“Undeterred by death threats, Yamamoto continued to defy the regime. It was only his popularity with the navy and the admiration of the emperor that likely saved him.”
IT WAS JUST before 3 a.m. on Hashira Island, Japan when a naval officer dashed into the crowded operations centre of the flagship Nagato clutching a short but momentous message. It read simply: “Tora! Tora! Tora!” — Japanese for “tiger, tiger, tiger.”
The three-word signal meant only one thing: More than 4,000 miles to the east, 353 bomb and torpedo-laden warplanes from the Imperial Japanese Navy were just moments away from beginning a surprise air raid on the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor. It was Dec. 7, 1941.
Tokyo and Washington had been on a collision course for years leading up to that fateful morning. The attack that was unfolding was intended to cripple American sea power in the Pacific, giving Japan a free hand in East Asia to secure the oil and strategic resources it needed to survive as a global power.
The mood aboard the Nagato was charged as more messages streamed in reporting on the progress of the operation: The battleship Oklahoma hit, Nevada damaged, the Utah sinking, the Arizona destroyed. Victory seemed certain to nearly everyone monitoring the incoming communiques – everyone that is except the commander-in-chief of Japan’s Combined Fleet, Isoruku Yamamoto.
Pearl Harbor was his mission; the 57-year-old marshal admiral had overseen its creation. He’d presented the plan to Japan’s war council himself and even threatened to resign if the country’s nationalist regime refused to green-light it.
Despite his persistence, Yamamoto was against war. He had long recognized that a confrontation with the United States would likely be un-winnable. But if Tokyo was bent on conflict, he maintained that only through a massive pre-emptive strike on the U.S. fleet could Japan have a fighting chance. Even now though, with his warplanes raining destruction down Pearl Harbor, he secretly feared the worst.
It would turn out that Yamamoto’s worst fears would be realized. The raid would touch off three-and-a-half-years of war that would ultimately lead to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the empire’s surrender in 1945.
Not surprisingly, Yamamoto’s name will forever be linked with the events of Dec. 7, 1941. Yet his Pearl Harbor raid overshadows much of what made the man such a remarkable historical figure. Consider the following:
Yamamoto’s dad was a Samurai
Yamamoto was born Isoroku Takano on April 4, 1884. His financially struggling family was headed by a one-time samurai named Sadayoshi. Isoroku’s name is old Japanese for “56,” which was his father’s age the year the future admiral was born. After his parents’ deaths, Isoroku would be adopted by the wealthy but heirless Yamamoto family. Although his surname would change, he would carry on his birth family’s warrior tradition by pursuing a career in the navy.
He fought at Tsushima Strait
Yamamoto graduated from the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy in time to see action in his country’s 1904 war with Russia. He fought the Battle of Tsushima aboard the cruiser Nisshin. “When the shells began to fly above me I found I was not afraid,” he later wrote of his experience at the epic clash. “A shell hit and knocked me unconscious. When I recovered I found I was wounded in the right leg and two fingers of my left hand were missing.” The battle, which saw Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō sink 21 enemy vessels, including six battleships, showed the 21-year-old junior officer the value of bold and decisive action. It was a lesson that would stay with Yamamoto for his career.
He was a man of vices
A natural risk-taker, Yamamoto was something of a card shark in his free time. He enjoyed games of chance, especially poker, and often said that if his career in the navy went bust, he’d happily open a casino in Monte Carlo. Despite being a married father of four, Yamamoto also had a soft spot for geisha girls. In fact, he preferred to spend time with one in particular named Kawai Chiyoko, much to the annoyance of his wife Reiko. He continued the not-so-secret tryst right up until his death.
He lived in America for four years
Two stints in the United States taught Yamamoto about much about his future adversaries. He studied English at Harvard University from 1919 and 1921 and then spent another two years as an assistant naval attaché in Washington beginning in 1926. The experiences left the future admiral with strong opinions about America and its citizens. While Yamamoto felt his counterparts in the U.S. Navy were soft and far too invested in leisure pursuits, he was awestruck by the vast military potential of American industry. He’d later famously caution the Japanese leadership about the dangers of war with the U.S.:
“Should hostilities once break out between Japan and the United States, it would not be enough that we take Guam and the Philippines, nor even Hawaii and San Francisco. We would have to march into Washington and dictate the terms of peace in the White House.”
His warnings would fall on deaf ears.
He spoke truth to power
Yamamoto often pushed back against the military leadership in Tokyo, often so forcefully it put his career and even his life in danger. As a rear admiral, he relentlessly lobbied for a strong and independent fleet – and this at a time when many in the Imperial General Headquarters favoured using the navy primarily to support operations on land. He was also a vocal opponent of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, as well as the 1937 decision to launch a war in China. Even as commander-in-chief of Japan’s combined fleet, a position to which he was promoted in 1939, Yamamoto would persist in criticizing the regime for its bellicose foreign policy. His condemnation of his Japan’s 1940 pact with Italy and Nazi Germany enraged the leadership, particularly the future wartime prime minister, General Hideki Tōjō. Undeterred by death threats, Yamamoto continued to defy the government. It was only his popularity with the navy and the admiration of the emperor that likely saved him.
He planned Pearl Harbor; thought war was a mistake
Despite his opposition to the idea of a war with America, Yamamoto personally oversaw the drafting the Pearl Harbor attack. Inspired by the sinking of three Italian battleships at Taranto in 1940 by torpedo bombers launched from the British aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious, Yamamoto envisioned a brazen, go-for-broke air attack on on the U.S. fleet at Hawaii using planes from from six of Japan’s eight flattops. With the enemy fleet destroyed, Japanese forces could grab territories all across the Far East. Even then, the admiral was still unconvinced that his country would prevail in the resulting war with the United States. “I shall run wild considerably for the first six months or a year,” he said. “But I have utterly no confidence for the second and third years.”
His most famous victory was a pyrrhic one
The Japanese strike force sunk four battleships and 15 other vessels at Pearl Harbor and destroying nearly 200 aircraft on the ground, yet the attack was a strategic failure for the empire. Not a single American aircraft carrier was in port during the raid. In fact, Yamamoto’s appointed commander of the operation, Admiral Chūichi Nagumo, so feared a counter attack by U.S. flattops he called off the planned third and final wave against Pearl’s dry docks and fuel facilities. Had these installations been destroyed, it would surely have crippled the U.S. fleet for months. Instead Nagumo raced for home.
America’s carriers would come back to haunt him
Seven months after Pearl Harbor, Yamamoto hoped to obliterate America’s carriers once and for all by luring them into a decisive showdown at Midway. Yet in a remarkable intelligence coup, American codebreakers deciphered Yamamoto’s plan to send an armada to the tiny atoll to force a confrontation. Instead, the U.S. fleet was ready and waiting to ambush the Japanese task force. The resulting three-day battle, saw four Japanese carriers lost, and with them Tokyo’s last hope of winning the war in the Pacific.
He was fatally struck by ‘lightning’
Yamamoto’s own luck ran out on April 18, 1943. When U.S. intelligence intercepted an enemy dispatch about the admiral’s plans to fly with a small fighter escort from from Rabaul to a small island off Bougainville, 16 long-range P-38 Lightings were scrambled to intercept him. After a brief but furious dogfight, Yamamoto’s plane was shot down over the jungles of New Guinea. The following day, Japanese troops located the crash site and recovered his bullet-riddled body, which had been thrown clear of the wreck still strapped into its chair. He was 59 years old. Americans, still seething over Pearl Harbor, dubbed the mission to kill Yamamoto Operation Vengeance.
He never reportedly actually said his most famous quote
Yamamoto’s legacy will forever be tied to Dec. 7. According to a popular legend, when news reached his flagship that the attack he planned was underway, the admiral famously remarked: “I fear all we have done is awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” It’s certainly a memorable story; although unsubstantiated. While Yamamoto surely harboured such sentiments and supposedly spent the day after the attack in sober reflection, no record has ever been unearthed of him saying or writing such a thing. It’s been chalked up as an invention of Hollywood.