The Real Story of the Yamato’s Sinking

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The real story of the Yamato sinking

March 06, 2008
On April 7, 1945, three southern boys were above the clouds north of Okinawa, 125 miles from the southernmost tip of the main Japanese islands searching for “the largest, heaviest and most powerful battleship ever constructed.”

They had one torpedo aboard their TBF bomber and they hoped to sink the armored craft that carried the largest naval artillery ever fitted on a warship, according to Wikipedia. The shock waves from those guns firing were so severe that men could not be on deck unprotected.

The Yamato was a symbol of the naval power of the Empire of Japan. Its cannons could fire shells that weighed more than a ton. Some of these shells were beehive rounds filled with missiles that exploded like giant shotgun shells.

Frederick E. Wicklund, 83, who lived in Grosse Pointe until his death on Jan. 15, 2008, was raised in Des Ark, Ark. where he learned to hunt and fish and developed a lifelong love of bird dogs. After World War II he married his wife, Mary Jane, and they had four children. They were wed for 58 years. He worked for 25 years as an FBI agent, mostly in Detroit. He took part in the arrest of a Students for a Democratic Society fugitive in Detroit in 1970.

World War II pilot Charlie Gill, above, took a picture of the Yamato just as it blew up.

But during World War II, he was a 20-year-old crewman stationed aboard the aircraft carrier Yorktown, as U.S. forces in the Pacific advanced toward the main Japanese islands. In April the Japanese sent a fleet consisting of the super battleship Yamato, 10 destroyers and two cruisers on a suicide mission toward Okinawa. The giant ship had been classified as “unsinkable” because of its armor plating.

The Yamato, with a crew of 2,778, was to beach itself and serve as a shore battery against the allied invasion.

Wicklund was the tail gunner, radar man and radio man aboard one of 11 torpedo planes sent out to intercept the Japanese fleet.

Grosse Pointer Frederick E. Wicklund, above, aboard his World War II plane.

Here is an edited version of Wicklund’s story, the real story of the sinking of the Yamato, as he told it in 2004:

“. . . When we finally spotted the Japanese fleet, it was raining lightly and very cloudy. We saw that the cruiser we were scheduled to hit was almost sinking. Another carrier group had hit the task force before we had gotten there. Noting this, Lt. (Tom) Stetson realized we wouldn’t need 11 torpedoes to finish off our cruiser. He then requested permission from the air group commander to have six of his torpedo planes hit the Yamato.

“Our plane was one of the six chosen.

“Sometime previously at a briefing, I had heard that the Yamato had 22 feet of armor plating. Remembering this, I immediately crawled up through the passageway by the bomb compartment and reset my torpedo for 23 feet. I have since read accounts where Lt. Stetson said he gave the order for all six of the torpedoes to be reset to battleship depth. I did not hear him give that order. Furthermore I do not believe any other crewman knew how to reset a torpedo in the air.

“We were not taught that maneuver in training. I learned it on my own by questioning a torpedo ordinance man who showed me how to preset the torpedo. I have no doubt the other planes’ torpedoes hit the Yamato. I also have no doubt that they hit the Yamato’s armor plate at the 10-foot depth level and caused very little damage.

“The attack strategy was to go up to 15,000 feet. On signal, all planes were to make a coordinated attack on the Japanese task force. However, on the way up through the clouds our plane almost collided with one of our other planes. Lt. (Grady) Jean had to pull away violently to avoid a midair collision. “Consequently, we lost sight of the rest of the planes.

“When we got up on top of the clouds we realized we were alone with no other planes in sight. We knew we could not participate in the coordinated attack for fear of crashing into one of our own planes in the clouds.

“At that point, Lt. Jean called back to me and said, ‘Wick, we’ve still got this torpedo and we’ve got three options. We can drop it into the ocean, take it back to the carrier or go in alone to hit the battleship.’ He then asked me what I wanted to do. I said, ‘you’re the skipper; do what you want to do.’ He then said, ‘if we go in alone you know it will mean our (backsides)’ I repeated, ‘you’re the skipper; do what you want to do.’

“He then asked (Charlie) Gill what he wanted to do. Gill said, ‘Like Wick said, you’re the skipper; do what you want to do.’ Lt. Jean then said, ‘Ok Wick, take me in by radar.’ I asked him, ‘Do you want me to give you a release point?’ He replied, ‘Negative. I’ll try to release when we get hit.’

“We listened as our squadron began the coordinated attack. When we thought that they were far enough along that we wouldn’t run into any of them in the clouds, Lt. Jean began our torpedo run. Lt. Jean had to do some fancy flying to get us in. We changed altitude and direction constantly. When we got below the clouds, there was so much anti-aircraft smoke that it seemed you could walk on it.

“The Yamato had 18-inch guns. They were using those guns to fire into the water ahead of us; trying to create a wall of water that our plane would run into. Fortunately, each time the Yamato fired, we would be to the side or above the water wall. I was calling out distances as we kept barreling in toward the battleship. At 800 yards, I felt Lt. Jean release the torpedo toward the Yamato. We kept heading toward the battleship. I was certain that Lt. Jean planned to crash into it because we all knew there was practically no chance of getting away.

“About 300 to 500 yards out, I felt him make a steep dive to port. I looked down and saw that he was diving straight at a destroyer. I thought Lt. Jean had been hit and couldn’t reach the Yamato, so he was going to dive into the destroyer. I felt sick because I didn’t want to die crashing into the destroyer rather than the battleship.

“Suddenly, Lt. Jean pulled up, gained a little altitude and immediately dived to starboard. I looked down and saw that he was diving on another destroyer. I then saw that there were four or five destroyers behind the battleship. I realized he was trying to get away by diving on each of the destroyers. This maneuver forced all the other ships to quit firing momentarily or risk blowing their own destroyer out of the water.

“For the first time I got scared. After we’d made the decision to go in alone, I was resigned to dying; now there was a chance we could make it out alive!

“Lt. Jean kept diving on one destroyer then the other until we got out about five miles past the last destroyer. He leveled out, picked up his mike and said, ‘Who the hell would have ever thought we’d get through that . . .’

“I had been watching the last destroyer firing at us and each burst was getting closer and closer. I grabbed my mike and yelled, ‘we’re not out of it yet! Kick this s.o.b.’ About that time, a shell burst a short ways away from his cockpit and he immediately started taking evasive action. He kept it up until we got about 10 miles out from the last destroyer.

“We then started rendezvousing with the rest of our planes. I was watching the Yamato out of my starboard window. She was smoking and listing to starboard. I then realized my torpedo had hit the Yamato under its armor plate and had done significant damage. As I watched, the Yamato suddenly flipped over on its side. She laid there a few seconds and then blew up like a huge firecracker. We were approximately 3,000 feet altitude at that time. I estimated that the debris from the explosion equaled our altitude. I think our torpedo probably hit an area where the ship’s fuel was stored. This would have caused the fire and the fire exploded her ammunition.

Charlie Gill took a photograph of the Yamato just as she blew up. When we got back to the carrier, they estimated we had about one chance in 5,000 of making it through the run that we had just made.

“A couple of days later, Lt. Jean met me on the flight deck of the Yorktown. He said, ‘They’re talking about medals for the sinking of the Yamato. They are talking about giving me a Congressional Medal of Honor and you a Navy Cross. However, the other guys want some credit too. The other option would be to give all the pilots Navy Crosses and all the crewmen Distinguished Flying Crosses.’

“At that point, I told him ‘Don’t talk to me about medals, I’m not out here for medals.’ Lt. Jean said something to the effect of ‘neither am I.’ That ended the conversation. Later, all pilots got Navy Crosses and all crewmen got Distinguished Flying Crosses.

“In retrospect, I now wish I had encouraged Lt. Jean to opt for the Congressional Medal of Honor. If he had, then maybe a more accurate story of the sinking of the Yamato would have made it into the history books. None of the accounts I’ve read of the sinking of the Yamato portray the real story as I have just told.”

The U.S. lost 10 aircraft and 12 airmen in the attack on the Japanese task force. Of the 2,778 aboard the Yamato, only 280 survived.

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