Isoroku Yamamoto was born in 1884. Yamamoto graduated from the Japanese Naval Academy in 1904. He fought in the Battle of Tsushima Straits in May 1905 where Yamamoto lost two fingers on his left hand.
Yamamoto attended the Japanese Naval War College and from 1919 to 1921 at Harvard University and between 1925 and 1928, he served as Naval Attaché to the United States. In the 1930’s, he gained a reputation for having an expertise in naval aviation. As a result of this knowledge, Yamamoto pushed for aircraft carriers to be the dominant force in Japan’s navy. He not only wanted modern ships, he also wanted modern fighter planes to operate from them. Almost invariably, most fighter planes flown from aircraft carriers were inferior to land based fighters (the Swordfish on British carriers compared to the Spitfire on land for example). Yamamoto wanted Japan’s carrier based fleet to be modern and fast and to carry modern weapons. He came up against senior naval officers who firmly believed in the supremacy of the battleship – a weapon he described as being similar to a samurai sword – a powerful weapon from the past but one that was being consigned to the history books.
While he had served in America, Yamamoto developed a negative attitude to the American Navy and the standards he had witnessed within it. He described the American Navy as a club for golfers and bridge players. However, for all this disdain, Yamamoto was aware of the vast power that the US Navy had – especially in the Pacific. He was one of the few senior military figures in Japan who had serious misgivings about challenging America’s power in the Pacific. This was not a popular view and to remove him from Tokyo (and some say to protect his life), Yamamoto was sent back to sea as Commander of the Combined Fleet.
In October 1941, Hideki Tojo became Prime Minister of Japan. Yamamoto was ordered to prepare for an attack on America as she was the only real threat to Japanese expansion in the Pacific. To be successful against the Americans, Yamamoto knew that he needed a stunning but quick knock-out blow; one so devastating that America would not recover from it. His plan was to destroy Pearl Harbour, America’s naval base in Hawaii.
On December 7th, 1941, Pearl Harbour was attacked. Yamamoto did not get the total knock-out blow that he had wanted as all of America’s aircraft carriers based in Pearl Harbour were out at sea. Yamamoto knew about the importance of these ships to the Americans. His claim that Japan would be militarily successful for between 6 to 12 months was to prove correct. At the Battle of Midway in June 1942, Japan lost much of her carrier force. It was a disastrous loss and one that Japan’s navy was not to recover from.
In April 1943, Yamamoto decided to make an inspection tour of Japanese bases in the the South Pacific in an attempt to boost morale after the defeat at Guadacanal. America’s intelligence decoded a Japanese message that informed them that Yamamoto was going to visit the northern Solomon Islands on April 18th. The decoded message gave arrival and departure times and specific locations. The US also gained information about the number and type of planes that would be involved in transporting Yamamoto. The admiral was still considered to be a major figure in the Pacific War and the decision was taken to kill him.
‘Operation Vengeance’ was carried out by sixteen P-38 Lightning fighters from 339th Fighter Squadron were ordered to intercept and shoot down Yamamoto’s plane – a Mitsubishi GM4 ‘Betty’ twin-engine bomber numbered T1-323. They intercepted two G4M ‘Betty’ bombers escorted by six Zero fighter planes. Both ‘Betty’ bombers were shot down and Yamamoto was killed. Four P-38’s made the attack while the other 12 P-38’s gave top cover. Yamamoto’s death did a great deal to undermine morale in the Japanese military and for this reason the Japanese public was only told about Yamamoto’s death on May 21st, nearly a month after the attack.
Yamamoto’s remains were cremated at Buin and his ashes were returned to Japan on his last flagship, the battleship ‘Musashi’. Yamamoto was posthumously promoted to the highest rank of Fleet Admiral, awarded the Order of the Chrysanthemum, First Class, and Nazi Germany awarded him the Knight’s Cross with oak leaves – the only foreigner to receive this award.