Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto

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Podcast Transcript

In the Pacific Theater in World War II, the leader of the combined Japanese fleet was Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. 

Yamamoto was villanized as the arch-enemy of the American forces in the Pacific, and to be fair, he was their enemy. 

But there is actually much more to the story. Yamamoto was the loudest voice against going to war with the United States and was one of only a few officials in the Japanese leadership who spent time in the United States and understood the country. 

Learn more about Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, his rise and tragic end on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

When we view armies in history, we tend to personalize them through their commanders. 

The American Civil War is often referenced as Ulysses S. Grant vs Robert E. Lee. 

The battle of North Africa in the Second World War is often framed as Irwin Rommel vs Bernard  Montgomery or George S. Patton. 

The ancient armies of Macedon are personified through Alexander the Great, and the armies of Carthage during the Second Punic War are just spoken of as being Hannibal. 

So, it comes as no surprise that the Japanese forces in the Pacific were often embodied in the person of Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Combined Japanese Fleet. 

It was Yamamoto who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor, and it was Yamamoto who commanded the fleets against the American Navy at the Battle of Midway and the Battle of the Coral Sea.

Despite his role as the leader of Japanese forces fighting the United States, it was a position he accepted reluctantly

Yamamoto was born Isoroku Takano in 1884 in Nagaoka, Japan. His father was a samurai. The name Isoroku actually means “56” in Japanese, which was the age of his father when he was born. 

However, at the age of 32, after his parents had died, he was adopted into the Yamamoto clan, which was a high-ranking samurai clan that served in the Nagaoka region. It was from this formal adoption that he took the name Yamamoto. 

At an early age, he decided to pursue a career in the Navy and graduated from the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy in 1904, ranking 11th in his class. 

Soon after graduation, he was selected to serve on the armored cruiser Nisshin in the Russo-Japanese War. He served with distinction and was wounded during the Battle of Tsushima, the lopsided victory over the Russians I covered in a previous episode. 

He lost two fingers on his left hand, the index and middle finger, which earned him the nickname “80 Sen.” The joke was that a manicure at the time cost ten sen per finger, and because he now only had eight fingers, it would cost him “80 sen.”

He quickly developed a reputation as being a good leader, and in 1913, he was sent to the Naval Staff College. 

Graduating in 1915, he was then promoted to the rank of lieutenant commander. 

In 1918, he was married to a woman named Reiko Mihashi, with whom they had four children. 

In 1919, he was promoted to the rank of commander. 

So far, this is a very typical biography of an officer who was a rising star in the Japanese Navy, but not necessarily someone who would be worth an entire podcast episode. 

What happened next began him down the path that would put him in the history books. 

Having been promoted in 1919, he was sent to study at Harvard University in the United States. 

Yamamoto’s time in the United States was part of a much larger policy that the Japanese government had adopted in the 19th century. Known as the Meiji Restoration, on which I’ve done a previous episode, the Japanese decided that the only way they could survive was to abandon their traditional ways and adopt modern ones. 

That included industrializing, modernizing their military, and learning the strategies and techniques from the Western powers. 

He studied at Harvard for two years, becoming fluent in English and taking time to travel around the country, learning about American culture and ways. 

One of the things he learned was the immense industrial capacity of the United States, as well as its immense size and natural resources. He also realized that the industrial might of the United States would make them formidable if they were to focus it on military production. 

Yamamoto returned to Japan in 1923, and he was promoted to the rank of Captain. 

Traveling to the United States did leave an impact on Yamamoto, but so did his position in the Japanese Navy. 

There were two opposing military doctrines in Japan in the 1920s and 1930s. They were supported by the Army and Navy, respectively. 

Not surprisingly, the army took an army-first view. They saw the navy as just a means of transporting troops. 

Yamamoto and other members of the naval hierarchy took a navy-first approach, which they felt was more befitting for an island nation.

Via a strong navy, they thought Japan could engage in gunboat diplomacy, project power further away, and protect trade routes. The protection of trade routes was extremely important for Japan because they lacked many natural resources such as oil.

After Yamamoto came back to Japan, he also became a strong advocate of naval aviation as he saw it as the replacement of traditional naval battleships. He even became trained as a pilot.

Yamamoto returned to the United States in 1924 as part of a delegation to the Naval War College, and in 1926 he became the naval attaché to the Japanese Embassy in Washington, D.C. 

He returned to Japan in 1928, where he was assigned as captain of the cruiser Isuzu, and then as captain of the aircraft carrier Akagi.

In 1930, he was promoted to rear admiral and was special assistant to the Japanese delegation at the Firs London Naval Conference. 

He was later promoted as the head of the entire First Carrier Division and then was promoted to Vice Admiral, where he represented Japan at the Second London Naval Conference in 1935. 

In 1936, he was made vice minister of the entire Japanese Navy.

Despite his steady advancement in the Japanese Navy, Yamamoto began to attract enemies. 

When Japan attacked China in 1931, he came out against the invasion. When Japan escalated the land war with China in 1937, he was against it. Also, in 1937, when the Japanese accidentally attacked a United States ship, the USS Panay, on the Yangtze River, Yamamoto apologized to the US Ambassador to Japan.

His continued opposition against Japanese aggression earned him the ire of Japanese nationalists and young officers in the army and navy. 

He was publically denounced by nationalists, many of whom wrote him death threats. 

Yamamoto came out against Japan signing the Tripartite Pact with Italy and Germany, as he didn’t see how it could possibly serve Japanese interests. Japanese nationalists became so irate with Yamamoto that they put a bounty on his head. 

The army then offered him military protection, but in reality, the protection was more to keep an eye on him as the army supported most of the nationalist moves that Yamamoto opposed. 

On August 30, 1939, Yamamoto was promoted to commander-in-chief of the Combined Japanese Fleet. The decision, made by Admiral Yonai Mitsumasa, minister of the navy, was mostly made to protect Yamamoto from assassination attempts. According to Mitsumasa, “It was the only way to save his life—send him off to sea.”

When Japan signed the Tripartite Pact in September 1940, Yamamoto warned Premier Fumimaro Kono that if Japan should get into a war with the United States, they could only expect success for six months to a year.

After that, the industrial might and resources of the United States would overwhelm Japan. Yamamoto strongly discouraged a war with the United States, and he was perhaps the only person in the entire Japanese military leadership who had first-hand experience and knowledge of the United States.

On November 15, 1940, Yamamoto was promoted to the rank of full admiral. 

However, it was widely thought that Yamamoto’s career was soon to be over. Hideki Tojo was appointed Prime Minister on October 18, 1941, and he was one of the primary opponents of Yamamoto on almost every Japanese policy for the previous decade. Tojo was an army man and supported the war in China and the alliance with Germany and Italy. 

Yamamoto was appointed the commander of the Yokosuka Naval Base, which was considered a demotion. He was out of the way and had no real power. 

However, it was short-lived. Yamamoto was a popular leader who had connections in the Imperial family, and the fact that he was the best naval commander the Japanese had. 

Despite his opposition to war, he was given the assignment of planning the attack on the United States. 

Yamamoto’s plan of attack was based on what he knew of American industrial capacity. Japan’s only chance was a quick knockout punch and a decisive battle that would, perhaps, bring the United States to the negotiating table. 

The plan he came up with was the attack on Pearl Harbor, which he had hoped would knock out the US Pacific Fleet, while simultaneously attacking other ports throughout Asia at the same time. 

The attack in Pearl Harbor gave Japan the six months that Yamamoto hoped, but as you know, it wasn’t enough.

Yamamoto reorganized the Japanese navy, putting more emphasis on naval aviation, including land based flights, promoting the production of aircraft carriers, and discouraging the construction of the Yamoto class battleships, which he thought was a waste of resources. 

Yamamoto was involved in many of the biggest early naval battles with the United States, none of which proved to be the decisive knock out that he had hoped.

His plan for the Battle of Midway ultimately backfired, resulting in a devastating loss of four Japanese aircraft carriers. 

The United States navy leadership, for their part, recgonized Yamamoto as worthy opponent, many of them having met him at naval conferences in London, or during his time in the United States.  However, they also wanted revenge for the attack on Pearl Harbor that he had planned and led. 

One major advantage the Americans had over the Japanese was that they had cracked the Japanese naval code. 

On April 14, 1943, the Americans intercepted an encoded radio transmission indicated that Admiral Yamamoto was to go on an inspection of Japanese forces in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. This was in part an attempt to boost morale after the Japanese loss of the island of Guadacanal.

The decision was made to try to take out Yamamoto. The reasons were three fold: First, was revenge for the attack on Pearl Harbor, second was the hope it would hurt Japanese morale, and third, they assumed whoever took his place wouldn’t be as competent.

Just four days later, a squadron of 18 P-38 Lightnings was sent to intercept the plane carrying Yamamoto in a mission called Operation Vengence. The mission was successful and Yamamoto’s plane was shot down over Bougainville Island in Papua New Guinea. 

His body was recovered the next day, showing he was killed instantly when a bullet hit his head. 

I’m going to cover Operation Vengence in a future episode as there was a whole lot to the mission both politically and militarily, but I will say that it was an extremely risky mission because it risked exposing to the Japanese that they had cracked their code. 

The death of Admiral Yamamoto was kept from the public for weeks, and in the US, the full details of the mission weren’t made public until after the end of the war. 

While Isoroku Yamamoto was the architect of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the head of the Japanese navy for several of the largest naval battles of the war, few people realize that he was also the biggest proponent against going to war with the United States. 

He knew, from his time in the US, that the only hope Japan had of winning a conflict would be to try to win quickly and decisively, and even that was probably not going to work. 

When war became inevitable he did his duty, but it was one he didn’t want to perform. 

Had Yamamoto’s advice been listened to, the entire war in the Pacific might have been avoided, including the invasion of Manchuria. Instead, the proponents of war ignored him which led to devistating results for Japan.

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel. 

The associate producers are Peter Bennett and Cameron Kieffer. 

Today’s review comes a comment on the Facebook group by Frank Thoms He writes: 

This (the Battle of Tours episode) will be my first episode as part of the Completionist Club. I started listing a year and half ago it has been quite long enjoyable journey. You have taken me all around the world and into the past, teaching and letting me know about things I only thought I knew, and topics I had no idea I would find interesting.

A podcast everyone could benefit from daily.

Hoping to get my key to the Newfoundland chapter soon, I only say this so if you read this on air it gives you an excuse to say Newfoundland, thank you for pronouncing it properly.

Thanks, Frank! I leaned how to produce the name of the island corrected on my first trip there. I took the car ferry from Sydney, Nova Scotia, and on the ferry there was a band playing who told us the way to pronounced it. The key was the simple rhyme, “understand Newfoundland”

It is not pronouncecd as it would be in the rhyme “unfund Newffoundland”

Remember that if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.