and dropped anchor. Kyongsang Left Navy Commander Pak Hong observed their arrival from his nearby base at Kijang and began to tally the numbers for himself. There were easily ninety, as reported. Then one hundred. Then one hundred and fifty. The afternoon waned, and the ships kept coming. Two hundred. Two hundred and fifty. Three hundred. The sun eased below the horizon, and still the number continued to climb. And Pak’s nerves began to fray.

Word of the Japanese arrival reached Kyongsang Right Navy Commander Won Kyun at his base on Koje Island to the west of Pusan that same afternoon. He could not at first bring himself to believe what was happening. In a dispatch to his colleague Yi Sun-sin, commander of the Cholla Left Navy based at Yosu farther to the west, Won reported that the approaching mass of ships was perhaps some sort of exceptionally large trade mission from Tsushima. As the afternoon progressed, however, and the number of ships crowding the bay off Pusan climbed to one hundred and fifty and beyond, Won was forced to the conclusion that an invasion was indeed under way and a disaster about to befall them.

Neither he nor Pak Hong, however, made any attempt that day or the next to attack the Japanese armada with the approximately one hundred and fifty heavy panokson battleships under their command, representing the bulk of the entire Korean navy. The two men simply watched and waited and sent off frantic dispatches, while the ships under their command, the most formidable weapons in the Korean arsenal and the first and most effective line in the nation’s defenses, sat idle in their ports.

For the Koreans, this frozen inaction on the part of Won and Pak was the first of many strategic errors that would be made in the early days of the Imjin War. For although the two naval commanders did not know it, the gathering armada, while numerically daunting, was in fact vulnerable to seaborne attack and could have been dealt a heavy blow before it ever had a chance to send a single man ashore.

In the order of battle he had signed two months before, Hideyoshi urged his daimyo to be particularly careful to get their troops safely across the sea to Pusan, warning them that “the loss of one man or one horse through bad judgment will be regarded as a grave offense.” To ensure their safety, the invasion plan had called for a force of battleships to travel in convoy with the transports to protect them from the very ships that now sat idle in the Korean naval bases of Kyongsang Province. But such convoying had not occurred. When the first contingents of the invasion force were leaving Nagoya for their forward staging areas on Tsushima, the navy was still assembling on the Inland Sea. When the transports were at sea between Tsushima and Pusan, the navy was only just arriving at Nagoya. In fact, it would be more than a week before Hideyoshi’s battleships would arrive at Pusan. Konishi had gambled that he could land his forces without their protection and was now in Korean waters with a fleet of light and largely unprotected transports—fishing boats really—that would have been no match for Korea’s panokson if the challenge had been made. Had a different admiral been in command of either Kyongsang fleet, one willing to put his ships to sea and strike at the enemy, the outcome of these first few days might have been very different indeed.

By nightfall on May 23 some four hundred ships bearing Konishi Yukinaga’s first contingent had successfully traversed the seventy kilometers from Tsushima’s northern tip and were crowding the waters off Pusan. At seven thirty in the evening a single vessel separated from this force and advanced into the harbor. Aboard was So Yoshitoshi, the Christian daimyo of Tsushima, also known as Dario, who had served as Hideyoshi’s emissary to the Koreans since 1589. Accompanying him was the scholar monk Genso, a member of the Tsushima mission to Seoul in 1589. The two men sent a letter to the commander of Pusan, Chong Pal, asking one last time that the way be cleared to China for the armies of Japan. They received no answer, and eventually returned in their ship and rejoined the armada.

The die was now cast for a war with Korea. So Yoshitoshi and his father-in-law Konishi Yukinaga may have come to Pusan hoping that a show of force would cow the Koreans into acceding to Hideyoshi’s demands, thereby avoiding the necessity of a fight. Chong Pal’s rebuff ensured that this was not to be. With a huge invasion army waiting behind them on Tsushima, there was tremendous pressure on these two daimyo commanders not to spend time trying to arrange a settlement with the Koreans. It was, thought Konishi, “the will of Christ” that they now go ahead and use armed force.

For the next several hours the Japanese armada sat motionless offshore as the Koreans watched anxiously from behind the walls of Pusan Castle. Then, at four o’clock the next morning, May 24, the landings began. First ashore were the five thousand men under So Yoshitoshi. He was the logical choice to lead the way, for having visited Pusan several times in the past he knew the lay of the land and the nature of the defenses better than any of Hideyoshi’s commanders. The arrival of this familiar and formerly friendly face may also have been intended to cause the Koreans at least momentary confusion. If so, it could not have lasted long. So and his men clearly had not come this time to conduct diplomacy or trade; they had come for war. They came ashore clad in armor of iron plates and leather shingles tied together to form a flexible yet nearly impenetrable shell. It covered their torsos and arms and formed an apron in the front. They wore flaring iron helmets, some with stylized buffalo horns and antlers screwed to the front, all with a jointed cowling affixed to the sides and back to protect the neck. High-ranking samurai rode horses. They wore grotesque war masks with fierce, grimacing faces, and were armed with two swords: a long katana and a shorter wakizashi, finely crafted, very expensive, and highly valued by their owner. Some may have carried bows as well, and a lesser number spears. They did not carry muskets. These effective but fundamentally dishonorable weapons went to the ashigaru foot soldiers, along with one “loan sword.”

Next ashore was So Yoshitoshi’s father-in-law, Konishi Yukinaga, at the head of seven thousand men. They followed an unusual banner featuring a huge, stuffed rendering of the white paper bags used by Japanese druggists to dispense medicine, a reference to the Konishi family’s traditional involvement in that trade. There were very likely crucifixes in evidence as well, for Konishi and his men, like So’s company, were all Christians. Konishi himself rode a fine horse that Hideyoshi had presented to him at Nagoya before his departure, with the exhortation that he use it to “gallop over the heads of the bearded savages.”

After Konishi came Matsuura, lord of Hirado, the sole nonbeliever in the group. Then Arima. Omura. Goto. A total of 18,700 men in all, dressed for combat, ready to kill. The predominant colors were black and red: black armor and helmets, red banners and brocade. The multitude formed up in ranks, then split in two. Konishi led a portion of the men a few kilometers southwest along the harbor front to the fort at Tadaepo at the mouth of the Naktong River. The fort’s defenders, under garrison commander Yun Hung-sin, managed to repel the first assault but were overwhelmed by the second and all put to the sword. So Yoshitoshi meanwhile led the advance on Pusan Castle itself. He formally called upon garrison commander Chong Pal one last time to surrender, asserting yet again that they were on their way to China and would not harm the Koreans if they would only step aside. Chong refused. Until he received orders to the contrary, he replied, he was duty bound to resist the Japanese advance.

The aging officer then turned to his men and made his orders clear. “I expect you all,” he cried out, “to fight and die like brave men! If any man attempts to turn and flee, I will personally cut off his head!”

The day was just dawning when the Japanese sounded their conch-shell trumpets to signal the attack. The ensuing battle was fierce but short, providing the beleaguered Koreans with their first taste of the stunning power of the arquebus. Their arrows and spears were no match for them. The defenders of Pusan Castle were felled by the hundreds by the flying slugs of lead that these strange “dog legs” spit out, a deluge of death that “fell like rain.” The garrison fought until all their arrows were gone. Then Chong Pal himself was killed, and with that, at around nine o’clock in the morning, all resistance ceased.

Once over the walls, “We found people running all over the place and trying to hide in the gaps between the houses,” samurai chronicler Yoshino Jingozaemon would later record. “Those who could not conceal themselves went off toward the East Gate, where they clasped their hands together, and there came to our ears the Chinese expression, ‘Manō! Manō!’ which was probably them asking for mercy. Taking no notice of what they heard our troops rushed forward and cut them down, slaughtering them as a blood sacrifice to the god of war. Both men, women, and even dogs and cats were beheaded.” That it was assumed the Koreans spoke Chinese is an indication of how little the Japanese knew of their foe.

According to Japanese records, 8,500 Koreans were killed in the fall of Pusan and 200 prisoners were taken. Among the dead was Chong Pal’s eighteen-year-old concubine, Ae-hyang. Her body was found lying beside the fallen commander. She had taken her own life.

Kyongsang Left Navy Commander Pak Hong, based at Kijang a short distance to the east, witnessed this battle from the top of a nearby hill. His nerve had been badly shaken the previous day, watching the arrival of the hundreds of ships comprising the Japanese armada. Now, as he witnessed the seemingly indomitable enemy take Pusan Castle and slaughter the defenders within, it broke entirely. He did not rush to his ships to fight the Japanese, whose intentions now were clear. Nor did he attempt to move his vessels to safer waters. Instead he ordered his entire fleet scuttled, a total of one hundred vessels, including fifty or more panokson battleships. He also had all his weapons destroyed and provisions burned so they would not fall into enemy hands. He then deserted his post and fled north all the way to Seoul, leaving behind thousands of bewildered soldiers and sailors who naturally followed his example and drifted away.

So it was that the Kyongsang Left Navy, the strong left arm of the Korean navy and the first line of defense on the nation’s south coast, self-destructed on the second day of the war. Pak Hong’s ships did not sail a mile or fire a shot. They simply disappeared quietly beneath the waves. It was a tremendous gift to the Japanese, particularly to first contingent leader Konishi Yukinaga, who had taken a considerable gamble in coming to Pusan without the protection of warships. The sight of all those Korean ships wrecked in the harbor must have been heartwarming indeed for the ambitious Christian daimyo, visual confirmation that bold, swift action was what was needed to quell the Koreans, who were clearly unprepared for war.

The day after taking Pusan Castle and the garrison fort at Tadaepo, Konishi recombined his forces and marched on the fortress at Tongnae ten kilometers to the northeast on the main road to Seoul. This was the strongest fortification in the area, a stoutly walled citadel on a hilltop in front of Mt. Kumjong. It was by this time bursting with twenty thousand Koreans, a crush of ill-equipped soldiers, untrained conscripts, and a mass of panicked civilians. In overall command was Tongnae prefect Song Sang-hyon, a forty-one-year-old government official who in the coming hours would provide the Japanese with another lesson in just how badly Hideyoshi had miscalculated in thinking that the Koreans would ever willingly give passage to his armies and “lead the way to Ming.”

As they had at Pusan, the Japanese gave Song Sang-hyon and the defenders of Tongnae one last chance to surrender before launching their attack, erecting a large sign outside the castle’s south gate that read, “Fight if you want to fight. Or lay down your arms and let us pass.” Song Sang-hyon wrote an unequivocal reply on a piece of wood and threw it over the wall: “Fighting and dying are easy,” it read. “But letting you pass I cannot do.”

Song knew the situation was hopeless, that the Japanese would inevitably breech the wall and take the fort just as they had at Pusan. His servant told him of a gap he had spied in the Japanese lines and urged him to flee before it was too late. Song refused. He would do his duty and die at Tongnae. His only regret was the pain this would cause his parents, so in the lull before the attack he sat down to write a final note to his father; one account adds the dramatic flourish that he bit the end of his finger and wrote the message in blood. “Our fortress is now under siege,” it said, “surrounded by a multitude of enemy soldiers. There is no chance of rescue. The other garrisons are sleeping peacefully, oblivious to the danger we face. It grieves me to leave you, but a subject’s duty to his king must come before a son’s devotion to his father.”

Song then turned to his servant. “When the fighting is over the bodies will be piled high. I have a mole the size of a small bean on my lower back. Remember that when you’re looking for my corpse.”

The Battle of Tongnae began at eight o’clock in the morning. According to Korean accounts it lasted twelve hours; the Japanese say it was over in four. The besieged Koreans, women included, fought with desperate ferocity, flinging arrows and spears and then stones at the attacking Japanese as Song Sang-hyon beat the great drum from an upper pavilion of the castle to urge his soldiers on. But once again the backward weapons the Koreans possessed proved no match for Japanese muskets. One by one the defenders were picked off by the deadly fire of the ashigaru. When resistance began to falter, the Japanese threw bamboo ladders against the fort’s high walls and swarmed over the top, Konishi at the fore, sword in hand. A final crescendo of hand-to-hand fighting followed. And then it was over. Song himself was captured alive by a group of soldiers who tried to force him to bow before them. When he resisted they hacked him to death.

The Japanese suffered one hundred killed and four hundred wounded in the Battle of Tongnae. Korean deaths totaled five thousand. Upon hearing that Song Sang-hyon was among the fallen, So Yoshitoshi, who had been hospitably treated by the prefect during his prewar missions to Korea and was thus anxious to see him spared, ordered a funeral held and wrote a epitaph for his grave mound: “A Loyal Subject.” Song was buried on the mountain behind Tongnae, in a grove of chestnut trees. His final letter eventually found its way north to his parents. Two years later, in 1594, a family member went to Tongnae to claim his body and carry it home.

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Kyongsang Right Navy Commander Won Kyun was approaching a state of panic at his base on Koje Island. The initial reports he had received of the appearance of the Japanese armada at Pusan to the east were followed in quick succession by news of the fall of Pusan Castle, then word of the events at Tongnae. Finally, in what was undoubtedly a confusing welter of facts and rumors, Won learned of the desertion of his colleague Pak Hong and the self-destruction of the Kyongsang Left Navy. With that any thoughts he may have had of resisting the invaders disappeared entirely. His only concern now was to flee. His retreat appears to have begun in an orderly fashion, with Won attempting to lead his fleet west to safety. But he soon panicked at the sight of a group of fishing boats in the distance that he mistook for the Japanese navy and, just like Pak Hong, ordered his ships scuttled and his weapons destroyed. He was himself preparing to abandon his flagship and run into the hills when two of his more stalwart subordinates reminded him of the consequences of flight. How would he be able to justify his actions, they asked, if he were to be accused of deserting his post? It would be better to stand his ground and send for reinforcements from Cholla Left Navy Commander Yi Sun-Sin. In the end a chastened Won decided to stay and fight. But there was little good he could do now. Of his original fleet of more than one hundred vessels, he had only four ships left.

The fleets of both the Kyongsang Left and Right Navies were now gone, a total of some two hundred ships, two-thirds of the entire Korean navy, destroyed by their own commanders. All that remained in the south to resist the Japanese at sea were the fewer than one hundred ships of the Left and Right Navies of Cholla Province to the west. Fortunately for Korea, the commanders of these two navies, Yi Sun-sin and Yi Ok-ki, were made of sterner stuff than their Kyongsang counterparts.

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