Brave, urbane, and complex, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was Japan’s greatest naval strategist and the architect of one of the most stunning achievements in the history of modern warfare.
Fluent in English, he studied in the United States and claimed many American friends before he became one of their deadly enemies. A solid and widely respected man, he argued passionately for peace in the 1930s while fascism spread in Europe and a fanatical militarist faction in Tokyo was calling for aggressive expansion in the Far East. Yet Yamamoto was a patriot to the bone, and when ordered to fight, he waged war with a vengeance.
Yamamoto’s Pearl Harbor Blueprints: Inspiration From the Battle of Taranto
As war approached, he was initially uneasy and warned his countrymen of the likely consequences of provoking the West. Having studied briefly at Harvard University and spent two years in Washington as a naval attaché, he admired America and was aware of its industrial strength and potential military power.
“Japan cannot beat America,” Yamamoto told a group of school children in 1940. “Therefore, Japan should not fight America.” He played no part in the militarists’ decision for war, but, when the decision was made, he quickly summoned his strategic wisdom and was adamant on one point: the only course open to Japan in gaining control of the Pacific area was to destroy the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
When the Navy General Staff unanimously opposed his plan, Yamamoto declared, “The U.S. Fleet … is a dagger pointed at our throat. Should war be declared, the length and breadth of our southern operations would be exposed to serious threat on its flank.” Only when the commander in chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet threatened to resign and retire if his plan was not approved did the General Staff concede. “If he has that much confidence, it is better to let Yamamoto go ahead,” said the naval chief of staff.
Believing that a preemptive strike to cripple the U.S. Navy at the outset was Japan’s only hope against such a powerful opponent, Admiral Yamamoto started planning the Pearl Harbor assault in early 1940. But he was not optimistic. “If you tell me that it is necessary that we fight,” he told the bellicose Tokyo high command in September 1940, “then in the first six months to a year of war against the United States and England, I will run wild, and I will show you an uninterrupted succession of victories; but I must tell you that, should the war be prolonged for two or three years, I have no confidence in our ultimate victory.”
Yamamoto’s Pearl Harbor blueprint was influenced by the spectacular destruction of the Italian Fleet at Taranto on November 11, 1940, by Fairey Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers of the British Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. An earlier inspiration, according to many experts, was a 1925 book, The Great Pacific War, by Hector C. Bywater, the naval correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph. With uncanny foresight, the novel described a Japanese surprise attack on the U.S. Asiatic Fleet at Pearl Harbor and simultaneous assaults on Guam and landings in the Philippines.
Yamamoto realized that the Hawaii operation was dangerous but that the odds were too good not to take. “If we fail, we had better give up the war,” he said fatalistically. As it turned out, the carrier-plane attack early on the morning of Sunday, December 7, 1941, executed by heavy-set, gray-haired Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo’s strike force, achieved strategic and tactical surprise. It caught Admiral Husband E. Kimmel’s anchored Pacific Fleet napping and thrust America rudely into World War II.
“The Rise or Fall of Our Empire Now Hinges on This Battle”
Admiral Yamamoto’s final message to his carrier crews and pilots had echoed the rallying cry of the commander of the victorious Japanese fleet at the decisive Battle of Tsushima in 1905: “The rise or fall of our empire now hinges on this battle.”
On the fateful morning, two waves of torpedo bombers, dive bombers, high-altitude bombers, and fighters from the carriers Akagi, Hiryu, Kaga, Shokaku, Soryu, and Zuikaku swept in over the Hawaiian island of Oahu and devastated the American battleships around Ford Island in Pearl Harbor. Virtually unopposed, the enemy planes sank the USS Arizona and West Virginia, capsized the Oklahoma, and damaged the California, Maryland, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee. A total of 2,403 American servicemen were killed and 1,178 wounded in the attack.
The masterful Japanese operation dealt the U.S. Pacific Fleet a staggering blow, though it was less than complete. The American fleet’s three precious carriers—Lexington, Saratoga, and Enterprise—were fortunately out to sea on maneuvers, and the enemy raiders overlooked such strategically vital targets as the Pearl Harbor oil tank farm, repair workshops, and submarine pens.
News of the attack electrified the Japanese people, and Yamamoto’s reputation soared. Viewed as the Horatio Nelson of Japan, he was then, indeed, free to “run wild” for several months as powerful Japanese naval formations supported thrusts against unready British and American bases in the Far East: Hong Kong, Singapore, Guam, Wake Island, Midway, Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, the Solomon Islands, the Philippines, and New Guinea. But Admiral Yamamoto’s misgivings persisted about the wisdom of the Japanese Empire’s expansionist strategy.
Yamamoto: An Uncommon Sailor
Born on April 4, 1884, Isoroku Yamamoto (the name means “base of the mountain”) was the seventh child of Sadayoshi Takano, a cultured but impoverished primary schoolmaster of the samurai class in the city of Nagaoka on the bleak, isolated western coast of Japan’s main island, Honshu. His first name meant “fifty-six,” the age of his father at the time he was born. The boy grew up in a little wooden house, and his childhood was hard. Rice was scarce and life rigorous with gardening in the summer, the clearing of deep snows during the harsh winters, and fishing all year long. Isoroku secured part of his early education from Christian missionaries, although he never became a believer.
A short, slender lad with a protruding lower lip and thoughtful, easygoing demeanor, Isoroku was often ill and regularly suffered from influenza. He read the Bible, wrote poetry, was exposed to the English language, and became interested in the British and American cultures. His father had told him that America was peopled by hairy, odorous barbarians who ate flesh, but the intelligent boy was soon able to discount such fables. Isoroku and his family and friends enjoyed taking box lunches to the playing fields around his school, where they watched baseball games. The American national pastime was then becoming a favorite sport in Japan.
But Isoroku’s great love was gymnastics, in which he excelled and gained physical strength. In later years, then broad shouldered and barrel chested, he could not resist showing off by doing headstands on the rail of a ship or boat. He referred to himself as a “country boy” who became “just a common sailor,” but he was actually far from common.
While in middle school during the 1890s, Isoroku, like thousands of other Japanese boys from several prefectures, took part in annual maneuvers led by Army officers. The youngsters carried real weapons but not live ammunition. This was an adventure Isoroku looked forward to each year.
He decided on a career in the Navy “so I could return Admiral [Matthew] Perry’s visit.” Therefore, as the new century dawned, the youth applied for admission to the Naval Academy at Etajima on the Inland Sea. Out of 300 applicants, he scored second highest in the entrance examination. He was 16 years old. The academy regimen was rigid and spartan, with the cadets forbidden to drink, smoke, eat sweets, or associate with girls. The fourth year of the course was spent aboard naval vessels. Isoroku ranked seventh in the class of 1904.
The Last Great Battle of Ironclads
He was just in time to take part in the Russo-Japanese War, which had broken out that February. The young ensign went to sea with the Imperial Fleet and did not have to wait long for his baptism of fire. As a gunnery officer aboard the cruiser Nisshin covering the flagship of Admiral Heihachiro Togo, Yamamoto saw action in the destruction of the Russian battle fleet in the Strait of Tsushima between Japan and Korea on May 26-28, 1905.
In the first and last great fleet encounter of ironclads in the predreadnought era, superior Japanese seamanship and gunnery annihilated the Russian force. The Russians lost all 12 of their major ships. Never in history had a naval battle between apparently closely matched fleets ended with so complete a victory. The British-educated, unassuming, and ruthless Admiral Togo became a national hero.
At Tsushima on May 27, Ensign Yamamoto was knocked unconscious and wounded when a shell hit the Nisshin. His body was peppered by shell fragments, and he lost an orange-sized chunk of his thigh and two fingers from his left hand. After spending two months in a hospital, he returned home to Nagaoka for a hero’s welcome and sick leave. Soon after his recovery, he went back to gunnery school, was promoted to commander, and served at the Imperial Naval Headquarters in Tokyo. In the meantime, he went on training cruises to China and Korea, and in March 1909 his squadron paid brief visits to ports on the American West Coast.