56 HomeYamamoto and the Secret Admirers
Neal Stephenson


Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto 1884 - 1943
Isoroku Yamamoto was the greatest military commander of the Japanese Navy during World War II and the architect for the Attack on Pearl Harbor that drew the United States into the War. His greatest enemy during the war rather than the Americans was actually his political masters back in Tokyo, their inaction over the cracking of their encrypted communications led to both his defeat at Midway and ultimately his death.

The man who would become Commander in Chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet was born on April 4th 1884 as Isoroku Takano. He was soon put up for adoption by his original parents and shortly afterwards became part of the Yamamoto family.

He attended naval academy from the age of twelve until his graduation in 1904 when he left to serve as an Ensign during the Russo-Japanese War. It was in the Battle of Tsushima that he became injured whilst serving upon the flagship Mikasa. He continued to serve on ships in the Pacific before returning to Japan in 1913 to attend the Naval Staff College a sign that he was being groomed for the high command.

In 1919 Yamamoto left Japan for America in order to study at Harvard University remaining until 1921. It was during this period and later during his time as the Naval Attache to the Japanese Emabassy in Washington D.C. that he gained a respect for the United States that would lead him to argue against the Japanese plan to attack America.

In 1936, Yamamoto was made vice minister of the Japanese navy, and a few years later he was promoted to the rank of Admiral. He was often in disagreement with the rightwing elements of the Naval ministry and Japanese government both militarily and politically. He was in favour of increased Naval airpower, opposed the building of larger and more powerful battleships, and warned against the plan to attack the United States. However as a loyal Japanese patriot when ordered to attack America he conceived of the attack on Pearl Harbor as a pre-emptive strike against the US Navy so as to cripple their ability to wage war.

The attack of December 7th 1941, left 18 ships damaged or destroyed, 164 aircraft destroyed and 2 341 US servicemen were killed. As succesful as the attack was it did not however prevent America from waging war with the Japanese in the Pacific.

Admiral Yamamoto realized that a decisive battle was required before America's industrial power could produce enough ships to overwhelm the Japanese navy or else the war was lost. Plans were made and a massive force of over 130 ships was established in order for a huge battle to take place close to Midway island in June of 1942. Yamamoto's strategy was to draw the US forces into an ambush unfortunately for him America knew of the Japanese plans and turned Yamamoto's strategy against him.

Both the British and Americans had codebreakers who had been cracking the Japanese codes from even before the war had started and due to the huge amount of planning required by the amass of the Japanese forces for the battle hundreds of messages had been sent by the Japanese in order to coordinate their ships. The deciphered communicatrions enabled Admiral Nimitz to turn the tide of the war and inflict a huge defeat upon Yamamoto.

The defeat should have indicated to the Japanese that their codes had been compromised especially when it was revealed in an article in the Chicago Tribune that 'US Navy knew in advance all about Jap Fleet'. But the Japanese simply could not believe anyone, let alone a Westerner, could break their codes. This attitude would lead to the death of their greatest naval commander over the Solomon Islands less than a year later.

On April 14th 1943 US naval intelligence intercepted and decrypted a message detailing that Yamamoto would be making an inspection of his forces on the Solomon Islands in order to boost morale. The message was forwarded to Admiral Nimitz who gave the order to launch an attack to kill Admiral Yamamoto and strike a critical blow to the Japanese.

Four days later as the two Betty bombers carrying Yamamoto and his aides flew past the coast of the island of Bougainville they were attacked by sixteen P-38 Lightnings led by Major John Mitchell of the 339th Fighter Squadron. Four of the P-38's attacked the two bombers whilst the rest of the squadron engaged the Japanese escort planes of six Zeros. Both bombers were shot down; Yamamoto's crashed into the jungle of Bougainville and the other into the sea. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was later discovered still strapped to his seat with his ceremonial sword in his grasp, he was cremated and his ashes returned to Japan for a state funeral.

Lockheed P-38 Lightning

For further information on the life and career of this remarkable man then I can recommend this excellant biography.

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The Reluctant Admiral: Yamamoto and the Imperial Navy

by Hiroyuki Agawa, John Bester (Translator)

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