Amazing Stories from Korean History: Admiral Yi Sun Shin
Yi Sun Shin is considered Korea’s greatest hero, and after reading about his life, philosophy and exploits, it
is easy to see why. Accounts of Yi Sun Shin’s earlier life in the Korean Army and the political intrigue that
swirled around him are well worth reading, (as are his War diaries), but it is the strength of his spirit and his
remarkably creative, naval defense of Korea during the Japanese invasions (1592-1598) that designate him
as one of the greatest, most creative military leaders the world has ever seen.
Towards the end of the 7 year war, (The Imjin War), the Japanese Navy far outnumbered Korean ships.
These numerous ships were crewed by Japanese warriors whose hand-to-hand combat skills were far
superior to the average Korean sailor. Yi Sun Shin recognized this disadvantage and used creative thinking
and cunning tactics to defend his homeland on his terms. Perhaps one of the best examples of Yi Sun
Shin’s creativity can be seen in the Turtle Ships, (Geobukseon).
Under Yi Sun Shin’s guidance, these Turtle ships were built with a creative new design scheme,
transforming them into the first ironclad warships in history. These Turtle ships were smaller and sat lower
in the water than the Japanese ships, making them faster and more maneuverable. They could turn at an
almost zero radius, and were equipped with multiple cannons that could simultaneously fire in all
directions. The front of the ship displayed a large Dragon head that was not a mere decoration; the Dragon
heads were capable of firing a canon from its mouth, and of breathing thick smoke used for intimidation as
well as camouflage. The ships were covered in armor plating and had spiked roofs to protect the crew by
making them impossible to board by the Japanese warriors.
While Yi Sun Shin never lost any of the battles he was involved in, the 1598 battle of Myeongnyang
seemed hopeless nonetheless. Due to the incompetence of another Korean Admiral in an earlier battle, the
Korean fleet was almost entirely destroyed and was down to only 13 ships. Yi Sun Shin took control of
these ships as the Japanese Navy bore down on the Korean coast with 333 ships! Yi Sun Shin’s famous
proclamation, "I still own thirteen ships...As I am alive, the enemies will never gain the Western Sea", will
forever be remembered in history.
The thing to remember about Yi Sun Shin was that he was not a sailor; rather, his training was in the Army.
Being wise enough to know his limits, he actively sought out the advice of local fisherman regarding the
currents, geography and sailing techniques. This information helped him set elaborate traps to catch his
enemies off guard. One example of this is his baiting the superior numbered Japanese Navy into a trap that
would prove to be their final destruction.
Yi Sun Shin anchored his 13 ships in a line across a channel that had a particularly strong current. Seeing
the formation of the small Korean fleet, the Japanese commander committed the entirety of his forces to
make one final deathblow meant to destroy the Korean Navy once-and-for-all, (Yi Sun Shin was counting
As the Japanese Navy entered the swift current of the channel, the people of Korea, stationed on land on
either side of the channel, tightened a massive chain that had been hiding beneath the surface of the water.
As the people tightened the chain, the first wave of Japanese ships crashed into it! Wave after wave of
Japanese vessels, pushed along by the strong current, crashed into each other creating a massive pileup in
the channel. The Turtle boats quickly went into action turning their guns on the pile of Japanese ships,
destroying a large majority of the fleet. Yi Sun Shin’s Turtle boats then gave chase to the remaining few
Japanese ships, which were now in full retreat. Spurred on by Yi Sun Shin, the Koreans destroyed the
Japanese fleet without loosing a single Korean ship! Unfortunately, while his Turtle boats gave chase
during the final battle, a stray bullet struck Yi Sun Shin. Realizing his wound would be fatal, his final
words were, "Do not let my death be known" telling his son to wear his armor to hide his death until the
battle was over. With the Japanese fleet defeated, the war was finally over.
I encourage you to read more about this amazing, Korean military hero. I think you will be inspired by how
his creative thinking won the freedom of the Korean people.