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Requiem for Battleship Yamato
by Yoshida Mitsuru
translated by Richard H. Minear
University of Washington Press, 1985 (hardcover)
Naval Institute Press, 1999 (paperback)
152 pages

The sinking of Yamato, the largest battleship ever built, meant the end of the surface fleet for the Imperial Japanese Navy and the disappearance of one of Japan's most recognized symbols of military might. Yamato, the light cruiser Yahagi, and eight escort destroyers formed the task force sent on a desperate suicide mission to Okinawa to assist in defense of the island. On April 7, 1945, American planes dropped bombs and launched torpedoes that destroyed Yamato less than halfway from mainland Japan to Okinawa. Over four thousand Japanese officers and men in the task force perished in the attacks, and only four damaged destroyers made their way back to Japan with survivors, including 269 Yamato men rescued from the water (Spurr 1981, 308). In Requiem for Battleship Yamato, Ensign Yoshida Mitsuru, an assistant radar officer in his early twenties, gives a firsthand account of Yamato's tragic voyage and his unexpected survival.

Censors under the American Occupation prevented publication of Requiem for Battleship Yamato after its completion in 1946 because they considered it to be "an instance of the Japanese militaristic spirit" (p. xxix). The book finally got published in 1952, after the Occupation restrictions had been lifted. The book underwent many revisions from 1946 until its first publication in 1952, and minor changes continued until Yoshida issued the definitive edition in 1978, a year before his death. Richard Minear used the 1978 version for this English translation.

Yoshida writes in a terse style, depicting nearly all events from his viewpoint as a junior officer on Yamato. As a consequence, the book gives limited historical background and does not provide the American perspective. Persons interested in a complete history of Yamato's final mission should read Russell Spurr's A Glorious Way to Die, which also depicts events in the week prior to the great battleship's sinking. However, Spurr's history provides details regarding actions and opinions of other American and Japanese leaders and participants. Yoshida's abrupt writing style leaves out many details, but the reader can glimpse the intense emotions of Yoshida and the other men on Yamato. He has many reflections about death, especially when in the sea after Yamato has sunk and when he returned alive to the mainland. These extended reflections cannot be easily summarized, but after his rescue he does conclude on his future, "Make of this moment a turning point toward a life of constancy and dedication" (p. 151).

Minear worked together with many Japanese and American experts to translate this book into English. The result turns out to be an admirable translation of a very difficult Japanese literary work written in terse bungotai, a literary style used for military documents and certain forms of poetry. Minear also wrote a 30-page Introduction, which provides valuable, well-researched background information on the Battle of Okinawa, battleships, kamikaze attacks, Yoshida's life history, censorship, and the book's distinctive form and style.

This book focuses more on the human side than the military details of Yamato's doomed mission to Okinawa. Yoshida provides both touching and harsh personal vignettes. Yoshida has a 33-year-old married man who reports to him (p. 51). As part of Yoshida's responsibility as this man's direct supervisor, he censors the letters to his wife. So he knows that this man's wife is pregnant with their first child as Yamato leaves on its tragic mission. In another heartbreaking story, one ensign who perished always kept with him a photograph of a beautiful woman, so the other men on the ship were quite envious (pp. 67-8). However, Yoshida finds out later that this woman was not his girlfriend, but rather his younger sister, now completely alone in the world since her parents had died, and she had no other brothers or sisters. In a story that illustrates the Imperial Japanese Navy's severe discipline, Yoshida relates how a higher-ranking officer hits him in the face for failing to discipline physically a sailor who failed to salute, "an offense that normally would call for five blows of the fist" (p. 21).

Like the kamikaze corps members who used planes to make suicide attacks on Allied ships, the Navy designated Yamato's last mission as a "special attack." A Japanese soldier or sailor assigned to a special attack mission understood that he would die as part of a successful attack. Yoshida and less than ten percent of his shipmates survived, but they still continued on fighting, "As if wishing to quell pangs of conscience for having survived, we petition blindly for special attack duty. Our requests are granted, and we are posted again to special attack units" (p. 147).

This moving, grim personal account, which depicts the tragedy and horror of war, deserves its place as one of the classic pieces of literature on World War II.

Source Cited

Spurr, Russell. 1981. A Glorious Way to Die: The Kamikaze Mission of the Battleship Yamato, April 1945. New York: Newmarket Press.