“In the first six to twelve months of a war with the United States and Great Britain I will run wild and win victory upon victory. But then, if the war continues after that, I have no expectation of success.” – Admiral Yamamoto to Japanese prime minister Fumimaro Konoe.
The date of Admiral Yamamoto’s death was ironic.
Admiral Yamamoto was killed exactly one year after the famous Doolittle Raid on Tokyo on April 18, 1942.
It was like an omen.
The Japanese military and government did not disclose his death for about a month. When they did, they conducted a grand state funeral.
Here is a link to a Japanese video of his funeral. At the beginning, it shows the last known movie footage of him on Rabaul, waving to the pilots as they take off to attack Guadalcanal in Operation I boosting morale tremendously. There is also a glimpse of the only memorial statue of Admiral Yamamoto and a look inside his small home that is now in disrepair. During the funeral procession, it is very important to note you see Tokyo as it once looked before being leveled. I wonder if my grandparents, mom and aunt were in the crowds:
While his ashes were met in Tokyo by his widow (1), one half of his ashes remained in Tokyo, the other half taken back to his home town of Nagaoka. There, an unremarkable crypt of about three feet tall entombs one-half of his remains in a small family plot that is visited much more so by history nuts and the curious than by family and relatives.
In a bit of lost history, the funeral procession passed in front of his favorite geisha Chiyoko’s residence.
Similar to how WWII history has become to being taught here in America (meaning forgotten), Japan had chosen post-war to teach very little of WWII if anything. Because of this, many Japanese younger than say 55 years of age know very little about the war with America… except for the atomic and fire bombings.
For instance, my second wife and her mother never even heard of Iwo Jima. When I told them it was an island and part of the Tokyo prefecture, they were in disbelief. They didn’t even know there was a horrendous battle that took 30,000 young Japanese and American lives. Imagine that… but “the forgetting” is happening here in America too because of misguided emotional beliefs and attitudes of the teachers and school administrations.
Here in America, we have ships, airfields and streets named after heroes. Aircraft carriers USS Chester Nimitz, USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, USS George H. W. Bush, O’Hare International Airport, or John Basilone Road near Camp Pendleton.
Yamamoto has nothing. He is rarely even mentioned in Japanese textbooks. There are no ships, airfields or streets named after him. Just two unassuming crypts and they are rarely visited by offspring or family. There is a small museum I was able to see back around 2001 soon after it opened during a business trip but it was hard to find. Even the train conductor whom I asked for directions didn’t even know who Yamamoto was. He told me to go to the police kiosk and luckily, one of the officers heard of it and gave me directions – about a 15 minute walk. It does house a piece of the wing that was part of the Betty bomber he was shot down in. Oh, there is a small statue of him in his hometown near his crypt.
The lack of honorariums is an insult, in my opinion, as he gave his life to a war he knew he couldn’t win. He was simply loyal to his emperor. I also believe from my civilian’s chair that Yamamoto was one of the greatest prophetic naval minds in history – so much so that Nimitz viewed him as his greatest threat.
In his time, those in the Japanese military who wanted to see him assassinated believed he was “pro-American” or just a cowardly “dove”. I don’t see it that way. I believe he was a patriot, loved his country and was the consummate military man wearing the uniform of his country – just like Patton, Ike, and Nimitz. He simply did what he thought best for his country given his orders and conditions – that the pompous Army-led government wanted a war that Yamamoto knew they could not win. He therefore believed the only way to achieve this haughty vision of victory against the US and England was to execute a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and disabling the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet.(2) He may have succeeded if Nagumo had indeed attempted to carry out Yamamoto’s full orders and battle plan. Nagumo failed to do so.
(Note: As an American, I fully accept that any attack on a country should be preceded by a declaration of war. However, just as I/we believe a declaration of war is necessary before hostilities, the samurai roots of Japan totally accepted surprise attacks as the norm. Just a fact.)
…but as a military leader, I feel for him. He knew Japan could not win. What was he to do? Step aside and let others lead the young men to their deaths under less competent leadership? Or lead them himself into a war they could not win and should not fight? Of course, he chose the latter and appropriately so. In my opinion, he should not be condemned because he did.
But it cost him his life.
The man whose name was his samurai father’s age at birth, the man who did handstands to break the thick air and bring laughter, the man who was a winner at gambling around the globe, the man who was nicknamed “Eighty Sen” by geishas… died fighting for the country who would then quickly bury him in theirlost history.
If he was not killed in the daring and risky attack hastily put together by the USAAF, what would have happened to him if he was alive on the day of surrender?
Would he have killed himself? Many did. He was the son of a respected samurai.
Or would he have surrendered like General Yamashita did in the Philippines only to be hung shortly thereafter as a war criminal in a hasty trial?
Would MacArthur have spared Yamamoto to be used as a liaison with his understanding of America and his fluent English during the Occupation? After all, he was revered in Japan as was Ike and Patton here. That may have been ideal but unlikely due to the immense hatred bred onto him by American propaganda.
We will never know.
Perhaps it was best he died a warrior while leading his troops.
(1) In the first video, Admiral Yamamoto’s ashes disembark from the train after its arrival in Tokyo on May 23, 1943.
This second video is the “official” national footage of the state funeral procession. You can glimpse the infamous General Tojo at about the 3:10 mark and his widow and three children at about the 3:20 mark:
(2) Against Admiral RIchardson’s stern advice to FDR for which he was fired, the US Seventh Fleet was moved out of San Diego to Pearl Harbor by FDR. Yamamoto, just like Richardson, saw it as a dumb military move. They were both right. This is one reason why I firmly believe FDR wanted Japan to attack the US and get us into a war which he campaigned against.
After radio chatter in supposed secret Japanese naval code was intercepted by MAGIC on April 13, 1943, the US Navy jumped into action. The US Navy brass now knew of Yamamoto’s projected flight schedule just five days later.
But to fully appreciate this, of course, it is critical to note this was 1943 and during a most vile world war. There was no faxing, texting, internet or the like. Also, Yamamoto’s plane may not start that day, weather may alter the flight or he may just get sick (He did suffer from a form of beriberi.).
But some huge questions that had to be answered in only three days if the shoot-down were to occur successfully:
Who was going to order/approve the killing?
How was it going to get carried out? And,
How can the Japanese be kept from figuring out our secret that we broke their secret code? (1)
Sources differ on who approved the go-ahead for Admiral Yamamoto’s killing.
Some sources say Admiral Nimitz said go.
Some sources say Admiral Nimitz refused to give the order to kill Admiral Yamamoto and deferred the decision to his superior, Admiral King.
Some sources say no military brass wanted to approve the killing and that it ultimately came from FDR (which by definition becomes an assassination). Although no document from that time could be found, several items indicate FDR was at least involved. (1) (2)
But one thing is certain; when Bull Halsey found out the mission was a go, he stated, “TALLY HO X LET’S GET THE BASTARD.”
Some buried history on the actual mission to kill Admiral Yamamoto:
In a tent choked with humidity on Guadalcanal’s Henderson Field on April 17, 1943, Admiral Marc Mitscher read the message marked ‘TOP SECRET’, signed by the Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox. In attendance was Major John W. Mitchell, USAAF. He would plan and lead the flight: “SQUADRON 339 P-38 MUST AT ALL COSTS REACH AND DESTROY. PRESIDENT ATTACHES EXTREME IMPORTANCE TO MISSION.”
The recently deployed P-38G Lightning was the only fighter that could accomplish the shoot-down. Other fighters like the US Navy’s Grumman F4F or new Vought F4U Corsair simply could not fly the approximately 800 mile round trip. Even then, without Charles Lindbergh’s engineering insights to lean-burn, the flight may have been impossible for the P-38Gs. Still, the P-38s required external fuel tanks, one of which must be a 330 gallon capacity, the other 150. They were located at Port Moresby, expedited to Guadalcanal then hurriedly attached to the fighters in an all night effort.
A Marine named Major John Condon actually drafted up the flight plan first but Major Mitchell rejected it with only 12 hours of so before takeoff. With input from several key pilots, Mitchell rushedly planned out the mission as the shootdown was to occur the next day with the flight leaving early in the morning! Relying on Yamamoto’s trademark punctuality, Mitchell precisely “walked back” the flight path from the expected intercept time over the southwest coast of Bougainville at 9:35 AM.
4. It was determined there would be four “killer” attack planes and 14 escort planes to handle the anticipated six Zero escort fighters and to compensate for aborts. The 14 escort fighters were also in anticipation of the dozens of other land-based Zero fighters that may be airborne. The four killer planes were responsible for the single Betty bomber carrying Admiral Yamamoto. (3)
5. Mitchell, in leading the flight, demanded the standard USAAF compass on his P-38G be replaced by a larger and more accurate Navy compass. “Dead reckoning” would be the order of the day and exact headings were an absolute requirement – therefore, the need for the most accurate compass available. All they would see in their 400 mile flight out would be water.
6. One P-38 suffered a flat tire at takeoff and another’s fuel transfer from belly tanks failed, leaving 12 escort P-38s for the anticipated combat. Surprisingly, these two planes that dropped out due to the mechanical failures were two of the four original killer planes.
7. Per a recent Military Intelligence Service’s veteran’s report, “At 7:25 AM on April 18 1943, the American pilots departed
Henderson Field, Guadalcanal, to travel a circuitous all water route at ten to thirty feet above the water and radio silenced to avoid enemy radar detection. At 8:00 AM, 35 minutes later and 700 miles away, Yamamoto’s convoy took off on schedule from Rabaul airfield and (then) arrived over the southwest coast of Bougainville at 9:35 AM, the exact time the P 38s arrived there.”(2) The flight path avoided all possibility of being seen from occupied islands or radar. Being literally at sea level, it was sweltering in the cockpit. Mitchell had to fight of drowsiness as one mistake meant death an instant later.
8. Miraculously, Mitchell had guided his attack force to within one minute of the targeted arrival time. The third pilot spotted the flight but it included TWO Betty bombers, not the single one dictated in the decoded secret message. At this moment, Mitchell was not sure if this was Yamamoto’s flight. Forunately, Mitchell made the snap decision to attack, said, “Skin them (meaning drop fuel tanks),” and began combat.
9. Lanphier and Barber both had hits on the Betty bomber that carried Admiral Yamamoto. However, Lanphier’s gun camera footage shows his rounds striking the Betty bomber, causing part of the left wing to split off. The bomber then crashed into the jungle.
Here is footage from both American and Japanese viewpoints (scroll to the 5:28 mark). It does show in slow motion Lanphier’s gun camera footage where he shoots off part of the left wing of Yamamoto’s plane. (Important note: the “gunfire” you hear in the actual gun footage is edited in. The gun cameras were silent B&W film.)
10. One killer P-38 piloted by Lt. Raymond K. Hine was lost; he originally began the flight as an escort fighter but moved up when the two killer planes had to abort. There were various sightings from Japanese reports which claim his supercharger was hit and engine smoking when he headed out to sea. He was never heard from or seen again. In spite of claims by the USAAF pilots, not one Zero was shot down although several were damaged.
11. The six Japanese Zero pilots assigned to escort Admiral Yamamoto were:
All were shamed, of course, for failing in their duty to protect Admiral Yamamoto but they were up against tremendous odds. Japanese brass decided not to have them commit suicide; the brass knew they would perish in combat in their hopes Yamamoto’s death woukd be kept underwraps. Sure enough, all but Kenji Yanagiya would be killed in action within a short period. Yanagiya was severely wounded, losing his right hand and was sent home. He passed away in 2008 at the age of 88.
12. Per John Connor, History.net, he writes:
“At every stage, planners had stressed the need for secrecy. But even before the P-38s had landed, security was compromised.
As the returning planes neared Guadalcanal, Lanphier radioed to the control tower: “That son of a bitch will not be dictating any peace terms in the White House.” Lanphier’s announcement was shocking to others on the mission. Air-to-ground messages were broadcast in the clear, and the Japanese monitored American aviation frequencies. Lanphier’s message left little to the imagination. Bystanders on Guadalcanal, including a young navy officer named John F. Kennedy, watched as Lanphier executed a victory roll over the field before landing. “I got him!” Lanphier announced to the crowd after climbing out of his cockpit. “I got that son of a bitch. I got Yamamoto.”
Halsey and Nimitz, when they found out, went nuts as if the Japanese heard the message, they would realize that Lanphier knew Yamamoto was on board which would be impossible unless we broke their JN-25 naval code.
13. Behind the scenes, President Franklin D. Roosevelt reacted with glee, writing a mock letter of condolence to Yamamoto’s widow that circulated around the White House but was never sent:
Dear Widow Yamamoto:
Time is a great leveler and somehow I never expected to see the old boy at the White House anyway. Sorry I can’t attend the funeral because I approve of it.
Hoping he is where we know he ain’t.
Very sincerely yours,
/s/ Franklin D. Roosevelt
14. The US definitely wanted to keep the Japanese Navy from suspecting we had broken their JN-25 code. In a ploy to make it look like Mitchell’s flight was indeed a chance of luck, the USAAF sent out similar patrols on subsequent days. Besides, the Japanese did NOT publicize his death for about two months; as such, the Americans could not possibly know Admiral Yamamoto was killed.
15. Decades later, the feud between Barber and Lanphier continued as to who shot Yamamoto down. At the end, the US Navy officially awarded the “kill” to Barber. When that happened, ironically, Lanphier lost his “ace” status.
16. Per the Japanese Navy’s coroner’s report, Yamamoto was found ejected from the crashed plane but still strapped into the pilot’s seat. Further, that he was still clutching his family’s samurai sword. The report stated that the seat was upright resting against a tree and that his face looked unchanged. It further stated the cause of death was from two .50 caliber rounds, one into his back and another entering though his jaw and exiting above the right eye. (Author’s note: I am highly suspect of this report given it was from propaganda driven wartime Japan. Although I never served, I cannot fathom his face “looking unchanged” when a .50 caliber round exited above his right eye after entering through his jaw. I also cannot believe he was still clutching his samurai sword after being ejected from the plane.)
17. The second Betty bomber carried Yamamoto’s Chief of Staff Vice Admiral Matome Ugaki. He and two other sailors survived the crash into the ocean after being shot down albeit with a broken arm. He would recover from his wounds but would not return from the infamous last kamikaze attack of WWII which he led on August 15, 1945. He did not make his target. He would leave behind his meticulous diary, a wealth of information.
More to follow in Part X.
(1) It was vital that the Japanese not know their naval codes (the JN-25) had been broken. If they did, they would react and modify their code. This would terminate the US Navy’s ability to track and sink military and most of all, merchant shipping of vital natural resources taken from captured countries. As written in “What Did FDR Know”, the sinking of many tons of merchant vessels was made possible by our breaking their JN-25.
(2) “…The message was decrypted and translated at FRUPAC by Marine Lt Col Alva Byan Lasswell and was passed the next day to
Commander Ed Layton, CINCPAC intelligence officer. Admiral Chester NIMITZ, CINCPAC, sent the message to Washington. President Franklin Roosevelt approved and requested the
shoot down of Admiral Yamamoto’s air convoy be given the highest priority. This was conveyed to RADM Marc A. Mitscher, commander of the Solomons region, via NIMITZ and Admiral Halsey who was responsible for that region.” – “Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto Air Convoy Shoot Down” report, JAVA, April 18, 2014. The author was a noted Military Intelligence Service member during WWII.
(3) The original flight organization was:
Initial Killer Flight:
Capt. Thomas G. Lanphier, Jr.
Lt. Rex T. Barber
Lt. Jim McLanahan (dropped out with flat tire)
Lt. Joe Moore (dropped out with faulty fuel feed)
The remaining pilots were to as reserves and provide air cover against any retaliatory attacks by local Japanese fighters:
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.”
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.
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.
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 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.
More to follow in Part VII.
(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.
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.
(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.
True stories about World War II – One war. Two Countries. One Family