Darwin war history
Written by Norman Cramp, Director of Darwin Military Museum
The son of a Samurai
Isoroku Yamamoto (birth name Isoroku Takano) was born to Sadayoshi Takano and his second wife Mine at Nagaoka in the Niigata Prefecture on 4th April 1884. He was the last of seven children born to Sadayoshi, with is name Isoroku being Japanese for the number ‘56’, Sadayoshi’s age at the time of Isoroku’s birth.
Sadayoshi was a former low-class samurai. Isoroku’s early life was one of poverty and hardship, however, his father, a qualified teacher, and his mother ensured he received a decent education, part of which was delivered by western Christian missionary teachers. Yamamoto was a keen and serious student and as historian Bob Alford wrote, ‘no doubt keen to escape the hardships of life in Nagaoka’.
His opportunity to break the chains of poverty came in 1901 when he won an appointment to the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy at Eta Jima Island near Hiroshima. He studied at the Academy for three years, graduating in 1904 seventh in a class of 200.
Following his graduation, he was posted to the cruiser Nisshin, on which he served during the defeat of the Russian Baltic fleet at Tsushima Strait on 26th May 1905. He was wounded during the action, resulting in him losing two fingers on his right hand and spending several months recuperating. Following his return to duty he served on several ships of the Fleet, one of which took him on a training cruise to the US.
Becoming Isoroku Yamamoto
He completed various courses within the IJN, including attending the Naval Staff College in 1914. Following his graduation from the College he was posted to the staff of the Second Battle Squadron with the rank of Lieutenant Commander. His naval career was on its way.
Following his parents’ deaths (in 1912), he accepted an offer from the influential, and wealthy, Yamamoto family in 1916 to join them and become their male heir. Part of the arrangement was that Isoroku took the Yamamoto name. This he did and Isoroku Takano ceased to exist. In 1918 he married Reiko Mishashi (in an arranged marriage) and together the pair had two sons and two daughters.
Yamamoto's rise through the ranks
Over the following 10 years, Yamamoto was to study at Harvard in the US, was posted to the IJN Staff College as an instructor, went to sea again and was promoted to the rank of Captain, learned to fly, studied aviation technology and became strong advocate of naval aviation.
In 1926 he was appointed attaché to the USA, a post in which he served for two years and during which time his interest in naval aviation increased. In 1928 he was assigned to command the IJN aircraft carrier Akagiin for a period before being sent to London as a member of the Japanese delegation to the London Naval Conference. Returning to Japan post-conference, he was appointed as head of Aeronautics Department’s Technical Division and, two years later, was promoted to Commander Carrier Division One with the carrier Akagi as his flagship.
He was promoted to Vice-Admiral on 15th November 1934. He was made chief of the Aeronautics Department in December 1935 placing him in a position overseeing all naval aviation development. While he accepted that, to many, battleships and large guns meant naval power he pushed for greater air power for Japan – a far-reaching foresight that was to benefit the Japanese in the early stages of the Pacific war.
Although opposed to the army’s desire for war, the dogs were unleashed in 1937 when Japan attacked China. Following that step, the army pushed for a tripartite agreement with Germany and Italy, which significantly increased the chances of war with Britain and America.
Yamamoto opposes war
The Japanese hit Pearl Harbour
Initially, Japan’s gains in the Asia-Pacific region were quick and numerous, but they were to be short-lived and Yamamoto’s earlier warning that Japan ‘would put up a tough fight for the first six months’ but he had ‘absolutely no confidence as to what would happen if it [the war] went on for two or three years’. He also said ‘I hope you will make every effort to avoid war with America’. He was ignored and was soon to be vindicated.
The Americans hit back via the US Doolittle-led raid on Japan in April, the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942 (with Australian naval forces in support), and the battle for Midway Island in May. Japan had suffered her first sea/air defeats of the war in the Coral Sea – and in a sense, it was the beginning of the end.
The Japanese lose ground
By February 1943, the Japanese had lost Guadalcanal Island (Solomon Islands) and in early March an attempt to move IJA troops from Rabaul to Lae in New Guinea was defeated by allied naval and air forces. Yamamoto’s forces were slowly, but surely, being destroyed and the IJN secret codes had been broken by the US. In April 1943, in order to arrest the falling fortunes and to raise morale within the ranks, Yamamoto decided to visit bases closer to the front.
A message was sent on 13th April, via Japanese secret code, to base units, garrisons and air flotillas chosen advising that he would be visiting. The message, that provided the itinerary of the flight plans etc, was intercepted by US forces and decoded. The Americans knew exactly where Yamamoto would be, at what time, with what fighter escort and planned his demise accordingly. As Bob Alford wrote, ‘The message proved to be the announcement of Yamamoto’s imminent death’.
Yamamoto's final flight
On the morning of 18th April 1943, Yamamoto and his Chief of Staff, Vice-Admiral Ugaki, boarded separate planes (Mitsubishi G4M1 – ‘Betty’ bombers) at Lakunai airfield, Rabaul, for the flight to Bougainville. They were unaware that the codes had been broken and the allies knew exactly what was to happen.
The ‘Bettys’ took off at 0600 hours and at 0710 hours, US Army Air Force (USAAF) Major John Mitchell and his flight of P-38 Lightning fighters took off from Henderson Field, Guadalcanal, to intercept and shoot down Yamamoto’s aircraft. Within minutes of the US airmen spotting Yamamoto’s aircraft, both the Bettys had been shot down. The Americans lost Lieutenant Raymond K. Hine in the attack.
Yamamoto’s aircraft, Betty 323, fell to the ground in dense jungle just south of the village of Aku on Bougainville’s south-eastern corner, while Aguki’s aircraft, Betty 326, crashed into the sea off Moila Point on Bougainville’s southern corner.
There were no survivors from either aircraft.
Two days later search parties found the wreckage of Yamamoto’s aircraft and the bodies that were strewn around it. Yamamoto had been thrown clear of the craft and was sitting upright - still strapped into his seat. The cause of death was two .50 calibre (machine gun) bullet wounds to his body, one of which entered the lower left jaw, emerging through the right jaw, and the other entering the left shoulder blade. There was no exit wound for this bullet.
The bodies of Yamamoto and the others, Fleet Medical Officer Rear Admiral Rokuro Takada, staff officer Commander Kurio Toibana, aide Commander Nonuro Fukusaki and seven crew members, were taken to Buin where they were cremated on 21st April.
The news of Yamamoto’s death was kept a secret by the Japanese government until 21st May when his ashes returned to Japan aboard the battleship Musashi. Yamamoto was afforded a State funeral on 5th June 1943, following which his ashes were divided into two, one half being interred at the (public) Tama Cemetery in Tokyo while the other half were interred at the Chuko-ji Zen temple in his hometown Nagaoka.
Japan had lost Yamamoto and were about to lose the war - as he had so correctly predicted.
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