World War II: Battleship Yamato

Yamato underway
Japanese Battleship Yamato running sea trials on October 30, 1941. US Naval History and Heritage Command

One of the largest battleships ever built, Yamato entered service with the Imperial Japanese Navy in December 1941. The battleship and its sister, Musashi, were the only battleships ever constructed with 18.1" guns. Though incredibly powerful, Yamato suffered from a relatively low top speed as its engines were underpowered. Taking part in several campaigns during World War II, the battleship was ultimately sacrificed during the Allied invasion of Okinawa. Ordered south as part of Operation Ten-Go, Yamato was to break through the Allied fleet and beach itself on the island to serve as an artillery battery. While steaming to Okinawa, the battleship was attacked by Allied aircraft and sunk.


Naval architects in Japan began work on the Yamato-class of battleships in 1934, with Keiji Fukuda serving as the chief designer. Following Japan's 1936 withdrawal from the Washington Naval Treaty, which forbade new battleship construction before 1937, Fukuda's plans were submitted for approval. Initially meant to be 68,000-ton behemoths, the design of the Yamato-class followed the Japanese philosophy of creating ships that were bigger and superior to those likely to be produced by other nations.

For the ships' primary armament, 18.1" (460 mm) guns were selected as it was believed that no US ship with similar guns would be capable of transiting the Panama Canal. Originally conceived as a class of five ships, only two Yamatos were completed as battleships while a third, Shinano, was converted to an aircraft carrier during building. With the approval of Fukuda's design, plans quietly moved forward to expand and specially prepare a dry dock at the Kure Naval Dockyards for construction of the first ship. Veiled in secrecy, Yamato was laid down on November 4, 1937.

Early Issues

In order to prevent foreign nations from learning the actual size of the ship, Yamato's design and cost were compartmentalized with few knowing the true scope of the project. In order to accommodate the massive 18.1" guns, Yamato featured an extremely wide beam which made the ship very stable even in high seas. Though the ship's hull design, which featured a bulbous bow and a semi-transom stern, was tested extensively, Yamato was unable to achieve speeds higher than 27 knots making it unable to keep up with most Japanese cruisers and aircraft carriers.

This slow speed was largely due to the vessel being underpowered. In addition, this issue led to high levels of fuel consumption as the boilers struggled to produce enough power. Launched with no fanfare on August 8, 1940, Yamato was completed and commissioned on December 16, 1941, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor and the beginning of World War II in the Pacific. Entering service, Yamato and its sister Musashi became the largest and most powerful battleships ever built. Commanded by Captain Gihachi Takayanagi, the new ship joined the 1st Battleship Division.

Fast Facts: Japanese Battleship Yamato


  • Nation: Japan
  • Type: Battleship
  • Shipyard: Kure Naval Dockyard
  • Laid Down: November 4, 1937
  • Launched: August 8, 1940
  • Commissioned: December 16, 1941
  • Fate: Sunk in action, April 7, 1945


  • Displacement: 72,800 tonnes
  • Length: 862 ft. 6 in. (overall)
  • Beam: 127 ft.
  • Draft:: 36 ft.
  • Propulsion: 12 Kampon boilers, driving 4 steam turbines and 4 propellers
  • Speed: 27 knots
  • Range: 7,145 miles at 16 knots
  • Complement: 2,767 men

Armament (1945)


  • 9 x 18.1 in. (3 turrets with 3 guns each)
  • 6 x 6.1 in.
  • 24 x 5 in.
  • 162 x 25 mm anti-aircraft
  • 4 x 13.2 mm anti-aircraft


  • 7 aircraft using 2 catapults

Operational History

On February 12, 1942, two months after its commissioning, Yamato became the flagship of the Japanese Combined Fleet led by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. That May, Yamato sailed as part of Yamamoto's Main Body in support of the attack on Midway. Following the Japanese defeat at the Battle of Midway, the battleship moved to the anchorage at Truk Atoll arriving in August 1942.

The ship remained at Truk for much of the next year largely due to its slow speed, high fuel consumption, and a lack of ammunition for shore bombardment. In May 1943, Yamato sailed to Kure and had its secondary armament altered and new Type-22 search radars added. Returning to Truk that December, Yamato was damaged by a torpedo from USS Skate en route.

Yamato and Musashi
Yamato and Musashi at Truk, 1943. Public Domain

After repairs were completed in April 1944, Yamato joined the fleet during the Battle of the Philippine Sea that June. During the Japanese defeat, the battleship served as an escort in Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa's Mobile Fleet. In October, Yamato fired its main guns for the first time in battle during the American victory at Leyte Gulf. Though hit by two bombs in the Sibuyan Sea, the battleship aided in sinking an escort carrier and several destroyers off Samar. The following month, Yamato returned to Japan to have its anti-aircraft armament further enhanced.

After this upgrade was completed, Yamato was attacked by US aircraft with little effect while sailing in the Inland Sea on March 19, 1945. With the Allied invasion of Okinawa on April 1, 1945, Japanese planners devised Operation Ten-Go. Essentially a suicide mission, they directed Vice Admiral Seiichi Ito to sail Yamato south and attack the Allied invasion fleet before beaching itself on Okinawa as a massive gun battery. Once the ship was destroyed, the crew was to join the island's defenders.

Operation Ten-Go

Departing Japan on April 6, 1945, Yamato's officers understood that it was to be the vessel's last voyage. As a result, they permitted the crew to indulge in saki that evening. Sailing with an escort of eight destroyers and one light cruiser, Yamato possessed no air cover to protect it as it approached Okinawa. Spotted by Allied submarines as it exited the Inland Sea, Yamato's position was fixed by US PBY Catalina scout planes the next morning.

Yamato explodes, Operation Ten-Go
Japanese battleship Yamato blows up, following massive attacks by U.S. Navy carrier planes north of Okinawa, 7 April 1945. An escorting destroyer is at left. Photographed from a USS Yorktown (CV-10) plane. US Naval History and Heritage Command

Attacking in three waves, SB2C Helldiver dive bombers pummeled the battleship with bombs and rockets while TBF Avenger torpedo bombers assaulted Yamato's port side. Taking multiple hits, the battleship's situation deteriorated when its water damage-control station was destroyed. This prevented the crew from counter-flooding specially designed spaces on the starboard side to keep the vessel from listing. At 1:33 PM, Ito directed the starboard boiler and engine rooms flooded in an effort to right Yamato.

This action killed several hundred crewmen working in those spaces and cut the battleship's speed to ten knots. At 2:02 PM, the admiral elected to cancel the mission and ordered the crew to abandon ship. Three minutes later, Yamato started to capsize. Around 2:20 PM, the battleship rolled over and began sink before being torn open by a massive explosion. Of the ship's crew of 2,778, only 280 were rescued. The US Navy lost ten aircraft and twelve airmen in the attack.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Battleship Yamato." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 28). World War II: Battleship Yamato. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Battleship Yamato." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 30, 2023).