Japanese Admiral Isokoru Yamamoto was one of the great sea commanders of the Japanese Navy and one of the important military leaders of World War II. He was Admiral of the Combined Fleet of the Japanese Navy during the first years of the war.
Admiral Isokoru Yamamoto was born on 4 April 1884. He attended the Japanese Naval Academy and served on a cruiser during the Russo-Japanese War, and later attended Harvard University. It was here Isokoru Yamamoto became interested in the possibilities of naval aviation. He returned to the U.S. in the 1920s as a naval attaché in Washington, D.C.
Isokoru Yamamoto learned to fly and became convinced that future military conflicts would be decided primarily through air power. No more would the “battlewagons” of yore trade cannon fire in hopes of sinking the other. He could foresee a time when destroyers, cruisers and battleships would serve mostly as escorts to aircraft carriers. To this end, as commander of the First Air Fleet, Isokoru Yamamoto pushed for the Japanese military to produce more aircraft. They responded with over 4,700 units manufactured in 1940.
As vice minister of the Japanese Navy, Isokoru Yamamoto also oversaw the building of Japan’s first two modern aircraft carriers, sister ships Shokaku and Zuikaku. These ships were instrumental in the attack on Pearl Harbor. As relations between the U.S. and Japan deteriorated in 1940, Isokoru Yamamoto was ordered by Japan’s military cabinet to start planning an attack on America. He was not enthusiastic about this prospect. He knew Americans better than the military cabinet leaders did, and he knew that attacking the country would not go long unanswered.
The military cabinet had convinced itself that Americans had “no stomach” for fighting, but Yamamoto wasn’t so sure. He told the cabinet he could “run wild” for six months after attacking Pearl Harbor, but couldn’t guarantee anything beyond that. Once the American war machine was up and running, he said, it would be akin to “waking the sleeping giant.” Japan’s only chance for a positive outcome was to strike hard at Pearl Harbor and at as many targets as possible, and hope Washington would contact Tokyo to sue for peace.
Isokoru Yamamoto planned the Pearl Harbor attack and, as history tells us, the 7 December 1941 attack was tremendously successful from a Japanese viewpoint. The Japanese Navy went on to attack and occupy other American-held outposts. However, Yamamoto’s worst fears were realized, beginning in May 1942 with the Battle of the Coral Sea. Aircraft carrier Shokaku, pride of the Fleet, was seriously damaged, and her sister ship Zuikaku lost much of her air group. Therefore, these two carriers were unable to take part in the Battle of Midway a month later.
The Battle of Midway is one of the storied sea battles, not only of World War II, but of seagoing history. Its importance and glory rank right up with the British defeat of the Spanish Armada.
U.S. intelligence, under the command of Joseph Rochefort, had broken the JN-25 naval code and pieced together that something big was brewing out past Hawaii. Nothing lay between Hawaii and Japan except the Midway atoll. Isokoru Yamamoto had figured that, if Japan could capture and hold Midway, it would be a good place to launch attacks against Hawaii and, eventually, the U.S. mainland. Rochefort thought along the same lines, and as communications poured in, it became clear that Midway was the target.
The most important factor in the American victory was that U.S. planes caught three of the four Japanese carriers at their most vulnerable moments and set all three ablaze within about ten minutes of each other. The carriers were changing armaments on their planes and aircraft were scattered on the flight deck, along with bombs, torpedoes and fueling tanks.
Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, leader of the carrier strike force, could not decide whether to go after the U.S. carriers with torpedoes or to order a second strike on Midway with bombs, and the result was disaster. This was, in part, the fault of Isokoru Yamamoto. He had ordered strict radio silence, and with him on his super-battleship, the Yamato, several hundred kilometers behind the main fleet, he was completely out of the action. Nagumo could not contact him for instructions, and so had to make the best decisions he could. The fourth Japanese carrier was bombed later that afternoon, sinking every carrier in the strike force.
The Japanese Navy turned back toward Tokyo in complete disgrace and did not go on the offensive again for the remainder of the war. Although Yamamoto remained in command, he turned his attention toward Guadalcanal and other Pacific islands, in a largely supporting role. His aim was to assist land-based troops invading these islands.
Isokoru Yamamoto did not live to see the end of World War II. As a tactical force to be reckoned with, and responsible for planning Pearl Harbor, he was a marked man. U.S. intelligence discovered that he would be inspecting the Japanese-occupied island Bougainville and an assassination order was issued.
On 18 April 1943, 18 American planes went hunting for the Admiral. His aircraft was spotted approaching an airfield on Bougainville, and the squadron of P-38s swooped in. Yamamoto was killed in this attack. The Japanese did not want to lower the people’s morale, so his death was not announced until May 1943. Isokoru Yamamoto was given a full state funeral and awarded the Order of the Chrysanthemum posthumously.
Isokoru Yamamoto was a great admiral and a great sea commander. Certainly, history has treated him as one of the best examples of his kind. His death was a shattering loss to the Japanese Navy, and it never recovered.