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Yamamoto was born Isoroku Takano (高野 五十六 Takano Isoroku) in Nagaoka in Niigata. His father was Takano Sadayoshi (高野 貞吉 Takano Sadayoshi), a low class samurai of Nagaoka-han. "Isoroku" is an old Japanese term meaning "56"; the name referred to his father's age at Isoroku's birth.
Early naval career
Yamamoto enrolled at the Naval Academy at Etajima, Hiroshima in 1901, graduating in 1904. In 1905 during the Russo-Japanese War, he saw action as an ensign on the cruiser Nisshin at the Battle of Tsushima against the Russian Baltic Fleet. At that engagement, he lost two fingers on his left hand (see picture on the right). After the war, he went with various ships all over the Pacific.
In 1913, he went to the Naval Staff College at Tsukiji, a sign that he was being groomed for the high command. Upon graduation in 1916, he was appointed to the staff of the Second Battle Squadron and was adopted by the Yamamoto family . From 1919 to 1921 he studied at Harvard University.
Promoted to Commander upon his return to Japan, he taught at the staff college before being sent to the new air-training centre at Kasumigaura in 1924, to direct it and to learn to fly.
Preparing for war, 1920s and 1930s
From 1926 to 1928, he was naval attache to the Japanese embassy in Washington, and travelled widely in the United States, which gave him considerable insight into his future opponent. He was then appointed to the Naval Affairs bureau and made Rear Admiral. He attended the London Naval Conference in 1930. Back in Japan, he joined the Naval Aviation Bureau and from 1933 headed the bureau and directed the entire navy air program.
In December of 1936, Yamamoto was made vice minister of the Japanese navy, from which position he argued passionately for more naval air power and opposed the construction of new battleships. He also opposed the invasion of Manchuria and the army hopes for an alliance with Germany. When Japanese planes attacked the U.S. gunboat Panay on the Yangtze River in December 1937, he apologized personally to the American ambassador. He became the target for right-wing assassination attempts; the entire Naval ministry had to be placed under constant guard. However, on August 30, 1939, Yamamoto was promoted to full Admiral and appointed commander-in-chief of the entire fleet.
Yamamoto did not soften his logical anti-conflict stance when Japan signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy in September 1940. Yamamoto warned Premier Konoe Fumimaro not to consider war with the United States: "If I am told to fight... I shall run wild for the first six months... but I have utterly no confidence for the second or third year." His foresight also led him to believe that a pre-emptive strike against US Navy forces would be vital if war did occur.
He also accurately envisaged the "island-hopping" and air dominance tactics such a war would feature, although his vision failed him when it came to battleships, which he (in common with most officers in the American navy, it must be conceded) still believed to be the key component of naval forces.
The Attack on Pearl Harbor, 1941
Following the invasion of Indochina and the freezing of Japanese assets by the US in July 1941, Yamamoto won the argument over tactics and the entire First Fleet air arm under Admiral Chuichi Nagumo was directed against the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, attacking on December 7. With around 350 planes launched from six aircraft carriers, eighteen American warships were sunk or disabled. Nagumo's failure to order a second search-and-strike against the American carriers and Yamamoto's disinclination to press him turned a tactical victory into a strategic defeat.
In the movies Tora! Tora! Tora! and Pearl Harbor, Yamamoto's character says, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, "I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve." Considerable doubt exists, though, whether he actually ever said (or wrote) anything like that; it was probably invented for the movies, although it may well have encapsulated some of his real feelings about it.
The Battle of the Java Sea, February 1942
Yamamoto directed operations for the Battle of the Java Sea on February 27–28, 1942. Without airpower playing a significant role and fought almost entirely by cruisers the Japanese defeated a combined force of Dutch, British, and American ships, thereby enabling Japan to seize Java.
The Battle of Midway, June 1942
Yamamoto then decided on an ambitious plan to defeat the American Pacific Fleet in a decisive battle. He chose the atoll of Midway Island as a strategic target that if the Japanese occupied it would draw out the American carriers. Yamamoto intended to draw the Americans into an ambush to destroy their carriers. Yamamoto believed that if Japan did not soon win a decisive battle, defeat was simply a matter of time.
Yamamoto had at his disposal a massive fleet of some 250 ships, including eight carriers. Yamamoto's strategy was a very complex series of feints and diversionary attacks to trap the Americans. Unfortunately for the Japanese the Americans were well aware of the plan. Decoded intercepts of communications meant that by the end of May, the United States knew the date and place of the operation, as well as the composition of the Japanese forces.
Compounding this there was poor communication on the Japanese side, and the commanders were inadequately prepared; in addition, the Japanese tactical disposition, dictated by outmoded doctrine which still held battleships to be the key units, was flawed. Viewing the aircraft carriers in part as protection for the battleships, they were moved forward in advance of the battleship units, which were held well back, unlike later United States doctrine, which placed battleships around the aircraft carriers—the true key units—as protection for them against attacks by ships and aircraft.
The Battle of Midway, from June 4 to 6, 1942, was a disaster for the Japanese. They lost four carriers to the American loss of one, and 3,500 men to only around 300 American dead. The USN forces were lucky, catching the Japanese carriers just as they were rearming their aircraft for a strike against the U.S. carriers, a factor which played a major role in the magnitude of the American victory. Some observers state that the loss of experienced aircraft pilots was more a significant loss to the Japanese forces than was the ships.
Actions after Midway
Yamamoto never recovered from the defeat at Midway, although he remained in command. He directed the Solomons campaign and realising the strategic importance of Battle of Guadalcanal, he initiated the efforts to remove the American troops who had landed on August 7, 1942. Yamamoto, however, failed to properly grasp at an early enough stage both that this battle was key, and the magnitude of the effort that would be needed to win. The Japanese forces suffered huge losses before he conceded that he could not dislodge the Americans, whose strength had by then grown past the point where the Japanese could possibly prevail. On January 4, 1943, he ordered the evacuation of the island. The actual evacuation was a tactical masterwork.
To boost morale following Guadalcanal, Yamamoto decided to make an inspection tour throughout the South Pacific. In April 1943, U.S. intelligence intercepted and decrypted reports of the tour. Sixteen American P-38 aircraft of the 339th Fighter Squadron, US Army Major John W. Mitchell commanding, flew from Henderson Field, Guadalcanal to ambush Yamamoto in the air. In the early morning of April 18, his G4M "Betty" transport aircraft was shot down near Kahili in Bougainville; Yamamoto was apparently killed in the air by a machine-gun bullet which struck his head, although there is still some controversy over whether he was killed immediately.
This became known as the "Navy kō incident," or in Japanese, 海軍甲事件.
- Agawa, Hiroyuki; Bester, John (trans.), The Reluctant Admiral (Kodansha, 1979), ISBN 4770025394. The definitive biography of Yamamoto in English. This book explains much of the political structure and events within Japan that lead to the war, with many details unfamiliar to most Americans.
- Hoyt, Edwin P., Yamamoto: The Man Who Planned Pearl Harbor (McGraw-Hill, 1990), ISBN 158574428X.
- Fading Victory: The Diary of Admiral Matome Ugaki, 1941-45. University of Pittsburgh Press, Copyright 1991. ISBN 0822954621. A high-level view of the war from the Japanese side is within the diaries of Yamamoto's Chief of Staff, Admiral Matome Ugaki . Here will be found evidence of the intentions of the imperial military establishment to seize Hawaii and to operate in the Indian Ocean. Translated by Masataka Chihaya , this edition contains extensive clarifying notes from the U. S. editors derived from the U. S. military histories.
- Yamamoto biography From Spartacus Educational
- WW2DB: Isoroku Yamamoto biography
- WW2DB: Death of Yamamoto
- Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Japanese Navy US Naval Historical Center
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