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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
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  Yi Sun-sin War Diary



  Yi Sun-sin War Diary
The War Diary of Yi Sun-sin

Yi Sun-sin kept a careful record of daily events in his diary. This diary, when completed, contained some 2539 entries, both private and official, together comprising an account of his life in the camps during the period of the Seven Years War, the first entry appearing on January 1, 1592, the day of his appointment as Admiral of the Left Cholla Province, and the last on November 17, 1598, two days before his death at the battle of Noryang. Two copies of the diary have survived to us: one is the original diary (designated National Treasure No.76), and is housed at the Asan Memorial Shrine, and the second is to be found in The Complete Works of Yi Sun-sin, a work edited and published by Yun Hang-im by Royal Command in the 19th year of King Jung Jo’s reign, 1795. Admiral Yi did not give an official title to his diary, but it has been known as War Diary (Kor. Nangjung Ilgi) since Yun conceived it as a convenient title when compiling his Complete Works.

War Diary is a source of the utmost historical importance, as its detailed pages provide for us the most reliable information about the course of events during the Seven Years War. Not only this, but it is from its entries that we have learned much of what we know today about the mind and character of a hero who saved Korea almost half a millennium ago. War Diary presents a vivid description of Admiral Yi’s daily life, military affairs, secret strategic meetings, of social visits from friends, family, colleagues and celebrities, of rewards and punishments, correspondence, personal reflections on the state of the country, and so on. Like a warrior’s writing, the Diary was written in a simple yet sincere language, and its bold brush strokes illustrate the gallant spirit of the author, making the War Diary a true work of art.


Excerpt from Admiral Yi’s “War Diary” and “Memorials to Court”

The English versions of Admiral Yi Sun-sin's War Diary and Memorials to Court have been published by Yonsei University Press. Written from the admiral’s own perspective, they give a vivid description of his life at sea and the situations he faced during the war. Because these records were written by a man of strict integrity, who lived in a society where the progression of the war was reported meticulously to the king by his overseers, they provide trustworthy accounts of the events of the battles and are free from the exaggerations and inaccuracies so typical of historical records of wars. Here are a few selected entries of the diary and memorials, a clear mirror that reflects Yi’s noble life and profound spirit in various aspects.

Memorials to Court: 1. Emergency Measures Against Japanese Invasion

          Yi, Your Majesty’s humble subject, Commander of Cholla Left Naval Station, addresses the throne about some emergency measures against the enemy attack. Today, on the 15th of fourth moon at 8:00 p.pm., I received from Won Kyun, Commander of Kyongsang Right Naval Station, an official dispatch with the information that urgent reports from Commandant Chon Ung-nin of Kadok Fort and Captain Hwang Chong-nok of Ch’onsongp’o had reached him on the 14th at 10 a.m., relaying the alarms given by Yi On, the lighthouse keeper at Ungbong [in Ch’onka-myon, Ch’angwon-gun] and So Kon, the beacon watch in Naesan-myon, Kimhae-gun, that on the 13th at 4 p.m., about ninety Japanese vessels, having passed by Ch’ugido [Sodo Islet, Saha-myon, Tongnae-gun], sailed toward Pusanp’o in a long line of battle and that the said commandant ordered his right-wring captain at Tadaep’o, Pusan to lead his warships out to sea to watch the movements of the Japanese vessels.

          In the above dispatch Won Kyun saw these vessels as the Japanese trading boats coming to our land annually, but the continuous arrival of such a larger merchant fleet of ninety vessels is an uncommon event. In order to cope with the worst possible condition that might befall us, I sent official dispatches of warning to all ports under my command to watch carefully in full war-alert day and night, and I also stand on the watchtower at the entrance of the sea with my battleships in martial array.

          I report as above for today. I must add that in another official dispatch on the same day Won Kyun stated that he had received a special dispatch at 4 p.m., from Pak Hong, Commander of Kyongsang Left Naval Station, based on an urgent report from Commandant of Kadok Fort - “One hundred and fifty Japanese vessels are entering the harbors of Haeundae and Pusan.” Won Kyun expressed his grave concern, saying that these are not the Japanese trading boats on their annual visit to Korea. It will take a long time to analyze the individual items of the messages, so here I transmit their main points only and will report on the coming developments of the situation. I will maintain battle-ships at the entrance of the sea to meet any emergency that might arise. At the same time, I sent round circular letters to the Provincial Governor, the Army Commander, and the Commander of Cholla Right Naval Station in addition to the keepers of coastal towns and ports, calling upon them to be on the alert.

Yi, Commander
8:00 p.m., 15th of Fourth Moon, 20th Year of Wan-li [Imjin1592]

 

Memorials to Court: 9. Defeating the Japanese at Kyonnaeryang [the Hansando Battle]

          I memorialize the throne about the capture and slaughter of the enemy. Before the arrival of the royal orders, the Japanese robbers, roving on the sea of Kyongsang Province, gradually encroached upon the coastal areas under the jurisdiction of the Kyongsang Right Naval Station, burning and plundering everywhere until the invaded Sach’on, Kongyang, and Namhae. Therefore, I sent official dispatches to both Cholla Right Naval Station Commander Yi Ok-ki and Kyongsang Right Naval Station Commander Won Kyun to take united action with me. As a result, we captured the enemy vessels and cut off the heads of his officers and men and destroyed them altogether before we returned to our respective headquarters on the 10th of sixth moon as I have already reported.

          When I received from the Joint Border-Defense Council an official letter transmitting Your Majesty’s written orders I pledged anew with the two Commanders and sent official dispatches to annihilate the individual raiders who frequent our shores and islands, as I assembled my warships in battle formation.

          As a result of reconnaissance of the enemy movements in Kyongsang Province, it has come to my knowledge that the Japanese vessels in groups of ten to thirty frequent the islands of Kadok and Koje, and I have also heard that the Japanese ground troops invaded Kumsan in Colla Province. In this way, the enemy is extending his attacks on land and sea, but no one rises to resist. Should things go on this way, the enemy will march farther and deeper north through the heartland of our country. Therefore, in the evening of the 4th of seventh moon I led my fleet to the appointed rendezvous agreed upon with Yi Ok-ki, Commander of Cholla Right Naval Station. On the fifth we renewed our pledge to fight, and on the sixth I led our united fleet to Noryang on the boundary of Konyang and Namhae, and saw Won Kyun, Commander of Kyongsang Right Naval Station, who had been staying there with seven damaged warships barely repaired. We met at sea for a strategic conference, and sailed to Ch’angsin-do [an island in Chinju county], where we passed the night. On the seventh a strong easterly wind arose and navigation was difficult. On reaching Tangp’o [an island in Kosong county] at nightfall our men gathered wood and drew water, when Kim Ch’on-son, a cowherd on that island came running toward our warships and reported, “Over seventy enemy vessels large, medium, and small, sailed from the sea off Yongdungp’o today at 2:00 p.m., and entered Kyonnaeryang (Tokho-ri, Sadungmyon, Koje-gun), where they are now riding at anchor.” I ordered my ships’ captains to be on the alert, and early on the morning of the eighth we set out to sea. As we looked toward the enemy anchorage, two enemy vanguard vessels, large and medium, came out, spied our ships and returned to their positions. We immediately chased them and found eighty-two enemy vessels (36 large, 34 medium, 12 small) lined up in a long row, but the channel of Kyonnaeryang was narrow and strewn with sunken rocks so it was not only difficult to fight in the bay for fear our border-roofed ships might collide with one another but also the enemy might escape to land by jumping ashore when driven into a corner. For these reasons, I adopted the tactic of luring the enemy out to the sea in front of Hansando [Island] where we could capture his vessels and slaughter his men in strike, because Hansando lies between Koje and Kosong, separated all round from land to swim to, and even those who landed would die of starvation.

          First, I ordered out five or six board-roofed vanguard ships to make chase, feigning a surprise attack. When the enemy vessels under full sail pursued our ships, they fled from the bay as if returning to base. The enemy vessels kept pursuing ours until they came out to open sea. Immediately I commanded my ships’ captain to line up in the “crane-wing” formation so as to surround the enemy vessels in a semi-circle. Then I roared “Charge!” Our ships dashed forward with the roar of cannons “Earth,” “Black,” and “Victory,” breaking two or three of the enemy vessels into pieces. The other enemy vessels, stricken with terror, scattered and fled in all directions in great confusion. Our officers and men and local officials on board shouted “Victory!” and darted at flying speed, vying with one another, as they hailed down arrows and bullets like a thunder storm, burning the enemy vessels and slaughtering his warriors completely...

…In addition, the remaining enemy vessels (20 large, 17 medium, and 5 small) were broken and burnt by the united attacks of scores of our warrior from the Right and Left Naval Stations. Countless numbers of Japanese were hit by arrows and fell dead into the water.

          However, about four hundred exhausted Japanese, finding no way to escape, deserted their boats and fled ashore, while the remaining Japanese boats (one large, seven medium, and six small) which had fallen behind during the battle, seeing from afar the horrible sight of burning vessels and falling heads, rowed their boats very fast and fled in all directions.

          Both officers and men on our ships were exhausted by the fierce day-long battle, and the gathering dusk made it impossible for us to pursue the escaping Japanese to the end, so we returned to our position in the inner sea of Kyonnaeryang to rest for the night…

          …I fear that the enemy might return in a second invasion with reinforcements and attack us from both flanks. Therefore, before breaking up our combined fleet, I agreed with Yi Ok-ki, Commander of Cholla Right Naval Station, to keep our sailors on the alert, with bows and spears beside them, waking for sleeping, to be ready when an emergency rises once again.

          I also gave instructions to the local officials to give relief to the persons who have been recaptured and to send them home when peace is restored.

          The recent victories were won thanks to the united strength of commanders, sailors and local officials. At the present time, the Royal Headquarters is far away, and traffic is blocked. If the war exploits of our valiant officers and men are graded and announced after the arrival of the government orders, the delay would not be good for morale. Therefore, in consideration of what they achieved in battle I have marked the order of their individual merit by three classes – A, B, & C… on the list of their names in the appendix. The officers and men are placed on the record with marks they deserve in line with my promise, even though they did not cut off many enemy heads.

Yi, Commander
15th of Seventh Moon in the 20th Year of Wan-li, [Imjin, 1592]

 

Memorials to Court: 20. Request for Order to Settle War Refugees on Tolsando Farms

I memorialize the throne on the following matter for reference.

There are about two hundred families of wandering war refugees who fled from Kyongsang Province and live in the districts under the jurisdiction of my Navy Headquarters. These refugees were given accommodations in temporary quarters to pass the winter, but there is no way to get supplies for their relief, and even though they can return to their native homes when peace is restored no one can bear to see them die of starvation in the meantime. Following my letter addressed to Chief State Councilor Yu Song-nyong, an official dispatch arrived from the Border Defense Command, “If there are arable lands on the islands suitable for agriculture, send the refugees to those islands to cultivate crops and make a living thereon. Take proper measures for the establishment of farm villages as you deem fit.” After careful survey I have found that no other islands are preferable to Tolsando (Tolsan-myon, Yoch’on-gun), because this island lies between my naval station (in Yosu) and Pangtap, which is protected by high mountains all around its vast fertile plains, and inaccessible to thieves or sea-rovers. I have instructed the refugees to enter the island and to commence the spring plowing, which they did with gladness.

When former Royal Supreme Commissioner Hong Chong-nok, Governor Yun Tu-su, Naval Commanders Pak Son, Yi Ch’on, and Yi Yong memorialized the throne about farm cultivation by border guards at my Navy Headquarters, the Ministry of War objected to the plan for the reason that agriculture would interfere with horse-breeding on that island. Now that the country is at war and many people have lost their livelihood, and in any case, the tilling of soil by wandering refugees with not do any harm to horse-breeding, it is earnestly hoped that a royal decree be issued to facilitate both horse-breeding and refugee relief.

Yi, Commander
26th of First Moon in the 21st Year of Wan-li [Kyesa, 1593]

 

War Dairy: September 3, 1594

Mu-in Drizzled. At dawn I received a confidential letter from the King’s court. It says “The generals on land and the admirals at sea have folded their arms as they look at each other’s faces without making any single plan to proceed or to attack the enemy.” I should like to reply, “No such thing in my sea-life during the past three years. Though I swore with other captains of war to avenge our slaughtered countrymen upon the enemy by risking our own lives, and we pass many days on land and at sea in this resolution, the enemy has taken his positions in deep trenches and high fortresses on steep hills inaccessible to us. It is not wise to proceed frivolously. A wise captain of war should keep to the rule “Knowing yourself and knowing the enemy is the surest way to secure success in a hundred battles.” A strong wind blew all day. From early in the evening I sat in candle light all alone. As I think of the state affairs in utter confusion and disturbance, there seems nobody in the central government who could save the nation from danger. What should be done? Seeing that I sat up alone until ten o’clock, Hungyang came in and talked with me deep into midnight before he retired from my presence.

 

War Diary: July 1, 1595

Im-sin Showers. Being a national memorial service day (for King In-jong) I did not attend office; sitting alone in my pavilion, I thought of the nation power as if as ephemeral as the morning dew; there does not seem to be any eminent minister who can make positive decisions within, nor is there a general who can save the nation without. I cannot even guess what will become of the nation. My thoughts are perplexed; I tossed and rolled in deep thought.

 

War Diary: September 15, 1597 [A day before the Battle of Myongnyang]

Kye-sa Clear. With the tide flowing, I entered the sea of Usuyong, leading our ships after me, and there I passed the night. I saw many queer portents in my dream at night.

l.v.? Clear. By riding the rising tide I led the Captains of all ships to move to the sea off Usuyong [Munnae-myon, Haenam-gun], because it was not right for a small fleet to take a fighting position with its back against Myongnyang (Ultolmok, the Roaring Channel), whose swift current falls like a cataract behind Pyokp’ajong (the Sea-Viewing Pavilion). Calling my Staff Officers and all ships’ Captains, I gave the following instruction: “According to the principles of strategy, ‘He who seeks his death shall live, he who seeks his life shall die.’ Again, the strategy says ‘If one defender stands on watch at a strong gateway he may drive terror deep into the heart of the enemy coming by the ten thousand.’ These are golden sayings for us. You Captains are expected to strictly obey my orders. If you do not, even the least error shall not be pardoned, but shall be severely punished by Martial Law.” In this way I showed them my firm attitude. In my dream this night a spirit appeared before me and declared, “If you do in this way, you shall win a great victory; if you do in that way you shall suffer a tragic defeat.”

 

War Diary: September 16, 1597 [The day of the Battle of Myongnyang]

Kab-o Clear. Early in the morning our watchmen reported “About two hundred odd enemy vessels, having passed the Channel of Mongnyang [Ultolmok, in Munnae-myong, Haenam-gun], are sailing up straight to our position, Called all Captains of warships to swear to fight. We weighed anchor and put out to sea. 133 enemy crafts enveloped us. The Flagship dashed alone into the midst of the fleet of the advancing enemy and poured gun-fire and arrows on him like a hail-storm, but the other ships only looked at this fray and did not move forward, even though their Admiral on the Flagship was in danger. As our timid sailors on board were terror-stricken and stood motionless, I spoke to them in a soft voice “Though the enemy may boast of his thousand warships, he does not dare to come near us. Have no fear! Shoot the enemy with all your might!” Then I looked around for our ships, but they had already fallen astern about half a li and the ship on which Kim Ok-ch’u (Commander of the Cholla Right Naval Station) rode had dropped far behind, hovering on the horizon, I felt like turning the bow of the Flagship to sail straight to the ship of Kim Ung-ham, Captain of the middle wing, to whip off his head, and hang it up high, but I thought that if I should turn the bow of the Flagship, all the other ships would drop farther and farther, behind the fleet formation and the enemy vessels would come forward nearer and nearer, making it more disadvantageous to our side. Keeping this idea on mind, I raised my military command flag and hoisted a call signal toward the direction of Kim’s ship. It then came nearer to me, and the ship of An Wi, the Magistrate of Koje, also drew near. Standing on the bridge of my Flagship, I called An Wi and roared “Do you wish to be hanged under the court martial? Do you wish to die at a military command? Do you think you can live by falling astern?” As An Wi dashed in great haste against the enemy line, the enemy’s flagship and two other enemy boats surrounded him. Seven or eight sailors plunged into the water and swam round in the waves, but they were beyond the hands of salvation. I had my ship swung round to approach An Wi’s to rescue him. The sailors on An Wi’s ship shot desperately at the enemy and the officers on my ship hailed cannon balls and arrows on him until we destroyed two of his vessels with the help of heaven. Our ships rammed into thirty odd enemy vessels, which surrounded us, and broke them into pieces. At this tragic sight, all other enemy vessels, being disheartened, gave up the fight and fled far away and did not return to attack any more. We wished to stay overnight on the scene of the battle, but the swift current of the ebbing tide made it difficult for out ships to ride at anchor. Therefore, in the moonlight we moved our sea-camp to –p’o [some letters dropped before ‘p’o’ in the original diary] on the opposite side, then to Tangsado (Amt’ae-do in Muan) to put up for the night.

l.v. Clear. Early in the morning, a special scouting unit reported “The enemy vessels in countless numbers, having passed the Channel of Myongnyang, enter the area where we have our positions.” At once I ordered all ships in my fleet, including my Flagship, to weigh anchor and I led them out to sea. Soon after, one hundred and thirty odd enemy vessels enveloped us. Our ships’ Captains lost their fighting morale at the sight of the enemy’s overwhelming strength of numbers, and used various devices to fall out from the line of battle. In particular, the ship of Kim Ok-ch’u, Commander of the Cholla Right Naval Station, had already fallen away to a distance of over one mile. I had our oarsmen row the Flagship swiftly and dash forward like an arrow while our gunners at my signal poured down fire on the enemy vessels from our “Earth” and “Black” type Cannons. The cannon balls burst on the enemy vessels like a hailstorm, and the fire arrows flying from the bows of men standing on the Flagship fell like rain. Before this attack the enemy only milled around and did not dash against us. Being surrounded two and three deep by the enemy vessels, however, the officers and men on our ship looked at each other with fear. At this time I reassured them once again in a quiet voice “The enemy vessels are many, but they cannot come to attack us. Have no fear, but shoot at them with all your might.” Then I looked around for out ships, which had fallen far astern. I thought of turning the bow of my Flagship to issue my commands, but if I did, the enemy vessels will come nearer and I would find myself between the devil and the deep sea – impossible to advance or turn back. Just then a fresh idea flashed in my mind. I blew a horn and ordered my Staff Officers to raise a military command flag together with a call signal, accompanied by shell trumpets, then the ship of Kim Ung-ham, Commandant of Mijohang and the leader of the central squadron drew nearer to my Flagship, preceded by the ship of An Wi, the Magistrate of Koje. Standing on the bridge of my Flagship, I roared, “An Wi! Do you wish to die at my order? An Wi, do you wish to die under court martial? If you escape, where can you find a place to live?” Then An Wi, inspired, plunged into the line of battle. Next, I called Kim Ung-ham, and roared “As leader of the central squadron, you fell far astern and would not come to the rescue of you Commanding Admiral. How can you escape from your guilt?” I wanted to execute him right away, but since the attacking enemy was so near and so dangerous, I gave him an opportunity to redeem himself with a fine military feat. As the two ships were darting toward the enemy position, the enemy’s flagship ordered two boats under its command to attack, then the enemy hordes like black ants climbed up An Wi’s ship. Seeing this, An Wi’s sailors fought them off desperately with sharp-edged clubs, long spears, or sea-washed stones until all the fighters were exhausted. I ordered my men to turn the bow of my Flagship and to dash forward under cover of gunfire and fire-arrows. In a moment three enemy vessels were burnt and turned over. Then the ships of Nokto (Song Yo-jong, captain) and P’yongsanp’o Acting Captain Cong Ung-tu, came to reinforce our ships and killed off the enemy warriors remaining on board. On my Flagship there was a surrendered Japanese named Toshisuna, who came from the enemy’s camp in Angol. When he looked down at the enemy soldiers and sailors swimming in blood on the surface of the sea, he caught sight of a man wearing a red brocade uniform embroidered with flower crests, and cried “It is, it is Matashi (Kurushima Toso?), the Japanese general in Angol!” I ordered Kim Tolson, a water carrier on my ship, to hook up the floating body onto the hatchway. Then Toshisuna leaped with joy and shouted “I am positive, it is he – Matashi!” I commanded my men to cut the body into pieces and, from that time the morale of the enemy was greatly affected. Knowing that the enemy could come to fight us no more, our ships, beating drums and shouting battle cries, darted forward, and attacked the enemy vessels, shooting of cannons marked “Earth” and “Black,” whose bursting detonations shook the seas and the mountains. Together with the rain of arrows, they destroyed thirty-one enemy vessels in this single battle. The enemy scattered and fled to return no more. We wished to pass the night on the field of battle, but the waves were extremely rough and an adverse wind was blowing hard, making the area dangerous. Therefore we moved out formation to Tansado [Amt’aemyon, Muan-gun] to stop overnight. The victory was really made with heavenly aid.

? Nanjung Ilgi, or War Diary of Yi Sun-sin consists of 205 folio pages bound into 7 separate volumes. The 6th volume in part overlaps the war-log included in the 5th volume. The latter volume of detailed description of daily events was probably rewritten afterwards by the Admiral to supplement the 5th volume. Here, they are arranged into a single entry (two versions one after another) to help readers understand the daily happenings better.


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