Admiral Yamamoto: Japan’s Naval Prophet
In the expansive years of Japan’s colonial empire, one figure stands out as premier among Japan’s military planners. Isoroku Yamamoto was not merely the best naval strategist that Japan had ever known, he is considered one of the best naval strategists in history. Although a diminutive 5’3″, Yamamoto was a towering figure in Japanese military planning.
Born in 1884 as Isoroku Tanako, in 1916 he was adopted into the Yamamoto family, a not-uncommon practice for families who lacked a male heir to carry on the family name. He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1904 and a year later participated in the Battle of Tsushima Strait, where the Japanese Navy stunned the world by defeating the Russian Navy. In the battle, Yamamoto was wounded in his left arm and leg and lost two fingers, but he continued his naval career.
In 1919 he was sent to the United States to study English at Harvard. When he graduated two years later, he returned to Japan to specialize in the new field of naval aviation. He returned to the United States in 1926 as a naval attache, which contributed to his already great knowledge of America and its strengths and weaknesses. While his opinion of the US Navy was low, he was fully aware of America’s power as a nation.
As an admiral in 1930, Yamamoto attended the Conference of Naval Powers in London. As a dove, he was opposed to the war in Manchuria in 1931, the land war in China in 1937, and the alliance with Nazi Germany. In 1937 he personally apologized to U.S. Ambassador Joseph Grew for the attack on the U.S. gunboat U.S.S. Panay. All of these stances made him an enemy of the powerful radical militarists. Marked for assassination, Yamamoto was reassigned to sea duty as Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet in 1939. In 1940 he was promoted to Admiral of the Combined Fleet, which gave him control over all of Japan’s naval forces.
At this point, Japan’s naval forces were far superior to most of the rest of the world’s, due largely to Yamamoto’s foresight and persistence. Foreseeing that aircraft carriers would supersede battleships as the most important arm of the navy, a position that was largely ridiculed by conventional naval thinking the world over, Yamamoto oversaw the development of extreme long-range bombers as well as the excellent carrier-based Zero fighter. The Japanese navy had the world’s fastest, longest-ranged, and most efficient torpedoes, as well as the world’s best air-dropped torpedoes. Yamamoto also helped to develop the tactics and strategies that took advantage of these fledgling technologies, such as grouping carriers into attack groups. Yamamoto argued against the building of the super-battleships Yamato and Musashi, correctly foreseeing that they would prove indecisive against the enemy carriers and airplanes.
Yamamoto is perhaps best known in the West for being the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack. Rather than intended it to be a “sneak attack,” the attack on Pearl Harbor was supposed to take place after Japan had broken off diplomatic relations with the United States. However, the diplomatic note was delivered too late, which made Japan’s first strike against the U.S. Navy a cause for revenge, rather than the opening salvo in an unwanted war, which had been Yamamoto’s hoped-for purpose. In any case, the designed attack on Pearl Harbor went almost exactly as Yamamoto had envisioned, with the five battleships destroyed, three battleships badly damaged, and ten cruisers, destroyers, and auxiliary ships destroyed or badly damaged. The Japanese lost only 29 planes.
While the Pearl Harbor attack was a complete tactical and strategic success, it was a complete political failure. Because of the “sneak attack,” America immediately roused itself to an all-out war with Japan that it had never intended except on a defensive level.
Ironically, Yamamoto had argued against war with America, recognizing that its industrial capacity was far larger than anything his colleagues could envision. He famously warned Premier Konoe, “If I am told to fight, I shall run wild for six months…but I have utterly no confidence for the second or third year.” His prediction was to prove uncannily correct. For the six months after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had a string of lightning successes in the Phillipines and throughout the Pacific. In the midst of competing plans in the Japanese military, the successful Doolittle Raid in April, 1942, gave Yamamoto the currency he needed to gather Japanese resources for a Decisive Battle with the Americans in the Pacific. To this end, he planned a confrontation at Midway in June, 1942.
A carefully planned seizure of Midway was supposed to draw the American Pacific fleet into an overwhelming trap. However, the Japanese were unaware that American cryptographers had broken the naval code and knew of Yamamoto’s Midway operation beforehand. As a result, they were able to stymie the Japanese planning and ambush the Japanese forces before they were ready, resulting in a devastating defeat. This happened almost exactly six month after Pearl Harbor, and as Yamamoto predicted, marked the downswing of Japanese success against America.
With the loss of prestige following the debacle at Midway, Yamamoto was forced to fight a defensive war as American forces steadily advanced across the Pacific. In April, 1943, American cryptographers discovered that Yamamoto was due to take an inspection tour throughout the South Pacific. Permission was given to shoot down his plane, and on April 18, eighteen specially-equipped American P-38 interceptors were sent out. Yamamoto’s plane was shot down, and his body was later recovered by Japanese soldiers. To protect their cryptographic abilities, the American press was told that coastal observers had seen Yamamoto boarding the plane and conveyed that information to the U.S. military.
Yamamoto was given full state funeral honors, promoted posthumously to Fleet Admiral and awarded the Order of the Chrysanthemum. He was also the only foreigner to receive the Knight Cross from Germany, its highest military honor. He is still regarded as a hero, not only for his military ability, but for his foresight in realizing the difficulty in waging war with the United States.
(Originally published in Muzosa Journal 5/26/06. Author retains all copyrights.)
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