In recent years the memory of some Spanish sailors such as Blas de Lezo or Alvaro de Bazan who were never defeated in their military careers has been recovered. These are not unique cases and there is at least one – a contemporary of the second one – who surpasses them because not only did he win all his battles but he never lost a ship and he also lacked previous experience in naval warfare, which is why he has been considered above other famous admirals such as the British Nelson or the Dutch Michiel de Ruyter. We are talking about the Korean Yi Sun-sin.
His birth, into a Yangban (noble) family, was already exceptional because we know the date, 28 April 1545, and the city, Hanseong (now absorbed into Seoul), and even the street: Geoncheon-dong. However, he spent most of his childhood and adolescence in Asan, because his father left the court disillusioned with politics at the time of the sahwa, a purge during which a factional group known as Sarim was persecuted. It was made up of intellectuals whose leader, the charismatic neo-Confucian reformer Jo-Gwang jo, ended up being executed.
Yi Sun-sin not only learned to read and write, as befits someone from a clan of court officials, but also showed a vocation for weapons as a child, learning how to handle them, making his own bow and arrows, and displaying exceptional leadership skills. That is why when he became an adult he tried to join the army and almost succeeded thanks to his marksmanship, but he failed because a fall from his horse broke his leg and forced him to wait for four years. Finally, in 1576, he became an officer, not exactly a young man, who was drafted into the Bukbyeong (Northern Frontier Army), and trained in the struggle against the Yurchen (a Tungus people from whom the Manchus came in the 17th century) in northern Hamgyong Province.
The capture of the Yurchen chief in 1583 was his first major triumph, although it was followed by a confusing three-year period during which he had to return home due to his father’s illness and death, which General Yi Il took advantage of to accuse him of desertion. Such internal struggles within the military during the Joseon Dynasty were not uncommon, and resulted in Yi Sun-si being arrested, imprisoned, and demoted. When he regained his freedom, he was forced to start over as a private, but was soon promoted to the rank of commander of a hunryeonwon (training center), before being appointed to a new position as a military judge.
His career took off for good thanks to an old friend from his youth: Yi Seong-ryong, a scholar whose prestige had led him to join the government and be appointed juawijeong (second state councilor) and ijo panseo (minister of personnel) in 1591. Within four months, Yi received four promotions, moving from command of various provinces-progressively more important-to commander of the Jeolla naval district. This was an almost providential decision for Korea because two major dangers were looming over the country at the time: the Yurchen Nurhaci on the Manchurian border (his descendants would found the Qing Dynasty in China a few decades later) and the threat of invasion by the Toyotomi Hideyoshi daimyo.
The latter seemed more serious a priori, so Yi set about the task of assembling a war fleet capable of stopping the Japanese. This is the context of the revolutionary measures he introduced, such as the introduction of firearms on board, but above all the improvement of existing types of ships. This was the case with the panokseon, a sailing and rowing ship that first appeared in 1555 and was designed specifically for combat; it had large dimensions, a tower in the middle, and a row of seven oars for when there was no wind. Like the geobukseon, or turtle ship, an unusual gunned-down galley designed in the previous century, its deck was covered with a roof of wooden planks-hence its name-bristled with nails to prevent boarding from taller Japanese ships. It can be considered the first armoured ship.
As feared, in 1592 Hideyoshi began what was known as the Imjim War by sending a fleet of 1,700 ships of various sizes, with which he transported a colossal army of 160,000 men who landed in Busan with the mission of conquering Korea to serve as a bridgehead to his true objective, China. They took Seoul, Hanseong and Pyongyang with some ease, preparing to cross the course of the Yalu River to enter Chinese territory. Yi had not studied the ins and outs of war at sea and lacked experience in that milieu, like most of his subordinates, but that month of June he went out to meet the enemy, reinforced by Admiral Won Gyun’s fleet with a little less than a hundred ships, surprising him in the midst of the plundering.
In what was called the Battle of Okpo, he destroyed 11 Japanese ships without losing any of his own, scoring a brilliant victory. Three weeks later he ran into them again at Sacheon, feigning a retreat that encouraged the Japanese to leave the port in their pursuit and fall into an ambush in which they lost another 12 units. The geobukseon and the panokseon (Yi’s admiral ship, which was wounded on one shoulder) played an important role, since by having cannons they could keep their distance and avoid the close quarters that the Japanese always sought, aware that this was their strong point; this was their tradition and that is why their fleet was mainly composed of atakebunes, large ships capable of carrying a large number of men.
On July 10, the Koreans destroyed about 20 more ships in Dangpo and on July 13 they added another 26 to their list in Danghangpo. Toyotomi Hideyoshi became concerned and entrusted the operations to a trio of military veterans who, however, wanted to achieve glory on their own, without coordination, and fell into the trap of provocation again: three Korean ships lured their fleet to Hansan Island and gunned it down, sinking 47 ships and capturing 12. In August, this success was completed in Angolpo, and the Japanese lost another fifty units. Hideyoshi stopped his campaign of conquest and Yi Sun-sin took the opportunity to give his people a rest.
But he was not inactive; during the month it took, he built 22 new ships that were very good for him because at the end of the summer news arrived that the Japanese fleet was sailing towards Busan. Yi set sail immediately and faced them at the Battle of Janglimpo, sinking six ships. Then a spy reported that 470 enemy ships were anchored in Busampo, and Yi directed her fleet in that direction with 74 panokseon and a hundred smaller ships. The ensuing battle was a record one, destroying no less than 130 Japanese ships and leaving only 6 dead and 25 wounded. This allowed a new impasse in which both sides opened long negotiations that would last three years.
The Japanese had realized their obvious disadvantage at sea, so, as they parleyed, they artilled the Atakebun more to defend the port of Busan, where they sent supplies to their ground troops. They also understood that it was necessary to get rid of Yi, for which they sent a double agent who misled Korean General Kim Gyeong-seo with false information. Since Yi, aware of the risk, did not want to send his fleet, Kim accused him before King Seonjo, who not only dismissed him but ordered him to be taken in chains to Seoul, tortured and executed.
He was saved thanks to the intercession of some ministers, who made the monarch realize the services he had rendered. But, once again, he completely lost his position by going back to being a simple soldier, a real humiliation for someone of his rank and a hard blow that was aggravated by the death of his mother. Now, the army officers were clear about who had saved Korea and treated him with deep respect. Therefore, when the negotiations finally failed and Hideyoshi resumed his campaign with a victory at Chilcheolliang-the only Japanese naval victory in that war-in which Yi’s replacement, General Won Gyun, died in August 1597, eyes turned to him again, receiving a pardon and being reinstated in command.
The situation was dire because the Koreans had lost 160 ships and only a dozen of them were available to cope with half a thousand Japanese ships. In fact, the king ordered to forget about the fleet and fight on land, but Yi refused in a letter that reads: … your servant still has twelve warships under his command and is still alive, so that the enemy will never be safe in the West Sea [Yellow Sea]. And he devised a masterful plan which, if conceived by a Western sailor, would be studied in every naval history textbook.
Knowing that the Japanese would be confident in their enormous superiority and would not miss the opportunity to remove him, he once again resorted to the trick of provoking them – and, incredibly, they fell for it again. A Korean ship acted as a decoy, luring the enemy fleet to where they thought the Korean fleet was gathered, Myeongnyang Strait. And so it was, but there was one thing that the Japanese admiral, Kurushima Michifusa, was unaware of: this place was characterized by very shallow waters and a tidal cycle that prevented his ships from operating, while the smaller Koreans were able to do so without problems.
This is why the Japanese numerical advantage (133 warships plus 200 auxiliaries) was nullified: they entered carefully and in small groups to meet Yi’s meager 13 ships, which attacked them on all fronts thanks to their mobility and killed them to wait for the next round. Yi remained faithful to his doctrine of avoiding close combat, which his predecessor had fatally ignored, and the Japanese fleet was thrown into a chaos of fire and unmaneuverability by the currents that led to units colliding with each other. Thirty-one Japanese ships were lost and none of the Koreans, and Michifusa himself fell in battle, his head displayed on a trophy mast. Uncharacteristically, Yi had only 10 casualties.
There was actually a death that touched him very closely. The third of his sons, who had been captured by the Japanese army in Asan, was executed in retaliation. But the die was already cast for Hideyoshi’s plans because the Ming, the dynasty that ruled China at that time, decided to ally with Korea against the common danger and at the beginning of 1598 sent a fleet under the command of Chen Li to reinforce that of his neighbor in several skirmishes. The daimyo passed away that year and was succeeded by Shimazu Yoshihiro, who had supported him in the campaign as one of those who defeated Won Gyun at Chilcheolliang. He would suffer the ultimate defeat to the brilliant Yi Sun-sin.
It was in December 1598, at the Battle of Noryang, that he sent a powerful fleet of 500 ships to break the siege suffered by Admiral Konishi Yukinaga in Pionyang. Once again, the high number of ships caused them to hinder each other in the limited strait where the battle was fought, and the Chinese-Korean allies (82 panokseon and three Korean geobukseon plus six large junks, 57 galleys and two Chinese panokseon), managed to overcome the Japanese, sinking almost half of their ships. The rest opted for flight, and Yi Sun-sin jumped in behind them, determined to put an end to the threat once and for all. That cost him his life when he was hit by a shot near his heart.
With his last forces he ordered not to report his death and to be covered with a shield so that when he was dying the soldiers’ morale would not decline, so that only his first-born son Yi Hoe and his nephew Yi Wan witnessed his body being moved discreetly to the cabin, with the second wearing his armour to impersonate the admiral and continue to issue instructions by means of a drum. After the victory, however, the whole country cried out in pain and even the Chinese regretted it. Yi was buried in Asan; he had left this world to enter history.
It is significant that centuries later, the Japanese admiral Tōgō Heihachirō, who was nicknamed the Nelson of the East for being the architect of the victory over Russia at the Battle of Tsushima, once responded by being compared to the Korean sailor: It may be appropriate to compare me to Nelson but not to Yi Sun-sin of Korea, because he has no equal.
Sources: The Samurai Invasion of Korea 1592-1598 (Stephen Turnbull y Peter Dennis)/ Fighting Ships of the Far East (2). Japan and Korea AD 612-1639 (Stephen Turnbull y Wayne Reynolds)/The Imjin War: The Japanese Invasion of Korea (Eric Niderost en Warfare History Network)/Nanjung Ilgi: War Diary of Admiral Yi Sun-sin (Yi Sun-sin)/Wikipedia