The post-World War II period was no easy time for the American people. At the conclusion of the war, Americans were exhausted. They needed a normal economy; they needed peace; they wanted to get on with their lives. President Harry Truman, in seeking cost-cutting measures, ordered a one-third reduction of the Armed Forces. Between 1945-50, Washington, D. C. was a busy place. War veterans were expeditiously discharged, the War Department became the Department of Defense, the Navy Department was rolled into DoD, the US Army Air Force became the United States Air Force, and the missions and structures of all services were meticulously re-examined. In terms of the naval establishment, about one-third of the Navy’s ships were placed into mothballs; in the Marines, infantry battalions gave up one rifle company —Marine Corps wide, this amounted to a full combat regiment.
There was more going on inside the Truman administration, however. In 1949…
You might remember this man in the role of the somewhat psychotic Air Force General Ripper in the 1964 film, Dr. Strangelove—or as the brutally corrupt police chief in the 1972 film The Godfather, but by the time these two films became box-office successes, Sterling Hayden had already starred in films for twenty-three years. He stood 6’5” tall and weighed around 230 pounds. In some Hollywood circles, he was ‘the most beautiful man in movies.’ But, as it turns out, Sterling Hayden was much more than that.
He was christened Sterling Relyea Walter shortly after his birth in Montclair, New Jersey on 26 March 1916. After the death of his father, he went to live with his maternal uncle, whose name he took. Like many young men of his day, he yearned for the adventurous life, so at the age of 16-years, Hayden quit school…
Back during the day, there had been a great brouhaha over the killing of Admiral Yamamoto on April 18, 1943. Two USAAF pilots bickered for decades after the war as to who shot Admiral Yamamoto out of the sky. While most attribute the killing to a pilot named Lt. Rex Barber, others believe Capt. Thomas Lanphier Jr. fired the fatal burst from his Lockheed P-38G Lightning.
We will never truly know.
But some lost history first on what led to Admiral Yamamoto’s killing.
The Most Hated Man in America – Even More Than Hitler
By April 1943, Admiral Yamamoto was the most hated man in America by many accounts – more so than Hitler. Think of it this way. Yamamoto was WWII’s version of today’s Osama bin Laden (or however you wish to spell it) on a hate level.
How did it come to be?
Sure, there are Pearl Harbor parallels with bin Laden; bin Laden masterminded the surprise “dastardly” attack on 9/11 on American civilians. (Dastardly. Sound familiar?) The attackers were maniacal terrorists who definitely knew it would be a one-way trip and it was to appease their god… but they didn’t fly their own planes to attack America.
But in my opinion, that’s where the parallels lack some merit if not wrong in substance. For one, Yamamoto as you learned was AGAINST taking on America as an enemy unlike bin Laden. It would be the end of the Japanese empire and he was right. Secondly, the surprise Pearl Harbor attack was against military targets using their own planes. Thirdly, while the attacking navy pilots could die for their emperor on this mission, it was not their desired outcome. They did not see this for the most part as a one-way trip.
Sure, it is enough to hate Yamamoto on the surface but how did he become by and large the most hated man in America? It was because of… fake news.
Yes, fake news. Things manipulated or taken out of context.
And it started with the Japanese.
Before the strike on Pearl Harbor and with plans generally in place, Admiral Yamamoto wrote to his close friend, Ryoichi Sasakawa:
“Should hostilities once break out between Japan and the United States, it is not enough that we take Guam and the Philippines, nor even Hawaii and San Francisco. To make victory certain, we would have to march into Washington and dictate the terms of peace in the White House. Iwonder if our politicians, among whom armchair arguments about war are being glibly bandied about in the name of state politics, have confidence as to the final outcome and are prepared to make the necessary sacrifices. (1)”
Well, a bit after the attack on Pearl, the Japanese propaganda machine went into action. For the most part, folks, the Japanese propaganda/news media would GREATLY exaggerate if not lie to present the rosiest war picture to boost the morale of the citizens. In this case, the contents of Yamamoto’s private letter got “leaked” (sound familiar?) but the militarists dropped his last sentence of what he wrote in its entirely – which therefore shed a whole different tone on what was he truly meant (in bold italics above).
Then, the American propaganda machine took over. They picked up what Yamamoto supposedly said and changed its meaning even more. Posters sprang up all over the place with purposely and understandably exaggerated caricatures demonizing Yamamoto… but most of all, very much mutating the questioning feelings of Yamamoto. Time Magazine even took part.
Please don’t misunderstand the gist of what I am writing here. These are facts.
The shoot down of Yamamoto in a moving airborne target 76 years ago was a miracle by today’s standards. Likely, it was mostly luck after the U.S. attack force took off. Today, drones can be sent in with Hellfire missiles with GPS accuracy when a message intercepted.
But in a very primitive way now, that’s how the U.S. killed Yamamoto, the mastermind of the Pearl Harbor sneak attack.
It was Lady Luck.
In April 1943, Guadalcanal was a dismal place for Japanese soldiers. Through blunders, bad intelligence and exaggerated aerial combat reports, Japanese soldiers had minimal war materials for combat or were simply dying of starvation or illness. It guesstimated that these young boys were trying to fight on less than 1,700 calories a day without such energy staples as rice or potatoes.
Yamamoto was tasked to resupply them by sea but was thwarted by the US Navy and USAAF as we had broken their naval code. They had resorted to using their samurai swords to dig dirt looking for food.
Knowing their dismal state and morale, their consummate leader Yamamoto made the fatal decision to go down to the front lines to boost morale. This would have been akin to Ike visiting the freezing soldiers during the horrendous winter at Bastogne. His initial stop was to have been the naval base Ballale, an active airfield for the Japanese Imperial Navy pilots. His lieutenants strongly urged him not to go but his character gave Yamamoto no other avenue. The plans were made then dispatched by radio.
The Japanese held islands lit up the airwaves with radio chatter on April 13, 1943. The chatter reported their great revered leader Yamamoto was coming down to cheer on the troops. The chatter included his detailed flight schedule as well as he and his second in command Admiral Ugaki would be flying in a Betty bomber escorted by six Japanese Zeroes. Admiral Yamamoto was always punctual – and that would help get him killed.
Well, the radio chatter was in what the Japanese thought was their secret Imperial Japanese Navy Code JN-25D. (3) They believed that “Westerners” could not break it. Well, it was a very closely guarded secret but the US had broken the code by the Battle of Midway. From what I read, the actual JN-25D coded message announcing Yamamoto’s upcoming visit said (translated into English):
“ON APRIL 18 CINC COMBINED FLEET WILL VISIT RXZ,R–, AND RXP IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE FOLLOWING SCHEDULE:
1. DEPART RR AT 0600 IN A MEDIUM ATTACK PLANE ESCORTED BY 6 FIGHTERS. ARRIVE RXZ AT 0800. IMMEDIATELY DEPART FOR R- ON BOARD SUBCHASER (1ST BASE FORCE TO READY ONE BOAT), ARRIVING AT 0840. DEPART R- 0945 ABOARD SAID SUBCHASER, ARRIVING RXZ AT 1030. (FOR TRANSPORTATION PURPOSES, HAVE READY AN ASSAULT BOAT AT R- AND A MOTOR LAUNCH AT RXZ.) 1100 DEPARTRXZ ON BOARD MEDIUM ATTACK PLANE, ARRIVING RXP AT 1110. LUNCH AT 1 BASE FORCE HEADQUARTERS (SENIOR STAFF OFFICER OF AIR FLOTILLA 26 TO BE PRESENT). 1400 DEPART RXP ABOARD MEDIUM ATTACK PLANE; ARRIVE RR AT 1540.“ (2)
(Note: the bolded italics is the portion that pertains to the shootdown. The rest of the decoded message relates to Yamamoto’s schedule AFTER he touches down. US command at Kukum Field decided going for the subchasers would be questionable as the USAAF pilots wouldn’t be able to discern surface ship configurations but they knew aircraft.)
Details of the shootdown, the aftermath and the secrets – from both sides of the Pacific – comes in Part IX.
(1) “At Dawn We Slept,” (1981) by Gordon W. Prange. Page 11.
(2) – Source: US Naval Institute. Also, the original coded message was in Japanese; it was translated into English by US Army Niseis in the Military Intelligence Service (my Dad’s old unit).
(3) Aiding the effort to completely crack the secret Japanese naval code were two military action events. First, a few days after the US Marines invaded Guadalcanal on August 7, 1942, the Marines capture a complete JN-25C code book.
Then in February 1943, US recovers significant code materials from the I-1 beached off Guadalcanal after a fierce surface battle with two British minesweepers. The captured documents included a superceded JN-25 code book, but no additive book. “As part of the crew at Station AL Guadalcanal, (he) helped rehabilitate the five code books recovered plus many other classified documents and navigational charts. They were sent by courier to Pearl Harbor.” The report continued:
“…The salt-water logged code books retrieved by the Ortolan were taken to Station AL (a small intercept, direction finder, traffic analysis, cryptoanalysis and reporting station on Guadalcanal). There they were dried by being placed on top of a radio receiver to use its heat. The records were kept for about two days to get them in shape for transport. They were taken to the intercept site at Lunga Point, a promontory on the northern coast of Guadalcanal. From there they were sent to CINCPAC’s code breakers at Pearl Harbor.
While the code breakers were trying to exploit the captured code material from the I-1, translators began the task of translating and publishing important documents from the submarine. The U. S. Army Forces in the South Pacific Area (USAFISPA) begins publishing I-1 items in early March. On March 1, the Translation and Interrogation Section, G-2 (my Dad’s unit), of the USAFISPA published a notebook containing entries for January 1-29, 1943. On March 9, the Section published the diary of Seiho Suzuki, 2nd Class Petty Officer, covering the period of early 1942. The same day the Section published the notebook and diary of Masae Suzuki, covering February 11-September 17, 1942. On March 13, it published, extracted from list of communications personnel, the organization of Japanese submarine forces. The next day the Section published communications personnel roster. The Section on March 16, it published a message written on a communication form for encoding and decoding messages. On March 18, it published part of a copy of Naval Regulations (Edition of April 1, 1936, with revisions up to June 30, 1942) and on May 30 published the remainder of the regulations. Also on March 18, the Section published penciled notes, regarding firing torpedoes. On March 21, the Section published bound notes on ciphers and codes. On March 30, the Section published the submarine’s operating log covering the period January 1-28, 1943. The next day it published printed a chart regarding depth charges. The Section on April 1, published a file of messages and notes dealing with the gunnery section, quartering on shore, orders, and dispatches. A printed chart regarding mechanical mines was published on April 7.
In early July 1943 the Section published a notebook, probably belonging to an officer, which appears to have been kept over a period of several years. It provided a list of ships in commission from December 1, 1939 to June 1940. Also published was a code book table, detailed information about equipment on warships, information on submarines, political commentary, information on aircraft, and numerous names of officers and positions. This translation ran 41 pages. The published translations continued. In mid-January 1944, the Section published a Japanese publication on Results and Opinions on Items of Essential Engineering Training and Research in the 6th Fleet for the Year 1941, 7th Submarine Division.
The Intelligence Center, Pacific Ocean Area (ICPOA), was also involved in the exploitation of the I-1 documents. On March 16, 1943, it sent to Washington information regarding hydrographic charts, taken from the I-1, noting “these charts are very accurate reproductions of United States Navy Hydrographic Office confidential charts.” In late March and early April, ICPOA translated and published various documents from the submarine.
All in all, the sinking of the I-1 had been a great success. The documents captured from the submarine provided a wealth of information and intelligence about the Japanese codes and the Japanese navy.” – JN-25 fact sheet, Version 1.1 September 2004 by Geoffrey Sinclair.
Yamamoto’s Barriers to Becoming the Ultimate Admiral
I never served… I never donned on a uniform for this great country.
That in itself qualifies any opinion I may have to offer on World War II military leadership… but from my armchair civilian’s viewpoint, Admiral Yamamoto was one of the elite admirals of World War II.
I certainly feel he was likely the one with the most military foresight and highly likely the most well balanced. Yes, he was the enemy and FDR approved his assassination in vengeance for the attack on Pearl Harbor… but I am looking at this broadly.
And I also feel he may have become one of the greatest admirals in history if the barriers obstructing him had not existed. Regardless, his military achievements could have been much, much greater had he not been encumbered by conditions smothering him – and yes, he did have one prominent military weakness in my humble opinion.
Factually, he may have succeeded in bringing the US to the peace table ifPearl Harbor was an unqualified success. No, not for “surrender” or to occupy America; that would have been impossible as he knew… but to get America to concede to Japanese expansion in Asia.
His Balls and Chains – Plural
The Uncontrollable Japanese Imperial Army
His first ball and chain was the misguided yet all domineering Japanese Army. Since the Boshin War victory, their newly formed Imperial Army’s self-centered view of themselves had snowballed. In other words, they were full of themselves and Yamamoto was handcuffed militarily and politically from a naval standpoint. They were second fiddle.
In American terminology, Yamamoto was a “dove” in a way, primarily because he realized Japan relied on imports of oil and steel from America. The Army clearly wanted to invade neighboring Asian countries and take these resources by force.
Yamamoto was also forced into planning the attack on Pearl Harbor because the hawks in the Imperial Army-controlled government signed the Tripartite Pact in September 1940. He knew this would cause Japan to become a clear enemy and anger FDR. As the nail in the coffin, FDR through the League of Nations instituted an embargo on oil and steel. The “hawks” went berserk.
“If I am told to fight regardless of the consequences, I shall run wild for the first six months or a year, but I have utterly no confidence for the second or third year. The Tripartite Pact has been concluded and we cannot help it. Now that the situation has come to this pass, I hope you will endeavor to avoid a Japanese-American war.” – Admiral Yamamoto to Premier Konoye Fumimaro after Japan signed the Tripartite Pact.
Further, the “hotheads” in the Japanese military were so war focused that they lost sight of the fact their own natural resources – being an island country – was dismal. “How could Japan wage a war,” Yamamoto knew; Japan’s natural resources were (1):
Copper 75,000 tons yearly (less than 50% required militarily)
Iron Ore 12% of national requirements
Coking Coal None
Petroleum 10% of needs
In another lesser known angle, the production of military aircraft in any great number was a pressing matter for Japan. In fact, the Imperial Army-controlled leadership simply allocated aircraft production right down the middle: one-half to the Army, one-half to the Navy. Yamamoto was tasked with protecting the entire Japanese empire with his allocation of aircraft while the Army was only focused on land action. This was more ironic in that Yamamoto championed the development of these Zeroes and the Betty bombers, both used by the army.
The “Overly Cautious” Vice-Admiral Nagumo
The second and likely Yamamoto’s heaviest ball and chain – if not the sinker at the end of a fishing line – was Admiral Chuichi Nagumo (南雲忠一). It is my belief that most importantly, the outcome of the attack on Pearl Harbor may have been truly been a death blow to the U.S. if Yamamoto himself had been in command of the attack fleet instead of Nagumo.
Long story short, Nagumo was Commander in Chief, 1st Air Fleet. He was in command of the world’s most deadliest carrier-based naval air strike force in history at that time, bound for Pearl Harbor.
However, he was raised a ship-based torpedo man and was well versed in surface maneuvering. He had only had commands of destroyers, cruisers and a battleship before being appointed to this position of commanding the most powerful carrier based air strike force. Even a fellow admiral (Tsukahara) opined that essentially Nagumo had zero experience in the capabilities and potential of offensive naval aviation let alone in battle.
By the way, Nagumo and Yamamoto were like oil and vinegar. In fact, while Yamamoto’s attack plan for Pearl was extremely well planned out, Nagumo had little faith in it and argued against it.
So how did he become in charge of Yamamoto’s six carrier Pearl Harbor attack force if he wasn’t qualified and did not support the attack plan orchestrated by Yamamoto?
It was because of… his seniority. Simple as that.
You see, in those days and even today, Japan is entrenched in “etiquette” and social ladders. Nagumo had the most seniority among admiral-rank officers and therefore was “rightfully” given the “honor” to command. Not even Yamamoto could change that. (Accepting Nagumo would be fleet commander, Yamamoto ensured his two most highly regarded lieutenants were assigned to surround Nagumo during the Pearl Harbor attack – Minoru Genda and Mitsuo Fuchida.)
But most of all, Nagumo was overly cautious. Timid may be another word to describe what I see forthwith:
In spite of heeding Genda and Fuchida’s strong urging to send a third wave at Pearl Harbor, he assessed the situation conservatively. He ordered the planes and ordnance below and turned the fleet around after only two waves. His apparent reasoning was to not lose a carrier to air attack from the Americans while Yamamoto was prepared for two carriers lost. Nagumo made this decision in spite of Fuchida circling above Pearl in the clouds for about two hours during the attack, professionally observing the damage at Pearl and providing a detailed accurate report in person to Nagumo. The purpose of the third wave to was destroy repair and fuel facilities. By destroying such assets, the U.S. would NOT have as quickly re-floated/repaired the badly damaged ships. However. to be fair, this is not to say that if Nagumo had sent the third wave that the mission would have been accomplished.
While Japanese propaganda blatantly lied to the public that the American fleet had been completely destroyed by Nagumo, that was far from the truth. While Yamamoto had heard smatterings of what really happened on board the Akagi (Nagumo’s flagship), Fuchida flew in ahead of the fleet and personally gave Yamamoto a detailed report of the situation and how Nagumo’s timidity resulted in an incomplete mission. The whole PURPOSE of the secret attack was to totally cripple the U.S. fleet including fuel and repair docks. Yamamoto concluded the Nagumo-led attack failed to complete its mission. Because the propaganda had made Nagumo into a national hero, Yamamoto could not do much. In typical Japanese fashion, i.e., a veiled insult, he didn’t congratulate Nagumo when they met. Instead, he told Nagumo to ready himself for another battle. Think about it. In essence, if Nagumo had completed his mission, there would be no further battle. Yamamoto was furious but did not show it.
The next ultimate Nagumo failure was at the Battle of Midway. Again, he was in command of a four carrier strike force which outnumbered the American fleet of three carriers.(2) In support of Nagumo, however, the Americans had cracked the Japanese naval code, knew of the impending attack and had taken an immense gamble to set up an ambush at sea. During the battle, Nagumo’s overly cautious nature resulted in delays in launching another strike against Midway.(3) The carrier decks were loaded with bombs, torpedoes and fuel when attacked by dive bombers from the Enterprise (on which Mr. Johnson was again manning anti-aircraft guns). Within minutes, two Japanese carriers were sunk. Nagumo would lose the last two in short order while the U.S. lost the Yorktown.
Per his quote above, Admiral Yamamoto had forecast that his navy may rule the Pacific for six months to perhaps a year without a successful preemptive strike to eliminate the US naval fleet at the get-go. He was right. The Battle of Midway was six months after Pearl Harbor… and the preemptive strike had failed.
Two months after Midway, August 1942, there was an intense sea battle, the Battle of the Eastern Solomon Islands near Guadalcanal. The U.S. had only two carriers in the area (Enterprise and Saratoga under Admiral Fletcher) while Nagumo, who was again in command, had SIX. Yamamoto’s orders to Nagumo were for his 3rd Fleet to seek out and destroy the American carrier force. In spite of the numerical superiority, Nagumo lost the carrier Ryujo but damaged the Enterprise severely. (My neighbor, Mr. Johnson USMC, was a US Marine serving on board the Enterprise manning 20mm anti-aircraft guns and was wounded. See his story here.) While both Nagumo and Fletcher didn’t have the bellies to engage the other and fight, Yamamoto was furious that Nagumo once again failed to successfully engage the two carriers and sink them due to indecisiveness and from being overly cautious.
Yamamoto’s Major Flaw
From early in his career, Yamamoto’s vision for a future offensive carrier based navy showed tremendous insight and intelligence. His rise up the ranks allowed him to achieve his goals in steps. Train the best aviators, develop advanced specialized attack aircraft, cease building battleships and build world-class carriers and institute intensive training and safety regimens. He was also an excellent planner and a man faultlessly devoted to the Emperor and the Japanese empire.
But one aspect of naval warfare he was unable to get his arms around involved his submarines. The subs were innovative and fired the tremendously effective and reliable Type 95 and Type 93 “Long Lance” torpedoes. One, the I-400, was the largest sub ever built.
However, Yamamoto did not veer from his belief that his submarines (of which there were not many) were primarily to be deployed against capital ships, i.e, destroyers, cruisers, battleships and hopefully carriers. While the submarines did sink the USS Wasp and fired the final blow to finish off the Yorktown, their successes were not many, thankfully, due to defensive measures taken by the U.S. Navy.
But within this belief, he failed to deploy them effectively against merchant shipping and supply ships. In tabular form, the table below reports the number of merchant ship sinkings by submarines (rounded):
While Nagumo failed to complete the mission to completely destroy the naval assets and facilities at Pearl Harbor, Yamamoto himself contributed to allowing the US to rebuild its Pacific Fleet quickly through his short-sighted and defective deployment of his lethal submarines. While many subs of various classes were deployed about the Hawaiian islands (4), they were generally recalled by January; they were only able to sink a couple of merchant ships and were plagued by mishaps and strong anti-submarine warfare tactics by the US Navy.
The death of Admiral Yamamoto in Part VIII to follow.
(1) “Yamamoto” by Edwin P. Hoyt.
(2) The four Japanese carriers that were sunk, the Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu, were four of the six carrier fleet that attacked Pearl Harbor. This sweetened the victory for the U.S. Japan would NEVER recover from this loss.
(3) To the defense of Nagumo, true military historians cite that Nagumo may have been following Japanese naval doctrine in that it required launch of strike aircraft in full force rather than in piecemeal. Further, that Spruance had already given orders to launch his aircraft so Nagumo’s cautious approach to delay launch would not have made much difference.
(4) Another tip-off to an imminent attack were the number of radio transmissions from Japanese submarine headquarters to it sub fleet off the shores of Hawaii. Per “The Japanese Submarine Force and World War II” by Carl Boyd in 1995: “Part of the reason for the failure of the I-boats in Hawaiian waters concerned the manner of directing operations from afar. The commander of the Sixth Fleet, Vice Adm. Mitsumi Shimizu at Kwajalein, filled the air each night shortly before the air strike with radio messages to his submarines around the Hawaiian islands. A U. S. Navy intelligence officer, then stationed at Pearl Harbor, wrote 25 years later that “port authorities in Hawaii were thus made conscious of the magnitude and to some extent the location of the Japanese submarine menace. They were consequently cautious in routing ships, and this had some bearing on the Japanese lack of success.”
True stories about World War II – One war. Two Countries. One Family