Oda Nobunaga 1534–1582

September 1571. Temples and towns around the lower reaches of Mount Hiei begin to empty out as their many thousands of inhabitants – Tendai monks alongside ordinary men, women and children – set out together on the hard climb towards the summit. They are desperately seeking refuge from what lurks at the bottom of their mountain: a series of encampments containing around 30,000 heavily armed, battle-hardened men.

Those men have been offered 300 pieces of gold and 450 pieces of silver to go away and leave everyone in peace. But their leader isn’t in this for money. This is about punishment, for siding with his enemies.

On the morning of 30 September his force begins its ascent, quickly dispensing with the mountain’s warrior-monk defenders and proceeding to murder thousands of people in cold blood. Some are hacked to death. Others are picked off by arquebus snipers as they cower in whatever hiding places they can find. Women and children plead with the leader of these men that they cannot possibly be his enemies. He disagrees, and they are all beheaded.

The Enryaku-ji temple and its numerous sub-temples around the mountain – some 3,000 buildings in total – are looted and set alight, giving birth to a swirling, engulfing firestorm. In the space of a few days Mount Hiei goes from being a byword for wealth, political influence, erudition and artistic achievement spanning seven centuries to a barren landscape, carpeted in ash, across which it is said only badgers and foxes now move.

The man who ordered all this is in his late thirties, described as tall and lean, with ‘an extremely sonorous voice’. He is said to be just, compassionate and a master strategist – but also arrogant, secretive, unaccustomed to taking advice and disdainful of all, high and low alike. He believes in no god, no immortality of the soul and no life after death. In this world he takes no chances, surrounded always by a bodyguard of 2,000 men.

This is Oda Nobunaga, a warlord who spent a quarter of a century in almost constant military campaigning across central Japan, the economically most developed and politically most important part of the country. Had he merely been an unusually ruthless man in already ruthless times, Nobunaga would not merit a prominent place in history. But he had a favourite phrase: tenka no tame, Nobunaga no tame, ‘For the sake of the realm, for the sake of Nobunaga’. To this he added a motto, proposed to him by a Zen priest: tenka fubu, ‘Rule the realm by force’.

Regarding himself as the personification of a realm which, as yet, existed only in his head, Nobunaga poured his strategic abilities and ever-expanding armies into a grand, historic process: the unification of a fragmented Japan under one leader and one law. In a country where power had long been divided between an imperial court and aristocratic class, shoguns and their vassals, and Buddhist sects with their militant monks and loyal adherents throughout the land, it took someone with no special regard for any of these people or institutions to transcend them – in his vision for Japan and in the uncompromising way he went about trying to fulfil it.

Nobunaga did not accomplish this alone. He is remembered as the first in a line of three unifiers, succeeded by two men with whom he worked in his lifetime. The son of a farmer and sometime soldier, Toyotomi Hideyoshi started out carrying Nobunaga’s sandals and ended up carrying his plans to near-final fruition. Tokugawa Ieyasu, from a warlord family in eastern Japan, was an early ally of Nobunaga and became the ultimate beneficiary of all that he set in train. The laws and institutions that Ieyasu put in place, building on the innovations of his predecessors, eventually brought peace, prosperity and effective governance to Japan. His descendants would still be in power when American steamships came cruising up the country’s coast in the 1850s, heralds of a new and uncertain world.

This legendary triumvirate of Nobunaga, Hideyoshi and Ieyasu, operating from the 1550s through to the early 1600s, has been celebrated in Japanese culture down the centuries as central to the country’s later achievements. Many a schoolchild learns of their combined efforts by way of a simple saying:

Nobunaga pounded the rice.

Hideyoshi baked the cake.

And Ieyasu ate it.

A second saying speaks more to each man’s character. Less palatable, perhaps, for younger audiences, it nonetheless seems true to Nobunaga’s status as a transitional figure in Japanese history, a man very much of the violent, unstable late-medieval era into which he was born, and yet who paved the way towards a peaceful and high-achieving early modern age. ‘What to do’, the saying goes, ‘with a cuckoo that refuses to sing?’ Hideyoshi, clever and charismatic, would find some way to persuade it. Ieyasu, canny and wise, would watch and wait while it found its voice. And what of Nobunaga? The bird, naturally, would have to die.

If Zeami returned, as some suspect, from exile on Sado Island to live out his last days back at home in Kyoto, he may have been in the city in the summer of 1441 as news began to circulate of an unusually dramatic Nō performance unfolding within its walls. On 14 July, Zeami’s nemesis Yoshinori was invited to the residence of one of his shugo (provincial warrior-constables), a man by the name of Akamatsu Mitsusuke. It was the shogun’s forty-seventh birthday and, to celebrate, Akamatsu had laid on a banquet and a Nō performance starring Yoshinori’s favourite actor, On’ami. But Akamatsu had made other arrangements besides. The real source of entertainment that night ended up being Yoshinori himself. Midway through the festivities, the shogun was attacked – and decapitated.

It was a shocking, unprecedented offence whose consequences came in the form of a bakufu army pursuing Akamatsu back to his home province of Harima and forcing him to perform ritual suicide. According to legend, Akamatsu prayed first to Amaterasu in the east and then to Amida in the west, before ‘ending his sixty-one years by ripping open his stomach’. Sixty-nine of his retainers followed him into death, ‘likewise expiring with their swords in their bellies’.

Justice had been served, but the writing was on the wall for the Ashikaga shoguns. The shugo system had started out as the bakufu’s means of controlling the provinces. As time passed, however, the shugo had come to use their responsibilities and powers to secure their own positions. The raising of troops for guard duty in the capital and Kamakura morphed into the gathering of armed men around them as personal vassals. The collection of taxes, the punishment of criminals and the redistribution of valuable land were also deployed to help build loyal local bases. Provinces into which many shugo had initially been parachuted with no social connections whatsoever ended up in effect as their families’ fiefs.

By 1441 it had become, at least for Akamatsu, an intolerable liberty for a shogun to meddle in matters of succession within a shugo house. Yoshinori’s attempt to do just that earned him his bloody birthday entertainment. And when the bakufu demanded retribution, it was both slow in coming – Akamatsu died weeks rather than hours or days after his deed – and reliant upon the help of another shugo family, the Yamana, whose price was the inheriting of Akamatsu’s lands.

The Ashikaga shoguns now found themselves ever more under the control of powerful shugo families, two of which – the Yamana and the Hosokawa – took up arms against one another in 1467 in a dispute over the shogunal succession. The resulting Ōnin War dragged on for eleven long years, drew in most of the country’s other shugo, and was fought in and around Kyoto. More than half of the city disappeared in flames, including around 30,000 homes, amongst them the shogun’s residence in Muromachi. Thereafter it was primarily the Hosokawa family pulling the shoguns’ strings, while the bakufu’s writ barely extended beyond the confines of their ruined capital.

Power now passed decisively to the countryside. The shugo returned there at the war’s end in 1477, some to rule while others discovered that their deputies had effectively usurped them when they were away, steadily carving out for themselves domains that were generally smaller than the old provinces but more firmly under their control. This new breed of domain lord (daimyō) began to do away with the old shōen system of private estates owned from afar, seizing land for themselves and their vassals, and in time issuing their own legal codes. They took no orders from the capital and they sent nothing back, save when the bestowal of some kindness on a shogun or emperor – patching up a palace, rebuilding a shrine – garnered them in return some reputation-enhancing official bauble from either of those two impotent institutions.

A few sources of revenue remained to the shoguns: taxes on local trade and gratuities received in exchange for court or temple appointments. But the glory days were over, symbolized by the failure even to complete the shogun Yoshimasa’s Higashiyama retirement villa, later known as Ginkaku-ji (the Silver Pavilion). Work on it began in the early 1480s, but plans to cover the temple in silver foil, echoing the splendour of Yoshimitsu’s Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) and setting the building aglow in the moonlight, were delayed and eventually abandoned. It became known, instead, for its withered wooden aesthetic: an achievement in its own right, but not what Yoshimasa had been aiming for.

Meanwhile, courtier families accustomed for centuries to regular income from the provinces were forced to venture out into those provinces, often for the very first time, and fend for themselves. Some found their estates mercifully intact and managed to live off them directly. Others sought to ingratiate themselves with local samurai, drawing on their knowledge of poetry, kemari and other courtly arts to pursue an ignominious cash-for-culture existence. The imperial family entered upon such straitened times that one emperor was apparently forced to sell his own calligraphy to make ends meet, while another went unburied for a time, for want of funeral funds.

Japan was entering a period of almost constant conflict that later generations would know as Sengoku jidai: ‘the Era of Warring States’. The daimyō spent the late 1400s and much of the 1500s striving to secure and expand their domains against local rivals, by way of agreements, intermarriage, neatly timed betrayals and pitched battles. One small part of this patchwork was a warrior by the name of Oda Nobuhide, who sought to increase the power and raise the profile of his branch of the Oda family within the central Japanese province of Owari. When he died suddenly from illness in 1551, it fell to his seventeen-year-old son Nobunaga to take up the task. Some around him doubted the young man’s fitness for it, such was his reputation for eccentricity, in dress and behaviour alike:

He wore a short-sleeved shirt and a bag of flints hung from his waist. His hair was done in the chasen style, tied up with red and green cords, and a long sword in a lacquered sheath hung from his belt. He strode around town laden with chestnuts, persimmons and melons, and with his mouth stuffed with rice cakes.

Nobunaga was later rumoured to have had the Buddhist priests who prayed unsuccessfully for his ailing father locked in a temple, surrounded by retainers wielding arquebuses, and shot to death. At his father’s funeral, he is said to have turned up armed and unkempt, hurling a handful of incense powder at the altar before storming out again.

But Nobunaga’s nicknames from these early years – ‘Great Fool’, ‘Idiot’ – fell away once he took to the battlefield. By the end of the 1550s he had vanquished his family rivals and united Owari Province under his own command. In 1560 he won an important victory at the Battle of Okehazama, using a surprise attack in heavy rain to defeat a much larger enemy force belonging to the daimyō Imagawa Yoshimoto, who had entered Owari on his way to try to take Kyoto. The night before the fighting, Nobunaga is said to have performed some dance steps from Zeami’s play Atsumori, while singing a few of its lines:

When we consider man’s fifty years in this world,

They are like a passing dream.

We have life but once …

How perishable we are.

Victory at Okehazama led to an alliance in 1561 with Matsudaira Ieyasu – the future Tokugawa Ieyasu – based in next-door Mikawa Province, immediately to the east of Owari. The two allies now stood back to back: Ieyasu faced eastwards and fought battles in that direction, while Nobunaga faced north and west, continuing his early run of conquests in 1567 with the capture of the large province of Mino, to Owari’s north. It was a huge achievement. Japan was divided into around 120 warlord domains at this point, with only fifteen or so the size of a province. To control two full provinces marked the young Nobunaga out as a man on the up.

Possession of Mino came with more than a mere reputational boost: tens of thousands of fighters were now added to Nobunaga’s ranks. Many were foot soldiers, or ashigaru (‘light feet’). Peasants fighting in exchange for loot, ashigaru had once been considered sufficiently dispensable that they were given no protection to wear in battle. Now they were becoming so central to an army’s success – both as fighters and as carriers of equipment, from basic supplies to the bells, conch-shell trumpets and marching drums used on the battlefield – that many wore good armour of lacquered iron scales, bound with leather and bearing their daimyō’s badge, or mon.

Samurai bore that same mark on a flag, attached to a wooden pole and secured to the back of their armour. Where ashigaru made do with a conical hat, samurai enjoyed the protection and status of a sometimes elaborate iron helmet. Both elements in an army, low and high, would be ordered into the fray by a commander wielding a drastically repurposed Heian-era accessory. Once employed in the ostentatious shielding of an aristocratic giggle, a fan abruptly lowered was now a signal to attack, its angle an indication of which way the troops should go.

A large army was no use if you couldn’t get it to the right place at the right time. Nobunaga soon became known for his adeptness in widening roads and making effective use of galley-ships and floating pontoon bridges. He and other leading warlords of the time also experimented with organizing and training their men in specialized corps of spearmen (wielding weapons sometimes more than five metres in length), archers and above all arquebusiers. Proficiency with a Portuguese-style arquebus, versions of which were produced in Japan from the mid-1500s onwards, came far quicker than skill with a bow and arrow. Once mounted samurai had been persuaded to allow lowly ashigaru to the forefront of the fighting – a place usually reserved for those of elite station – the arquebus proved devastatingly effective, especially when troops were organized into ranks, firing volleys in rotation. A suit of armour bearing a certain kind of dent became a much-valued piece of kit, its ability to take a bullet a matter of battlefield proof rather than a blacksmith’s promise.

Famous though he became for his disciplined use of ashigaru, Nobunaga always relied on his horse guards, mostly from Owari Province, for the core of his fighting force. These were his best and most loyal men. Their duties included protecting Nobunaga himself, and their rewards reputedly ran to some distinctly bloodthirsty entertainment, including the presentation at a New Year’s banquet of platters bearing the skulls of three enemy warlords. Lacquered and gilded, they were admired by all while sake was drunk and a celebratory song was sung for Nobunaga.

By the autumn of 1568, Nobunaga was ready to do what many daimyō in this era dreamed of doing – march on Kyoto, and claim it for himself. A man called Yoshiaki, the great-great-grandson of the murdered Yoshinori, had appealed to Nobunaga to help him gain the shogunate for himself and Nobunaga was resolved to install him as his puppet. Potential opposition to the plan, in territories through which Nobunaga would need to pass in reaching the capital, was dealt with through a combination of a strategic marriage involving his younger sister, Oichi, and the deployment of around 50,000 soldiers. Nobunaga entered Kyoto in triumph in October 1568, and Yoshiaki was invested as shogun the next month.

Nobunaga accepted no official title from Yoshiaki. Many at the time were surprised, but such was Nobunaga’s vision for the tenka, the ‘realm’. This was an old word with multiple meanings. One of them, for Nobunaga, was a new nationwide polity centred on Kyoto, transcending emperors and shoguns and featuring Nobunaga as its beating heart – tenka no tame, Nobunaga no tame: ‘For the sake of the realm, for the sake of Nobunaga’.

Step one in making a reality of this plan was to secure the shogun, literally: responding to an attack on Yoshiaki’s temporary home in January 1569, Nobunaga built him a castle in the Muromachi district where Yoshiaki’s Ashikaga ancestors had lived. Some 25,000 labourers, operating under the no doubt terrifying personal command of Nobunaga – himself wielding hoe and bamboo cane as symbols of getting personally stuck in – completed in just seventy days a project that one observer thought should have taken four or five years.

The construction of the shogun’s castle, complete with inner and outer moats, strong stone walls and adornments liberated from a nearby temple, was turned by Nobunaga into a powerful symbol of his status. He commanded warriors and even daimyō to come to Kyoto as part of the building process and its associated festivities, and then told them when they could go home again. Such was Nobunaga’s reputation now that few dared to disobey. Even when he took to wearing a tigerskin around his waist, visitors rushed to copy this odd affectation, lest entering his presence in smarter attire be taken as an affront.

Step two for Nobunaga was to work out a system of joint rule with Yoshiaki. This proved more difficult than step one. Yoshiaki tried to build his own base of support by contacting potential allies and making grants of land. He was, as far as Nobunaga was concerned, missing the point of tenka. Across a series of three official documents produced between 1569 and 1572, Nobunaga steadily trampled on the hopes and dreams of his new associate. He made it clear that the affairs of the tenka were his to deal with, noting with menace in his final missive that people had taken to calling Yoshiaki ‘evil lord’ – the very same epithet, all concerned would have known, that was applied to Yoshinori prior to his assassination in 1441.

Yoshiaki now had little choice but to part company with his overbearing ally, contributing to dangerous months for Nobunaga in 1572–3. The list of Nobunaga’s conquests was impressive: he controlled Owari and Mino Provinces, along with the capital and its surrounds. And yet his success had the effect of creating and motivating an equally impressive array of enemies across the central and eastern provinces. Most forbidding amongst them were Azai Nagamasa in Ōmi Province, Asakura Yoshikage in Echizen Province and Takeda Shingen in the province of Kai.

The first to move against Nobunaga was Takeda. His army defeated troops under the command of Nobunaga’s ally Ieyasu in January 1573, and by March he had made it into Mikawa Province, bordering Nobunaga’s home territory of Owari. Yoshiaki now seized his chance to come out against Nobunaga. He fortified his castle and mobilized his relatively small personal force of 5,000 retainers, hoping all the while that Nobunaga’s enemies would keep him occupied and well away from the capital.

But Nobunaga got lucky. In April, Takeda fell fatally ill – some said of pneumonia, others blamed a wound inflicted by a sniper. His troops began returning to Kai, allowing Nobunaga to turn his attention back to Kyoto and Yoshiaki. He began by demanding exorbitant military tributes from the citizenry of Kyoto. When they refused to pay, he proceeded to burn down much of the north of the city, including thousands of homes, and to raze around ninety nearby villages. While residents in southern parts of the capital rushed to empty their pockets, saving themselves from a similar fate, Yoshiaki reluctantly made peace. In August, Nobunaga forced him from the city, bringing the Ashikaga shogunate to an end and launching Yoshiaki on a life so humiliating that he became known as the ‘Beggar Shogun’. The next month, Azai and Asakura succumbed to Nobunaga’s forces too. Theirs were two of the lacquered and gilded skulls said to have been brought out as part of the New Year’s festivities (1574) – the third had belonged to Azai’s father.

Only one major player in the shifting anti-Nobunaga alliance now survived: a Buddhist organization of legendary reach and military potential. Not Tendai: the monks of Mount Hiei had sided with Nobunaga’s enemies in 1570, and had paid the devastating price a year later. This other Buddhist organization had started out as small groups of people meeting to recite the nembutsu as Shinran suggested, acknowledging their helpless gratitude to Amida. Now they boasted wealth, arms, a heavily fortified headquarters on central Honshū’s southern coast, and a rural network comprising tens of thousands of willing would-be soldiers.

Wars like those waged by Nobunaga could quickly make life unbearable for Japan’s farmers, who made up by far the greatest proportion of the population. Improvements in agricultural productivity in recent centuries had helped to make some of them wealthy, producing enough to sell directly at markets. But many others dressed in simple hemp, lived in shelters of mud and wood, and cultivated rice while being unable to afford to eat it themselves – subsisting instead on millet or wild grasses, along with whatever they could fish or hunt. More than most other Japanese, they lived during these years at the mercy of two kinds of climate, natural and political.

Only so much could be done about nature, but more and more villages sought to insulate themselves from the country’s fragmenting politics by asserting new sorts of autonomy. They negotiated as a community with outside authorities while regulating the lives of their own members, from what they farmed to how they behaved. Some communities even took up arms and built defensive moats and embankments around their villages. A second trend in rural self-defence was the banding together of villagers, warriors or both to form ikki: temporary confederations dedicated to the pursuit of a particular objective, political or economic. They promoted their interests by way of written remonstrations, strike action and violence. Nobunaga called them a ‘curse on the nation’.

Japan’s towns, too, threatened trouble for an aspiring national leader. The country was now home to enough towns – located principally around the capital and along the coasts – that most people could make a day-trip to their nearest one. With populations ranging from 5,000 people up to 30,000 or more, they served as hubs for a thriving inter-provincial trade that was carried mostly by water but which used overland routes when required, individual horse-and-carts sharing the roadways with well-protected merchant caravans.

The whole system was lubricated by imported Chinese coins, now accepted as payment right across the country, and the successful taxation of trade helped the daimyō to replenish their war chests. Many of the busiest and most affluent of Japan’s towns had grown up around pilgrimage sites, and Buddhist temples especially, while some had actually developed from within the grounds of temples and were as a consequence firmly under their control – commercial profits included.

The Hongan-ji branch of Jōdo Shinshū, still led by Shinran’s descendants, owned and profited handsomely from one of the greatest of these temple-towns. It had developed around a small retirement temple built for the Patriarch Rennyo in 1496 by the Inland Sea, south-west of Kyoto. It took its name from the ‘long slope’ on which it was located: ‘Ō-zaka’, or ‘Osaka’. When the Hongan-ji headquarters in Kyoto was destroyed in 1532, a casualty of the era’s complex and violent politics, the sect moved its operation to Osaka instead, developing there the Ishiyama Hongan-ji and securing it with more than fifty fortified outposts.

For Nobunaga, all this was the stuff of nightmares. The urban wealth and rural loyalty that the Hongan-ji Patriarch had at his command effectively made him a daimyō. But whereas the power of most daimyō was geographically concentrated and could be tackled on those terms, the Hongan-ji Patriarch was able to call upon tens of thousands of followers spread out across the land. Mainly merchants, artisans and farmers, these followers were well organized by way of local parishes, they were generous in donating to Hongan-ji coffers and they looked to the Patriarch for temporal as well as spiritual leadership. Their powerful shared rallying point, a faithful devotion to Amida, led them to be called ikkō (‘single-directed’) and their confederations ikkō ikki.

The Patriarch exercised no formal military command over these people. Some ignored his messages, others fought amongst themselves; and in general they lacked training or strong, experienced leadership. But when enough followers chose to answer a call to arms, it could be as though a fighting force had appeared out of nowhere: a pop-up army, with thousands of members who fed, clothed and armed themselves, and for whom the promise of rebirth in the Pure Land relieved them, at least in part, of an otherwise distracting and demotivating fear of death. Some followers were said to go into battle with pieces of paper bearing the words of the nembutsu. When their object was accomplished, they could disappear, frustrating any attempt at punishment or revenge.

By 1570 the Patriarch Kennyo, deeply concerned about Nobunaga’s intentions, had allied himself with anti-Nobunaga forces. In a letter sent to his followers across Japan that year, he declared Nobunaga ‘an enemy of the Buddhist law’ and asked for their help in dealing with him – adding that ‘anyone who does not respond will not be a sect member’.

The resulting conflict lasted, on and off, for a decade. Nobunaga’s forces were ruthless in their punishment of ikkō ikki uprisings. A 1574 siege against the sect’s Nagashima fortresses in the central province of Ise ended with the estimated deaths of 40,000 people, from starvation and from fires started by Nobunaga’s troops. A similar number are said to have been executed in Echizen Province the following year, though reliable figures do not exist for most of the conflicts of this era. Nobunaga was briefly distracted from the Hongan-ji by a last hurrah from one of his secular enemies – a resurgent Takeda family under Shingen’s son Katsuyori. But having seen them off at the Battle of Nagashino in June 1575, with the help of Ieyasu and the pitiless use of arquebusiers to take down cavalry, Nobunaga proudly claimed to have only one enemy left in the world: the Ishiyama Hongan-ji at Osaka, bereft now of big daimyō allies and with much of its rural network in pieces.

Nobunaga had roads widened, bridges built and supplies and men gathered. In the spring of 1576, his troops began systematically destroying crops in the area around the Hongan-ji. Two outright assaults ended in failure and a bullet in the leg for Nobunaga. But by July the Hongan-ji was running low on supplies. Kennyo appealed to Mōri Terumoto, a powerful western Honshū warlord, and to groups of Inland Sea pirates – somewhat akin to maritime daimyō – to supply him by water. Some 800 ships duly destroyed Nobunaga’s smaller naval force, which was similarly reliant on deals struck with pirates. The siege was broken – for now. Two years later, Nobunaga was back, this time with a force including seven ships built by his maritime allies on a revolutionary design: thirty metres long and more than ten metres wide, loaded up with heavy cannon and their wooden frames clad with metal plates. These may have been the world’s first iron-clad warships. They were certainly beyond anything Mōri’s side could muster. Their navy was defeated, and the slow starvation of the Hongan-ji resumed.

Kennyo continued to call for uprisings by his followers, hoping to sap Nobunaga’s energies elsewhere in central Japan. But Nobunaga now had 60,000 troops committed to his task. In April 1580, Kennyo finally put his name to a formal peace proposal – said to have been signed by Nobunaga in his own blood – which included the vacation of the Ishiyama Hongan-ji. Kennyo left the next month and his son Kyōnyo followed suit in August, having briefly held out as leader of a hard-line Hongan-ji faction opposed to surrender. Then, just as Nobunaga was preparing to embark on a personal tour of one of his most difficult, drawn-out conquests, smoke and flames became visible on the horizon. Kyōnyo’s followers had set light to their own fortress, burning it to the ground rather than see Nobunaga set foot in it.

Still, Nobunaga had achieved something of historic significance with his defeat of the Hongan-ji. A thousand years on from Buddhism’s introduction into Japan, and its rise to power via state, aristocratic and then popular patronage, Buddhist military and political power had been all but eliminated. And by resisting the urge to visit upon the inhabitants of the Ishiyama Hongan-ji the sort of catastrophic retributive bloodshed he had meted out on Mount Hiei – as well as to Hongan-ji followers across central Japan – Nobunaga managed to avoid the endless round of fresh uprisings that he would surely have otherwise incurred. Instead, he was free now, as never before, to develop his grand plans for the ‘realm’.

On a mountain looming a hundred metres high over Lake Biwa stood a castle featuring a towering seven-storey donjon: fortified with sloping stone at its base, dazzling white towards the top and capped with gold. Inside were tatami-mat floors, lacquered and gold-leaf pillars, and rooms decorated with golden wall-paintings featuring Chinese monarchs and sages, tigers and hawks, demons and dragons. There were gardens, too, and an aviary; there was space for a temple, the tea ceremony and sumo tournaments. One room, even grander than the rest, was dedicated to receiving the Emperor.

‘Rule the realm by force’ was Nobunaga’s motto. And it had served him well by the middle of 1580. But he was a creative leader, not merely a destructive one. Azuchi Castle, shiny and new in the summer sun while the Ishiyama Hongan-ji lay blackened and charred, was not just a new and fitting home for the supreme warlord of the age; it was a symbol of Nobunaga’s plans to develop the tenka far beyond mere force of arms.

An important part of those plans was the imperial court. Emperor Ōgimachi had been wooing Nobunaga since his early victories in the 1560s, seeking his help in recovering lost imperial land and making repairs to the Imperial Palace. Nobunaga obliged on both counts, going on during the 1570s to lavish gifts on the imperial family: from land to gold dust, expensive wood to dried persimmons, and a special tax, levied twice in Kyoto, whose proceeds were paid to the imperial court.

In return, once the shogun was out of the way Nobunaga was awarded high court rank and a number of prestigious, if practically meaningless official appointments, culminating in Minister of the Right in 1577. Nobles put on a demonstration game of kemari for him in 1575 and the next year staged a musical performance – with the Emperor and Crown Prince Sanehito amongst the musicians – to pray for Nobunaga’s success against the Hongan-ji. The imperial family were also there to be deployed when Nobunaga wanted to make peace. One of the best ways to stop a conflict while saving face in this era was to appeal to the Emperor to demand that an opponent seek terms, and then to use imperial envoys in smoothing the process.

For the imperial family, treating Nobunaga in this way helped not just their finances but their public image too. Rather than cowering before a dictator, they were seen willing him on for the good of the country. Meanwhile, Nobunaga well understood, as the Fujiwara dynasty and later the Kamakura and Ashikaga shoguns had, that in a world where history and family are the basis of legitimacy the imperial court was an institution to be worked with rather than against.

The first of April 1581 saw this mutually beneficial relationship rise to new heights. Nobunaga staged an enormous military parade near the Imperial Palace in Kyoto in celebration of the vanquishing at last of the Hongan-ji. The Emperor looked on as an estimated 130,000 men, on foot and on horseback, passed by. Nobunaga had ordered his vassals to spend vast sums on their attire, and still no one managed to upstage the man himself: seated in a sedan chair of crimson velvet and wearing ‘clothes and decorations as bright as the sun’. Having two years previously adopted Emperor Ōgimachi’s son, Prince Sanehito, Nobunaga was looking forward in time to becoming the father-in-law of an emperor. In fact, he was soon seeking to speed that moment along, putting pressure on Emperor Ōgimachi to abdicate.

While the tenka was taking promising shape in Kyoto, Nobunaga also busied himself with Japan’s towns and villages. A town grew up around Azuchi Castle, as Nobunaga required his vassals to build homes there. He offered tax exemptions for merchants and artisans willing to set up shop in this and other towns under his control. He worked to do away with transport tolls and with the exclusivity of the old guilds – especially in goods and trades that supported his war efforts: guns and ammunition, swordsmiths and stone-cutters. And he tightened the rules on criminality and debt, as a further encouragement of commerce. Azuchi became a model for what came to be called ‘castle towns’, where economic activity gathered at the gates of a daimyō’s home.

In rural Japan, where the old shōen system was in tatters but not yet officially at an end, Nobunaga made the first small moves towards establishing a new order. Daimyō and their vassals would no longer be farmers’ tormentors, tearing up their land in battle or taxing it to the hilt. They would be their rightful rulers and chosen champions – while also, of course, collecting fair taxes and levying reasonable military contributions. As part of this new pact with the peasantry, Nobunaga became, in 1580, one of the first warlords to commission detailed land surveys. He tried to find out who was who in each village, what they farmed (as landholders or tenants), and what they owed as a result in tax and labour. Here, as in a great many other areas, Hideyoshi and then Ieyasu would one day build on Nobunaga’s foundations.

Nobunaga was not, of course, satisfied with controlling central Honshū alone. Next on his list, in 1582, were enemies on the island of Shikoku and in western Japan. The former were expected to offer such an easy ride that Nobunaga parcelled out the island’s four provinces to retainers far in advance of their conquest. The Mōri of western Japan would be harder, but more interesting. He would go there himself. He was, after all, still only forty-eight years of age, and with the Mōri’s eight provinces conquered Nobunaga would be master of the whole of western Honshū. Ignoring for now imperial appeals for him to accept the role of Chancellor, great minister of the Council of State, even shogun, he set off to do battle once more.

Nobunaga stopped off, on his way, in Kyoto. There he lodged at a temple called Honnō-ji, suitably fortified with great walls, moats and watchtowers. One of his vassals, Akechi Mitsuhide, was meanwhile marching 13,000 men into the capital, where they were told they would be inspected by Nobunaga himself. When they arrived at Honnō-ji at dawn on 21 June 1582, they found themselves instead ordered by Mitsuhide to surround the place. And then to open fire.

Nobunaga and his men at first thought that some trouble must be breaking out between a few locals. When they realized what was actually going on, Nobunaga yelled ‘Treason!’ and grabbed his bow. His men gave it everything, but to no avail. As the attackers closed in, Nobunaga switched to his spear before finally sustaining a serious wound. The man who might have been lord of all Japan withdrew to a back room to take his own life, as all around him a scene familiar to so many of those he had called his enemies was played out: a temple, turned inferno, from which there could be no escape.

IJN Battleship Pagoda Masts

The Imperial Japanese navy conducted a more thorough battleship reconstruction programme than any fleet except the Italian, extending ships’ hulls, adding considerable power, and modernising fire control (with added gun elevation to match). The two Fuso-class battleships (Yamashiro is shown) were the first, and their ‘pagoda’ foremasts were the most extreme the Japanese fitted. Note that the ‘pagoda’ was built around the ship’s original tripod foremast. In the 1920s these ships added numerous platforms to their masts, but the ‘pagoda’ represented an attempt to integrate them properly. The complexity of the mast could be attributed in part to the insistence not to combine functions. Thus the Japanese continued to use separate directors and rangefinders, as in World War I British practice. They benefited less than they should have from having multiple directors because their fire-control switchboards and data transmitters did not permit quick switching from one director to another. Note the sokutekiban level, with its separate instrument and range-rate panel. Note too the separation between the battle bridge and the navigating bridge (or compass platform, in British parlance). The device marked ‘Kosherochi Type 91’ is Kosha Sochi Type 91, a high-angle director introduced in 1931. Like the contemporary US Mk 19 (but unlike contemporary British AA directors) it did not incorporate a rangefinder (note the separate 4.5m (14.7ft) rangefinder on this level). The penalty, which was deadly in wartime, was that the rangefinder was not always focused on the same target as the director. The presence of the 3.5m (11.5ft) navigational rangefinder suggests that the Imperial Japanese navy had learned to use plots to maintain the situational awareness needed to execute the complicated tactics it espoused. This drawing was adapted from one in the fire-control report of the US Naval Technical Mission to Japan.

Fuso Class Pagoda Masts

The pagoda structures on the Fuso and Yamashiro were a logical solution to a problem: The superstructure needed to be enlarged, but the small ‘footprint’ had to be maintained. Had the superstructure grown side to side or front to back, it would have interfered with the firing arc of the amidships gun turret.

On Fuso, the pagoda contained the following levels:

-Forecastle deck level (standby room, radio-telephone room, battery room, freshwater tank, toilets)

-Shelter deck level (radio room, telephone control room, stock room, derricks for 9-meter cutters, 12.7cm gun mount, 9-meter cutters, locker)

-Lower bridge deck level (sea-water tank, freshwater tank, 20-meter derrick, storeroom)

-Conning tower platform (conning tower, main gun spare control room, commander’s standby room, captain’s standby room, chart store, and chart room)

-Upper bridge deck (communication command room, electrical room, 3.5-meter rangefinder post, quad 13.2mm AA gun, starboard secondary fire control, port secondary fire control room, secondary gun director, 12cm lookout directors panel, wash-deck locker, 30cm spotlight)

-Compass bridge level (main compass, gyromagnetic compass, chart table, greeting module, transmission room, telegraph room, standby room)

-Lower lookout platform/anti-aircraft fire-control/signaling platform (lookout cabin with 2 telescopes, 7.7mm machine gun, 60cm searchlights, operation room, storeroom, high-angle AA fire director, 4.5-meter rangefinder, protected lookout post, binoculars store, signal flag locker)

-Forward searchlight platform (1.5-meter navigation rangefinder, 60 cm searchlight, 110 cm searchlight, telephone room, vertical deflection measuring stand, quad 13.2 cm AA gun)

-Battle bridge (towing light, double magnetic compass, chart table, signal lamps, compass)

-Upper lookout platform for secondary gun (towing light, secondary gun director, 3.5-meter rangefinder, 12 cm lookout panel, wire room, protected lookout post)

-Lookout and searchlight control level (searching and self-position room, 8cm binoculars, searchlight control panel, awning stanchions, daylight signal lantern, ladder stand, lookout platforms)

-Sokuteki Ban platform (gun control computer, target direction computer, 12cm binoculars, target course and speed measuring stand, standby room, signal lamp, 30cm deck lamp)

-Fire command platform level (15cm spotting stand, radio equipment box)

-Main gun fire command level (main gun director tower, aerials)

-Main rangefinder level (8-meter rangefinder)

Yamashiro had a few other goodies, like control positions for the aircraft catapult on top of the turret. This made her pagoda a little taller.

As for the stability thing, the Japanese insisted that no instability was caused at all. The fact that Fuso blew in half but did not capsize is good evidence to support this claim.

The four Kongo-class battlecruisers, rebuilt as fast battleships in the 1930s, proved to be the most useful Japanese heavy-gun capital ships. Because they were not considered as valuable as the true battleships with heavier main batteries and armour, and because they were so fast (having been re-engined), they were used to screen carriers at Pearl Harbor and for bombardment sorties at Guadalcanal – where two were lost. As in the other rebuilt Japanese capital ships, the ‘pagoda’ mast was built around the original tripod foremast, with additional stiffening for the big rangefinder atop the mast. Note also the characteristically Japanese separation of battle bridge and navigation bridge (equivalent to a British compass platform), with a lookout control deck in between. The big 4.5m (14.7ft) rangefinder on the foredeck was presumably mainly to support tactical plotting, and the lookout control deck may have been a way of coordinating the numerous large binoculars and other optical sensors scattered around the mast. The Hoibans are Scott-type directors. The course and speed measurement device (sokutekiban) was uniquely Japanese, although it seems to have embodied Barr & Stroud-developed technology. Note the separation between the anti-aircraft director (in the enclosure on the AA control deck) and the 4.5m (14.7ft) AA rangefinder just behind it. This drawing was adapted from one in the fire-control report of the US Naval Technical Mission to Japan.

When Nagato was rebuilt, her new ‘pagoda’, shown here, was built around her heptapod mast. As in the ship’s original configuration, the main rangefinder was mounted on tracks, so that it could be moved around the legs of the mast to point in any direction. Note the multiple Type 94 directors (Hoiban; one is marked ‘main director’, but presumably the guns were normally controlled by the mast-top unit). The ship’s anti-aircraft director, using the 4.5m (14.7ft) rangefinder, is not shown. This drawing was adapted from one in the fire-control report of the US Naval Technical Mission to Japan.

Japan at Bay

No one—and especially not the members of Japanese Imperial General Headquarters or the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff—expected Okinawa to be the last battle of World War II. Why the surprise? The Joint Chiefs, having woefully underestimated enemy striking power at the beginning of the Pacific War, had just as grievously exaggerated it at the end.

Actually, as some perceptive Okinawans were already privately assuring each other: “Nippon ga maketa. Japan is finished.” In early 1945, after the conquest of Iwo Jima by three Marine divisions, the island nation so vulnerable to aerial and submarine warfare had been almost completely severed from its stolen Pacific empire in “the land of eternal summer.” Leyte in the Philippines had been assaulted the previous October by an American amphibious force under General of the Armies Douglas MacArthur, and in the same month the U.S. Navy had destroyed the remnants of the once-proud Japanese Navy in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. On January 9, Luzon in the Philippines was invaded, and on February 16—17, like a “typhoon of steel,” the fast carriers of the U.S. Navy launched the first naval air raids on Tokyo Bay. A week later Manila was overrun by those American “devils in baggy pants.” In late March Iwo fell to three Marine divisions in the bloodiest battle in the annals of American arms. Not only was Old Glory enshrined forever in American military history by the historic flag-raising atop Mount Suribachi, but more important strategically and more dreadful for Japanese fears was the capture of this insignificant little speck of black volcanic ash—a cinder clog, 4½ miles long and 2½ miles wide—for it guaranteed that the devastating raids on Japan by the new giant B-29 U.S. Army Air Force bombers would continue and even rise in fury.

Iwo became a base from which the Superforts could fly closer to the Japanese capital undetected and under protection of Iwo-based American fighter planes. Perhaps even more welcome to these gallant airmen, crippled B-29s unable to make the fifteen-hundred-mile flight back to Saipan could now touch down safely on tiny Iwo; or if shot down off the shores of Nippon, could even be reached by Iwo-based Dumbo rescue planes. Thus, not only could these exorbitantly expensive aerial elephants be saved, but their truly more valuable crews as well. On the night of March 9, to prove their worth and sound the requiem of the “unconquerable” island empire, the Superforts already striking Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, and Kobe in pulverizing three-hundred-plane raids came down to six thousand feet over Tokyo to loose the dreadful firebombs that consumed a quarter of a million houses and made a million human beings homeless while killing 83,800 people in the most lethal air raid in history—even exceeding the death and destruction of the atomic-bomb strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that were to follow.

Meanwhile the huge Japanese merchant fleet, employed in carrying vital oil and valuable minerals to the headquarters of an empire singularly devoid of natural resources, had been steadily blasted into extinction by the flashing torpedoes of the United States Navy’s submarines. Here indeed were the unsung heroes of the splendid Pacific sea charge of three years’ duration: four thousand miles from Pearl Harbor to the reef-rimmed slender long island of Okinawa. These men of “the silent service,” as it was called, were fond of joking about how they had divided the Pacific between the enemy and themselves, conferring on Japan “the bottom half.” In fact it was true. Only an occasional supply ship or transport arrived at or departed Nippon’s numerous sea-ports, themselves silent, ghostly shambles. Incredibly, the American submarines, now out of sea targets, had penetrated Japan’s inland seas to begin the systematic destruction of its ferry traffic. Transportation on the four Home Islands of Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu, and Hokkaido was at a standstill. Little was moved: by road or rail, over the water or through the air. In the Imperial Palace hissing, bowing members of the household staff kept from Emperor Hirohito the shocking, grisly protests arriving in the daily mail: the index fingers of Japanese fathers who had lost too many sons to “the red-haired barbarians.” Most of these doubters—silent and anonymous because they feared a visit from the War Lords’ dreaded Thought Police—were men who had lived and worked in America, knowing it for the unrivaled industrial giant that it was. They did not share the general jubilation when “the emperor’s glorious young eagles” arrived home from Pearl Harbor. Their hearts were filled with trepidation, with secret dread for the retribution that they knew would overtake their beloved country.

For eight months following Pearl Harbor, the victory fever had raged unchecked in Japan. During that time the striking power of America’s Pacific Fleet had rolled with the tide on the floor of Battleship Row. Wake had fallen, Guam, the Philippines. The Rising Sun flew above the Dutch East Indies, it surmounted the French tricolor in Indochina, blotting out the Union Jack in Singapore, where columns of short tan men in mushroom helmets double-timed through silent streets. Burma and Malaya were also Japanese. India’s hundreds of millions were imperiled, great China was all but isolated from the world, Australia looked fearfully north to Japanese bases on New Guinea, toward the long double chain of the Solomon Islands drawn like two knives across its lifeline to America. But then, on August 7, 1942—exactly eight months after Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagomo had turned his aircraft carriers into the wind off Pearl Harbor—the American Marines landed on Guadalcanal and the counter-offensive had begun.

In Japan the war dance turned gradually into a dirge while doleful drums beat a requiem of retreat and defeat. Smiling Japanese mothers no longer strolled along the streets of Japanese towns and cities, grasping their “belts of a thousand stitches,” entreating passersby to sew a stitch into these magical charms to be worn into battle by their soldier sons. For now those youths lay buried on faraway islands where admirals and generals—like the Melanesian or Micronesian natives whom they despised—es—caped starvation by cultivating their own vegetable gardens of yams and sweet potatoes. And the belts that had failed to preserve the lives of the boys who wore them became battle souvenirs second only to the Samurai sabers of their fallen officers.

This, then, was the Japan that the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff still considered a formidable foe, so much so that it could be subdued only by an invasion force of a million men and thousands of ships, airplanes, and tanks. To achieve final victory, Okinawa was to be seized as a forward base for this enormous invading armada. In the fall of 1945 a three-pronged amphibious assault called Operation Olympic was to be mounted against southern Kyushu by the Sixth U.S. Army consisting of ten infantry divisions and three spearheading Marine divisions. This was to be followed in the spring of 1946 by Operation Coronet, a massive seaborne assault on the Tokyo Plain by the Eighth and Tenth Armies, spearheaded by another amphibious force of three Marine divisions and with the First Army transshipped from Europe to form a ten-division reserve. The entire operation would be under the command of General of the Armies MacArthur and Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz.

Okinawa would be the catapult from which this mightiest amphibious assault force ever assembled would be hurled.

The Divine Wind

Japanese Imperial Headquarters, still refusing to believe that Nippon was beaten, still writing reports while wearing rose-colored glasses, also anticipated an inevitable and bloody fight for Okinawa as the prelude to a titanic struggle for Japan itself. While the American Joint Chiefs regarded Operation Iceberg as one more stepping-stone toward Japan, their enemy saw it as the anvil on which the hammer blows of a still-invincible Japan would destroy the American fleet.

Destruction of American sea power remained the chief objective of Japanese military policy. Sea power had brought the Americans through the island barriers that Imperial Headquarters had thought to be impenetrable, had landed them at Iwo within the very Prefecture of Tokyo, and now threatened to provide them a lodgment 385 miles closer to the Home Islands. Only sea power could make possible the invasion of Japan, something that had not happened in three thousand years of Japan’s recorded history—something that had been attempted only twice before.

In 1274 and 1281 Kublai Khan, grandson of the great Genghis Khan and Mongol emperor of China, massed huge invasion fleets on the Chinese coast for that purpose. Japan was unprepared to repel such stupendous armadas, but a kamikaze, or “Divine Wind”—actually a typhoon—struck both Mongol fleets, scattering and sinking them.

In early 1945, nearly seven centuries later, an entire host of Divine Winds came howling out of Nippon. They were the suicide bombers of the Special Attack Forces, the new kamikaze who had been so named because it was seriously believed that they too would destroy another invasion fleet.

They were the conception of Vice Admiral Takejiro Onishi. He had led a carrier group during the Battle of the Philippine Sea. After that Japanese aerial disaster known to the Americans as “the Marianas Turkey Shoot,” Onishi had gone to Fleet Admiral Soemu Toyoda, commander of Japan’s Combined Fleet, with the proposal to organize a group of flyers who would crash-dive loaded bombers onto the decks of American warships. Toyoda agreed. Like most Japanese he found the concept of suicide—so popular in Japan as a means of atonement for failure of any kind—a glorious method of defending the homeland. So Toyoda sent Onishi to the Philippines, where he began organizing kamikaze on a local and volunteer basis. Then came the American seizure of the Palaus and the Filipino invasion.

On October 15, 1944, Rear Admiral Masafumi Arima—the first kamikaze—tried to crash-dive the American carrier Franklin. He was shot down by Navy fighters, but Japanese Imperial Headquarters told the nation that he had succeeded in hitting the carrier—which he had not done—and thus “lit the fuse of the ardent wishes of his men.”

The first organized attacks of the kamikaze came on October 25, at the beginning of the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Suicide bombers struck blows strong enough to startle the Americans and make them aware of a new weapon in the field against them, but not savage enough to shatter them. Too many kamikaze missed their targets and crashed harmlessly into the ocean, too many lost their way either arriving or returning, and too many were shot down. Of 650 suiciders sent to the Philippines, only about a quarter of them scored hits—and almost exclusively on small ships without the firepower to defend themselves like the cruisers, battleships, and aircraft carriers. But Imperial Headquarters, still keeping the national mind carefully empty of news of failure, announced hits of almost 100 percent. Imperial Headquarters did not believe its own propaganda, of course. Its generals and admirals privately guessed hits ranging from 12 to 50 percent, but they also assumed that nothing but battleships and carriers had been hit.

Thus was the kamikaze born, in an outburst of national ecstasy and anticipated deliverance. In the homeland a huge corps of suiciders was organized under Vice Admiral Matome Ugaki. By January 1945 they were part of Japanese military strategy, if not the dominant part. So many suiciders would be ordered out on an operation, to be joined by so many first-class fighters and bombers: the fighters to clear the skies of enemy interceptors, the bombers to ravage American shipping and guide the kamikaze to their victims.

They needed to be guided because they usually were a combination of old, stripped-down aircraft and young, often hopped-up flyers. Admiral Ugaki did not use his newest planes or his most skilled pilots, as Admiral Onishi had in the Philippines. Ugaki considered this wasteful. He believed that the “spiritual power” of the “glorious, incomparable young eagles” would compensate for the missing firepower of obsolete crates from which even the instruments had been removed. At a period in the Pacific War when perceptive Japanese commanders were beginning to ridicule the “bamboo-spear tactics” of the School of Spiritual Power, as opposed to the realities of firepower, Ugaki was showering his brave young volunteers—for brave they truly were—with encomiums of praise intended to silence whatever reservations they may have had about piloting these patched-up old cripples, and also to inspire the nation.

So the suiciders were hailed as saviors: wined, dined, photographed, lionized. Many of them attended their own funerals before taking off on their last mission. Farewell feasts were held in their honor at the numerous airfields on the southernmost Japanese island of Kyushu. Solemn Samurai ceremonies were conducted, and many toasts of sake drunk, so that some of the pilots climbed aboard their airplanes on wobbly legs. It did not seem to occur to the Japanese—and especially Ugaki—that insobriety might affect the aim of the kamikaze and thus defeat the purpose of the suicide corps; and this was because the concept of the suicide-savior had so captivated the nation from schoolgirls to Emperor Hirohito himself that the slightest word of criticism would have been regarded as treason. And it was this very deep and very real faith in another coming of a Divine Wind that dictated to the planners at Imperial Headquarters exactly how the battle of Okinawa was to be fought.

The speed with which the Americans were overrunning the Philippines had produced a mood of the blackest pessimism at Imperial Headquarters in Tokyo in late 1944—until those roseate reports of kamikaze success during December and January replaced the darkest despair with the brightest hopes. By 1945 Headquarters had decided that the United States would next strike at Okinawa to seize a base for the invasion of Japan proper, as the four Home Islands were called. It was now believed that the kamikaze corps could greatly improve the chances for a successful defense of Okinawa, and thus perhaps—even probably—prevent enemy landings in the Home Islands. So a plan called Ten-Go, or “Heavenly Operation,” was devised. New armies were to be formed from a reserve of military-age men who had been deferred for essential labor, while a powerful air force built around the kamikaze would be organized to destroy the Americans.

More than four thousand airplanes, both suicide and conventional, would launch an all-out attack, joined by hundreds of suicide motorboats operating from Okinawa and the Kerama Islands and followed by a suicide dash of Japan’s remaining warships, including the mighty battleship Yamato. The air assaults would come from two directions: north from Formosa where the Japanese Army’s Eighth Air Division and the Navy’s First Air Fleet were based, and south from Kyushu, with a more powerful force combining several Army and Navy commands, all under the direction of Vice Admiral Ugaki. On February 6 a joint Army-Navy Air Agreement stated:

In general Japanese air strength will be conserved until an enemy landing is underway or within the defense sphere … Primary emphasis will be laid on the speedy activation, training and mass employment of the Special Attack Forces (kamikaze) … The main target of Army aircraft will be enemy transports, and of Navy aircraft carrier attack forces.

On its face this was a bold plan conceived in an atmosphere of the most cordial cooperation. Actually, the only leaders motivated by the same conviction were those who believed that the war could no longer be won. Otherwise, there was a deep divergence: the Navy officers seeing Ten-Go as the last opportunity to score a great, redeeming victory; the Army staffers in agreement that the final battle would be fought not on Okinawa but on Kyushu. Though their views conflicted, their reasoning was logical: the sailors, certain that if airpower could not stop the enemy at Okinawa, neither would it do so on Kyushu; the Army insisting that even on the Philippines the Americans had not yet fought a major Japanese army, and that, shattered and whittled by the suicide-saviors, they could be repulsed in Japan proper. However, all—even the doubters—were convinced that at the very least a severe defeat must be inflicted on the Americans to compel the Allies to modify their demand for Unconditional Surrender.

There was one more consideration, probably more apparent to the Army than the Navy. Bamboo-spear tactics were out. The illogical belief that spiritual power could conquer firepower had spawned that other cause of Japan’s absolute inability to halt the American charge across the Pacific: the doctrine of destroying the enemy invaders “at the water’s edge.” Those nocturnal, massed frontal attacks known as “Banzai charges” had repeatedly been broken in blood, leaving the Japanese defenders so weakened that they were powerless to resist. Now there was a new spirit informing the Japanese Army: defense in depth—as careful as the Banzai was reckless, as difficult for the enemy to overcome as the foolhardy wild Banzai had been easy for him to shatter, and so costly in the attrition of enemy men, machines, and ships as to weary the Americans and thus induce them to negotiate.

Ambush, or the tactics of delay raised to a military science, began on the large island of Biak off the western extremity of New Guinea. It was conceived by Colonel Kuzume Naoyuki, commander of about eleven thousand troops of the defense garrison there. Disdainful of the doctrine of destruction at the water’s edge, he decided instead to allow the Americans to come ashore unopposed so that they would stroll unwarily into the trap he would prepare for them. This would turn the area around the vital airfield there into a martial honeycomb of caves and pillboxes—all mutually supportive—filled with riflemen, automatic weapons, artillery, batteries of mortars, and light tanks. Naoyuki also stockpiled these positions with enough ammunition, food, and water—that priceless liquid was less than abundant on Biak, where the heat and humidity would take a toll equal to enemy gunfire—to sustain his defense for months. Thus, when the 162nd Infantry of the Forty-first Division of the U.S. Army landed on Biak on May 27, 1944, they did indeed move confidently inland expecting little opposition—until they reached that vital airfield. Then, from the low-lying terrain around them and the ridges above, there fell a terrible storm of shot and shell that pinned them to the ground; it was not until dark that amtracks were able to extricate them from the trap.

Thereafter, there was no foolish and furious Banzai by which the Japanese enemy customarily bled itself to death. Biak was a grinding, shot-for-shot battle. Ambush, or delay, was repeated at Peleliu and Iwo Jima, battles that the U.S. Marines expected to be won within days or a week or so but lasted for months, with staggering losses not only in valuable time but in still more valuable life and equipment.

These were the tactics that Lieutenant General Mitsuru Ushijima intended to employ on Okinawa with his defending Japanese Thirty-second Army. After his arrival there in August 1944, he hurled himself into the gratifying task of turning that slender long island into an ocean fortress. In January 1945, he sent his chief of staff, Lieutenant General Isamu Cho, to Tokyo for a review of his defenses. Imperial Headquarters planners were delighted with his preparations, for they dovetailed with Ten-Go. Ushijima’s monster ambush was just the tactic to lure the Americans within range of the suiciders—airborne and seaborne—to be smashed so shatteringly that the Thirty-second Army could take the offensive and destroy them.

Upon his return to Okinawa, Isamu Cho was a happy soldier, thirsting for battle and bursting to tell his chief the good news about Japan’s devastating new weapon of the Divine Wind.

“The Rise and Fall of Imperial Japan Depends on This One Battle” Part I

IJN Junyo

IJN Shokaku

Movement of opposing forces, 16—17 June 1944.

Movement of opposing forces, 18 June 1944.

On the morning of 11 June Admiral Ozawa received the first reports of TF 58’s strikes on the Marianas. At first he thought these raids were nothing more than diversionary attacks meant to take the heat off the Biak landings. The next day, however, brought more detailed reports about the American forces attacking the islands.

Japanese reconnaissance planes had snooped TF 58 and had estimated the composition and position of the attacking forces as: two carriers, one light carrier, and one battleship ninety miles east of Saipan; two more carriers ninety miles northeast of Saipan; a third group of two carriers, two light carriers, and three battleships ninety miles southeast of Saipan; and a final group of five carriers at an unreported position.

These reports painted an accurate picture of the disposition of the American forces, and Ozawa now knew that TF 58 was out in force. However, until it could be clearly confirmed that the Marianas were actually the target of a full-scale invasion, Ozawa was limited in his actions. Biak was still a slim possibility for a fleet action, and Ozawa’s big battleships, the Yamato and Musashi, were tied down at Batjan for the KON Operation.

On the 13th the situation became clearer to the Japanese. American battleships were reported shelling Saipan. It was now obvious the island was to be the target for an amphibious landing. At 0900 on the 13th the Mobile Fleet weighed anchor and began to sortie from Tawi Tawi, bound for Guimaras anchorage between Panay and Negros. Actually this sortie was not a reaction to the U.S. incursion into the Marianas, as it had already been planned. The increasing attention U.S. submarines had been paying to the area—and the paucity of destroyers to combat them—along with the lack of airfields for the training of the green flight crews had made Tawi Tawi a poor spot for massing the Mobile Fleet. Therefore, on 8 June Ozawa decided to move his fleet to Guimaras, or even Manila. That same day the 2nd Supply Force, which had been sent to a position east of the Philippines on the 3rd, was ordered to Guimaras.

As the Mobile Fleet steamed out of Tawi Tawi on the 13th, it was picked up by the submarine Redfin. Commander M.H. “Cy” Austin, the sub’s skipper, attempted to close the advanced force—destroyers and a pair of heavy cruisers—but their maneuvers kept him out of range. Two hours after the first vessels left Tawi Tawi, the main body came steaming out. Again Austin was unable to get into an attack position, but he could observe the movements of the Japanese and was able to send a vital contact report at 2000 that night. Nimitz, Spruance, and Mitscher now knew that six carriers, four battleships, several cruisers, and a number of destroyers were on the move.

Ozawa began consolidating his forces on the 13th. At 1727 the order “Prepare for A-GO Decisive Operation” was sent. Five minutes later the KON Operation was “temporarily” suspended and the Yamato, Musashi, Myoko, Haguro, Noshiro, and five destroyers were told to rendezvous with the rest of the Mobile Fleet in the Philippine Sea. Both supply forces were put on a thirty-minute standby status, and the battleship Fuso began transferring most of her fuel to the oilers of the 1st Supply Force at Davao. This last step is an indication of how strapped the Japanese were for oil.

The sortie of the Mobile Fleet was cursed by misfortune from the start. Just after the fleet left Tawi Tawi an inexperienced pilot made a bad landing on the flagship Taiho and crashed into some parked aircraft. The ensuing fire destroyed two Zekes, two Judys, and two Jills. This accident was thought to be a bad omen; a bad beginning for this all-important battle.

A second mishap struck the Japanese one day later. The 1st Supply Force departed Davao late on the 13th bound for a refueling rendezvous in the Philippine Sea. Just after midnight on the 15th sailors on the destroyer Shiratsuyu thought they detected an enemy submarine and the destroyer began to maneuver radically. Unfortunately, one of her turns brought the Shiratsuyu close, too close, across the bow of the Seiyo Maru. The oiler sliced the fantail off the destroyer and the Shiratsuyu quickly went down. There was no time to set depth charges on “safe” and these exploded as the ship sank, killing many in the water. Over one hundred of her crew were lost.

Ozawa’s main force reached Guimaras at 1400 on the 14th and began fueling from the Genyo Maru and Azusa Maru. The fueling and resupply was quickly and efficiently done. Early the next morning Ozawa was ready to leave Guimaras.

Marines of the 2nd and 4th Divisions had waded ashore on Saipan at 0844 on the 15th against heavy opposition. At 0855 Admiral Toyoda sent Admiral Ozawa the following message: “On the morning of the 15th a strong enemy force began landing operations in the Saipan-Tinian area. The Combined Fleet will attack the enemy in the Marianas area and annihilate the invasion force. Activate A-GO Operation for decisive battle.”

Five minutes after this order Toyoda sent a further message; one that all Japanese knew by heart: “The rise and fall of Imperial Japan depends on this one battle. Every man shall do his utmost.” Thirty-nine years earlier, Admiral Togo had uttered these same words just before his fleet crushed the Russian Baltic Fleet at Tsushima.

With fueling completed, Ozawa led the Mobile Fleet from Guimaras at 0800 on the 15th. The force crossed the Visayan Sea and headed for San Bernardino Strait, between Samar and Luzon. Although neither man probably expected the Mobile Fleet to escape being spotted early on, Admirals Toyoda and Ozawa hoped that the sortie would be undetected until the Japanese were upon the Americans. Their hopes were not to be realized.

Filipino coastwatchers kept an eye on the Mobile Fleet as it moved into San Bernardino Strait. At 1100 one such watcher reported three carriers, two freighters, and sixteen other vessels. Seven and one-half hours later another coastwatcher reported three battleships, nine carriers, ten cruisers, eleven destroyers and two submarine chasers passing through the strait. (Unfortunately, it took two days for these reports to reach Spruance.) In the strait itself was a U.S. submarine, the Flying Fish. Lieutenant Commander Robert Risser had brought his submarine to the area for the very purpose of watching for the Mobile Fleet.

On the afternoon of the 15th the Flying Fish was submerged just inside the eastern entrance to the strait. At 1622 he saw the Japanese ships passing about eleven miles away. They were staying close to shore. Risser’s mouth watered as he counted the juicy targets—three carriers, three battleships, and the usual cruisers and destroyers. But his orders were to report first, attack later. Risser tried to stay with the enemy as best he could, but the submarine’s best submerged speed was no match for Ozawa’s ships. That evening Risser surfaced and sent his important contact report. His message would be the first received by Spruance showing that the Japanese were definitely approaching the Philippine Sea.

As Risser took the Flying Fish back to Brisbane low on fuel, a second U.S. submarine was watching another part of the Japanese forces. Lieutenant Commander Slade D. Cutter was bringing the Seahorse up from the Admiralties to cover Surigao Strait at the southern end of Leyte. At 1845 Cutter saw smoke on the horizon. The Seahorse was about two hundred miles east of Surigao Strait at the time.

Cutter immediately went to his best surface speed and started to close with the target. As the Seahorse drew nearer, Cutter was able to figure the course and speed of the enemy force. Then, when the Seahorse was 19,000 yards away, one of her motors cut out, and the sub’s speed dropped off to 14½ knots. The Japanese ships pulled away into the darkness.

Because of effective jamming by the Japanese, Cutter was unable to get off a contact report until 0300 on 16 June: “At 1330 GCT task force in position 10-11 North, 129-35 East. Base course 045, speed of advance 16.5. Sight contact at dusk disclosed plenty of battleships. Seahorse was astern and could not run around due speed restrictions caused by main motor brushes. Radar indicates six ships ranges 28 to 39,000 yards. Carriers and destroyers probably could not be detected at those ranges with our radar.”

Cutter had found the Yamato and Musashi racing north from Batjan.

Back off Saipan much had been happening the past few days. When TGs 58.1 and 58.4 had steamed north to attack the Bonins, the other two task groups had remained off Saipan to support the landings. Although most of the close support work was now being done by the “jeep” carriers of TG 52.14 (the Fanshaw Bay, Midway, White Plains, Kalinin Bay) and TG 52.11 (the Corregidor, Coral Sea, Gambier Bay, Nehenta Bay), the fast carriers were also kept busy.

Destroyers were fueled on the morning of the 14th while both groups sent strikes against all four of the major islands. Over four hundred sorties were launched during the day with few losses to the attackers. The two groups then retired to the west of Rota for the night.

15 June 1944, D-Day (or Dog Day, as it was known for this operation), was a beautiful day, but it is doubtful if many of those present were thinking how lovely it was. When the Marines stormed ashore in the morning they found that many targets had not been touched by the prelanding bombardment or the aerial strikes. Fighting was savage and losses heavy. By the 18th, though, the beachhead was secure and the Marines were there to stay.

Task Groups 58.2 and 58.3 were active on the 15th supporting the landings. Ninety-five sorties were sent over the beaches by TG 58.2 at H minus 90, followed by sixty-four Lexington and Enterprise planes at H-Hour. The two groups flew 579 target sorties. Only three planes and one pilot (all from TG 58.3) were lost during the day, but a number of others received varying degrees of damage from the still-heavy flak.

Around dusk Japanese planes began congregating near the American ships. The two U.S. groups were recovering planes about forty miles west of Saipan when the first group of enemy planes was detected. At 1800 a division of San Jacinto planes was vectored out to investigate a bogey at 20,500 feet. A “Nick” was found and quickly shot down. Ten minutes after the first vectors a second division was sent to investigate bogeys fifty-two miles away. At 1820 the San Jacinto planes contacted six “Tonys.” (Again misidentifications. These planes were probably Zekes or Jills.) In the ensuing combat at 22,000 feet, five of the enemy planes were destroyed and the last one damaged. One of the Fighting 51 pilots had stayed high with a malfunctioning engine when the other pilots jumped the enemy planes. He was in a good position to see two more Japanese planes—Hamps—diving on his friends below. Pushing over, he got on the tail of one Hamp and splashed it. The other plane fled.

A big attack sent in from Yap came shortly after the sun went down. Task Group 58.2 beat off an attack by a few planes with accurate antiaircraft fire, but the main attack was against the carriers of TG 58.3. A pair of Enterprise F4U-2N Corsair night fighters had been launched at 1845 and at 1905 were vectored toward some bogeys. The target was only five miles away. Lieutenant Commander Richard E. Harmer and his wingman, Lieutenant (jg) R.F. Holden, soon picked it up—eight of the new Frances bombers with four or five fighters as escorts.

Harmer attacked the formation from the side but could not see the results of his attack in the darkness. Then Holden warned him of a fighter on his tail. Tracers streaking past Harmer’s fighter confirmed this warning. As Harmer tried to evade the enemy fighter, 20-mm fire from one of the bombers hit his Corsair, shorting his formation lights “on.” Holden finally knocked the enemy plane off Harmer’s tail, the fighter corkscrewing down from 1,500 feet. Two more enemy planes attempted to get the Americans, but they were easily evaded. Harmer, unable to turn his lights off and feeling highly visible not only to the Japanese but to the gunners on the ships below, retired from the arena with Holden, and got out of the battle.

Now without any fighters to harass them, the Japanese circled the American ships (prudently out of antiaircraft gun range) and prepared to attack. The usual flares and float lights were dropped and then the Frans darted in. The North Carolina and Washington opened fire shortly after 1900, followed by the destroyers in the screen. At 1907 Princeton lookouts sighted seven planes low on the water dead ahead. But the Japanese fliers were not interested in the light carrier. They were after bigger game, the Lexington and Enterprise. The task group began to maneuver drastically while at the same time firing radar-directed 5-inch and 40-mm shells that engulfed the enemy planes.

Five planes made runs on the Lexington to no avail. Four were quickly slammed into the water. The other was stopped in mid-air by the wall of fire, and fell into the sea without burning. The enemy pilots were brave. One Frances almost hit the Lexington’s bridge before falling in flames off the starboard quarter. Another “streaked like a fire ball, close aboard to port, flaming so hotly he warmed the faces as well as the hearts of the gunners.” This pilot desperately tried to crash his doomed aircraft into the planes parked aft on the flight deck. He almost succeeded. His right engine suddenly stopped and he crashed only a few yards from the stern.

Torpedoes were slicing through the water now, and all the ships were heeling over to miss them. At one point Captain Burke had to lean over the wing of the Lexington’s bridge to see one torpedo flash past. The Enterprise had two “fish” miss her by less than fifty yards.

The surviving enemy planes scuttled out of the area and by 2230 all radar scopes were clear. Only thirteen of the attackers were able to return to Yap. Lexington gunners claimed five planes, while the Enterprise claimed two and the Princeton one. No ships were lost but there had been casualties. Three sailors were killed and fifty-eight wounded, when antiaircraft shells were accidentally fired into other ships. The casualties had been caused by those almost inevitable (and unavoidable) incidents that had happened before in the fury of battle and would happen again.

D plus 1, the 16th, was a day of decision, planning and fighting for the Americans. Fueling took up part of the day as TG 58.2 fueled from TG 50.17’s oilers in the morning and TG 58.3 did the same in the afternoon. The seemingly ever-present Copahee was again on hand to deliver replacement aircraft to some of the fast carriers and to receive their flyable “duds” in exchange.

The reports from the Flying Fish and Seahorse had finally reached Spruance and Mitscher, and they now knew the Japanese were coming out. The day before, Vice Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner (the Expeditionary Force commander) had recommended to Spruance that the landings on Guam be set for the 18th. (At this time it had seemed that the landings on Saipan were going fine, and there was as yet no firm word on the direction the Japanese Fleet was taking.)

When the reports of the Mobile Fleet’s sortie into the Philippine Sea were received, it became obvious that some major decisions and replanning were needed. On the morning of the 16th Spruance boarded Turner’s command ship, the Rocky Mount. In conference with Turner and Lieutenant General Holland M. Smith, USMC, overall commander of the troops ashore, Spruance made several critical decisions. It was decided to:

1.Land the 27th Division immediately. Since with this action there would be no reserve force, the Guam landings were cancelled and the Southern Attack Force was to stand by as a floating reserve.

2.Augment TF 58’s screen by detaching some cruisers and destroyers from fire support TGs 52.10 and 52.17.

3.Unload supplies and troops until dark of the 17th, after which the transports would be sent 200-300 miles east for safety.

4.Send the old battleships and screens of TGs 52.10 and 52.17 about twenty-five miles west of Saipan to cover the island in case the Japanese got around TF 58.

5.Use the jeep carriers exclusively for close air support.

The day before, Spruance had asked General MacArthur to have his Wakde- and Los Negros-based PB4YS stretch their searches to the limit, about 1,200 miles. The Liberators did not pick up anything, however. On the 14th Spruance had directed Vice Admiral John H. Hoover at Eniwetok to send a patrol-plane tender forward and to prepare a patrol squadron when ordered. Now Hoover was ordered to send six radar-equipped PBMs of VP-16 from Eniwetok to Saipan. The PBMs were to be used for long-range searches from Saipan.

Spruance returned to his flagship the Indianapolis and prepared to join TF 58. Because the reports from the Flying Fish and Seahorse seemed to indicate that two separate groups of enemy ships were out, Spruance felt the Japanese would probably be following their usual tactics of dividing their forces. This appreciation of the enemy’s intentions, perhaps influenced by the Z Plan translation in his hands, was to color Spruance’s decisions throughout the battle.

Some very good advice reached Spruance on the 16th. Admiral Nimitz, on the recommendation of Vice Admiral John H. Towers (Nimitz’s Deputy Commander-in-Chief), told Spruance and Mitscher to watch out for the possibility that the Japanese might try to keep their carriers out of range of TF 58’s aircraft, and instead shuttle their planes back and forth to Guam.

From earlier reconnaissance and intelligence reports the Americans had a pretty good idea of the composition of the Mobile Fleet. Admiral Reeves, TG 58.3’s commander, said in his operations plan: “Any resistance to the operation by way of surface engagement or carrier attack will probably be from part or all of the new Japanese First Striking Fleet. This fleet is thought to contain five fast battleships and possibly the Fuso as well. Carrier Divisions One, Two, and Three (nine CV and CVLs with a total complement of 255 VF, 177 VSB, 99 VT and 9 VSO) and about eleven heavy cruisers, 35 DDs are believed assigned to this fleet.”

Mitscher’s appraisal was pretty much the same: “For the first time in more than 18 months the enemy has a large carrier force in fighting condition. His 3 CVs, 2 XCVs, and 4 CVLs which are ready for combat carry planes equivalent in number to those carried by 4 Essex and 3 Independence class carriers. . . . If the enemy uses all his carrier-based planes in conjunction with the land planes based in the Marianas, he will still have fewer aircraft available for attacking our ships than we will be able to employ against him. Enemy task force action will give our own task forces a chance to close the enemy, bring his force into action, and perhaps score a crippling victory.”

Mitscher’s operation plan also considered three possible courses of action the Japanese could take if they sortied for battle: “(A) They could approach from the general direction of Davao under their air cover from the Philippines, Palau and Yap and strike the fleet from a southwesterly direction. (B) They could approach around northern Luzon and strike from a northwesterly direction. (C) They could approach easterly and strike from a position west of the Marianas.”

Mitscher and his staff thought (A) was most likely, though (C) was possible. The other possibility was considered very unlikely. While a southwest approach might be a diversion or a flanking route, Mitscher thought it not a “serious consideration so long as the major portion of the fleet could be engaged to the westward.” He also felt that as long as the new Japanese battleships (the Yamato and Musashi, in particular) were not in this attacking force, the old battleships, escort carriers, and screening vessels of the U.S support force could handle them.

On the morning of 16 June Mitscher informed his ships of the possibilities, saying, “Believe Japanese will approach from southerly direction under their shore-based air cover close to Yap and Ulithi to attempt to operate in vicinity of Guam. However, they may come from the west. Our searches must cover both possibilities. Will ask Harrill and Clark to search north and west of us tomorrow.” As related earlier, Clark’s and Harrill’s groups searched to the southwest of their position and found nothing. Clark’s imaginative plan to “trap” the Japanese was stillborn, and the two forces raced south to join the rest of TF 58.

Mitscher was taking no chances and ordered his planes to hit the airfields on Guam and Tinian in an attempt to neutralize them. A total of 332 sorties were flown during the day and most of them met heavy and accurate antiaircraft fire. Six planes were shot down, including one by friendly antiaircraft fire, but only one pilot and two crewmen were lost. One of the luckier pilots, who was not without a sense of adventure, was Ensign W.R. Mooney. This San Jacinto flier was hit by flak over Guam but was able to set his plane down in the water and climb into his raft. Though about fourteen miles offshore, Mooney paddled his raft to Guam where he scrambled ashore undetected by the enemy. At night he would hide in the undergrowth, and just before dawn he would take his raft back down to the shore and paddle out to sea, hoping some friendly search plane would spot him and bring rescue. Mooney followed this ritual for over two weeks before finally being picked up on 3 July.

Another pilot shot down on the 16th was Commander William R. “Killer” Kane, CO of Air Group 10. Kane was to be air coordinator for the first strikes of the day. As he and his wingman approached Saipan shortly before 0600, the sea below was still dark. Only a few ships could be seen. Nervously, both pilots rechecked their IFF transmitters.

Not wanting to fly over the invasion forces, Kane began a turn back to the west. Suddenly, a big burst of flak exploded under the left wing of his Hellcat. The plane pitched over violently and Kane’s goggles flew off his head. The Hellcat’s engine began smoking and Kane started thinking about bailing out. More bursts appeared nearby and tracers were weaving around the plane.

Kane opened his canopy and released his seat belt. As he prepared to go over the side, he discovered his fighter was not on fire and the engine was ticking over smoothly. He settled back into his seat—forgetting to refasten his seat belt—and led his wingman out of the antiaircraft fire. But as he tried to climb back to his original altitude, the black puffs cracked around the two planes again.

As Kane called angrily over the radio for the ships to knock off the shooting, he saw his oil pressure drop to zero. He decided to ditch near some transports. The antiaircraft fire followed him down but stopped as he put the Hellcat into the water. The big fighter skipped once, then dug its nose into the water. Without his seat belt fastened, Kane slammed forward against the gunsight. Groggy and with blood streaming from his head, Kane pulled himself out of his sinking plane and clambered into his raft. Before the destroyer Newcomb picked him up, Kane had a few choice words—and many ugly thoughts—about gunners who did not know aircraft recognition and sailors who could not read IFF signals. That afternoon, with a splitting headache, he was returned to the Enterprise.

Mitscher kept his planes pounding Guam and Tinian throughout the day, but as soon as the attackers departed, the Japanese rushed to work and quickly had the airfields back in service. Following a day of bombing, Tinian reported to Tokyo that the field was back in operation as of 1800.

Another disturbing observation was made by Commander Ernest M. Snowden, skipper of Air Group 16. During a strafing pass of the Ushi Point field on Tinian, Snowden noticed quite a few enemy planes parked around the field. Many appeared to be untouched by bullets or shrapnel. Although twenty-four planes were claimed destroyed on the ground and many others damaged, there were too many untouched planes left for comfort.

“The Rise and Fall of Imperial Japan Depends on This One Battle” Part II

In the meantime, after Admiral Mitscher told TF 58 that it appeared the Japanese were coming their way, Gus Widhelm had been having a hard time getting takers for his $1,000 wager that the Japanese would be heading out for a carrier duel.

Far to the west of Saipan, Ozawa’s forces were plowing deeper into the Philippine Sea. At 1000 on the 16th, Admiral Ugaki’s battleship force rendezvoused with the 1st Supply Force at 11°00′N, 130°00′E. Fueling began immediately while the two units headed north toward the rest of the Mobile Fleet. At 1650 Ugaki joined Ozawa and the entire Mobile Fleet was finally assembled.

After the rendezvous, 1st Supply Force began fueling the rest of the Mobile Fleet in preparation for the coming action. Fueling was leisurely, not being completed until 1300 the next day, at which time the Mobile Fleet was at 12°15′N, 132°45′E. The oilers then broke off to join with the 2nd Supply Force which had left Guimaras on the 15th and had since been bringing up the rear of the Mobile Fleet. When the two provisioning units met, they turned northeast and headed for a position at 14°40′N, 134°20′E, where they were to stand by for further use. Ozawa was now a little over 750 nautical miles from Saipan.

Ozawa was biding his time. He and most of his other top commanders had great faith—misplaced, as it turned out—in the operations of their land-based planes in the battle. These planes would severely damage the U.S. forces, thus facilitating the Mobile Fleet’s later attacks. Ozawa also knew that he could stay out of range of TF 58’s planes because his planes had a much greater radius of action than the Americans. (Generally, they had an advantage of 350—560 miles in the search role, and 200—300 miles in the attack role.) One other advantage fell Ozawa’s way. The prevailing wind was from the east, which meant that he could launch and recover planes while heading toward the enemy. Mitscher, on the other hand, would have to keep turning east while air operations were in progress and would not be able to make much headway to the west.

A canny sailor, Ozawa was also pretty sure he knew the psychological makeup of his opponent, Spruance. The Japanese admiral figured that Spruance was a conservative and deliberate commander—one not inclined to take risks. He fully expected Spruance to sit close to Saipan and take no offensive action unless he had to.

Even though he was outnumbered fifteen carriers to nine, and two to one in planes, because of the “advantages” mentioned above Ozawa felt he had a fighting chance to destroy the Americans. The one factor that limited Ozawa was fuel. He had only enough to come straight at the enemy (a fact of which the Americans were, naturally, unaware), and the elaborate and complicated plans the Japanese loved to use could not be employed this time.

It appeared to the Japanese that part of their plans was already working, for on the 16th a Betty from the 755th Naval Air Group and four Jills of the 551st Group (all based at Truk) reported attacking U.S. vessels off Saipan. One cruiser was claimed sunk and two others damaged. Fifth Fleet kept operating, though, not even knowing it had been attacked.

Another of the ubiquitous U.S. submarines came across the Japanese on the 16th. The Cavalla (a new sub commanded by Commander Herman J. Kossler) was patrolling 360 miles east of San Bernardino Strait in company with the Pipefish. Although intelligence reports had presumably put them right on the track of the Mobile Fleet, a fruitless day of searching had turned up nothing. That evening Kossler headed for San Bernardino Strait to relieve the Flying Fish.

Shortly after 2300, while proceeding on the surface, Kossler got a radar contact. It was a small force, only four ships. Kossler brought the Cavalla in for a closer look. It was two oilers escorted by a pair of destroyers. He had stumbled on the 2nd Supply Force! Kossler ran ahead of the enemy ships and dived about 0340. Submerged, the Cavalla sneaked in for an attack. Just as Kossler was about to fire at an oiler, one of the destroyers charged. Kossler went deep to evade the attack. When he brought the Cavalla back up at about 0500, the enemy was nowhere in sight.

Kossler decided not to chase the oilers. His orders were to relieve the Flying Fish, and he had already wasted a day and a lot of fuel in the fruitless attack on the supply group. However, when he radioed his decision to Vice Admiral Charles A. Lockwood, ComSubPac and also commander TF 17, a quick change of orders came flashing back: “Destruction these tankers of great importance. Trail, attack, report.”

Kossler turned around and took his submarine back down the supply force’s estimated track. It took some time, but at 2000 on 17 June Kossler hit the jackpot. While the Cavalla was proceeding on the surface, her radar picked up seven large “blips” about twenty thousand yards away. Kossler dove and closed with the target.

The Mobile Fleet steamed by the Cavalla as Kossler took in the parade with interest. Although he could have attacked, Kossler knew he had to get the information out first. After surfacing at 2245, he reported fifteen or more ships doing 19 knots and heading due east. Their position was reported as 12°23’N, 132°26’E. (Actually, the Mobile Fleet was about sixty miles northeast of that position.) Because it was dark, Kossler missed many of the ships as they ran past, but the number of ships he did report—fifteen—would worry Spruance.

Although Lockwood appreciated the information Kossler had sent, he thought it was now time for action. He told Kossler and all the other submarine skippers in the area to shoot first and talk later. For his skippers’ further edification another message said, “The above list of enemy ships does not frighten our varsity. We have all that and plenty more ready and waiting and they are all rough, tough and nasty.” Lockwood further ordered Kossler to, “Hang on and trail as long as possible regardless of fuel expenditure. . . . You may have a chance to get in an attack.” Kossler had lost the Mobile Fleet by the time he got Lockwood’s message, but he determinedly took his boat toward where he thought the Japanese would be. He would be rewarded for his chase and the Cavalla’s crew would yet see some action.

Both sides were busy making final plans on the 17th. Operating under radio silence, Ozawa sent a Judy to Peleliu just before noon with a request for land-based air operations. Ozawa told Combined Fleet Headquarters and Fifth Base Air Force:

The First Mobile Force, being at location ‘E’ on the evening of the 17th and having finished supplying operations, will advance to a general location west of Saipan by dawn of the 19th, going via point ‘O’ [possibly a translation error for ‘C’] at 15.0 N latitude, 136.0 E longitude. In the meantime, this fleet shall guard against westerly advances of the enemy and their movements from the north. The objective is first to shell regular aircraft carrier groups and then, by employing all fighting power, to annihilate the enemy task forces and their invading forces. The following are the requests made of land-based air units:

1. It is requested that, from the evening preceding the decisive battle, you shall maintain a constant reconnaissance of the regular aircraft carriers of the enemy in the vicinity of the Mariana Islands. If this is impossible, notify us immediately of the condition and deployment of regular aircraft carriers as of noon.

2. We request intensified patrolling of the area west of the Marianas by each base on the day previous to the decisive battle. Special attention shall be paid to carry on reconnaissance in the sector from 160 degrees to 210 degrees from Iwo Jima. [Ozawa was figuring on the possibility of just the sort of end-run Jocko Clark had in mind.]

3. If the forces of the Yawata unit are not deployed on time, it is believed we shall be forced to delay the decisive battle by one day. Please notify us of such a probability.

Ozawa was as yet unaware that the land-based phase of A-GO had gone seriously awry. Kakuta certainly was not telling him.

Off Saipan, Reeves’s and Montgomery’s task groups finished fueling shortly after midnight. The two groups wound up much farther east than planned, and Mitscher ordered them to make 23 knots to the west. Task Force 58 had to get as far west as possible because launching and recovering its planes meant the carriers would have to turn back into the easterly wind and, consequently, would not make good much distance toward the enemy.

Because of their distance to the east, TGs 58.2 and 58.3 sent night searches out 270—350 miles at 0200, half an hour later than planned. The two groups kept heading west until 0430. At 0700 the searchers were recovered. They had not seen anything. As the first searchers returned, another group of Helldivers and Avengers were launched to search to the west and southwest, to a distance of 325—350 miles. A third search, launched at 1330 by the Bunker Hill and Lexington, was as unsuccessful as the earlier attempts. Clark and Harrill, meanwhile, were ordered to search as far west as possible and to keep the area east of 138 degrees and south of 12 degrees covered.

Admiral Spruance ordered a minimum of air operations for the day, primarily search missions, but Mitscher thought it necessary to send in more strikes over Guam. About seventy-five sorties were flown in the afternoon. The strike “temporarily” closed Agana, but was costly to the Americans; several planes and pilots were lost to the deadly flak. The fliers were somewhat bitter, feeling that TF 58’s battleships (at this time only preparing to form TG 58.7) should have been used to knock our the antiaircraft guns before the planes went in.

In the afternoon Mitscher radioed Spruance giving him the present and planned dispositions and movements of TF 58,

1.Present status:

(a)Task Group 58.2 is 12 miles south of Task Group 58.3

(b)Task Group 58.3 will be in Lat. 15°N, Long. 144°30’E at 1600 today.

(c)A search was launched at 1330 distance 325 miles, betweeen bearings 215—285. This search is to be recovered about 1830 in vicinity Lat. 15°N, Long. 144°30’E.

2.Recommended disposition upon the joining of forces from Task Force 51:

(a)Task Group 58.2 composed of carriers, CruDiv 13, DesRon 52, DesDiv 1; 12 miles south of Task Group 58.3.

(b)Composition of Task Group 58.3: carriers, CruDiv 12, DesRon 50 and DesDiv 90.

(c)Task Group 58.7 composed of battleships, CruDiv 6, DesDiv 12(16 torpedoes each), DesDiv 89, and DesDiv 106; stationed 15 miles west of Task Group 58.3.

3.(a)If battle is joined before Task Groups 58.1 and 58.4 join us, Task Group 58.2 will be designated battle line carriers.

(b)When Task Groups 58.1 and 58.4 join, propose to put Task Group 58.1 12 miles north of Task Group 58.3, and Task Group 58.3 and Task Group 58.4 12 miles south of Task Group 58.2.

(c)As soon as Task Groups 58.1 and 58.4 join, propose to have San Juan join Task Group 58.2 and Reno join Task Group 58.3 so that one CL(AA) will be with each carrier group.

(d)If battle is joined after Task Groups 58.1 and 58.4 join us, Task Group 58.4 will become battle line carrier group.

(e)After first air battles have been fought and we have control of the air, recommend CruDivs 10, 13 and 12 and DesDivs 11, 1 and 90 be released from carrier groups to join Task Group 58.7.

(f)After initial air battle, or before if it becomes feasible, recommend Task Group 58.1 take station about 50 miles to the northwest of Task Group 58.3 in order to hit Japs from northern flank and cut them off from escaping to the north.

4.Recommended movement tonight; at 1800 course 310° until reaching Lat. 16°N, then course 270° until after daylight launch. It is hoped this will permit us to flank the enemy, keep outside of 400 miles range of Yap and keep as far from other shore-based air flown in to Rota and Guam as practicable, and still be in position to hit enemy carrier groups (downwind from us).

5.As soon as things quiet down a bit, one Task Group at a time should be refueled in vicinity of Marianas, during which time it can assist Task Force 51 on Guam, Rota, or Saipan as directed.

Spruance initially approved Mitscher’s plan, but late the next day would change his mind and hold TF 58 close to Saipan. Mitscher, in the meantime, was going ahead with his preparations: “Proposed plan for strike on enemy surface forces,” he signaled his carriers. “Make deck load launch from CVs consisting of 16 VF, 12 VB and 9 VT. Second deck load prepared for launch as second wave unless situation indicates delay advisable. Augment VT from CVLs as practicable. Arming VT half torpedoes, VB half GP, half SAP. Later strikes include AP as targets indicate.”

Admiral Spruance issued his battle plan at 1415, saying, “Our air will first knock out enemy carriers as operating carriers, then will attack enemy battleships and cruisers to slow or disable them. Task Group 58.7 will destroy enemy fleet either by fleet action if enemy elects to fight or by sinking slowed or crippled ships if enemy retreats. Action against the retreating enemy must be pushed vigorously by all hands to insure complete destruction of his fleet. Destroyers running short of fuel may be returned to Saipan if necessary for refueling.”

This “bare bones” plan sounded aggressive enough—but, like so many good plans, it never bore fruit. Also striking, given Spruance’s concern about such a tactic, is the fact that this plan makes no mention of a Japanese end run. A message to Spruance from Admiral Nimitz in the afternoon should, nevertheless, have given the Fifth Fleet commander some thoughts about sticking with his battle plan. “On the eve of a possible fleet action,” Nimitz radioed, “you and the officers and men under your command have the confidence of the naval services and the country. We count on you to make the victory decisive.”

At 1741 Spruance in the Indianapolis, plus CruDiv 12 (the Cleveland, Montpelier, Birmingham), joined TG 58.3. After joining, Spruance signaled Mitscher, “Desire you proceed at your discretion, selecting dispositions and movements best calculated to meet the enemy under the most advantageous condition. I shall issue general directives when necessary and leave details to you and Admiral Lee.”

This message left Mitscher in a quandary. It had been sent by Spruance in reply to a query by Mitscher regarding the tactical command of TF 58. The tenor of the message, however, suggested to Mitscher that he would not have complete control over TF 58. Spruance would be continually hovering nearby to approve or disapprove any orders. To preclude any conflict between Mitscher and Spruance, the TF 58 commander “preferred to submit his proposed courses of action to Admiral Spruance before they were put out of order, which meant that Admiral Spruance, although not taking OTC, was actually operating as OTC.”

During the afternoon Mitscher sent word to the two task groups at hand to prepare to dispatch their battleships and some escorting vessels to form the battle line, TG 58.7. Mitscher figured that with the usual confusion when ships move in and out of formation, it would be better to form TG 58.7 early, rather than wait until the Japanese were nearby to interfere with this movement. At 1730 the seven fast battleships (the Washington, North Carolina, Iowa, New Jersey, South Dakota, Alabama, and Indiana), along with four heavy cruisers and thirteen destroyers, left the carrier groups and formed the battle line. Able and aggressive Vice Admiral Willis A. “Ching” Lee commanded the task group. After all the ships had rendezvoused, they took up station fifteen miles west of TG 58.3. Mitscher had made his final dispositions and was now awaiting the return of his two other groups the next day.

The searches during the day had turned up no ships, but the afternoon search had run into several enemy planes which had soon been shot down. Surprisingly, it appears that the American commanders took little note of these planes. The positions of the air actions and the apparent direction the Japanese planes had come from did not lead anyone to guess the line of advance of the Mobile Fleet. Captain Burke said only, “those enemy planes probably did report our position.”

While the Americans were still vague about the position of the Mobile Fleet, Japanese land-based air knew full well where the action was. On the evening of the 17th, several heavy attacks were launched by the Japanese Base Air Force against U.S. forces off Saipan. At 1750 five Jills and an Irving night fighter from Truk attacked an “enemy transport convoy.” What they actually found was Captain G. B. Carter’s tractor group (TG 53.16) of sixteen LSTs, seven LCI(G)s, nine sub chasers, and the destroyer Stembel. The group was part of the Southern Attack Force and was killing time waiting for the expected Guam invasion. The Japanese fliers claimed that they sank “thirteen transports and left one destroyer listing heavily.”30 What they actually got in return for the loss of three planes was a torpedo hit on LCI(G)-468. The explosion killed fifteen men and wounded three. The gunboat was severely damaged and eventually had to be scuttled.

A second, larger attack hit the Americans unloading at Saipan around dusk. This attack was apparently picked up by TG 58.2 radars about 1735, heading toward Guam. Because the estimated twenty to thirty planes were over one hundred miles away, no interception was attempted. But there were more than thirty planes. Thirty-one Zekes, seventeen Judys, and two Frans from Yap ignored the fire-support group and went for the ships unloading off Charan Kanoa. An LST was hit and caught fire, but the blaze was put out and the vessel salvaged. Turning back from this attack, the enemy planes ran across the jeep carriers maneuvering offshore. Although radar picked up the incoming planes, the fighter direction was inaccurate, and forty-six Wildcats went off on a wild goose chase.

Now, with only the ships’ antiaircraft fire to confront them, the Japanese attacked. In the dim light many of the pilots thought they were attacking the fast carriers of TF 58. Bombs just missed Gambier Bay and Coral Sea. But the Fanshaw Bay was not as lucky. A 550-pound bomb sliced through her after elevator and exploded on her hangar deck. Eleven men were killed. The fires caused by the explosion were quickly put out by her crew, but the Fanshaw Bay had to retire to Eniwetok for repairs.

Five of the Judys and several Zekes landed after dark on the “temporarily out of commission” field on Guam. The other planes retired to Yap. The Japanese fliers were jubilant, thinking they had sunk two or three fast carriers and had left another burning. To the Japanese, who were not yet aware of the miscarriage of the land-based phase of A-GO, it appeared that these planes were doing their job well.

The problems for the escort carriers were not over yet. As two White Plains Wildcats were returning to their carrier, they were fired on by “friendly” ships, then jumped by four other Wildcats of the CAP. Although neither of the two fighters was shot down, one was so badly damaged that on landing it crashed into five other aircraft and all six had to be written off.

Affairs around Saipan finally quieted down during the night, but tension was steadily building among the sailors of TF 58. Where were the Japanese? It was not too long before TF 58 found out where the Mobile Fleet had been. The Cavalla’s contact report reached Spruance at 0321 on the morning of the 18th, and Mitscher had it twenty-four minutes later. But now a divergence of viewpoints between the two commanders emerged.

Mitscher and his two “braintrusters,” Burke and Hedding, did some quick figuring. If the Japanese kept coming at 19 knots, they would be about 660 miles from Saipan at dawn and 500 miles from TF 58’s proposed 0530 position. That was still too far for any attack on the enemy, but by steaming directly for the enemy’s estimated 1500 position, TF 58 might be able to get in one strike in the late afternoon. But TF 58 was then widely separated, with TGs 58.1 and 58.4 far to the north of the other two groups. A noon rendezvous was planned and Clark and Harrill were ordered to link up with the rest of TF 58 as soon as possible. Mitscher could have headed west with the two groups he had on hand, letting the other groups catch up as best they could, but he preferred to be sure all his forces were concentrated for the coming action. When all his ships were together Mitscher would take TF 58 westward for the attack on the Mobile Fleet.

Admiral Spruance had other plans. By the evening of 17 June he was worrying about a flank attack. He later commented, “At dark on 17 June the situation appeared to be as follows: Enemy forces probably consisting of 5 BB, 9 CV, 8 CA and a number of destroyers were at sea east of the Philippines for the purpose of attacking our amphibious forces engaged in the capture of Saipan. The task of Task Force 58 was to cover our amphibious forces and to prevent such an attack. The enemy attack would probably involve a strike by carrier-based aircraft, supported and followed up by heavy fleet units. The possibility existed that the enemy fleet might be divided with a portion of it involving carriers coming in around one of our flanks. If Task Force 58 were moved too far from Saipan before the location of the enemy was definitely determined, such a flank attack could inflict heavy damage on our amphibious forces at Saipan. Routes of withdrawal to the northward and to the southwestward would remain open to such a flanking force. The use of enemy airfields on Guam and Rota were available to the enemy except as our carrier-based aircraft were able to keep these fields neutralized.”

The fifteen ships that the Cavalla had reported also worried him. “It appeared from the Cavalla reports, however, that the entire enemy force was not concentrated in one disposition; that if the force sighted by the Cavalla was the same as that sighted by the Flying Fish in San Bernardino Strait, a speed of less than 10 knots had been made good; and that the position of the Cavalla contact indicated a possible approach to the Marianas by this task group via the southern flank.”

Spruance apparently did not consider that in the darkness the Cavalla could have missed many of the ships (which she had). Forty ships spread over a wide expanse of ocean cannot be easily seen by a submarine at periscope depth. He also reasoned that if the force the Cavalla sighted was the same one the Flying Fish had reported, it had made only a very slow advance. Even with the sighting of oilers nearby, it apparently did not occur to Spruance’s staff that this slow advance could have been because the Japanese were fueling (which they were). And always there was Spruance’s extreme concern, almost obsession, with the possibility of a flank attack. Yet this concern did not cause him to modify his battle plan, which never mentioned that possibility. Despite his aggressive battle plan of the day before, Spruance was beginning to settle into a defensive posture.

“The Rise and Fall of Imperial Japan Depends on This One Battle” Part III

In the meantime, both sides were busily preparing for an action which appeared likely the next day. With the Cavalla’s report in hand, Admiral Lockwood shifted the four submarines of his Pentathalon Group (then scouting northwest of Saipan) one hundred miles south. He told them, “Indications at this end that the big show may be taking place at the present time. Exact location unknown but possibly Finback, Bang, Stingray and Albacore may be the corner post of the boxing ring. . . . Do not miss any opportunity to get in a shot at the enemy. This may be the chance of a lifetime.” Working a “square” scouting line, these subs would be athwart the track of the Japanese force. It turned out to be an excellent move and would indeed provide one of the subs with the “chance of a lifetime.”

The 18th saw a miminum of air activity on the Americans’ part. PBMs from the Saipan roadstead flew searches 600 miles west, while PB4YS from the Admiralties also flew missions 1,200 miles to the northwest—all with no success. Unfortunately, one of the Liberator’s search patterns extended only 1,050 miles. As luck would have it, it was through this area that Ozawa led the Mobile Fleet on the evening of the 18th and the morning of the 19th. The carrier-launched searches fared no better. The first planes lifted off the decks at 0532. Narrow ten-degree legs were flown to a limit of 325-350 miles and covered an area between 195 degrees and 280 degrees. No ships were seen, but several enemy planes, obviously out scouting, were picked off.

Essex searchers scored two kills. At 0755 Lieutenant (jg) R. L. Turner, flying a Helldiver, spotted what he identified as a Jill but was probably a Kate. Turner and his fighter escort gave chase. The enemy pilot did not see the Americans until it was too late. After a pass by the Hellcat pilot which started a fire in the plane’s left wing root, Turner punched home about a hundred rounds of 20-mm fire into the Kate’s fuselage and wings. A large piece of the left wing suddenly ripped off, almost slamming into the “2C”. As Turner passed over the Kate, he could see the gunner hanging out of the cockpit and the pilot desperately trying to get out. Flames surrounded them and their clothes were burning. Then the Kate’s left wing dipped and the plane spun into the sea. About an hour and a half later, Ensign K. A. Flinn, escorting another SB2C, slammed a Betty into the water with his .50-calibers.

Meanwhile, Lieutenants (jg) Charles E. Henderson and Clifton R. Largess, flying Torpedo 10 Avengers, sandwiched a twin-float Jake between them and dropped the burning floatplane into the sea. Another pair of Jakes were the victims of a Yorktown fighter pilot.

Obviously, the Japanese had been busy launching searches, and with better luck than the Americans. Ozawa’s force was making 20 knots and heading 060 degrees when he sent his first reconnaissance missions out at 0600. Fourteen Kates and two Jakes were to cover an area between 350 and 110 degrees to a distance of 425 miles. (Note that this was almost one hundred miles farther than the American searchers.) By 0800 two of the planes had sighted enemy carrier planes. The first contacts between the two sides had been made.

When the Japanese planes returned to their ships, the two Jakes and a Kate did not come back. (There is a discrepency between the number of Jakes launched and those claimed shot down. Where the extra Jake came from is unknown.) At noon Ozawa sent off another search. This one consisted of thirteen Judys and two Jakes. Ozawa was sure this search would turn up something. At this time the Mobile Fleet was at 14°40’N, 135°40’E (about 120 miles northeast of its 0500 position). As soon as the search was launched the fleet changed course to 030 degrees.

It was not long before a number of contact reports came filtering back to Ozawa. The first few sightings were of enemy aircraft and served only to heighten the tension on Ozawa’s flagship, the Taiho. One report was of a PB2Y Coronado flying-boat (more likely a PB4Y from the Admiralties). At 1445 eight fighters were, rather unusually, sent out in a vain attempt to catch it.

The really important sightings began reaching Ozawa shortly after the abortive try to find the “flying-boat.” The pilot of Plane No. 15 had reached his search limit of 420 miles and was on the dog-leg portion of his pattern when he sighted TF 58. At 1514 he began transmitting to Admiral Ozawa “enemy task force, including carriers” at 14°50’N, 142°15’E. The Americans had been found.

Forty-six minutes later Plane No. 13 also reported enemy ships, including carriers, heading west. The conclusive sighting came from the crew of Plane No. 17, searching the sector north of Plane No. 15. Shortly after 1600 they reported sighting TF 58, amplifying this at 1640 with

“UI2CHI—1st group—2 regular carriers, 10-15 destroyers.

URA4E —2nd group—2 seemingly regular carriers, 10 others.

URA1A —3rd group—2 seemingly carriers, 10 others.

This sighting put TF 58 at 14°12’N, 141°55’E. Plane No. 17 also reported that the enemy ships were heading west, that there were cloud layers at 29,500 and 3,300 feet and the cloud cover was 7/10s, and the wind was from 100 degrees at 11 mph. It was a good, solid sighting and report.

Ozawa received Plane No. 15’s report at 1530 and began making his final plans for the battle. At 1540 he ordered course changed from 030 degrees to 200 degrees and for his forces to prepare to shift into battle disposition. At this time the Mobile Fleet was about 360 miles from the “15-I” position. Ozawa had no intention of getting any closer than necessary to TF 58. By remaining 400 miles away, he could stay out of range of enemy planes, yet his own planes would still be able to strike.

But while Ozawa was patiently awaiting the proper time to attack, a number of his subordinates were anxious to take action. Rear Admiral Sueo Obayashi, 3rd CarDiv commander with his flag in the Chitose, readied the planes of his three carriers for an attack on the ships seen by Plane No. 15. Sixty-seven planes were spotted for takeoff and launchings began at 1637. However, only three Jills, fifteen bomb-carrying Zekes, and four Zeke fighters from the Chiyoda were airborne when Obayashi received Admiral Ozawa’s Operation Order No. 16, which had been sent at 1610. This order read: “1. At around 1500 enemy task forces believed to be, one, 350 miles bearing about 220° from Iwo Jima, and the other, 160 miles west of Saipan. 2. Mobile Fleet will retire temporarily, after which it will proceed north and tomorrow morning contact and destroy the enemy to the north, after which it will attack and destroy the enemy to the northeast.”

The north sighting was a phantom. Admiral Toyoda, in Tokyo, had sent Ozawa a land-based search plane’s garbled transmission. A short time later Ozawa received a corrected report that showed there was nothing in that direction. At 1817 Ozawa issued Operations Order No. 19 which announced that the only target for the next day would be the enemy force west of the Marianas.

When Admiral Obayashi received Operations Order No. 16, he immediately recalled his strike force. All the Chiyoda planes landed safely except one of the bomb-carrying Zekes, which crashed. Not everyone was happy with the recall. Although most of the senior officers believed that a late-afternoon or early-evening attack followed by a night landing on Guam (required because of the late takeoff) would be asking too much of the green aircrews, many of the junior officers thought otherwise. In their enthusiasm and zeal—and rashness—they were sure they could destroy the enemy that day.

The “Impressions and Battle Lessons (Air) in the ‘A’ Operation” written after the battle conveys the feelings of these younger officers. Regarding the recalled strike, it says: “On the 18th the 3rd flying squadron was determined to attack the enemy as soon as sighted and prepared to return to the carrier, if it was not later than 1400, and to land on Guam, if it was after 1500. But by order from the operational unit the attack was cancelled. Although the outcome of the attack could not be predicted, a surprise was planned before sunset. If it had been carried out, it could certainly have been a surprise attack, as compared with the attack carried out next morning. Under these conditions it would be better to be prepared for an attack immediately after discovery of the enemy. And in case there is a risk of our operation being already known to the enemy on the day of the attack, it is admittedly necessary to launch a night flanking movement on a large scale in order to administer the first blow on the enemy. If the 3rd flying squadron under the circumstance had reported its plan of attack to the flag commander of the fleet, there would not have been any blunder [on Ozawa’s part, presumably]. And in receiving the order of cancelling, if it had any confidence in itself at all, it should have proposed its opinion.”

These statements are to the point. However, the top commanders from Toyoda on down disagreed with the conclusions. First, because of the fuel problem a flanking attack was out of the question. Then, surprise might have been achieved, but this is very doubtful; United States radar techniques were too good by this time. The raid would have been discovered even if the Japanese had attacked out of the sun. Mitscher was not going to let his guard down just because his planes had not yet spotted the Japanese. Finally, the Japanese fliers of June 1944 were generally not the same caliber as those of June 1942. Would a surprise attack on the evening of the 18th have been better handled than the disorganized mess of the next day? This is extremely doubtful. Ozawa was probably right in saving his aircraft for one big blow. It was no fault of his that although he got in the first strike on the 19th, it turned into a disaster.

While Obayashi’s carriers trailed behind recovering planes, the rest of the Mobile Fleet headed 200 degrees. At 1900 course was changed to 140 degrees and speed was reduced to 16 knots. At 2020 Ozawa took a calculated risk and broke radio silence to inform Admiral Kakuta on Tinian of his proposed plans for the next day. It was a risk, but one that Ozawa thought necessary to gain the proper coordination with his land-based air for the next day’s fighting. Unfortunately, Base Air Force was in no condition to provide much help, and Kakuta remained reluctant to tell Ozawa and Toyoda the truth of his situation.

This transmission, probably of just a few minutes duration, could have led to the destruction of Ozawa’s fleet. A U.S. naval “Huff-Duff” (HF/DF—high frequency direction-finding) shore station picked up the message and identified the sender as Ozawa. The station also pinpointed the Mobile Fleet’s position as 13°N, 136°E.41 This was good sharpshooting; Ozawa’s ships were only about forty miles away from that spot, and about three hundred miles from TF 58. The fix was passed on to Spruance.

Ozawa split his forces at 2100. Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita’s powerful Van or C Force headed due east, while the other two units changed course to 190 degrees. Eventually Kurita’s force would be stationed one hundred miles ahead of the rest of the Mobile Fleet and therefore closest to the enemy. With this formation Ozawa figured that any attacker would have to fly through a wall of fire thrown up by C Force and would thus probably be decimated before reaching his large carriers. C Force was the largest of the three units Ozawa utilized during the battle. Along with the light carriers Chitose, Chiyoda, and Zuiho were four battleships (including the monsters Yamato and Musashi), eight cruisers, and eight destroyers.

At 0300 on the morning of the 19th, the Mobile Fleet turned to a course of 050 degrees and speed was upped to 20 knots. The three forces shifted into their battle formation, and by 0415 all was in readiness. Following behind C Force was Admiral Ozawa and A Force. (Besides commanding the Mobile Fleet, Ozawa was in tactical command of all the carriers and also commander of A Force.) A Force consisted of the big carriers Taiho, Shokaku and Zuikaku, three cruisers, and seven destroyers. Nine miles north of A Force was B Force, commanded by Rear Admiral Takaji Joshima. It was made up of the carriers Junyo, Hiyo and Ryuho, battleship Nagato, heavy cruiser Mogami, and eight destroyers.

Ozawa sadly lacked destroyers for screening and antisubmarine work. And this shortage would cost the Japanese dearly. The Harder (and other U.S. subs throughout the war) had hurt the Japanese greatly with their attacks on destroyers.

Back with TF 58, the 18th would be a day of momentous and controversial decisions. After huddling with his staff over the Cavalla’s contact report and a later one which Admiral Spruance thought added “little to the information previously received,” Mitscher decided a late afternoon air strike would be possible and a night surface action a very good possibility. Mitscher signaled Admiral Lee, “Do you desire night engagement? It may be we can make air contact late this afternoon and attack tonight. Otherwise we should retire to the eastward for tonight.”

“Do not (repeat, not) believe we should seek night engagement,” was Lee’s disappointing reply. “Possible advantages of radar more than offset by difficulties of communications and lack of training in fleet tactics at night. Would press pursuit of damaged or fleeing enemy, however, at any time.”

If there were any need for confirmation that the battleship was no longer the ruler of the sea, Lee’s statement certainly provided it. In no way was Lee afraid of the Japanese; he had shown that at Guadalcanal. But he respected them as fighters, particularly in night battles. By this stage of the war also, the battleships had been reduced to spear carriers for the flattops. Their primary job was to protect the carriers with their awesome array of antiaircraft weapons. The fast battleships had not had the time to perfect tactics for a surface action; they had been too busy escorting the carriers. However, Lee must surely have been aware that in a hostile air environment, a night battle would be the only way his battleships could ever fight a purely surface action.

The battleships would stay tied to TF 58.

Shortly after 0700 Bataan pilots sighted a life raft a short distance from TG 58.1. The raft appeared to be populated with dead men. The destroyers Bell and Conner were sent to investigate and discovered the men, eighteen in all, were alive. They had been members of a small Japanese cargo ship sunk enroute from Woleai to Guam on 13 June. They were later transferred to the Hornet to enjoy the amenities of the brig.

At noon the four task groups rendezvoused, with the antiaircraft cruisers San Juan and Reno joining TGs 58.2 and 58.3 respectively. For the impending action TGs 58.1, 58.3, and 58.2 were placed twelve miles apart on a north-south line. Fifteen miles west of the Lexington was Admiral Lee’s TG 58.7. About twelve miles north and slightly east of TG 58.7 was TG 58.4.

Before the rendezvous Spruance made one of the most important decisions of the battle. “Task Force 58 must cover Saipan and our forces engaged in that operation,” he told Mitscher and Lee. “I still feel that main enemy attack will come from westward but it might be diverted to come in from southwestward. Diversionary attacks may come in from either flank or reinforcements might come in from Empire. Consider that we can best cover Saipan by advancing to westward during daylight and retiring to eastward at night so as to reduce possibility of enemy passing us during darkness. Distance which you can make to westward during day will naturally be restricted by your air operations and by necessity to conserve fuel. We should however remain in air supporting position of Saipan until information of enemy requires other action. . . . Consider seeking night action undesirable initially in view of our superior strength in all types, but earliest possible strike on enemy carriers is necessary.”

The decision had been made. Instead of pursuing an offensive course as his battle plan had stated, Spruance was pulling back into a basically static defensive position. There would really be no possibility of “earliest possible strikes” now, and TF 58’s “superior strength” was being wasted. Spruance was doing exactly what Ozawa thought he would.

Mitscher and his staff were dismayed. They “could not understand why the Commander Fifth Fleet would throw away the tremendous advantages of surprise and initiative and aggressiveness.” But Spruance was a “Big Gun” man (as was most of his staff). His experience in carrier warfare was primarily on a lofty plane. When Lee said he would not fight at night, Spruance was left, figuratively, at sea. Now without his beloved battleships to fight the battle, Spruance was unsure how to use his carriers. His choice—wait and let the enemy attack him.

More searches were flown at 1330. Though ranging out 325 miles, the planes again missed the Mobile Fleet, but this time by only sixty miles. Confrontations between opposing search planes again took place. Hornet planes bagged another of the vulnerable Jakes 240 miles out, and another Jake and a Judy were downed by aircraft from TG 58.3. Only thirty miles from TF 58, a number of Hellcats on CAP were run ragged by a single Judy.

This Judy first ran afoul of a division of Monterey Hellcats. Although the Americans were able to hole the enemy plane a few times, the Japanese pilot evaded them by the judicious use of cloud cover. Then, four more F6Fs from the Cowpens and six from the Langley began queuing up. Still, the Judy “evaded no less than twelve passes by doing a startling and expert series of maneuvers, including snap rolls, spins, split ‘S’s, falling leafs, and one snap loop that would have pulled the wings off a less sturdy plane.”48 VF-25’s Lieutenant (jg) Frederick R. Stieglitz finally popped out of a cloud directly behind the Judy. Firing almost continuously, he poured 750 rounds into the dive bomber. The Judy caught fire and fell into the sea.

Flight operations continued until dusk. Mitscher then headed TF 58 into the setting sun so any enemy planes trying to sneak in would show up easily. This was just the time that Obayashi’s planes would have been attacking if they had not been recalled.

The Japanese had been attacking throughout the day, but not with carrier-based planes. A number of the aircraft that had gotten into Guam the night before went out again on the morning of the 18th. This day they were unsuccessful in their attacks and suffered additional losses. One of the pilots was picked up by the Americans, to become one of the few Japanese aviators to survive the air battles around the Marianas. Enemy aircraft flying from Yap and Palau were also still active. An early-morning reconnaissance by nine Bettys found the jeep carriers southeast of Saipan. A large strike of six Franceses and eleven Zekes from Yap, and one Judy and thirty-eight Zekes from Palau, was directed against the carriers, but the pilots could not find their targets. Some, however, did run across some oilers of TG 50.17, the Fueling Group.

The oilers Saranac, Neshanic, and Saugatuck were fueling four destroyers and destroyer escorts about forty miles southeast of Saipan when they were attacked by five planes shortly after 1630. The attackers did quite well, hitting all three of the oilers. The Saranac had eight seamen killed and twenty-two wounded and was so badly damaged she had to head back to the rear areas for repairs. The Neshanic was hit by a bomb that exploded drums of gasoline stowed on deck. Flames boiled up to the top of the mast, but the ship’s damage-control party had the fire out in seven minutes. She and the Saugatuck were repaired at Eniwetok.

Events began speeding up on the evening of the 18th. Far to the west of TF 58 the submarines Finback and Stingray were patrolling. Shortly after 2000 the Finback was traveling on the surface at 14°19’N, 137°05’E, when her lookouts saw a pair of searchlights stab the sky to the south. Full speed ahead was ordered, but the sub was unable to close fast enough to pick up any targets on her radar. The lights had apparently come from one of Admiral Obayashi’s carriers as it recovered some late returning planes. (The Japanese analysis of the battle later showed great concern with this and other breaches of security in the Mobile Fleet.) There was some delay in sending a contact report, and it was not until 0150 on 19 June that Spruance received it. By that time he had already made the important decisions.

While the Finback was watching the lights, the Stingray had been having problems. A small fire had broken out in the conning tower but had soon been extinguished. The fire apparently affected the submarine’s radio equipment, for a routine incident report to ComSubPac was badly distorted. Admiral Lockwood thought the Japanese had jammed the transmission. While Lockwood was trying to figure out what the Stingray was saying, the Huff-Duff stations had picked up the Mobile Fleet.

At 2030 TF 58 heeled around according to Spruance’s plan and took up a course of 080 degrees and a speed of 18 knots. In the eight and one-half hours since the rendezvous, the ships had made only 115 miles to the west-southwest. At 2200 more bits of intelligence began reaching Spruance and Mitscher. The first interesting tidbit was the HF/DF fix. Mitscher got this report at 2245 and thought it good enough to take action on. Spruance, on the other hand, was unimpressed, taking the fix to be a Japanese trick. Mitscher, however, put his staff to work on the fix to see what they could come up with.

After several minutes’ work they calculated that Ozawa’s ships were 355 miles away and would probably remain there until daylight. It was still too great a distance for a strike by U.S. planes. However, by reversing course at 0130 on the 19th, TF 58 would be in an ideal striking range of 150 to 200 miles from the enemy by 0500.

At 2325, after many calculations and recalculations, Mitscher radioed Spruance, “Propose coming to course 270 degrees at 0130 in order to commence treatment at 0500. Advise.”50

Spruance and his staff mulled over Mitscher’s message. Even before Mitscher had submitted his plan Spruance had in his hand another piece of the intelligence puzzle; a piece that actually fit nowhere. About 2230 a message from Admiral Lockwood to the Stingray concerning the submarine’s earlier garbled transmission was intercepted. This message was not addressed to ComFifthFleet and was not intended for him!

Yet, surprisingly, Spruance became very interested in the Stingray. Figuring the Stingray’s patrol station as about 175 miles east-southeast of the Huff/Duff fix, Spruance concluded that the submarine had found the Mobile Fleet and her radio transmissions had been jammed for her troubles. It appears that by this time Spruance already had his mind made up, and this message to the Stingray merely confirmed his impressions of what the Japanese would do—come in two or three forces, employing diversionary tactics. After discussing Mitscher’s plan for over an hour with his staff, Spruance replied to the TF 58 commander at 0038 on the 19th.

“Change proposed does not appear advisable,” he told Mitscher. “Believe indications given by Stingray more accurate than that determined by direction-finder. If that is so continuation as at present seems preferable. End run by other carrier groups remains possibility and must not be overlooked.”

When this message reached Mitscher, both he and his staff were stunned. They were not then aware of the Stingray messages and when they did learn of them they could not believe Admiral Spruance would put such faith in a garbled transmission not even addressed to him. Disappointment pervaded the ships of TF 58. On board the Enterprise Captain Matt Gardner threw his hat on the deck and stomped on it.

Task Force 58 continued eastbound.

By shortly after midnight on 19 June the decisions had been made on both sides. No matter what new information might surface in the next few hours, no matter how many calculations could be made, the die had been cast. The 19th of June would be the day of battle and TF 58 most likely would have to take the first blow.

Film: Kagemusha [The Shadow Warrior] (1980)


Kagemusha is an epic war film by Akira Kurosawa set in the Sengoku period of Japanese history that tells the story of a petty criminal who is taught to impersonate a dying daimyō (warlord) to dissuade his enemies from attacking his now-vulnerable clan. The daimyō is based on Takeda Shingen, and the film ends by depicting the actual Battle of Nagashino in 1575.


In the five years after the release of Dersu Uzala (1975), director Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai) worked on developing three film projects: a samurai version of King Lear entitled Ran (Japanese for Chaos); Edgar Allan Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death” (never filmed); and Kagemusha, a screenwriting collaboration with Masato Ide about a petty thief who impersonates a feudal warlord. Kurosawa could not secure funding for Kagemusha in Japan until the summer of 1978, when he met with two of his greatest admirers: American directors George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. After Lucas and Coppola persuaded 20th Century Fox to pre-purchase foreign distribution rights for $1.5 million, Toho Co. Ltd. (Tokyo) put up the bulk of the funding: 100 million yen ($5 million). With a $6.5 million budget, Kagemusha was the most expensive film made in Japan up to that time. It was also the most meticulously planned. In the years spent finding financing Kurosawa made hundreds of storyboard drawings and paintings mapping out the look of every shot and scene. Location scouting for a movie set in 16th-century Japan proved to be challenging; pervasive industrialization after World War II rendered much of the country visually unsuitable for a period film. Kurosawa visited dozens of medieval castles before choosing Himeji Castle (40 miles west of Kobe, on Japan’s main island of Honshu), Iga-Ueno Castle (40 miles southeast of Kyoto, also on Honshu), and Kumamoto Castle (on Japan’s most southwesterly island of Kyushu). Battle scenes were filmed on Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost and least developed island, utilizing hundreds of hand-picked extras and 200 specially trained horses, flown in from the United States. Many of the riders were female members of various Japanese equestrian organizations whom Kurosawa preferred because he found them more daring than most men.


As Kurosawa scholar Donald Richie notes, “Of all the films of Kurosawa, Kagemusha was the most disaster-ridden” (Richie, 1996, p. 205). Kurosawa’s cinematographer, Kazuo Miyagawa, had to drop out due to failing eyesight brought on by diabetes. He was replaced by Takao Saito and Masaharu Ueda (supervised by Asakazu Nakai). Next, Kurosawa and his composer, Masaru Sato, parted ways after intractable disagreements over the film’s score. Sato was replaced by Shinichiro Ikebe. Then Shinaro Katsu, Japan’s leading comic actor for whom Kurosawa wrote the starring roles of Shingen and the thief, quit or was fired (accounts vary) on the first day of shooting. Stage actor Tatsuya Nakadai was hired to replace Katsu. Though disrupted by a typhoon and by Nakadai falling off his horse and spending time in the hospital, the nine-month shoot in 1979 went only a week or so over schedule. For the climactic Battle of Nagashino, Kurosawa had to anaesthetize dozens of horses to simulate their having been slain on the battlefield; he had only a half-hour to shoot the battle’s aftermath before the horses started to wake up. Assembling a rough cut from daily rushes as he went along, Kurosawa completed the film’s final cut just three weeks after the shoot ended.

Plot Summary

During Japan’s Sengoku, or “Warring States,” period (c.1467–c.1603), Takeda Shingen (Tatsuya Nakadai), daimyō (i.e., feudal warlord) of the Takeda clan, meets with his brother Nobukado (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and an unnamed thief (also played by Tatsuya Nakadai) whom his brother has saved from certain death using the thief’s remarkable resemblance to Shingen. The brothers decide that the thief could be an asset, as he could be used as a double for security purposes or could prove useful as a kagemusha (a political decoy). Later, Shingen’s army lays siege to a castle of rival warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu (Masayuki Yui). One evening, on a visit to the battlefield, Shingen is shot by a sniper who has been tracking him. Before dying from his wound, he orders his army to withdraw and tells his officers that his death must remain a secret for three years. Meanwhile, unaware that he is dead, Shingen’s rival warlords—Oda Nobunaga (Daisuke Ryû), Tokugawa Ieyasu (Masayuki Yui), and Uesugi Kenshin (Eiichi Kanakubo)—ponder the meaning and consequences of Shingen’s withdrawing his army. Nobukado brings the thief to Shingen’s officers, suggesting that the thief serve as a kagemusha and thus act as Shingen. However, Shingen’s officers feel that the thief cannot be trusted, so he is released. The Takeda leaders dispose of Shingen’s remains in Lake Suwa. Tokugawa sees the disposal of the remains and deduce that Shingen has perished. The thief overhears the spies and offers to work as a kagemusha for the Takeda clan. They accept. The spies follow the Takeda to their home, but are surprised to find the kagemusha acting as Shingen. Mimicking Shingen’s every mannerism, the thief effectively fools the spies, Shingen’s retinue, Takeda Katsuyori’s son, and even Shingen’s own grandson. During the clan council meeting, the kagemusha is instructed to listen to all of the generals until they reach an agreement and then simply agree with the generals’ recommended course of action and move to dismiss the council. Shingen’s son, Katsuyori (Kenichi Hagiwara), is bitter about his father’s lengthy, posthumous deception, as it puts a hold on his own inheritance and rise in the clan leadership. In 1573, the Tokugawa and Oda clans assault the Takeda lands, and Katsuyori defies his general and initiates a counterattack. During the Battle of Takatenjin (1574), the kagemusha rallies the soldiers and leads them to success. Becoming overconfident after his successes, the kagemusha tries to ride Shingen’s excitable horse, but is thrown to the ground. As soldiers rush to his aid, they notice that he is missing Shingen’s unique battle scars. The thief is shown to be an imposter, and Katsuyori assumes his rightful place as leader of the clan. Meanwhile, Oda and Tokugawa press onward in an effort to overtake the Takeda territory. Commanding his army, Katsuyori strikes against Nobunaga, culminating in the disastrous Battle of Nagashino (28 June 1575). Takeda cavalry and infantry attack in waves, but are defeated by the Oda troops who have hidden behind stockades. The thief, now exiled, witnesses the slaughter and makes a brave show of commitment to his clan by running at the Oda frontlines with a spear. The kagemusha is badly injured and dies while trying to pull the fūrinkazan from the river (the fūrinkazan is Shingen’s battle standard inscribed with “Wind, Forest, Fire, Mountain,” the four phrases from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War: “as swift as wind, as gentle as forest, as fierce as fire, as unshakable as mountain”).


Released in Japan on 26 April 1980, Kagemusha went on to become the country’s most popular film that year, grossing ¥2.7 billion at the box office (the equivalent of $13.6 million in 1980). Screened in competition at the Cannes Film Festival in May, Kagemusha won the Palme d’Or, sharing it with Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz. The film premiered in the United States at the New York Film Festival on 1 October 1980 and then went into general release five days later but had poor box office returns; a three-hour epic about medieval Japan, Kagemusha had very limited appeal in foreign markets. It did, however, garner lots of accolades, including two Oscar nominations (for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Art Direction), a Golden Globe nomination (Best Foreign Language Film), and four BAFTA nominations, winning for Best Direction and Best Costume Design. Kagemusha also won France’s César Award for Best Foreign Film. Critics often remarked upon the film’s epic sweep, visual grandeur, and elaborate sense of pageantry but also noted its essential pessimism. As Roger Ebert noted, “Kurosawa seems to be saying that great human endeavors … depend entirely on large numbers of men sharing the same fantasies or beliefs. It is entirely unimportant, he seems to be suggesting, whether or not the beliefs are based on reality—all that matters is that men accept them. But when a belief is shattered, the result is confusion, destruction, and death” (Ebert, 1980).

Reel History Versus Real History

Kurosawa anchored Kagemusha in Japan’s complex medieval history but also took considerable artistic license with his source material. As portrayed in the film, Takeda Shingen (1521–1573) was a powerful feudal lord who waged war against his rivals, Oda Nobunaga (1532–1584) and Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543–1616), for control of Kyoto, Japan’s capital at that time. In the movie, Shingen is shot by a sniper and dies while laying siege to a Tokugawa clan stronghold (Noda Castle in Mikawa Province). Though it is kept secret, Shingen’s death causes the Takeda clan to break off the siege and retreat. In reality Shingen died on 13 May 1573, almost three months after Noda Castle surrendered (16 February 1573), and accounts vary as to the cause of death: a sniper wound sustained during the siege, or an old war wound, or possibly from pneumonia. In the movie Shingen’s corpse is submersed in Lake Suwa and his death is kept secret for three years. The historical reality is that Shingen was interred at Erin-ji Temple in what is now Kōshū, Yamanashi Prefecture. There was no interregnum during which a kagemusha impersonated the daimyō. Shingen’s son, Takeda Katsuyori (1546–1582), took over as leader of the clan immediately after his father’s death and, as depicted the film, defeated Tokugawa Ieyasu at the Battle of Takatenjin in 1574. As also depicted in the film, Katsuyori was decisively defeated at the Battle of Nagashino in 1575. Kurasawa’s rendition of Nagashino is fairly accurate. When Katsuyori’s cavalry force (numbering about 4,000) attacked, 3,000 Nobunaga riflemen, protected behind wooden stockades, opened rotating volley fire with their Tanegashima (matchlock muskets) and decimated the Takeda horsemen. When it was all over Katsuyori’s army of 15,000 had suffered some 10,000 casualties. Katsuyori also lost a dozen of his generals. Nobunaga’s skillful use of firearms to thwart Takeda’s cavalry is often cited as a turning point in Japanese warfare, indeed the first “modern” battle. What is inaccurate about the movie version: it omits the fact that the battle took place in heavy rain—which Katsuyori erroneously thought would wet the Nobunagas’ gunpowder and render their muskets useless. After his devastating loss at Nagashino, Katsuyori hung on for another seven years but his fortunes continued to decline. Katsuyori’s forces were finally destroyed by the combined armies of Nobunaga and Tokugawa at the Battle of Temmokuzan in 1582. In the aftermath Katsuyori, his wife, Hojo Masako, and Nobukatsu, one of his two sons, committed ritual suicide (seppuku). Daimyōs did indeed use doubles for security purposes but the story of the thief is pure fiction.

Slaughter at Chinju

While Hideyoshi wined and dined the Ming envoys at Nagoya, his commanders in Korea were preparing once again for battle. Their target: Chinju. This strongly fortified southern city, sixty kilometers to the west of Pusan, had remained a sore spot with the Japanese ever since they had failed to take it in November of the previous year. In that battle a disciplined force of only 3,800 Koreans held out for five days against a 15,000-man army from Mori Terumoto’s seventh contingent from Honshu, inflicting such heavy casualties—some accounts put the figure as high as fifty percent—that the Japanese were forced to withdraw. This loss never ceased to rankle the Japanese. It also left an enemy stronghold in uncomfortably close proximity to their defensive perimeter on Korea’s southern tip. There were a number of hawks within the Japanese camp, meanwhile, notably Kato Kiyomasa and Kobayakawa Takakage, who felt angry and humiliated at the unexpected setbacks suffered in the war, and who now urged Hideyoshi to allow them the opportunity to inflict one final attack against the incompliant Koreans, a parting blow to remind them and in turn the Chinese that the might of Japan remained undiminished and would have to be appeased.

It was for these three reasons that Hideyoshi, although ostensibly immersed in negotiations with the two Ming envoys, sent the order to Kato in Korea: attack Chinju. Wipe it off the map.


News of the planned assault on Chinju soon reached the ears of Ming negotiator Shen Weijing at Pusan, passed to him by Konishi Yukinaga, who claimed that he had tried without success to dissuade Kato from launching such an attack. Shen in turn warned Commander in Chief Kim Myong-won, explaining that the Japanese were out to avenge themselves upon the Koreans for defeating them at Chinju the previous year, for destroying so many of their ships, and for repeatedly ambushing Japanese soldiers who were out working in the fields. Shen assured Kim that the coming attack would be a single act of face-saving aggression, and not part of any renewed offensive to grab more territory. The Koreans should therefore keep clear of Chinju for a time and let the Japanese have their revenge, for then they would be satisfied and would surely return home.

Some among the Koreans were willing to accept Shen Weijing’s advice. Guerrilla leader Kwak Jae-u, the famous “Red Coat General,” said that while he was prepared to sacrifice his own life, he was not willing to throw away the lives of his men in what was clearly a lost cause. Others, however, were determined to hold the city at any cost. Government-official-turned-guerrilla-leader Kim Chon-il was one of the first to enter Chinju at the head of three hundred volunteers (“an unruly mob gathered from the streets of Seoul,” observed Yu Song-nyong), and immediately tried to assume overall command, much to the aggravation of the city’s magistrate, So Ye-won. Others followed: Hwang Jin, army commander of Chungchong Province, with seven hundred men; Kyongsang Army Commander Choi Kyong-hoe with five hundred; Vice-Commander Chang Yun with three hundred; guerilla leader Ko Chong-hu, who had seen his father Ko Kyong-myong slain in the Battle of Kumsan, with four hundred. Yi Chong-in, the magistrate of Kimhae, also arrived and assumed a leadership role.

In Seoul, Li Rusong received the news of the planned Japanese attack with understandable consternation and dispatched orders to his generals in the south to take steps to halt the move. From his camp near Taegu, “Big Sword” Liu Ting sent a message to Kato Kiyomasa at Ulsan reminding him that any aggression against Chinju would be an abrogation of the armistice that existed between their two armies, and would lead to further hostilities. Kato made no reply. Liu also sent an aide to Chinju itself to inspect the city’s defenses and offer assurance of Chinese support in the event of an attack.

By the middle of July between 3,000 and 4,000 Korean defenders had gathered within the walls of Chinju, a force roughly equal to the one that had held off 15,000 Japanese attackers in November of the previous year. They were by no means all crack troops, however, and would be facing an army of possibly 93,000, the bulk of Hideyoshi’s remaining invasion force plus reinforcements recently sent from Japan. There was no way the Koreans could stand against such overwhelming numbers, the largest single enemy force so far assembled in the war. “Red Coat General” Kwak Jae-u saw this clearly, and urged his friend Hwang Jin not to throw his life away trying to defend the place. Hwang agreed that Chinju was probably doomed. He had already given his word to Kim Chon-il and others, however, that he would stay and fight. So stay and fight he must. As Kwak Jae-u rode sadly away, knowing he would never see Hwang again, the defenders of Chinju raced to stockpile food and arms in preparation for the coming fight. Then the gates of the city were closed and barred.

In the second week of July a tidal wave of Japanese troops began filing out of the chain of forts encircling Pusan and moving west toward Chinju, looting and burning as they went. Kato Kiyomasa led the operation. This was a bit of appeasement thrown his way by Hideyoshi, in exchange for the two Korean princes he would soon be required to release. Kato was keeping these two royal teens, Sunhwa and Imhae, in comfortable confinement at his fort at Ulsan, and was not eager to give them up. He would have to, however, if negotiations with China were to bear any fruit. As a sop to his honor he was given Chinju instead.

By this time several tens of thousands of terrified civilians had joined the defenders holed up inside Chinju: women and children, the infirm, the aged, driven to take refuge by the violence of the Japanese advance. As this tremulous multitude peered out over the walls on the nineteenth of July, enemy units began arriving and took positions on three sides of the city: Ukita Hideie’s forces on the east, Konishi Yukinaga’s on the west, Kato Kiyomasa’s on the north. A fourth unit, Kikkawa Hiroie’s, could be seen on the other side of the Nam River, cutting off retreat to the south. Still others established an outer perimeter to guard against counterattack, until Chinju was surrounded “in a hundred layers” and looked like “a small, lonely boat in the middle of a sea.”

The assault began the following day, ashigaru foot soldiers peppering the ramparts with musket fire, keeping the Koreans down while their comrades filled in portions of the moat that had previously been dug outside the north wall. With this obstacle overcome, a unit of men advanced to the wall itself and began prying stones out from the base. The effort came to an abrupt halt when a cascade of stones fell down on them, killing some and driving the rest back.

The fighting continued day and night through July 21 and 22, the Japanese taking turns assaulting the walls and then falling back to rest, keeping up an unrelenting pressure on the Korean defenses. Then, on the twenty-third, they began erecting a mound of earth with a blockhouse on top adjacent to Chinju’s west gate, planning to use the elevation to fire their muskets over the wall and into the city. Inside the fortress the Koreans responded by rushing to build an elevated blockhouse of their own. The work was completed in a single night, many of the women within the city working alongside Chungchong Army Commander Hwang Jin in hauling basketfuls of soil and packing it in place. By morning the Japanese and the Koreans faced each other from atop similar elevated platforms, one outside the wall, the other within. In the exchange of fire that ensued, the Koreans managed to destroy the Japanese blockhouse with their cannons and, at least for the moment, put an end to the threat.

On the twenty-fourth the Japanese went to work again on the base of Chinju’s fortifications. The men assigned to the task, this time holding stout wood and leather shields over their heads, advanced to the base of the wall and began prying out the lower course of stones. The Koreans responded with a barrage of arrow and musket fire, but could not penetrate the thick roofs under which the Japanese were sheltered. It was only by dropping heavy stones down on the Japanese that they were finally able to kill some and drive the rest away.

At about this time it started to rain in torrents. It began for the Koreans as a welcome relief, for they were able to snatch a little rest when the Japanese, unwilling or unable to use their muskets in the wet, were forced to call off their assault. (By the late sixteenth century the Japanese had invented a cover for their arquebuses that allowed them to fire them in the rain, but it was an imperfect solution for keeping a wick lit and powder dry.) The downpour, however, soon turned into a curse, for the dampness went to work on the glue holding the Koreans’ composite bows together, rendering some of them useless, and also began washing away the soil at the damaged portions of the walls, weakening them even further.

During the respite the Japanese sent a message into the beleaguered city demanding its surrender. “The Chinese have already given up,” it read. “Why do you dare continue to resist?” Commander Kim Chon-il sent a reply flying back over the walls: “Three hundred thousand Chinese soldiers have been sent to help us. When they arrive you will all be destroyed.” The Japanese scoffed at this bravado, hoisting their trouser legs above the knee and miming effeminate Chinese officials running away.

Inside the city everyone was exhausted and spirits were low. In an effort to boost morale, Kim Chon-il climbed to a high lookout and, peering over the wall, announced that he thought he could see fighting going on in the distance, a sign that the reinforcements Ming general “Big Sword” Liu Ting had promised would soon be arriving to save them. This lifted everyone’s spirits for a time. But it was a lie. The Chinese were not coming, and Kim Chon-il knew it. Turning to his colleague Choi Kyong-hoe he said, “After I beat this enemy I will chew the flesh of Helan Jinming.” Kim, feeling abandoned and betrayed, was likening “Big Sword” Liu to a reviled commander from China’s Tang dynasty (618–907) who, in a well-known episode that forever blackened his name, refused to come to the aid of a beleaguered comrade and thereby ensured his defeat.

From his camp outside the city, Kato Kiyomasa was making preparations for a renewed attempt to undermine the walls. This time he had his men fashion four kame-no-kosha, or “turtle wagons,” heavily built carts with stout wooden roofs. These crude vehicles were wheeled up to the base of the walls, and parties of men went to work with crowbars on the lower courses of stones, prying them out one by one. The Koreans could see what was happening below but were unable to stop it, their arrows and musket balls and stones bouncing harmlessly off the roofs of the wagons. Someone finally had the idea of dropping oil-soaked cotton down onto the contraptions and setting them alight. Kato, calmly perceiving the weakness, promptly ordered more carts built, this time with fire-retardant ox hides nailed to the roof.

While this was going on, Japanese forces were applying pressure at many other places around the city. Five more elevated firing platforms were erected in front of the east and west gates, and a bamboo palisade was constructed along one side, allowing Kato’s musketeers to take up positions close to the walls. Inside the city, Hwang Jin, Kim Chon-il, and Kimhae magistrate Yi Chong-in fought desperately to repel these various advances, but their men were growing exhausting. During a lull in the fighting Hwang Jin leaned over the wall to assess the situation. “The trench out there is full of enemy dead,” he observed. “There must be more than a thousand….” At that moment a Japanese soldier hiding at the base of the wall aimed his musket straight up at Hwang’s exposed head and fired, sending a ball through the Chungchong Army commander’s helmet and into his skull. He fell down dead on the spot. Kim Chon-il replaced the fallen commander with Chinju magistrate So Ye-won, but So quickly proved unsuited for the task. The strain of six days of fighting had left the militarily inexperienced civil official unhinged, crying and riding around aimlessly on his horse, his scholar’s hat tossed carelessly to one side. Kyongsang Army Commander Choi Kyong-hoe, seeing that So’s erratic behavior was adversely effecting morale, intended initially to kill him as an example to the men, but in the press of events merely pushed him aside and replaced him with Vice-Commander Chang Yun. Within hours Chang himself was dead, killed by a musket ball just like Hwang Jin.

On July 27 the repeated forays by the Japanese to pry stones away from Chinju’s fortifications finally succeeded in collapsing a portion of the east wall. Kato Kiyomasa’s men were the first to enter the city. For the Koreans sheltering inside the end had come. They cried out to Kim Chon-il: “Commander! The enemy has breached the walls! What should we do?” There was nothing that Kim could tell them. He did not have enough men to resist the Japanese troops now pouring into the city; everyone was exhausted after a week of battle, every arrow had been fired, every stone had been thrown. And now there was no way at all to escape. Those who chose to die fighting did so with swords and spears and bamboo staves, no match for the muskets and katana of the Japanese. The rest abandoned their positions and raced from one wall to the other, searching in vain for a way to get out. As the Japanese proceeded to tear the city to pieces, Kim Chon-il and his eldest son Kim Sang-gon, accompanied by army commander Choi Kyong-hoe, guerrilla leader Ko Chong-hu, and a few others, retreated to the Choksongnu pavilion on the south wall of the city overlooking the Nam River. After bowing to the north, toward the capital and their king, the men embraced and, with tears streaming down their faces, bid one another farewell. Then they joined hands and threw themselves into the water below.

Yi Chong-in continued to resist until the bitter end, fighting off the attacking Japanese in a rearguard action that took him onto the rocks at the edge of the Nam River. Here he is reported to have seized two Japanese in his arms and shouted, “Kimhae Magistrate Yi Chong-in is dying here!” He then cast himself into the water, carrying the two soldiers down with him.

Chinju magistrate So Ye-won met a less glorious end. Okamoto Gonojo, a samurai in the service of Kikkawa Hiroie, came upon him sitting on a tree stump, injured and exhausted, and cut off his head. It rolled down an embankment and was lost in the grass. Not wanting to lose the prize, Okamoto sent two men down to retrieve it, and later had it pickled in salt and sent to Japan for presentation to Hideyoshi.

At least sixty thousand Koreans lost their lives in the Second Battle of Chinju. Most were killed in the massacre that followed the taking of the city, an orgy of destruction that has been called the worst atrocity of the war. The Japanese under Kato, Ukita, and Konishi had no mercy. They did not leave a cow or dog or chicken alive. In a frenzy of revenge against a nation that refused to be conquered, they pulled down the walls and burned all the buildings. They filled the wells with stones. They cut down every tree. When the destruction was finished Chinju ceased to exist. Since the beginning of the war, the Korean annals would later report, no other place had been so thoroughly destroyed, nor had loyalty and righteousness been so magnificently displayed.

A large number of civilians committed suicide in the wake of the fall of Chinju, many by drowning themselves in the Nam River. The most famous instance involved a local female entertainer, or kisaeng, named Non-gae, then no more than twenty years old. Shortly after the fall of the city, Non-gae went out onto the rocks at the base of the Choksongnu pavilion, where a group of senior Japanese commanders were having a banquet to celebrate their success. When the Japanese saw her beckoning to them seductively, “they gulped down their spit” but no one dared to approach. Finally one of them, reportedly a samurai named Keyamura Rokunosuke from Kato Kiyomasa’s contingent, drunkenly climbed down from the pavilion and out onto the rocks, Non-gae luring him on with an amorous smile. When he reached her she took him in a passionate embrace, then suddenly jumped into the river below, dragging them both to their deaths. This act of defiance and self-sacrifice would become widely celebrated in the decades that followed. In the eighteenth century the Chinese characters ui-am, meaning “righteous rock,” were carved on the face of the rock from which Non-gae was thought to have leapt. A shrine and commemorative stone would be later erected nearby. Today Non-gae is the symbol of the city of Chinju, and her story known to virtually every Korean.

Samuel Hawley taught English in East Asia for many years. His books include Speed Duel, about the land speed rivalry in the 1960s between Craig Breedlove and Art Arfons; I Just Ran: Percy Williams, World’s Fastest Human, about one of Canada’s greatest yet least known sports heroes; the companion volumes America’s Man in Korea and Inside the Hermit Kingdom on George Foulk, America’s representative in Korea in the mid 1880s; and the novels Homeowner With a Gun and Bad Elephant Far Stream. He lives in Kingston, Ontario.

This is a great book on a war that few in the West know about. [Equally great, in my view, is Stephen Turnbull’s “Samurai Invasion: Japan’s Korean War 1592 -1598.” Compared to Turnball, Hawley delves a little deeper into the Korean perspective, while Turnball has a wealth of detail on the Japanese. But this is not a criticism of either; I read them both, Turnball first, then Hawley, and in so doing it reinforced many of the key points of the war.]