The sixth son of a school principal,Isoruku Yamamoto was born in Nagoaka, Honshu, Japan. He graduated from the Imperial Naval Academy in 1904 and entered the navy in time for the Russo-Japanese War. He was wounded in the critical Battle of Tsushima Straits (1905).
Yamamoto spent four years in the United States (1919-1921; 1925-1927) as a naval attache. He recognized the awesome potential of American industry, but he believed that in a conflict the moral superiority of the Japanese would prevail. Yamamoto command¬ ed the carrier Akagi (1928—1929) and was given command of Carrier Division One in 1933. He served as navy minister (1936-1938) and became chief of the Combined Fleet in 1939.
As war with the United States became more likely, Yamamoto pressed his fellow members of the Japanese high command to consider a preemptive strike. Believing that one swift blow would disable the American fleet and devastate American morale, he developed the plans for the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
Yamamoto’s policy seemed vindicated at first. The attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941) was followed by the capture of the Philippines and the Japanese conquest of much of southeast Asia. Nervous, however, over the possibility of American bombard¬ ment of the Japanese mainland, Yamamoto decided on a second great attack that would eliminate the U.S. Navy from the Pacific Ocean.
Yamamoto left Japanese waters with the bulk of the navy in May 1942. Unaware that the Americans had just succeeded in breaking the Japanese communications code,Yamamoto steamed toward Midway Island to disperse the American ships there. Instead, he was met and attacked by two groups of American carriers sent to intercept him. The Battle of Midway (June 1942) could have gone either way, but at a crucial moment, American fighters caught hundreds of Japanese planes refueling on the decks of their carriers. Four Japanese carriers were lost that day, ending Japan’s domination of the seas.
Although he knew his cause was now hopeless, Yamamoto continued the fight. He made a mistake in allowing Japan to be dragged into the fight for the island of Guadalcanal; precious Japanese resources were soon consumed by the battle. Yamamoto flew to the area to inspect the fight for the Solomon Islands, but he died when his plane was shot down by American fighters over the Shortland Islands. Brilliant and devoted to his nation’s cause, Yamamoto had nevertheless made strategic errors that brought Japan to the brink of disaster by the time of his death.