September 16, 1597
As the morning sun rose in the east, fully illuminating the Myeongnyang straight, Admiral Yi Sun-Shin stands on the uppermost deck of his command ship. In front of him is the invading Japanese fleet with 133 warships and 200 more supply and troop ships – carrying 120,000 soldiers. Admiral Yi doesn’t bother turning around to look at his force. He is well acquainted with the 12 ships and 1,500 soldiers that remain of the once powerful Joseon Navy. A navy he had personally trained and built over five years of service.
Currently, though, it would appear he is going to fight them all on his own. These ships only survived because they retreated from the last battle – where 153 warships were destroyed. Once again, they are scared they will be destroyed and wait behind Admiral Yi’s boat. Only Admiral Yi is courageous enough to stand against the feared Japanese invasion.
He had stood in their way before, he would do it again for his country and for his honor.
As he watched the enemy fleet enter the straight, Admiral Yi saw his plan unfolding just as he had expected. In more than 12 naval battles under his command, he had destroyed more than 356 Japanese ships, while losing less than 10 of his own ships. He was undefeated against the Japanese. Admiral Yi let out a slow groan as he once again relived the reason he wasn’t in command less than a month before – why he only had this meager force instead of his full fleet.
A Japanese spy had given a Korean commander what seemed like a sure victory and an opportunity to completely destroy the Japanese fleet. This commander sent the information – and a request for the navy to attack – to King Seonjo. The king quickly sent the command to Admiral Yi, but he refused knowing the waters were not favorable for engaging the enemy and didn’t trust the source. This upset the king and his court, so they sent Admiral Yi to prison and had him tortured. Only the intervention of a few friends saved him from being killed by the king. Admiral Yi was demoted to a common soldier to injure his honor, but he bore this with humility.
The first major battle by his replacement resulted in the complete loss of 153 ships and tens of thousands of men. They quickly reinstated Admiral Yi, and to their relief, he took back his post. The land invasion by the Japanese worried the King, and he asked Admiral Yi to bring his men and help on land. To this Admiral Yi respectfully said, ” …your servant still doth have twelve warships under his command and he is still alive, that the enemy shall never be safe in the West Sea (or Yellow Sea).”
So here he stood, virtually alone, in front of 166 warships that were anxious to finish off the Joseon navy. Admiral Yi knew that every three hours the tide in the narrow passageway changed direction. For three hours it would bring the opposing fleet towards him and into rocks and submerged dangers. Then it would push them away, and allow him to pursue his enemy if he wished.
Due to the narrow straight, the Japanese fleet had to send out small groups of ships. This allowed Admiral Yi to use one of his main advantages – cannon. For decades the Japanese had built lightweight boats and used boarding techniques to overpower enemy vessels. The Koreans had heavier boats with dozens of cannons on board, allowing them to sink enemy ships from a distance. With his boat anchored in place, Admiral Yi destroyed the first wave of ships that came at him.
His bold success encouraged the other captains behind him, and they joined the fight. Soon, the tide shifted and the enemy began to retreat. Admiral Yi led the charge as he commanded his ships to pursue their foe and further inflict damage. At evening, 31 Japanese ships were destroyed, numerous others damaged, and not one of his own ships was lost. The supplies and troops that were bound for the western coast to support the invasion of the Korean capital, were repulsed and the victory gave his soldiers, their people and even their allies confidence that they could stand against their enemy and win again.
Surprisingly Admiral Yi was not trained in naval tactics. He wasn’t even a sailor most of his life. Before he was appointed to be captain of a ship in his home province, he was stationed as a soldier on their northern border. He used the best knowledge he had, consulted with other commanders and made solid decisions. He was never defeated in battle, though they were at war for seven years. He would die in battle December 1598 at the end of the war. He is a national hero in Korea and regarded as one of the greatest naval commanders in history.
It would be daunting to face a foe of such great strength and sheer numbers, knowing your men are afraid and ready to run rather than fight. What keeps a man (or woman) going in such a situation? Belief in the cause, belief in your abilities, and belief in your purpose and vision.
Starting a new endeavor is daunting. Learning a new skill is intimidating. But if you believe in yourself and make decisions based on facts rather than glory, you will find the strength to do hard things. You might also see that you are inspiring others to believe as well.