The Yamato, pride of the Imperial Japanese Navy and greatest battleship in history, was clearly on a suicide mission as it steamed south from Japan in April 1945. With no air cover and only eight escorts, it was going to engage the huge American invasion fleet that had gathered at Okinawa.

The Yamato never made it. Waves of planes from American carriers caught the ship 200 miles north of Okinawa on the morning of April 7. Hit by at least 29 bombs and torpedoes, it exploded and sank. Three thousand officers and sailors went down with it.

Two weeks ago, a tiny deep-sea submarine descended through 1,100 feet of water to examine a hulk split into three sections and believed to be the Yamato. It was the ship. Among the features confirming its identity was a chrysanthemum seal, the symbol of the emperor, now encrusted with blue-green ocean growth.

The $500,000 expedition was organized by the Tombstone of the Sea Committee, a group supported by veterans' organizations and the Japanese media.

"We want to console the spirits of the dead crew," said committee official Minoru Akiyama.

Using remote-controlled pincers, the submarine's two crew members were able to recover relics including leather shoes, fragments of cannon shells, a bottle and an officer's lamp. But something the committee had also hoped for -- bones -- were not to be seen.

So, former members of the ship's crew and relatives of the dead consoled the spirits with a Shinto ceremony on a ship floating over the wreck. They deposited sake and flowers into the sea and prayed.

Modern Japanese society has little time for religion. But it clings firmly to old beliefs that the spirits of people whose bodies are not properly blessed after death can wander aimlessly and eternally, in some cases working evil on those still alive.

The search for the wreck began in 1978, using sonar, magnetic surveys and U.S. Navy records. Its successful conclusion has written an important postscript for a chapter of Japanese history.

The Yamato was named for a region around the old capital of Nara rich in patriotic traditions. It was the first of a class of super battleships built before the war. Measuring 863 feet long, equipped with the world's largest naval guns (18.1-inch) and heaviest armor, it symbolized Japan's hopes to dominate the seas.

Ironically, it was completed one week after the Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor, which many military historians say ended the era of battleships. In the end, it, too, fell victim to attack from the air.