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Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto

Converted for the Web from "Battle Of Wits: The Complete Story Of Codebreaking In World War II" by Stephen Budiansky

In the months since his lightning strike against the American fleet on December 7, 1941, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Commander in Chief of Japan's Combined Fleet, had grown accustomed to the adulation of a grateful public; each day brought sacks of adoring letters. After the bombs fell on Tokyo he was rattled to find he had become the target of hate mail. He was wracked, too, with anxiety over the Emperor's personal safety.

Where had the bombers come from? Yamamoto pointed to Midway Island, America's westernmost outpost in the Pacific since the Philippines, Guam, and Wake Island had been overrun in Japan's seaborne blitzkrieg. It was a plausible conclusion, even if Shangri-La was actually closer to the mark. Midway was twenty-five hundred miles from Japan and thirteen hundred miles from Honolulu. Thus, Yamamoto argued, as long as it remained in American hands, bombers could fly from Hawaii to Midway, and from Midway to strike Dai Nippon. Japan's defensive perimeter would have to be pushed back farther still.

Two days later, Yamamoto's fleet air officer, Captain Yoshitake Miwa, noted in his diary that if further raids on the mainland were to be prevented, "there would be no other way but to make a landing on Hawaii. This makes landing on Midway a prerequisite. This is the very reason why the Combined Fleet urges a Midway operation." But, truth be told, Yamamoto had had his eyes on Midway for months. Untouched by the "victory fever" that swept through Japan's high command, Yamamoto insisted that unless America could be forced swiftly to accept a negotiated settlement, Japan was ultimately doomed. The grand admiral was a gambler and something of a playboy; he had been to Harvard to learn English, served in Washington as a naval attaché, and his knowledge of America's industrial power made him view war with the United States as folly. But if war was inevitable, he had consistently argued, Japan's only hope was to risk all on a knockout blow. America's industrial might would take months or even years to fully mobilize: thus Yamamoto's bold stroke on December 7. Unfortunately, that had left the job only half done. America's battleships had been caught at anchor at Pearl Harbor, but her aircraft carriers, at sea on the morning of the Japanese attack, had escaped.

Throughout March and early April a bitter fight roiled Japan's high command. Yamamoto pressed his case with mounting impatience: To draw the American carriers into the decisive battle, Japan must seize an objective that the United States would have to defend. If his plan to attack Midway was not approved, he would resign. The Naval General Staff sputtered. Midway might be of strategic value to an America on the defensive, the staff insisted, but it was worthless to Japan. Midway was a rocky atoll hardly larger than the small airstrip that stretched from one end of the island to the other; it could hold no more aircraft than a single carrier. The naval staff preferred a thrust to the south to cut off Australia, or, even more ambitiously, to seize Ceylon and India and link up with the German forces in the Near East. The Japanese Army, its eyes on China and on the threat Russia would pose if it entered the Pacific war, declared it would have nothing to do with Yamamoto's scheme, either.

But as the dust from Doolittle's bombs settled, the Army staff came forward with a new demand: It now insisted that the Army must be included in Yamamoto's forthcoming assault on Midway.

Copyright © 2000 by Stephen Budiansky. All rights reserved. Converted for the Web with the permission of Simon & Schuster.

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