Admiral turned turtle to gain victory

Like most capitals, Seoul, South Korea, has its share of statuary.One of its more prominent monuments honors the memory of Admiral Yi Sun-shin (1545-1598). Yi was a patriot, an accomplished scholar, a military strategist, and a boat designer, who combined the nationalistic fervor of George Washington with the tactical genius of Lord Nelson and the intuitive foresight of Winston Churchill.

In 1592, just about the time Shakespeare was writing “Richard the Third,” the Japanese made a surprise and unprovoked (Pearl Harbor-style) naval attack on the Kingdom of Korea. After decades of peace, the Korean militia was unprepared for their King’s call to arms. Yi at that time was commander of coastal defenses in Cholla-do province.

Yi quickly designed and built a vessel called kobuk-son or “turtle boat” and trained crews to engage the massive Japanese fleet. Heavily armed and keel-less, the turtle boat bears a striking resemblance to the Merrimack or Monitor ironclads of America’s Civil War era, more than 250 years later. With a LOA of 78 feet and beam of 19 feet, the unusual boat displaced almost 100 tons. Early models mounted 14 guns, with later versions having 74 guns of various caliber, able to deliver fire in all directions. Even with its heavy construction, a kobuk-son could make six knots, powered by two sails during normal cruising. When engaging the enemy, masts were lowered and power was supplied by oars, like a galley, but with oarsmen well hidden behind protective plates. The craft owed its main protection (and name) to a rounded weather deck, similar to a turtle’s shell but covered with iron sheets mounting spear blades and spikes to ward off boarders.An unusual aspect of Yi’s creation was a large dragon’s head mounted on the bow of the craft, Viking-fashion. But the head was more than simply decorative. As the boats ran downwind toward the enemy, sulfur fires were ignited in special burners within the head, generating choking fumes that drifted onto the unsuspecting Japanese. Whether enemy crews were incapacitated by the fumes, or laughing so hard they were unable to return fire effectively, is a moot point. But what is known is the Korean crews fought with great skill and daring, engaging the Japanese warships close-in, and raking enemy vessels with cannon fire and flaming arrows.

During a series of engagements over five years, Yi maintained superiority at sea, inflicting such severe damage that enemy land forces could not be resupplied from Japan. In the final battle, 12 of Yi’s boats attacked 133 heavily armed Japanese vessels. His small force was able to annihilate the vastly superior enemy fleet, while losing only one vessel to a collision. Yi refused to take shelter during the fierce fighting, and was struck by an enemy musket ball in the closing hours of his greatest victory, in circumstances remarkably similar to those that claimed Nelson at Trafalgar.

As a result of this devastating defeat, more than 300 years would pass before Japan would again attempt an invasion of Korea.

J. Gregory Dill

By Ocean Navigator