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The Reluctant Admiral: Yamamoto and the Imperial Japanese Navy Paperback – 1 Oct 2000

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"Brilliant." -- The New Yorker

"Candid! fascinating! amusing! and thorough." -- Capt. Roger Pineau

"One of the most comprehensive and enlightening biographies available of a wartime leader." -- New York Times

"The most penetrating study of Yamamoto that has ever appeared." -- David Kahn, author of The Codebreakers

"Yamamoto was, in my view, the greatest admiral since Lord Nelson." -- William Manchester, author of American Caesar

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

On board the flagship Nagato in the anchorage at Hashirajima, the evening of December 7 found Yamamoto, as usual, playing shogi with staff officer Watanabe. These games between Yamamoto and Watanabe usually came to an end after Yamamoto had won four times in succession, but very occasionally Watanabe instead would win several games in a row. This invariably happened when a low-pressure front was approaching; possibly Yamamoto was the type that is allergic to changes in the weather. That particular evening, however, it was fine, and Yamamoto won. They finished playing rather earlier than usual, then Yamamoto and his staff officers bathed and retired temporarily to their own cabins.

Some of them slept for two or three hours, others could not sleep at all, but not long after midnight most of the staff officers were once again assembled in small groups in the operations room. The officer on duty was air "B" staff officer Sasaki Akira.

The four walls of the operations room were plastered with large maps of the entire Pacific area and charts of various zones of Southeast Asian waters. On the table were a large globe and still more charts, and on a smaller table files of operational orders and radio messages.

Yamamoto was sitting quite still, eyes shut, in a folding chair in front of the big table at the back.

News came in of the army's landing at Kota Bharu, then of the successful landing at Bataan in the Philippines. There followed a long and trying period of waiting. Time seemed to drag interminably. An uneasy silence prevailed in the operations room. No one spoke; the only sounds were the rustle of messages being flipped over in their files and the occasional scratching of a pencil.

Across the passage lay the radio room, from which a cord led to a receiver standing on the table in the operations room, so that those present could hear directly any messages that came in. Eventually, senior staff officer Kuroshima said in a quiet voice, "It should begin any moment now."

He glanced up at the clock on the bulkhead, and a stir ran through the room. At that moment, the radio operator came running in and shouted at the staff officer on duty: "Sir--the repeated to signal."

Sasaki turned to the commander in chief. "As you hear, sir," he reported. "The message was sent at 0319 hours."

Yamamoto opened his eyes wide and nodded. His mouth turned down grimly at the corners. "Did you get that message direct from the plane?" he asked the operator. The Nagato's radio room had, in fact, received the "to, to, to, to..." direct from the skies over Oahu.

"Direct reception?" said Ugaki. "Good work!" The young operator looked pleased, saluted, and rushed out of the room again.

There followed a succession of reports from the attacking units:

"Surprise attack successful."

"Enemy warships torpedoed; outstanding results."

"Hickam Field attacked; outstanding results."

At the same time, the radio in the operations room was picking up directly a great number of uncoded radio messages from the American side. From what Ugaki says in his Sensoroku, the messages tended to be broken and jerky: "SOS--attacked by Jap bombers here...." or "Oahu attacked by Jap dive-bombers from carrier...." When Yamamoto heard one of them--"Jap!--this is the real thing"--a brief grin seemed to pass over his face.

Exactly one hour after the first assault, the second attack force led by Lieutenant Commander Shimazaki Shigekazu, 170 planes in all, swept into the skies over Pearl Harbor and also achieved considerable results before withdrawing. By the time dawn broke over Hiroshima Bay, the number of messages being received in the operations room of the Nagato was dwindling steadily.

From any point of view, the raid had been an outstanding success, and the staff officers could not conceal their jubilation; Yamamoto alone, apparently, remained sunk in apparent depression.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 10 reviews
35 of 37 people found the following review helpful
Subarashii 12 Jun. 2001
By Karin Paris - Published on
This was a wonderful book which went into alot of detail about the life of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. He was a much more complex person than most people think. He was no ranting imperialistic flunky. In fact, he held most of those types in contempt. So much so, that he had to maintain constant vigilance because of death threats. However, he did his duty, as he was ordered to do, even though he knew the futility of it. He was also totally against the building of the Yamato and Musashi battleships. Utter "folly" he called them and a waste of time and money. He truly believed that the future of war would be aviation. He was proved right. Its really too bad that he was killed, he would have been of great benefit to the restructuring of the new Japanese government. Anyone interested in a more "personal" look of one of the greatest Admirals in the world, will love this book, like I did.
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
Excellent study of a complex character 28 Dec. 2002
By Harry Pandolfino - Published on
This is an excellent study of a complex and contradictory man. Understandably vilified in the heat of war, a more interesting image has appeared over time. One cannot help but admire the daring and gambler quality of a man ordered to start a war he did not agree with and risked his life to prevent. Yamamoto certainly deserves to be remembered as a grand naval commander. It's unlikely any more authoritatve work will ever emerge as the author when directly to people who knew Yamamoto in life
24 of 31 people found the following review helpful
Yamamoto, the Admiral, the womanizer. 31 July 2001
By C. H Mitchum - Published on
Verified Purchase
Admiral Yamamoto did not want to go to war with the United States; a naval war he felt could be sustained for at most 18 months. But go to war he did and it cost him his life. This is an easy to read history of Yamamoto's life, rich in personal details. He turns out to have been an avid womanizer, with one and perhaps two mistresses throughout most of his career. A man who lost interest in his marriage fairly early and was merely a financial contributor for most of his married life. Most of the personal correspondence quoted and many of his poems were written to his number one mistress, with nothing of substance regarding his wife and children.
Yamamoto seems to have come up with the strategy for the attack on Pearl Harbor, but the detailed tactical planning was the work of his staff. Somehow the debacle of Midway, which occurred under his command and which was planned by his staff, did not result in his immediate replacement. This apparently was due to the Imperial Japanese Forces being in full denial mode and not wanting to high light the disaster by removing the hero of Pearl Harbor.
Yamamoto seems to have been something of a figurehead for most of his career after Pearl harbor and until his death. This could be misleading since the author focuses so much of his attention on Yamamoto's personal life and not so much on his naval leadership.
It is particularly interesting to learn that with the many signs pointing to the fact that the Japanese codes had been broken, they denied this possibility and continued to send the "coded" messages which resulted in Yamamoto's plane being shot down by United States P-38s. There is an excellent book on that subject, "Get Yamamoto" but it seems to be out of print ...
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
A personal view into the life of the greatest admiral during WWII 12 Jun. 2013
By Terry Godchaux - Published on
There already have been several narratives provided by other reviewers, and I do not wish to parrot the same information back. What I do wish to add in this bioptic are the views and personality that shaped this incredible leader, along with his human failings that brought him down.

I have been studying this man for over 40 years through numerous authors. This book most exactly shows his character, honor, integrity and values concerning his personal beliefs and professional conduct by way of the decisions he had made. During WWII, he was the only professional military person serving, who had seen action in WWI while in the Navy. His mastery in strategic planning and tactical control regarding offensive and defensive deployments and actions taken were unparalleled.

Throughout his military career, he had battled the politics of his government, wrestled with fellow generals and admirals, and yet remained reluctantly honorable to Emperor Hirohito.

During the mid 1920's, the largest Navy's of the world at that time were America, Britain, Japan and Russia. They were revisiting a treaty that created a moratorium on the number of and sizes to their capital battleships belonging to each navy, called the 553 plan. The purpose was to prevent any navy from building fleet strength so large that it could overpower the rival naval forces of its day. For Japan, one of the greatest rifts they had between themselves and other nation governments was centered around the issue of the 553 plan. Japan found itself greatly divided between the "Fleet Faction and the Treaty Faction. Those representing the Fleet faction wanted to abrogate the treaty and build as many capital ships as possible, with displacements that would rival the world. Those representing the Treaty Faction wanted to maintain the treaty and hopefully maintain peaceful relations with the powers that signed the treaty after WWI had ended.

All of the Japanese Army and 2/3 of their Navy counterpart wanted to abrogate this treaty, which would obviously plant the seeds of war. A very small minority of the Imperial Navy wanted to maintain the treaty, and Admiral Yamamoto was one of the highest ranking members who wanted to continue peace at any cost, leading the Treaty Faction.

Another major issue was that of battleships over aircraft carriers. Once again, Admiral Yamamoto belonged to a very small group of naval officers that believed in the power of aircraft carriers, while everyone else in both the Imperial Army and Navy believed in the battleship. These and numerous other points fractured loyalties and credibility between leadership, making Admiral Yamamoto very unpopular.

At the same time, the Imperial Army held the greatest political control over Japan, and Emperor Hirohito would most often timidly side with the Imperial Army's View. Also, within the army was a large group of junior officers that attempted to overthrow their generals by coup, having the intention of entering into war immediately and wresting control of the entire nation. This group of officers continued to push their beliefs upon their leaders and were very successful via intimidation. Admiral Yamamoto faced a very real conundrum with a weak Emperor, an Imperial Army that was just on the edge of a coup, and the larger part of his own Imperial Navy that wanted him killed due to his politics and beliefs as stated above.

Even when carrying out the attack against Hawaii, Yamamoto was against this action from the beginning and only fully thrusted his great talents into the attack in resigned obedience to his emperor. Many of his subordinate commanders who were leading the battle group towards Hawaii were outright opponents to everything Yamamoto believed in, and some preferred him dead. Until mid 1943, every plan he made and every belief he held was to be proven accurate to the letter. While gambling was considered unworthy for Japanese officers, Yamamoto was an incredible gambler who seemed to have a unnatural intuitive sense and would almost always win. When this 'sense' applied itself to battle planning and tactical control of his fleet, his mastery was ingenious. This also lead to his fellow admirals and generals losing face, becoming jealous, and inflamed the desire to have Yamamoto assassinated. The army was very adeptly successful at political assassinations of their military opponents for many years, so this was a very real threat.

In mid 1943, Yamamoto wanted to tour the battlefront in order to cheer up his fleet, and many errors were made that lead to his death, being shot down and killed by a U.S. P-38 aircraft. It appears Yamamoto was aware of the danger, but felt that honor to his troops were more important than the possibility of death. By this time, he was exceedingly exhausted and would not have minded an honorable death if destiny brought it about.

This book was more than a compilation of historical facts, locations and people. It dealt with what Admiral Yamamoto was thinking, why he made the decisions he had, and the circumstances that convoluted the outcome of those choices. While the attack that Japan made upon Hawaii was demonstrative, vile and evil in every way imaginable, Yamamoto appears to have done everything possible to avoid this plot without assuring his death via assassination or falling out of honor with the Emperor himself. Losing Yamamoto at such a time would be like losing ones brakes in a vehicle going downhill at high speed. Within his limitations, he was able to prevent or buffer the outcomes of many catastrophes. His actions both personal and professional were guided with honor and integrity, as much as Field Martial Erwin Rommel was seen after the war. When we view such men, we must look at the man, and realize their professional conduct is not always based on a particular outcome. In most cases, such things are thrust upon them while politically hogtied and gagged.

Of all the authors I have read regarding Admiral Yamamoto, I have enjoyed this one the most. I highly recommend this book.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Personal portrait of Combined Fleet's top admiral 13 Feb. 2011
By William S. Grass - Published on
Verified Purchase
This is a biography of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Commander in Chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet from 1939-1943. It is written by Hiroyuki Agawa, an author of biographies and historical fiction centered upon the Japanese experience in WW2. Agawa's biography of Yamamoto was originally published in Japan in 1969, and entitled "Yamamoto Isoroku." It is the English translation and abridgement of this earlier work that was first published in 1979, under the title, "The Reluctant Admiral."

My attention was first drawn to The Reluctant Admiral by numerous bibliographical references in recent works, such as those by Spector, Lundstrom, Parshall and Tully, and Willmott. When multiple respected authors all cite a source this way, I take that as a tacit recommendation and place the item on my reading list. The Reluctant Admiral may not be the only biography available on Yamamoto, but it is certainly the one most commonly referenced by other authors.

In the front matter, there is a chronology of Yamamoto's life listing all major events and the year they occurred. There is no table of contents, as the chapters have no titles, only numbers. There are no footnotes, nor even a bibliography. Agawa often, but not always, states the source of a passage in the text itself. To most English readers this is probably sufficient, given that almost all Agawa's sources would be Japanese language. There are no maps.

There is scant coverage of Yamamoto's early life, but extensive coverage, of course, of his naval career. Highlights touched upon include: the Battle of Tsushima (where Yamamoto was wounded), his two stints in the United States, participation in the treaty talks in London, and time as second in command of the Kasumigaura Aviation Corps, where he learned to appreciate the growing importance of aviation and the corresponding diminution of the importance of battleships. In his last assignment before being made Commander in Chief of the Combined Fleet, he served as Navy Vice-minister, where his life was in danger from ultra-nationalist radicals. Once promoted to C. in C., the slide toward war with the U.S. was precipitous, and Agawa demonstrates that although Yamamoto fully understood the peril and likely result of such a war, the admiral nevertheless resolved to give Japan their best chance in a near impossible situation.

Agawa offers no incisive look at Yamamoto's admiralship or strategic acumen. The resulting biography is mostly a human portrait, with emphasis on relationships and personality. The important historical events chronicled in the book seem simply to be the context for showcasing Yamamoto the man. This is a sharp contrast to many military biographies, where analysis of operations and strategy are emphasized, to the detriment of gaining a good understanding of the man himself.
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