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Sinking the Supership

Classroom Activity

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Activity Summary
Students will use a viewing guide while watching a program about the Battleship Yamato and discuss answers to their questions after watching.

Learning Objectives
Students will be able to:

  • relate the history of the Battleship Yamato.

  • describe the Battleship Yamato's design, capabilities, and significance.

Materials for each team
  • copy of the "Battleship Yamato" student handout (PDF or HTML)

Background
When launched in 1941, the Yamato was the world's largest and most powerful warship ever built. It was a symbol of Japanese military power and a response to attempts by world powers to place limitations on fleet sizes in order to de-escalate the naval arms race.

The Yamato was built in absolute secrecy. Designed to be twice the size of any other battleship, it included three large gun turrets—each weighing more than an American destroyer—that could send a shell 40 kilometers. Its bulbous bow aided the large vessel's hydrodynamics.

The Yamato saw limited action during World War II. Although the ship was struck a number of times by torpedoes and bombs, it suffered little damage. Initial successes of Japanese air forces led to the emergence of the aircraft carrier as the primary weapon at sea, a development that diminished the Yamato's role in the Japanese fleet.

As American forces prepared for the invasion of Okinawa, the Yamato was ordered to do everything possible to stop this attack. A decision was made to sacrifice the ship in a suicide mission. But the Americans intercepted the Yamato while she was still 320 kilometers away from the closest American warship. A coordinated attack by more than 400 planes from a dozen U.S. aircraft carriers sunk the Yamato. The result was the largest naval disaster in history—only 269 of 3,016 crew members survived.


Key Terms

battleship: A large, heavily armored warship.

bulbous bow: A type of protuberant bow that produces its own wake to interfere with the ship's main wake in such a way as to reduce drag on the vessel.

destroyer: A warship with smaller guns designed for speed.

gun turret: A revolving platform on a warship that contains guns and an area of protection for the operators.

kamikaze: World War II Japanese pilots flying ritual suicide missions against Allied ships, crashing planes loaded with explosives.


Procedure
  1. Organize students into five teams. Assign each team a set of four questions. Distribute a copy of the student handout to each team.

  2. Review key terms with students, and discuss appropriate background information.

  3. As students watch the program, have each student take notes on the questions that her or his team has been assigned.

  4. After watching the program, have students meet in their teams to discuss their notes. Beginning with the first question assigned, ask teams to come to consensus on an answer. The team response should be written down as the answer to this question. Continue until all questions are answered.

  5. Have teams share the questions and answers that came out of their group work. (See Activity Answer on page 4 for possible answers. Accept all reasonable answers.) Ask students in the rest of the class if they agree with what the team has presented. If students don't agree, ask them to explain why and provide evidence from the program that will support their opinion. When possible, expand upon a question or provide additional historical background for students.

  6. To conclude, discuss with students how war tactics have changed over time. Have students consider the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War II, and the war in Iraq. What equipment, artillery, and tactics were used in each conflict? How did each war differ from the one before it? How have changes in technology influenced changes in warfare?

  7. As an extension, have students list any places or monuments that represent national symbols. What do they have in common? Why are national symbols important? Ask students what national symbols they know of that have been destroyed. (Some examples include the Berlin Wall, New York City's Twin Towers, and the statue of Saddam Hussein.) What impact does the destruction of a national symbol have on a nation?


Activity Answer

Suggested answers to the questions listed on the student handout:

  1. Who took part in the search for the Yamato? an international team of deep-sea divers and naval historians What was the significance of locating the Imperial Crest? only the largest of the Japanese ships had Imperial Crests to indicate they belonged to the Emperor

  2. When did the American fleet learn the location of the Yamato? dawn of April 7, 1945 How was it able to determine the Yamato's exact location? through reconnaissance planes

  3. How did American forces coordinate an air assault on the Yamato? more than 400 planes from a dozen aircraft carriers took part in a coordinated attack; the first wave of dive bombers dropped bombs on the deck and launched torpedoes at the ship's hull; the second wave of fighter planes strafed the ship with gunfire; the third wave of low-altitude bombers launched 12 final torpedoes that sank the ship

  4. Why did thousands of men drown on the Yamato? the ship's watertight compartments had been sealed shut to prevent further flooding

  5. Why were battleships important components of any fleet? they could provide devastating firepower across great distances

  6. What steps did the Japanese take to ensure secrecy when building the Yamato? the dry dock was covered in fish netting and no one person ever saw a complete design plan; even the Yamato's commanding officers were not provided with details about the ship's true size

  7. What was unique about the Yamato compared to other battleships? it was about twice the size of other battleships; each of the three gun turrets weighed more than an American destroyer; the guns had a range of 40 kilometers (spotter planes were needed to target over the horizon); the Yamato was built around the guns; extra width allowed the ship to be fitted with the thickest armor

  8. Why were American battleships limited in width? since America had a two-ocean Navy, its ships' widths were limited by the width of the locks of the Panama Canal, which were 33 meters wide

  9. Why were hydrodynamics an issue for the Yamato? the extra width needed to support the enormous gun turrets increased the resistance from waves; the Yamato could not be hydrodynamically efficient with a standard bow design

  10. What is a bulbous bow? as a ship moves through water the bow produces a wave; the bulbous bow produces a wave in front of the ship that reduces the wave action and the drag effect of the water What benefits does this shape provide? the bow reduces resistance, which allows the ship to travel faster

  11. How did Japanese victories in 1941 lead to the demise of the Yamato? Pearl Harbor and the sinking of the British Battleship Prince of Wales demonstrated the effective use of airpower and the rising importance of the aircraft carrier as the primary weapon at sea

  12. Why was the Yamato not committed to the Battle of Midway? the Battle of Midway was a contest between aircraft carriers; the Yamato stayed 300 miles away out of range of American planes, and served as a command center; Japan did not want to risk losing its irreplaceable treasure

  13. What were kamikaze attacks? Japanese pilots who performed ritualistic suicide missions; pilots attacked 300 ships and sunk 34; to die with honor was a unique, 800-year-old tradition

  14. Why was the kamikaze strategy used during the final stages of the war? American forces were approaching the Japanese home islands and this was the last attempt to halt the advance

  15. What indicated that the Yamato's final mission was a kamikaze operation? sailors were told to sort everything out, pay off all debts, and take care of things before boarding the ship; the mission was organized by the same commanders who organized the kamikaze air attacks; the Yamato only had enough fuel for a one-way trip; sailors sent last letters home and alcohol was distributed to crew the night before the attack

  16. Why did the Yamato finally go into battle? air attacks on Tokyo left 1 million homeless; 5,000 kamikaze pilots were trying to stop American advance; in the name of honor the Japanese navy decided to sacrifice its biggest battleship

  17. Why did American bombers attack only on one side of the Yamato? the torpedoes would penetrate below the waterline between the bow and the stern where the armor was thinnest; flooding on one side would ensure the ship would capsize

  18. How do naval historians believe the Yamato sank? flooded on one side by torpedoes, the Yamato listed to port until it became unstable and then capsized; the gun turrets were ripped from their mounts by their own weight; tons of ammunition slammed together causing three massive explosions which severed the Yamato into two pieces

  19. How many crew members survived? about 200 How were they rescued? by a Japanese destroyer

  20. Why did the Japanese navy refuse to announce the sinking of the Yamato? the Yamato was a symbol of national prestige


Links and Books

Web Sites

NOVA—Sinking the Supership
www.pbs.org/nova/supership
Learn what it took to tell the story of the Yamato, read eyewitness accounts of the ship's fatal last conflict, use an interactive map to explore the ship's features, and view dramatic archival photographs from the ship's final battle.

Ships of the World: An Historical Encyclopedia—Yamato
college.hmco.com/history/readerscomp/ships/html/sh_101300_Yamato.htm
Examines the history of the Yamato from construction to sinking.

Yamato (Battleship 1941-1945)
www.history.navy.mil/photos/sh-fornv/japan/japsh-xz/Yamato.htm
Provides historical information and photographs.


Books

A Glorious Way to Die: The Kamikaze Mission of the Battleship Yamato, April 1945
by Russell Spur. Newmarket Press, 1981.
Analyzes theYamato's last days from Japanese and American perspectives.

Kamikaze: Japan's Suicide Gods
by Albert Axell. Longman Publishers, 2002.
Examines the motivation, strategy, and impact of the kamikaze attacks in the final days of World War II.

Requiem for Battleship Yamato
by Yoshida Mitsuru. Naval Institute Press, 1999.
Focuses on the human side of the Yamato mission from the viewpoint of a surviving junior officer.


Standards

The "Battleship Yamato" activity aligns with the following National Science Education Standards (see books.nap.edu/html/nses).

Grades 5-8
Science Standard F

Science in Personal and Social Perspectives
Science and technology in society

Grades 9-12
Science Standard F

Science in Personal and Social Perspectives
Science and technology in local, national, and global challenges



Classroom Activity Author

A former director of the National Science Teachers Association and President of the Science Teachers Association of Manitoba, Dan Forbes has been active in teaching and curriculum development in both Canada and the United States for 20 years.

Teacher's Guide
Sinking the Supership
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