In October the IJN was convinced that an attack by US forces upon Wake Island was imminent. Admiral Koga sortied with Yamato, Musashi, Nagato, Fuso, Kongo, Haruna, two fleet carriers, one light carrier, a large force of heavy and light cruisers and numerous destroyers in an effort to intercept the US fleet. Admiral Koga stationed the Task Force 250nm miles south of Wake Island, but was unable to make contact with the US Navy, and the IJN fleet returned to Truk at the end of October after another unsuccessful attempt to engage the enemy. As it turned out, the American Navy then raided Wake and the Marshall Islands in early November after waiting for the Japanese Navy to retire from the area. Unsuspected by the Japanese, the Americans were intercepting and reading IJN coded transmissions, which made them better able to anticipate most of the moves made by the Japanese Navy.
Yamato departed Truk on 12 December 1943, as the main escort for a force of two fleet carriers, troop transports and destroyers, bound for Yokosuka, Japan. After reaching Japan, Yamato would turn around, and with destroyers, sail back to Truk, herself loaded with troops and supplies. As she was approaching Truk on the return voyage, on 25 December, she was hit by one torpedo from a spread of four from the USN submarine USS Skate. The detonation of this torpedo on Yamato’s starboard side, abreast the No 3 turret, crushed some 30m of her anti-torpedo blister, causing 3000 tons of water to flood into the No 3 turret magazine and into one of the adjacent engine rooms. More importantly, Yamato’s side armour failed due to a flawed joint between the upper and lower belts. Counter-flooding added 2000 tons of water to reduce the list and enable her to continue on to Truk, where she arrived the next day. Yamato underwent emergency repairs at Truk for twelve days in preparation to departing for Kure for more extensive repairs on 10 January 1944. En route, Yamato was spotted by two US Navy submarines, but they were too far away to make a successful attack, and she arrived safely at Kure on 16 January 1944.
Yamato was immediately dry-docked at Kure to repair her failed side belt armour and the torpedo damage, which took until 3 February 1944. Yamato then went to the fitting-out pier for a major refit and modifications. She had both the port and starboard triple 6in secondary gun mounts removed and the superstructure extended outward to accommodate additional AA weapons: six twin 5in DP gun mounts were installed, three port and three starboard, on the new superstructure. Twelve triple 25mm AA mounts were also added, six port and six starboard, as well as two additional 25mm directors, IJN Type 13 radar on the mainmast and Type 22 radar on the port and starboard bridge top. Yamato completed these major alterations in early April 1944, at which time she ran trials in the Inland Sea until late in the month.
During this time Musashi remained at Truk, with other units of the Combined Fleet, until on 4 February 1944 an over-flight by American PB4Y patrol bombers, alerted the IJN that an air raid by US carrier-based planes was imminent. Musashi, along with other warships, departed for Yokosuka, Japan, on 10 February. Truk was then attacked by US carrier aircraft for two days, 17–18 February, in what was one of the most successful carrier operations of the Second World War. The Japanese lost two light cruisers, three destroyers and thirty-five other naval and merchant supply vessels, as well as over 250 aircraft destroyed on the ground. Musashi arrived at Yokosuka on 15 February 1944, loaded troops and supplies and departed for Palau on 24 February, with Admiral Koga aboard.
En route to Palau Musashi and her escorting three destroyers encountered a massive typhoon. Army munitions, fuel and vehicles stowed on the deck of Musashi were washed overboard or jettisoned during this storm. The Japanese Army troops aboard Musashi were crowded below with her crew, which made living conditions extremely difficult. The battleship was forced to slow to 6 knots to allow the three destroyers to keep station with her. After arriving at Palau, 29 February 1944, Musashi remained there until 29 March, when due to the impending American air raids, she departed for the Philippines. Just before, on 28 March, Admiral Koga decided not to travel aboard Musashi, but rather to travel by aircraft to the Philippines.
At almost 6pm on the day Musashi departed Palau, she was hit by a single torpedo, just as she cleared the channel to the open sea. Luckily for her, only this one found its target out of a spread of six fired by the American submarine USS Tunny. The hit, in the port bow, caused 3000 tons of water to flood many forward compartments. She was forced to stop to make emergency repairs, which lasted well into the night, but once the patching-up was deemed adequate, she headed for a new destination, Kure.
Admiral Koga and his staff may have felt lucky to avoid the set-back, and on the night of 31 March 1944 they took off from Palau in a pair of four-engined Kawanishi ‘Emily’ flying boats, bound for the Philippines. However, they ran into a fierce typhoon, both planes going down: only Admiral Koga’s Chief of Staff, Vice Admiral Fukudome survived, found at sea days later by the Japanese Army.
When Musashi arrived at Kure on 3 April 1944 she was dry-docked right away to repair the torpedo damage to her hull. It was planned that Musashi was to receive the same major modifications applied to her sister-ship Yamato, but there was a shortage of material and time. Her superstructure was modified in similar fashion to that of Yamato, but she was only to receive temporary 25mm triple AA gun mounts in place of the proposed 5in twin mounts. Additional 25mm gun directors were installed, as well as the IJN Type 13 radar antenna on the mainmast. Musashi ran her post-refit trials from the end of April to early May, and then sailed with six light carriers and destroyers for Okinawa on 10 May 1944.
Yamato had left Kure on 21 April 1944 for Manila in the Philippines with a load of troops and supplies. She would stop there just long enough to disembark the troops and supplies for that base and then departed for Singapore on the 28th. Upon her arrival at Singapore (1 May 1944), Yamato was designated as Flagship of Battleship Division One, Admiral Ugaki transferring from Nagato, which had been temporary flagship while Yamato and Musashi were in Japanese waters. On 11 May Yamato steamed for the IJN anchorage at Tawi Tawi, off the northern coast of Borneo, dividing the Sulu and Celebes Seas, with BatDiv 2 and 3, arriving on 14 May 1944. Meanwhile, Musashi arrived from Okinawa on 16 May, joining BatDiv 1 and Admiral Ozawa’s Mobile Fleet, consisting of BatDiv 1’s Yamato, Musashi and Nagato, BatDiv 2’s Fuso, and BatDiv 3’s Kongo and Haruna. All six of these Japanese battleships participated, with cruisers and destroyers of the Mobile Fleet, in battle exercises and joint gunnery drills in the Sulu Sea during the period of late May and into early June 1944. During one of these gunnery drills Yamato and Musashi shot to a range of 22 miles.
While this was happening the American Navy staged an invasion of the island of Biak, on the north-western coast of New Guinea on 27 May 1944. In response the IJN Mobile Fleet at Tawi Tawi sailed in three groups between 30 May and 11 June. Yamato and Musashi, with cruisers and destroyers, sortied on 10 June, but soon sighted a submarine periscope and in the confusion of wild manoeuvring the two super-battleships almost ran into each other, Musashi coming to a complete stop to avoid colliding with Yamato. This operation was cancelled, and by 17 June Yamato and Musashi had joined with other units of the Mobile Fleet to counter the US Navy’s latest offensive, the invasions of Guam and Saipan in the Mariana Islands. In the opening phase of the resulting Battle of the Philippine Sea the Japanese Navy launched hundreds of carrier-borne aircraft to attack the US Navy invasion fleet, but were utterly destroyed in a one-sided engagement that became known as the ‘Great Marianas Turkey Shoot’. The defeated IJN Mobile Fleet then retired north, first to Okinawa to refuel, then back to various naval bases in Japan, Yamato and Musashi to Kure Navy Yard, arriving on 29 June 1944.
Both super-battleships received a refit while at Kure during this time. They were fitted with five triple and five single 25mm AA open mounts on the main deck at the fore and aft ends of the superstructure. It was known that Yamato had some of, or possibly the entire main deck planking replaced at that time. Both warships would complete this refit about 7 July 1944.
The Mobile Fleet departed Kure for Okinawa on 9 July, Yamato and Musashi steaming in company with Nagato, Kongo, cruisers and destroyers. After refuelling at Okinawa, they split into two groups, with Group A (Yamato, Musashi, cruisers and destroyers) departing Okinawa, 10 July, for the Lingga Roads anchorage, just south of Singapore. En route, Group A then split into two parts with the super-battleships dropping anchor at Lingga and the cruisers and destroyers at Singapore, both arriving on 17 July 1944.
The majority of the Imperial Japanese Navy was concentrated at the Singapore anchorages in an effort to counter the American forces in what the Japanese suspected to be their next assault, the Philippine Islands. Yamato, and Musashi, with Nagato, Kongo and Haruna, all battleships, participated in gunnery drills both day and night, with the addition of radar guided fire-control systems. These battleships and other units of the Imperial Japanese Navy would train, practice and undergo maintenance while based at both the Lingga Roads and Singapore anchorages and naval yard, July through mid-October 1944. Also during this time, both Yamato and Musashi had their main decks painted a very dark grey; the tinting for this paint was the soot from their funnels. During September 1944 Musashi had her vertical surfaces painted a very dark grey from former Royal Navy paint stocks found at Singapore after the British surrender.
On 18 October 1944 Yamato and Musashi, with Nagato, Fuso, Yamashiro, Kongo and Haruna, sailed from the Lingga Roads anchorage for Brunei Bay, on the north-western coast of the island of Borneo, arriving there on 20 October. At Brunei Bay the IJN Fleet refuelled and resupplied for one day and prepared for an operation dubbed ‘Sho-I-Go’ (Victory). They would sortie from Brunei Bay on 22 October in two large task forces, heading for what was to become the largest naval battle of all time – Leyte Gulf.
The massive four-day engagement that is known as the Battle of Leyte Gulf was actually made up of a number of actions that took place within this time frame. The first of these was a small but disastrous engagement for the Japanese Navy usually called the Battle of the Palawan Passage. Under the leadership of Vice Admiral Kurita, Force A, comprising the battleships Yamato (with Admiral Ugaki aboard), Musashi, Nagato, Kongo, Haruna, with cruisers and destroyers, left Brunei Bay and steamed north by north-east along the coast of the island of Palawan, north of Borneo. En route Force A was ambushed by two American fleet submarines, Darter and Dace. At 5:30am on 23 October 1944 each submarine fired a spread of six torpedoes at the oncoming Japanese task force. Vice Admiral Kurita’s flagship was the heavy cruiser Atago, which along with her sister-ship Maya were sunk, while another sister-ship, the Takao, was severely damaged, but managed to limp back to Singapore. Losing three major combatants before engaging the enemy fleet was a serious blow to the IJN, but Vice Admiral Kurita was rescued from the sea by a destroyer and later transferred to the battleship Yamato. The two American submarines waited until nightfall and attempted to move in for the kill on the damaged Takao, but suddenly Darter ran hard aground and became a total loss, although her crew were later rescued by Dace, providing for the Americans a satisfactory conclusion to the Battle of the Palawan Passage.
Force A re-grouped and through the night Vice Admiral Kurita’s reduced but still powerful task force continued on their course towards the Philippine Islands. In the early hours of the morning Force A was headed in a easterly direction, rounding the southern end of the island of Mindoro and proceeding through the Tablas Strait. The new day brought a new battle: at 8:10am on 24 October Yamato spotted three American scout planes at 31 miles distant, shadowing Force A. Musashi was busy for over an hour trying to jam the scout planes’ radio transmissions, but obviously to no avail.
By 10:18am a wave of at least 45 American aircraft was sighted, and at 10:26am Force A opened fire on the approaching aircraft, thus beginning the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea. By 10:45am this first attack was over, the American aircraft having concentrated their attentions on Musashi. Several near miss bombs cause minor leaking in her bow, while another hit atop turret No 1, but with no effect. A torpedo, however, hit Musashi on her star-board side amidships, causing major flooding. The shock from the blast of that torpedo hit also jammed Musashi’s main director. Counter-flooding corrected the list and the super-battleship steamed on with about 3000 tons of water and a 1-degree list to starboard. After a brief lull, at 11:54am Force A detected more aircraft approaching.
By 12:45pm the next wave of American carrier-based aircraft attacked Force A, concentrating upon the capital ships. This group of aircraft was of the same strength as the last, and the mixture of dive and torpedo bombers scored two bomb hits, five near misses and three torpedo hits amidships on the port side on Musashi, as well as two bomb hits on Yamato. Yamato was able to maintain speed and her fighting capability, but Musashi, with severe damage to the AA gun mounts and crews and down six feet by the bow, was slowed to 22 knots. Both of the super-battleships were firing their shotgun-like AA shells at the attacking aircraft from their main armament during these engagements. Aboard Musashi, as one such shell was being loaded into the breech, a bomb fragment somehow found its was down the muzzle of the centre gun of the No 1 main turret and caused the 18.1in AA ammunition to ignite, destroying the interior of the turret and rendering it inoperable. Just as this wave of attacking aircraft departed, another swooped in for a further attack.
At 1:30pm 24 carrier aircraft attacked, again concentrating upon Musashi, then showing visible signs of distress. Although Force A slowed to help Musashi keep up and protect her with the fleet’s AA fire, Musashi received damage from strafing by American fighter aircraft, two bomb hits abreast the No 3 main turret, four bomb hits abreast Nos 1 and 2 main gun turrets, and four torpedo hits on the hull. The first torpedo hit was starboard amidships, the second was on the starboard bow, the third portside abreast No 1 main gun turret and the fourth was portside amidships. Musashi was then down 13 feet by the bow with speed reduced to 19 knots. Yamato received only minor damage during this attack, but once again, it was followed almost immediately by another, this one aimed at Yamato and Nagato.
At this time, 2:15pm, Vice Admiral Kurita ordered Force A to increase speed to 22 knots, leaving Musashi behind. During this fourth attack by American carrier aircraft, Yamato was hit by five bombs, causing major damage and giving the ship a 5-degree list to port. Counter-flooding and damage control reduce the list to less than 1 degree, but she was down at the bow by 2 feet. Nagato received two bomb hits, temporarily slowing her to 20 knots, but she managed repairs and was able to return to the fleet speed of 22 knots. The heavy cruiser Myoko was also hit by a torpedo in the stern and disabled. She would later limp back to Singapore. This attack was over by 2:45pm.
In the meantime Musashi slowed to 8 knots and had dropped far behind Force A, the effects of the serious damage from the numerous attacks escalating all the time. Again, at 2:55pm, yet another wave of American carrier aircraft pounced on the crippled battleship. A force of 69 aircraft pounded the super-battleship in this fifth attack upon Force A. Musashi received four bomb and three more torpedo hits, and numerous near misses during this assault. As the American aircraft left the scene, they reported that the super-battleship was trailing oil, on fire, wreathed in heavy smoke, and dead in the water. Damage to Musashi is difficult to determine at this point. She had received hit after hit, and the number of dead, especially amongst her AA crews, must have been staggering. Nonetheless, her damage control teams – or what was left of them – were able to counter-flood and somewhat control her list. They were able to get the vessel moving once again at 8 knots, although by this stage her bow was almost under water.
But there was no respite: a sixth attack by American aircraft began almost as the previous wave flew off. It seemed like whole wings of US Navy aircraft were circling, waiting for their turn at the struggling giant. The American air crews were amazed that any battleship could withstand this level of punishment, but they pressed home their attacks regardless. The next round began at 3:45pm with another combined dive and torpedo bomber attack, aimed at the Musashi alone. She was hit with ten bombs during this phase, decimating what was left of the AA gun crews. One bomb hit the bridge, killing over 50 crew; another penetrated to the boiler rooms, knocking out two of them. Also during this attack Musashi was struck by as many as nine torpedoes, hitting her on both the port and starboard sides, some in the vicinity of previous hits, the explosions digging deeper into the already ravaged hull. As the last of the American aircraft departed the area at about 4:20pm, they observed a burning, smoking wreck of what used to be one of the most powerful battleships ever constructed, dead in the water, listing at least 9 degrees, with a couple of destroyers moving in to lend assistance.
Musashi took on an 11-degree list to port, but this was partially corrected by counter-flooding, although only for a short time. The flooding by this stage was uncontrollable and progressing at a steady rate. She was able to get underway, at about 5 knots, but soon even this would not be possible. Force A reversed course about 4:30pm and was headed back towards Musashi, but Vice Admiral Kurita soon realized that her situation was hopeless and resumed his original course eastward towards the island of Samar, although he did instruct the heavy cruiser Tone and destroyers to remain with Musashi and lend what assistance they could. The captain of the doomed battleship was then attempting to head north towards the Bondoc Peninsula to beach the ship. The port anchor was let go, anything not bolted down was jettisoned, and even the crew were moved to the starboard side aft, in an attempt to counter the list. Crawling along at 4 to 5 knots, the bow down 26 feet, forecastle awash, the engines finally gave out and she slowed to a stop, still burning in the area of the superstructure. At 7:15pm, when Musashi’s list had increased to 12 degrees to port, the captain gave the order to prepare to abandon ship and for the crew to assemble aft. By 7:30pm, with most of the crew drawn up on the aircraft deck, her list having then reached 30 degrees to port, the captain finally gave the order to abandon ship. Musashi slowly rolled over to port and capsized at 7:36pm, at location 13°07’ North by 122°32’ East, about 2.5 miles south-west of Bondoc Point. Three destroyers rescued about 1379 crew, plus 635 survivors from the heavy cruiser Maya, sunk the day before. Including those lost when the ship went down, casualties totalled about 1023 of the crew.