Lee Sun-sin (April 28, 1545 – December 16, 1598, Korean: 이순신, Hanja: 李舜臣) was a Korean naval commander, famed for his victories against the Japanese navy during the Imjin war in the Joseon Dynasty. One of the most revered figures in Korean history, Lee is well-respected for his exemplary conduct on and off the battlefield not only by Koreans, but by Japanese Admirals as well. Military historians have compared his naval genius to that of Admiral Horatio Nelson. His title of Samdo Sugun Tongjesa (Hangul : 삼도수군통제사, Hanja :三道水軍統制使), literally meaning "Naval Commander of the Three Provinces," was the title for the commander of the Korean navy until 1896.
Perhaps his most remarkable military achievement occurred at the Battle of Myeongnyang. Outnumbered 333 ships to 13, and forced into a last stand with only his minimal fleet standing between the Japanese Army and Seoul, Lee delivered one of the most astonishing defeats in military history.
Despite never having received formal naval training or participating in naval combat prior to the war, and constantly being outnumbered and outsupplied, he went to his grave as one of few admirals in world history who remained undefeated after commanding as many naval battles as he did (at least 23).
Lee died at the Battle of Noryang on December 16, 1598. With the Japanese army on the verge of being completely expelled from the Korean Peninsula, he was mortally wounded by a single bullet. His famous dying words were, "The battle is at its height...beat my war drums...do not announce my death."
The royal court eventually bestowed various honors upon him, including a posthumous title of Chungmugong (충무공, 忠武公, Loyal Duke of Warfare), an enrollment as a Seonmu Ildeung Gongsin (선무일등공신, 宣武一等功臣, First-class military order of merit during the reign of Seonjo), and two posthumous offices, Yeonguijeong (영의정, 領議政, Prime Minister), and the Deokpung Buwongun (덕풍부원군, 德豊府院君, The Prince of the Court from Deokpung). Lee remains a venerated hero among Koreans today.
Japanese Invasions of Korea (1592–1598)
Lee is remembered for his numerous victories fighting the Japanese during the Japanese invasions of Korea (1592–1598). Among his twenty-three victories, the Battle of Myeongnyang and the Battle of Hansan Island are the most famous battles.
In 1592, Toyotomi Hideyoshi gave the order to invade Korea and use it as a forward base to conquer Ming China. After the Japanese attacked Busan, Lee began his naval operations from his headquarters at Yeosu. Despite never having commanded a naval battle in his life, he won the Battle of Okpo, Battle of Sacheon, and several others in quick succession. His string of victories made the Japanese generals suddenly wary of the threat at sea. Twenty-three battles took place during the war, with Admiral Lee taking victory in all of them.
Hideyoshi was fully aware of the need to control the seas during the invasion. Having failed to hire two Portuguese galleons to help him, he increased the size of his own fleet to 1700 vessels, assuming that he could overwhelm the Joseon navy with numerical superiority.
There were numerous reasons why Lee was so successful against the Japanese fleets. Lee had prepared for the war by checking the status of his soldiers, granaries, and supplies, replacing them when it was necessary. As part of this preparation, Lee resurrected and built the turtle ship, which was a considerable factor in his victories. Lee also had a great deal of information about the southern Korean coast and he planned his battles using the sea tides and narrow straits to his advantage.
Lee was a charismatic leader, and was able to maintain his soldiers' morale despite constantly being low on supplies and food, and continuous news of countless Korean losses in ground battles. In some records, it is stated that he went as far as to personally fulfill some of his soldiers' dying wishes. He demonstrated his loyalty to the people by treating them with respect and fighting amongst them even when endangered. Because of this, Admiral Lee became immensely popular among his soldiers and the Korean people, who often provided him with intelligence reports at great risk to themselves.
The Joseon panokseon were structurally stronger than Japanese ships at the time. Panokseon had stronger hulls and could carry at least 20 cannons, compared to the Japanese 1 or 2. Japanese ship-mounted cannons were inferior to the Koreans' in both range and power. Cannon development had been neglected by the Korean government, so Lee personally saw to it that the technology was developed. As such, the Korean side had several different types of cannons at their disposal in battle.
Admiral Lee was an excellent naval strategist. The Japanese navy's strongest tactic was to board enemy ships and engage in hand-to-hand combat. The panokseon was slower than the Japanese ships so Lee had little room for error to negate the Japanese navy's most dangerous tactic. He was able to do so in every naval engagement he commanded.
As Lee's brilliance as a strategist revealed itself throughout the war, his legend grew. In what could be considered his greatest victory in the Battle of Myeongnyang, Lee proved victorious in the battle with 13 panokseon, while the Japanese had at least 333 ships (133 warships, at least 200 logistical). Lee also personally exercised command over his fleets, making the attack on Japanese ships coordinated and decisive.
It was largely due to Lee's complete control of the seas that the Japanese were eventually forced to retreat, keeping Joseon safe from another Japanese invasion until the end of the war.
One of Lee's greatest accomplishments was resurrecting and improving the turtle ship (거북선, 龜船). With his creative mind and the support of his subordinates, Lee was able to devise the geobukseon, or Turtle Ship. Contrary to popular belief, the turtle ship was not actually invented by Admiral Lee; rather, he improved upon an older design that had been suggested during the reign of King Taejong.
The turtle ships designed by Lee held eleven cannons on each side of the ship, with two each at the stern and the bow. The ship's figurehead was in the shape of a dragon. The figurehead itself held up to four cannons, and emitted a smokescreen that, in combination with its fierce appearance, was meant to be used as psychological warfare. The sides of the turtle ship were dotted with smaller holes from which arrows, guns, and mortars could be fired. The roof was covered with planks and spikes. The purpose of the spikes was to prevent the ship from being boarded by the enemy. The larger Japanese ships' sides were higher than the turtle ships' and thus, the spikes prevented boarders from jumping down onto the roof without risking impalement. There were two masts that held two large sails. The turtle ship was also steered and powered by twenty oars, which were pulled by two men during fair conditions and five in combat situations.
There is an ongoing debate as to whether the turtle ship had two decks or three; historians still have no definitive answer. Whichever is the case, it is clear that the turtle ship employed multiple decks to separate the rowers from the combat compartment. This enabled the turtle ship to be very mobile since wind and manpower could be used simultaneously. Most support the argument of two decks since that was what was drawn out in the first and second designs of the turtle ships. Some historians maintain that, since Lee was a unique individual and often pursued innovative ideas (contrary to the established wisdom of his peers), it is possible that he had the turtle ship built with three decks. It is known that his flag ship, a panokseon, had three decks during his campaigns, so there is support for the belief that the turtle ship had three decks.
Turtle ships are the most famous part of Admiral Lee's fleet; however, he never deployed more than five in any one battle. The reason for this was not that the cost or construction time of the ship was prohibitive; rather, it was the naval strategy employed at the time. Unlike anywhere else in the world at the time (with the exception of England), the Joseon Dynasty used cannons as its primary offensive naval weapon. Historically, they had often used guns and cannons against Japanese pirates as early as the 1390s. The Joseon navy did not implement the ship-boarding strategy that the Japanese navy did, so it was imperative that their warships "stand off" from Japanese vessels. Admiral Lee made it a strategic priority to avoid hand-to-hand combat, in which the Japanese navy specialized. The turtle ship was developed to support his tactic against Japanese fleets.
Turtle ships were first used in the Battle of Sacheon (1592) and were used in nearly every battle until the devastating Battle of Chilchonryang, when a Japanese double-agent plot nearly succeeded, resulting in every turtle ship and all but 13 panokseon being sunk. The turtle ships did not re-appear in battle until the Battle of Noryang.
Turtle ships were mostly used to spearhead attacks. They were best used in tight areas and around islands rather than the open sea.