In the first six to twelve months of 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 in an interview with Shigeharu Matsumoto, a member of the Japanese cabinet, 1940.
Odd as it may seem, in the 1930s when Japan was arming furiously and seemed bent on the conquest of Asia, one of the most vigorous opponents of war was a young admiral who was generally regarded as the rising star of the Imperial Japanese Navy, Isoroku Yamamoto. He was a navy man through and through, and always a Japanese patriot. But he knew the United States and Great Britain as did few Japanese military or naval men, and far more than any others, recognized Japan’s strategic inferiority to these great nations in terms of raw materials and financial staying power. For a dozen years—-all the time that Admiral Yamamoto had been rising in the councils of the Empire-—he had opposed any Japanese expansionism that would lead to war with the United States and Britain. Now, in August 1939, Yamamoto who had been serving as vice minister of the navy, was appointed chief of the Combined Fleet, the operational head of Japan’s fighting navy. The irony was that although Admiral Yonai, first as navy minister and later Prime Minister, had been Yamamoto’s mentor and was largely responsible for Yamamoto’s views, these two men would be given the task of preparing Japan for just the war they hated.
In the past few years, the Imperial Japanese Army had been moving closer and closer to gaining absolute power over the Japanese government. The Kwantung Army had first arranged the murder of Warlord Zhang Zoulin of Manchuria, and then in 1931 had staged the “Mukden incident,” a shooting along the South Manchurian railroad that had enabled the army to seize Manchuria. The army had continued its expansionism and had dragged the navy along with it. The war had begun with China. Admiral Yamamoto, as a principal advocate of naval air power, had found himself sending aircraft against China and deeply involved in the incident on the Yangtze River in 1938 when the American gunboat Panay had been sunk and two British gunboats had been attacked by Japanese air force planes.
Admiral Yamamoto had been aghast at the army’s temerity, and his views had become very well known within the army and among that group of young naval officers who believed that it was Japan’s destiny to rule Asia.
In the summer of 1939, a group of young naval officers began talking about Admiral Yamamoto and Admiral Yonai. Both of them, they said, ought to be eliminated as obstructionists. Since 1932, assassination had been a popular method of eliminating army and government officials who opposed the “young lions,” so the threat was not to be taken lightly. Yamamoto was the most outspoken and thus the most likely target for assassination. A crisis arose when Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non aggression treaty, which many in Japan thought was aimed at Japan. So the cabinet of Prime Minister Hiranuma collapsed (since Hiranuma favoured closer relations with Germany) and his cabinet members resigned with him. This meant that Admiral Yonai was out as minister of the navy. The admiral took the threat to Yamamoto’s life so seriously that as Yonai’s term came to an end, he arranged for Yamamoto to head the Combined Fleet. This would take him out of a Tokyo government office and put him aboard the battleship Nagato, the Combined Fleet’s flagship. Out of Tokyo he would be out of sight, and his views would no longer be heard in the streets.
And so on August 28, 1939, Admiral Yamamoto succeeded Admiral Zengo Yoshida as commander of the Combined Fleet. Commander Motoshige Fujita escorted Admiral Yoshida up to Tokyo from the fleet base at Kagashima. On the morning of August 29, Admirals Yoshida and Yamamoto met at the home of Admiral Yonai, and on August 30 they were received at the Imperial Palace by Emperor Hirohito. The admirals came up to the palace gate in cars accompanied by men of the Kempeitai, or military police. These policemen were known to be spies of the army, which was on the verge of seizing total power over Japan. As Admiral Yamamoto emerged from the ceremonial greeting from the Emperor, he told his aide to get rid of the policemen. Since he was no longer vice minister of the navy, he pointed out, he was not entitled to a police escort. So the policemen were dismissed, and Admiral Yamamoto emerged from the scrutiny of the army into the safer hands of his own navy.
News of the appointment had spread through Tokyo, and as Admiral Yamamoto went to Tokyo station that day, hundreds of people came to see him off. He waited in the special room set aside for very important people and was escorted to the observation car of his train, where a red carpet had been laid out for him. At 1 p.m. the train pulled out from the station with Yamamoto in the observation platform giving a snappy salute to all his well-wishers and then waving his cap at them as the train gathered speed. Admiral Yamamoto, a handsome, athletic figure in his white uniform and medals, fifty-five years old and at the height of his powers, was off to a new adventure. There was no man in the Imperial Japanese Navy just then who was more suitable for command of the most modern naval fleet in the world, for from the beginning of the Japanese naval modernization program, Yamamoto had been deeply involved. Indeed Yamamoto was responsible for Japan’s emergence as the prime advocate of naval air power among the major fleets of the world.
Already Admiral Yamamoto was so well known in Japan that as the train headed for Osaka, crowds came out to the stations en route to have a look at him, and in Japanese fashion, to load him down with small gifts of cigarettes, sake, and food delicacies. He smiled and gestured his gratitude, and the train moved on: Yokohama, Shizuoka, and Nagoya. At Nagoya the greetings ended, and the admiral changed from his formal uniform into a civilian suit. Reporters from the Nagoya Chunichi Shimbun and the Osaka Mainichi Shimbun boarded the train and sought interviews. The admiral, whose views were so well known, suddenly became shy and refused to comment. It would not be proper, he said, for an officer on active naval duty to mix in political matters. And from that point on, for the rest of his life, Admiral Yamamoto refused to discuss political affairs. His friends who had sought to save his life from assassination by getting him to sea had also silenced one of the most vigorous critics of a government that was moving headlong toward war.
Success Upon Success-Post Pearl Harbour
Admiral Yamamoto was a very efficient fleet commander in terms of his attention to detail. He insisted on knowing everything that was going on in his combined fleet. For example, just after the New Year, he led his staff on an expedition to see the lookout post established on Ohmishima and a naval shore battery on Nasake Jima. At one o’clock in the afternoon, they left the flagship in small boats and landed at Wasa. Then they started to climb the steep mountain, the admiral leading. They climbed for an hour on a steep and rocky path, until, panting and perspiring, they reached the lookout post. The view below encompassed the two channels, Moroshina and Kodako that led to the anchorage. Matsuyama castle stood in the background against the blue sea. Then they tumbled down the mountain again, and at four o’clock they were ready for the second part of the expedition. They went by the antisubmarine net and to Nasake Jima, where the admiral inspected the battery of four shore guns. Then they went back to the ship, arriving at 6 P.M. Such attention to detail was a mark of the admiral. He had sanctioned the use of the midget submarines in the attack on Pearl Harbour, and now wanted to know what had happened. One of the boats was the I-16, and it was ordered to Hashirajima so that its captain could report to the admiral personally about the mission. The captain reported on the difficulties of carrying a midget submarine on the deck, launching it, and then trying to recover it. In fact, all the midget submarines that were used at Pearl Harbour were lost, and the admiral told his staff that there was still a lot to be learned before the next operation in which midget submarines seemed indicated.
Yamamoto was not very sanguine about the submarine and never had been. At the London naval conference he had joined the faction rejecting the British contention that the submarine should be abandoned altogether as a purely offensive weapon. In the naval conference Japan opposed the abolishment of the submarine on the ground that it was a defensive weapon, not an offensive one. Now it seemed to have become true; they were really defensive. At least, that was the Japanese view. And here Yamamoto showed a major weakness as a fleet commander: He did not understand the primary use of the submarine. Consequently, the Japanese fleet never made adequate use of its submarine fleet, although the I-boats were extremely efficient weapons, with longer range and better torpedoes than the American boats of that period. For one who had shown so much appreciation of air power in the war in Europe, Admiral Yamamoto showed no appreciation at all of the effectiveness of the German U-boat in the war against Britain. The concept of commerce destruction as a major factor in the war did not seem to interest Yamamoto.
Before the outbreak of the war in 1939, Captain Karl Doenitz, chief of the German submarine service, had written the high command that if they gave him 300 U-boats he could bring England to her knees in less than a year. Fortunately for Britain, Hitler did not pay attention. The man who did pay attention to the concept was Winston Churchill, who shared with Doenitz a perfect understanding of the importance of commerce destruction. But not Yamamoto. He was constantly telling the Sixth Fleet, his submarine force, to concentrate on the sinking of warships. They did so, and they would sink a number, but within a matter of months the Americans were producing warships so rapidly that the sinkings were not a major factor in the war.
Admiral Yamamoto error here was major, and it had an enormous effect on the outcome of the Pacific war. As Admiral Nimitz said, shortly after his arrival at Pearl Harbour, with their I-boat force, the Japanese could have cut off Hawaii from the mainland, and thus crippled the American Pacific war effort, for many, many months.
Yet Yamamoto, who had shown enormous prescience in leading Japan to pre-eminence as the first major carrier power, was not alone by far in his misapplication of the submarine warfare principle. On January 2, 1942, Admiral Ugaki noted in his diary: “It is regrettable for the officers and men of the submarine service that they have not yet sunk any important men of war except merchantmen.”
So the myopia in the fleet was general, and it was shared in Tokyo. While Admiral Nimitz was pulling out all the stops to bring submarine forces into play against Japan, the Japanese I-boats were looking for American carriers and battleships, and this attitude would not change. A few days later, the Fourth Submarine Division reported the sinking of the carrier Langley, the only carrier in the U.S. Asiatic fleet, and that whetted the submarine force’s appetite for war ships. When another I-boat torpedoed the Lexington a few days after that, the seal was put on the Japanese naval attitude.*
- The reports were in error. Both carriers were sunk in the pacific, but just not then. The Saratoga was the ship torpedoed, but she was repaired.
Admiral Yamamoto had promised five dozen bottles of beer to the first torpedo officer of a submarine to sink a fleet-class carrier, and he paid off to the torpedo officer of the I-6, the submarine that torpedoed the Lexington. She was actually not sunk, but the Japanese did not learn that until several months later when she appeared in the Coral Sea. So radio Tokyo triumphantly announced her sinking, and elaborated on the story for several days. And the commander in chief’s approval of the search for capital warships diverted the whole submarine force. No one was talking about commerce raiding after that.
Japanese troops occupied Manila on January 2 and 3. The Americans and the Philippine Constabulary had fled, mostly to the Bataan Peninsula. The invasion was way ahead of schedule, as it was everywhere else. So Yamamoto reorganized the fleet. The Southern Expeditionary Fleet was renamed the First Southern Expeditionary Fleet, and it prepared for invasion of Rabaul because the other moves had been so successful. A new third Southern Expeditionary Fleet was given charge of the Philippine’s operations, which now consisted of mopping up and the reduction of the Corregidor fortress with its big guns that controlled Manila harbour.
Along with the expeditionary fleet, Admiral Yamamoto prepared to send the carrier task force down south to make way for the Rabaul invasion by softening up the Australian defenses. Yamamoto now expected that the Rabaul phase would be complete by mid-March, and some more plans would have to be made. In the back of his mind was a plan for the capture of Midway Island, which bothered him because of its usefulness as an American submarine and air base, and a simultaneous move against the Aleutian Islands, which would give the Japanese a foothold on the North American perimeter. The staff was talking about invading Hawaii, and in Tokyo plans even to the point of invasion currency was being drawn. Yamamoto’s staff officers began studying alternative plans for future operations.
Whatever the plans, they must be kept strictly within the overall aim of the war: attainment of self-sufficiency for Japan, so that she could continue her major effort which was to swallow China. Admiral Ugaki wanted to send submarines far afield, to the Indian Ocean and to the Panama Canal, but he was restrained by Yamamoto. Even the invasion of Hawaii, for which the staff officers were clamoring, would have to wait until that decisive fleet action, missed by Admiral Nagumo at Pearl Harbour, had been brought to successful completion.
The war was going splendidly for Admiral Yamamoto. The army announced that it was ready now to stage the invasion of Java, weeks ahead of schedule. But the problem with all this success was that no one in Tokyo was able to bring it into perspective. Yamamoto knew that the Americans would soon recover from Pearl Harbour destruction. He had not achieved his decisive action, and it haunted him. Navy and army had more than carried out the tasks assigned to them so far. What was needed now was statesmanship in Tokyo to consolidate the victories without waste and strengthen the empire. Looking around him, Admiral Yamamoto saw no such statesman, no one of the calibre of Britain’s Winston Churchill or America’s Franklin D. Roosevelt. And he confided his fears to Admiral Ugaki, who capsulized them in his diary:
However invincible the Imperial armed forces are, and however great their exploits may be, the great achievement done at the sacrifice of our lives will be only in vain, unless statesmen have a great policy for the country.
On January 8, Admiral Nagumo sailed for the south, and the next day Japanese troops moved into Tarakan and the Celebes islands. Yes, the war was going splendidly. On January 14, after four days of hard work, Admiral Ugaki completed the proposal directed by Admiral Yamamoto for the Midway operation, to be followed by the invasion of Hawaii. The justification was the need to destroy the American fleet and bring the war to a quick conclusion. The directive was turned over to the fleet staff officers for detailed study and recommendations. This, as we have seen, was the Japanese system, in which young staff officers were given enormous responsibility and latitude. In fact, they had almost full sway up to the time of final decision. Even Admiral Ugaki, the chief of staff, was not permitted in the junior officer’s councils, lest his presence inhibit their free discussion of ideas.
On January 22 came favourable reports from Rabaul and Balikpapan: the Japanese were marching on Rangoon, Thailand had declared war on the British, and the advance in Malaya had nearly reached Singapore. The future of the Japanese empire had never seemed brighter. On January 27, Yamamoto’s young staff officers came up with their plan. They had considered an immediate attack on Hawaii but had not been able to figure out how to destroy the land-based air force brought into the islands in the past few weeks. So they had opted for Midway, where that problem did not really exist. The plan was taken to Admiral Yamamoto and he began to study it. At the same time, Commander Yamamoto (no relation) of the naval general staff appeared aboard the flagship on other business, and Admiral Ugaki gave him a copy of the proposal to take back to Tokyo.
For some time Admiral Yamamoto had been concerned about the whereabouts and activities of America’s aircraft carriers. On February 1, 1942, he had some unwelcome news. An American carrier force had moved to the Marshalls for a raid, with cruisers and several destroyers. They hit Wotje, Eniwetok, Kwajalein, and Jaluit. They destroyed a number of planes and several ships, and they killed Rear Admiral Yasuhiro Yukichi, the commander of the naval base. He was the first admiral killed in the war. Yamamoto was very upset, because the Japanese had been caught just as much unaware here as the Americans had at Pearl Harbour, and there was really no excuse for it because everyone knew now that there was a war on. The attack had been successful, said the admiral, because the men of the fleet had grown cocksure after their many easy victories. Everyone felt the admiral’s displeasure that day, including Admiral Ugaki, who indulged himself in a long session of self-recrimination.
From the outset of the war, Admiral Yamamoto had been concerned about the day when American naval power would make it possible for planes to raid Tokyo. He read the press, and he knew that the Americans had diverted ten cruiser hulls to become carriers, so it would not be long before the danger became very real. At this time Tojo and the army were boasting that the Americans would never touch Tokyo, but Yamamoto knew these were empty promises. This was one of the major reasons he so urgently sought the decisive battle and looked with such favour on the Midway plan.
On Saturday, February 7, came the welcome reports of the Japanese success at the Battle of the Java Sea, which destroyed most of the remnants of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet and British and Dutch sea power in the area. On February 12, the admiral’s flag was again shifted to the Yamato, and the admiral and staff celebrated a housewarming with chicken sukiyaki and sake. That night they celebrated again, because they learned of the fall of Singapore. This was considered in Tokyo as the supreme victory of the war.
General Tojo made an important speech about the Greater East Asia co-prosperity sphere, calling on the Australians and New Zealanders to break their alliance with the Western powers and join up. The call was ignored in Canberra. Then, as if on signal, on February 19, Admiral Nagumo’s task force attacked Darwin, sinking three destroyers, a sub-chaser, and eight merchant ships. The harbour was wrecked, and about thirty planes were destroyed. Afterwards Admiral Nagumo sailed on to Truk to await further orders.
Early in March, Admiral Halsey’s task force raided Marcus Island, and although the damage was slight, it made Yamamoto think again about the possibility of American air raids on Tokyo. The war surged on. In early April, Admiral Nagumo’s carrier force hit Ceylon, damaging the harbour and sinking some ships in Colombo, and then it engaged elements of the British fleet off Trincomalee, sinking the carrier Hermes. Once again Admiral Nagumo did not wait around long enough to complete the job: two other British carriers got away. Admiral Yamamoto happened to be in Tokyo at that point, at the Navy club , where he encountered Prince Fushimi. The prince was all congratulations and smiles about the great job being done by the navy, so Yamamoto could not air his own negative views. Everything seemed to be going better than anyone had dared hope. Nagumo sank two cruisers as well.
The plans had been made, and the navy and army now agreed to begin the second stage of war operations, which involved the attack on Australia and Midway. On April 17, Admiral Yamamoto delivered his message to the fleet, and the task forces set out to make landings in the Solomon Islands and Port Moresby on New Guinea. “With this spirit,” wrote Admiral Ugaki triumphantly, “the foundation of the empire can be said to be safe.”
But the fact was that even as the admiral so wrote, forces were in motion to give the Japanese a great shock, and to bear out Admiral Yamamoto’s most startling fears.
Excerpts: Yamamoto by Edwin P. Hoyt, McGraw Hill, New York, 1976