In 1941, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was the most hated man in America. As the architect of Japan’s December 7th surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States military decided Yamamoto had to die by any means necessary. Two years later, over the jungles of Southeast Asia, a daring aerial ambush gave the American people the closure they craved. But who was Yamamoto really? Did his death have any impact on the outcome of the war? And who actually landed the killing blow? After the success of “Operation Vengeance”, as it came to be known, two American flyboys would become locked in a decades-long feud over who deserved the credit for avenging one of the deadliest days in American history. A visionary Admiral. A longshot mission. A broken friendship.
In 1941, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was the most hated man in America. As the architect of Japan’s December 7th surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States military decided Yamamoto had to die by any means necessary. Two years later, over the jungles of Southeast Asia, a daring aerial ambush gave the American people the closure they craved.
But who was Yamamoto really? Did his death have any impact on the outcome of the war? And who actually landed the killing blow? After the success of “Operation Vengeance”, as it came to be known, two American flyboys would become locked in a decades-long feud over who deserved the credit for avenging one of the deadliest days in American history.
A visionary Admiral. A longshot mission. A broken friendship.
Davis, Donald A. Lighting Strike: The Secret Mission to Kill Admiral Yamamoto and Avenge Pearl Harbor. 2005.
Lehr, Dick. Dead Reckoning: The Story of How Johnny Mitchell and His Fighter Pilots Took On Admiral Yamamoto and Avenged Pearl Harbor. 2020.
Hampton, Dan. Operation Vengeance: The Astonishing Aerial Ambush That Changed World War 2. 2020.
Paine, S.C.M. The Japanese Empire: Grand Strategy from the Meiji Restoration to the Pacific War. 2017.
Harmsen, Peter: Storm Clouds Over The Pacific, 1931-1941. 2018.
Davis, Burke. Get Yamamoto. 1969.
Hoyt, Edwin P. Yamamoto: The Man Who Planned Pearl Harbor. 1990.
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Hello and welcome to Conflicted, the history podcast where we talk about the struggles that shaped us, the tough questions that they pose, and why we should care about any of it.
Conflicted is a member of the Evergreen Podcast Network, and as always, I’m your host, Zach Cornwell.
Today’s episode is taking us to the early 20th century, to a little conflict you may have heard of before: World War 2.
Now, in full transparency, I generally try and avoid the Second World War on this show. Not because it isn’t totally fascinating and engrossing – I, like every other history nerd on the planet, love World War 2. But it tends to dominate history coverage in a way that few other topics do. It sucks up a lot of oxygen, pulling interest away from lesser-known, yet equally fascinating topics.
But I decided to make an exception for this episode. Because it’s a story I’ve had my eye on for quite a while.
Today we’re going to be talking about something called Operation Vengeance. Operation Vengeance was a military operation conducted by the United States to achieve the death of one man. Not the capture of a piece of territory, or the defeat of a specific army – its goal was to assassinate one single individual. At the time, the target of this mission was the most hated person in America. With the exception of maybe Adolf Hitler. His name was Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto.
Students of this time period will recognize that name immediately, but if you aren’t familiar, Yamamoto was the man who planned the infamous sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. Overnight, he became a boogeyman for the United States. A figure on par with Osama bin Laden in the wake of the September 11th attacks. To Americans, he was pure evil. A duplicitous, mustache-twirling monster that needed to die at any cost.
And in the spring of 1943, a talented team of American codebreakers and fighter pilots managed to track him down and take him out. But it wasn’t all parades, roses, and medals. In the aftermath of that successful mission, a friendship between two of the men involved was completely destroyed. A bond between two American flyboys who each claimed that *they* had been the one to bring Yamamoto to justice, evolved into a bitter feud that would last decades.
It's a fascinating story. One that explores the nature of revenge, friendship, propaganda, and public perception. I’m very excited to share it with you, and I think you’re gonna love it.
So with that said, welcome to Episode 21: Kill Yamamoto: The Mission to Avenge Pearl Harbor
In 1954, in a small coastal city in Japan, there lived a woman named Chiyoko Kawai.
Chiyoko was the owner of a small restaurant. Nothing fancy. Just a little place serving simple fare to local residents.
She mostly kept to herself. Went to work. Came home. Went to sleep. Woke up and did it all over again. Guests to the restaurant would’ve seen Chiyoko as an unassuming woman in her mid 40s. Dark hair, dark eyes, but surprisingly graceful and light on her feet.
If you walked into Chiyoko’s restaurant and looked at the menu, you wouldn’t see the rich, steaming bowls of pork ramen or brightly colored sushi rolls we’ve come to associate with Japanese cuisine today. It had been less than a decade since World War 2 had ended; and in the wake of a humiliating defeat, times were hard in the land of the Rising Sun.
The economy was devastated. The national identity was in tatters. And the social order has been completely turned upside down.
But there was still beauty in the world. In the small town where Chiyoko lived, just south of the sprawling metropolis of Tokyo, she would’ve been able to walk to the beach and look out at the glittering waters of the Pacific. On clear days, if she turned and looked to the west, she would’ve been able to gaze up at the huge, frozen cinder-cone of Mount Fuji dominating the skyline.
It was a bittersweet feeling. So many millions had died during the war. In the fire-bombings. The atomic attacks in the South. Chiyoko was just grateful to be alive, and perfectly content with her humble existence. Truth be told, she was lot luckier than most. But Chiyoko had a secret. One that she’d thought had been buried back during the War.
Well, one day, in the spring of 1954, a reporter came calling. He was from a newspaper called the Asahi Weekly, and he was writing an article. To her surprise, Chiyoko learned she was going to be the subject of that article. What did he want with her?, she asked. The reporter gently explained that he knew a lot more about her than her patrons did.
He knew who she really was.
Chiyoko was not just a pretty, middle-aged restaurant owner. In her prime, she had moved in some of the most influential political circles in the Japanese empire. She had hosted generals and bureaucrats and titans of industry. Before the War, she had been a geisha - that famous, multi-talented breed of entertainers with painted porcelain faces and elaborate kimonos.
But that was a long time ago. Those days were behind her. Most of her old clients were disgraced, destitute, or dead. But there was one particular companion this reporter from the Asahi Weekly wanted to know about. It was a name that still had the ability to make Chiyoko’s heart beat a little faster.
Everyone in Japan knew the name of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. He was a national hero. A warrior. A literal “god of war” to some. In a handful of turbulent years, he had transformed Japan’s navy from a shallow imitation of the Western powers into a modern, groundbreaking fighting force. Some Japanese historians even referred to him as “The Nelson of Japan”, a nod to the legendary British Admiral Horatio Nelson.
But Yamamoto’s fame wasn’t confined to the shores of his home country. He was famous all over the world. Particularly in the United States of America. Although “notorious” might be a better word.
Because Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was the man who had planned and executed the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7th 1941. To Americans, the name “Yamamoto” was a disease. He was a coward, a terrorist, a war criminal. As Harper’s Magazine once wrote:
“Perhaps our chief individual enemy, next to Adolf Hitler, is leather-faced, bullet-headed, bitter-hearted Isoroku Yamamoto.”
But to Chiyoko, he had just been “Isoroku”. And he had been the love of her life.
The reporter from the Asahi asked Chiyoko lots of questions. And she wasn’t shy with the answers. She produced dozens of letters she had exchanged with Yamamoto. Intimate correspondence she had kept hidden away for years. Paper treasures that revealed the depth of their secret relationship. After all, what did she have to hide now, she thought? Yamamoto had been dead for a long time. And the Empire of Japan along with him.
Even though so many years had passed, she could picture him clear as day in her mind’s eye. She could even remember the very first night they met. Although, as historian Dick Lehr writes in his book, Dead Reckoning, “it was hardly love at first sight”.
It was the summer of 1933. And Japan was on the rise.
Kyoto may have been the spiritual capitol of the nation, but the real center of the action was Tokyo. The city was not the towering neon playground that we know today, but it was still huge. A massive, mind-boggling metropolis. One of the largest urban concentrations of human beings in the world at the time. And right in the middle of it was Chiyoko Kawai.
Chiyoko had become a geisha a few years earlier in her mid 20s. Now, she was 31 years old. And on this fateful summer night in 1933, she was working at a party in an upscale restaurant in the Tsukiji district.
Things were hopping at this party. Tons of important people were there. Government officials, photographers, journalists, and representatives from the military. As a geisha, it was Chiyoko’s job to make these stiff Generals and imperious Admirals feel comfortable and at ease. She made conversation, poured drinks, laughed at their dumb jokes.
But one man in particular caught Chiyoko’s eye.
He was military, clearly. His hair was cut short, almost to the scalp. There were touches of silver streaking through the black buzzcut. She’d known many handsome men in her life, and this guy was not one of them. His face was normal, kinda plain - with a slight underbite and a protruding lower lip. But he had an easy smile that he flashed around the table with rock-solid confidence.
Someone whispered to Chiyoko that this man was Vice Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, one of the most important men in the Japanese navy.
Chiyoko also noticed that while almost every single man in the room was guzzling sake, Yamamoto was not. Navy men usually drank like fish, but this oddball seemed to avoid alcohol like the plague. At one point, he reached for a soup bowl, and Chiyoko noticed he was missing two fingers on his left hand. Yamamoto got a little flustered and embarrassed because he couldn’t remove the lid from the bowl, due to his disability.
Chiyoko, the gracious Geisha that she was, rushed to the rescue.
But the proud Yamamoto just scowled and waved her away “I don’t want help with my own business.” Chiyoko was taken aback, and she left him alone for the rest of the night.
About a year later, in 1934, their paths crossed again. At another party. She tried to introduce herself, sheepishly reminding him about the incident with the soup bowl. But again, she got nothing back. Just an irritated, angry response from Yamamoto: “I scarcely remember such an event. Or you either.”
But destiny seemed determined to bring them together, and a few days later, they bumped into each other at another party. By this point, Chiyoko figured it was best to steer clear of the prickly Yamamoto. He was a jerk. No point in pissing him off again.
At one point in the night, a much friendlier man at the table asked Chiyoko if she liked a particular kind of cheese. She flirted back and said that she did. Then, out of nowhere, Yamamoto piped up and said, “Well, I’ll treat you”. Just like that, he asked her out on a date. Chiyoko was a bit surprised – after all he’d been such an asshole to her at first – but she was curious. And she accepted.
That first date led to another. And another. And another. And before long, Chiyoko and Yamamoto were lovers. Turns out, he wasn’t an asshole at all. He was kind, cultured, and funny – super funny. He could make her laugh. He could make everybody laugh. In the time they spent together, she learned a lot about this mysterious Navy man. And he opened up to her in a way that he usually didn’t with other people. She wanted to know everything about this man she was beginning to fall for.
Where was he from? What had happened to his hand? And why did he have such an odd first name? Chiyoko noted that “Iso-ro-ku” means “five, ten, six”. His name was literally just a number. Over the course of the evenings and plenty of pillow talk,
Yamamoto told Chiyoko his story.
Yamamoto had been born fifty years prior, in 1884.
It’s hard to overstate just how… weird, for lack of a better word, things were in Japan at the close of the 19thcentury. If all the world’s a stage, the Japanese people had been yanked from the wings and pushed out front and center for the entire audience to see.
After centuries of cultural isolation and technological stasis, the great Western powers had come calling on Japan with treaties and trade agreements, and the island nation was forced to modernize at an incredibly rapid pace just to cling onto some version of self-determination. The Japanese ultimately decided they did want not be just another accessory on the colonial charm bracelet of nations like Britain or France or America. So, they went to work, building up their military, reinventing their infrastructure, and adopting cutting-edge technology.
This is a period I actually went over in great detail in a previous episode called Showdown at the Ikedaya Inn. So, if you want a little more context around what happened to Japan when it first encountered the Europeans and Americans in the mid-1800s, check out Episode 14 of the show.
But anyway - the result of all this seismic change was a complete restructuring of the Japanese social caste system. The samurai, or the warrior class, who were used to being at the top of the food chain, were suddenly kicked to the curb and forced to make a living just like everybody else. Yamamoto’s father was one of these former samurai, and he’d become a run-of-the-mill schoolteacher just to make ends meet.
When Yamamoto was born, his parents already had several mouths to feed. And their newest bundle of joy was not exactly a welcome addition. Their new son actually went un-named for several weeks until, finally, after lots of pestering from his mother, his dad picked the laziest name he could think of. He was fifty-six years old at the time, so he just said “Let’s call the kid…uh I dunno, FIFTY SIX”. “Isoroku”. And that was that.
Well little “Fifty-Six”, had big things in store for him.
As Isoroku grew up, he was a very athletic kid. A little scrawny, a little sickly, but he loved swimming, sailing, gymnastics and baseball, a popular sport freshly imported from the West.
In fact, Isoroku was fascinated by everything Western.
He submerged himself in the pages of an old English-language Bible given to him by a Christian missionary named Newell. He read the strange, squiggly little words over and over again until he knew them by heart. Of course, Isoroku had zero interest in the finer points of Christianity, but that wasn’t the point. Even as a teenager, he knew that being able to understand the language of the Americans and the British might unlock some very valuable opportunities down the road.
At this time, one of the most surefire avenues for social mobility in Japan’s brave new society was a career in the military. And since Isoroku knew his way around a sailboat and a pair of swim trunks, he figured the newly-created Japanese Navy was his best bet.
He had no idea how right he was. Because big things were happening on the international stage. And they were happening at sea.
As Japan extended its spheres of influence, it started bumping elbows with another powerful empire who had big plans for the Pacific: Russia. Now, I won’t bore you with the diplomatic details of the Russo-Japanese War, but essentially, Russia wanted access to the Pacific for purposes of trade and strategic advantage. And Japan did not like this much larger dog sniffing around its yard. Before long, the bells of war were ringing all over Japan.
And on a foggy morning in the summer of 1905, 21-year-old Isoroku found himself on a Japanese battle cruiser steaming towards a confrontation with the Russian fleet. This was going to be Isoroku’s first taste of combat – he must’ve been scared to death, but he focused on doing his job. He was a gunnery officer, and all he had to do was make sure his big guns fired at the right time, in the right order, and in the right direction.
Two things happen in this battle that are relevant to our story.
The first thing - As Isoroku Yamamoto wrote himself years later:
“With a great roar, a shell scored a direct hit on the forward eight-inch gun that still remained. Billows of acrid smoke covered the forward half of the vessel, and I felt myself almost swept away by a fierce blast. I staggered a few steps—and found that […] two fingers of my left hand had been snapped off and were hanging by the skin alone.”
Isoroku was injured very, very badly. His fingers had been blown off, and the explosion had ripped an apple-sized chunk out of his thigh. While the young gunnery officer recovered in a medical ward, the full consequences of the battle came into view.
Which brings us to the second thing. The battle had been, as writer Donald A. Davis puts it in his book on Yamamoto, a “slaughter”. The Russian fleet had been completely, utterly destroyed. It was like a light bulb suddenly switched on all over the world. Not only could the Japanese recreate Western technology, they could master it, too. Any lingering ideas of racial superiority sank to the bottom of the sea along with all those Russian battleships.
As one historian wrote: “This upstart Asian David could not possibly prevail against St. Petersburg’s imperial Goliath.” But that’s what they did.
Japan was here to play. And it was here to stay.
From his bed in a military hospital, Isoroku took stock of his injuries. The leg would heal. The scars would fade. But the fingers on his left hand were gone forever. The sting of that disability was quickly soothed by a letter he received from none other than the Admiral of the Japanese fleet himself, congratulating him on his performance during the battle. As historian Edwin P. Hoyt writes in his biography of Yamamoto, those missing fingers and the letter they prompted were “as important to his career as any medal.”
The winds of favor and prestige began to rise under Isoroku’s partially clipped wings, and he found himself steadily climbing through the ranks of the Japanese Navy. One promotion, two promotions, three promotions. All in rapid succession. And it wasn’t luck, either. Isoroku was smart, and capable, and extremely motivated. He earned it all.
But as tends to happen in life, the pendulum of fate swung back in the other direction almost immediately. One day in 1913, Isoroku received some distressing news from his home province. His mother was dying. As soon as he was able to secure leave, he raced back home. And the sight that greeted him was devastating.
His mom could barely take care of herself anymore. She couldn’t walk. She couldn’t prepare food. She was withering away in a sickbed right in front of his eyes. Isoroku sat with her for hours and hours – at one point he tried to cheer her up. He remembered that she loved ice cream, it was her favorite treat, so he goes outside and scoops up some fresh snow and makes ice cream for his Mom.
He was scheduled to return to duty a few weeks later, and he realized this would probably be last time he ever saw her alive. As he fed her with a spoon, she turned to him and said: “You are my child, but you are also Japan’s child. I am going to die, but Japan will live. You must work for her.”
Those words echoed in Isoroku’s mind for years and years. He couldn’t protect his Mom from the ravages of old age. But through his growing prominence in Japan’s Navy, he could protect the infant nation that she had called home.
Isoroku’s mother passed away just a few months after his visit, but there was very little time to mourn. Things were happening fast in Isoroku’s career. The biggest of which was a name change. It was around this time that Isoroku became Isoroku Yamamoto.
Just a little context - At the time, it was a common practice for prominent Japanese families who did not have any male heirs to adopt competent men into the family as a way of carrying on the bloodline. It seems a little weird and antiquated these days, but at the time it was just a pragmatic, smart thing to do. And so Isoroku was adopted into the well-to-do Yamamoto clan.
So - from this point on, we’ll just refer to him as Yamamoto.
Yamamoto’s career continued to progress throughout the 1910s, and in the Spring of 1919, he was chosen for a very special assignment. Yamamoto showed up to his superiors’ office dressed in his best Navy duds, ready to hear what this mysterious new gig would be.
There was a new threat to Japan’s dominance in the Pacific, they said. A potential enemy that they might have to face in the future. As a result, the Japanese military was sending men to learn about this exotic country. To be educated there, to learn the language, and immerse themselves in its customs and people. That way, if they ever had to face this nation, they would have insight into the way they operated.
“Know thy enemy” was the name of the game. Before the brass had even finished speaking, Yamamoto knew what his assignment was.
He was going to America.
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Americans in the 1920s had a very particular stereotype in their heads when they thought of Japanese men.
Japanese men were quiet and reserved. They were obedient and pliable. They were shy around women, and humorless in conversation. They couldn’t crack a smile, or a joke. They were strange human robots from an ancient, superstitious country.
Anyone who crossed paths with the young Isoroku Yamamoto was quickly disabused of those reductive, bigoted assumptions. In reality, Yamamoto was more like the Japanese version of “The Most Interesting Man in the World”.
The man who stepped off the passenger ship onto the San Francisco docks in 1919 left a trail of fast friends, good memories, and blushing women in his wake. Yamamoto was extremely energetic and outgoing, and because of his rock-solid grasp of English, he could make easy conversation with his American hosts.
Yamamoto didn’t drink alcohol – not for moral reasons, it just made him feel like he’d been hit by a truck - but he didn’t need any social lubricant to light up a room. He was playful and friendly. He wouldn’t hesitate to do a handstand or spin plates to amuse his new friends. He had people eating out of the palm of his hand.
Now, Yamamoto may have been a teetotaler, but he did have other vices. His two biggest weaknesses were geishas and gambling. The former he’d had to leave behind in Japan, but he found plenty of the latter in America. Yamamoto was a wizard at a card table. Shuffling wasn’t easy with only eight fingers, but he won a lot of money off cocky Americans who thought they could outplay this fresh-off-the-boat Japanese man.
According to Donald A. Davis, Yamamoto once said that “any Japanese who could master the thousands of ideographs of their own language had no problem keeping track of only fifty-two cards.” There wasn’t a game of chance, rolls, dice, or cards that Yamamoto couldn’t learn, master, and translate into stacks of green dollar bills.
He once joked that if the Japanese government would agree to stake him at the high-stakes tables in Monaco, he could win them enough money to build two new battleships.
But Yamamoto had not been sent to the United States to bankrupt America one poker game at a time. He’d been sent to get an American education. The best one money could buy. Yamamoto enrolled at Harvard University in Massachusetts, where he learned economics, science, and, of course, English. Yamamoto already had an impressive command of the language, but in just a handful of years, he was completely fluent.
He could strike up a conversation about Babe Ruth with a grocery clerk or debate esoteric military theory with the Naval attaches in Washington D.C.
Yamamoto was fascinated by America. And America was fascinated by him. During his time in the U.S., he traveled extensively. Often on his own dime. He saw the oil fields of TX. The auto manufacturing plants of Detroit. And the assembly lines of Chicago.
At one point he even went down to Mexico, just to see North America in its entirety. This strange Japanese man aroused the attention of the local authorities, and the Mexican government sent a message to the Japanese embassy in Washington DC:
“A man who claims to be Isoroku Yamamoto, a commander in the Japanese navy is traveling around the country inspecting oil fields.(?) He stays in the meanest attics in the third rate hotels and never eats the hotel food, subsisting on bread, water and bananas. Please confirm his identity.”
It began to dawn on Yamamoto just how… huge America was. And the sheer power it had in terms of production capability and human resources. When he returned to Japan in 1921, he came back with the strong opinion that this was not a country that Japan should ever, ever make into an enemy. Tsarist Russia had got what was coming to them. They were arrogant, badly trained, and had encroached on Japan’s turf. But America? If they ever got into a war with an industrial behemoth like the United States, Japan wouldn’t stand a chance. As he said years later:
“It is a mistake to regard Americans as luxury loving and weak. I can tell you that they are full of spirit, adventure, fight and justice. Their thinking is scientific and well advanced. […] American industry is much more developed than ours, and—unlike us—they have all the oil they want. Japan cannot vanquish the United States. Therefore we should not fight the United States.”
For the sake of his home’s survival, Yamamoto was determined to make sure that absolutely did not happen.
It’s tempting to look at Yamamoto’s love for gambling and women, and come to the conclusion that he was impulsive, or lacked discipline. But that could not be further from the truth. Yamamoto worked as hard as any military man in the world. Harder, some said. His own subordinates often complained that they rarely got lunch breaks because Yamamoto would just work right through it.
Yamamoto directed his intellectual energies towards many things, but he was particularly obsessed with a new weapons system that was starting to take shape in the world’s most radical, forward-thinking naval minds.
For as long as anyone could remember, the battleship had been king of the waves. Massive cannons unleashing ungodly amounts of firepower directly at one another. I mean, this was essentially the way navies fought in Napoleon’s time. The “age of sail”, right?
It was a “bigger is always better” philosophy. By the outbreak of World War 2, nations were building ships that were as long as the Chrysler Building is tall. But guys like Yamamoto saw a different path to naval supremacy. As he said: “The most important ship of the future will be the ship to carry airplanes”.
Yamamoto was talking about aircraft carriers.
Ships that didn’t need huge guns, that were not constrained by their own lines of sight. Ships that could launch fighters and bombers straight into the air to go bomb and sink other ships from hundreds of miles away. In Yamamoto’s mind, the naval battles of the future would be fought between ships who never even saw each other. As one American naval officer remembered of Yamamoto:
“The aircraft carrier, the combination of sea and air power, was an obsession,”
To Yamamoto, the old-school battleships were little more than very expensive toys. Big, phallic vanity projects that would “be as useful to Japan as a samurai sword in modern warfare.”
Yamamoto elaborated even further, saying that the giant battleships were “like elaborate religious scrolls which old people hang up in their homes. They are of no proven worth. They are primarily a matter of faith, not reality.”
But as much as Yamamoto railed against entrenched orthodoxies and old ways of thinking, he himself was a prisoner of tradition. When he was adopted by the Yamamoto family, it came with a set of expectations. The family bloodline had to be preserved, and that meant settling down, getting married, and having kids.
Yamamoto didn’t want any of that. He felt most at home, most like himself, behind the wheel of a roulette table, or at the helm of a powerful warship, or in the arms of a well-paid geisha. He didn’t want a wife. He didn’t want to come home every night to sit at the same table with the same woman to eat the same dinner and tuck in the same kids every night. For a free spirit like Yamamoto, that was his own personal version of hell.
But Yamamoto was nothing if not dutiful. He would do what he had to do. What he had promised to do. Even if he hated every single second of it.
When he was 34 years old, Yamamoto married a young woman named Reiko Mihashi. When pressed to say something nice about his new bride, Yamamoto said:
“She stands about five foot one or two and is extremely sturdy. She looks like she could put up with most hardships.
Yamamoto had a penchant for poetry and he loved to write haiku, but that dry assessment was the best he could come up with for his new wife. There’s actually a photo from their wedding day you can look up, and they both…look…miserable. They almost look like complete strangers photoshopped side by side into the same picture.
The fact was they didn’t love each other. They weren’t attracted to each other. They were strangers. And even after meeting, there just wasn’t any spark. Tragically, this was destined by a mostly loveless marriage. There wasn’t any enmity or bitterness, just…apathy. Which in some ways can be even worse. As Yamamoto told a close friend years later:
“You’re lucky to be in love with your wife. I threw in the towel long ago.”
In the end, Yamamoto did what was expected of him. And Reiko did what was expected of her. And they had their first child a few years later. And fatherhood did not stir much emotion in Yamamoto either. As one of his sons remembered his father:
“Father seemed indifferent and undemonstrative. But beneath this was a proper concern for our welfare.”
Like most people dissatisfied with life at home, Yamamoto buried himself in work.
He continued tirelessly advocating for the aircraft carrier doctrine, and slowly but surely he began to change hearts and minds. He also inspired fierce loyalty in the men under his command. Yamamoto was one of those guys that if you spent enough time around him…you sorta just fell in love with him. He was a good boss. As one cadet under his command gushed:
“We work hard under Captain Yamamoto because we want to. He works harder than anybody.”
His power and influence in the navy grew, and in 1925, he was sent back to America as a naval attaché in Washington. Something about Yamamoto just clicked with Americans, especially his counterparts in the navy. As one intelligence officer named Edwin T. Layton said, Yamamoto was “very human, a very real, very sincere man.” Most Japanese officials “wore false faces or masks to suit their role”, but Yamamoto did not.
Yamamoto told his subordinates to get out and mingle with Americans. Learn about the place: “Mix with American students as much as possible. Do not speak Japanese . . . travel by subway or bus; no one ever found out much about any city by riding in taxis .” In a different life, in a different time, Yamamoto would’ve probably written a pretty decent travel blog.
As Japan’s man in Washington D.C, Yamamoto had many obligations and responsibilities, but his primary focus was making sure America adhered to a particular naval treaty. Shortly after World War One, an agreement was signed between – among others – Great Britain, the United States, and Japan.
All three nations pledged to keep their naval capabilities at certain agreed-upon level. They said okay guys, for the sake of balance and peace, we’ll all promise to keep our navies at particular size. Anyone breaks the deal, starts building a bunch of warships, they’re in big trouble.
Seems fair, right?
Well, the problem was the ratio. Japan got a raw deal. For every five warships the United States or Great Britain could have, Japan could only have three. It was, in some ways, a different kind of “three-fifths compromise”.
The Japanese hated this. Of course they did! They thought it was unfair, Euro-centric and specifically designed to keep the land of the Rising Sun from achieving its true potential. In their eyes, it was essentially soft Imperialism.
Yamamoto was of two minds about it. On one hand - yes, it was unfair. Yamamoto cleverly voiced that opinion at a dinner with his American colleagues by saying: “I am smaller than you, but you do not insist that I eat three-fifths of the food on my plate.”
But on the other hand, Japan didn’t need to have a bigger navy than America. Because Japan would never go to war with America. Yamamoto had told his superiors over and over again that to do so would be tantamount to national suicide.
The treaty also had a silver lining in that it stopped the old-school faction in the Navy from pouring money and resources into the humongous battleships that Yamamoto believed should be supplanted by a robust carrier fleet and crack air force.
But as correct as Yamamoto was…he was very out of step with what was happening at home in Japan. A new power was rising. An ultra-nationalist wing of the government, led by the Japanese Army, was pushing Japan closer and closer to war. They envisioned a Pan-Pacific Empire. A massive sphere of influence that extended from Guam to Manchuria. As Professor of Strategy and Policy at the US Naval War College Sarah C. M Paine calls it, “a jackbooted Pax Japonica”.
Beginning in 1931, the Army finally got what it wanted, and conflict erupted with their neighbor China in Manchuria
Things were bad in Tokyo, too. Yamamoto watched nervously as the war-hungry fanatics from the Army slowly took over the Japanese government. Assassinations became as common as state holidays; something like three Prime Ministers were gunned down in in the space of half a decade. It seemed like things were spinning wildly out of control. Yamamoto was a seasoned gambler, and he could see that Japan was betting big and recklessly with a bad hand.
The only relief Yamamoto had from this extremely distressing political climate was a woman he met at a party in 1933. The geisha, Chiyoko Kawaii. After the embarrassing incident with the soup cup and the missing fingers, he’d tried pushing her away. But she kept popping into his life. So, he asked her out on a date, and shockingly, she accepted. She was “beguiling and beautiful”. She was funny. They had amazing chemistry and when Yamamoto was on assignment or at sea, they exchanged mountains of letters. As Yamamoto wrote in one:
“To be honest, I feel utterly wretched working in Tokyo. The other night, I dreamed that we were driving along the coast of Nice, in the south of France. I thought how happy I’d be if only it were true.”[…]
He was just grateful that someone like Chiyoko had eyes for him:
“If it’s really true that you miss me and have faith in me, then in practice I consider myself really fortunate.”
But remember, Yamamoto was a married man. Of course, many men in his position had mistresses on the side, but it was still a little scandalous; and one day some young, idealistic Navy officers stormed into his office and confronted him about his extra-marital affairs, saying it reflected poorly on the Navy. Yamamoto looked these young men in the eye and said:
‘Any of you that doesn’t fart or shit and has never fucked/screwed a woman speak up. I’m willing to listen”. Spare me the self-righteous lecture, he was saying. I’m not perfect, but neither are you. Get out of my office. All the officers could do was blink, stammer, and retreat in embarrassment from Yamamoto’s office.
Yamamoto could easily rein in a handful of moralizing young officers, but he could not control the rapidly growing power of the Japanese Army, who were slowly and surely taking complete control of the government. They were aggressive, nationalistic, and hellbent on carving out a land empire on the Asian mainland. Korea, China, and Southeast Asia were just scraps of meat, waiting to be gobbled up.
This aggressive national policy completely destroyed Japan’s relationship with its foreign allies in the West. By 1934, the naval treaty was in tatters, and the shipyards of Japan were working ‘round the clock. By 1937, The Japanese army was committing daily war crimes on the Chinese mainland. And in 1940, the Japanese government had signed the Tripartite Act, sealing a formal alliance with Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy.
Yamamoto was aghast. It was like he was watching his country commit slow-motion suicide in front of his eyes. He had vehemently opposed the alliance with the Nazis, mostly because it would put them in direct conflict with the British and by extension, the United States. As he wrote:
“For Japan it would mean, after several years of war [with China] already, acquiring yet another powerful enemy—an extremely perilous matter for the nation. Japan should under no circumstance conclude an alliance with Germany.”
It was, as Yamamoto said, “risky and illogical”. But it happened anyway. The would-be samurai conquerors in the Army were in complete control. Japan’s entry into the Axis alliance and its continuing war on the Chinese mainland provoked some extreme diplomatic clapbacks from the United States. America completely froze oil exports to Japan, along with steel, rubber, basically anything and everything that a 20th century military needs to operate.
The thinking in Washington was, hey – A Japan that can’t fuel, means a Japan that can’t fight. At the time the embargo went into effect, Japan had about a year and a half’s worth of oil reserves left in the bank.
The Allies thought they were starving the nation of Japan into compliance. But what they were really doing was forcing it into a corner. To paraphrase historian Sarah C. Paine, the United States confused a flame retardant for an accelerant. Japan, faced with poverty, military impotency, and the complete collapse of its imperial ambitions, chose to fight for those resources, to the death if need be. In their desperation, war against their perceived economic oppressors became a foregone conclusion.
Yamamoto’s nightmare scenario was becoming inevitable. He must have felt a crushing sense of helplessness. After all, how many times had he told them that war with America was un-winnable? How many times had he recounted his own experiences, seeing the assembly lines, oil fields, and production capabilities of this titanic nation? Yet still, here they were, on the razor’s edge of war with the one country on planet earth who had the power to destroy them.
Yamamoto begged the Prime Minister Fumimara Konoe to tread lightly:
“If you order us to do so, we will show you how ferocious we can be for six months to a year of battle. The Tripartite Alliance has been agreed and it can’t be altered now, but I beg you to do everything within your power to avoid war with the United States, whatever else may happen.”
But in time, Yamamoto realized with ice-cold clarity, that war with America was going to happen sooner or later. Thanks to their foolish alliance with Hitler and Mussolini – not to mention the Army’s pigheaded obsession with China, they’d managed to get the lion’s share of their oil supply cut off. War was inevitable. But maybe, maybe there was a way, to shepherd his country through the eye of the needle and out of this doomsday scenario.
Yamamoto asked himself a theoretical question. If I was asked to win an unwinnable war, how would I do it? If I was asked to beat an unbeatable nation, what would my plan be?
At a poker table, Yamamoto was a master. He accounted for all variables. And he was no different when it came to war. For years, he had been quietly working on a plan. In the off-chance that he ever had to fight the United States. As he told his peers:
“The most important thing we have to do first of all in a war with the U.S., I firmly believe, is to fiercely attack and destroy the U.S. main fleet at the outset of the war, so that the morale of the U.S. Navy and her people goes down to such an extent that it cannot be recovered. Only then shall we be able to secure an invincible stand in key positions in East Asia.”
So Yamamoto gathered a tight circle of Naval officers and went to work. He mobilized the meticulous in the hopes of pulling off the miraculous. As he told a friend:
“What a strange position I find myself in now. Having to make a decision diametrically opposed to my personal opinion, with no choice but to push full speed ahead in pursuance of that decision.”
---- MUSIC BREAK---- --
On the morning of December 7th, 1941, twenty-six-year-old Tom Lanphier jolted awake in his hotel room in San Francisco.
The phone was ringing. He was hungover, his head was spinning, and he felt like shit. He fumbled blindly for the receiver and answered it.
On the other end of the line was a voice he’d known all his life. It was his father, Tom Lanphier Senior. “Turn on your radio”, his dad said. “The war is on. They’ve leveled Pearl Harbor.”
Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to meet a new, very important character in our story. An argument could be made, that he’s the most important character in this story. The man himself would certainly make that argument. And in time, you’ll understand why.
Tom Lanphier – that’s L-A-N-P-H-I-E-R, Lanphier – had been out partying on the night of December 6th, 1941. Tom was a pilot in the United States Army, and the day before, he’d come over the Golden Gate bridge from nearby Hamilton Field to hit downtown San Fran with a handful of army buddies.
Tom was one of those guys that everyone liked being around. He was fun, and knew how to party. “Flamboyant and loquacious” is how writer Donald A. David describes him. He was good-looking guy, clean-cut, lean, dark curly hair. If you look at photographs of him he actually looks a little bit like a young Josh Brolin.
But beneath that pretty-boy exterior was an incredibly active, voracious mind. When Tom wasn’t playing poker or guzzling down beer with his buddies on leave, he was nose-deep in a book, or staring off into space listening to his collection of Shakespeare recordings. The guy had graduated high school at fifteen years old. Then went on to study at Stanford University. To a passing observer, Tom seemed to be the complete package. It almost feels like he was lab-grown in an All-American Golden Boy test tube.
But Tom had something else most other guys didn’t have. Something few of them would have envied. A huge sense of expectation that had followed him since he was a very young boy. And that was courtesy of Tom Sr, his father.
See, Tom was aviation royalty.
His dad was kind of a big deal in the US military. Tom Sr. was a celebrated World War 1 veteran who’d gone on to be a mover and shaker in political circles. They had a lot of famous friends, bigtime generals and aviation pioneers. No less a figure than Charles Lindbergh was known to drop by the Lanphier household from time to time when Tom Jr was just a kid. Tom Senior had even gone on double dates with a certain Dwight Eisenhower at West Point.
The point is, Tom and his family were very well connected. And those connections came with huge expectations.
When his dad suggested he follow in his old man’s footsteps and apply to flight school in the US Army, Tom - always the good son - happily complied. And in November of 1941, roughly a month before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Tom got his wings.
On the morning of December 7th, 1941, Tom listened to his Dad explain over the phone what very little he knew at that point about what had happened in Hawaii. They knew the Japanese had attacked, without warning, and that it had been very, very bad. Lots of dead Americans. Lots of ships destroyed. Six inches of burning oil, slicked over the harbor.
These days, it's a little bit trite to compare Pearl Harbor to the September 11th attacks. I mean, how many times have we heard that comparison.
But I think it’s worth evoking once again if only to put ourselves back in that mental headspace of complete… uncertainty. It’s that awful feeling of *not* having all the information. *Not* knowing the extent of what was really happening. Being in the dark. Your mind just starts to careen towards the worst possible places, and the worst possible scenarios. Well, that’s exactly what it would have felt like on the West Coast back in ’41.
Tom Lanphier would’ve pulled on his wrinkled khakis and headed down to the hotel lobby to a scene of palpable panic and confusion. Phones ringing off the hook, guests demanding answers and clarification. Garbled reports from the radio. The San Francisco Examiner actually ran the headline: “Japanese Invade West Coast!”. Within 24 hours, the FBI had detained over 700 Japanese Americans as “enemy aliens”. The paranoia and terror only got worse from there.
As writer Donald A Davis tells it:
“Sirens wailed around Los Angeles, where antiaircraft gunners hammered away at empty skies. Boys with BB guns and farmers with pitchforks went to the seashore to help defend the beaches, and deer hunters oiled up their rifles.
[…] Americans gathered around radios in their homes, in barber shops, beside potbellied stoves in hardware stores, on dusty ranches, in big city bars, and on street corners to hear the latest news bulletins, and children ran door to door spreading the word—Pearl Harbor has been attacked! Around Washington, machine-gun emplacements were erected, security forces considered painting the White House black, and bewildered citizens walked up Pennsylvania Avenue to stand before the executive mansion and sing “God Bless America.”
After the initial shock had worn off, the butcher’s bill at Pearl Harbor came into focus.
Eight battleships had been destroyed or seriously damaged, along with a dozen other smaller vessels. Hundreds of planes were gone. And 3400 Americans were dead or wounded. The United States Navy had essentially had its kneecaps blown out.
In time, America learned the name of the man who had planned it all: Yamamoto. A man who had lived among them for a cumulative five years. Who had toured their country, learned their language, and had dinner with their leaders. The sense of that betrayal was only just beginning to sink in.
And the Pearl Harbor attack was only the beginning of a meticulously scheduled series of simultaneous attacks all over the Pacific. Just hours after hundreds of Zero fighters had filled the skies of Oahu, the Japanese had attacked Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Guam, Wake Island, the Philippines, Hong Kong, and Shanghai.
Tom Lanphier returned to his airbase shortly after December 7th, and he realized that his chance to live up to his father’s legacy had arrived much sooner than he’d anticipated. The United States was going to war with the Empire of Japan.
--- transition ----
Hundreds of miles away in the Pacific Ocean, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto listened to the ecstatic reports that had been pouring in by radio for hours. The surprise attack had been a huge success, and the Japanese strike force had lost only a handful of planes and men.
Surrounded by cheering subordinates and clinking cups of sake, Yamamoto allowed himself the briefest moment of relief. He’d pulled it off. The plan he’d been putting together for years had worked – more or less.
In Tokyo, crowds roared. Every radio station and newspaper men sang Yamamoto’s praises as the man - no - the War God, who had brought the fight to the enemy. He’d managed to hit the smug, decadent imperialists right in their own backyard. A naval nut-tap, if you will. It was only a matter of time before the famously isolationist Americans lost their will to fight completely. The crowds sang a popular war song called “Umi Yukuba” in the street:
“Across the sea, corpses in the water. Across the sea, corpses in the field.”
Stacks of fan mail arrived on Yamamoto’s desk from Japan. Hundreds – thousands! - of groupies and admirers poured their hearts out and expressed their awe for the man who had planned Pearl Harbor. At one point, Yamamoto took a break from reading the fan mail to write a letter to his lover, the geisha Chiyoko Kawaii. He was flattered by all the letters from strangers, but “I am longing only for letters from you night and day.”
But all the saccharine congratulations and backslapping accolades curdled in Yamamoto’s mind.
Because several aspects of the Pearl Harbor attack had gone very, very wrong. For one, they hadn’t destroyed America’s aircraft carriers, the all-important breed of ship that Yamamoto placed so much importance on. With those still roaming the Pacific, America could launch attacks deep into their territory. The Yanks were not knocked out of the game, as he’d hoped.
Things were worse on the diplomatic side.
Yamamoto had insisted that Washington DC be given a direct, formal warning immediately before the attack. An official statement of war, although given just hours before the strike Pearl Harbor, would make it a legal act of aggression - NOT a duplicitous backstab. As historian Dick Lehr writes in his book, Dead Reckoning:
“It was one thing to launch a surprise naval attack during a declared war; it was another, and a wholly unacceptable action, to instigate a sneak attack. Honor was at stake.”
But the message had not arrived in Washington in time. Something to do with a delay of the translation from Japanese to English. The mistake completely overshadowed the tactical brilliance of the attack, and made Japan look very, very bad on the world stage.
Not that any Japanese military personnel lost much sleep over it. As one Admiral said:
“It is not unfair to assault one who is sleeping. This means a victory over a most careless enemy.” Nevertheless, that clerical error would haunt the Japanese Empire all the way though the war tribunals in the late 1940s.
Yamamoto knew the Americans better than anyone. – certainly better than the average Japanese citizen, better than the Emperor, better than any of the Army guys. He knew they would not forget this.
As Sarah C. Paine writes:
“Japan laid waste to the U.S. Pacific Fleet, but the surprise attack instantly transformed the United States, a self-absorbed, isolationist nation, into a war machine bent on the destruction of Japan. […]
While others are wont to ignore self-important U.S. pronouncements on financial and territorial matters, often they fail to grasp that the United States, like an elephant as it lumbers along, rarely forgets, but puts up with nearly endless annoyances until, after much bluster and warning and threatening, it charges and, force being mass times acceleration, the mass counts.”
Yamamoto had always, always maintained that if – god forbid – they went to war with the United States, they had to knock them out fast. This was not like invading Korea, or marching into Shanghai or Nanking or Manchuria. America was huge. Yamamoto had ridden trains from Arizona to Virginia. He knew the vast, incalculable resources their enemy could bring to bear. In a long, protracted ground war, the Americans *would* win. It was a hopeless course of action for Japan. As Yamamoto told his superiors with a pitch-black sense of humor:
“It is not 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.”
Which of course, was impossible. Japan’s only hope was to break the United States’ spirit quickly through a catastrophic destruction of their Navy, then literally force them into a peace *before* its industrial capabilities could be activated and unleashed. A long war with America was suicide. As Yamamoto said to a friend:
“If you tell me it is necessary that we fight, then in the first six months to a year of war against the United States and England I will go wild, and I will show you an uninterrupted succession of victories. But I must tell you that if the war be prolonged for two or three years, I have no confidence in our ultimate victory.”
For Yamamoto – and Japan, the hourglass was already running out of sand.
------MUSIC BREAK -----
A few months after Pearl Harbor, Tom Lanphier and the rest of the pilots in the 70th Fighter Squadron arrived in the Fiji Islands.
They had learned to fly back in San Francisco. But it was over the sapphire waters of the South Pacific that they would perfect their craft.
After the initial shock of the attack Pearl Harbor had worn off, an intense excitement and sense of ambition had taken root in Tom. After a quarter-lifetime of idolizing his father’s generation – men who had cemented potential of air power over the battlefields of World War 1 - an opportunity to build a legend of his own had fallen right into his lap.
He was scared, sure; but he’d spent his lifetime around aviators and planes and cockpits. Flying came naturally to him. And he was ready to take a big, wet bite out of the Japanese war machine. Of course, not all the other pilots of the 70th squadron had Tom’s experience or pedigree. As Donald A. Davis writes:
They were mostly raw kids, new to their jobs, who had been rushed to the South Pacific because no one else was ready to go. Their hometowns, education, and backgrounds were a cross section of America, and they were bound together by a desire to fly. But each was competitive by nature, on a football field or in an airplane, and they had not come out to these distant islands to lose.
Shortly after arriving in Fiji, Tom Lanphier met another young pilot named Rex Barber.
Rex was a stocky farm boy from Oregon, who’d dreamed of flying his entire life. When he was eleven, he’d engineered a homemade parachute from his mom’s bed sheets. He took the contraption up to the roof of the family barn and leaped off, plummeting thirty feet to the ground. The fall broke Rex’s arm, but not his lifelong preoccupation with flight.
He’d gone to college, then to flight school, and eventually joined the US Army. At 24 years old, he found himself on Fiji with the rest of the 70th squadron.
Rex and Tom became fast friends. If Tom was the talkative, babbling brook, Rex was the cool, placid lake – a guy who according to one fellow pilot: “Never got mad”. When they weren’t flying training missions together, the two played baseball with the other pilots. Rex was a shortstop and Tom was third basemen.
The thing we often forget about war is the sheer amount of downtime some of these soldiers had. When they weren’t learning how to kill the Japanese up in the air, they were down on the ground killing time - time they spent playing games, swimming, and mostly just shooting the shit. And all that familiarity created some very, very strong friendships.
Rex and Tom could chat for hours. Although Tom did most of the talking. If there was one thing Tom Lanphier Jr could do it was talk. Having worked at a newspaper before the war, he knew how to spin a tale. But Tom never let the truth get in the way of a good story. His stories could become tall tales very quickly. As a buddy from flight school named Jacobsen remembered:
“He was the greatest name-dropper in the world. He would say, ‘Well, I talked with, or I know this guy and that guy,’ and it turned out later that he didn’t know them. I used to tell him, ‘Tom, you’re so full of bullshit,’ and he’d laugh.”
One of Tom’s favorite stories to tell was the time he’d been invited to the famous actor Laurence Olivier’s hotel room to discuss a review Tom had written in the newspaper he worked at. When he knocked on the door, it was answered by an almost completely naked Vivien Leigh, Scarlett O-Hara herself. No one knew if Tom’s spicy story was true, but it always got a big laugh.
Well one night in Fiji, Rex and Tom were sitting on a coconut log, sipping whiskey. They were just talking, about this or that. Maybe it was the whiskey or just the easy rapport he had with his friend, but Tom turned to Rex and said:
“I’m going to be the most famous pilot to come out of this war.”
Rex raised an eyebrow. They hadn’t so much as flown a mission against real live Japanese pilots, and already Tom was talking about his own gleaming war record. Tom went on to explain that he wanted a career in politics after the war, and to make that happen, he needed to do something big out here in the Pacific.
“Why?” Rex asked.
Tom was usually all smiles and stories, but he turned to his friend with a straight face and said with complete earnestness:
“I’m going to be president of the United States.”
Rex rolled his eyes and sipped his whiskey, but he could tell his friend was dead-serious. Tom was a fun, smart guy, but this was a different side of him. Neither of them knew it yet, but that restless ambition would eventually tear their friendship to shreds.
For now, however, they were preparing to take on some of the best pilots in the world.
The training regimen imposed on the Japanese fighter pilots made what Rex and Tom went through in basic look like a pleasure cruise. As Donald A. Davis writes:
A [Japanese] pilot had to be the best of the best, in every way. He had to hang from a tall pole by one hand, hold his breath for ninety seconds underwater, balance on his head, and leap from a high platform, flip several somersaults, and land on his feet. The handful of graduates who possessed such incredible physical stamina and impossible reflexes were able to see stars in the daytime and could maintain equilibrium in the most extreme dogfight aerobatics. In the cockpit of a fighter plane, they were as good as any pilots on earth, and better than most.
The planes they flew were terrifying too.
The famous Mitsubishi Zero fighter. You’ve probably seen it a million times in movies, right? with the big red circles – the rising suns on the tip of each wing. These things were like hummingbirds with machine guns, light as a feather and highly maneuverable - the Japanese pilots even used to strip out the radios to make it just a little bit lighter and more agile. It would only increase the speed by a single knot, but that hairline advantage was enough in a dogfight.
Tom Lanphier may have wanted to be President of the United States, but Rex and the other pilots were just hoping to survive their first encounter with a Zero pilot. As one pilot from the 67th remembered: “We thought we were a fighter outfit, but if you got into combat with a Zero, you were done.”
Back in the mainland United States, fear and paranoia towards the Empire of Japan had metastasized into unbridled hatred towards Japanese people in general.
As most of you know, America has a long unpleasant history of bigotry and racism, and World War 2 marked a new shameful chapter in that tradition. When faced with an ethnically foreign enemy that had just executed a sneak attack, that stuff was cranked up to maximum, often ludicrous, levels.
Time Magazine famously published an article called “How To Tell Your Friends From Japs”, which contained a collection of stereotypes meant to help “real” Americans differentiate Chinese immigrants from Japanese immigrants.
For example: “Chinese expression is more likely to be placid, kindly, and open; Japanese more positive, dogmatic, and arrogant.” An Asian man who walked “stiffly erect” was a dead giveaway for a Japanese man.
Politicians fanned the flames as well. Idaho governor Chase Clark said: “The Japs live like rats, breed like rats, and act like rats.”
Some solutions were proposed. As a congressman from California named AJ Elliot said in a speech: “Don’t kid yourself and don’t let someone tell you there are good Japs. We must remove the Japanese in this country to a concentration camp somewhere, some place, and do it damn quickly.”
Which promptly happened. 120,000 Japanese Americans, most of them legal American citizens, were sent to languish in camps at the direction of the FBI and under the watchful eye of the US National Guard.
But there was one Japanese man America hated above all others. It wasn’t the Emperor Hirohito. Or the Shogun-in-all-but-name Hideki Tojo. Americans didn’t take the time to learn many Japanese names during the war but one in particular was branded into their skulls:
Yamamoto. The commander in chief of the Japanese Navy. The coward, the war criminal who had sneak-attacked Pearl Harbor and murdered all those brave American sailors in Hawaii.
Yamamoto had once told his own government that winning a war with America was so improbable, so impossible, that for the Unites States to surrender they would have to literally march into the White House and dictate terms. Yamamoto had meant it ironically, a way of illustrating just how insane it was.
Well, Japan’s media had twisted that quote into a tool of propaganda. Something to instill greater confidence in the Japanese people. Change a few tenses, swap a few pronouns, replace a few verbs. And this is what went out to the entire world as a direct quote from Isoroku Yamamoto:
“I shall not be content merely to capture Guam and the Philippines and to occupy Hawaii and San Francisco. I am looking forward to dictating peace to the United States at the White House in Washington.”
As you can imagine, American mass media ran with that like a dog with piece of prime rib. In his book Dead Reckoning, Dick Lehr has a fantastic and vivid passage about the media attention placed on Yamamoto, so I’ll just let him take it from here:
Time magazine made Yamamoto its top story in the pre-Christmas issue of 1941. The demonic sketch of Yamamoto on the cover was more fitting for Halloween, however: yellow skinned; dark slits for eyes; misshapen head; lips pursed and turned downward, as if readying to spit; cannon looming over each shoulder, aimed directly at readers. Every man, woman, and child could study the repulsive-looking face of the foreign fiend who’d promised to take the White House and imagine a bull’s-eye in the center of the caricature. Yamamoto was, as the caption read, “Japan’s Aggressor,” the evil mastermind of Pearl Harbor, “a hard-bitten professional with a sixth-sense—hatred.”
In a Harper’s Magazine article written by a man named Willard Price, who had actually met Yamamoto in 1915 and knew better, the admiral was described as:
“a hard chunk of man, hair cropped as short as the bristles on a beaver-tail cactus, lips thick, jowl heavy.”
Yamamoto’s cartoonish portrayal was even used to sell war bonds. As one ad said:
“There’s only one effective way to fight this type of Skunk. Take a good firm grip on your nose, haul out your checkbook, and lay your money on the line: BUY WAR BONDS.”
One historian summarized the effect of all this propaganda:
“For no other enemy, not even Hitler, did Americans hold such a bitter hatred. Yamamoto was the man who had planned the treacherous blow at Pearl Harbor. And as if this were not enough, he had added insult to injury by boasting that he planned to dictate peace in the White House. To all Americans he was a peculiarly personal foe.”
Americans could imagine Yamamoto hatching dark plans from his flagship, the gargantuan battleship Yamato, with its steel superstructures and radar towers rising high into the air like the parapets of a villain’s castle.
Well, the real Yamamoto was indeed aboard the battleship Yamato, his floating headquarters. But he wasn’t yellow-skinned or black-eyed; He wasn’t evil incarnate. He was a tired, overworked 57-year old man. With grey, close-cropped hair and a short stack of letters from a geisha back in Tokyo that he thought about every day. A wife and children who he supported but could not bring himself to truly love. A fantasy of retiring to Monaco and becoming a professional gambler. And a war plan to execute that had an almost 100% chance of failure.
In truth, Yamamoto hated the way he was represented in the press by his own government. As he wrote his older sister:
“The war has begun at last, but in spite of all the clamor that is going on we could lose it. I can only do my best. All they need do really is quietly let people know the truth. There’s no need to bang the big drum. All this talk of guiding public opinion and maintaining the national morale is so much empty puff. Official reports should stick to the absolute truth—once you start lying, the war’s as good as lost. “
As Yamamoto brooded aboard his floating headquarters, and Tom Lanphier, Rex Barber, and the men of the 70th Squadron honed their skills over the glittering waves of Fiji, events were taking shape that would bring them all together.
Back in Pearl Harbor, the site of the attack that had ignited the Pacific conflagration in the first place, Yamamoto’s death warrant was being written.
Deep beneath a Navy administration building, in a windowless basement, a team of codebreakers and crypto-analysts were hard at work trying to decipher the Japanese Naval code.
The way the Japanese navy communicated with each other over long distances was by radio transmission, but those transmissions were easily intercepted by the Allies. For example, if I was a Japanese admiral and I sent a message from Manila to, say, Hong Kong that X number of ships was going to arrive at location Y in Z days, the Allies could very easily read that message and adjust their strategy accordingly. So, what the Japanese did, was create a cypher or a code, that was essentially gibberish unless you knew how to read it. And all militaries in WW2 had some version of this kind of code.
Well, in this basement office in Hawaii, (called Station Hypo, “H” standing for Hawaii), the American analysts worked day and night to crack this code. The guys on the island had a nickname for their workplace – they called it “The Dungeon”. And the Dungeon lived up to its name.
It was ice-cold all the time. The walls were completely papered with maps scribbled notes. The rooms were dominated by desks and the sound of clicking, pinging typewriters, and in one area there were these big, loud, bulky IBM computing machines. They’d been calibrated to fill in the blanks of the code the Americans had already worked out, and you would feed a kind of punch card into the machine. The machine would convert the known variable into Japanese characters, which the fluent analysts would then translate.
The Dungeon was full of very talented, very interesting people. As Donald A David writes, this was:
“a line of work that attracted people who were hopelessly addicted to crossword puzzles and couldn’t look into a bowl of alphabet soup without seeing a message. Most cryptanalysts closed their minds against anything but the riddle of the coded message before them, often skipping lunch and forgetting family engagements, and even entire days.”
They were experts in their field, and they resented meddling and oversight from the D.C. bureaucrats, as one analyst said:
“If we listen to Washington, we will all end up as Japanese POWs.”
But the Dungeon was also filled with ghosts. A haunting feeling of failure that lingered in the minds of these codebreakers. They had completely failed to spot the signs of Yamamoto’s attack against Pearl Harbor in time or in enough detail to warn their superiors. There are a lot of reasons for that, that we don’t have time to go into, but many of them must have felt the nagging weight of having failed to prevent one of America’s deadliest days.
As their leader, a man named Joe Rochefort said: “an intelligence officer has one task, one job, one mission. That is to tell his commander, his superior, today, what the Japanese are going to do tomorrow.”
Well this time, they were determined to get it right. And the progress they were making was astonishing. They were processing upwards of five hundred messages every single day; some of the guys started popping pills and amphetamines just to muster the energy to keep up. Some had to be literally dragged away from their desks and told to go home and take a shower.
By March of 1942, Station Hypo had 30% of the code deciphered. By the summer, they had 90%. The Japanese Navy was completely oblivious to the fact that the Americans were literally reading their mail.
The Pacific war raged, and the analysts of the Dungeon worked tirelessly thought it all. But then, in the spring of 1943, a message came across their desks at Station Hypo. It was a travel itinerary for a high-ranking Japanese Navy commander. They knew what time he was taking off, the route he was going, and when he’d arrived at his destination.
As the full message began to take shape, eyes widened and pulses quickened at Station Hypo. It said that in five days, the Commander-in-chief of the Japanese Navy would be aboard a plane east of Papua New Guinea. And they all knew who the Commander in Chief, or C-in-C, was.
This was their chance to take down the man who had planned Pearl Harbor. And they had less than a week to make it happen.
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Well guys, unfortunately, that’s all we have time for today.
Next time, in the conclusion of this two-part series, we will examine how this plan to kill Yamamoto took shape. We’ll spend a lot of time with our new favorite flyboys, Tom and Rex of the 70th Squadron as they tangle with the feared Japanese Zeroes over the jungle hellhole of Guadalcanal. And we’ll see how their friendship unraveled in the decades that followed. The source of the tension being the namesake of this series himself. Yamamoto.
As always, thank you so much for listening and I’ll see you again in a few weeks.
This has been Conflicted. Thanks for listening.
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