The Korean Navy Strikes Back I


“The Nihon Maru, flagship of the Japanese navy, is holed by a turtle ship during the Battle of Angolp’o, 1592”, Wayne Reynolds.


Yi Sun-sin‘s crane wing formation, famously used at the Battle of Hansando.

The scale of the Imjin War was immense. It far exceeded any conflict that had occurred in Renaissance Europe up to that time. The army of invasion that Toyotomi Hideyoshi sent to Korea in 1592 totaled 158,800 men, three times the size of the largest army that any European nation in the late sixteenth century could muster and put into the field. Add to this the nearly 100,000 Ming Chinese troops ultimately dispatched by Beijing to Korea to counter the approaching threat, plus the many tens of thousands of Korean soldiers and guerrilla fighters who participated in the war, and the total number of combatants rises to something in excess of 300,000 men. The most contemporary European comparison, the “invincible armada” that was sent by Philip II of Spain to invade England in 1588, by contrast involved 30,500 Spaniards against an Elizabethan military that in its entirety amounted to not much more than 20,000 men.

The Imjin War did not result in a redrawing of the boundaries of the nations involved. When the fighting finally ended in December of 1598, China, Japan, and Korea were each left with exactly the same territory they had started with seven years before. The impact of the war was nevertheless profound. For Japan it marked the end of its military age, or at least the beginning of the end, an international crescendo of conflict capping more than a century of civil war. After the death in 1598 of the war’s architect, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and the subsequent rise to power of Tokugawa Ieyasu, Japan would enter the longest unbroken period of peace in its history, the Tokugawa era of 1601 to 1867. In China, the strain of responding to Japanese aggression in Korea would greatly weaken the already declining Ming dynasty, undermining its ability to resist the Manchu forces that would ultimately overwhelm it to establish a dynasty of their own, the Qing. And in Korea, while no corresponding dynastic change took place, the war weakened the country so severely that it would not fully recover for centuries to come.


Hideyoshi’s armies had advanced halfway up the Korean Peninsula to Seoul, it was becoming essential that a seaborne supply line be established so that reinforcements, weapons, and food stores could be brought forward in preparation for the coming push into China. The entire enterprise hinged on the opening of this sea route. Without it, everything would have to be carried all the way from the Pusan beachhead to the advancing front, and every soldier would have to walk, a distance already of hundreds of kilometers over mountainous terrain. After completing their task of ferrying the first eight contingents of the Japanese army from Nagoya to Pusan, therefore, squadrons from Hideyoshi’s seven-hundred-ship fleet began probing westward along Korea’s southern coast, feeling their way through treacherous channels, around rocky headlands, and into potentially hostile territory, reaching out for the Yellow Sea and the way north.

They made it about eighty kilometers. Then the Korean navy stopped them in their tracks.

The Korean navy by this time was in very bad shape, both the Kyongsang Left and Right Navies, fully two-thirds of its entire force, having been scuttled by their own commanders, Pak Hong and Won Kyun, soon after the arrival of Hideyoshi’s armada at Pusan. Pak, based at the nearby port of Kijang, panicked upon witnessing the Battle of Tongnae and fled inland to safety after ordering his fleet sunk and all his weapons destroyed. Won Kyun, upon receiving this astonishing news at his base on Koje Island forty kilometers to the west, tried to lead his own fleet farther west to safety before the Japanese arrived to destroy him, but soon mistook distant fishing boats for approaching enemy battleships, and in a panic he too ordered his vessels scuttled and prepared to flee north. Entreaties and threats from two of his lieutenants finally brought him to his senses. But by then it was too late; only a handful of vessels from his hundred-ship fleet were still afloat. With this remnant of the Kyongsang fleet, Won Kyun went into hiding in the coves along Korea’s southern coast, from where he began sending desperate requests for reinforcements westward to Yosu, home port of Cholla Left Navy Commander Yi Sun-sin.

Yi Sun-sin did not charge into battle upon hearing of the Japanese invasion, nor upon receiving requests for reinforcements from his colleague Won Kyun. He waited for two and a half weeks. He had a number of reasons for this. First, there was the matter of orders. Yi was charged first and foremost with protecting his own command, the eastern coast of Cholla Province. Until he received orders from Seoul freeing him to act on his own recognizance, he was thus duty bound to remain at his post. Second, Yi needed time to prepare for action. He needed to strengthen the defenses of the ports under his command. He needed to acquire maps of the treacherous coastal waters of Kyongsang Province, and intelligence on the intentions and movements of the Japanese. He hoped to organize a united fleet of some ninety ships with his colleague Yi Ok-ki, commander of the Cholla Right Navy, for separately their respective forces were rather skimpy for taking on the Japanese.

Finally, Yi needed to be sure of his men. This meant whipping up their confidence and fighting spirit so that they would not lose their nerve in the face of the enemy as their Kyongsang counterparts had done. It also meant punishing deserters. When several men tried to escape in the night in early June, Yi sent out troops to round them up, then ordered them executed and their heads displayed, “to calm down the agitation and confused minds within the camp.”


June 12, 1592. The day Seoul fell to the Japanese. In Yi Sun-sin’s camp another sailor attempted to desert. Yi had the man arrested and his head cut off and hung on a pole. Then he made ready to sail. He had intended to await the arrival of Cholla Right Navy Commander Yi Ok-ki so that they could combine their fleets, but in the end orders from Seoul drove him into battle alone. The Choson court, perhaps responding to complaints from Won Kyun that Yi was slow in sending reinforcements, ordered him to form a united front with Won’s Kyongsang Right Navy. The order showed a lack of understanding of the situation, for Won’s “fleet” now consisted of only four battleships and a few fishing boats; Yi Sun-sin’s original intention to link up with Yi Ok-ki’s intact fleet made much more sense. But orders were orders. And so he sailed east alone.

Yi led his fleet out of Yosu harbor at two o’clock in the morning of June 13. He had thirty-nine fighting ships under his command (twenty-four large panokson and fifteen smaller decked vessels called hyeupson), plus forty-six “sea ears,” small, open boats that would serve as couriers and scouts. They enjoyed a following wind as they headed east, saving the sailors from having to row. They continued on throughout the next day, then passed the night at Sobipo.

The Cholla Left fleet arrived at Tangpo the next day for the planned rendezvous with Won Kyun. The appointed hour came and went, but Won failed to arrive. Scouting craft were sent out to locate him. He finally appeared on the following morning aboard a single warship, bringing with him news of Japanese ships off Kadok-do, “Lonely Island,” fifty kilometers to the northeast, on the far side of Koje-do. Over that and the following day the other remnants of Won’s beaten fleet trickled into the harbor, raising his total contribution to the combined Cholla-Kyongsang fleet to four warships and two small craft. With Won at his side as ordered, Yi now continued sailing east, toward Koje Island and the Japanese.

June sixteenth. As the Korean fleet rounded the southern end of Koje Island and began working its way north along the coast, a scouting vessel approached Yi’s flagship with a message: “Japanese ships at anchor in Ok-po port.” Okpo lay inside a large bay only a little farther along the Koje coast. So it would be there, not Kadok Island, where the first naval battle of the war would be fought.

The fleet took up battle positions at the mouth of Okpo harbor at noon the following day, the smaller craft branching to the left and right while the heavier battleships, including Yi’s flagship, formed a line in the center. Won Kyun lingered some distance to the rear. Yi sent a message down the line to each of his captains, warning them not to give way, but to “stand like mountain castles.” Then he ordered the advance.

As the Koreans proceeded through the harbor mouth they could make out more than fifty enemy transports riding at anchor in front of Okpo village, most flying red ensigns that Yi assumed indicated the unit to which they belonged. The vessels were largely unmanned; the invaders were all ashore, ransacking the village in search of loot and setting fire to the houses. This was in violation of the orders Hideyoshi had issued in February and reiterated on June 6 not to engage in “arson or massacre” or any “act of outrage”; his objective in Korea, after all, was not to alienate the Koreans, but to win them over and make them cooperative, useful pawns in his drive to build an empire. Hideyoshi was not on the scene to enforce his orders, however, or to witness the general lack of cooperation among the Koreans that was giving his subordinates an excuse to act as they did.

The air around Okpo was so full of smoke that the Japanese did not see the approaching Korean fleet until it was almost upon them. When the alarm was finally raised, panic swept through their ranks. Some sprinted back to their ships and attempted to escape. Others ran in the opposite direction, up into the hills. Of those ships that managed to get under way, none ventured into the bay to meet the Korean fleet, but cut off to the left and right, hugging the shoreline in a race for safety. The Koreans, rowing strongly to the beat of Yi Sun-sin’s war drum, soon had them hemmed into the port, “like fish on a skewer.” The Japanese fought back with their muskets, but these weapons, so effective in land battles, had little effect against the thick wooden hulls and bulwarks of the Korean warships. Yi’s twenty-eight large battleships were able to close with the Japanese vessels with little fear of damage, blasting cannonballs and iron-tipped arrows at point-blank range through their hulls and showering fire arrows upon the unprotected decks. The Japanese, fighting for their lives now and pulling desperately at the oars, began throwing stores overboard to lighten the load and distract the Koreans, but they were unable to get away. With comrades falling all around them, many finally gave up the fight, leaping into the sea and swimming to shore, leaving their abandoned vessels for the Koreans to burn.

When the battle was over, twenty-six Japanese ships had been foundered by cannon fire or reduced to smoldering hulks by fire arrows. The floating debris of battle covered the bay: bloody clothing, boxes of supplies, broken oars, splinters of wood—and corpses, many bristling with arrows, two with jagged stumps where their heads had been. “The flames and smoke on the sea covered the skies,” Yi later reported in his dispatch to court, “while the fleeing Japanese hordes scurried into the forests with shrieks of fear.”

On the Korean side only three men had been wounded. Not a single man was killed, nor a single ship lost. Elation swept through the combined fleet, and calls went up to pursue the thrashed “dwarfs” into the hills and cut down every one of them. Commander Yi was sorely tempted; he as much as anyone craved the total annihilation of the enemy. But he knew the risk outweighed the potential reward. To send his marksmen into the thick forests ashore to hunt for the escaping Japanese would yield a few heads at best and would meanwhile leave his fleet under-defended inside the confines of Okpo harbor, vulnerable to a counterattack from other squadrons of Japanese ships. Yi also realized the fundamental wisdom of avoiding a land fight, for that was where the enemy’s strength lay. His own strength lay at sea, so on the sea he would remain. He therefore led the fleet into open water to pass the night.

His men had only just begun to prepare a much-needed meal when a patrol boat drew near and raised the alarm: “Five large enemy ships sailing nearby!” Yi immediately set off in pursuit. The Japanese made a dash northward to the mainland port of Happo, where they leapt ashore and fled before the Korean warships were upon them. This time Yi gave no thought at all to pursuit inland, for it was now nearing midnight, and they were well within Masan harbor, in the heart of enemy-held territory. He satisfied himself with ordering the five ships burned.

The fleet spent the remaining hours of the night off the northern tip of Koje Island, arrayed in battle formation, resting but alert. They did not rest long. Soon after sunrise on June 17, news was received from a group of refugees that thirteen Japanese vessels had recently been at anchor farther along the coast to the west. The Koreans set sail in search of this new group and came upon them later that day at Chokjinpo. As in the Okpo engagement, the Japanese were caught completely by surprise, too busy ransacking and torching the village to notice the approaching Korean fleet until it was too late. This time they made no pretense of fighting, but fled en masse into the hills. So for a second time in twenty-four hours the Koreans set about looting and then burning Japanese vessels, unopposed.

As the Koreans stood on their decks, watching with satisfaction as flames consumed the enemy ships, a refugee hailed them from shore. He was carrying a baby on his back, wailing loudly and begging for help. He was brought out to Yi’s flagship, where the commander and his officers questioned him as to the movements and actions of the Japanese. The man replied with a pitiful tale of how the “robbers” had thoroughly looted the port and carted off everything of value, even the horses and cows. He himself had been separated from his wife and aged mother in the panic, and was desperate to find them. Could they help him? Yi was moved by the refugee’s plight, and offered to take the man with him to escape the Japanese. But the man would not go. With his baby on his back he returned to shore and wandered off through the smoke in search of his family.

With the man gone, Yi’s pity turned to wrath. He and Kyongsang Right Navy Commander Won Kyun began to plot further attacks at Chonsongpo and Kadok Island, where more enemy vessels had been sighted, and of even sailing right into the enemy’s stronghold at Pusan harbor and burning every ship.

Suddenly a messenger burst in with the dreadful news, now eight days old, of the fall of Seoul and King Sonjo’s flight to the north. For Yi and Won, Confucian men born and breed to filial piety, this indignity to their king was too much. They burst into tears and fell into each other’s arms. What was left, with the capital now fallen and the king chased off his throne? Was their country finished? Was the war already lost? In light of the uncertainty of the situation, the two commanders decided to dissolve their combined fleet and return to their respective home ports to rest their men, repair and rearm their vessels, and await additional news from the north.

Arriving back at Yosu on June 18, Yi wrote a long dispatch to the Korean court reporting the momentous happenings of the previous week, notably the destruction of over forty enemy ships. He also mentioned the capture of a large amount of stores and booty from the Japanese, including sacks of rice, suits of armor, helmets, masks, shell trumpets, “and many other curious things in strange shapes with rich ornaments [which] strike onlookers with awe, like weird ghosts or strange beasts.” Yi ordered a sampling of the more curious items, including a musket and “one left ear cut from a Japanese,” to be boxed up and shipped north to the Korean court.

In his dispatch Yi reported the taking of only two enemy heads. This was due, he explained, to the fact that whenever the enemy vessels were “driven into a corner, the sailors jumped ashore and ran away, so we could not catch them.” Of his own casualties, Yi listed just three men wounded, all at the engagement at Okpo, adding that two of these injuries had been caused by friendly fire. As he went on to explain, a group of his men who had seized a Japanese vessel during the battle were fired upon by Kyongsang Right Naval Commander Won Kyun’s ships. Reading between the lines, it would seem that Won had stayed to the rear while the real fighting was taking place and therefore had not seen the ship fall to Yi’s men. In any case it was the sort of carelessness that the normally restrained Yi could not let pass. “Nothing is more shameful than a commander’s loose discipline over his subordinates like this,” he wrote in his dispatch, adding, “I hope [such conduct] will be corrected by the Court.” This was the first of many negative references to Won Kyun that would enter Commander Yi’s dispatches in the coming months, fueling the feud that was developing between these two men.

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