This picture moves me. Depicting the sinking of the IJN Zuikaku on October 25, 1944, it stirs emotions of sympathy for the sailors on the heavily listing vessel but also satisfaction in Imperial Japan’s loss of another military asset. Given the history of this ship, these emotions are made only more real.

The Sinking of the Zuikaku

The IJN Zuikaku at commissioningThe IJN Zuikaku was commissioned into the Imperial Japanese Navy on September 25, 1941. In English, the Zuikaku’s name translates to “glorious crane,” continuing the Imperial Navy’s tradition of naming aircraft carriers after “flying creatures.”[1]  It was present during the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Battle for Guadalcanal, and the Battle of the Philippine Sea. She was finally sunk during the Battle of Cape Engano, a part of Allied operation around the Leyte Gulf. Anthony P. Tully offers a detailed account of the Zuikaku’s wartime operations.

Given her involvement in the attack on Pearl Harbor and the destruction she initiated throughout the Pacific, there is some satisfaction in viewing her deck in an extreme list as her flag is lowered. Knowing that one more Japanese carrier is making its final journey to the bottom of the sea where it could cause no more harm is comforting, especially as Allied forces moved ever westward toward Japan. The fact that the Zuikaku was the final aircraft carrier participating in the attack on Pearl Harbor to be sunk only reinforces the positive emotions evoked from this picture.

But at the same time, those are human beings on the Zuikaku’s deck. With a crew of over 1,600, one can assume that the vast majority of the men on that deck were enlisted and thus had no hand in the decision to go to war against the United States. Surrounded by the sea on a slowly sinking vessel in territory governed by Allied control of the air, one can only imagine the fear these sailors – and the numerous other sailors on both sides of the fight facing similar fates – encountered. Through this fear, to some extent the humanity in the photograph can transcend the vengeance caused by the tides of war.

Especially when considering naval warfare, it is easy to consider battle results in terms of tonnage sunk and vessels taken out of action. But as with any component of warfare, there is a human element and cost. As modern warfare is led by technological developments allowing airstrikes to be delivered from drones controlled by men and women stationed far from the battlefield, the human face of armed conflict should be remembered. As the sinking of the Zuikaku illustrates, even the justified use of force has a strong human toll.

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[1]The Pacific War Papers: Japanese Documents of World War II,” edited by Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon (Dulles, VA: Prange Enterprises, Inc., 2004), 300.