(Yesterday there was Pearl Harbor Day. So let’s bring this one back.)
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After this world war, the United States and the USSR may unquestionably emerge unhurt when all other nations are devastated. I can imagine, therefore, that our country, which is placed between these two giants, may face great hardships. However, there is no need for despair. When these two lose the competition of other countries in their respective vicinities, they will grow careless and corrupt. We will simply have to sleep in the woodshed and eat bitter fruits for a few decades. Then when we have refurbished our manliness inside and out, we may still achieve a favorable result.
—Lord Koichi Kido, to Emperor Hirohito of Japan, December 3, 1940
Isoroku Yamamoto was a gambler. Though cards, and other games that matched him against fellow human beings, were too often too easy for him; shortly after he learned poker, while attending Harvard, he thoroughly cleaned out his classmates.
So roulette was his game. Like most who have become truly entranced by the wheel, Yamamoto understood that it was there that one may best flickeringly apprehend the ineffable laws of chance, and, maybe, occasionally, fleetingly, ride them. Aboard the wheel, Yamamoto became one of the few people ever to “break the bank at Monte Carlo”: that is, he won more chips than were present at the table, requiring that a black shroud be thrown over the whole works until replacement chips could be summoned. Yamamoto often mused aloud that he would like one day to quit his day job, and open his own casino.
Yamamoto was also a conjurer, adept in feats of magic. His speciality was making things disappear. At a White House dinner in December of 1929, he enchanted down-table aides to President Herbert Hoover by vanishing coins and matchsticks.
In December of 1941, Yamamoto successfully vanished an entire fleet. One moment the ships were in port, there in Japan; the next moment, they were gone. Reappearing some days later, unobserved, off the coast of Hawaii. From this disappeared fleet, was launched the attack on Pearl Harbor.
As a gambler, Yamamoto didn’t think much of his country’s imperial adventurings. He pronounced the invasion of China doomed: too much land, too many people. He likewise predicted failure for any Japanese war on the United States: too much wealth, too many resources. While traveling in the States, Yamamoto had passed through oil country in Texas, and there observed in one field more oil than was present in all of Japan. War runs on oil. Japan didn’t have any. Once the US and its allies ceased shipping oil to Japan, the taps ran dry. By December 7, 1941, many of the private vehicles in Japan still on the road were running on charcoal.
But although he thought it a mistake, Yamamoto, at his emperor’s command, devised the plan of attack on Pearl Harbor. And when that attack was over, it was Yamamoto who in the States was made to shoulder much of the blame: the nasty little arch-fiend of a sneak who perpetrated the “day that will live in infamy.”
And thus it was that, in April of 1943, Yamamoto’s spirit disappeared from his body. Departing through a bullet hole in his head, drilled there at the personal command of President Franklin Roosevelt, who had ordered Yamamoto’s assassination. In “Operation Vengeance.” America much more honest and direct, then, in its operational code names.
Japan was an ally of Great Britain, France, and the United States in World War I. But after that war was over, those nations told Japan to go sit in the corner.
Though during the war it had diligently cleared the sea lanes in the South Pacific and Indian Ocean of German ships, after the war Japan was required to limit its naval tonnage to 6 tons for every 10 tons allotted to Great Britain or the US. In 1921, Great Britain arrogantly refused to renew its alliance with Japan. The next year the United States Supreme Court declared that Japanese people were ineligible for naturalization as United States citizens. Two years after that, Congress made total exclusion of all “Orientals” an official part of US immigration policy.
In 1934, when Billy Mitchell was doing his Cassandra act before that same Congress, warning that the US needed to attend to its air force, in expectation of inevitable armed conflict with Japan, he was told to go take a cold shower, as due to the “Oriental” brain and eye, no Japanese could ever competently fly an airplane. This was about ten years after Yamamoto, working out of Misty Lagoon, had developed naval torpedo-bombing techniques superior to any in the West, meanwhile training pilots to land on wharves and barges that simulated the flight deck of an aircraft carrier.
In 1930, shortly after Yamamoto had caused things to disappear from the White House dinner table, he walked away from a “disarmament” conference in London having convinced the British and Americans that there should be placed no limits on the production of Japanese naval aircraft, which, he argued, were required to defend Japan’s home waters from Chinese pirates and Soviet evildoers. Before anyone else, Yamamoto understood that future naval battles in the Pacific would be fought and won by aircraft, not ships.
In late 1940, bogged down in China, and anxious to set about warring south through the Pacific to secure those resources now denied him by America and its allies, Emperor Hirohito was running out of war money. And so Yamamoto was dispatched to Osaka, there to attempt to convince the nation’s increasingly recalcitrant bankers to cough up more cash. As David Bergamini recounts: “Yamamoto told the bankers that unless the number of ships and aircraft in the fleet could be doubled in a year, he would be forced to retire to the Inland Sea and harass the enemy like a pirate while US carrier planes were strafing Tokyo.” This frank, and alarming, approach swayed the banksters to fund a crash program to complete the nation’s naval-building program a year ahead of schedule.
Out of official harness, Yamamoto knew what was coming, and said so. He wrote a warning letter to a fevered saber-rattler, stating:
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. To make victory certain, we would have to march into Washington and dictate the terms of peace in the White House. I wonder if our politicians (who speak so lightly of a Japanese-American war) have confidence as to the final outcome and are prepared to make the necessary sacrifices.
Japanese militarists publicized this letter, minus the last sentence, thereby transforming Yamamoto, in the world’s eyes, into some wild-eyed jabbering freak intent on jackbooting into the Oval Office. This especially did not endear him to people in the United States.
By September of 1940 Hirohito had definitively decided to war with the United States. The next month, over sake, Yamamoto bluntly told Kumao Harada:
It is my opinion that in order to fight the United States we must be ready to challenge almost the entire world.
I shall exert myself to the utmost but I expect to die on the deck of my flagship, the battleship Nagato. In those evil days you will see Tokyo burnt to the ground at least three times. The result will be prolonged suffering for the people.
We have to come such a pass that our fate is inescapable.
Since Hirohito and his people were intent on warring with the US, Yamamoto set about trying to devise some plan of attack that might have the remotest possibility of success.
First he upbraided naval code officers for the banality of their messaging systems, goading them into producing the “Admirals’ Code,” which the US would fail to break until nearly the end of the war, and which was so novel and complex that Japanese signal operators loathed having to use it. Yamamoto began employing this code in November of 1940 for all top-secret fleet dispatches, which frustrated America’s “Magic” cryptographers, who had successfully pried their way into other Japanese messaging systems. That US radio picket ships roaming around Asian waters hadn’t a clue to the Admirals’ Code helped disappear Yamamoto’s fleet until it was right off Hawaii.
Yamamoto had determined that if the Japanese, at the outbreak of hostilities, did not destroy the American fleet in Pearl Harbor, they would have no chance at all in prevailing in Hirohito’s widened war. His plan was to torpedo American battleships and aircraft carriers to the bottom of the harbor, and strafe and bomb unto emptiness the installation’s fuel tanks. Then, while Japan was swiftly striking south through the Pacific, all the way to Australia, the US would be hobbling along, slowly moving carriers over from the Atlantic through the Panama Canal, and shipping replacement fuel to Hawaii from California. If things went well, there would be Japanese ships harassing whatever came out of the Canal, and intercepting and sinking fuel transports traveling west from California.
Having been wholly ousted from the Pacific, so the thinking went, the US would be faced with the enormous task of retaking there all that it had lost, while meanwhile shoveling men and materiel across the Atlantic to Europe (Germany and Italy had agreed to declare war on the US as soon as the Japanese struck). Unable to effectively fight both wars at once, the US would eventually, if reluctantly, choose to side with the white people of Europe, and abandon the yellow people of Asia to the Japanese. The Japanese would agree to relieve the white people of Australia of whatever Japanese forces might have meanwhile landed there, but Asia would become the fief of imperial Japan. Rather than the fief of imperial Britain, France, Holland, and America, which was the pre-December 7, 1941 state of affairs.
Yamamoto had mastered split-second timing in matters of war and peace during treaty wranglings in 1934. He had then been sent to London knowing that unless negotiations went completely Japan’s way, Japan had to withdraw from the treaty in question by December 31 “if Japan was to be allowed legally to launch the ships she was already building.” He was instructed to in the meantime appear to negotiate in “good faith.” Which he did. For months.
Finally the American delegation announced it would set sail on December 29. Yamamoto did not want Japan’s abrogation of the treaty announced while there was still the chance he might have to meet face-to-face with his American counterparts. So what was done was this: abrogation was announced to the US State Department in Washington, on December 29, shortly before State closed its doors for the New Year’s holiday. Yamamoto went down to the dock and cheerily waved bye-bye to his American friends, who sailed off before they could receive word from Washington that the treaty had been jettisoned.
Yamamoto insisted that something similar occur concerning the attack on Pearl Harbor. He wanted some sort of document approximating a declaration of war duly and officially served on the Americans before his planes began bombing and strafing Pearl, even if such a declaration arrived only minutes or even seconds before the carnage commenced.
That this didn’t happen was due primarily to partying: the people at the Japanese Embassy in Washington DC had reveled into the night without fully appreciating that they absolutely had to decode the final portion of a 14-part note and deliver it to the Americans by 1 p.m. local time the next day. As the appointed hour approached, screaming began sounding from Tokyo, which roused a panicked duty officer to start hauling his colleagues out of bed and back into the building. To be useful, whoever trailed in had to be someone cleared to work with top-secret documents; a roll-call of the available stragglers found only one person with the requisite clearance who could also type. This person then struggled, key by key, to finish decoding a message that US codebreakers had already rendered into English and whisked to the White House.
Official service would come too late. The note would not be delivered by Japanese emissaries to the Secretary of State until 18 minutes after President Roosevelt had been informed that Pearl Harbor was under attack. Thus, the assault on Pearl Harbor could, and would, be damned as “sneak.”
Hirohito was greatly peeved that the note snailed too late to the Department of State. He demanded his lawyers find some legal fig-leaf that would excuse dropping bombs on Pearl Harbor before the Japanese had dutifully informed American officials that We Hate You. The legal wizards were eventually reduced to throwing up their hands and declaring the relevant treaty, Hague Number Three, an absurdity undeserving of respect:
It is not a violation of the treaty to open hostilities in a far-off land only some 20 or 30 minutes after the delivery of a declaration of war to the diplomatic representative of the other country in one’s own capital. Hence it is not impossible to say that the Hague Treaty Number Three is nothing but a bluff or simulacrum and that there is no need to respect such a childish treaty at the outbreak of a war in which the fate of a nation is at stake.
Now, there exists a certain subset of human, roughly described as apocalyptic Manichean mentally divergent pear-shaped Caucasian men of a certain age, who tend to spend a lot of time in basements, and who do not wash their pants very often. These people are convinced that Franklin Roosevelt had prior knowledge of the attack on Pearl Harbor, down to the day and the hour. These people will also, if you do not get away from them quickly enough, begin to produce alarming quantities of foam at the corners of their mouths, as they yammer away at top speed about the USS Liberty, Building 7, ZOG, chupacabras snatching infants from the cradle, grays running organs in and out of human bodies through the earhole, our burnt-out cinder of a Potemkin sun, and the nefarious reptilian nature of our True Overlords.
However, in consensus reality, it is generally accepted that the attack on Pearl Harbor took Roosevelt and his people by surprise; they thought hostilities would commence somewhere else. It is certainly true that by December of 1941, the folks of “Those Who Know, Know,” both in the US and Japan, knew that war between those states was coming. They just didn’t know precisely how or when. By December 4 the future had become so obvious that on Java, a person passing down a certain street might observe twin smoke trails snaking into the sky from out of the backyards of neighboring residences. On one side of a garden fence, Walter Foote, the American consul, was burning his code books; on the other side burned the code books of his Japanese counterpart.
In any event, it didn’t really matter whether Roosevelt knew or not. Because the attack on Pearl Harbor was a failure. The Japanese succeeded only in sinking the American battleships, the least important of the three targets. When the Japanese arrived, all the aircraft carriers were out of the harbor. Yamamoto, learning this, considered radioing Admiral Chu-ichi Nagumo, in on-site command, to order him to conduct an air search for the missing carriers. He decided instead to leave the matter to Nagumo’s discretion. This was a mistake. For Nagumo conducted no search. Nagumo also elected, after his pilots had flown two sorties that succeeded in sinking the battleships and grounding American aircraft, that the third sortie, intended to take out permanent installations—i.e., the fuel tanks—should be abandoned, and everyone should go home. When the last Japanese pilot left Hawaiian airspace, the war was effectively over. Japan had lost.
But like a running man who has been shot and killed yet still for a time keeps running, his mind not having caught up yet to the fact that he is dead, the Japanese streamed south through the islands of the Pacific, all the way to Australia, until they experienced a reverse at the Battle of the Coral Sea. Not using the Admirals’ Code, but instead Code Funky, which the Americans had breached, all Japanese moves in this tussle were known ahead of time, and the Japanese were also subjected to the first known suicide attack in the South Pacific theater of WWII. Perpetrated by an American.
According to a few captured survivors, their vessel sank because the last of the attacking American planes, frustrated by Shoho‘s obstinate buoyancy, crash-dived into her and blew her up with unexpected suddenness.
Then came Midway, where Code Funky again allowed the Americans advance notice of all Japanese plans and maneuvers, and where the Japanese were defeated via determined, successive waves of American suicide attacks.
It is commonly said that the concept of suicide pilots was invented by the fanatic, fatalistic Japanese. On the contrary it was first put into practice by American pilots at Midway.
When Midway was done, half of Japan’s aircraft carriers had been lost. Now the war was really over. But the people in charge, on both sides, didn’t say that it was over. Therefore, it wasn’t. And so millions of people like my father were sentenced to several more years of experiencing such wonderments as one moment talking to his best friend, and the next moment receiving great gouts of his friend’s head, splattered all over his face.
By the spring of 1943 Hirohito found himself quite frequently pissed off. Nothing seemed to be going right. He verbally flogged Prime Minister Hidecki Tojo as an industrial laggard, which caused the man to fall into a swoon and take to his bed. He berated Army Chief of Staff Hajime Sugiyama as a bumbling bonehead who dumped troops on Buna without any tanks. He complained that soldiers in such doomed enclaves as Attu were committing mass suicide—in this case, via grenade—without his knowledge or permission, and at too early a point in the war: “[s]uicides might become necessary in the latter stages of the war to evoke American pity and guilt; they might become necessary in the mid-stages of the war to complete the people’s sense of participation; but now, in Hirohito’s view, was still the first stage of the war, and suicides were wasteful.” (By June 1944, Hirohito had quite definitely changed his mind, and, during the Battle of Saipan, was personally ordering not only soldiers, but civilians, to kill themselves rather than be taken prisoner.)
Hirohito was also increasingly preoccupied with the notion that a passel of grim-faced Americans would someday kick down his door and drag him off to be hung by his neck until dead. So on one level the Japanese “war effort” was increasingly concentrating on securing some sort of peace terms that would allow Hirohito to retain both his life and his semi-divinity. By January of 1943, the Japanese were already hinting to the US that, upon their inevitable defeat, the Japanese people, in their grief and despair, might run completely amok, and go Communist—if they were stripped of their Emperor, if Hirohito were demoted to a mere man, and, metaphorically speaking, stripped naked and beaten like a gong through the streets on his way to the war-crimes scaffold. This line of argument, in the course of things, eventually prevailed. And so, post-war, Japanese and Americans alike cooperated in contriving a fantasy history, one in which Hirohito was portrayed as a dunce and a dupe who for fifteen years basically sat in his palace and played with fish, while down the hall fearsome clots of crazies Beyond His Control Or Even Knowledge waged war on half the world.
But that was still a long way off. This was still only April of 1943. And so although Hirohito had decided that suicide was for the moment off-limits for the soldier in the main, he might make an exception for Isoroku Yamamoto. And so it was that some five days in advance, every detail of Yamamoto’s inspection tour of the northern Solomon Islands, scheduled for April 18, was blasted out across the entire Pacific, in ordinary, extremely low-security, fleet code. The message was signed by Vice Admiral Tomoshige Samejima, Yamamoto’s subordinate, a man who until five months earlier had been Hirohito’s chief naval aide-de-camp. He had been dispatched to Raibul as an expression of Hirohito’s “personal concern” over the conduct of Yamamoto’s operations there.
Yamamoto interpreted this thoroughly indiscreet message as imperial sanction—maybe even direction—that he fly off to die with honor as a casualty of battle. And so, normally abstemious from liquor, which did not mix well with his head, Yamamoto, as soon as he was apprised that his itinerary had been broadcast throughout the entire Pacific, grabbed a couple bottles of Scotch and joined a gathering of his flight officers who were toasting the departed souls of fallen comrades. When the alcohol had had its desired effect, Yamamoto wrote a letter to all the dead and living members of his naval academy class of 1904, which he commanded his fellow revelers to sign.
The next afternoon, one of Yamamoto’s best friends, Rear Admiral Joshima Takaji, flew out to Raibul to urge Yamamoto to cancel his inspection tour. “When I saw this foolish message,” he said, “I told my staff: ‘this is madness.’ It is an open invitation to the enemy.”
Yamamoto just smiled.
American monitors in Oahu and the Aleutians immediately intercepted the details of Yamamoto’s Solomon Islands tour, and transcripts of Samejima’s message were on President Roosevelt’s desk within hours (one of the receiving cryptographers was John Paul Stevens, later an Associate Justice to the United States Supreme Court).
It appears that the decision to assassinate Yamamoto was arrived at speedily. The most prominent would-be party-pooper was apparently Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, who first wanted a legal opinion from the Navy, then a feasibility opinion from Air Force General Hap Arnold, and finally a moral opinion from a bunch of church people as to what the Christian version of God might think. Somebody threw together a bunch of precedents for international assassinations, kidnappings, and intimidations, and Knox was told to go off and read them, and otherwise bugger off.
Some of Roosevelt’s thoughts and words throughout Operation Vengeance remain classified, but it is now generally accepted that he eventually yanked Knox away from his Bibles and his briefing book, and ordered him to “get Yamamoto.” Instructions then sent to Guadalcanal went out coded as “Operation Vengeance,” with a rating of both “top secret” and “presidential priority.”
As David Bergamini bluntly notes:
The ambush or assassination of an enemy leader is a delicate matter. It invites retaliation in kind. Few statesmen have ever been willing to authorize it because assassination is a relatively easy mission for the espionage service of a major nation to accomplish.
And so it was over in less than five minutes. A squadron of eighteen P-38 Lightnings reached Bougainville two minutes before Samejima’s helpful message had said Yamamoto would arrive. And there he came, just as the message had said, in a flight of two staff bombers and six Zero fighters. The Lightnings came out of dives at high-speed, whistled right past the Zeros, locked in on the tails of the bombers, and shot them down. One splashed into the sea; from this plane, containing Yamamoto aides, three men survived. Yamamoto’s plane crashed and burned in the jungle. From this plane there were no survivors. Yamamoto took a machine-gun bullet through the head. Vengeance was thine.
Lightning pilots spent decades bickering over who should get credit for what. Some claimed to have splashed Zeros; this proved embarrassing when, after the war, it was learned that no Zeros had been downed at all. Others said they’d brought down the big man himself; some of these resorted even to the courts, shuffling unto their 70s and 80s in and out of courtrooms in an effort to secure the crown of The Man Who Broke The Head Of The Man Who Broke The Bank At Monte Carlo.
These people’s lips were flapping even before they touched ground. As he approached Henderson Field, one of the pilots crowed to base: “That son of a bitch will not be dictating any peace terms in the White House.” This was a no-no, breaching mission security; most of the pilots had not been informed the target was Yamamoto. A select few pilots, and, later, news-grinders, were fed the story that civilian coastwatchers in the Solomons had seen Yamamoto boarding a bomber, then relayed that information by radio to the US Navy. This was to obscure the fact that the US had learned of Yamamoto’s flight when Samejima had helpfully distributed throughout the Pacific, in “code,” a nicely detailed target affixed to Yamamoto’s head.
Japanese troops reached the wreckage of Yamamoto’s bomber the day after it was downed. Yamamoto was transported overland to Buin, where he was cremated, his ashes sent on to Japan. When those remains docked in Yokohama, the Japanese people were informed via radio that Yamamoto had “met gallant death in a war plane.” For thirteen days rites were performed over his ashes. Then he became only the second “commoner” in modern Japanese history to receive a state funeral. Hirohito eschewed these ceremonies, as they “would make him unclean as national high priest, and would force him to perform intricate ceremonies of ablution.”
Shortly before he boarded the plane for his final flight, Yamamoto handed an aide, who would be remaining behind, a scroll of fine rice paper, upon which he had inscribed a poem written by Emperor Meiji. It read:
Now has come the time
For those of us who were born
Here in warrior land—
Now has come the time for us
To make ourselves truly known.
Another poem, in Yamamoto’s own words, was later discovered in his cabin on the battleship Yamato, where he had maintained his headquarters. This was free verse, that had not yet been disciplined into a thirty-one syllable tanka. It read:
So many are dead.
I cannot face the Emperor.
No words for the families.
But I will drive deep
Into the enemy camp.
Wait, young dead soldiers.
I will fight farewell.
And follow you soon.
There was some hesitation among Hirohito’s people as to whether the Emperor should be shown this poem. There prevailed a belief that it might in some way set him off. Eventually, with some trepidation, Yamamoto’s poem was presented to Lord Privy Seal Kido. In due course, Kido passed it on to Hirohito. Who didn’t seem to mind. He just went on with the war. So did everyone else.