Apr 18

Reflections on Admiral Yamamoto

Thursday, April 18, 2019 12:01 AM

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Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto

On this date in 1943, U.S. Army Air Forces P-38 Lightning fighters, acting on U.S. Navy signals intelligence, shot down a bomber carrying Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet and architect of the Pearl Harbor attack. Yamamoto’s death was a devastating blow to Japan’s war effort.

Commander Edwin T. Layton, intelligence officer on the staff of Admiral Chester Nimitz, U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander-in-Chief, played a key role in the events that led to Yamamoto’s death. Ironically, Layton had gotten to know the Japanese admiral while serving as assistant naval attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo from 1937 to 1939. At the time, Yamamoto was Vice Minister of the Japanese Navy.

What follows is an excerpt from Rear Admiral Layton’s U.S. Naval Institute oral history in which he recalls Yamamoto and the shoot-down. The oral history interview was conducted in May 1970 by Commander Etta-Belle Kitchen, U.S. Navy (Retired).

I have always viewed Yamamoto as a very human, a very real, and a very sincere man. Many Japanese are hard to “get to.” They are quite reserve sometimes very aloof. One sometimes has the impression that they are like actors in a Nohdrama, wearing false faces or masks to suit their role. With Yamamoto, I got the feeling that on social occasions he did not wear his false face. He was my host one time at a theater party; and another time at a duck hunt, when we also played bridge; and another time at a geisha party. He could be quite relaxed with people and made it a point to go around and talk to each of his guests. He was a very good poker player; against skilled poker players, he almost always won, and he almost invariably won at bridge, too.

He was hard working and devoted to his profession. He had a lot of steel in his eyes. You could see it if something irritated him for his eyes would become hard and cold; usually, they would be softer.

I don’t believe he wanted war with America. It is my firm conviction that he, having lived in the United States and the Western Hemisphere, was one of the peace party. I have heard from pretty good levels that the one reason he was removed from the Navy Ministry and sent out of Tokyo was because of the hostility of the pro-war advocates. He had opposed the Anti-Comintern Pact with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The pro-war faction only got this pact approved after he had been removed from the Navy Ministry, where he had a voice in politics. I think Admiral Yamamoto felt that the only way Japan could be successful was to knock out the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. I don’t think his heart was really in it.

Captain Edwin T. Layton

Now, I feel a certain personal relationship in this because I was the one who took the original intelligence to Admiral Nimitz that resulted in Admiral Yamamoto being shot down in the South Pacific. In this regard, Admiral Nimitz said, “Do you think we ought to?” And I said, “Yes, I think we should.”

Nimitz sent the message to Admiral Halsey saying that Yamamoto will arrive at Buin, at so-and-so a time on so-and-so a date, in two Betty-type bombers, escorted by six Zeros. They sent back a response acknowledging Nimitz’s dispatch and saying they had the capability of intercepting but would hold off on such action, in view of the sensitivity of the information, until assured by you that you want this carried out.

I was pretty sure such a reply would come in, so when it did, I took my draft dispatch to Admiral Nimitz, which went something like: “You are authorized and directed to go ahead with this operation provided all personnel concerned with the operation, particularly the pilots, are briefed that the information comes from Australian coastwatchers near Rabaul, whose information in the past has been most timely and helpful.” Admiral Nimitz read it over carefully and wrote a postscript on the dispatch: “Best of luck and good hunting.”

While Yamamoto had been an official friend of mine, he was now our enemy. War is, in essence, the destruction of your enemy. As the leader and inspiration of the Japanese Navy, he was an important enemy whose destruction could only benefit our side, in my view. He was the outstanding symbol of Japan’s navy and the Pearl Harbor surprise attack and the only man in the Japanese Navy who I thought was very superior. This may have prompted Admiral Nimitz to ask, “Are you sure there are none who can take his place and be better than him?” I said: “Absolutely none. Absolutely none.”

To learn more about U.S. Naval Institute oral histories, visit the program’s webpage at usni.org/heritage/oral-history.