Isoroku Yamamoto: The Japanese Admiral Who Planned Pearl Harbor Attack

Isoroku Yamamoto

Japanese Navy Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (1884 – 1943)

Isoroku Yamamoto was a Japanese Admiral infamous for coming up with the daring idea to attack Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The callous and treacherous act of Yamamoto, Commander of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Combined Fleet, resulted in the U.S. Congress declaring war on the Empire of Japan on December 8, 1941. From then onwards, the U.S. neutrality policy in World War II got discarded.

Admiral Yamamoto had just stepped on the tail of a fierce lion. The United States went on to obliterate Japan, capping it off with atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

But what do we know about Isoroku Yamamoto? What were his reasons behind the Pearl Harbor Attack – a day that lived in infamy for Americans? And how did Admiral Yamamoto die? The following are key things about Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto– the Japanese Admiral who conceived the attack on Pearl Harbor:

Birth and Education

Admiral Yamamoto was born on April 4, 1884. He was born in a relatively low-class family. The head of his family was Sadayoshi Takano, a middle-ranked samurai. Yamamoto’s original name was Takano Isoroku. However, he changed his name after getting adopted by the relatively powerful Yamamoto family in 1916.

In 1904, and at the age of 20, Yamamoto graduated from the Japanese Naval Academy. Then in 1916, he joined the Japanese Naval Staff College.

From 1919 to 1921, Yamamoto enrolled at Harvard University in the US. For three whole years, Yamamoto studied English at Harvard University. He would go on to spend a total of four years in the U.S.

Shortly after his education in the U.S., he secured a job at the Japanese Naval Staff College. He worked at the college for two years. Also, Yamamoto received a year’s worth of flight training at Kasumigaura.

Early Career – Isoroku Yamamoto’s First Battle

His first taste of battle came in 1905 during the Russo-Japanese War. Historians state that his first battle was the Battle of Tsushima where he served gallantly.

In his early career, Yamamoto started as an aide to a navy admiral in the United States. Then, from 1926 to 1928, he became a Japanese naval attaché in the United States.

His time in the United States really had a huge impact on him. Historians believe that his reason for attacking the U.S. a decade or so later was shaped by the events that he witnessed in the U.S.

Although he liked to indulge excessively in the nightlife and gambling, he was still a very astute young naval officer. He also took quite a shine to America’s culture and industrious nature. However, he looked down on America’s navy, seeing them as an inept bunch of people who spent their entire time playing gulf.

Yamamoto’s Rise to the Top and his Innovations in the Navy

After returning to Japan, Yamamoto worked diligently and rose to become a top navy officer in his country. At age 44, he was promoted to the command of Akagi Aircraft Carrier. Prior to commanding Akagi, Yamamoto was in charge of the cruiser Isuzu in 1928.

A year later, in 1929, Yamamoto was made rear admiral. In his rear admiral position, he campaigned for the Japanese Navy to introduce fighter planes on the carriers. By this time, his reputation both in Japan and abroad was skyrocketing. He used this increased influence to campaign for more naval aviation in the Imperial Japanese Navy. This passion of his is what led him to take up a senior position at the Aeronautics Department.

His use of “Gunboat Diplomacy”

In the mid-1930s, while American and Japanese politicians busied themselves battering over trade disputes and embargoes, Yamamoto worked very hard to make sure that the Imperial Navy of Japan was sophisticated enough. He believed that by displaying a strong naval power, foreign nations would kotow easily to the demands of Japan at the negotiating table. This approach to international politics is commonly referred to as “the Gunboat diplomacy” (or the Big Stick Ideology).

However, there were still some top military officers and nationalist that did not agree with Yamamoto’s approach of gunboat diplomacy. Those officers wanted to war straight to the shores of Europe and then later turning their attention to Washington.

By 1938, Yamamoto was commanding the First Fleet. Two years earlier, he had been promoted to vice minister of the navy. By August 1939, Yamamoto had in his hands Japan’s Naval Combined Fleet. With that command, Yamamoto could now shape the navy into all that he had been dreaming of. The first thing that he did was to steer Japan away from battleships. He made sure that the navy focused immensely on carriers. All these moves of his were to send shivers down the spine of Europe and the U.S.

How Isoroku Yamamoto conceived the idea to attack Pearl Harbor?

Isoroku Yamamoto

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto

His dream of intimidating the U.S. with his display of strong Japanese naval fleet somewhat materialized when Japan successfully made incursions into British and Dutch territories in Southeast Asia. These areas were absolutely vital for Japan – a country that was beginning to feel the pinch of a trade embargo imposed on it by the West. From Japan’s perspective, it made so much military sense taking  Southeast Asia, especially the Dutch East Indies, Borneo, and Malaya.

Yamamoto did not back down; he took his request straight to the Japanese emperor Hirohito. Even though the Meiji Constitution of 1889 bestowed full powers on the emperor; however in practice, the emperor had very little to say. He sort of rubber-stamped the decisions and requests made by his ministers. And Yamamoto’s request to pull a surprise attack against the U.S. got similar approval from the emperor, as well as Japan’s naval hierarchy. On July 3, 1941, the decision to attack the United States of America was agreed upon at the Imperial Conference.

Yamamoto’s first target was to the U.S. Pacific Fleet. By crippling the Pacific Fleet, he hoped that Japan would taste sweet victory in 6-12 months. Top navy officers who were on the fence about his intentions quickly bought into the plan. The Japanese reasoned that by attacking the U.S. they would have the higher ground when peace talks open. They also hoped that such an attack would halt any future U.S. presence in the oil-rich lands of East Asia.

Why did Isoroku Yamamoto attack Pearl Harbor?

He wanted to guard Japan against any future onslaught America might want to make in the south. His goal was to swiftly sink as many U.S. battleships as possible. The U.S. carriers were not his primary concern. He went for the battleships because of their sentimental value to the American public. He reasoned that by sinking the battleships, Americans’ morale will be brown. With these battleships gone, he then hoped that the U.S. would pose little or no threat to Japan’s invasion of the resource-rich territories in Southeast Asia.

Planning and Execution of Pearl Harbor Attack

Pearl Harbor operation was planned by the First Air Fleet. The fleet – made up of six very large carriers – was commanded by Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo. The Japanese aimed a total of 353 aircraft at Pearl Harbor and other U.S. naval installations in the region.

Yamamoto and some of his naval commanders were in a bit of disagreement over the naval assets that the attack should be aimed at. The latter asked for Japan’s aircraft to aim at U.S. carriers. However, Yamamoto wanted to go for America’s prized jewel – the U.S. battleships.

Yamamoto’s wish came to pass. The 353 Japanese aircraft were able to bring down five U.S. battleships. Three U.S. aircraft carriers, carriers that some members of Japan’s navy hoped to be docked at Pearl Harbor, were not there. The absence of these U.S. aircraft carriers would prove to be Japan’s undoing about 6 months later in the Battle of Midway.

The aftermath of the attack

The attack left the U.S. bemused, and it would take Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) and his men about six months to bounce back and put up a reasonable offensive in the South Pacific.

From December 1941 to May 1942, Yamamoto’s Pearl Harbor attack seemed to be paying dividends. Japan was in complete control of oil-rich areas in Southeast Asia. Yamamoto also handed several defeats to the United States.

However, the Battle of Midway in June 1942 marked a huge turning point for the Americans. Japan severely lost that battle, and from then onwards, it was all downhill for Yamamoto and his men.

The monumental defeat of June 1942 filled Yamamoto with early dread. What the Admiral did not count on was the resolve of the American public. Americans were in no way going to come to the negotiating table and ask for a peace treaty. Far from it! So the war raged on, longer than Yamamoto had expected. His worst nightmare was unraveling right in front of him.

How did Isoroku Yamamoto die?

P-38 Lockheed Lightning

The P-38 Lockheed Lightning that shot down Isoroku Yamamoto’s Mitsubishi G4M bomber

When the opportunity to eliminate Yamamoto presented itself, the U.S. took it with both hands. Who could fault them for seeking to eliminate a man responsible for conceiving the Pearl Harbor attack?

The U.S. set forth to gather immense intel on Yamamoto’s itinerary and movements across the Pacific. In one such intel, it was discovered that the admiral planned flying to and touring Japanese bases in the South Pacific. His tour was intended to lift up the morale of the men after they had tasted a series of successive defeats and humiliations.

The plan was to bring down his plane before it made its way from Rabaul to Balalae airfield. On April 18, 1943, U.S. fighter pilots of P-38G Lightning of the 339th Squadron successfully shot down Yamamoto’s plane, a Mitsubishi G4M bomber. There were no survivors from the crash that happened around Bougainville Island.

And just like that, the Japanese lost a very influential military tactician. Although he made certain wrong moves post Pearl Harbor, Yamamoto was definitely Japan’s greatest navy commander during World War II. And who can take away his brilliance in recognizing the efficacy of carriers in the navy? From an Imperial Japan perspective, Yamamoto’s only flaw came when he failed to look at the long term implications of attacking the U.S. He simply underestimated the resolve of America, as well as the long term impact his idea would have on Japan.

After Yamamoto’s death, Admiral Mineichi Koga succeeded him to the position of commander-in-chief of the Combine Fleet.

How did the U.S. get intelligence on Admiral Yamamoto’s whereabouts?

The U.S. used a sophisticated team of Navy code-breakers to intercept communication among the top Japanese officials. Inclusive of this intelligence was Yamamoto’s planned tour inspection of Japan’s bases in the South Pacific.

U.S. intelligence agents counted on the Admiral been punctual and true to his schedule. His itinerary stated that he would tour those bases in the early morning of April 18, 1943. This was a window of opportunity that the U.S. could not afford to miss. Taking down Admiral Yamamoto – the man who dared to attack the U.S. – was a huge boost to the Allied Forces in the war. As for the Japanese Imperial forces, the death of Yamamoto sent shock waves through their camp. The morale of the troops was completely shattered.

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