During the Imjin War, on October 26, 1597, Yi Soon Shin was about to face his most challenging battle yet. Admiral Yi's tiny force of 12 Korean ships was taking on an armada of 200 Japanese ships. It seemed impossible for Yi's forces to claim victory, but he did. Using just his wit and will, he won what may just be the greatest underdog battle in history. Though his career had its ups and downs, Yi Soon Shin is considered one of Korea's greatest naval commanders.
Yi Soon Shin was born in Hanseong on April 28, 1545. He showed signs of being an excellent strategizer at an early age. As a young boy, he would play war games and often led his friends to victory. During his youth, he forged an important friendship with Ryu Seong-ryong, a scholar and military commander. This was critical to Yi's rise in the ranks during the Imjin War.
The first military position Yi held after passing his examination (which was delayed due to Yi breaking his leg) was a junior officer in 1536. In the years following, he repelled several attacks on border settlements by the Jurchen, a tribe of people native to Korea. Eventually, he captured and executed their chief.
Despite a successful start to his military career, he was accused of desertion by a superior-ranking general. Yi was kicked out of the army, imprisoned, and tortured. He was released and made commander of a training facility in Seoul. After changing positions several times, he was appointed the commander of a naval district and was stationed in Yeosu in 1591. He proceeded to build a regional navy. Yi and his navy would be put to the test against the Japanese when the latter attempted to invade Korea only a year later.
Yi's most famous and daring mission was the Battle of Myeongnyang. Korea suffered a disastrous defeat at a previous battle, where almost all of the Korean navy was destroyed. Yi had approximately 10-13 ships in the Myeongnyang Strait, as the Japanese navy, with some 200 ships, closed in on them. The current and size of the strait prevented the Japanese navy from entering all at once, so the Japanese flagship and vanguard entered the strait first.
At first, only Yi's flagship went up to stand against the Japanese, but his other ships gradually joined in thinking, "If Yi's flagship can hold off an entire vanguard, then maybe we do have a chance!" A few hours later, the current changed from flowing toward Yi to away from him, causing the Japanese ships to crash into each other, and providing a perfect opportunity for a counter attack. The results were devastating for Japan. The Koreans rammed the Japanese, sinking 30 ships. Any who attempted to swim to shore were drowned by the currents. The Japanese retreated, but the current turned again, and Yi was unable to pursue. It was a humiliating defeat for Japan and provided a chance for Korea's navy to recover and win the Imjin War.
Yi died in 1598 at the Battle of Noryang after uttering his famous last words, "The war is at its height- wear my armor and beat my war drums. Do not announce my death." Yi truly was a noble hero.
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