Though there are many great naval battles in history, some very recent such as the battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944 and others not so recent. Some battles are hard fought, well planned strategic victories, while others are pure luck. In fact, the battle of Myeongnyang was a product of the defiance and pride of Admiral Yi Sun-Shin coupled with a brilliant strategy and a lot of luck. To jump directly into the Battle of Myeongnyang would almost be a disgrace to the victory despite the unfavorable odds against Yi Sun-Shin, so I’ll provide a little back story beforehand.
From a young age Yi Sun-Shin found interest in military strategy often playing war games with other children and often taking the leadership role. Once Yi Sun-Shin was of age to join the military he took the examination which was a combination of military history, military tactics, and a physical portion which tested skills with various weaponry under varying circumstances. Needless to say Yi Sun-Shin passed with flying colors and was admitted to the military as basic cavalry unit stationed in Hamgyeong. During his time in the military Yi Sun-Shin spent the majority of his time fending off Jurchen marauders from the Jin Dynasty. Yi Sun-Shin managed to capture their chief general with a brilliantly devised bait trap. As this was quite a feat it caught a lot of attention from higher ranked officers who weren’t as happy as you’d imagine.
Due to this jealousy a higher ranked soldier by the name of General Yi II conspired against Yi Sun-Shin and began spreading rumors of desertion during his battle against the Jurchen. These rumors caught like wildfire and resulted in Yi Sun-Shin being kicked out of the military, becoming imprisoned, and tortured to within inches of his life. Despite the poor experiences he faced while previously enlisted, as soon as he was released from imprisonment he enlisted once again and was granted a lower position in the military. Due to his prowess as a strategist he was quickly promoted to a commander and shortly thereafter was promoted to the commander of a naval fleet despite having no formal training in naval combat.
Regardless of his lack of training Yi Sun-Shin proved to be a marvelous naval strategist winning many smaller skirmishes against Japanese invasions from 1592-1598. Despite these victories Yi Sun-Shin had been replaced by Commander Won Gyun due to his refusal to attack a fleet that he knew was to ambush them and was once again imprisoned and tortured almost to death. On August 27, 1597 the Japanese had their only successful naval battle with the battle of Chilcheollyang. Soon after replacing Yi Sun-Shin Commander Won Gyun decided to launch an attack against what he anticipated to be a small Japanese fleet, unfortunately this wasn’t the case. The Japanese Fleet consisted of 600-1,000 ships versus the Koreans roughly 300 ships. Commander Won Gyun Retreated as quickly as he attacked, but despite his hasty retreat he still lost ~30 ships in the initial battle. Shortly thereafter the Japanese launched a counter attack which sunk upwards of 200 Korean ships leaving the Koreans with a mere 13 ships in their immediate navy.
After the devastation caused by Commander Won Gyun, who was deceased as a direct result of his poor tactics, Yi Sun-Shin was released from jail and appointed once again demoted to a soldier under General Gwon Yul until Gwon Yul’s death shortly thereafter. Yi Sun-Shin then took command and set out to locate the surviving 13 ships with his flagship. He was once again the commander of the Korean navy, although this time instead of commanding 400 ships he had 13.
Korean King Seonjo, who was so deterred by the previous naval loss at Chilcheollyan under Commander Won Gyun, ordered Yi Sun-Shin and his men to abandon the meagre fleet and join the troops in land battle. Once again Yi Sun-Shin would defy King Seonjo with a letter declining his request, the letter simply read “your servant still doth have twelve warships under his command and he is still alive, the enemy shall never be safe in the west sea”. Unbeknownst to Yi Sun-Shin the Japanese were planning to ride on the wings of their previous victory in Chilcheollyan by launching another attack to finish the fleet off.
Japanese commander Kurushima Michifusa rallied a fleet consisting of 133 warships accompanied by 200 support ships and set sail to conquer Yi Sun-Shins 13 ships on October 26, 1597 in the Battle of Myeongnyang. Using his strong tactics and superior knowledge of the surrounding sea Yi Sun-Shin lured the entire Japanese fleet into the Myeongnyang straits with one single, speedy ship. The Japanese took the bait and followed the ship through the strait hoping the ship would lead them to the remaining 13 ships. Unfortunately for the Japanese Yi Sun-Shin had chosen this strait for a reason, its narrow waterway would only allow one ship to enter at a time and the sea leading in was notorious for having strong currents which would make navigating difficult. Furthermore the strait was narrow enough for Yi Sun-Shin to litter the strait with boom chains which would shred the Japanese ships when they crashed into them. It just so happened that luck was also on Yi Sun-Shin’s side this day, the weather was incredibly foggy which greatly restricted the Japanese vision during their pursuit. The fog coupled with the aggressive currents and
narrow corridor caused many of the Japanese ships to collide with each other. The Japanese warships that did make it through the Myeongnyang strait were met by the 13 Korean warships who were
After Yi Sun-Shins victory a sizable Chinese navy was appointed under his command and a handful of Korean ships that were thought to be lost in battle resurfaced and joined him. After the Battle of Myeongnyang Yi Sun-Shin pulled his ships out to the yellow sea so that he could resupply and prepare his fleet for a better defense against the Japanese. Despite his cunning strategies Yi Sun-Shin was brought down the following year on December 15, 1598 in the Battle of Noryang. The Japanese fleet once again outnumbered the Koreans, and once again Yi Sun-Shins tactics proved superior forcing a Japanese retreat. During the retreat a stray projectile pierced Yi Sun-Shins chest killing him shortly thereafter. Even in Yi Sun-Shin’s last moment he used his skills to progress the war uttering with his last breath to his son and nephew “the war is at its height, wear my armor and beat my war drums. Do not announce my death.” His son did as he was told and adorned Yi Sun-Shin’s armor and pursued the Japanese fleet destroying a vast majority of the ships during the retreat.