76 years ago today, on April 18, 1943, the US Army Air Force hunted down and killed Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto.   The Americans believed that killing the Admiral, responsible for planning and executing the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor that thrust America into the Second World War, would be more than a moral boost.  Through the rationale of war, his individual death would avenge thousands of lives at times when millions were dying.    

Codebreakers had intercepted a message reporting that the Admiral would be touring airbases in the Solomon Islands.  As he approached Buin, his bomber and fighter escort was jumped by 16 Americans P-38’s.  The bomber was shot down and crashed into the jungle where the Admiral was ejected from the plane while still buckled into his seat.  When the Japanese rescue team reached the crash site, they found him sitting upright with his head resting upon his shoulder as though asleep.  His white-gloved left hand, missing two fingers, was resting upon the pommel of his katana. The crash had not killed him but rather he’d been shot through the left eye by the American pilot Cpt. Lanphier.  Pearl Harbor had been avenged. 

For me, the best part of the story are the two missing fingers on Yamamoto’s left hand.  Had they been severed in the crash?  No.  Oddly, the answer explained the entire reasoning for Pearl Harbor.   

Let’s go back to 1904. 

Anticipating war against the Russians, the Japanese launched a sneak attack against Port Arthur, Manchuria, in 1904 following the ancient adage, “Hit first and hit hard.”  Also translated as, “If you’re gonna get in a fight, ‘tis better to sucker-punch your opponent right in the face when they’re not looking.” 

Thus began the Russo-Japanese War.  As a response, the Russians ordered their entire navy to set sail (maybe set steam since the ships were coal-powered dreadnoughts?) for the Orient.  Unfortunately, on their way through the Mediterranean, the Russians accidentally sunk several British fishing boats.  The Brits closed the Suez Canal and forced the Russians to sail the loooong way around Africa.

When the Russian Navy finally arrived 9 months later, the Imperial Japanese Navy was waiting in what became known as the Battle of Tsushima, otherwise known as “Tsushima, where the Russians got their Tushie spanked.” 

The battle began with the famous line uttered by Commander-in-Chief Tōgō, “Weather fine today but high waves,” basically the Japanese version of “The shot heard around the world,” or more accurately, “Surprise, muthafucka!” Russia lost 11 battleships, 4 cruisers and 8 destroyers, decisively ending the Russo-Japanese War.  At the conclusion of the naval engagement, “XGE, an international signal of surrender, was hoisted; however, the Japanese navy continued to fire as they did not have ‘surrender’ in their code books and had to hastily find one that did.”  Of the 622 sailors aboard the Russian battleship Navarin, only 3 survived!  In contrast to the devastating loss of Russian lives and ships, only three Japanese torpedo boats were sunk.  Yamamoto, serving aboard another "N" named ship—the cruiser Nisshin—lost two of the fingers on his left land in an explosion.   

The success of this lopsided naval victory taught the Japanese the importance of targeting battleships as a way to cripple a nation’s navy, a belief that directly lead to the air attack on Battleship Row in Pearl Harbor.  Yamamoto, while planning the attack and scratching the space where his fingers used to be, did not realize that battleships were no longer the epicenter of a naval task forces since aircraft carriers had gained supremacy over the last 40 years since Tsushima.  During WWII, battleships served up the initial jabs of shore bombardment for landing troops and anti-aircraft screens for approaching enemy aircraft whereas the flattops provided the finishing blow.

Years after the Battle of Tsushima, Yamamoto studied at Harvard in the 1920’s and served in Washington DC as a naval attaché, gaining the respect of many in the US Navy.  He traveled extensively while in America and was vocal in his opposition to war against both China and the States.  His anti-war sentiment lead to a constant stream of death threats from Japanese pro-war nationalists but Yamamoto was unmoved.  He was known to have replied,

“As Confucius said,"They may crush cinnabar, yet they do not take away its color; one may burn a fragrant herb, yet it will not destroy the scent." They may destroy my body, yet they will not take away my will.”

Having witnessed first-hand the industrial might of the United States, Yamamoto hoped his preemptive strike at Pearl Harbor would force the US into a neutral position and stay out of the war.  He felt victory in a protracted war against the US was impossible.  He is reported to have said,

“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.”

The last sentence was omitted by the Japanese war office and Americans interpreted his words as an indication that the Japanese would conquer the entire United States.  So, when the Cpt. Lanphier shot down Yamamoto’s bomber, he broke radio silence and announced, “That son of a bitch will not be dictating any peace terms in the White House.”

When an enemy is vanquished, perhaps we should not celebrate.  Perhaps we should be grateful for having fought a worthy opponent.  The Greatest Generation is great because they fought and defeated a great enemy.  For when your enemies disappear, you have to create new ones. 

As we do now.