A painful farewell
NOVA: What did you think when you first saw the Yamato?
Ishida: I thought, "How huge it is!" When you walk inside, there are arrows telling you which direction is the front and which is the back—otherwise you can't tell. For a couple of days I didn't even know how to get back to my own quarters. Everyone was like that.
NOVA: Serving on the ship was quite an honor.
Ishida: Yes. I knew it was a very capable battleship. The guns were enormous. Back then I really wanted to engage in battle with an American battleship in the Pacific. I kept praying for that to happen. I figured we'd definitely be fine, since we could shoot from afar.
NOVA: But in the end Yamato never fought another battleship.
Ishida: No. We never got to display the full potential of our power.
NOVA: When you left your home port of Kure for Okinawa, did you sense that you were heading out on your final mission?
Ishida: We didn't get official orders that we were heading to Okinawa. After all, it was a secret. But I knew that Okinawa was the only place left for us to go. I also knew there was not enough fuel to return to Kure. So I knew this would be our final mission.
NOVA: How did you say goodbye to your family?
Ishida: We had three days on land to bid farewell. My oldest son had just been born on March 12th. I only got to see him for one night after he was born. As I left, I knew I wouldn't return. After my wife saw me off at the door, I waited until she went inside and then went around my house, looking at it one last time where my wife couldn't see me, and bade it farewell before returning to the ship.
“When I entered the navy, I was prepared to die at any time. But when it came to facing my own death, my feelings were complicated.”
NOVA: Did you tell your wife about the mission?
Ishida: Definitely not. I didn't want to make her cry. It was a state secret, so we weren't allowed to say anything. I also felt sorry for my wife, so I couldn't bring myself to tell her.
NOVA: How were you feeling?
Ishida: Words can't express it. I found it harder to part with my wife than with my parents—I felt so sorry for her. I left a final farewell letter for my parents. I asked them to forgive me and to please live long. But how could I write such a letter to my wife? If I had written it, my wife would have burst out crying. I began writing one: "You can remarry again, but whatever you do, please raise our son to be a good man." I still remember it to this day. I wrote and tore it up, wrote again and tore it up again. But I couldn't send it knowing how much she would cry.
NOVA: Did your wife know you likely wouldn't return?
NOVA: Then why was it better that you didn't leave her with a last letter?
Ishida: I wouldn't be able to fight in a battle, knowing that my wife was reading my letter and crying. During the attack, I really did think I made the right decision. When I pictured her crying while reading my letter, I was glad I didn't write it.
Heading into battle
NOVA: Tell me about leaving port.
Ishida: We left port at 3 p.m., and as soon as we entered the Bungo Channel, the vice captain told us to all gather on the upper deck. He gave us the instructions for the attack. Over 2,000 people gathered to listen. We faced east, saluted the Imperial Palace. We sang "Kimigayo", the military anthem, the song we usually sang:
No matter how afraid we are,
[Here "Yamato" means "Japanese," rather than the ship's name.]
We finished this song. Then we faced our hometowns and said our farewells to our families in silent prayer. We were all crying as we shook hands with each other on the upper deck, telling each other that the next time we met we'd be bones at the Yasukuni Shrine. Then we separated, and I went up to my position on the top deck. To this day, I remember this with tears in my eyes.
NOVA: What was most important to Yamato's men, devotion to their families or to their country?
Ishida: It was different for everyone—everyone struggled—those with families, parents. Everyone suffered differently.
NOVA: That night, was there a party?
Ishida: Yes, and we were given sake and beer, and we formed circles and drank together. But how could I possibly drink when I was told to?
NOVA: We just interviewed a man who was one of the younger soldiers there. [See interview with Kazuhiro Fukumoto.] He probably had a totally different experience.
Ishida: Yes, totally different. About 90 percent of the men were single. People of my rank had families, but that was about it. Most of the men were young and single.
NOVA: Did you eat?
Ishida: No, I didn't eat. They would serve up beer in big tubs like this [gestures], but how could I drink?
NOVA: So you were quite serious?
“In the books, to make it sound good, they say that some people committed suicide with their own swords, but in reality it wasn’t that dignified.”
NOVA: The next day, the morning of the 7th, did you know the attack was going to happen?
Ishida: In the morning, we spotted a surveillance plane. The plane would dip in and out of clouds, entering in and out of our vision, so we couldn't take aim properly. We couldn't gauge the distance, so we couldn't fire a shot. I remember that.
NOVA: And when did the attack begin?
Ishida: The first full-on air strike was around noon. I was at the top deck. I saw everything happen. The bombs were showering down. We were shooting skyward. The whole initial battle lasted 15 minutes.
NOVA: Can you describe it?
Ishida: The machine guns were firing everywhere. It was like a net of bullets, so it wasn't so easy for the planes to bomb us. I wanted to throw a stone at them, they were so close. I could see the American pilots with my naked eyes. It's true what they say in books—that the American pilots were also very brave. They would come out of the clouds and fire at us. I was just dodging the bullets as they ricocheted off the metal. People were falling on the deck, hit by the shrapnel.
NOVA: What were you feeling? Fear?
Ishida: Fear, hostility towards the enemy. When I first spotted the planes from the viewer, there were two groups of about 30. I felt all hot inside, knowing "they're coming, they're coming."
The long wait
NOVA: What happened after the first wave of attack?
Ishida: After that initial attack, there were two hours before the next one came. [Other accounts note the time passage as roughly one hour.] We had to just stand still and wait. It was like that for everyone. It was a long wait, and very lonely. I was thinking, "it's me next. I've seen other people go, now it must be my turn." It can be very lonely in the midst of a war.
NOVA: Did you think at that time that the Yamato wouldn't be able to win?
Ishida: I thought we wouldn't be able to win, but I didn't expect us to go down so easily. When the American planes struck, they came from the clouds. They used the weather to their advantage. If the weather had been good ... well, we may still have sunk, but we wouldn't have given in so easily to just 200 to 300 planes.
NOVA: Knowing that you couldn't win, did you feel any resentment at the navy officials, because they seemed to be sacrificing you?
Ishida: No, I didn't feel that way. That's the product of Japanese education, the start of the "Yamato spirit."
NOVA: Can you explain the spirit?
Ishida: If we're losing, we will give it everything we've got until the very end, using every means possible. That's what characterizes the Yamato spirit. If we were injured in battle, we would keep going until we could no longer bear it. Then we would hand over our gunpowder to our comrades and go below deck.
“I am still haunted by them in the night, the ones begging for water.”
NOVA: You had a sense that death is beautiful.
Ishida: Yes, that's what we were taught. The younger ones haven't received this kind of education, but I am of the Meiji generation, so I received that traditional education. You sacrifice yourself to help others. On a test in university, there was a question asking: "If your child and someone else's child were drowning, who would you rescue?" Of course, now we'd rescue our own child. But back then, the correct answer was the other person's child. It seems ridiculous now, though, doesn't it?
NOVA: How did you think of your own death? Was it for your country?
Ishida: Yes, it was for my country. When I entered the navy, I was prepared to die at any time. But when it came to facing my own death, my feelings were complicated. My main concern was the future of my wife and son. That was what weighed on my mind the most.
A sea of blood
NOVA: So you waited for the next attack and then...
Ishida: We had a series of air strikes. I can't remember exactly. On the third or fourth, three torpedoes hit the port side of the ship. Then we began to list to one side. We had to lean on things to keep from hitting our heads. When the torpedoes hit, the ship shook from the shock. "We were hit!" I could tell that there would be casualties. I knew that water was flooding in and that there was a lot of commotion down below.
NOVA: People were dying on the deck below?
NOVA: What was it like then, a sea of blood?
Ishida: Yes, a sea of blood. I was concerned, so I went down below to check. In the lower deck, they were there, fallen and moaning. I asked, "Are you okay?" I knew they were in pain, of course, but when I asked them, they would not show their weakness. They simply gritted their teeth and nodded. "Are you okay?" "Mm." They wouldn't show a single weakness, even in their suffering. That's why I always told their families that they fought bravely till the very end.
I went down to give water to three or four of them, but I had to ignore the others and go back up because I was posted on the upper deck. There were planes coming overhead, so I had to go up to my position. I could never forget them. They appeared to me in my dreams later, begging for water. I am still haunted by them in the night, the ones begging for water, the injured, the bleeding. We just had to put them in a room. Then, in order to prevent water from coming in if we had a leak, we had to shut the doors on them to keep them waterproof. War can be so brutal.
“I had a vision of my newborn son, and that gave me the strength to keep swimming until I surfaced.”
NOVA: Was everyone trying to escape?
Ishida: Of course. In the books, to make it sound good, they say that some people committed suicide with their own swords, but in reality it wasn't that dignified. I don't think anyone did that.
NOVA: At the very end, how did you make it off the ship?
Ishida: People were lining the rails on the starboard side, and there was nowhere to go. When I finally jumped in, I got caught in the whirlpool. I was struggling for a breath. But I had a vision of my newborn son, and that gave me the strength to keep swimming until I surfaced. I remember this so clearly. To this day I tell him: "If you weren't here, I wouldn't be here either."
Then the Americans started to shoot with machine guns at the people who were floating, so we all had to dive under. We would cling to floating things, then let go and dive down when they started firing again. Then we'd surface and gather again around floating objects. This wore us out. The weaker ones had to let go—they couldn't wait till they were rescued. The sea in April was cold, so we got leg cramps. If we knew we were going to be rescued, more people would have stuck with it and survived. Many just let go, thinking they wouldn't be rescued.
It was very tiring swimming in the fuel oil. There were a lot who died like that. I was floating as the Yamato sank, and as it sank, a piece of metal hit me underwater, and I snapped a tendon in my hip. When I surfaced, I was shattered.
Eventually, a destroyer rescued us. Two of them came in for us when the attacks stopped. If we had known they would come for us, many more people would have survived, maybe even 800 to 1,000 men. More could have been saved.
Truly afraid for the first time
NOVA: How many hours were you floating before you got rescued?
Ishida: I think it was about two hours. I can't remember exactly. It was a wide sea, so people got picked up at random. There were a lot of people left behind. That's war, I suppose. They couldn't make a clean sweep and rescue everyone, because of the planes that were still coming.
NOVA: Do you remember when you got pulled up?
Ishida: I don't remember. My body was so weak, I can't remember.
NOVA: What did you think when you did regain consciousness?
Ishida: "I'm alive." And then thoughts of my wife and child started to surface, thoughts of family. I had a 40-degree [104°F] fever. My eardrum had burst, my brain leaked, I had an ear infection.
NOVA: You were injured, but did you feel that you were finally safe?
Ishida: The scariest thing was that night, after the destroyers Yukikaze and Kagero came to rescue us, a torpedo hit us. That was the first time I felt fear. I had visions of my wife and child, my parents. It was the first time I really felt like I wanted to survive.
NOVA: Why were you afraid of dying then and not before?
Ishida: After being rescued, I gained a real desire for life. I wanted more than ever to survive. It was the first time I was afraid of war.
NOVA: How did your wife find out that you were alive? Were there news reports?
Ishida: News? There was no such thing. Nobody knew who was alive or dead. But the 100 or so survivors who were well, they got sent back to Kure. I asked one of them to tell my wife that I was alive, and how she cried then. [He cries at the thought.] She had believed I was dead. My friend said that she held our son and cried and cried. I remember that so clearly. That warmed my heart. They told her that although I was injured, I was able to walk, able to see, and that I would make it home in two weeks.
NOVA: How did you feel when you first saw the faces of your wife and child?
Ishida: We both ... what can I say ... there were tears, tears. She had thought I was dead. That was the happiest moment of my life.