Reassessing Admiral Yamamoto

From Japanese Destroyer Captain, by Tameichi Hara (Naval Institute Press, 2013), Kindle Loc. 2317-2344:

The great Han Dynasty of China was founded by General Liu Pang in 202 B.C. after he had emerged victorious from a series of many battles in a great civil war. One day, after gaining the throne, Generalissimo Liu was chatting with his chief of staff, General Han Tsin:

Liu: “How do you rate me as a general?”

Han: “I think Your Majesty can command, at most, an army of a few divisions.”

Liu: “And what is your own ability?”

Han: “The more armies of as many possible divisions I command the better I work.”

Liu: “How does it happen that I am an emperor while you remain a general?”

Han: “You are a born leader of leaders.”

Liu was one of the greatest emperors and Han one of the greatest generals in history. Few admirals have enjoyed such high reputation as did Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto in World War II. He had great ability, but I feel that his reputation as a naval leader was greater than he deserved. I do not mean to compare Yamamoto categorically with Liu, but in respect of their actual abilities, they are comparable.

Despite Japan’s miserable defeat in the Pacific War, the nation is still inclined to regard Yamamoto as a hero. Postwar writings have criticized other military and naval leaders, but not Yamamoto. If my remarks on Yamamoto seem severe it is not that I have any personal feelings against him; this is just the first writing by a Japanese military man to be at all critical of him.

To me Admiral Yamamoto was a born leader of leaders and for that he deserved the almost religious respect accorded him. But he was not qualified to command a million tons of ships and their crews. It was tragic that he was chosen to head the Combined Fleet.

Many of my colleagues believe that Yamamoto would have been an ideal Navy Minister, and there was a movement under way among certain Naval officers to have him named to this post. Their idea was that Admiral Mitsumasa Yonai should command the Combined Fleet. That move collapsed when Yonai, who strongly opposed war, refused, saying, “I am not a fighting admiral, and would only make things worse with the Army. Furthermore, if such a stiff-necked man as Yamamoto becomes Navy Minister he will surely be assassinated by Army hotheads.”

The real trouble was the Army. When the war began the cabinet was headed by General Hideki Tojo. Admiral Shigetaro Shimada, the Navy Minister, was known to be a Tojo stooge. The Navy chief of staff, Admiral Osami Nagano, was not strong enough to oppose Army plans. In criticizing Yamamoto, his actions and inaction, consideration must be given to all these factors which served to hamstring him.

Throughout his career Yamamoto was known to be a superb gambler. He was skilled in all games of chance, especially poker. His decision to attack Pearl Harbor was a gamble which paid tremendous odds. It is strange, therefore, that Yamamoto never again played his cards for all they were worth, as a gambler should. The lessons of the Coral Sea battle were not applied to Midway, where Yamamoto split his forces—to his detriment—between his prime objective and the Aleutians. Yamamoto was undoubtedly preoccupied with preserving his forces.

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Filed under Japan, military, Pacific, U.S., war

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