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Yi Sun-sin: Hero of Korea
About Yi Sun-sin
Historical Background
Major Naval Battles
The “Turtle Ship”
The War Diary
Life and Death
Conclusion
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The Major Naval Battle of Yi

Fortunately, Korea had not yet lost control of the sea. Since an over-land supply route would have cost too much in time and resources, the Japanese had planned to deliver supplies to their soldiers in the field by boat as the army moved northwards, making use of the southern and western coasts for landing. In this, they were disappointed; the series of naval successes that fell to the sailors of Yi Sun-sin compensated richly for the losses endured by the beleaguered Korean land forces, doing much to restore the country’s tattered morale. It also greatly imperiled the situation of the Japanese soldiers by severing their lines of communication and supply, thus bringing their previously unchallenged invasion to an abrupt standstill. Following are brief accounts of the most crucial victories won in Admiral Yi’s extraordinary counter-campaign.

 

1.  The Battle of Hansan and the ‘Crane Wing’ Formation



 

Admiral Yi Sun-sin, having enjoyed a continuous run of successes since May 1592, was now engaged in the task of reorganizing and restoring his naval forces at his headquarters in Yosu. Hideyoshi meanwhile was anxiously looking for an opportunity to blot out the disgrace he had incurred in recent defeats at sea. His first task was to re-establish a safe supply route. This would necessarily involve the humbling of the Korean navy. With this in mind, he sent Wakisaka Yasuharu, one of his ablest generals, together with 70 ships and an elite detachment of his own troops to Ung-Chun as the First Fleet. The Second Fleet of 40 vessels under Kuki Yoshitaka, and the Third, under Kato Yoshiakira, later joined Wakisaka by Hideyoshi’s special command.

Aware of these developments, Admiral Yi assembled a fleet of 51 ships by combining the forces of Admiral Yi Ok-ki with his own, and set off for Kyonnaeryang where Wakisaka and his fleet were riding at anchor, and was joined by Admiral Won-Kyun on the way. He learned that the channel of Kyonnaeryang was an unfit place for battle, as it was too narrow and strewn with sunken rocks: his board-roofed ships, he reasoned, would be in danger of colliding with one another, and the nearby land would offer the enemy too near a place of refuge if they were defeated. He therefore decided to attempt to lure the enemy out into the open sea before the island of Hansan-do. Since Hansan-do lay between Koje and Kosong, and was thus remote from the safety of the mainland, the Korean navy would be at liberty to attack the enemy in safety, and the enemy, if they chose to swim ashore, would face death by starvation.

According to this plan, he positioned the greater portion of his warships near Hansan, and sent five or six Panokseon (board-roofed ships) into the Kyonnaeryang Channel. Seeing their meager number, the Japanese fleet set sail immediately to offer them battle. Yi then ordered the board-roofed ships to pull back as if in retreat toward Hansan, where the rest of the fleet was lying in wait. As expected, the Japanese fleet, elated by Korean navy’s feigned cowardice, redoubled their fire and began to give chase. Yi took care to maintain a fixed distance between his own ships and those of the pursuing enemy. When they emerged into the open sea, and had reached the agreed upon spot near the island, he shouted suddenly,

“Now, turn and face the enemy! Turn about in Hagik Chin! Attack the flagship first!”

 

Immediately, the Korean fleet turned to face the Japanese and spread out in Hagik-jin, surrounding the foremost vessels in a semi-circle; these, before they knew it, were trapped with little room to maneuver, and little choice but to remain where they were and weather the storm of cannon balls and fire arrows which Yi’s ships now poured upon them. Seeing the fate of their comrades, the remaining enemy ships scattered and fled in all directions and in great confusion, pursued hotly by the Korean fleet. In this engagement, without any losses of their own, Admiral Yi’s navy burned and sank 47 enemy ships and captured 12, leaving Wakisaka only 14 ships out of 73, a thousand men out of ten thousand.

James Murdoch and Isoh Yamagata write in their book, A History of Japan as follows.

 

It [the Battle of Hansan] may well be called Salamis of Korea. It signed the death-warrant of the invasion. It frustrated the great motive of the expedition - the humbling of China; and thenceforth, although the war dragged through many a long year, it was carried on solely with a view to mitigating the disappointment of Hideyoshi. (p. 337)

 

 Having suffered a catastrophic loss in this last serious gamble, Toyotomi Hideyoshi forbade sea battles to be fought against the Korean navy from then on. The Battle of Hansan, apart from being one of the three most glorious Korean victories in the Seven Year War-the other two being those won at Jinju and Haengju, both land battles-is also considered as ranking among the greatest naval battles of world history.

George Alexander Ballard (18621948), a vice admiral of the British Royal Navy, paid the following tribute to Admiral Yi’s extraordinary achievements leading up to the Battle of Hansan in his book, The Influence of the Sea on the Political History of Japan.

This [the Battle of Hansan] was the great Korean admiral’s crowning exploit. In the short space of six weeks he had achieved a series of successes unsurpassed in the whole annals of maritime war, destroying the enemy’s battle fleets, cutting his lines of communication, sweeping up his convoys,...and bringing his ambitious schemes to utter ruin. Not even Nelson, Blake, or Jean Bart could have done more than this scarcely known representative of a small and cruelly oppressed nation; and it is to be regretted that his memory lingers nowhere outside his native land, for no impartial judge could deny him the right to be accounted among the born leaders of men. (p. 57)

The effects of Yi’s latest victory were considerable: the Koreans were now the undisputed masters of the sea, and the Japanese on the Korean mainland were completely isolated from their country’s support. Shortly after the battle, Pyung Yang was returned to Korean hands, with the aid of the Ming Chinese forces who had arrived to relieve the land army. Two months later Seoul was abandoned by the invaders, who were compelled to submit to a truce agreement. In recognition of his ample role in bringing about this happy outcome, Yi was instated as Tongjesa, that is, given the command of the combined naval forces of three provinces, which was then the highest honor in the Korean navy.

 

2. The Battle of Myongnyang, A Maritime Miracle



 

In December 1596, when negotiations between Ming China and Japan had broken down, Hideyoshi renewed his invasion plans after a standstill of four years. Meanwhile, Admiral Yi was having trouble due to an accusation laid against him by General Won Kyun and the intrigues of the Japanese double-agent Yoshira. Won Kyun, who had always resented that Yi should hold a position higher than his own, had not only deliberately countermanded many of Yi’s orders in past, but also frequently made false reports to the King’s Court concerning the state of the Navy and the results of battles so as to defame Yi’s character. As a result, there was a growing suspicion at court that the flourishing admiral could not be trusted.

The Japanese were aware that if they were to succeed in their fresh invasion plans, they would need first to eliminate the man who had been the ruin of all their former attempts.  To that end, they devised a plan to oust him from the favor of the King. A Japanese soldier named Yoshira was sent to the camp of the Korean general, Kim Eung-su, where he offered to work for the Koreans as a spy. The general readily agreed, and Yoshira was able to act the role of an informer, giving the Koreans what appeared to be valuable information. One day he reported to General Kim as follows: ‘Before long, General Kato Kiyomasa of Japan will arrive in Choson. I will soon be able to provide you with full details regarding the exact times and the ship on which he is sailing, but in the meantime, let Choson send the Tongjesa to intercept him.’

General Kim believed him, and sought permission from King Son Jo to send Admiral Yi to the scene of the enemy’s expected approach. The King granted the request and ordered Yi to dispatch his ships. Yi, however, found himself unable to obey the King’s order because he knew that the given location was highly dangerous with many submerged rocks. It would have been an act of suicide to attempt any kind of naval operation in such conditions. When informed of this by General Kim, King Son Jo was greatly angered, assuming that Yi was disobeying him out of haughtiness. Yi was placed under arrest and taken to Seoul in chains, where he was beaten and tortured. The King wanted to have him put to death, but Yi’s supporters at Court convinced him to spare the admiral in view of his many past services to the throne. Spared the death penalty, the Tongjesa was demoted to the rank of common foot soldier, a humiliation he accepted without a word of complaint or resentment.

Won Kyun, thanks to the exertions of his partisans, the Suin faction at court, was instated as Tongjesa in Yi Sun-sin’s place, as he had wished for so long. He was, however, far inferior to Yi in his direction of naval affairs, and lazy in the duties of managing the soldiers and the fleet. Meanwhile, the spy Yoshira continued to urge General Kim to send the Korean navy to intercept the fleet of Japanese ships, which he announced were now on the point of arriving. The order was given, and Won Kyun, having marshaled together every ship he could find, reluctantly set sail. The result, as might have been predicted, was disastrous and made even worse by Won Kyun’s inept and clumsy maneuvers, by which he very narrowly avoided bringing the entire Korean fleet to destruction. Panic-stricken and having lost the confidence of all his men, the admiral fled to land, only to be beheaded by a Japanese soldier lying in wait for him. This battle was the sole naval defeat experienced by the Korean navy throughout the whole course of the Seven Years War, but its outcome was devastating and irreparable. Of the Korean Navy’s 134 warships, a mere 12 escaped to safety under Commander Bae Sull.

Upon hearing the news of Won Kyun’s disastrous defeat, the King repented his rash decision, and hastily reinstated Yi as Supreme Naval Commander. Yi Sun-sin, in spite of his previous shameful demotion and recent heartbreaking news of his mother’s death, made his way to headquarters, ready to do his duty. During the journey, he planned his campaign. He ventured to take the longer, more dangerous route around the Cholla Province, before the face of his pursuing enemies, so that he would be able to gather together the remaining ships with the help of refugees, requisition supplies and weapons, and make new recruits. He visited the officials of each village he passed in order to give them encouragement, and to help restore the collapsed local administration. He nursed within himself a passionate sense of duty, and a loyal conviction that the destiny of his country and people now depended on his labors.




When he arrived, he found that he had only 12 ships at his disposal. He managed to obtain one more ship, provided by local residents. The King’s Court, learning of the pitiful condition of the fleet, urged Yi to give up the fight on the sea and join his forces with those of the land army, which would mean the effective dissolution of the Korean Navy. Yi, however, submitted the following memorial to the throne insisting on the importance of preserving the country’s naval force.

  

During the past five or six years, since the earliest days of the war, the enemy have been unable to penetrate the Chungchon and Cholla provinces directly, for our navy has blocked their way. Your humble servant still commands no fewer than twelve ships. If I engage the enemy fleet with resolute effort, even now, as I believe, they can be driven back. The total decommissioning of our navy would not only please the enemy, but would open up for him the sea route along the coast of Chungchong Province, enabling him to sail up the Han River itself, which is my heart’s greatest fear. Even though our navy is small, I promise you that as long as I live, the enemy cannot despise us.

- The Complete Works of Yi Sun-sin, Vol. 9

 

Yi’s memorial convinced the King and his courtiers, and the plans to abandon the navy were set aside. Meanwhile, despite his seemingly hopeless situation, Yi was doing his best to prepare for the coming battle. To cope with the enemy’s vastly greater numbers, the engagement would have to take place in a long narrow strait through which the enemy fleet would only be able to enter by dividing into smaller groups. On the southern coast, there were only two places befitting this description; Kyonnaeryang and Myongnyang. The former was already under Japanese control, so Yi moved his headquarters to Myongnyang with all speed.

   Myongnyang was a passageway the Japanese had to go through to attack Seoul, as they advanced from the South to the West Sea, and up the Han River. As the waters of the expansive sea are forced into its narrow strait, the drift of the current noticeably increases; at its fastest, it reaches 10 knots (approximately 18 km/h), strongest of all the channels in the Korean peninsula. And beneath the narrow and the fast waterway of Myongnyang, Yi mapped out a plan to lay a massive underwater trap in the form of an iron rope tied to a capstan, a blockade device that would catch the Japanese ships, and cause them to capsize and collide with each other amidst the strong, fast current. The mainstay of the Korean war vessels at the time were designed with a U-shaped base that was shallow and flat, but the Japanese Navy had a V-shaped hull which was deep and sharp. An underwater obstacle, therefore, was an effective way to stop the Japanese Navy.

On September 15, 1597, one day before the decisive battle, Admiral Yi called together all his staff officers and ships’ captains and delivered the following address.

 

“According to the principles of strategy, ‘He who seeks death will live, and he who seeks life will die’. And again, ‘If one defender stands watch by a strong gateway, he may drive terror deep into the heart of an enemy coming up by the ten thousand.’ To men in our condition, these sayings are worth more than gold. You, my Captains, are expected to render strict obedience to my commands. If you do not, not even the least error will be pardoned, nay, but severely punished according to Martial Law”. 

 -War Diary, September 15, 1597

 

On the 16th of September, early in the morning, Yi received news that a large fleet of Japanese ships was approaching his base. He called on all his captains to take the Oath of Valor, then he weighed anchor and put out to sea at the head of his fleet, ready to engage an enemy fleet of 330 war vessels with only 13 of his own.

   The thirteen ships of the Korean Navy stood arrayed against the enemy in Ilja-jin (One Line Formation). Ilja-jin is one of the simplest formations, consisting of a group of ships lined abreast with their prows facing the enemy; understandably, with only 13 ships, Yi was not at liberty to attempt anything more complex or diverse. Thus a single battle line of the Korean Navy faced a huge enemy fleet of over 300 vessels.

Owing to the narrowness of the channel, only 130 Japanese ships were able to come in to attack, and before long, they had surrounded Admiral Yi’s fleet. Outnumbered by ten to one, the overwhelmed captains of the Korean Navy stealthily began to pull back in fear. Yi’s flagship sped forward alone into the midst of the advancing enemy, fearlessly bombarding them with a constant volley of arrows and gun-fire.

As the Japanese fleet enveloped the flagship with line after line, the sailors on board lost heart and crouched down, motionless. Admiral Yi quietly remonstrated with them, “Though the enemy may boast of his thousand warships, he will not dare come near us. Have no fear! Engage the enemy with all your might!” Yi looked about for his other ships, but they had already fallen astern from the flagship by some distance.

He raised the military command flag and hoisted a call signal towards the captains, whereupon they drew nearer to the flagship. Admiral Yi called to one of them furiously “Do you want to be hanged under court martial? Do you want to die by military command? Do you think you can live by hanging back?” Awakened by these words, the ships of An and Kim charged the enemy line at full speed, and fought desperately. But they soon grew exhausted in the face of the countless enemies who crowded in unceasingly against them.

At that moment, the tide of the battle was turned by a single fortunate circumstance. On Admiral Yi’s flagship there was a Japanese defector who worked for Yi as a translator As he looked down upon the enemy soldiers and sailors swimming in blood on the surface of the sea, the dead body of a man clothed in a red brocade uniform caught his eye; it was Matashi (Kurushima), the Japanese general. Straightaway, Admiral Yi ordered his men to haul up the floating body and display it to the enemy, suspending it from the top of the mast. As expected, the sight of their dead commander sent terror and dread sweeping through the Japanese navy.

   Just then, the current of the Myongnyang, which changed direction four times a day, every six hours, turned against the Japanese navy, in favor of the Korean fleet, putting the formations of both sides out of order. Admiral Yi quickly took command, and at his encouragement the Korean ships darted forward beating drums and calling out battle cries. The Japanese fleet scattered and took flight. Taking advantage of the tide’s new direction, the confined nature of the battleground, and the cumbersome size of the enemy fleet, now a weakness rather than a strength, Yi’s fleet drove the enemy into a melee of chaos and destruction.

   The capstan turned, the iron ropes tightened. As their front edges and rudders entangled with the iron ropes, the Japanese ships rushing in retreat capsized into the strong current and collided into each other; it was a scene of turmoil. The Korean navy meanwhile kept up the attack, hailing down arrows and firing the cannons marked “Earth” and “Black” (For an explanation of these terms, see section V on the Kobukson). Of the 130 enemy war craft that entered the Myongnyang Strait, 31 ships were sunk and more than 90 were severely damaged; none of the Korean ships were lost. Such was the Battle of Myongnyang, won, as Admiral Yi wrote in his diary, purely by the grace of heaven, and regarded as a miracle in the history of marine warfare.

 

3. The Battle of Noryang, A Final Battle



 

Japan’s second invasion of Korea in 1597 was encumbered once again by the formidable presence of Admiral Yi on the sea as well as the volunteer Korean patriots and Chinese relief forces on land. The death of Hideyoshi in the August of the following year brought with it the recall of the Japanese forces from Korea. Admiral Yi decided to block the enemy’s return route in collaboration with the Ming Chinese Navy, at that time under the command of Admiral Chen Lien.

Chen Lien, however, had been offered a bribe by Konish Yukinaga, a Japanese general, in return for his granting the Japanese navy a safe passage back to Japan. The two admirals, therefore, with opposite purposes, each attempted to persuade the other, the one hoping to destroy the retreating Japanese force, the other to spare it. In the end, Lien could do nothing but accept Yi’s adamant intention to intercept the fleeing enemy forces. While these plans were being made, Yukinaga sent a message to his colleague Simath Yoshihiro, requesting him to assemble the entire Japanese fleet at Noryang, planning, in the process of their retreat, to make one final attack on the combined naval forces of Korea and China.

Yi therefore ordered his crews to sail out to Noryang, where he engaged the Japanese in a fierce battle, in which 50 enemy ships were destroyed. Around daybreak the following day, the Japanese navy, unable to resist any longer, began to flee towards Kwaneumpo, imagining that they were heading for open sea. Upon reaching it, however, they discovered that they were blocked in on every side. Left with no choice but to turn back and fight, the Japanese ships charged at the flagship of Admiral Yi. Chen Lien, discovering that Yi was in trouble, penetrated the encircling line of the enemy fleet and brought him to safety. As the battle continued, however, it was now Chen Lien who found himself surrounded by circles of enemy ships. Yi, noticing three enemy generals standing in the bow of the Main Command ship directing and encouraging their fleet, ordered all his gunners to aim for them. Of the three, one was killed. The noose then loosened as the encircling ships headed towards their Main Command ship for her protection, and Chen Lien was safe.

The combined Korean and Chinese navies then renewed their attack on the Japanese, sinking 200 of their ships. As Admiral Yi, roaring out the call to advance, led the fleet in a final foray against the forces that remained, he was hit by a stray bullet from an enemy vessel and fell mortally wounded. Yi bid his men cover him with a shield. “The battle is at its height,” he said to them, “Tell no one of my death.” These final words he left behind him as a bequest of loyalty to his country. By his side stood his eldest son Hoe and his nephew Wan with bows in their hands. Holding back their tears, they continued to wave the flag and beat the drum, signaling to the navy to fight on.

Admiral Yi’s sailors did not slacken in their efforts until the very last moments of the battle were over. As a result, only 50 out of the 500 Japanese were able to escape. And it was this, the Battle of Noryang, which finally put an end to the Seven Years War.



Crane Wing formation (Kor. Hagik-jin): One of Admiral Yi’s famed naval formations. A Turtle-ship sails at the head of a detachment of board-roofed ships, which spread out in a curved line resembling a crane’s wing when they come close to the enemy, thus surrounding him before attacking. The renowned Japanese history journal, History Studies (歷史硏究, May 2002) revealed that Admiral Togo’s ‘T’ formation, used in the Battle of Tsushima, was based on this formation by Admiral Yi.

No conclusive evidence exists for the loss of 9000 men, but it is by no means an improbable estimate. The Japanese Navy lost 35 large-sized ships, each of which would have typically held 200 men, as well as 17 medium-sized and 7 small-sized ships which would have carried 100 and 40 men each respectively, producing a total of 8980, a figure which is supported by the account of Je Man-chun, an eye-witness of the battle who, while held as a prisoner-of-war in Japan, was able to inspect the “Official Record of the Number of Personnel Recruited and Sent Overseas” (兵糧調發件記), in which it was recorded that Wakisaka had initially 10,000 men under him but later 1,000.


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