The Japanese battleship Musashi, flagship of the Imperial Japanese Navy during World War II, was one of the largest and most technologically advanced warships ever built. Its colossal scale embodied Japan’s towering ambitions, while its defeat under U.S. fire in the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944 became a symbol of the country’s flawed naval war strategy. Now, after a nearly decade-long search, a research team sponsored by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen has uncovered the wreckage of the Musashi strewn across the bottom of the Sibuyan Sea in the Philippines.
Launched in 1942 alongside its sister ship, the Yamato, the Musashi became the flagship of the main fleet of the Imperial Japanese Navy the following year. The two ships were among the largest and most powerful ever built, measuring 862 feet (263 meters) long and weighing in at 73,000 tons. Their maximum height reached some 183 feet (56 meters), about the height of a 16-story building. Armed with 56-centimeter main guns¬¬—the largest and most powerful of any warship—the Yamato and Musashi were designed to help Japan combat the much larger naval force of the United States during World War II.
Though the Japanese seemed initially reluctant to put their flagships in harm’s way, the loss of other major battleships in the Battle of Midway (1942) and the Battle of the Philippine Sea (1944) changed their minds. On October 24, 1944, the Musashi came under heavy fire from U.S. forces in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the clash that followed the Allied landing in the Philippine Islands. Despite its massive size, the Musashi lacked sufficient aerial protection in the battle, and proved vulnerable to enemy torpedoes. After it caught fire and began to lose propeller power, U.S. warplanes zoomed in to finish the job. The Musashi sustained some 25 direct torpedo hits over more than four hours. More than 1,000 members of the ship’s crew were killed, including the captain, while Japanese ships were able to rescue some 1,300 others.
In the nearly 70 years since, shipwreck hunters have tried and failed to locate the wreck of the Musashi, which like other Japanese warship did not bear its name on its side. The research team sponsored by Paul Allen, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft, spent eight years searching for the Musashi, sifting through historical records in four countries, as well as undersea topographical data, before deploying a high-tech yacht and remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to conduct their search. Earlier this month, Allen announced they had located the wreck of the Musashi strewn across the floor of the Sibuyan Sea in the Philippines, more than 3,000 feet below the surface. The expedition team, led by Robert Kraft, conducted a live streaming video tour of the underwater site late last week, providing the world with its first detailed images of the historic shipwreck.
Though the failing warship disappeared under the water in one piece, it apparently exploded once underwater, as pieces of the ship are strewn across the ocean floor. Amid the debris, the footage revealed a mount for the seal of the Imperial Japanese Navy, a chrysanthemum made out of teak, which had rotted away over seven decades on the ocean floor. This detail, among others, had helped maritime experts to confirm (with 90 percent certainty) that the wreck was in fact the Musashi. The tour also explored the damage caused by U.S. torpedoes, including a warped bow and multiple hits under the Musashi’s main gun.
The discovery of the Musashi has made headlines around the world, including—and especially—in Japan. Among those watching the live video feed was Shigeru Nakajima, a survivor of the Battle of Leyte Gulf. An electrical technician for the sub battery on the Musashi, he survived by jumping overboard after his superior officer ordered an evacuation. Now 94 years old, Nakajima watched the video tour from his home in Tokyo. He told the Associated Press that he was “certain” the shipwreck was the Musashi due to the anchor and the imperial seal, and had no words but “thank you” for the team who found the wreckage.