If you are interested in the detailed minutiae of how battleships
were designed and built in the Second World War, this is not
the book to buy. Actual technical description is quite sparse
and that's not really what this book is about. What it does,
very well indeed, is to detail the appalling human cost that
went into the creation of this beautiful, useless ship. The
story is one of occasional horror and frequent farce.
Musashi was built in the Mitsubishi shipyard at Nagasaki,
a town which in the late 1930s had a substantial Chinese community.
When it was decided to award the construction contract to
the Mitsubishi yard, the Japanese secret police's paranoia
was so great that they moved into Nagasaki's Chinatown and
more or less destroyed it in a night. They arrested almost
every inhabitant and - while they were about it, so to speak
- beat several of them to death for being suspiciously Chinese.
The shipyard was overlooked by hills; Japanese secret police
would hide in those hills arresting and torturing any hill-walkers
or ramblers thought to be paying too much attention to the
view towards the shipyard below. Anyone hillwalking around
Nagasaki had to face the land at all times, or else. The police
did this even though nothing could actually be seen of the
shipyard - because the shipbuilders, as well as building the
world's largest battleship, were doing so behind the world's
largest sisal-rope curtain. This weighed 400 tons and used
up almost the entire sisal-rope output of Japan, driving the
price to ludicrous heights and creating another security problem
in that people might start asking what the Navy needed all
that sisal-rope for....
At one point in the construction, a blueprint of part of
the turret ring was accidentally incinerated; assumed stolen,
the builders were facing liquidation as spies by the secret
police when its true fate came to light.
And so it goes on. The ship itself feels like a metaphor
rather than a real entity; one has little impression of her
other than as a vast, brooding presence, doomed by our foreknowledge
of her fate. The ship is oddly anonymous, not least because
the builders were not allowed even to know her name. Farcically,
when she was launched, the dignitary involved mumbled it inaudibly
into his hand so the people building her would not find out
the real name of "Number Two Battleship"! Nor were
they allowed to pool experience with the builders of Number
One or Number Three Battleship, although they did learn the
ominous news that the latter was to be completed as an aircraft
No such useful fate for Musashi. The launch itself was a
fraught operation; never having launched anything so huge
before, there was concern that she might go careering uncontrollably
across the channel and beach herself catastrophically on the
opposite shore, so a raft had to be specially built and moored
opposite the slipway. This way, Number Two Battleship would
have something softer than the shore to crash into if such
a thing happened.
It didn't, of course, and off went Musashi to battle - or
rather to war, to idle at Truk, to Lingga Roads, and other
anchorages, for she only ever saw one battle. And even that
was a battle against aircraft, to be sunk with contemptuous
ease. She absorbed tremendous damage, but her anti-aircraft
armament - 251 weapons, according to Januscz Skulski (in "The
Battleship Yamato") - proved pitifully ineffective.
Japan was always, after all, going to run out of battleships
before America ran out of torpedoes. This book tells the story
of perhaps the only unequivocally successful aspect of Musashi's
career - the effort to keep her secret. The Americans never
suspected Musashi's existence until they sank her; the point
of her existence, arguably, remains a mystery to this day.
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