Hail the Mighty Musashi

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NEW YORK – During World War II, the very drunk American humorist Robert Benchley, decked out in a tux and top hat,  came staggering out of the tony Sherry-Netherlands Hotel. American Raj: Liberati... Eric Margolis Best Price: $4.99 Buy New $10.00 (as of 05:35 EST - Details)

A US Navy admiral in full uniform was waiting for a taxi. “Doorman, get me a taxi,” Benchley ordered. The outraged admiral fired back a broadside, “Sir, I’ll have you know that I am a four star admiral in the United States Navy! “

With perfect logic, Benchley riposted, “well then get me a battleship!”

Good for him. I’ve never met a battleship that I didn’t love.

I’ve long mourned their passing and have even written articles calling for their return to service. I hate the feeble little tin cans now used by all navies. Only Russia still deploys a single battlecruiser, the beautiful “Peter the Great.”

Watching the revolting spectacle of Israel’s prime minister humiliating President Barack Obama, and US Congressmen and Senators jumping up and down like circus monkeys for “King Bibi of Israel” came some very good news: the wreck of the legendary Japanese super-battleship “Musashi” has been located off the Philippines in a kilometer deep of water by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

A 21-gun salute for the enterprising Allen and his team. War at the Top of the ... Eric Margolis Best Price: $1.99 Buy New $14.48 (as of 09:57 EST - Details)

Japan built two 72,800-ton super-battleships during the late 1930’s, “Yamato” and her sister, “Musashi.” Armed with nine 18.1 inch guns (46 cm), heavy armor, batteries of secondary weapons, and bristling with anti-aircraft guns,  these monsters were designed to sweep the seas of enemy capital ships.

Their top speed was 27.4 knots or 50.8 miles per hours, a blazing speed for such heavy ships in those days. Ironically, neither ever fought a surface engagement against enemy battleships. Naval aficionados like myself long to have seen a duel between the Yamato-class and the superb US-built Iowa-class 16-inch battleships like Iowa and New Jersey.

The Yamato’s fate proved tragic – at least for battleship lovers. As Japan’s leading naval strategist, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, said in 1941 after the US cut off Japan’s oil and aviation fuel, “we are going to war for oil, and we will lose it because of oil.”

That is precisely what happened. The US Navy’s submarines and warplanes began relentlessly constricting Japan’s oil supplies from Indonesia and Malaya. By mid-1944, Japan, like Germany and Italy, was almost out of oil for its navy and fuel for its aviation. The Japanese were so desperate that they tried to make aviation fuel out of pine roots. Wartime: Understanding... Fussell, Paul Best Price: $1.48 Buy New $10.05 (as of 09:45 EDT - Details)

Yamato and Musashi sat in port much of the time or were used as troop transports. I’ve always wondered why the Imperial Japanese Navy didn’t use its older battleships that escorted the carrier strike force that attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 Dec 1941 to attack the great naval base and reduce it with their big guns.

Pearl Harbor was of course defended by powerful coastal batteries of 8 and 16-inch guns, but Japan should have risked two vintage battleships to steam up to the port and destroy its oil tanks and docks.

The Imperial Japanese Navy made one last major effort to engage the advancing US Navy off the Philippines in 1944 during the far-flung battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval battle since the battle of Jutland in 1916.

The US Navy scored brilliant victories at Leyte Gulf after some very tense moments,  smashing the Japanese combined fleets. On 24 October, waves of US carrier based dive-bombers and torpedo aircraft located and attacked Musashi. Its sister Yamato managed to escape, but Musashi was hit by 19 torpedoes and 17 armor-piercing bombs.

The leviathan, named after legendary samurai hero Musashi, capsized and sank. Only half of her 2,500 crew were rescued. Admiral Inoguchi, her commander, went down with his ship. We Who Dared to Say No... Best Price: $2.50 Buy New $14.75 (as of 08:10 EST - Details)

Musashi’s loss was a terrible waste of a majestic ship and her crews, another example of Japan’s courage but awful military tactics. During the Pacific war, Japanese dead and wounded were ten times higher than those of the US. Suicidal bravery does not always win wars.

The following April, super battleship Yamato was sent on a suicide run to Okinawa which was under US attack. There was only enough bunker fuel for a one-way trip to Okinawa.

Japan’s second beautiful battleship was supposed to draw off US forces, beach herself, and use her 18 inch guns as shore batteries to halt an amphibious invasion.  Such was Japan’s desperation. The mighty German battleship Bismarck was similarly sacrificed: it should have returned to Germany after sinking the HMS Hood; instead, its commander decided to release its escort, Prinz Eugen, break into the North Atlantic and head for Brest in occupied France. Royal Navy carrier planes quickly crippled  Bismarck and left her rudderless, to be savaged by British battleships and cruisers.

Like Musashi, Yamato was blitzed by waves of US carrier aircraft and sunk by bombs and torpedoes. Like Musashi, a total, tragic waste. Her sorties was the last significant Japanese naval action. Capital ships without cover proved floating coffins, as the sinking of Musashi, Yamato, the magnificent Bismarck, and Japan’s sinking of the British battleship Prince of Wales and battlecruiser Repulse showed. Aircraft carriers henceforth ruled the waves.

But today’s aluminum-thin warships are fragile, delicate and built for peace, not war. The US Navy has no warships that could take punishment. A single cruise missile could immobilize even a huge aircraft carrier that carries one millions gallons of aviation fuel.

The next war may spell the end of large carriers, just as World War II ended the era of the battleships. Musashi and Yamato were supposed to be unsinkable. Today’s big flat-tops are very vulnerable to a new generation of ever heavier and more deadly anti-ship missiles.

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