Faith in an unsinkable ship
NOVA: How did you first hear about Yamato's final mission?
Fukumoto: On March 25 of Showa 20 , we got an order from the headquarters of the combined fleet to prepare for attack. The officer on the overnight shift told us that he didn't know if we'd come back, and that we weren't allowed to talk about the plan of attack with anyone on land. But we were allowed to bid farewell to our parents, siblings, wives, and children. We were told to sort everything out—pay off our debts and take care of everything before we left.
I lived in Kure with my parents and my younger sister. I was young and single, so I just ate my mom's food and passed some time there. Then I visited some other relatives. I asked them to take care of everything when I was gone. Then I returned to the ship.
NOVA: Were you worried?
Fukumoto: I totally believed the Yamato was unsinkable. I figured people could get struck by bullets and die, but it never crossed my mind that I might die because of the Yamato sinking. I also thought that the chances of being struck by a bullet were pretty slim, so I had a fairly carefree feeling. I didn't know the specifics of the mission, so I didn't feel particularly burdened.
NOVA: How did you feel the night before the attack?
Fukumoto: That was April 6. The second officer in command ordered us to open the pantry, where the groceries and the sake were kept. We, the lowest-ranking sailors, were so busy with the preparations that we didn't think about dying. We were just concerned with the present—making sure that people had a good time eating and drinking. That was it.
The party began at around six that evening. Because I was one of the younger ones, I was only talking about things like sweets and what we were getting for dinner. There were officers who sang to feel happier. Some pulled out records—those old records with 78 revolutions—and listened. We were drunk. The officers with families were probably unable to get drunk that night, but we were drunk to the point of staggering.
“Inside my heart, I did feel, ‘Why me? Why did I survive?’”
When it came to cleaning up, I realized that people who had never helped us before—our seniors—were helping us, telling us to rest on the side because we were drunk. I was really surprised. In the navy there was something called "standing in a line." This referred to how our seniors had a complaint regarding every little thing, and they would line us up each night and beat us with truncheons. But that night, there was no "standing in a line." They showed us kindness.
NOVA: What were the senior officers like that night?
Fukumoto: To be honest, we kept our distance from the senior officers. They knew the plan specifics, so I think they were saying how it was a futile plan and that we'd never be able to pull it off.
The beginning of the end
NOVA: Where were you when the attack began?
Fukumoto: I'd just finished lunch and had climbed up onto the uppermost deck where there were seven other soldiers my age. We were chatting about inconsequential things when we heard the orders over the loudspeakers instructing us to go to our positions. My position was at the middle section of the starboard deck, so off I went. But before I could even tell whether I'd gotten to my position or not, the bombs and torpedoes started to hit us. I think the battle began shortly after 12 [p.m.], and the Yamato sank at 2:33 in the afternoon. It took about two and a half hours.
NOVA: What are your memories of the battle?
Fukumoto: My unit was responsible for damage control, but until a fire started or there was water coming in, there was nothing to do. The bombs could be falling right overhead—bang bang—but until there was damage, we were to wait inside. So we were kept in suspense—"Did we get hit? Did we get hit?" It was very nerve-racking! We almost envied the people who were shooting the guns—they were so involved in their tasks. We had to stay really still—"When will the bomb hit? When will the bomb hit?"
Then at around two, the commanding officer said we should go down to the lowest and second lowest decks. We split up. I was one of four who stayed at the second-lowest deck, but two people, a senior officer and a sub officer, went down to the lowest deck. Just as they closed the hatch, the torpedo struck starboard. At that instant, all the people on the lowest deck drowned. For those of us on the deck above, water came surging up from below—gaaaa! Inside the ship, there were no lights. In the pitch blackness, I thought it was over.
As water started coming inside the ship, the air pressure began to rise. Because of the pressure, the hatch [above us], which may not have been closed properly, rose slightly, and light started to come in from above. Everyone saw where the hatch was and swam toward the light. We forced the hatch open. But when we came up, water kept surging up from down below. We closed the hatch using screws. But no matter how tightly we closed it, air and seawater kept blowing out from between the cracks. We thought the hatch was going to explode, so we took an emergency support beam and placed it between the hatch and ceiling, but the spray kept coming.
“Parents who knew about the Yamato sinking didn’t see their sons for a month and a half. They gave up, thinking that their sons had died.”
The ship's slant [from the flooding] was getting quite steep, so it was hard to stay standing. Most torpedoes had hit the port side, so the ship was tilting to port. The commanding officer climbed up to check things out. By then there had already been an announcement to go to the stern deck. But inside the ship, the PA system was down, so none of the orders could be heard. The commanding officer yelled "Everyone up!" At first we couldn't understand him because of the gunfire, but then we heard. We climbed up towards the stern and reached a small hatch. The seawater had risen so much we practically had to swim there. The commanding officer pulled us up out of the hatch, rescuing us.
The ship capsizes
When we got up to the deck, the machine gun shooters who died in battle were already laid down. There was Yoshifuji, about 15 or 16 years old, who was injured and brought to us. Yoshifuji's head was split—blood pumped out each time he breathed. He would moan, "long live the Emperor" or "give me water." They said that if we gave him water, he'd die, so we didn't give him any. He was brought to the sick bay on a stretcher, but I have no idea what happened to him afterwards.
The commanding officer climbed to the top deck and told us to come up and toss into the sea anything that could float—logs, judo mats, hammocks. Three or four minutes later, the ship started to lean again to the side [he makes a leaning sound]. By the time I got to the top deck, the whole ship had sunk down to the left. There were three main gun turrets, and one was completely submerged.
We scrambled up to the right side of the ship. That side was like the top deck at that point. But the side was smooth—there was nothing to hold on to, so it was like we were on a slide, and we jumped in.
I have no recollection of the instant I jumped in. But there was a huge explosion—I still remember the sound to this day. Men swimming had their internal organs affected by the impact of the explosion in the water. Men who had hesitated and hadn't jumped in were blown off by the force of the blast. I didn't get affected by the impact of the explosion, and I didn't get blown off either. To this day, I don't know what saved me from getting hurt.
We'd jumped off the back of the ship. The ship was still moving forward a little, very slowly, and the propeller was still going bit by bit. I was drawn into the whirlpool from the propeller and pushed backwards. I struggled, but I was powerless—one propeller blade was five meters [16 feet] long, so just one turn created a huge whirlpool. I started getting short of breath. I couldn't take it anymore, and I swallowed a mouthful of water, seawater. For an instant it felt better, but there was no air coming in, so I started to get short of breath again. That happened two or three times, and then I began to lose consciousness. At that point, I wasn't thinking about getting rescued or what I was supposed to be doing. I was losing consciousness, and I think I was just a step away from death.
Floating in oblivion
I eventually popped up some distance away from the ship. It was bright in front of me, and I opened my eyes to see blue sky. I tried to clear my fuzzy mind and began swimming, looking for floating objects. I saw a big log and grabbed hold. I looked around, but I couldn't see anybody. The Yamato was also out of sight. All I could see was smoke in the far distance. For a little while, I was under the illusion that I was the only one who survived. But the reason I couldn't see anyone was that I was at the bottom of a wave. When the wave raised me up, I saw people floating here and there.
I was clinging to the support beam for about two hours. A man in the distance—I think he was an officer—called for us to come together. I made my way to where everyone had gathered. Men had climbed onto an emergency raft about the size of eight tatami mats [roughly seven by 20 feet]. I let go of the beam and got on the raft. More and more people started coming on, so the raft would go up and down even with the smallest wave. When it got particularly bad, the whole thing would sometimes submerge. We started having to turn people away. I think [American] airplanes were still overhead, close to where we were.
“If I lost consciousness from the relief of having made it, I would have fallen to my death.”
Nearby, the destroyer Yukikaze was signaling to us with a flag, telling us "wait just a little while longer, just a little while longer." I thought we just might be rescued. It was about two and a half hours after we sank that the destroyer came close to where we were, stopped, and threw down ropes and rope ladders. We all swam to them and held on. All of us were black with oil from head to toe, so it was a struggle just to hold on.
It was very hard to get up. In the worst cases, as soon as someone held onto the ladder, they would lose consciousness at the relief of being rescued and fall right back into the ocean. When I finally made it up, there were two officers waiting at the top. The officers suddenly slapped me across both cheeks. They did it because if I lost consciousness from the relief of having made it, I would have fallen to my death. So they hit me to instill the spirit in me to keep going.
We got towels and changed into old work gear. They gave me a bottle of wine and told me to drink and go inside. That was nearly four hours after the sinking. The people who came up after that were so stiff they couldn't speak properly. We were relatively energetic, so we brought them in, wrapped them in blankets, and rolled them back and forth like rolling barrels until they were able to move.
A shameful secret
I became neurotic—every little noise in the ship startled me when I was dozing. There was a huge bang at around ten that night. I was convinced we'd been hit by a torpedo. Then I heard that another destroyer, the Isokaze, had been hit [during the earlier battle] in the steering compartment and was unable to navigate. So the whole crew from that ship transferred to the Yukikaze, and with the Yukikaze's own guns, they sank the Isokaze. The huge noise was the blast from that.
The next morning at eight, there was a call from above: "Hey, you can see Saseho!" I figured someone was lying, but when I went up, lo and behold, I saw the naval port of Saseho. "Ah, I've been saved!" But then an officer saw that we were still covered in oil, and if we were seen like that, it would reveal the secret of what had happened. So he told us to stay inside the ship.
Those of us who were unharmed were taken to where the U.S. military stores their oil now. We were there for a week. We didn't even have to get up for morning cleaning duty. All we had to do was eat and hang around. We also had track-and-field days and talent shows where we sang to pass the time.
“I guess God kept me alive so I could properly mourn the dead and take care of their families.”
We got orders to return to Kure, and I was put on a train. We were held in Kure for a month. So parents who knew about the Yamato sinking didn't see their sons for a month and a half. They gave up, thinking that their sons had died.
When we were finally allowed to go out for the first time, I went home. I was relieved to find that my home had not burned down, and my parents and sister were well. My parents were certainly very glad to see me.
NOVA: Did you feel any guilt that you survived, when nearly 3,000 others died?
Fukumoto: I didn't speak about it until recently, but essentially, inside my heart, I did feel, "Why me? Why did I survive?" I've lived for 50 years after the war, and during that time, there were moments when I wished I'd died then. It varies.
The fact that I survived wasn't due to personal strength. There were many instances when I could have died if I had done that or gone there. I didn't avoid it with my own strength—it was more like I was made to walk the path that led to my survival. So I guess God kept me alive so I could properly mourn the dead and take care of their families. That's my current purpose in life. If I couldn't do that, I don't think I'd be human.