Just as Patton, Ike and Nimitz led with their hearts and souls for America, Admiral Yamamoto did the same for his country… from even before WWII started.
He had tremendous foresight and used it to modernize the Japanese fleet – both on the water and most of all, in the air.
This is not said to glorify or sympathize with the Japanese military of World War II. It is just a statement of fact. Admiral Yamamoto – given his duty and orders by the Japanese government and as career military – was going to do his utmost to defeat America if it came to war…
…but he knew down to the tips of his ten toes and eight fingers the Japanese Empire would end if they were to take on the Americans and Brits.
Up to the beginning of WWII as we know it, Japan’s professional military had an unreal view of their invincibility after their lop-sided victory over an European power in the Russo-Japanese War. While Admiral Togo did soundly defeat the Russians, the Japanese military failed to realize Togo had much better gunnery equipment and newer warships.
For the losing Russians, they had taken a knife to a gunfight. In a way, you can say the Japanese military – especially the Imperial Army – were full of themselves after this “impressive” victory…
But not Admiral Yamamoto.
He was always a cool cookie.
Foresaw End of Battleships and Need for Carriers/Naval Aviation Superiority
In his steady rise to the admiralty and while attending Harvard, Yamamoto had heard of (but not witnessed) the famous demonstration of General Billy Mitchell sinking an obsolete German battleship by dropping bombs from now primitive biplanes (see video). This was in 1921. The American military scoffed at Mitchell initially but as you can see here, aerial bombardment did sink a battleship.
Up to that time, the battleship ruled the seas.
While the successful demonstration failed to awaken the US military (1), that historic moment sparked Yamamoto’s insatiable belief that aircraft, their pilots and aircraft carriers – and NOT battleships – would be the heart of all victorious naval fleets of the future.
He was dead on.
Achieving Aerial Supremacy
In 1924, Yamamoto was a captain. While he briefly captained the cruiser Fuji, Japan’s ascent to naval aerial supremacy started when he was assigned to the Imperial Japanese Navy Aeronautical Technology and Training Center (海軍航空技術講習所) at Kasumigaura.
Located north-east of Tokyo near a beautiful lake, Captain Yamamoto was met by disdain by the young “hot-shot” aviators, brash with swash-buckler attitudes: long hair, a general disregard for uniform code and a lot of drinking. (Think of the fantasy “Baa-Baa Blacksheep” TV show and Robert Conrad.) They further looked down on this much older officer; his 5’3″ frame certainly didn’t help nor did his “battleship” experience. Yamamoto believed to achieve his vision of aerial supremacy, it had to begin with the pilots.
Yamamoto knew he had to get them in shape in all aspects. It took over a month with some hot-heads even resigning during the ordeal, but it began with everyone getting crew cuts; when questioned about length, he rubbed his own head and crew cut and simply said exactly like mine. He also “urged” strict adherence to the uniform code. His solid character was critical to success.
He knew and wanted to know how to fly. He began taking flying lessons at 40 years of age and studied late into the night to earn his wings. (2)
In addition, he would set the example. He would not order a pilot to do anything he would not do himself. In tests for structural integrity, HE would fly the aging craft himself.
When there were three fatalities during a training flight, he was out in the freezing sleet and cold rain along with the recovery team for three days and did not quit until all three cadets were recovered. During those three sad days, he stoically yet quietly showed a very solemn side of his character to those around him – remorse and compassion. Yamamoto had won them over.
He had turned around the aviation school’s reputation and glamor of being a pilot so much that many sailors flocked to apply. He would then handpick candidates to become aviators; that’s how strongly he felt about achieving aerial supremacy.
He had now planted the seed for a world-class aviator force. The next step necessary to achieve his vision of aerial superiority required building a fleet of aircraft carriers and advanced aircraft for the pilots fly off them. (3)
Hell With the Battleships
In January 1929, he took the captain’s chair on board the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Akagi aircraft carrier. He was thrilled but without further mention at this point, his captaincy was marred by tragedies.
But later that year came a crucial development in his career that would have a direct impact on his hopes for an offensive air arm of the Navy. He was assigned as director to Japan’s Naval Affairs Bureau of the Navy Ministry. This was a magic door opening up for him as the bureau issued decisive policies on naval assets – the critical weapons and equipment.
You see, at this point in Japan’s naval history, their leaders still viewed aircraft as defensive weapons – not offensive. Their admirals (as well as those of other world powers at that time) saw naval guns (i.e., the big guns used on battleships) as the primary offensive weapon. They believed in utilization of planes only for scouting/short range reconnaissance and perhaps some pestering of enemy targets until a battleship’s big guns could be brought to bear.
This strategy was disdained by Yamamoto. He believed an elite navy requires a totally separate arm comprised of specialized offensive aircraft – fighter planes, bombers and torpedo planes – capable of inflicting severe damage to enemy targets on land or on the sea far beyond the range of a battleship’s guns. Yamamoto’s vision was years ahead of his counterparts including America’s and England’s. (Even as late as 1943, England still used biplanes like the Swordfish which could do nothing well.)
This new responsibility, which Yamamoto invested all his energy and time, was welcomed by him. His task was parallel with his goal: to build a peerless naval air force.
He immediately began a program to replace the now antiquated battleship-based strike force with a deadly carrier-based task force that King Neptune would be proud of.
One aircraft of note that Yamamoto had a hand in at the get-go was the Mitsubishi Type 96 (A5N) all-metal monoplane fighter (below). This became the predecessor to the now famous Mitsubishi “Zero” of which he again was instrumental in bringing to existence.
More to follow in Part VI.
Part I can be found here.
Part II can be found here.
Part III can be found here.
Part IV can be found here.
(1) Even at the time of the historic Battle of Midway, US Naval pilots were still flying the obsolete Grumman F4F Wildcat, outgunned and outmaneuvered by the more agile Mitsubishi Zero which Yamamoto championed.
(2) I may be incorrect but in all the materials I have read about WWII, it appears that Admiral Yamamoto was the only command admiral who was an aviator.
(3) Of note is that the little known Mitsubishi Type 10 carrier fighter was designed by the former English Sopwith designer Herbert Smith; Sopwith had filed for bankruptcy after WWI so Mitsubishi hired him and his team. It was of wooden frame and fabric covering. Ironically, the world’s first carrier takeoff took place in December 1922. William Jordon, a test pilot and part of Smith’s team, took off in a prototype Type 10 from the Japanese Navy’s first aircraft carrier, Hosho.