The Shootdown of Admiral Yamamoto: In 1943, as WWII Raged, the United States Found Itself with an Opportunity to Hand Japan a Demoralizing Military Loss, as Well as Avenge the Attack on Pearl Harbor

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Early on the morning of April 14, 1943, a Japanese coded transmission was intercepted by three different American intelligence and communication stations. The cryptologists went to work. The intercepted message told of a flight that Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto would take from Rabaul, the great Japanese base on New Britain Island in the Bismarck Archipelago, to Ballale, a speck of an island with a Japanese airfield off the southern tip of Bougainville in the Solomon chain. The Japanese had recently lost Guadalcanal at the southeastern end of the Solomons, and Yamamoto would be on a mission to boost the morale of Japan's sailors and soldiers throughout the rest of the island chain. He was just the man to do it.

Born in 1884 to the Takano family in Nagaoka on Honshu, he was given the first name "Isoroku," meaning "56," his father's age at the time. Entering the Japanese naval academy in 1901, Isoroku would live a monastic existence: Cadets were prohibited from smoking or drinking, eating sweets, or dating girls, and were to dedicate their lives to Japan and the emperor. Isoroku excelled, graduating seventh in his class in 1904.

Serving aboard the cruiser Nisshin during the Russo-Japanese War. Isoroku fought in the Battle of Tsushima and lost two fingers from an exploding Russian shell. Although standing only 5'3" and of average looks, he was a natural leader and exuded strength and authority. Moreover, he was highly intelligent, determined, and disciplined. For relaxation he loved to gamble and often joked that he'd like to move to Monaco and open his own casino. He visited geishas frequently, even after he took a wife.

When both his parents died in 1913, Isoroku was adopted by the wealthy Yamamoto family, which otherwise lacked a male heir. In 1918, he married a woman 11 years his junior but was with her for only a short while before being sent to America for a year of study at Harvard University. In 1919, he left Harvard to become Japan's assistant naval attache in Washington, D.C. After two years in America's capital, he toured Europe.


By 1924, and now a captain, he was second in command at Japan's first naval air training base. He was tasked with inculcating discipline in pilots, who thought themselves beyond the strict regimentation required of others. He himself learned to fly. In 1926, he returned to the Japanese embassy in Washington as the naval attache. He spent the next two years studying the U.S. Navy. He arrived home in Japan in 1928 and was given command of the carrier Akagi. By this time he was the Imperial Japanese Navy's leading advocate of air power. He was promoted to rear admiral in 1930 and given command of Carrier Division One in 1933.


In 1934, he was sent to a naval conference of world powers in London. He was a vehement opponent of limitations on the building of warships and had been arguing against the restrictions since they were established in the Washington naval disarmament conference in 1921. He and other Japanese felt insulted by the agreement, which restricted Japan to three ships for every five that Britain or the United States built. The 5:5:3 ratio seemed to leave Japan at a disadvantage, but the United States had two oceans to defend and Britain three, meaning that Japan would be allowed to become the strongest naval power in the western Pacific. Moreover, throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the United States built ships at well below her limitations.

When Yamamoto, now a vice admiral, arrived in Seattle en route to London, reporters tried in vain to interview him. He and his aides boarded a train and traveled in their own secured compartment to New York. Upon his arrival, reporters again tried to interview him, but his aides said. "So sorry, but the admiral does not speak English." In reality, after one year at Harvard, two years in Washington as assistant naval attache, and two more years as naval attache, he was fluent in English. …