October 26, 1597 - The Battle of Myeongnyang
Updated: Jun 17, 2021
October 26, 1597. An army of Japanese samurai has invaded Korea, and their gigantic fleet is moving up the coast to finally overwhelm their most hated enemy: Korean Admiral Yi Sun-sin. Thanks to the corruption and incompetence of his government, Yi has only 13 ships with which to confront 300 Japanese vessels. He will head them off at the strait of Myeongnyang. It would be one of history’s epic last stands – except that Yi wins.
I did a post about the beginning of the Imjin War a few months back, but I’m still going to give you the major points of the story here. For that post, the link is here (POST LINK)
The Imjin War, the great samurai invasion of Korea, began in 1592 when the powerful army of Toyotomi Hideyoshi disembarked from their fleet and launched a surprise attack on their unsuspecting opponents. Hideyoshi’s veteran soldiers, well-equipped with the muskets that had made him the master of Japan, waged a merciless war against the Koreans, who were largely unable to stand in open battle against their experienced and ruthless enemies. Hideyoshi had only emerged as Japan’s preeminent warlord after almost 40 years of constant struggle and warfare, and his subordinate commanders were among the best warrior-generals in history. The Koreans had never stood a chance.
Until they did. For one thing, the Chinese armies soon arrived to help their weaker ally, and though they weren’t a match for the Japanese man-for-man they were certainly numerous and well-supplied. For another, the Korean army units that had survived the Japanese blitzkrieg retreated into the hills to wage a desperate campaign of guerrilla resistance, and the Japanese military soon found itself outstretched. They could hold the roads and cities, but not much else. Finally, there was the Korean navy, which the Japanese thought had been knocked out of the fight. They were wrong.
The Korean Navy was a strong force when the Japanese invaded, with multiple warships armed with heavy cannon at a time when the Japanese still had light fighting vessels or heavy transport boats. This advantage was useless, however, if the admirals didn’t fight. The beginning of the Imjin War caught most of the Korean admirals off guard, panicking them so much that they burned their stores and ships and fled inland with their crewmen. Of 300 ships in the Korean Navy, 200 were lost to the admirals’ cowardice. Most of the rest were on the west coast, far from where they could fight the Japanese. Only a squadron of 43 ships was left to confront more than 2000 Japanese vessels – but those 43 ships were about to make life very, very difficult for Hideyoshi’s invasion force.
The man leading those vessels is perhaps the greatest hero in Korean history, Admiral Yi Sun-sin. A figure almost too legendary to be believed, he stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Lord Nelson for the title of greatest admiral in history. When all the other admirals fled, Yi took his understrength fleet to war against the mighty Japanese armada – and started kicking ass like ass was going out of stock.
Throughout 1592, Yi ravaged the Japanese fleet in at least 10 separate engagements, concentrating his forces and showing up at the worst time and the worst place for his opponents. He balanced caution and aggression, attacking only when he could be sure that his small fleet would be certain of victory. At Okpo on June 16, he began his rampage by sinking 50 Japanese ships. He stormed into the harbor of Sacheon on July 8 with a proto-ironclad known as the “turtle ship,” a circular vessel girded with iron and with cannon pointing out every angle.
Yi’s greatest victory came on October 5 at Busan, where he finally cornered the main bulk of the Japanese fleet in the main seat of their invasion. He had gathered together more ships and more men, as his repeated triumphs rallied the Korean people and caused volunteers and junior officers to flock to his fleet. Yi had assembled 166 vessels through painstaking labor, but still faced almost 470 ships when he went crashing into Busan harbor. Yi placed his fleet in the “line ahead” formation, which in another six decades would become the traditional tactic of the British Royal Navy – though here Yi was inventing it across the world in 1592. Yi called it the “Long Snake” formation, a single-file line that allowed maximum firepower and maximum control. By the end of the day at Busan, Yi had destroyed 128 ships before fading back into the twilight.
Yi Sun-sin’s victories in 1592 broke the back of the Japanese Navy that year, and crippled resupply and reinforcements being brought to Korea from Japan. Yi had not only boosted the morale of the Korean Kingdom and stopped the Japanese invasion from behind, he had also illustrated a brilliant example of naval superiority and indirect strategy. The Japanese beat every army we send against them? Hard to do that without food, gunpowder or reinforcements. Those have to come by sea? That sucks, dude, because I just blew up your navy.
Yi’s victories had an immediate and tangible impact on the Japanese invasions of Korea. The Japanese advance was slowed, then stopped, near Pyongyang before the Chinese army arrived. In the ensuing ground campaigns throughout 1593 and 1594, the Japanese were steadily pushed back in several major engagements. Only meager supplies were able to slip Admiral Yi’s blockade. The Korean hero had been appointed as the Commander-in-Chief of the Korean Navy as the result of his triumphs, and the dual pressure of his fleet and the Chinese-Korean advance caused the Japanese to call for a truce in 1594.
The ceasefire left the Japanese still in control of their critical supply port of Busan, and allowed them to strengthen their forces in the meantime. Yi, too, began to resupply and reform his navy, stripping out less able admirals such as Won Gyun – one of the admirals who had fled in the dark days of invasion in 1592. But the Japanese were not beaten yet. Hideyoshi, a warlord of humble origins, had risen to the height of megalomania rather than being humbled by the war. He insisted on treating with China as an equal, which the Chinese viewed as an insult; both sides tried to prevent themselves as the stronger power negotiating with the weaker. This led to a series of halting negotiations that went nowhere. Throughout the truce period, both sides watched each other warily, preparing for the peace talks to break down and hostilities to resume.
The Japanese soon planned to resume the war, against all logic and strategic sense; they still believed they could conquer the Korean Peninsula. They had lost their main advantages: the element of surprise and the superior power of their armies. They would not get the first back, and the arrival of the Chinese and the rallying of the Koreans had reduced their second. The invaders also knew that unless they could remove the threat of Yi’s fleet, the iron hand of logistics would choke off their army’s advance once again. The Japanese knew that Yi and his fleet together had proved an insurmountable obstacle – so the solution was to separate them.
Right before the resumption of war in 1596, the Japanese gained a spy within the Korean camp: a double agent that had convinced the Korean general Kim Gyeong-seo that he was spying on the Japanese. The Japanese fed this agent enough information that he built up trust with the Korean high command. Once the agent had achieved unquestioned trust, he tried to convince Kim to send Yi’s fleet into a position to ambush the Japanese fleet when they attacked Korea once again. This order was transmitted to the royal court, and came with the seal of King Seonjo. Admiral Yi, however, refused to carry them out; he knew that the area the spy had wanted him sent to was extremely dangerous in this weather, and he also did not trust the double agent’s word about Japanese movements.
This incident brought about one of the most infamous portions of Yi’s legend. Yi, despite his success, had gained a number of jealous enemies at court, who used this refusal to follow orders as an excuse to have him arrested. It is a central portion of the Yi Sun-sin legend that he maintained his loyalty in spite of his country’s betrayal and ingratitude. Yi was taken in chains to Seoul, where he was mercilessly tortured by whipping, burning, and beating. The King wanted to have him killed as an example, but enough people remembered Yi’s service that they persuaded Seonjo to have him simply reduced in rank. Though some would have considered it a fate worse than death, Yi stoically marched off to the Korean army, where he would serve as a private throughout the campaigns of 1597.
The Japanese resumed the offensive against China and Korea in 1597, and once again won a series of victories – though they were not always successful. Though the allied forces prevented the samurai from reaching Seoul again, Yi had been succeeded in command of the fleet by his rival Won Gyun. Won took Yi’s carefully rebuilt navy directly to the spot that the spy had indicated. Here, just as the Japanese planned, he was ambushed by the Japanese navy of Todo Takatora. Outnumbered almost five to one, Won never stood a chance. Virtually the entire Korean Navy was wiped out at the Battle of Chilcheollyang, with only 13 ships managing to escape from the vast Japanese armada. It was a disaster worse even than the beginning of the war in 1592; the Korean Navy had virtually ceased to exist, and almost all of Yi’s veterans and ships were at the bottom of the East China Sea.
With the destruction of the Korean Navy, the Japanese were able to press north once again, their supply ships unhindered for the first time. The Japanese returned to their old ways, staining city walls red with blood as they massacred their way through the villages and towns of southern Korea. They famously beheaded almost 3,725 surrendering soldiers at Namwon in September 1597. The Japanese sent the pickled heads back to the home islands, where the noses were cut off and buried at Hideyoshi’s shrine in Kyoto – where they remain as the misnamed “Mound of Ears” to this day.
After the disaster at Chilcheollyang, Yi Sun-sin was plucked back out of the army and returned to command of the Korean Navy – or what was left of it. Only 13 ships remained from the original fleet, and the Japanese army and navy were both advancing throughout Korea. For the army to advance, though, they once again depended on the navy. HIdeyoshi ordered Todo Takatora to bring the fleet up the west coast of Korea, where he could launch a dual advance with the army and finally conquer Seoul – and the rest of Korea. Nothing was left to stand in his way except an old, broken man and 13 warships.
Yi gathered the wreckage of Chilcheollyang and reorganized his pitiful fleet. He was able to gather a few recruits, but only had 1500 men to man his ragtag group of ships. When his report arrived to the capital, King Seonjo decided that the fleet was so badly damaged that it wasn’t even worth keeping in the game. He sent a letter to Yi ordering him to disband the navy, burn the ships, and send the men to assist the army in stopping the Japanese advance. In an audacious move given what had happened the last time he disobeyed an order, Yi refused to comply. He sent the King a letter swearing that “Even though our navy is small, as long as I live the enemy cannot despise us.”
The large Japanese fleet was preparing to advance, and they sent out multiple reconnaissance squadrons to prepare the way for their sweep up the western coast. Yi took these expeditions apart, which both allowed him to restore the confidence of his sailors and alerted the Japanese to his presence. Throughout October, Yi rebuilt, retrained, and encouraged his sailors. They were all that was left to stop the Japanese armada. The only thing left was to pick a battlefield, and fight to the last man.
Yi Sun-sin knew of a place named Myeongnyang Strait. This narrow stretch of water separates Jindo Island, just off the southwest corner of Korea, from the mainland. At its narrowest point it is less than 300 meters across. Yi knew that this was a chokepoint that would allow him to stand off the Japanese with his small flotilla, preventing the Japanese armada from committing more than a few ships at a time. But that was not all. In one of history’s great examples of making the terrain work in one’s favor, Yi knew that at Myeongnyang the current was among the fastest in Korea, and alternated direction every three hours. By leading the Japanese into this strait, and by timing his defenses and attacks, Yi might not just be able to stop the Japanese. He could beat them.
Early on October 26, 1597, the fog that is so prevalent to Korea was burned off by the rising sun. Yi’s scouts came running in to report that the Japanese fleet had been sighted, and it was approaching Myeongnyang from the south. Yi got his ships into motion, and soon they had assumed position to block the northern end of the strait. 13 ships. As the sailors watched with mounting dread, the vast Japanese armada appeared to the south – at least 300 ships, of which 133 were combat warships and the rest support ships. The Japanese warships were crowded with musketeers, ready to unleash long-range volleys that would rake the decks of the Korean warships, whose crews had no small arms, but still possessed their tried-and-true cannon.
Still, it was 13 versus 300. Thermopylae on the waves. No matter how better-armed or how better-trained the Korean ships were, like the Spartans at the Hot Gates, they would eventually be doomed to fail in a straight-up fight. Yi reminded his sailors, “He who seeks his death shall live, he who seeks his life shall die,” quoting the Chinese military classic of Wu Qi. By forcing his troops into a place where they had to fight or die, Yi hoped that they would acquire the necessary courage and ferocity to take on the enemy, although there seemed little hope of victory.
As the Japanese vanguard under Kurushima Michifusa advanced into the roaring current, they were thrown into disarray by the sudden shift. This was when Yi knew he had to pounce. His flagship hove forward, the great drum in the forecastle booming out a battle rhythm as his crewmen prepared to fight. “Have no fear!” he cried to his men, but the other Korean ships did not move. They were still shellshocked from the great defeat at Chilcheollyang only two months before, and they were seized with panic at the sight of the Japanese armada. So it was that Yi’s flagship sailed forth alone, weighed anchor, and pivoted to confront the onrushing Japanese ships “like a castle in the middle of the sea” according to the Japanese.
Yi’s ship fired its guns at its oncoming foes, though it was quickly surrounded. Yi himself directed the action calmly, even as he was soon ringed by enemy ships blasting away with their muskets and trying to board his vessel. It seemed like the darkest hour, and that Korea’s great war hero would be overwhelmed in the fight. In the sun of Korea, as the current drove the Japanese fleet towards him, sea sprayed everywhere. The crack of muskets and the boom of cannon split the air, and the Korean soldiers on board loosed their fire arrows at the swarming Japanese vessels.
Yi’s flagship was wreathed by flame, arrow, and smoke – and survived. This gave heart to the other Korean captains, who soon pitched into the fray. The battle was unlike anything the Koreans had every experienced before, even in the dark days of 1592. Against frightening odds, the thirteen Korean ships charged into the vanguard of the Japanese flotilla. But they responded as Yi had hoped, and fought like demons. They charged the Japanese, ramming their larger ships into the enemy’s weaker hulls, blasting them at point-blank range with heavy cannon, and raking the Japanese hulls with fire arrows. They fought off one boarding attempt after another, fighting off swarms of heavily armored samurai carrying katanas and naginatas with their own spears, clubs, and improvised weapons.
The Japanese concentrated particular fire on Kurushima’s flagship, and soon Yi had hooked the Japanese junior admiral’s body from the water. As it turned out, Kurushima Michifusa would be the only senior Japanese warlord killed in the invasion of Korea, and he had been blown apart by Yi’s guns. Yi ordered the body cut into pieces and hung from the mast for the enemy to see.
Against Yi’s valiant ships, the Japanese sent multiple squadrons streaming into the roaring current of Myeongnyang, each of which was driven back. Soon the swirling waters were awash with wrecked ships, blood, and corpses. Still the Koreans stood firm, like castles in the middle of the sea. Finally, the Japanese Admiral Todo Takatora grew impatient. He ordered the bulk of the Japanese battle fleet into the current to overwhelm the tired Koreans once and for all.
As Todo ordered his ships forward, though, he fell into the second phase of Yi’s trap. Because at that moment, three hours after the battle had begun – just as Yi had planned - the current changed. The Japanese ships found themselves crowded together by the sudden shift, hulls crashing against each other and pushing back against the rear lines. As the Japanese attack formation tumbled into disarray and their masts tangled together, Yi seized his moment. He attacked, the current now carrying HIM forward, straight into the disoriented and disorganized Japanese fleet.
Yi’s 13 ships plowed into the confused gaggle of wood and men, smashing their rams into the Japanese vessels. The dense formation made a perfect target for point-blank cannon fire, and it was impossible for the Korean ships not to find a target. The strong tides prevented the Japanese from stopping to take a shot with their musketeers, and also swept away any samurai or sailors trying to escape the capsizing ships. Soon the entire Japanese fleet was fleeing from the onslaught of Yi’s thirteen ships, and only darkness stopped the Korean pursuit.
And here the comparisons to Thermopylae stop – because against all odds, Yi and his 13 ships had triumphed over the 300. It was easily the Korean admiral’s greatest victory, one achieved from the brink of near disaster for his kingdom. He lost not a single ship, while sinking at least 30 of the enemy’s vessels and causing grievous casualties among the surviving ships. He had killed one of the enemy’s top warlords, and Todo himself was grievously wounded in both arms from shell fragments. Most importantly, though, the Japanese advance up the Korean coast had been halted. When all had seemed lost, Yi had achieved his greatest triumph.
In just over a year, tragically, Yi would be dead. At the last battle of the Imjin War at Noryang on December 16, 1598, Yi led the combined navies of China and Korea into a final confrontation with the Japanese. With 148 ships, Yi managed to annihilate a Japanese fleet of 500 – but as he pursued his foe, he was fatally struck by a musket ball. Dying, he muttered to his son “We are about to win the war…keep beating the drums. Do not announce my death.” Yi feared that his sailors and soldiers would lose heart if they knew he had perished, and only after the victory was complete would they learn their leader had fallen.
Yi Sun-sin saved Korea at Myeongnyang, and also his battles before and after. He is still the Korean national hero, with an entire museum dedicated to his exploits in Seoul. (It’s marvelous, I’ve been there.) His utterly selfless nature, heroic example, and undeniable patriotism make him a magnetic symbol of the Korean spirit to this day. To the world, he is probably the greatest admiral in history – yes, I think greater than Nelson. He did more with less, against taller odds, than almost any other leader in the human record.
I don’t have a cute comment to end today’s post. Dude was just awesome.