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 if Pearl 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.”