16

I have overheard the story from an US soldier that during the Pacific War the Japanese mounted a defense in an old medieval castle. The Americans asked for support from a battleship. The battleship successfully shelled the fortress only to find out that the castle was able to withstand battleship fire!

Now if you know how big battleship guns are...you, me and the other people are thinking "he is pulling our leg". But he insisted that this is true and they finally called a special ship with 15" guns and extreme high-explosive grenades shells which was able to tear the castle down.

Does anyone know if there is a grain truth in this story ? Google Fu failed.

  • 10
    "a special ship with 15" guns and extreme high-explosive grenades" sounds an awful lot like a battleship to me. – Mark May 12 '15 at 1:07
  • "high-explosive shells"? – smci May 12 '15 at 5:03
  • 3
    @smci, translation difficulties, most likely. A number of languages use cognates of "grenade" for explosive projectiles in general. – Mark May 12 '15 at 6:03
  • Mark it as translation error on my part... – Thorsten S. May 12 '15 at 13:44
26

This is probably a slightly garbled account of the destruction of Shuri Castle in Okinawa. During the Second World War's Battle of Okinawa, the battleship USS Mississippi shelled the historical Ryukyu palace for three days prior to its capture by US marines.

At 0718 on May 25, the Mississippi began a murderous onslaught with her 5 and 14-inch guns that would last for three solid days.

- Craddock, Stephen Culver. "'To the Honor and Credit of chte Country': A History of the Warships Mississippi."The Journal of Mississippi History 54 (1992): 128-147.

In the end the castle was very much demolished, so it didn't exactly withstand battleship fire per se - at least, not for long. But it wasn't easily blown away by a simple salvo either, or else the shelling wouldn't have continued for three days. That might be where the story you heard came from.


The Shuri Castle after WW2.

enter image description here

The Shuri Castle today, reconstructed during the 1990s from old photographs and records.

enter image description here

  • 10
    "Withstand" is maybe a strong word, indeed. The Japanese military had an underground headquarter under the caste. Since the castle itself is more like a hill with stone walls (and not a building), with caves under full with Japanese soldiers, the 3 days bombardment is more about the reluctance to enter the cave system I guess. – Greg May 12 '15 at 4:50
  • sounds plausible. They'd have shelled the place in an attempt to collapse the cave system or at least the entrances to it. This was standard parctice in the Pacific campaign in those places where the Japanese were entrenched in caves and caverns. – jwenting May 12 '15 at 6:53
  • 3
    Yes, that is the ticket. According to wikipedia the attack began already on April 1st, so probably before Shuri was already attacked unsuccessfully. I looked it up: 14" guns used by the Mississippi were pretty standard, but heavy cruisers (Alaska-class) and Wyoming-class battleships had only 12" guns and perhaps this wasn't enough. Perhaps someone who knew exactly what happened could corrobate this. – Thorsten S. May 12 '15 at 13:30
  • And the need to shell it for three days with 14" guns indicate for me that it was a pretty strong fortification, so the account of the soldirer seems plausible and Stuart Allen's explanation is vindicated. – Thorsten S. May 12 '15 at 13:41
  • @ThorstenS. older battleships were used primarily for bombardment purposes (such as this) and were generally slower and had smaller caliber guns (14" vs 16" on the fleet battleships). During WWII a lot of munitions were spent against fortified positions and in many cases for very minimal numeric damage, especially when fighting the Japanese in the island hopping campaigns where they were underground. Some of the primary benefit is psychological as well as destroying whatever nominal above-ground infrastructure existed. – enderland May 12 '15 at 18:09
14

Let me illustrate @StuartAllan's answer: if they hear "Japanese castle", people think about this:

enter image description here

And while that is pretty and impressive, it will of course be a heap of smoking rubble after no more than a few hits from a battleship's guns.

But what the attacking military is really up against is this:

enter image description here

and laying waste to it is gonna take some time...

Both pictures show Osaka castle, by the way.

  • Ok, that looks really a bit more resilient. – Thorsten S. May 12 '15 at 13:32
  • I must admit I am still quite surprised. Shuri castle is 14th century and Osaka castle is 16th century. The trend for better fortresses due to cannons started in Europe quite late. I find for the available weapons at the time the Japanese quite overconstructed their fortresses. – Thorsten S. May 12 '15 at 19:46
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    @ThorstenS. Siege artillery had been available in Japan for decades by the time the original Osaka Castle was being designed. Furthermore however the Tokugawa clan specifically built over the original castle grounds as a show of force. – Semaphore May 13 '15 at 4:52
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    Just for the record: the Shuri Castle (where incident happen) is not a Japanese castle. It is on Japanese land, but didn't have the same architecture as Japanese castles. But on the basic point you are correct: when we talk about a castle, we talk about a stone hill and caves below the hill, and not about fancy towers or stone walls. – Greg May 13 '15 at 12:32
6

I do not know of this incident. Check naval archives or with a librarian in naval archives. This does, however, seem highly likely. The castle itself would be a smoldering ruin (as it was almost entirely wood, designed in such a way to better absorb earthquakes). The stone/Earthwork, on the other hand, would be extremely resilient to artillery fire. Getting troops out of hastily dug positions using artillery fire alone is very difficult/in-effective. A modern position dug into pre-existing earthworks would be very difficult to shell and destroy.

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