Yi Sun-sin was a Korean soldier in the 16th century.
Throughout his career he had built up a reputation as an exemplary leader with a brilliant eye for military decisions.
Despite this, he had received few promotions and had made fewer friends within the military due to his 'no nonsense' stance on nepotism and corruption.
But when Japan invaded the defenseless Korean coast, all those in power; begrudgingly admitted there was only one man for the job...
Listen in to learn why 51 million Koreans still know the story of the brilliant Admiral Yi Sun-Sin!
The Imjin War by Samuel Hawley
Korean Spirit and Culture Promotion Project
A big thanks to the voice actors for this episode!
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It's September 1597. Off the southern tip of the Korean peninsula, the admiral of the
navy forces prepares to make his last stand against the might of Japan. The forces under
his command were a pitiful sight. Thirteen ships hastily assembled and cobbled together,
staffed by terrified young men, drafted into service with only a couple of weeks notice.
It had not always been this way. Only a few months earlier, the admiral had stood at the
head of one of the most formidable navies on the sea. Every sailor, cannonball, plank of wood,
or grain of rice required for his crew he had personally secured. But the jealous whisperings
of a court rival had been his undoing. His meticulously trained navy was laid in the
hands of another man. An incompetent drunkard, Admiral Won Gyun, who in his first engagement
had lost everything.
188 Korean ships and all their crew, gone in the blink of an eye. The
nation, now in complete turmoil, had hurriedly reinstated the man they had just disgraced.
Rushed back to the front, the old commander took to the job and had done his best to prepare for
the coming Armageddon. Now, as the 300 strong Japanese navy lined up at the Myeong-yang Strait,
he addressed his quivering men. Since the situation has reached this extremity,
we must resolve to die together. Why should we hesitate to repay the royal bounty with
our glorious deaths? There is only one choice for us to make, victory or death.
As he watched the waves lap against the keel of his flagship, he knew the coastal tide had begun
to shift. It was now or never. The supreme commander gave the signal to his navigator
and his solitary ship lurched forward towards the gigantic Japanese armada.
There was no way of knowing it now, but he had just commenced a battle that will be remembered
as one of the most brilliant victories of all time and will be studied by naval commanders
400 years later. You're listening to Anthology of Heroes, the podcast that explores the lives
of national heroes from every country of the world and the legacy they left behind. And this
is part one of the story of Admiral Yi Sun-sin, the Divine Wind.
In the 16th century, the region we now call China was known as the Great Ming,
and great was probably an apt way to describe it. Since its founding in 1368,
the Empire of Ming ruled from Myanmar in the west all the way to the Pacific Ocean in the east,
from the vast Mongolian steppe in the north to the swampy lowlands of Vietnam in the south.
And this was to say nothing of its tributary states, vassals who were obliged to send support,
money or weapons at the emperor's request. These states could be found as far away as modern day
Indonesia or Thailand. From his extravagant capital on the east coast of China, the emperor
ruled over his 150 million odd subjects through a Chinese philosophical principle known as the
Mandate of Heaven, literally the will of the universe. You could say China was the sun and
there were many planets that orbited it, soaking in its culture, innovations and lifestyle.
If this were the case, no planet would be closer to the sun than Korea.
Korea was, in many ways, little China. While there were many other tributaries,
none enjoyed the privileges Korea did. The Korean kingdom, known as the Choson Dynasty,
was the most loyal vassal of the celestial kingdom and China saw them as the most civilized,
in other words, the most similar to them. Korean education held Chinese history and Chinese
philosophy in high esteem. Their government was structured almost identically to China's,
they followed the Chinese calendar and they inherited their social norms and family values
from China. But of course, this meant that any flaws in the Chinese system were inherited by
Korea. And make no mistake, there were flaws, even if the celestial kingdom couldn't see them.
The Ming Dynasty had come to power by seizing the throne from the Mongolian
Yuan Dynasty. And with the return of a Chinese bloodline to the throne came a revival of a
Chinese philosophy which came to be known as Neo-Confucianism. While I won't go into detail,
if you were a young bloke starting his political life in China, you had better know the principles
of this philosophy inside and out. The civil service examination was an exam like we have but
in Ming China your result would follow you for the rest of your career.
And the tenets of Neo-Confucianism were the bedrock of the paper.
So far this doesn't seem so bad, right? What's wrong with an exam to see who's the best candidate
for government position? Well, nothing really except if this was the only criteria for the
position. You see, this exam became so important, so all-encompassing that there was almost no room
for any other skills. While there were revisions to include more practical skills in the examination
like archery, mathematics and horse riding, the sheer volume of Confucian texts that needed to
be memorized meant that the emphasis would always be around this. The exam was brutally difficult.
A Chinese scholar in 1613 would state that a particular part of the examination known
ominously as the eight-legged essay was worse than a historical event where 460 scholars were
buried alive. Damn, and I thought my exams were hard. At least they only had one leg, I think.
If you were lucky enough to scrape through the examination without killing yourself,
you might land yourself a cushy, well-paid government job.
Maybe you could write out your days as a bureaucrat or a secretary, but if not, well,
you might find yourself serving in the Chinese military, and this is where the core of the problem
lay. A career in the military was seen as much less prestigious than one in government, and
because of this, many officers were only semi-literate, with no knowledge in military
strategy. Many had never even seen a battlefield or held a sword. Military titles were also often
passed down from father to son, further degrading any semblance of merit to the title.
In the past, China had gotten away with this because of the overwhelming size of their armies,
or, should I say, the perceived size of the armies. You see, with the lack of prestige in
a military career came lousy wages. Many officers stationed in remote outposts had long since begun
to rely on bribes from other soldiers who were eager to escape the military in search of a better
life. And while the bribe money came in, the garrison commander may inflate the numbers of
men under his command in order to gain extra supplies from the capital, which could be sold
on the black market. This meant the records the Ming emperor had for the number of troops he could
call upon in the event of war was unreliable at best and a complete mystery at worst. When a Mongol
raid came knocking in the mid-1550s, for example, the government had trouble mustering 50,000 men
when the garrison record stated there should be 107,000 men available. By the words of the
Ming minister of war himself, their army was a quote, undisciplined mob, end quote. But it wasn't
just the army, corruption on a similar vein had seeped into government administration.
While a bureaucrat might be able to recite 100 different Confucian texts referencing
honesty and integrity, if someone was waving a couple of dollar bills in front of his eyes
to look the other way, well, theory versus practice, right? Samuel Hawley, a professor
from Yonsei University in Seoul, who I've drawn heavily from in this episode, describes the
situation comically stating, quote, the Ming government had become like a man in a circus
who spins plates atop rods, immersed in the task of simply keeping the whole precarious setup from
tumbling to the floor, end quote. And very soon someone was about to come along and knock all
the plates down. A line from Song Su's famous The Art of War says, if you know the enemy and know
yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy,
for every victory gained, you will also suffer defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself,
you will succumb in every battle. It could be said that China at this point knew neither themselves
nor the enemy. But just over the sea, there was a man who knew both himself and his enemy.
His name was Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the newly minted ruler of Japan. Despite its close proximity,
Japanese society was very different to Chinese or Korean society. The island nation was technically
a vassal of China. But going back to our planet analogy, if China was the sun, Japan would have
been Pluto. Japan had long dropped the pretense of acknowledging the celestial kingdom as their
overlord. And though this was definitely a diplomatic snub, China didn't really care.
A quote from a Ming government at the time referred to the Japanese as barbaric dwarves,
a race of people who knew nothing of civilized society and knew only how to make war against
each other. And historically speaking, the second part of that sentence probably had some merit.
The numerous petty kingdoms of Japan were known as daimyos. And for almost all of recent history,
they had been at war with one another. But Toyotomi Hideyoshi was a cut above the others.
He had taken over command of a very shaky quote unquote unified Japan from his predecessor.
Technically, he had usurped power, but you know, potatoes, potatoes. Hideyoshi was the son of a
peasant and was shrewd and cunning, not unlike a rat, which is ironic because that's what the
previous emperor referred to him as, a bald-headed rat. An envoy who met him said that he had the
tanned skin of a peasant with tiny shrewd eyes that shined with promise and ambition.
And the man was nothing if not ambitious. Once he seized power, he quickly set about consolidating
base. These were powerful men who needed to be dealt with carefully and respectfully, something
which his predecessor did not understand. There was an instance where the previous ruler got
drunk, grabbed one of the daimyo, put him in a headlock and played his bald head like a bongo
drum. If I recall, Homer did something similar to Mr. Burns in an episode of the Simpsons.
Anyway, there will be no instances of this going forward. Hideyoshi needed these men on his side,
but at the same time, he had to make sure they were a few degrees separated from their fiercely
loyal army. So he craftily gifted many of them larger parcels of land across the other side of
the country. The daimyo, while separated from their traditional home, were not about to complain
about being gifted more prosperous land than they previously had. I mean, if someone forced you to
move from a one bedroom apartment to a four bedroom house on the other side of the city,
you'd probably be okay with it, right? With moves like this, as well as the occasional massacre for
those who were too stubborn to submit, in next to no time, and for the first time in the nation's
history, almost all of Japan was united under a single ruler. But Hideyoshi had a problem. The
warrior culture of the Japanese people. You see, unlike the Chinese elite who prioritized philosophy
and civic duty, the elite of Japan were skilled commanders who favored battlefield talent over
bureaucratic skills. They probably couldn't recite too much Confucian theory. Hell, maybe some of
them might not even know how to read, but get them on a battlefield and they would be in their
element. Hard times built hard men, Japan had spent millennia honing their martial skills
against one another. This was a culture steeped in military tradition. Now Hideyoshi had taken
that option away. He had a nation of warriors, but no one to fight. And you know what they say
about idle hands, right? Hideyoshi realized that if he didn't direct his weapon at something,
it would very likely blow up in his face. So that's what he did. The Celestial Kingdom's
prestige and huge manpower reserves may have intimidated others, but not the bald rat.
He saw right through the facade. Over the years, he had watched pirates and Mongol warlords extort
the Ming kingdom for payment. If this nation struggled to deal with a threat as minor as this,
what chance did they have against the might of unified Japan? Hideyoshi even conferred to his
advisors, quote, to take by force this virgin of a country, Ming, will be as easy as from mountain
to crush an egg, end quote. The ruler prior to Hideyoshi had taken Japan by storm with a weapon
that might surprise you, guns. While muskets had been more and more commonplace on European
battlefields since the 1400s, over in Asia this was not the case. The traditional warrior code
of Japanese society regarded these weapons with derision and suspicion. A samurai wielded a katana,
perhaps with a shorter dagger and when required a bow. This was the way of the warrior as it had
always been. But Hideyoshi's precursor had blown away the way of the warrior, literally. Samurai
discipline, swordsmanship and strength to use a bow took years to hone. The armor was expensive,
the training was expensive and the loss of a large group of soldiers was expensive. There must be an
easier way, you thought. What about giving a bunch of peasants cheap guns and a few weeks training?
And with that, the Ashigaru foot soldier was born. Hideyoshi would carry on the work of his
predecessor. Under his rule, gun manufacturers went into overdrive pumping out muskets and
ammunition en masse. Though the katana and the traditional Japanese armor were still favored by
the officers, the men on the ground were now exclusively riflemen. Upon seeing how quickly
the states of Japan fell to this new weapon, Hideyoshi set his sights sky high,
in his mind the world with his oyster. He gathered his daimyo and told them his plan to invade Korea,
but it didn't stop there. After Korea fell, they would march into China itself and depose the
emperor. And even after that, they would continue. Their mighty army would keep heading west,
through Thailand, Myanmar and into India. Soon, all of Asia would fall beneath the knees of the
mighty Toyotomi Hideyoshi. As the sounds of cheering and the clink of sake cups rose,
rang out through the city of Kyoto, across the sea a funeral procession moved solemnly through
the streets of Assan, just south of the Korean capital of Seoul. It was not a large procession.
The family were from a modest background after all. The deceased man had not even passed the
civil service exam. As the smells of incense and the sound of soft weeping snaked its way
through the streets, one of the dead man's son blended into the crowd of relatives following
behind. Though he cared deeply for his father, he did not cry. In Confucian ideals, the man was
stoic, stable and strong. This man was Yi Sun-Sin. His name would one day be a household name all
throughout the country. Yi Sun-Sin's life had been a series of peaks and troughs up to this point.
He, like her three other brothers, had been named after ancient Chinese kings, in his case King
Shun, with his name translated literally to something like Yi, vassal of Shun. At the time
of his father's funeral, he was around 38 years old, quite an advanced age for his social standing.
As a young man, Yi never took the civil service exam and instead, early in his life, went into
the military. It's not known if this was a personal preference or perhaps that his father
was unable to pay the exam fee for all four of his sons. However it happened, Yi took to the
military well. During the exam, he impressed the judges with his martial skills, but during the
horse riding part, Yi fell from his mount and shattered his leg, putting him out of action for
a few years. After his leg mended, he tried and passed the exam and was sent to the unruly northern
borders of the country. He arrived in the lawless border region, a 31-year-old junior officer with
no experience and the lowest possible rank in the military, but he quickly proved his worth. He was
quick thinking, intelligent, with an obvious knack for leadership. He was also quick to lead by
example. Soon he began to rise to the top of the commands, but something always pulled him back
down, integrity. You see, when working within the military and likewise within the government,
being intelligent and driven would only get you so far. If you really wanted to get to the top,
you had to kiss ass and play the game. In essence, you had to be willing to dirty your hands with
corruption. This wasn't blatantly stealing from the treasury or lying directly to the king,
it was much more subtle. A promotion for a senior officer's son here, or a bit of credit stealing
here, maybe there was some special privileges you should lay on a man from a noble family.
Whatever the case, and however it came up, Yi would have none of it. Regardless of whatever
promotions or honors it cost him, he refused to muddy his name with cronyism, even if everyone
else was doing it. And because everyone else was doing it, Yi made a lot of enemies. The many
served under, his colleagues, all knew he was a man that would not lie on their behalf. They knew
that in battle, if they did not pull their weight, Yi's report to the government would certainly be
highlighting it. And for men who had taken on these roles hoping to sit back and collect their
paychecks, this was bad news. After a clever ambush of some rebel groups, Yi was promoted
and sent to Seoul for military training, but quickly alienated himself from his superiors
by refusing their family relations any special treatment. He was then sent south and given his
first naval command. There he made enemies with both the governor and the navy commander,
who wrote a scathing report about his conduct. After that he was demoted. When the report was
investigated from Seoul, Yi's impeccable service record and glowing reviews from his own soldiers
completely exonerated him. But to save the high profile governor the embarrassment of having to
apologize to him, Yi was sent north to the borders where his career had begun. Despite his demotion,
Yi once again delivered a decisive blow to the enemy tribes. There were congratulations and back
clapping all round, but when Yi was approached by a smiling senior officer who wanted to be
included in his battle report, Yi flatly refused him. Why should he lie? The man had contributed
nothing to the victory. After a firm no from Yi, the senior officer wrote his own report,
stating that Yi had actually acted without authorization and that the raid was risky,
foolish, and the victory due to sheer luck. For years these kinds of political missteps would
keep Yi out of high command. The man was brilliant, everyone knew it, but it didn't matter. By
refusing to play any role in military cronyism, it seemed he would forever languish as a low-level
officer. But one day in 1591, a letter arrived. It was from his childhood friend who had risen
to a prominent position in the government. The letter was a reassignment with a hell of a
promotion alongside it. Yi was commanded to head south, this time all the way to the coast.
The government had heard rumors that a Japanese invasion was planned, though few took the
information seriously the king felt it was better to be safe than sorry. If the Japanese were to
invade, their Jiaola province would be the first line of defense. Yi was to command its entire
naval division. Officer Yi was now Admiral Yi. The government's choice of Yi to take on this
role says a lot about the unpreparedness of the state at the time. At this point Yi had served in
a single naval post during his lifetime and that was nowhere near this appointment in terms of
responsibility. Was there really no one better suited to take this role than this unknown,
outspoken soldier from the north? Whatever the reason for the promotion, if the Korean government
made a single correct decision in the entire course of the war, it was this one.
As the seasons came and went, all across Korea strange omens were said to have been sighted.
A fox had somehow made its way up to the royal palace and was found up curled upon the king's
throne. A river suddenly dried up and ceased to flow. A large flock of sparrows were sighted
splitting into two groups before turning on each other, pecking the other birds to death.
It seemed nature itself knew a disaster was coming. But in the capital of Seoul there was
very little sense of urgency. In the last few years Toyotomi Hideyoshi had tried to make
himself known to the Korean people and wanted to make his ambitions of empire clear. His message
blunt as it was, was simple. The people of Korea were to stand aside while Japanese troops marched
through their country and into China. In a way he wanted to use Korea as a highway to the main
prize. If this was done, then at least according to Hideyoshi, no harm would befall the people of
Korea. But diplomacy was not as smooth and seamless as it is today. Back in these days,
a delegate, that is the person who was sent to speak on behalf of their sovereign, held
enormous power. It was up to them to set the tone and maybe for a message of this nature,
soften the blow of impact it was meant to have. It was a role that required the representative to be
linguistically gifted both in their own language and the one they were translating to. They needed
to have a good understanding of foreign customs and more than anything they had to be loyal.
As we will come to see through diplomatic blunders that seem like something out of a Monty Python
sketch or a Three Stooges routine, these traits were not always present.
The first delegate sent to Korea was an ex-general. The message he was supposed to be
conveying was that the Koreans needed to send a tribute mission to Japan as a sign of obedience.
Instead, the boorish, loud soldier had no time for Korean customs, laughed aloud when they
demonstrated their swordsmanship to him and insulted the local magistrate accusing him of
never having seen a real battle. Predictably, he returned to Japan with nothing to show.
Hideyoshi, who was not a man to be trifled with, was enraged and had him killed along with his
whole family. Oof. After this event, the Koreans had their suspicions about Hideyoshi confirmed.
The Japanese were a barbarous and crude people with no appreciation for the finer things.
It would be a waste of time extending a hand of friendship to them.
Another delegation was sent soon after. This time, the diplomat conducted himself well
and it was Hideyoshi himself who offended the Koreans. In a letter that started with quote,
when my mother conceived me it was by a beam of sunlight that entered her bosom in a dream.
End quote. Hmm. He then went on to aggressively lay out his plan for his empire, how Japan had
fallen easily to him and China will too. The letter was rude and presumptive, but it did what
it needed to. For the first time, it had alarmed the Koreans. The government now realized this
unknown warlord may seriously be considering an invasion. The letter came with some gifts too,
rather strange, cheap looking muskets. The Koreans had seen muskets before, but these were new and
shaped like a dog's leg, which they derisively began to refer to them as dog leg rifles or just
dog legs. The government agreed that they should send a delegation to Japan, but not to submit,
more to just congratulate Hideyoshi on his new position and maybe do a bit of spying to see if
this barbarian really posed a threat. The ambassador soon arrived at Hideyoshi's newly
renovated capital of Kyoto. Their experience was strange. The Japanese had a long way to go,
and the delegates sat down for what they assumed would be a feast, a show of hospitality to suit
their status. Instead, a few bowls of rice were passed around, while the Japanese guests, who
were dressed in everyday clothes rather than dining clothes, chatted amongst themselves,
ignoring the Koreans. The delegates sat there, confused, until their gracious host, Hideyoshi,
finally appeared. He emerged suddenly and, like the other men, was not wearing dining clothes.
He fawned over his one-year-old son and spent the time showing off the boy to the other guests.
The child then peed on him, he burst out laughing, handed him back to the attendant and left.
That was it. The Korean delegates left Japan, confused and a bit insulted. Why had he even
summoned them there in the first place? They returned to the Korean mainland telling more
tales about the uncivilized nature of their neighbor. The ambassador stated that they
disliked everything about Hideyoshi and reiterated Korea had nothing to gain from a relationship
with him. But to Hideyoshi, there was no confusion. To him, the Koreans had come as vassals. They had
arrived as court to declare their servitude to his newly forming empire. They were not as equals
and they were definitely not owed any sort of feast. I mean, did these people not even read
his note about conception from a ray of light out of his mom's bosom? But if he thought the delegates
had left on a good note, he soon got a rude awakening in a letter from the Korean government
saying, quote, to invade another nation is an act of which men of culture and intellectual
attainments should feel ashamed. We shall certainly not take up arms against the supreme
nation, meaning China. The letter closed with this, quote, we should conclude this letter by
saying that your proposed undertaking is the most reckless, imprudent and daring of which we have
ever heard, end quote. An impasse had been reached by the two nations. The clock was now ticking.
While Hideyoshi was more than ready for war, Korea was absolutely not.
The Korean army, if it could be called an army, was in bad shape. As with most Korean institutes,
the military had inherited the Chinese model, warts and all. Many men that were listed on
official papers in Seoul were dead, missing or had never existed at all, with many names
having been created by garrison commanders to secure more funding from the government.
And for the soldiers that did exist, they had little combat experience and the tactics and
weaponry they relied upon was virtually unchanged to what was being used 200 years ago. Compounding
all of this was the policy to keep top generals away from their troops as much as possible.
This was to reduce the risk of rebellions from generals who gained too much popularity with
their troops. But the downside was that most generals knew none of their commanding officers
or the terrain they were supposed to be operating in. The system assumed the general could come in
in a few days or weeks before a major campaign and immediately gain the loyalty of thousands of
men he now commanded. Obviously, this was a fantasy. Wrapping up this nice little disaster
was the Korean government. Factionalism gripped the courts of power in Seoul. The political power
had been loosely split between two groups called the Easterners and the Westerners. Though the
original reason for splitting was a different interpretation of Confucian texts, it had now
devolved into petty tribalism. If a Western minister suggested something, the Easterners
would disagree. If an Eastern minister suggested the promotion of a general, the Westerners would
block it. Sounds familiar? You bet it does. With war being a kind of hot topic, the two
most high-ranking Korean generals reluctantly moved south for an inspection of the coastal
defenses and troops that they were supposed to be massing. Their efforts were lackluster at best.
A few forts and guard towers had been built, some food gathered and some men had been put on high
alert, but nowhere near enough. Nevertheless, the two men returned to Seoul and either through their
own ignorance or the desire not to be placed under any scrutiny, they concluded that everything was
satisfactory. When a courtier raised some concerns about the Japanese muskets he had heard about,
the general absentmindedly responded that even if the Japanese did have these new weapons,
they would not be able to aim them. As the government bickered about whether or not the
invasion was coming, or Hideyoshi was all talk, down on the coast, Admiral Yi was taking no chances.
By this point in time, Yi had been in command of about one-third of the Korean navy for about a
year. Though he had very little practical experience in naval warfare, since he was informed
of his promotion, he had read every old book he could find relating to it. It's easy to imagine
the stern-faced Admiral Yi pouring over ancient texts by candlelight all through the hours of
each morning. He learned about the role currents, tides and wind played in naval engagements,
how narrow deltas and straits could be used as a bottleneck, and the importance of regular repairs,
maintenance and upgrades for the health of your fleet. But once he arrived at his new command post,
the reality that confronted him was the polar opposite to everything he had just read. The men
were undisciplined and lazy. They rarely followed orders and spent their time gambling and drinking
instead of patrolling. They had very little military experience or knowledge of tactics
and had very little interest in learning them. All this changed quickly. Yi was a stern man.
As a strict disciplinarian, he doled out floggings for minor infractions and executions for major
ones. But he wasn't cruel. After a hard day of training, he didn't disappear back into
his private quarters with a pretty girl and a bottle of wine. He spoke with the men, observed
what they needed, the condition of their weapons and their defenses, and most of all, their ships.
These two were in rotten condition. In total, there were around 50 ships under the authority.
Not an insignificant number, but in their present state, the commander had concerns if they would
even float. Full of rotten wood, old sails, and out-of-service cannons, the repair of these vessels
would become his highest priority. The central government in Seoul were still reluctant to
dedicate any serious money to a threat that many of them believed to be non-existent,
so Yi sourced the building materials and labor himself from the countryside. A begrudging respect
began to build up amongst the men for their new commander as their ships and coastal defenses
began to resemble a real military force. But as Yi surveyed the defenses, a nagging thought took
him back to his studies on naval warfare. He recalled the descriptions of a certain vessel
that the classics mentioned. Sitting low against the water, it was described as being covered in
thick wood with spikes jutting out of the top, a dragon's head protruding from the front, and
bristling all over with cannons. It's a ship that today is synonymous with Admiral Yi, one that I'm
sure any Korean listener will know instantly, the Kobuk-san, the turtle ship. The turtle ship,
despite popular opinion, was not created by Yi. It had been developed as a bit of a novelty about
200 years earlier to defend against pirates. But as the Korean military fell into apathy,
and innovation stifled, the curious ship had been forgotten except for a few mentions in the back
pages of military documents. Documents that hardly anyone read, except of course Admiral Yi.
From Yi's own notes, there was not too much info to go on. He knew that the ship had to have a
stronger hull to absorb heavy blasts and the need to sit low in the water so that the many cannons
it had would be assured of a hit on the taller enemy vessels. But really, apart from that,
the rest Yi seems to have pioneered himself. A common myth is that the turtle ship had a cast
iron roof, but the amount of iron this would have required meant this was an impossibility
for an admiral who was already struggling for materials. Another myth is that Yi had a whole
fleet of these things, while in reality, most of Yi ever would have had under his command is five,
probably three realistically. At this point in time though, he had just one built as an experiment
to see how it would perform. We've got a picture of this very unique and
very cool-looking ship on our website and Instagram page.
On the 23rd of December, time was up. A huge Japanese armada set off. Their destination,
the seaport of Busan, Korea. The army aboard was one of the most elite on earth at the time,
the final evolution of a culture that had dedicated itself to the art of war.
The battle was over. The battle was over. The battle was over. The battle was over.
War. The boats were filled with men who had survived and thrived in the unforgiving world
of Japan's warring states. They were cunning, shrewd, and fiercely independent. Each army
contingent was led by a fearsome samurai general. Hideyoshi had bound them together for a common
purpose, but that didn't mean they had to like each other. Many had age-old grudges against the
other. Some were Shinto warrior monks, others recently baptized Christians who saw the venture
as their own kind of crusade. Though they were one army, technically, each commander pursued
his own agenda and his troops would only take orders from him. If the win were good, it would
be a seven-hour trip from Japan to Korea. But if you were there to watch this elite fighting
force piling onto the Japanese crafts, you'd probably notice how comparatively basic the
boats were. The Japanese viewed naval warfare in a very different way to the Koreans. To them,
the boat was only a method to commence real warfare. They were designed to ferry troops
to a destination or into an enemy vessel for boarding. They were not battleships.
Once they arrived, though, the first few days of the invasion were a disaster of almost comical
proportions for the Koreans. With Yi in charge of about one-third of the Korean vessels,
the other two-thirds were split between two bumbling numskulls, Admiral Pak Hong and Admiral
Won Gi-hun. Won Gi-hun was a social climber with little else going for him. Before, we talked about
how an essential part of a government or military role was politicking, a kind of you scratch my
back, I scratch yours that Yi refused to participate in. Well, for Won Gi-hun, that was
all there was to the role. Yi had a hundred percent of his talents in leadership and military
theory and zero in politicking and bootlicking. Won Gi-hun was the opposite. He had friends in
high places who were more than willing to overlook his lack of any real talent because he was willing
to kick them back a few favors now and again. As you can imagine, these two would not end up
becoming friends. Pak Hong cited the invasion force first and was paralyzed with fear. At first,
he tried to reason that it was just a large trading mission from another island, but as the
ships grew closer and closer and numbers climbed, he realized to his horror that this was an
invasion. He sent a number of panicked messages in every direction begging for someone to tell
him what he should do. Meanwhile, his ship sat idle in port. No attempt was made to stop the
Japanese landing on the shores. When he got no response in an act of unabated cowardice,
Pak Hong ordered all his ships burnt and fled north to the capital. So sure was he that Korea
was doomed, he told almost no one that he was departing, leaving a bewildered garrison
completely leaderless at one of the most key moments in Korea's history. As Admiral Yee sent
out scouts to find out what was actually happening, a few Korean fishing ships began drifting back
into the harbor that Won Gyun commanded. Skittish and in way over his head, Won panicked
assuming this was the Japanese navy and following his brainless counterpart, he too ordered all his
ships burnt. Over a hundred ships were reduced to four. With what was left of his dignity
smoldering in the harbor, Won prepared to flee north and was only stopped when one of his
subordinates reminded him how this act might look to his friends in the capital. Fearing for
his reputation, the Admiral of Nothing with four of his remaining ships sat quietly and sent a
request to Admiral Yee for assistance. In the first few days of the invasion, two-thirds of the
Korean navy had been destroyed with not a single shot fired from the Japanese. But first a quick
message from one of our friends of the show. Welcome to hashtag history. I'm Rachel and I'm
Leah. And if you are a history nerd, or even if you are a history hater, this is the podcast for
you. Even if history was your least favorite subject in school, we can guarantee you will like
this podcast because we talk about all the things that your history textbooks did not. That's things
like how Ted Kennedy drove his car off a bridge and was able to escape the car but left a woman
inside to die. As the Japanese troops began to build their bridgehead, they would have been a
fearsome sight. While all the foot soldiers looked similar, their samurai commanders that walked
ashore had their own unique flair. Blackened armor tinted with red, horrific carved masks
twisted into images of ghosts or beasts. Helmets with enormous deer antlers. These men looked more
demon than men. And to the Koreans, they may as well have been. All across the southern peninsula,
the underprepared citadels and towns fell like dominoes. Once they were all ashore, the Japanese
army, its laborers, and its camp followers totaled somewhere near a staggering 160,000.
The unrelenting musket fire this horde of humanity bought down was nothing like Korea
had seen before. Their dated tactics, weaponry, and strategy was truly like bringing a knife to
a gunfight. The butchery was methodical and deliberate. Once a man was killed, his nose
was sliced off and pickled. A commander's skill was tied to how many noses he could gather.
Originally, heads were gathered instead but almost immediately became a logistical nightmare to try
and truck so many heads back, let alone store them, so noses became the new commodity. This
of course was ripe to abuse as it was much more difficult to tell a woman or a child's nose from
a man's as opposed to a head. The Japanese proceeded north to Seoul at a blistering speed.
The Korean government was in freefall. As one faction worked desperately to recruit men to send
south, the other faction still denied the invasion was anything to worry about and that soon the
robbers, which had become the new nickname for the Japanese, would soon be outrun by their own supply
line and give up. This was of course completely baseless and throughout the war various reports
like this would further make the role of the central government more difficult. The king
summoned one of his best generals they had and promised him that upon his arrival in the capital
he would find a crack force of men to lead south, the best of the best. Instead, when he got there,
there were 300 students, government bureaucrats, and anyone else who was around with no military
experience whatsoever. Leaving behind the majority of them, he headed south to the city of Suzan and
recruited whatever peasants he could find thinking he would have at least a week to fortify the town.
He didn't even get a day. When a desperate report arrived later that day stating that the invaders
would soon be upon the city, he had the messenger killed as a liar. To the general it was
inconceivable that the enemy had marched all the way from the coast to this city so close to the
capital in such a short amount of time. He was right to be surprised the German's invasion of
Poland in World War II was only slightly faster than this and they had cars. As the general's
poultry forces were shredded by volley after volley of musket fire, reports flowed back to
a gleeful hideyoshi. Even he was surprised by the speed at which the country was falling.
Thinking the invasion was almost complete, he stated that the conquest of Korea had been
quote, carried out as easily as dust is swept away with a broom, end quote. As frantic report after
frantic report rolled into Seoul, the king was left with little option but to abandon the capital.
Loaded haphazardly onto oxen carts were the ancient tablets that told the history of Korea,
the most precious relics in the kingdom. Everything else was left behind. There was simply no time.
Not knowing where they were going, they hurriedly fled the city. The wailing and booing of the
capital citizens followed them as they left. To most citizens, the king's departure meant that
the city was truly doomed and once the royal guard had deserted, the citizens took to looting and
burning everything. Beautiful ancient palaces with names like the Palace of Glorious Blessings
and the Palace of Shining Happiness went up in smoke alongside granaries, court buildings,
and everything else. As the imperial capital was reduced to a smoking crater behind them,
the royal entourage headed aimlessly north as fast as they could. Soon a frightful storm began
and many court officials who were not used to walking, let alone trekking, began to lag behind.
But there was no stopping. Soaking wet and petrified of ambush, the sorry looking group
pushed on. As the Japanese daimyos ravaged the countryside and made their way towards the capital,
Admiral Won Gi-hun sent message after message to Admiral Yi telling him to immediately send
ships to reinforce his position. Ironically, he was now concerned that his position might be
indefensible. Oh really? You burnt all your own ships and you think that might be the case? Okay.
Yi waited a significant amount of time to act, a whole two and a half weeks. While this might
seem slow, even neglectful, the admiral now realized the entire defense of his country now
rested on his shoulders. He wasn't going to hurl the last ships he had into the maw without a plan.
Yi pored over maps of inlets around the coast, taking particular note of shallow bays and
straits. He also prepared his captains for battle. He had trained these men, yes, but they were still
very green. Yi told them, quote, don't act rash, be deliberate and calm like a mountain, end quote.
But the terrified Won was neither calm nor deliberate. And when Yi didn't immediately
jump to defend him, he sent messages to the capital complaining of Yi's cowardice.
Yi, furious at having to defend his reputation against a man who had just destroyed his own ships,
quickly grew to dislike Won, finding the man to be a sycophantic drunk with no ability to lead.
Nevertheless, Yi received orders from the king in exile, instructing him to link up with Won's fleet.
Knowing Won personally, it's likely that he left out how minuscule his own fleet actually was now.
Putting their differences aside, the two commanders combined their forces and got to work.
The reports had triggered them that the Japanese troops were looting a nearby peninsula
and left their ships idle in the harbor. This was what Yi had been waiting for,
a simple first assault to put spirit into his men and prove to them the Japanese were not
immortal demons, only humans like them. A sailor was caught trying to sneak away the night before
and Yi responded by publicly executing him. There was no room for cowardice in his men,
apart from Admiral Won, I guess. The report turned out to be true. The Japanese troops were
so preoccupied with looting and the sky so full of smoke that they didn't see the Korean ships
until they closed into the harbor. When they finally realized what was happening, they ran
for their muskets. Yi, who knew the fear these weapons caused in his men, ordered his sailors to
quote, stand like mountains, end quote. As usual, Yi was first in the fray and his captains, loyal
to him, followed obediently, trusting their admiral not to lead them astray. As the Koreans
blasted the inland troops with their superior cannons, the muskets that had wrecked so much
havoc on land simply bounced off the reinforced hulls of the Korean ships. It's easy to imagine
the stoic admiral below the deck of his turtle ship, in the dim light, calming his sailors
amongst the boom of cannons and the screams of men dying, all of which would have been completely
new experiences for most. Be calm like a mountain. At the end of the engagement, 26 Japanese ships
were sunk with no Korean vessels lost. Admiral Won Gyun had done nothing at all. He and his
few ships lingered at the back while Yi and his navy did all the work. The Japanese fled
into the hills, which troubled Yi as it meant the local population would be terrorized by them
again soon. But he knew he could not follow them. The Japanese excelled at land warfare,
his only chance of asserting dominance was on the sea. His crew had done it, their first real
victory. He sent his battle report north, to wherever the king was, and with it he included
a Japanese musket which he advised the military to study. And if you thought Yi didn't notice
the other admiral sitting idle, think again. His thoughts on the man were laid bare.
Nothing is more shameful than a commander's loose discipline over his subordinates like this.
I hope such conduct will be corrected by the court. Admiral Yi had inflicted the first
setback on the Japanese robbers. However minor the victory was, it inspired others. There was
still hope for Korea. But as usual, he didn't mince words. In his letters, he scolded the
government war ministers for their lack of preparation and insisted that the way to defeat
the invaders was oversea where they were most vulnerable. If significant resources were diverted
to his cause, he could inflict more serious blows like the one he had just dealt. All of this of
course was true, but it rankled the fragile ego of the ministers. Who was this insubordinate
upstart telling them how to do their jobs? He'd won a single battle and now thinks himself like
Sun Tzu? Over the next few weeks, Yi would win further engagements just like this one.
Regarding Won Gyuen as more of a hindrance than help, he instructed the admiral to find the
wounded or dying Japanese and finish them off. This suited Won just fine. Out of danger and in
possession of his precious trophy heads, he would send them north and claim credit for the kills.
As the confidence of the Korean navy grew slowly, the Japanese reached Seoul. Or more appropriately,
one of the daimyos raced ahead to Seoul. Each army wanted to be the first one to have the glory of
conquering the capital. But once they got there, there wasn't much glory to be had. Its own
citizens had nearly destroyed the ancient city. Blackened palaces and sickly vagabonds lined the
streets. Most citizens had fled into the hills. However, Hideyoshi made his rules exceptionally
clear the citizens of Seoul were not to be harmed unless they caused trouble. After all,
according to his plan of a Japanese empire, these people were now his own citizens and under his
protection. Meanwhile, the tattered royal retinue dragged themselves into Pyongyang, the modern day
capital of North Korea. The weather had not been kind to them either, and the king's retainers
probably looked more like beggars, half-drowned in soaking and dirty silken robes. The one single
piece of positive news that greeted them on their arrival was an influx of reports of a
sultry admiral on the coast, winning victory after victory against numerically superior invaders.
And that is the end of part one of Admiral Yi Sun-sin, The Divine Wind. I assure you that this
story is only just heating up, so tune in for our next episode where the unthinkable happens.
Yi will be stripped of his command, demoted and replaced by, you guessed it, Admiral Won Gi-hun.
One of the most brilliant victories of all time is coming up, so make sure you're subscribed on
whatever podcast platform you've tuned in on. This is Anthology of Heroes. Thanks for listening.
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