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Sinking the Supership

PBS Airdate: October 4, 2005
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NARRATOR: Twelve thousand feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, the secrets of the greatest battleship ever built lie entombed in a twisted mass of steel and iron. Now, over half a century after her sinking, a modern team of divers sets out to learn the secrets of the super battleship Yamato, the greatest ship of the Second World War.

At the outbreak of World War II, the battleship was the principal weapon of war at sea, and the leaders of Japan were intent on building the greatest naval force in the Pacific.

KATSUHIRO HARA (Historian): They began to think, "We'll never be able to compete with the U.S. on sheer numbers alone, but we will be able to build one really superb battleship that could destroy many ships on the other side."

NARRATOR: That superb ship was called the Yamato. Most of the secret drawings have disappeared, but the Yamato may have been almost twice the size of her American counterparts, with the biggest guns ever mounted on a warship.

NAOYOSHI ISHIDA (Yamato Survivor): Back then, I really wanted to engage in battle with an American battleship in the Pacific. I kept praying for that to happen.

NARRATOR: But the days of battleship warfare were numbered.

NAOYOSHI ISHIDA: When the Yamato was built, it was the time when they made big ships and put big guns on them. However, by the end, those big guns were useless to us.

NARRATOR: Useless because the Pacific War would be decided not by battleships, but by aircraft carriers. In the final months of the war, Japan unleashed a secret plan to deploy her greatest ship in the name of national honor.

NAOYOSHI ISHIDA: For Japan, 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.

NARRATOR: The first U.S. sighting of the battleship Yamato triggered an aerial assault by over 400 aircraft. Quickly overcome by air power, the Yamato sank with all her secrets.

MALCOLM MUIR (Historian): In terms of human life this is the greatest naval disaster of all time.

NARRATOR: What was the Yamato's secret mission? What made her the most advanced warship of her time? Why did she sink with such a massive loss of life? By exploring her wreckage, an international team hopes to solve some of the last great naval mysteries of the Pacific war: Sinking the Supership, right now, on NOVA.

Google is proud to support NOVA in the search for knowledge: Google.

Major funding for NOVA is provided by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, serving society through biomedical research and science education: HHMI.

And by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

NARRATOR: World War II was drawing to an end. By April 1945, Japan's cities were the target of daily attacks by vast fleets of Allied bombers. Her once great armed forces were struggling to hold back the Americans' advance toward the home islands.

With the enemy approaching, the desperate Japanese commanders unleashed a fearsome new weapon: squadrons of kamikaze pilots were sent against the American fleet. In a few deadly weeks these suicide pilots introduced a new sort of terror to modern warfare.

The Japanese commanders then raised the stakes of suicide combat even higher. Drastic orders were dispatched to the naval base at Kure, commanding a new, unprecedented act of martyrdom. The greatest battleship ever built was ordered to sail, unprotected, directly into the overwhelming 1,500 ship American fleet advancing toward Japan.

The battleship Yamato was designed to be the world's greatest warship. Built in great secrecy, her destructive potential was rumored to dwarf any ship ever built. The Yamato was intended as a symbol of Japan's might, but now, with most of her navy already lost, Japan's last great ship would face the enemy alone.

KAZUHIRO FUKUMOTO (Yamato Survivor): The plan of attack didn't matter; the thinking was that death itself was a virtue.

NAOYOSHI ISHIDA: When I entered the Navy, I was prepared to die at any time. I had already made preparations for my death.

NARRATOR: Before dawn of the 7th of April 1945, the 3,000 men of the Battleship Yamato left Japanese home waters on the most desperate kamikaze mission of World War II.

EDWARD SIEBER (U.S. Navy Pilot): April 7th of '45, we had an early reveille because our recon planes had spotted the Yamato. It was still in the Kure area, but by this time it had worked its way out into the East China Sea.

NARRATOR: American search planes intercepted the Yamato while she was still hundreds of miles from the U.S. fleet. At first light, fighters and dive bombers took off from a half dozen aircraft carriers. Over 400 planes set off to join the attack on Japan's last great warship. Lookouts on board the Yamato braced for the attack.

NAOYOSHI ISHIDA: When I spotted the planes in the viewfinder, they were coming in groups of about 30. I felt all hot inside, knowing, "They're coming, they're coming."

NARRATOR: The first American dive bombers caught sight of the Yamato through the clouds from 20,000 feet. It was the biggest ship the pilots had ever seen.

EDWARD SIEBER: Instead of any kind of fancy maneuvers, we just got over the target as close as we could and pushed straight over.

NAOYOSHI ISHIDA: Our anti-aircraft guns were firing everywhere so it wasn't so easy for the bombs to hit us.

EDWARD SIEBER: When you start the dive, the world becomes very small. And the dive lasts one minute and it seems like an hour. The only thing I had in mind then was to hit that ship.

And at about 3,000 feet—bingo—we popped out of the base of the clouds and the ship was displayed in front of us. It was a perfect target.

NAOYOSHI ISHIDA: I was all the way up there, on the radar bridge. I wanted to throw a stone at them, they were so close. I could see the American pilots with my naked eyes.

NARRATOR: Plunging toward the ship, the Curtiss Helldivers released their bombs and rockets.

EDWARD SIEBER: We deployed everything at one shot. And I held onto the trigger as long as I could and, and got a few shots across the deck.

NAOYOSHI ISHIDA: I was just dodging the bullets as they ricocheted off the metal. People were falling on the deck, hit by the shrapnel. That scene was repeated over and over.

NARRATOR: The dive bombers produced chaos on the Yamato, but they were just the first part of a coordinated attack.

EDWARD SIEBER: We managed to create enough damage on the deck so that the fighters who had to dive rather shallow wouldn't be so vulnerable.

NARRATOR: Swarms of American fighter planes came at the Yamato from all directions. Then, at the moment of her greatest vulnerability, a wave of low altitude bombers launched a dozen torpedoes toward the ship.

NAOYOSHI ISHIDA: There was lots of commotion down below. I could tell we were hit by the way we shook. I could tell that one of the decks was hit and that there would be casualties.

KAZUHIRO FUKUMOTO: 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 all over.

NAOYOSHI ISHIDA: It was a sea of blood, then...people with no arms...they were all still breathing. We just had to leave 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.

NARRATOR: Thousands of men were trapped below deck as the ship's watertight compartments were intentionally sealed shut.

NAOYOSHI ISHIDA: In the books, they make it sound good. They say that some people committed suicide with their own swords, but in reality it wasn't that dignified.

KAZUHIRO FUKUMOTO: We climbed up the starboard side 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. We were saved.

NARRATOR: No amount of damage control could prevent the Yamato's flooding.

KAZUHIRO FUKUMOTO: The ship started to lean to the side. There were three main guns, and the one on the left was completely submerged.

NARRATOR: In the confusion, some officers gave orders to abandon ship.

KAZUHIRO FUKUMOTO: I have no recollection of the instant I jumped in, but there was a huge explosion. I still remember the sound to this day.

NARRATOR: From 10 miles away, an American torpedo plane photographed the explosion and the last moments of the battleship Yamato. Japan's greatest ship and almost 3,000 of her crew seemed to have committed suicide.

In lives lost, the sinking was one of the worst naval disasters in history, but from the moment the Yamato was lost there has been controversy. Was the mission really suicidal? What caused the ship to explode? How did such a massive vessel sink so quickly?

Two hundred miles south of Japan, an international crew of divers and naval historians is hoping to unravel the mystery of the Yamato's final mission. At the approximate location of the sinking, a smaller survey team has already charted a field of unidentified debris lying some 1,200 feet down. Now, with more advanced equipment, this expedition is hoping to confirm that the unseen wreck is the remains of the super battleship which has fascinated the people of Japan for decades.

KATSUHIRO HARA: The story of the battleship Yamato continues to fascinate ordinary Japanese who have no personal connection to it. Anyone who studies the Yamato loses themselves in it. They become impassioned.

NARRATOR: French dive supervisor, Paul Nargeolet will lead the descent onto the wreckage.

PAUL H. NARGEOLET (Dive Supervisor): The Yamato was a very secret ship. The Japanese crew, they want some answers, because there is no full map of all the ship. And they are thinking they have heard about some stuff, but they are not really sure. There is no real evidence.

NARRATOR: The dive team has brought along two of the world's most advanced submersibles. Each of these small submarines can descend as far as 3,000 feet. Their robot claws can recover small objects from the seafloor, and their glass bubbles provide a panoramic view.

Once the submersibles are released from the mother ship, they must function on their own. The 1,200 foot descent to the seafloor takes about 15 minutes.

PAUL NARGEOLET: When you, you dive for the first time, on a wreck, I'm thinking about the people who were onboard this ship, what happened to them? It's a strong feeling, very strong.

NARRATOR: Twelve hundred feet down, the sonar echoes point to a mass of metal lying on the bottom. The two craft maneuver toward the target.

The seafloor is littered with so many cannon shells, it's certain they've found a warship, but 60 years ago these waters were the site of many sinkings. The divers need to confirm that this is really the wreck of the Yamato.

Like all great Japanese warships, the battleship Yamato had one distinguishing feature which was visible for miles, the imperial crest, a huge chrysanthemum shield, protruded from her bow.

SAKUTARO NISHIHATA (Naval Designer): We believed that our ships belonged to the Emperor. That's why there was the Imperial family crest. The chrysanthemum was only placed on the biggest navy ships, battleships, aircraft carriers, cruisers. The one on the battleship Yamato was the largest of all, two meters in diameter.

NARRATOR: The researchers know that if they can find the chrysanthemum, they can identify the Yamato.

VOICEOVER: Ah! This is the symbol. Yes, this is the symbol. Yes, beautiful!

NARRATOR: To be sure they have the right ship, the submarine's robot claw positions a two-meter long plastic measuring rod next to the chrysanthemum. The emperor's shield is exactly two meters in diameter. There is no question. The expedition has found the Yamato, the greatest ship of the Japanese Navy.

The battleship Yamato was the world's most powerful warship. She was built at a time when battleships were the undisputed symbols of great nations' power. And when the Yamato sank, just a few years later, her loss marked the end of the battleship as super weapon. These all-powerful warships had been made obsolete by the changing the nature of war at sea.

The purpose of a battleship is to deliver devastating fire from big guns at a great distance. The range of the guns is crucial. For the surface navy, if your ship can hit an enemy vessel while she is still too far away to fire back, you are effectively invulnerable.

By 1904, battleships like those of America's "Great White Fleet" could fire their intimidating 12-inch guns as far as seven miles. A new age of gunboat diplomacy was born.

The Japanese navy had been one of the first to understand the strength of the modern battleship. In May, 1905, they fought the mighty Russian fleet at the Straits of Tsushima. The Japanese fleet sank 19 Russian ships in a single day.

MALCOLM MUIR: The battleship had proved to be the weapon that mattered. Japan won great prestige as a result of the battle of Tsushima Straits. The Japanese were the first non-white power to be admitted to the circle of great powers, and it had been naval strength that, to a large measure, had gained Japan admittance to this exclusive club.

NARRATOR: But it was an expensive club to join. In 1922, the Western powers signed a treaty limiting the size of their fleets. As the newest member of the fraternity, the Japanese were forced to go along.

MALCOLM MUIR: There was a great deal of resentment in Japan, because British and Americans were allowed to have 15 battleships each; the Japanese were only allowed nine.

KATSUHIRO HARA: Japan wasn't about to lose the arms race. They began to think, "We'll never be able to compete with the U.S. and Britain on sheer numbers alone, but we will be able to build one really superb battleship that could destroy many ships on the other side." They needed to build this ship in utter secrecy.

MALCOLM MUIR: There were rumors that the Japanese were building ships of unusual size, but these stories were dismissed by one United States Navy spokesman privately as quote "Nipponese rodent propaganda" unquote. It's part of a pattern of underestimating the Japanese.

NARRATOR: The construction of the world's largest, most powerful battleship began in complete secrecy at the port of Kure. To block the view from the outside, sailors stretched a mile of fisherman's netting around the largest dry dock in Japan.

No one in Kure had access to the entire set of plans. Sakutaro Nishihata was one of the designers of the mysterious vessel.

SAKUTARO NISHIHATA: Each day when we finished drawing, we would have to return our plans to our supervisor who would lock them in a safe. There is a Muruhai chop here which designates the plan as top secret.

I was building the biggest ship in the world, and I didn't even know it until after the war.

NARRATOR: Today our knowledge of the Yamato's design is fragmentary; just a few drawings and a handful of photographs have survived.

We do know that the scale of the Yamato was staggering, almost twice the displacement of any Allied battleship. Each of her three gun turrets weighed more than an entire American destroyer. Her main guns were designed to attack at an unprecedented range of 25 miles. At such a distance, the target would be invisible. Spotter planes would be needed to direct the fire over the horizon. The ship was intended to be one of the most advanced weapons systems of her time.

The battleship Yamato joined the fleet in December, 1941. To keep the ship's design secret, there was no public celebration at the port of Kure.

MALCOLM MUIR: Because of our reading of Japanese signals traffic, American intelligence analysts realized that the new flagship of the combined fleet was named Yamato. Knowing the name was, of course, fine, but it told us nothing about the capabilities of the ship.

NARRATOR: In Japan, the ship's name had a special, almost religious significance. The word "Yamato" was a poetic synonym for Japan, itself.

HIROTO TAKAMOTO (Yamato Veteran): You couldn't get on the Yamato unless you had the top grades, so, if you made it, it was a great honor.

NAOYOSHI ISHIDA: I thought, "How big it is!" For a couple of days I didn't even how to get back to my own quarters. Everyone was like that.

All of us boarded thinking it would never sink. It was encased in the finest thick steel, so it would have to be safe.

HIROTO TAKAMOTO: For us, the Yamato sinking was as unlikely as Japan sinking.

NARRATOR: But in spite of what her crew believed, the battleship Yamato was not unsinkable. As more of the vessel is revealed, it becomes clear to the divers that they have one of the largest shipwrecks of all time.

The true scale of the vessel had once been a state secret.

KATSUHIRO HARA: If the Americans discovered that the Japanese were building such a huge vessel, it would diminish the power of the ship. That was not acceptable. So, even the ship's commanding officers weren't told about the true size of the Yamato.

MALCOLM MUIR: Japanese secrecy had proved to be ironclad. U.S. Naval analysts believed that the Yamato was about the size of the new American battleships.

NARRATOR: But the Yamato was really almost twice as large as the Americans thought. The ship had to be so large because she was built around her guns, the biggest guns ever mounted on a warship.

Exploring the gaping hole left where a gun turret once rested, it becomes difficult to imagine the scale of the Yamato's firepower.

HIROTO TAKAMOTO: When they fired the guns they would sound a bugle. When you heard that, you would have to take cover and go like this. You could get thrown two to three meters if you stood still.

NARRATOR: Firing 18-inch projectiles at supersonic speeds, with each shot weighing as much as an automobile, the Yamato's guns could punch a hole in armor almost two feet thick. To support the weight and recoil of such massive guns, the Yamato needed to be unusually wide. As a two-ocean navy, the width of American warships was limited by the locks of the Panama Canal.

MALCOLM MUIR: The American designers had to struggle, always, with the problem that their battleships had to fit in the 110-foot-wide locks of the Panama Canal. The biggest American battleships were 108 feet, 6 inches wide—a very tight fit indeed.

NARRATOR: But the Yamato didn't need the Panama Canal. She was designed to dominate the Pacific. The extra width allowed the Yamato to be fitted with the thickest ship's armor ever constructed.

SAKUTARO NISHIHATA: The ship was very wide. Because of the increased resistance from the waves, it would not be hydrodynamic.

NARRATOR: For decades, naval architects had struggled to reduce resistance by experimenting with the shape of ships' bows. The width of the Yamato made such streamlining imperative.

SAKUTARO NISHIHATA: We produced 50 wax models of varying shapes, and experimented with those. The results of those tests led to the concept of the bulbous bow.

KATSUHIRO HARA: There was a kind of bulbous bow already being used on some American warships, but it was quite conservative in shape. But the Yamato had a huge bow that jutted out three meters.

NARRATOR: As it moves through the water, the bow of a ship creates a constant wave. The Yamato's bulb produced its own wave a few feet in front of the ship, which canceled out the wave generated by the ship itself. With less wave action, the drag of the water was reduced.

KATSUHIRO HARA: The bow reduced the resistance of the waves by seven or eight percent, and it increased the speed of the ship to an extraordinary 28 knots.

NARRATOR: The expedition has located the Yamato's front section sitting upright on the ocean floor. The unique silhouette of the bow is clearly visible. Naval historians will finally be able to analyze the exact shape of the bulbous bow and learn its secrets.

How could the world's largest, most powerful warship have been defeated in battle so quickly that she took almost her entire crew with her?

The vulnerability of battleships like the Yamato was first demonstrated when Japan's navy attacked the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor. On the morning of December 7, 1941, hundreds of naval aircraft from a Japanese carrier force hit eight American battleships while they sat at anchor.

Then, only three days after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese launched another air attack off Malaya. Japanese aircraft easily overwhelmed the new British battleship, Prince of Wales, while she was fully armed on the high seas.

MALCOLM MUIR: This event was very shocking to professional naval opinion, because the Prince of Wales was a, a new ship, ready for action, and yet the Japanese planes sank that ship in short order.

NARRATOR: Within three weeks of their attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese aircraft had damaged or destroyed every Allied battleship in the Pacific Ocean. Japan had demonstrated to the world's Navies how skillful use of air power could trump the battleship. Despite this overwhelming success, the Japanese still put their faith in the invulnerability of the Yamato.

HIROTO TAKAMOTO: It was exhilarating being stationed on the best possible ship. I couldn't contain my excitement.

NAOYOSHI ISHIDA: Back then I really wanted to engage in battle with an American battleship in the Pacific. I kept praying for that to happen.

NARRATOR: But the days of pure battleship-to-battleship warfare were waning. The battle of Midway was the turning point of the Pacific war, and it was a contest of aircraft carriers. In June, 1942, the U.S. Navy lured the Japanese into a trap and sent hundreds of its aircraft to take on their fleet. In just hours, Japan lost four of her carriers and over 330 aircraft. It was a defeat from which the Imperial Navy could never recover. During the battle the Yamato functioned as a command center, but it stayed 300 miles over the horizon, beyond the range of American aircraft.

After Midway, the Yamato lost the air cover which had been provided by Japan's four carriers. She was forced to retreat to the safety of Japanese bases. The crew waited and continued to prepare for a major battleship engagement which never came.

MALCOLM MUIR: The Japanese never committed the Yamato; they felt they could not risk an irreplaceable treasure. The Yamato—from the end of August 1942, until May of 1943—was at sea for one day.

NARRATOR: Seldom leaving port, the sailors joked about being stationed on the "Hotel Yamato."

HIROTO TAKAMOTO: I had it easy. For meals, we didn't have to eat barley, we were given white rice. And there was a free flow of sake.

NARRATOR: The battleship had become the Japanese Navy's most impressive white elephant. And while the Yamato sat in Kure harbor, the Japanese Navy was losing the war. With great loss of life, American forces were retaking Japan's Pacific territories, island by island, invading Tinian, Saipan and Iwo Jima. Step by step, the enemy was approaching the sacred home islands. By April 1945, Americans were poised to invade Okinawa, only 300 miles from Japan.

Short of everything but human lives, the Japanese unleashed a secret weapon.

NEWSREEL: "Kamikaze" is the Japanese name for it—fanatical death dives that are now the enemy's chief weapon—aerial hara-kiri in desperate attempt smash our fleets.

NARRATOR: Pilot Ed Sieber encountered his first kamikaze while attempting to land on the U.S.S. Bennington.

EDWARD SIEBER: He was heading right down toward, toward the fantail of our ship. I happened to be on the base leg of my carrier approach. I rolled out, and I pulled the trigger. The ship's guns were firing. The kamikaze was hit. Part of the airplane landed onboard our ship, scaring the life out of us. It was very awesome, 'cause, I mean, our psychology is not used to that idea.

KATSUHIRO HARA: The American aircraft carriers threatened the Japanese home islands. There was a sense of a collective patriotism, that you must protect your family—father, mother, younger sister, your children—against the enemy.

NARRATOR: Most of the kamikaze pilot volunteers were university students, though science students were deemed too valuable to sacrifice.

KATSUHIRO HARA: The newspapers began to applaud the kamikaze in a very dramatic fashion. Gradually, this suicidal spirit became widely admired.

NARRATOR: Four hundred miles north of Okinawa, the Yamato sat in the relative safety of Kure harbor. Its young officers knew that the kamikaze pilots were fighting a decisive battle only a day's sail away.

NAOYOSHI ISHIDA: They would announce over the loudspeakers: "The third kamikaze flight has just attacked." We could hear pilots radio, right from the plane, "We are diving now." And I would pray, knowing that they had died then, at that instant.

NARRATOR: By the spring of 1945, the kamikaze hit 300 ships, killing thousands of American sailors.

Even the wholesale sacrifice of the suicide pilots didn't stop the American advance. But for the Japanese, the deaths recalled a tradition of ritual suicide, a willingness to die for honor. Here perhaps was an invisible weapon unique to Japan.

While the Americans battled the kamikaze on the approaches to Okinawa, another battle was raging at Japanese naval headquarters. An air raid on Tokyo had left a million people homeless—the smell of death was everywhere. In such an atmosphere, how could the Navy fail to commit its greatest ship to the battle, even a battle which could not be won?

NAOYOSHI ISHIDA: I knew that Okinawa was the only place left for us to go. It was an unspoken understanding that there was not enough fuel to return to Kure.

NARRATOR: The same commanders who had organized the young kamikazes, prepared secret orders for an even more desperate plan. With virtually no air cover, the Yamato would sail toward the hundreds of enemy warships approaching the beaches of Okinawa. If her big guns did not sink the enemy, she was to ram them. Her crew would fight the Americans to the death using their sidearms, their flare guns or even their bare hands.

KATSUHIRO HARA: Common sense told the admirals that if the Yamato was sent toward Okinawa it would easily be destroyed by air attacks. There were more than 3,000 men onboard the Yamato, and that would mean they would all have to die.

But if Okinawa was captured, there was no way Japan could win the war. Some said, "We can't forget the kamikaze squadrons. With so many pilots dying, how can it be acceptable just to let our largest ship do nothing?" In the name of honor, the Navy made the decision to sacrifice the Yamato.

KAZUHIRO FUKUMOTO: 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. We were told to sort everything out, pay all our debts, and take care of things before we left.

NAOYOSHI ISHIDA: My son had been born on March 12th. I only got to see him for one night. As I left, I believed I wouldn't return. After my wife saw me off at the door, I walked around the house, looking at it one last time—where my wife couldn't see me—and bade it farewell before returning to the ship.

NARRATOR: Late in the afternoon, the crew of the Yamato assembled on deck.

KAZUHIRO FUKUMOTO: The sun hadn't quite set yet. The entire crew gathered, and we were instructed to face the direction of the Imperial Palace.

NAOYOSHI ISHIDA: We said our final farewells and shook hands with our brothers in arms. Then we sang the military anthem, the song we always sang:

No matter how strong our fears,
No matter how numerous the enemy,
It is then the Yamato spirit pours forth.

NARRATOR: There were squalls in the China Sea, the night the Yamato sailed. These lines of low clouds would make it harder for enemy aircraft to spot the ship.

The battleship and its small task force hugged the coast as they proceeded south.

Miles away, across the dark ocean, a screen of destroyers protected the Yamato from submarines. Nothing could protect her from an attack by air.

Below deck, on what might be the last night of their lives, the crew was allowed to indulge.

KAZUHIRO FUKUMOTO: The second officer ordered us to unlock the pantry, where the groceries and the sake were kept. We were drunk. The officers were not so drunk, but we were drunk to the point of staggering.

NAOYOSHI ISHIDA: We were given sake and beer, and we formed circles and drank together, but how could I possibly drink when I was ordered to?

NARRATOR: In the hours before dawn, the Yamato maintained its course straight toward the 1,500 ship American fleet. As her officers prepared for death, the Yamato sailed on through the night.

NAOYOSHI ISHIDA: For Japan, if we're losing, we will give it everything we've got until the very end. That's what characterizes the Yamato spirit.

NARRATOR: The next morning, the first planes intercepted the Yamato while she was still 200 miles from the closest American warship. The ship's lumbering 18-inch guns attempted to fire on the approaching aircraft from 10 miles out, but the low clouds prevented accuracy. Once the first dive bombers penetrated the 10 mile screen, the Yamato's hundred antiaircraft guns let loose, but almost all the planes made it into position 20,000 feet directly over the ship.

The first 500-pound bombs landed on the deck, and fires broke out.

MALCOLM MUIR: The dive bombers would strike from high above and tried to put bombs through the deck armor. Fighters would strafe the battleship to reduce the effectiveness of the Japanese antiaircraft fire. The killer, though, would be the torpedoes.

NARRATOR: It was the job of the air-dropped torpedoes to penetrate the Yamato below the waterline, near the bow and stern, where her armor was the thinnest.

EDWARD SIEBER: Like the torpedo pilots used to say, "If you want holes in the deck, send the dive bombers. If you want them sunk, send us."

MALCOLM MUIR: The aviators were told to torpedo her only on one side; flooding her on that side, leading the ship to capsize.

NARRATOR: After a dozen torpedo hits, even the Yamato's thousand watertight compartments couldn't save her. The lower decks flooding fast, the battleship was doomed. A pair of the attacking planes photographed the destruction while the rest of the 400 American aircraft turned home to rejoin their carriers.

How could a huge ship with so many watertight compartments sink in less than an hour? What caused the great explosions caught in the final photos of the battle?

By studying the wreckage, the researchers work to reconstruct the Yamato's final moments.

On the ocean floor, the hull of the ship sits in two huge pieces. The 3,000-ton gun turrets lie upside down in the silt. The jagged metal points to a sudden, violent death. It becomes clear that the wreck has been torn apart by the massive explosions. These were far more powerful than the blasts of torpedoes.

KATSUHIRO HARA: We have the picture that shows the Yamato exploding, but we never knew how it sank. Only once we reviewed the underwater video were we able to establish exactly how the ship went down, and this is an important discovery.

NARRATOR: Flooded on one side by torpedo hits, and bomb blasts below deck, the doomed ship listed to port until she became unstable. As she capsized, the gun turrets were ripped from their mountings by their own weight and plunged into the sea. In the powder magazines, tons of ammunition slammed together, causing at least three more powerful blasts, perhaps the largest explosions ever to occur at sea. The ship was torn into two parts and came to rest 1,200 feet below.

For the American Navy the destruction of the world's most powerful warship had proven to be a methodical affair, a mere footnote in the battle for the Pacific.

MALCOLM MUIR: The sinking of the Yamato was noted with satisfaction in the headquarters of Commander in Chief of the Pacific fleet. But notice was brief. The Yamato was the only ship left that could cause us problems, and now she was down.

NARRATOR: For the Japanese, the sinking spelled the end of the Imperial Navy.

KATSUHIRO HARA: When I finally saw the actual Yamato sitting on the bottom of the sea, words cannot describe my feelings. When a ship sinks like this, it becomes a cemetery, a sacred cemetery, and so now, when I think of the Yamato, I think of it as a graveyard for the men of the sea.

PAUL NARGEOLET: When we are, in a, in a big debris field like that, sometime a little detail can change a lot. Very often, the shoes make more emotion than any other thing. It's easy to imagine, you know, somebody in the shoes.

NARRATOR: A picture frame, a bugle and a porcelain bowl are some of the remains of the Yamato's final day. These are recovered and preserved so that the ship will not be forgotten.

The few sailors who made it off the sinking ship do not need reminders.

KAZUHIRO FUKUMOTO: Each propeller blade was five meters long, so just one turn created a huge whirlpool. I got caught in the swirling water and there was nothing I could do.

NAOYOSHI ISHIDA: I swam and swam and thought about giving up, letting go of the lifejacket.

KAZUHIRO FUKUMOTO: I eventually popped up some distance away from the ship. I saw brightness before me, and I opened my eyes to see blue sky.

NAOYOSHI ISHIDA: As I was struggling for a breath, I had a vision of my newborn son, and that gave me the strength to keep swimming until I surfaced. To this day I tell my boy, "If you weren't here, I wouldn't be here either."

NARRATOR: Expecting to sacrifice their lives, the 260 survivors were surprised to be picked up by a Japanese destroyer.

NAOYOSHI 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.

NARRATOR: For weeks, the Japanese Navy refused to acknowledge that the Yamato had been lost with 3,000 men. The survivors were taken to a bombed-out port facility where they were hidden away. A month after the sinking, those who remained were finally allowed to return to their families.

NAOYOSHI ISHIDA: My wife thought I was dead. I was hurt in places, and I had a limp, but I was able to limp home fully intact. That was truly one of the happiest moments of my life. For an instant, I felt a sense of shame at having survived, but the shame didn't last long.

NARRATOR: In terms of human life, the sinking of the Yamato was one of the greatest naval disasters in history.

The largest battleship ever built was conceived less as a practical weapon, than as a symbol of national prestige. When the Yamato left on her final, suicidal mission, the admirals spoke of "honor" and "immortal glory." But no one speaks for the thousands of men entombed in her wreckage. We do not know their thoughts as they died.

By the end of World War II, the aircraft carrier had replaced the battleship as the floating symbol of national might. In the 60 years since the Yamato was lost, no nation in the world has chosen to construct another battleship.

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PRODUCTION CREDITS

Sinking the Supership

Produced by
Keiko Hagihara Bang

Written and Directed by
David Axelrod

Narrated by
Neil Ross

Director of Photography
Brian McDairmant

Editor
Rob Tinworth

Producer
Cindy Heng

Assistant Director
Donovan Chan

Production Manager
Michelle Chua

Production Coordinator
Frances Ng

Production Assistant
Ann Moey

Animation
Mediafreaks, Singapore

Animation Producers
Aldric Chang
Mervyn Chan

Motion Graphics
2X Jump

Music by
Schtung Singapore

Composer
Shawn Letts

Additional Music
Columbia Music Entertainment, Inc.
AMX Audiophiles Pte Ltd

Additional Photography
Rich Confalone

Sound Recordists
Jeff Taylor
Jonathan Packer

Assistant Camera
Shireen Choo

Assistant Editor
Nisha Khemlani

Editor Assistants
Lisa Cheby
Sarah Johnson

Production Coordinators
Andy Zare (US)
Kunio Kadowaki (Japan)
Kantana Motion Pictures Co. Ltd (Thailand)

Research
Rie Okubo
Jane Martin

Post Production Supervisor
Er Beng Lee

Colorist
David East

Audio Mix
Paul Grezoux
Adwin Lim

Translation Voices
Gerald Chew
Lim Kay Tong
Lim Yu Beng
Timothy Nga

Legal
Duncan Jepson

Business Affairs
Chris Wanden

Production Accounting
Fiona Murphy
Preeti Mangai

Archival Material
TV Asahi Corporation
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
Bill Madison, Russo-Japanese War Research Society
Naoyoshi Ishida
Corbis

Special Thanks to
Senkan Yamato Ireihi Sewanin-kai
Naoyoshi Ishida
Hiroto Takamoto
Kazuhiro Fukumoto
Sakutaro Nishihata
Katsuhiro Hara
Edward Sieber
Malcolm Muir
P.H. Nargeolet
Nobuko Chadani
Masaya Fujinoki
Ichiro Hara
Natsuhei Eno
Kure City Maritime Museum Project
Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries
Kameyama Shrine
Japan Maritime Self-Defense Forces
Kure Film Commission
Kure Naval Cemetery Preservation
Rekishi No Miera Oka Hilltop Memorial
Miyakehonten Co., Ltd.
City of Kure
The Royal Thai Navy
Phra Chulachomklao Fortress
Royal Thai Naval Academy
Malin 'Pom' Pongsapipatt
Jack Green, The Washington Navy Yard
The Naval Historical Center, Washington
Russell Spurr

NOVA Series Graphics
yU + co.

NOVA Theme Music
Walter Werzowa
John Luker
Musikvergnuegen, Inc.

Additional NOVA Theme Music
Ray Loring

Post Production Online Editor
Spencer Gentry

Closed Captioning
The Caption Center

NOVA Administrator
Dara Bourne

Publicity
Jonathan Renes
Diane Buxton
Olivia Wong

Senior Researcher
Barbara Moran

Production Coordinator
Linda Callahan

Unit Manager
Lola Norman-Salako

Paralegal
Richard Parr

Legal Counsel
Susan Rosen Shishko

Post Production Assistant
Alex Kreuter

Associate Producers, Post Production
Nathan Gunner
Patrick Carey

Post Production Supervisor
Regina O'Toole

Post Production Editor
Rebecca Nieto

Post Production Manager
Maureen Barden Lynch

Supervising Producer
Stephen Sweigart

Producer, Special Projects
Susanne Simpson

Coordinating Producer
Laurie Cahalane

Senior Science Editor
Evan Hadingham

Senior Series Producer
Melanie Wallace

Managing Director
Alan Ritsko

Senior Executive Producer
Paula S. Apsell

A Bang Singapore Private Limited and NOVA Production for WGBH Boston in association with Discovery Networks International, TV Asahi Corporation and Off the Fence B.V. with the participation of the Media Development Authority of Singapore and the TV Content Industry Development Scheme.

© 2005 WGBH Educational Foundation
and Bang Singapore Private Limited

All rights reserved

Sinking the Supership

Behind the Scenes

Behind the Scenes
For executive producer Keiko Bang, making this film was cathartic.

Survivor Stories

Survivor Stories
Two eyewitness accounts of Yamato's last battle

Anatomy of Yamato

Anatomy of Yamato
See what made the ship both seemingly unsinkable and highly vulnerable to attack.

Yamato's Final Voyage

Yamato's
Final Voyage

Relive the super battleship's last moments in photographs.

 

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