Isoroku Yamamoto, perhaps Japan’s greatest strategist and the officer who would contrive the surprise air attack on U.S. naval forces at Pearl Harbor, is born on this day in 1884.
A graduate of the Japanese naval academy in 1904, Yamamoto worked as a naval attaché for the Japanese embassy in Washington, D.C., from 1926 to 1927. During the next 15 years, he saw several promotions, from vice minister of the Japanese navy to commander in chief of Japan’s Combined Fleet in August 1941. Despite worsening Japanese-American relations (especially in light of Japan’s alliance with Germany and Italy), Yamamoto initially opposed war with the U.S., mostly out of fear that a prolonged conflict would go badly for Japan. But once the government of Prime Minister Tojo Hideki decided on war, Yamamoto argued that only a surprise attack aimed at crippling U.S. naval forces in the Pacific had any hope of victory. He also predicted that if war with America lasted more than one year, Japan would lose.
Yamamoto meticulously planned and carried out the Japanese air strike on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor on Oahu Island, Hawaii, December 7, 1941. Waves of dive bombers, torpedo planes, and fighters descended on U.S. battleships, capsizing, destroying, or immobilizing several U.S. battleships within the first 30 minutes of the raid. The attack was a decided success, especially in catching the United States off guard, and resulted in the destruction of 180 U.S. aircraft and more than 3,400 American casualties.
U.S. forces finally caught up with Yamamoto, though, when they ambushed his plane and shot him down over Bougainville Island in 1943. Yamamoto died having been right about two things: the effectiveness of aircraft carriers in long-range naval attacks and that Japan would lose a drawn-out struggle with the United States.
Yamamoto was portrayed by Toshiro Mifune, an Akira Kurosawa regular, in three films, I Bombed Pearl Harbor (1961), Admiral Yamamoto (1968), and Midway (1974).