Samurai Invasions, Stepping Stones & Human Ingenuity

Ancient Korea’s Struggle For Survival
by Garrett Hayes, Aqua Survey Staff Writer

The year is 1592 and the Joeson Dynasty of Korea is about to be confronted by one of the world’s fiercest professional armies, the Japanese samurai.  After more than one hundred years of civil war, Toyotomi Hideyoshi of Japan has recently unified his country.  Suddenly faced with a large force of battle-hardened, aggressive Japanese soldiers with little to do, Hideyoshi decides to invade China and use its small neighbor Korea as a mere stepping stone.  Better to attack a neighbor now than to deal with the possibility of a military coup.

Suffering from a mismanaged government and a poorly trained army, Korea most likely would have suffered quick defeat by the Japanese had it not been for the efforts of one man and his innovative vessel design.  That one man was Admiral Yi Sun-sin.  Admiral Yi would not only go down in history as the brilliant strategist and charismatic leader who led the Korean navy to victory against the Japanese, but, to many Koreans, he would also be remembered as the inventor of the infamous Turtle Boat.

Taking into account the enemy’s strengths and weaknesses, Yi’s Turtle Boat would play an integral role in the repulsion of the Japanese invasion.  At one hundred ten to one hundred twenty feet in length the Turtle Boat featured a U-shaped hull constructed of thick timber as well as what amounted to a heavily armored “turtle shell” which covered the entire top deck of the vessel to protect combatants from enemy fire.  In order to counter the Japanese’s favored battle strategy of grappling onto and then boarding enemy vessels to engage in hand-to-hand combat, this shell was covered with iron spikes, which would impale anyone who attempted to board the vessel.  This design played to the Koreans’ favor in that they were very advanced in terms of cannon weaponry.  A small group of Turtle Boats could rapidly close in on the enemy to deal out massive damage through cannon fire while sustaining little damage themselves.

Over the course of the war, perhaps a dozen Turtle Boats were constructed.  None of them have ever been seen by modern man.  To this day no one has found the remains of a single Turtle Boat. To make matters more complicated, Admiral Yi is said to have won every single naval engagement in which he was a part of, thus making the locations of his battles unlikely areas to search.  What happened to the Turtle Boats?  Perhaps part of the answer lies in the Battle of Chilcheonryang, one of the few naval engagements during the war in which Admiral Yi was sidelined and did not lead Korea’s fleet.  The Battle of Chilcheonryang was by all accounts a Korean slaughter.  The Korean fleet lost 157 ships while the Japanese sustained only minimal damage.  Does the bottom of the Chilcheonryang hold the remains of one or more of Yi’s Turtle Boats?  Other Turtle Boats survived the war, but have seemingly disappeared into the annals of history.  Can a Turtle Boat be found and excavated?  And if so, what will be the key to finding its location?

Under contract to the prestigious Marine Resource and Cultural Foundation, Aqua Survey is slated to arrive with their advanced geophysical survey instruments this Spring to attempt to locate a Turtle Boat.