With of the Japanese battleship Musashi, sunk in the Sibuyan Sea off the Philippines in October 1944, one of the lost legends of World War II—and one of the biggest warships ever constructed—has been found.
The search was funded by Paul Allen, the Microsoft co-founder. It took eight years. Last year, Allen's team closely sonar-mapped the Subuyan seafloor. This year, they sent an autonomous underwater vehicle to investigate sites of interest the survey had revealed. Musashi loomed out of the blackness at a depth of more than half a mile.
Why spend most of a decade, and millions of dollars, to find a wreck? Because "since my youth I have been fascinated with Second World War history," Allen told CNBC.
First of their kind, last of their kind
Musashi and her sister ship, Yamato, were by a wide margin the largest battleships ever built. Displacing 72,800 tons fully loaded, they were about 30 percent heavier than the largest U.S. battleships, the Iowa class. They were built for a practical, if desperate, reason: The Japanese Navy could never build more ships than the United States, so it decided to build a handful of mightier ships, designed to engage multiple enemy craft simultaneously.
Their keels were laid down in 1937. Yet by the time the U.S. declared war on Japan just four years later, they (and all battleships) were halfway obsolete. Improved submarines and aircraft carriers presented deadly threats which battleships were poorly designed to counter.
Musashi was sunk by airplane-launched torpedoes and bombs in her first offensive engagement, the Battle of Leyte Gulf—the largest naval battle in history, it ended in a comprehesnive Allied victory, and shattered Japan's imperial ambitions once and for all. (By the ned of it, Japan had fewer warplanes than the U.S. had ships.) Yamato met the same fate only a few months later, in April 1945. Her wreck was identified and memorialized more than 30 years ago. Now the Musashi, and the 1,023 men who went down with her, can receive their honors.
But a ghost of the giant ships lives on. And you've seen its legacy, though you probably don't know it.
The mastery of metal
Musashi and Yamato carried the largest guns ever placed on a ship: nine massive Type 94s that fired 3,220-pound shells a distance of up to 24 miles. At 18.1 inches across, those shells were substantially wider than (and the length of) a . The barrels measured nearly 70 feet breech-to-muzzle. Together with the , they weighed more than 150 tons.
To build machines of war this enormous, and capable of harnessing deadly power to pinpoint accuracy, requires absolute technical mastery of steel-working. Casting ultra-pure steel ingots, forging the rough barrel-blanks, machining the barrel sleeves and the breechblocks, and trepanning and rifling the bores—every step must be done perfectly.
And so the Japanese government poured money into a Hokkaido firm called Japan Steel Works (JSW), which built the big guns. Although Japan lost the war, JSW's advanced knowledge of steel-working survived. In the 80 years since, the company has put it to use building something equally remarkable: the reactor vessels of nuclear power plants.
From sea power to nuclear power
If you think about it, cannon barrels and reactor vessels aren't that different. Each is a massive piece of steel that contains and focuses intense heat and deadly forces. And each has to be flawless to avoid risk catastrophic failure.
There's something wonderful about the fact that a company that once built killing machines used that same talent to protected the lives of the millions of humans who live near nuclear plants. There's a good chance you're one of them, and a nearly 100 percent chance that you've enjoyed the benefits of nuclear power. You may do it every time you turn on a light.
There's also a lesson to the Japan Steel Works story. Investing in wartime, the Japanese government never envisioned the peacetime rewards its funding made possible. Yet for 70 years, Japan Steel Works enjoyed a monopoly on the lucrative reactor-vessel trade. Over the last decade, however, its has been joined by firms in Russia, China, and South Korea, and firms in the U.K., the Czech Republic, and India are actively pursuing the technical capability. The governments of these countries have recognized the rewards of public investment in high-cost, high-reward manufacturing sectors, and have channeled funds to that purpose.
The one obvious name missing from the list of nuclear-capable industrial nations, of course, is ours. No U.S. firm is close to having the technical and physical capability to forge reactor vessels, and the government has no plan to try to change that.
There are plenty of reasons to oppose public investment in competitive industries. But boosting new industries in the early stages—helping them overcome high initial barriers so that we can reap long-term rewards in jobs, trickle-down technology, and elsewhere)—is worth considering. and the result was the trillion-dollar U.S. aerospace sector.
History doesn't map the future, but it does suggest ways we can bend its paths in our favor.