Tag Archives: Admiral Yamamoto

The Truly Reluctant Admiral Yamamoto – Part VIII


Artist’s rendition of Admiral Yamamoto’s shootdown by Grinnell.

Admiral Yamamoto’s Death

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.

My photo of the crashsite depiction at Chino’s Planes of Fame Air Museum.

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.

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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. I wonder 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)”

Time magazine cover, December 22, 1941.

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.

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The Killing

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.

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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.

Ballale Island where Yamamoto was headed; he never made it.
Ballale today; largely uninhabited.

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.

Source: U. S. Naval Institute.

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.)

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Details of the shootdown, the aftermath and the secrets – from both sides of the Pacific – comes in Part IX.

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Footnotes:

(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.”[7]  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.

The Truly Reluctant Admiral Yamamoto – Part VI


Admiral Yamamoto on Rabaul in 1943 and shortly before his death.

The Imp and a Nickname

In direct contrast to his smug and no nonsense military face while on duty, Admiral Yamamoto was indeed a complex yet unselfconcious man.  He was a strategist and used spontaneity to his utmost advantage…

…and typical of that time, Admiral Yamamoto sought relief and amusement in true geisha houses. (1)

The Impish Admiral Yamamoto

In Part II of this series, you learned that Admiral Yamamoto pursued gymnastics given his small build and illness-ridden childhood.  He had persevered and became quite good at it.  This skill came into good use throughout his military career.

Even as a young ensign, he would love to see his companions’ reactions; on the spur of the moment, for example, he would do a handstand on a ship’s rail.  He was that confident in his gymnastic abilities. I wouldn’t even get near the handrail just standing on my two aging feet.  I hate heights.

Admiral Yamamoto doing a handstand at a geisha house. Source unknown.

Still later in life, at dinner parties most often held in geisha houses, he would refrain from drinking more than a small cup or two of osake while his other navy fellows would drink to excess.  If you recall, he couldn’t drink as he would turn bright red even after a sip like my Dad.  All of a sudden, he would do a handstand to the amusement of not his fellow sailors but the geisha as well.  As they would break out into laughter at his spontaneity then settle down, he would quietly observe them as he knew they would either serve together or under him.  He sought out their weaknesses and strengths.

This is what is meant by “a cup or two” of osake.

On yet another show of spontaneity, he was sailing to America in 1919 on board the Suwa Maru.  His Japanese contingent was dining with Western diplomats when the Westerners started to get drunk and began to sing and dance.  They tried to get the stoic Japanese to also dance but they refused.  Very typical; I am like that. Yamamoto saw a relational rift already developing and to break it, did yet another handstand to the joy of the Westerners.  He then took some dishes from a bus boy and began spinning them on his fingers to the great joy of the Westerners.

It was also said that upon his return in 1935 from failed talks in London, the now Rear Admiral Yamamoto childishly stuck his tongue out at some Akasaka geisha who were at the Tokyo train station just to get a reaction.

The Gambler Admiral Yamamoto

Admiral Yamamoto was indeed a gambling man – and a very good one at that.  He would empty many a pocket of his opponents in several countries during his official and unofficial travels… even in Siberia.  He remarked that the British were the easiest victims.  Indeed, he had mastered bridge and later poker during his travels in America and England.

He was so openly against warring with America that the navy “hawks” despised him so much that he was “put out to pasture”, so to speak, in the Navy Affairs Bureau in 1935.  At that time, he was depressed to the point that he confided with his closest friends that he was thinking about resigning – and that he would be totally happy retiring in Monaco while opening up a casino there.  He was that confident in his gambling abilities.

A Nickname from the Geisha

In Part I, it was mentioned Admiral Yamamoto was given a nickname by the geisha – it has to do with money.  But before I disclose what it was, some time machine action has to take place.

Admiral Yamamoto with apparently one of his favored  geisha named “Chiyoko”. Someone unfamiliar with the military had written on April 18, 1954、「軍神も人間だった!」or “Gunshin mo ningen datta!” I translate it to read “The army God was a human!” As you know, Admiral Yamamoto was not army; he was Navy and despised the Army. Source unknown.

Admiral Yamamoto would often get his manicures from the geisha.  At that time, manicures would run about one yen.

“Yen” is the monetary unit in Japan as you all know.  In the 1920’s, just one yen went a long ways; it was a different time.  I understand one yen could have bought about a dozen eggs or about 5 pounds of rice (which was hard to get your hands on) or about ten bowls of ramen. However, there are “100 sen” in “one yen”.

Well, he was lovingly called “八十戦” or “Eighty Sen” by the geisha.  They apparently felt bad charging him one yen for a full manicure.

He only had eight fingers.

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More to follow in Part VII.

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Footnote:

(1) There are only several hundred true geisha left in Japan.  A once ancient tradition, their number and appeal has diminished so much that many Kyoto merchants who had solely serviced the geisha for centuries (silk kimono making, elaborate accessories, wooden sandals, etc.) have closed their doors.

 

The Truly Reluctant Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto – Part II


yama 22 yo
A young Isoroku Yamamoto as a cadet at Eta Jima Naval Academy.

Isoroku Yamamoto was NOT his birthname.  He was born Isoroku Takano, another surprise of buried history.

(And to make it easier for those who find Japanese names hard to follow, I will still refer to him by Yamamoto for this post.)

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Indeed, his father Sadayoshi Takano, was a very proud and well respected samurai in the mid-1800’s. He lived his life as one. By this time, the samurai were peaceful and to while away their time, they studied art, philosophy and poetry. They were twiddling their thumbs, so to speak.

However, Admiral Perry showed up and caught the eye of many politicians and of a changing class of samurai who saw the European military style and assets.

The world had passed Japan by due to their isolationist ideals.

Tensions rose – the faction who wanted to keep Japan as it was and the faction who wanted change (modernization).  A bitter civil war erupted; it is referred to here in the Western World as the “Boshin War”.

soldiers in Western style uniform
The “modernized” Imperial Army soldiers as they were called instead of samurai. Notice the rifles and uniforms.. including boots. Samurai wore sandals.

Sadayoshi Takano, being the consummate samurai, chose to defend the existence of the samurai way of life and therefore isolationism.  While overall war casualties were low, indeed, he and his two oldest sons were wounded.

Unfortunately, he chose the wrong side.  His side, mired in old traditional ways of close quarter combat, i.e., samurai swords, was no match for the winning forces as they were armed with European rifles and cannon.(1)   Takano’s losing side even resorted to wooden cannon barrels bound with ropes towards the end.  They shot rocks instead of cannon balls and the wooden barrels would burst after but firing several rounds.(2)

yama last
A depiction of the traditional samurai (of which Yamamoto’s father was a member of) . They really had no chance against rifles and cannon.  They had to resort to using improvised wood cannon, bound with rope.  They shot rock for the most part and would burst after several shots.

After peace was achieved, the end result were that the samurai culture was abolished and troops were now called Imperial Army soldiers.  This period in history is referred to as the Meiji Restoration.(3)

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His Unusual Name

yama home
The Yamamoto home, heavily restored.

Being on the losing side, the proud samurai father Sadayoshi encountered a financially brutal life.  Because he had supported the wrong side, the victors would not give them employment. He, his wife and four sons wandered from place to place trying to survive. They decided to return to Nagaoka where they had a small shanty.

His wife died shortly after and Sadayoshi married her younger sister.  She gave birth to three more children: a girl and two boys.  Isoroku was the youngest, born in 1884.

yama 25
Sadayoshi Takano, Father

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto had an unusual first name even by Japanese standards. In Japanese, it is spelled with NUMBERS: 五十六, or five-ten-six (56). It turns out his father Sadayoshi was 56 years old when Admiral Yamamoto was born. (Sadayoshi beat me by seven years. I last fathered at 49 years of age.)

Yamamoto was small; he was but 5’3″ as an adult. He was quite sickly in youth but he persevered; his father even kept a diary on his numerous bouts with the flu. (Like his father, Yamamoto himself ended up keeping detailed diaries.) At first, he attended missionary schools but never adopted the Christian religion – but he carried a Bible around and had critical exposure to this Western religion.

At his elementary school, there was a missionary named Mr. Newell.  With him, he achieved his introduction to the English language.  He would even stop by Mr. Newell’s house to have coffee of all things (very bizarre for 1890’s Japan) and further his exposure to Western culture and learning English – a very critical influence towards his rise to the admiralty.

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Another critical influence on his young life began when Mr. Newell moved to another city.  Once immersed in Western ways, he was now in an elementary school steeped in Japanese culture.

Although very poor, he was fortunate enough to be in Nagaoka and in 1894 began attending a progressive middle school, one of the largest in Japan.  With Japan’s modernization in mind, the school focused on Western technologies and sciences; yet, it expounded on the Japanese spirit.  Philosophies like individual responsibility and seeking opportunity, fortitude and cooperation were infused into the students.  The young Yamamoto absorbed it all, getting them embedded in his soul.  It would follow him for the rest of his life.

While not strong, he loved gymnastics and participated in a very small gymnastics program.  He knew he would have to try harder than the other boys due to his condition but he succeeded.  Gymnastics also becomes important in his naval career’s development as you will see.

He studied vigorously, realizing at his young age that to get out of this poverty, he would need to excel.  He knew some kind of scholarship or program would be the only way out.

His studious, serious nature paid off.  He placed second in the entire country in a very competitive entrance examination.  In the summer of 1901, at the age of 16, he therefore earned an appointment to the Japanese Navy’s Naval Academy on the small island of Etajima, just off the shores of Hiroshima.(4)

A young and focused Isoroku Yamamoto was on his way to become Admiral Nimitz’s most feared enemy 40 years later.

More to follow in Part III.

Part I is here.

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Footnote:

(1) To clarify, both sides had rifles and used samurai swords. Takano’s Western armaments, however, numbered many times less.

(2) Another Hollyweird movie tries to depict this period of the Boshin War: “The Last Samurai” with the nutty Tom Cruise depicting an American soldier brought over to train the “winning” side on rifles.  He is captured by the “losing” side (the samurai) and at the end, fights for them.  Long story short, the fictional American soldier he portrays somewhat follows an actual man, a French soldier named Brunet.

(3) Meiji banned samurai from carrying swords; in fact, nearly all swords had to have their handles ground down so they would be difficult to wield. Sounds like California. However, my grandmother told me several times “the long nose, long legged invaders” (the occupying Americans of which my dad was one) came to each house and confiscated all ancestral swords. She tells me their ancestral swords that were taken away were from the 1600’s.

(4) Understandably, the occupying Americans shuttered the Naval Academy in 1946 but Japan reopened it in 1957. It is now home to Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force. I was extremely fortunate to have been given a personal tour in 1999 but the few pictures that were allowed are now lost. Their is a solemn memorial hall for kamikaze. Maybe that will be another post in the future.

What Did FDR Know? – Part 4


 

honolulu headline

As we saw in Part 3, Japan and America are now at war.

While not directly related to the question of “What did FDR know?”, it is deemed critical for readers to understand the damages suffered by the US military – and specifically its naval and air assets – on December 7, 1941.  It is also important to realize the huge advantage the Japanese Imperial Navy had over the U.S. Navy.  Lastly, it is important for readers to note the unbridled successes of the Japanese military at that time… and what unbelievably followed.

For the vast majority, Americans are under the belief that the US was caught flat-footed with the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.  Indeed, 21 ships of the U.S. Pacific Fleet were sunk or damaged.

Of those ships damaged, all but three of the ships at Pearl Harbor were refloated and repaired (Note: Pearl Harbor at its deepest is about 50′.):

  • The USS Arizona – too badly damaged to be salvaged,
  • The USS Oklahoma – raised but considered too obsolete to be worth repairing, and,
  • The USS Utah – also considered obsolete.

In addition, the US had 188 aircraft destroyed plus 159 were damaged; the majority were hit before they had a chance to take off.

uss calif

There were a total of 2,403 American casualties, including 68 civilians.  Most of the military killed were on the USS Arizona (1,177 killed).  Most of the civilians killed were from improperly fused anti-aircraft shells fired by US batteries hitting in Honolulu.  There were 1,178 wounded military personnel and civilians combined. (1)

crashed zero
A downed Zero in a Hawaiian neighborhood.

Japanese naval forces sailing for the raid included four heavy aircraft carriers, two battleships, two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, 35 submarines, and 11 destroyers.  Indeed, a powerful fleet projecting tremendous offensive firepower.  All survived unscathed; all but 29 Japanese aircraft returned to their carriers.

In the Pacific Theater, Japanese forces were rolling over Allied forces at will with victories in Thailand, Malaya, Wake Island, Guam Island, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore, Burma, Dutch Indonesia and the invasion New Guinea.  The Imperial Japanese Navy dominated in the Pacific, attacking Allied bases in Australia and Ceylon; they even bombed or shelled coast of North America at will albeit with minimal effect.

But, the great sea battle of the Coral Sea and more specifically at Midway essentially put a halt to the wave of Japanese victories… barely five months after Pearl Harbor.

How could that possibly be?  Wasn’t our Pacific fleet crippled?

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So… how DID the US Navy stop the Japanese advance at these critical battles at Coral Sea and Midway?  After all, at the time of Pearl Harbor, the US Navy only had three aircraft carriers in the Pacific: the USS Enterprise, USS Lexington, and USS Saratoga.  (The USS Hornet was still on shakedown cruise and the USS Yorktown and USS Wasp were deployed in the Atlantic.)

Of course, the heroics of our sailors and Marines played a most dominant role but you may wish to ask yourself:

  • Were American aircraft and ships better than their Japanese counterparts?  No, production of new classes of ships and aircraft would not arrive in the Pacific until 1943.
  • Did American forces have more men, aircraft and ships? Again no, the tide of the American industrial strength would not be felt in the Pacific until 1943.
  • Was it better leadership?  No.  Admiral Chester W. Nimitz was arguably equally matched by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the overall commander of Japanese forces during the battles of Coral Sea and Midway.
  • Did our navy stumble upon the enemy out in the Pacific by sheer luck or happenstance?

If it wasn’t the above, how was the US Navy able to engage the Imperial Japanese Navy at Coral Sea and Midway then stop them?

It was MAGIC.

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Battle of Coral Sea, May 4 – 8, 1942

coral sea map
Battle of the Coral Sea, May 1942.  Source: Pacific War Museum.

By March 13, 1942, OP-G-20 had completely broken JN-25.  Until then, about 10% to 15% of a JN-25 message that was intercepted could be read. (2)  However, enough could be deciphered to understand the Japanese were gearing up to attack Port Moresby in Papua, New Guinea on May 7, 1942.  By taking Port Moresby, Japan could extend its reach beyond northern Australia and further south.

Upon receiving the intelligence from the deciphered JN-25 messages, Admiral Chester Nimitz decided to move a fleet into position in between Port Moresby and Australia.  He issued such orders on April 17, 1942.  However, he had but two carriers available for action – the USS Lexington and the USS Yorktown.  This battle was definitely NOT a chance encounter; it was planned.

jn25 sampleIn fact, deciphered messages allowed the US Task Force 17 to be in position before the Japanese fleets arrived to attack.  But lacking sufficient capital ships and aircraft that were inferior to the Japanese Zero, the outcome was far from certain.  The sailors and Marines were largely untested as well.  (The USS Hornet and USS Enterprise were unavailable due to their critical roles in the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo; it took place two days later on April 18, 1942.)

With but two carriers and support ships, the US fleet was outgunned especially considering our aircraft was obsolete.  The Japanese fleet sailed with a Shoho (a carrier), several cruisers and destroyers, and a dozen transports filled with troops.  A smaller invasion force would move down the Solomons, which laid on New Guinea’s eastern flank, with the target being Tulagi. To protect these two invasion fleets, the Japanese carriers Zuikaku and Shokaku would spearhead yet a third fleet to provide air protection.

coral-lex01s
The USS Lexington explodes and sinks. (US Navy archival photo)

While the ensuing two-day Battle of Coral Sea was considered a draw, U.S. forces inflicted enough damage on the Japanese navy to force it to withdraw.  In addition, as the Japanese were unable to secure the port, their military was forced to fight in land warfare, which proved disastrous for the Japanese.  Of most importance, the fruit of the battle saw the Japanese carrier Shoho sunk, with both the Zuikaku and Shokaku damaged and forced to retire.  Therefore, they were made unavailable for the critical Battle of Midway, just about four weeks later.

However, we lost the USS Lexington, a major loss. And while the USS Yorktown suffered heavy damage as well, the Japanese believed her to have been sunk; instead, the USS Yorktown was made seaworthy through the extreme efforts of repair crews at Pearl Harbor.  While two weeks had been estimated for repairs, the repair crews had her back on the seas in just 48 hours.

This strategic victory was made entirely possible because of secret MAGIC intercepts.  The Japanese still did not believe their complex JN-25 had been broken.

Battle of Midway, June 4 – 7, 1942

rochefort
Captain Joseph Rochefort, USN, head of OIC, Pearl Harbor (Photo NSA)

Arguably, the paramount triumph from the breaking of JN-25 on March 13, 1942 was the Battle of Midway.  This is one battle that my neighbor, Mr. Johnson, fought on board the USS Enterprise as a very young US Marine.  From decrypting the Japanese naval messages, the U.S. naval commanders knew the general battle plans of Admiral Yamamoto – even the timetable.  Yamamoto’s strategy was to have aircraft carrier task forces launch both a diversionary raid off the Aleutian Islands then lure the U.S. Navy to Midway Island.  His goal was to decimate once and for all what remained of the American fleet after Pearl Harbor.

Yes, the deciphered intercepts did not state in the clear Midway was the target; the messages simply designated “AF.”  While CINCPAC felt strongly it was Midway, it was Captain Joseph Rochefort of OP-20-G who wily suggested how to establish for certain what “AF” stood for.

Rochefort was Officer in Charge (OIC) of Station Hypo in Pearl Harbor, the nerve station in Hawaii for deciphering JN-25 intercepts.  An expert Japanese linguist and during the most critical month of May 1942, Rochefort reviewed, analyzed, and reported on as many as 140 decrypted messages per day. These reports were directly piped to the highest-ranking fleet commanders.  He brilliantly strategized for American forces on Midway to send out a radio message saying that they were running short of fresh water.  Rochefort and his group waited anxiously to see if Japan would take the bait. Finally, OP-G-20 intercepted a Japanese message: AF was running short of fresh water.

Establishing Midway as the target, the U.S. Navy assembled what it could.  America was still short on capital ships and better aircraft.  After a 48 hour turnaround, the USS Yorktown joined the USS Enterprise and USS Hornet.

While remembering that by virtue of deciphering coded Japanese messages, the Japanese Imperial Navy had three less carriers to deploy after their losses at Coral Sea – a very critical fact.  After a fierce three-day battle at Midway, U.S. naval aviators sank all four Japanese aircraft carriers in Yamamoto’s task force – the Hiryu, Soryu, Akagi and Kaga.  All four participated in the assault on Pearl Harbor, effectively turning the tide in the Pacific.  Yes, luck was involved during the actual battle but certainly, the courage of our young men at sea and in the air was incredible.  They had proven themselves but at great cost in lives and materiel… including the USS Yorktown.

Unbelievably, the Chicago Tribune published a darned story revealing that the U.S. had known about Japanese battle plans in advance.  They had, in effect, revealed that JN–25 had been broken. Inexplicably, key Japanese leaders never found out about the article.  Darned media – even back then.

Assassination of Admiral Yamamoto

State funeral Yamamoto
State funeral procession for Admiral Yamamoto, 1943.

As school history books had once shown, the battle planner of the Pearl Harbor attack was Admiral Yamamoto.  He did know of the might of the U.S. having attended Harvard University – yes, Harvard – from 1919 to 1921, studying English.  He did, in fact, oppose taking on the U.S.  But Yamamoto had one trait which would lead directly to his death: his intense desire to be punctual.  The US counted on this.

Codebreakers intercepted then learned after deciphering messages that the admiral was scheduled to inspect a naval base on Bougainville in the Solomon Islands on April 18, 1943.  The detail even included his minute by minute itinerary.  Some top US officials were hesitant to use this information for fear that doing so would tip off the Japanese that their codes had been broken. Nevertheless, the decision was made to assassinate Yamamoto. That morning, eighteen P–38 fighters left their base at Guadalcanal at the other end of the Solomon chain and arrived at Bougainville precisely ten minutes before Yamamoto’s plane was making its approach. The admiral was killed in the attack, depriving Japan of its most experienced and accomplished admiral and sapping Japanese morale.

yamamoto flight
Flights paths: Yamamoto (red) and USAAF (black). Also notice “Green Island” north of Bouganville. This was “Old Man Jack’s” last battle station. USN Archives

To mislead the Japanese that the fighters had arrived purely by chance, the air force flew other risky patrols to the area, both before and after the attack.  It was not a “one shot in the dark” mission.  It was deeply thought over and planned out – because we were able to intercept and decipher coded Japanese messages.(3)  They also spread “rumors” that the information was from coast watchers.

The Japanese did not change JN–25, and for the remainder of the war, U.S. intelligence intercepted and read thousands of Japanese messages.  A portion of a secret OP-20-G report, circa 1943, is below listing the number of coded Japanese messages intercepted:

Japan’s Plan

Early in 1942, Japan decided to block the Allies from setting up bases in Australia. Operation MO would send a large invasion force to Port Moresby, the capital of New Guinea. From Port Moresby, the Japanese would be able to project air power beyond the northern tip of Australia and establish bases even further south (Hearn).

The Port Moresby landing force sailed with about a dozen transports filled with troops, several cruisers and destroyers, and a half-size carrier, Shoho (Bennett, Hearn). A smaller invasion force would move down the Solomons, which lay on New Guinea’s eastern flank. The specific target in the Solomons was Tulagi, which was the colonial capital. To protect these two invasion fleets, Zuikaku and Shokaku would lead a separate covering force to create a blanket of air protection (Bennett).

The U.S. Prepares

By March 1942, the United States had cracked part of the current Japanese Naval (JN) code, JN-25. However, U.S. intelligence could intercept only about 60 percent of all Japanese transmissions and had the resources to analyze only about 40 percent of the messages it did intercept (Parshall and Tully). Even then, code breakers typically could read only 10 to 15 percent of the code groups in a message (Parshall and Tully). U.S. intelligence primarily used direction-finding equipment to learn where many Japanese ships were and where they were heading (Parshall and Tully).

Beginning on April 16, U.S. intelligence began using this spotty information to piece together an understanding of a Japanese plan to move south with carriers (Parshall and Tully). On April 17, Nimitz ordered the carrier Lexington to join Yorktown in the Coral Sea (Bennett). If Halsey had been able to move Enterprise and Hornet there too, the U.S. might have been able to destroy the Japanese fleet. But Enterprise and Hornet needed refitting after the Doolittle raid of April 18, 1942, and could not get there in time for the fight (Parshall and Tully).

– See more at: http://www.pacificaviationmuseum.org/pearl-harbor-blog/battle-of-the-coral-sea#sthash.P5voInlO.dpuf

Japan’s Plan

Early in 1942, Japan decided to block the Allies from setting up bases in Australia. Operation MO would send a large invasion force to Port Moresby, the capital of New Guinea. From Port Moresby, the Japanese would be able to project air power beyond the northern tip of Australia and establish bases even further south (Hearn).

The Port Moresby landing force sailed with about a dozen transports filled with troops, several cruisers and destroyers, and a half-size carrier, Shoho (Bennett, Hearn). A smaller invasion force would move down the Solomons, which lay on New Guinea’s eastern flank. The specific target in the Solomons was Tulagi, which was the colonial capital. To protect these two invasion fleets, Zuikaku and Shokaku would lead a separate covering force to create a blanket of air protection (Bennett).

The U.S. Prepares

By March 1942, the United States had cracked part of the current Japanese Naval (JN) code, JN-25. However, U.S. intelligence could intercept only about 60 percent of all Japanese transmissions and had the resources to analyze only about 40 percent of the messages it did intercept (Parshall and Tully). Even then, code breakers typically could read only 10 to 15 percent of the code groups in a message (Parshall and Tully). U.S. intelligence primarily used direction-finding equipment to learn where many Japanese ships were and where they were heading (Parshall and Tully).

Beginning on April 16, U.S. intelligence began using this spotty information to piece together an understanding of a Japanese plan to move south with carriers (Parshall and Tully). On April 17, Nimitz ordered the carrier Lexington to join Yorktown in the Coral Sea (Bennett). If Halsey had been able to move Enterprise and Hornet there too, the U.S. might have been able to destroy the Japanese fleet. But Enterprise and Hornet needed refitting after the Doolittle raid of April 18, 1942, and could not get there in time for the fight (Parshall and Tully).

– See more at: http://www.pacificaviationmuseum.org/pearl-harbor-blog/battle-of-the-coral-sea#sthash.P5voInlO.dpuf

Crane Library, National Archives, College Park
National Archives

Purple and D-Day

The importance of MAGIC and the breaking of the “Purple” Japanese consulate code cannot be understated.  For non-historian readers, the reach and military value extends far beyond the waters of the Pacific.  It extends to Europe…specifically D-Day and the shores of Normandy.

As revealed in “What Did FDR Know? – Part 2” of this blog series, the US broke the code for this cipher before the attack at Pearl Harbor.  The US did their best to keep the wraps over this great intelligence triumph.  However, Nazi Germany’s own intelligence had good evidence that SIS had broken Purple and informed the Japanese.  Unbelievably, Japan refused to believe it.  (I believe this is part of the Japanese culture – to not place importance on “water cooler” talk.)   Only when Congressional hearings and investigations into who knew of the Pearl Harbor attack reveal this did the Japanese accept it.  Unfortunately, is was much after war’s end.(4)

oshima 1
Baron Hiroshi Oshima, 1939.

Per “What Did FDR Know? – Part 1”, Baron Hiroshi Oshima was the Japanese envoy to Berlin and used his Purple machine to communicate frequently with Tokyo.  Luckily for the US, Oshima was also an Imperial Army colonel at the time of appointment and loved war strategy and armaments.  He followed intimately the German conquests in Europe and their latest technologies. He sent very detailed reports to his superiors in Tokyo of what he had learned using the purple cipher machine, which the US was able to intercept and decipher immediately.

Oshima became a favorite and a confidant of Hitler.  Hitler – being so full of himself and pompous – shared with Oshima the most secret and sensitive of his war plans with him.  Hitler even gave Oshima a tour of the German defenses in Normandy!  As per his character and routine, Oshima transmitted very detailed reports of the Nazi defenses at Normandy.  This was obviously key in the preparations for D-Day, so much so the deciphered intel was immediately transmitted to General Eisenhower.  Not quite what we read in our textbooks…

And while the public is led to believe the U.S. did not know if the German commanders took the bait that the D-Day invasion would take place at Pas-de-Calais, Oshima secretly gave the US confidence that the Germans had taken the deception through his messages to Tokyo.  The Nazis were preparing for the landing at the wrong beaches.  (Note: this is not to lessen the somberness of those killed or missing in action at Normandy.  Further, this is not to lessen the importance of wartime security.)  Further, with their true belief that the invasion at Normandy was a diversion, the Panzer divisions were not immediately released to engage the Allied invading forces until too late.

In recognition of this value to Japan, he was promoted in a few short years from Colonel to Lt. General.  Oshima’s prolific reporting prompted US General George C. Marshall to say Oshima was, “…our main basis of information regarding Hitler’s intentions in Europe” in 1944. (5)

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Final Query for Part 4

Why did the U.S. decide to take intense preparatory military action for Coral Sea based only on partial deciphers of JN-25?  As stated, OP-20-G did not break JN-25 completely until March 1942.  However, OP-20-G was able to adequately decipher JN-25 messages – even one sent by Yamamoto himself – only until about one week before Pearl Harbor when a code key was changed.  What could the reasons be for the U.S. not taking similar defensive or offensive action at Pearl Harbor before the actual attack commenced?  Was it because of incomplete intel?  Were deciphered messages not of importance to FDR… or they not reach FDR at all?  Were diplomatic deciphers not important?  Did top brass feel their carriers would be sunk facing tremendous attacks and therefore, the Pacific War would be lost from the get-go?  Or…?

Of course, there can be as many reasons as there are people.

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NOTES:

(1) National Park Service

(2) “At the Interface” documentary based on interviews of Donald M. Showers, USN, ret.

(3) Public teaching in the past was true at the surface – that the US had intercepted a radio message “sent out in the open” by a brash young officer.  Now you know it was the work of cryptanalysts working under tremendous secrecy.

(4) National Cryptologic Museum

(5) “Hitler’s Japanese Confidant” by Carl Boyd