When is it ok to defy authority? To break the rules? Where is the fine line between success and catastrophe?
Yi Sun-shin was born in 1545 in Seoul to a poor yangban (ruling class) family. Upon becoming a military officer at the relatively late age of 32. Despite being an excellent soldier, he did not draw attention to his military prowess. But when Japanese general Toyotomi Hideyoshi – the man who unified the Japanese islands – invaded Korea in 1592, and the Joseon Dynasty found itself on the brink of collapse, it was Yi’s heroic actions that saved the country from impending doom despite no background in naval training. During the seven years Korea was consumed by the two Hideyoshi Invasions, Yi never once suffered defeat, emerging victorious in all battles. Thanks to his efforts, the dynasty was saved.
Japanese invasions of Korea (1592–1598)
In 1592, the Japanese invaded Korea, hoping to conquer it and eventually China as well. After the Japanese attacked the southern Korean port city Busan, Yi began his naval operations, noting that the best defense of Korea would be control of the Yellow Sea to the west and the East Sea which separates Korea and Japan. Despite never having commanded a naval battle in his life, Yi won the Battle of Okpo, Battle of Sacheon, and several others in quick succession. His string of victories made the Japanese generals suddenly wary of the threat at sea.
There were numerous reasons why Yi was so successful against the Japanese fleets. Yi collected a great deal of information about the southern Korean coast, and he planned his battles using the sea tides and narrow straits to his advantage.
Japanese General Toyotomi Hideyoshi was fully aware of the need to control the seas during the invasion. Having failed to hire two Portuguese galleons to help him, he increased the size of his own fleet to 1700 vessels, assuming that he could overwhelm the Korean navy with numerical superiority.
One of Yi’s greatest accomplishments was resurrecting and improving the turtle ship, an innovative, highly maneuverable armored ship.
The turtle ships designed by Yi held eleven cannons on each side of the ship, with two each at the stern and the bow. The ship’s figurehead was in the shape of a dragon. The figurehead itself held up to four cannons, and emitted a smokescreen that, in combination with its fierce appearance, was meant to be used as psychological warfare. The sides of the turtle ship were dotted with smaller holes from which arrows, guns, and mortars could be fired. The roof was covered with planks and spikes. The purpose of the spikes was to prevent the ship from being boarded by the enemy. The larger Japanese ships’ sides were higher than the turtle ships’ and thus, the spikes prevented boarders from jumping down onto the roof without risking impalement. There were two masts that held two large sails. The turtle ship was also steered and powered by twenty oars, each of which were pulled by two men during fair conditions and five in combat situations.
The Japanese double-agent plot
Taking advantage of the many internal court rivalries of Joseon Dynasty Korea, the Japanese devised a plan to eliminate Admiral Yi, who stood time and again as the main impediment to their victory. The Japanese planted a double agent who won the trust of Yi’s rivals in the royal court. This double agent planted false information of impending Japanese attack. The king was convinced of the truthfulness of this attack, but Yi was skeptical and, correctly sensing an ambush, refused to carry out the king’s orders for a preemptive attack.
The admiral’s enemies at court quickly insisted on his replacement by General Won Gyun. They advised that Admiral Yi be arrested.
As a result, in 1597, Yi was relieved of command, placed under arrest, and taken to Seoul in chains to be imprisoned and tortured. Yi was tortured almost to the point of death by using simple torture tactics such as whipping, flogging, burning, the cudgel, or even the classic technique of leg-breaking torture. King Seonjo wanted to have Yi killed, but the admiral’s supporters at court convinced the king to spare him due to his past service record.
Spared the death penalty, Admiral Yi was again demoted to the rank of a common infantry soldier under General Gwon Yul. This penalty was worse than death for Joseon generals at that time, since they lived by honor. However, Yi responded to this humiliation as a most obedient subject, quietly going about his work as if his rank and orders were appropriate.
Joseon defeat at Chilchonryang and reinstatement of Admiral Yi
On the high seas, Yi’s successor Won Gyun failed to respond to reports from his scouts and allowed the Japanese to land critical reinforcements for their land offensive unopposed. Without adequate reconnaissance or planning, Won Gyun decided to attack with the entire naval force of Korea at his disposal; a fleet consisting of 150 warships operated by 30,000 men that had been carefully assembled and trained by Admiral Yi. Won Gyun left anchor with the fleet and sailed into waters marked by treacherous rocks where the Japanese ambushed the Korean fleet in the Battle of Chilchonryang on August 28, 1597. Ignorant of the strength and disposition of the enemy, Won was stunned to find a Japanese fleet of 500 to 1000 ships which immediately closed for melee combat, denying the Joseon ships the advantages of superior seamanship and cannon fire. The exhausted Korean sailors were reduced to fighting boarding actions while heavily outnumbered and slaughtered en masse.
The Korean fleet was decimated with only 13 warships surviving. The Battle of Chilchonryang was the only naval victory for the Japanese during the war against Joseon. When King Seonjo and the royal court learned of the catastrophic defeat, they hurriedly pardoned and reinstated Admiral Yi as commander of the greatly reduced Korean fleet.
Battle of Myeongnyang
Yi’s entire fleet totaled 13 ships. In the belief that the Korean fleet would never be restorable, King Seonjo, sent an edict to Admiral Yi to abandon the warships and take his men to join the ground forces under General Gwon Yul. Admiral Yi responded with a letter written “…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 but despise us.”
Emboldened after their victory at Chilchonryang, the Japanese fleet sailed out with over 300 ships, confident in being able to defeat Admiral Yi. Elimination of the Korean fleet would mean unrestricted movement of supplies and reinforcements from Japan for the offensive drive on land towards the Korean capital at Seoul and beyond.
After careful study of potential battlefields, in October 1597 Admiral Yi lured the Japanese fleet into the Myeongnyang Strait, by sending a fast warship near the Japanese naval base and luring the Japanese fleet out of anchorage. The Japanese assumed that this was a Korean scouting ship and the pursuing it would lead to the location of Admiral Yi, giving them an opportunity to destroy the courageous admiral and the remnants of the Korean fleet. What they did not know was that they were being lured into a masterfully devised trap.
There were several reasons why Admiral Yi decided on this location for battle. Myeongnyang Strait had currents so powerful that ships could only enter safely one by one, of which the Japanese were unaware. The deep shadows of the surrounding hillsides provided the Korean ships with concealment. The strait was sufficiently narrow that heavy, long steel defensive chains could be laid across its entire width, which Admiral Yi could use to restrict the Japanese fleet’s movements. And given the narrow confines of the strait, it would prove impossible for the Japanese to flank or envelop the numerically inferior Korean fleet. On that particular day there was also a heavy mist, dramatically reducing visibility in favor of the Korean fleet.
The final battle and Admiral Yi’s death
On December 15, 1598, a huge Japanese fleet under the command of Shimazu Yoshihiro, was amassed in Noryang Strait off southern Korea. The Japanese goal was to retreat toward Japan in secret, avoiding the Korean fleet which had been rebuilt to over eighty ships in the previous year. Admiral Yi, meanwhile, knew exactly where Shimazu was, after receiving reports from scouts and local fishermen.
The battle began at two o’clock in the early morning of December 16, 1598. Like Admiral Yi’s previous battles, the Japanese were unable to respond effectively to the Korean’s tactics. The tightness of Noryang Strait hindered lateral movement, and Yi’s maneuvers prevented the Japanese fleet from boarding their enemies’ vessels, their primary naval tactic.
As the Japanese retreated, Admiral Yi ordered a vigorous pursuit. During this time, a stray bullet from an enemy ship struck Admiral Yi, near his left armpit. Sensing that the wound was fatal, and fearing a repeat of the Battle of Chilchonryang, the admiral uttered, “The war is at its height — wear my armor and beat my war drums. Do not announce my death.” He died moments later.
Only two people witnessed his death: Yi Hoe, Yi’s eldest son, and Yi Wan, his nephew. Admiral Yi’s son and nephew struggled to regain their composure and carried the admiral’s body into his cabin before others could notice. For the remainder of the battle, Yi Wan wore his uncle’s armor and continued to beat the war drum to encourage the pursuit.
The Japanese force was routed, and the invasion brought to an end. The Japanese would not seriously threaten Korea for another 400 years.
Admiral Yi’s body was brought back to his hometown in Asan to be buried next to his father, Yi Jeong (in accordance to Korean-Confucian tradition). Shrines, both official and unofficial, were constructed in his honor all throughout the land.”
The Bottom Line
- Edward Snowden, NSA contractor
- Vasili Arkhipov, Soviet nuclear submariner
- Kim Young Hwan, Korean bomber pilot