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Pacific Odyssey: Volcanic Rabaul and Admiral Yamamotto’s Bunker

This article is Part VIII of a series that describes a journey from the Philippines to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. For Part I, please click here.

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Once at the center of Rabaul, this intersection—like the rest of New Britain’s capital—was covered with ash from a 1994 volcanic eruption, after which the city moved across the bay and the jungle reclaimed the downtown. Photo by Matthew Stevenson.

From Hoskins, the flight to Rabaul took about an hour, and because the winds on our approach were from the south, we landed on a pattern that gave me a perfect view of Simpson Harbor and Blanche Bay, which were at the heart of so much fighting in the Pacific War. Had I signed up for a battlefield tour, the approach could not have been better.

No port in the Pacific is more synonymous with Japanese expansion than Rabaul, which fell in January 1942 to a blitzkrieg Japanese offensive. The Japanese came by land and sea, and while Australia’s Lark Force fought bravely in isolated encounters along the shore, there was never any doubt about the outcome after the Japanese attacked with planes, ships, and infantry.

Once it was an outpost of the Greater East Asia Economic Co-Prosperity Sphere, Rabaul was turned into the Gibraltar of the Pacific—for both land and navel forces—and had Japan prevailed at Midway, it would have been a staging area (along with Port Moresby) for the invasion of Australia.

* * *

In making my plans for Rabaul, I had known that the city was recovering from a volcanic eruption that buried the downtown in 1994, but I wasn’t quite prepared to find it a ghost town.

Even the airport has moved across the bay to Kokopo, which, I am assuming, was more a small town when the ash covered Rabaul. Since then, the capital of East New Britain has relocated fifteen miles across the harbor, leaving Rabaul in the shadows.

The Kokopo airport had buses and taxis waiting out front, but when one of the drivers demanded $60 for a ride to the Rabaul Hotel, I pushed my way into a crowded mini-van, where the fare was a more reasonable $0.70 for the trip into Kokopo.

From there, I changed to a 1A bus (okay, broken down mini-van), which quickly filled up with riders (many were school kids in uniforms). For about an hour we bounced along what should be called Ash Boulevard, through plowed drifts of volcanic ash on either side of the road.

Here and there, I noticed signs advertising visits to Japanese caves in the surrounding hills, which give Rabaul its dramatic setting, as if volcanos were dominating San Francisco bay.

From the central market in Rabaul, I switched to a 7A bus and was dropped at the front door of the hotel. What’s nice about public buses in Rabaul is that they double as freelance Ubers. On my later walks around the town (in the guise of either a mad dog or an Englishman), I became friendly with many of the drivers, who always stopped and asked me if I wanted a lift somewhere.

* * *

On the internet in Alotau, I had reserved several nights at the Rabaul Hotel, and the desk clerk put me in a budget room in the old wing, although it had air conditioning (a must on New Britain) and a working television, allowing me to catch up with the news for the first time in two weeks.

Because it was dark by the time I checked in, I decided not to go for a walk but to settle into a hotel lounge with a cold beer.

On the walls were many snapshots that showed the damage from the 1994 volcano, which might well have been a New England blizzard, except that the drifts were dark grey.

I browsed on my computer and read on my Kindle until one of the clerks on duty said that the dining room was open, and there I found a full-on Chinese restaurant, complete with fried rice and Tsingtaobeer (although I stayed with the local brew, SP Lager).

After dinner I decided to float in the swimming pool, hoping that it might be cleansing for the small scrape on my lower leg that was beginning to fester in the tropical heat and humidity. (In retrospect, the stagnant warm water might well have been a warm bath of microbes.)

To me the Rabaul Hotel (one of the few buildings left in downtown Rabaul) was perfect. It served breakfast and dinner, had wifi that, even if it wasn’t blazing fast, worked well enough, and in the room I could wash out my clothes and watch TV news. (The set looked like something night watchmen might set up a lobby.)

The only station was Al Jazeera, and the only story was the murder of the Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, but the embassy rubout (and the Trump administration’s succor to the killers) helped to fill in the long evenings.

All the hotel clerks were pleasant, and whenever I went out “on the town” (it’s a figure of speech), they were happy to watch my briefcase. One of the clerks gave me a map with the town’s historical monuments highlighted with stars. I had hoped she might also be able to drum up a guide to take me around, but after some phone calls there was no one (remember, it’s a ghost town) so I walked, at least when it wasn’t raining. And in two days I saw everything on my checklist.

Before the 1994 eruption, Rabaul was the provincial capital, but now nearly every building in the historic downtown literally is gone. If before there was a wood frame office building or house, now there is a vacant lot, covered with ash or what the jungle has managed to reclaim. Only here and there is there a business or family living in the rubble. 

Walking around reminded me of a short story that I read in grade school, Stephen Vincent Benet’s “By the Waters of Babylon,” in which atomic weapons have destroyed a major city (I presume it was New York) and the narrator walks around the ruins (he calls them “the place of the Gods”) much as I was walking around Rabaul. Here’s a fuller quote from the haunting story:

When gods war with gods, they use weapons we do not know. It was fire falling out of the sky and a mist that poisoned. It was the time of the Great Burning and the Destruction…. Then the towers began to fall. A few escaped—yes, a few. The legends tell it. But, even after the city had become a Dead Place, for many years the poison was still in the ground…. It was darkness over the city and I wept.

* * *

On my way to the hotel on the 7A bus, I had passed an office sign for Chebu Shipping, the owners of the M.V. Chebu, the inter-island ferry.

So my first order of business was to call in at the offices and finally get in hand a copy of the Chebu’s schedule that had so eluded me. It was too late to help me on this trip, but the next time I would be ready.

The company offices were (fittingly) in an old shipping container, around which there was a tall metal fence, as you might find in a prison yard. Upon my arrival, the security guard (the only growth business in PNG) unwrapped the chain on the front gate and nodded for me to enter the small courtyard.  

When I asked him where the office was, he pointed to a slot in the wall, about the size of one on an old American mail box. I pushed it open and lowered my head to the opening, as if requesting entry into a speakeasy. But there I found the eyes of a shipping clerk, who answered my many questions about the Chebu.  

She said that the Chebu left Rabaul every Sunday at 15:00 and headed for Buka, on Bougainville, where it arrived on Monday morning. When I asked about the timing from Lae, she said it left there on Fridays and arrived a day later at Kimbe. She said it did not stop at Cape Gloucester, and explained that the VIP fare (for a berth in a compartment) was US $250 for the trip from Lae to Buka. She said that the company had neither printed schedules nor a website, but pointed to a flyer on a wall and said that I could take a picture of the schedule and the fare chart, which came with a footnote that read: “Live animals / dead body are not allowed to ship on board.”

I felt slightly better to find out that even if I had made my Friday banana boat from Goodenough Island to Alotau, I would not have been able to connect with the Chebu in Lae, as if left on Fridays (and not Sunday, as Lonely Planet was reporting).

And I wasn’t surprised to hear that the ferry skipped Cape Gloucester, as in the meantime I had heard that volcanic ash (clearly an occupational hazard on New Britain) had covered the runways at the airfield, those which my father and others in the First Marine Division had liberated from the Japanese (while occasionally asking themselves and each other, “Will you be cool after Rabaul?”—although the town’s name rhymes with “all” not “ool.”)

* * *

From the offices of Chebu Shipping, I headed to the waterfront, in the direction of what the politically incorrect map identified as “Jap Wreck Wharf,” where I found the skeleton of a rusting coastal freighter that, presumably, hauled fuel and goods around the Co-Prosperity Sphere.

It was tied up at a dock in what was otherwise a container port and one of the few functioning businesses in Rabaul. As around the hotel, the streets were buried in ash, which felt liked dirty snow underfoot.

I explored along the harbor road, but decided against taking a side street to the Lark Force Memorial, as what had once been the town’s main esplanade had the look of a sinister jungle alley.

Instead I followed a route that I knew and walked to the Rabaul Museum and Yamamoto Bunker, which were south of my hotel. When I got there, I found a small sign indicating that the keys to the museum and bunker were back at the hotel.

Rather than backtrack, I continued up a steep hillside to Namanula Hill and what was identified on my map as the Japanese Peace Memorial. (My friend, the foreign correspondent Murray Sayle, who lived for many years outside Tokyo, used to say that all Japanese war memorials are called peace parks, and he was right.)

From clearings on the road, I could see the peace memorial on the hillside, but I kept having to stop passing cars and trucks to be sure that I was walking on the right path.

As with everywhere else in Rabaul, the streets were covered with ash, and on either side—in what had once been a pleasant residential neighborhood—I could see nothing but the sides of thick jungle. But clearly, because of the traffic following me, I was on a main access road to somewhere.

By now the hot sun was up in the sky, and I sweated on the walk, thankful that I had packed several water bottles in my bag. On the last hill to the monument, an old truck stopped and the driver waved me into the front seat, knowing where I was going. I accepted, and he dropped me opposite a sign for Gogo Cola which read in English “Japanese War Memorial.” I guess they didn’t get Murray’s memo.

* * *

The monument was a somber affair, with a plaque in English that read: “In memory of all those who sacrificed their lives in the islands and seas of the South Pacific during World War II and in dedication to world peace.”

Mostly the memorial is an altar and shrine, set up in such a way as to accommodate ceremonies of remembrance while overlooking Simpson Harbor and Rabaul, where so many Japanese warships departed to battles in Ironbottom Sound, off Guadalcanal.

Above the altar is a map, cut from stone, of the South Pacific. It could have been lifted from some of the promotional literature for the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, which in the textbooks of my childhood always came with a red line around the perimeter.

According to a page from a guide book that I had xeroxed and was carrying with me, the war memorial was located near the location of the Japanese headquarters, from which during allied bombing raids (and there were many) it was possible to hide out in nearby caves.

I drank the last of my water while standing near the altar and headed down the hill on foot, in the direction of what my map called the RSL Cenotaph. (RSL stands for Returned Service League, and it defends the interests of Australian veterans.) I became aware of the cenotaph at the otherwise-locked Rabaul Museum, where I found a typewritten letter taped to the front door, indicating that on the 75th anniversary (in 2017) of the sinking of the Montevideo Maru (a ship carrying more than 1045 Australian prisoners of war from Rabaul to Japan), there would be a memorial service in Rabaul.

Normally the remembrance ceremonies were held at the RSL Cenotaph, but on this occasion, theme advised, they would take place on the waterfront, at the memorials for the Montevideo Maru and the doomed Lark Force.

Of those killed when the ship was sunk (by an American submarine), some 845 were members of Lark Force, taken prisoner when Rabaul fell.

It took me several tries to find the cenotaph, which is in a jungle cul-de-sac. I assume that before the 1994 volcano this location had been a main square of Rabaul. The only engraving on the marker is the familiar phrase, “Lest We Forget,” and on the side there’s a cross that looks very much like a medieval sword (one that could have been wielded by those Onward Christian Soldiers).

All around the cenotaph is jungle, but on one corner of the square I spotted the hulking remains of what might have been an office building and on it someone had painted a poem written by Gordon Thomas, a prisoner of war in Rabaul and the editor of the Rabaul Times newspaper, who wrote on 7 June 1945 an “Ode to Rabaul,” which reads:

Twine gently, Vines about this vanish’d town!
Bloom on, O Flow’
rs; in riotous array;
Liegently, Leaves, as you come tumbling down!
Who knows?… Rabaul may live again some day.

My plan for lunch was to knock on the door of the Rabaul Yacht Club, which was marked with a star on my map, and see if I might qualify for temporary membership, at least long enough to eat a club sandwich and have a beer.

I found the club, which is near the cenotaph, but it, like so much in Rabaul, was locked up behind a chain-link fence. I asked a woman passing by when it was open, and she said maybe on the weekend. Anyway, not in time for lunch.

* * *

Up the road from the yacht club I found an open field and the memorial for the victims of the sinking of the Montevideo Maru. The memorial is a large rock on which are mounted several bronze plaques, including one which reads:

The Japanese ship, ‘Montevideo Maru’, sailed from this harbor in June 1942 carrying 845 allied prisoners of war and 208 civilian internees who had been captured by Japanese forces on New Britain and New Ireland during World War II. The ship was torpedoed off the Philippine Islands on 1 July 1942, and sank with the loss of all lives.

What the plaque did not say is that, to this day, controversy remains over the fate of Lark Force, which had defended Rabaul in January 1942 and then vanished in the sinking of the Montevideo Maru.

According to some theories, many members of the home battalion were massacred before the ship sailed, and, by these accounts, only after the Montevideo went down did the Japanese falsify the ship’s manifest, to make it appear that the prisoners they had massacred in cold blood were killed by an American submarine.  

Another theory holds that some on board the doomed ship survived the torpedoes only to starve to death on a nearby Philippine island, and they point to this entry in the diary of the Japanese emperor’s brother, who wrote in July 1942:

At 1800 Hours on the 7th, the Army in Northern Luzon reported to Navy 3rd Fleet that the ship Montevideo Maru, on passage from Rabaul carrying POWs to Hainan Island, was sunk by the Allies on 1 July at 0000 Hours [midnight]. The Captain, Sergeant Major Kawakami and 100 survivors landed at POUPON and went south to LAOAG.

Another possibility is that the victims on the Montevideo Maru were part of an elaborate negotiation between the Allies and Japan, over the exchange of diplomatic internees and other prisoners of war, including those in Rabaul.

In this version, the Australian government failed to alert the U.S. navy that the Montevideo Maru would be carrying detainees to be exchanged, and thus it had an indirect hand in their demise (which is why, since 1945, the Australian government has kept details secret about the exchange of certain wartime prisoners).

* * *

Whatever was the intended fate of the prisoners on board the Montevideo Maru, the fact remains that it was the Japanese who throughout the war treated prisoners as captive mules.

In my mind the Japanese meant to use the prisoners on board as they did those captured on Bataan or in Singapore, to turn the war engines of Dai Nippon with buckets and their bare hands.

A report of the Naval Historical Society of Australia notes:

As Japan was not a signatory to the Geneva Convention, they did whatever they liked with their captives and marking their ships as carrying POWs was not an option. Had they marked their ships accordingly, not only the ships but the POWs would have, in most cases, arrived at their destinations safely.

The sinking of Montevideo Maru was the greatest loss of Australian lives, in one incident, during the Second World War, and its impact on the social fabric of Rabaul was incalculable, as many from Lark Force were local residents, even if many were Australian by birth.

The rawness of the wounds suffered can be measured in this extract from a debate that took place in the Australian parliament in 2012, when a new memorial was dedicated to the victims of the Montevideo Maru sinking.

Janelle Saffin, a Labor Party representative from the district of Page, delivered remarks, and she said, in part:

On 1 July 1942, approximately 100 kilometres west of Cape Luzon in the Philippines, the United States submarine USS Sturgeon torpedoed the unmarked Japanese freighter at 2.29 a.m., the vessel sinking stern first some 11 minutes later. The submarine’s commander, Lieutenant Commander William Wright, was subsequently found to have been unaware of the human cargo. This was the biggest single loss of life in Australia’s wartime history, with up to 845 soldiers and over 200 civilians, including Clive Green, losing their lives….

In marking the anniversary of the sinking, the dedication service for the unveiling of the Rabaul and Montevideo Marumemorial took place at the Australian War Memorial on 1 July 2012. The dedication was extensively covered and celebrated by the Rabaul and Montevideo MaruSociety’s newsletter No. 40, which provided a great run-down of the day, accompanied by many photos of the event. As we know, the honourable member for Kingsford Smith had a personal interest in the unveiling of the memorial, as his grandfather lost his life in the tragedy.

However, the impact of the sinking on past and current parliamentarians on all sides of Australian politics does not end there. An uncle of our current ambassador to the United States of America and former Labor opposition leader, the Hon. Kim Beazley AC, was a Methodist missionary who perished on board the stricken vessel. The brother of Sir Earle Page, who served as caretaker Prime Minister upon the death in office of Prime Minister Lyons in 1939 and from whom my electorate takes its name, was Harold Page. Harold, as Deputy Administrator in New Guinea, commenced the compulsory evacuation of women and children from Rabaul in late 1941 while it was under threat of invasion by Japanese forces. Harold was captured in Rabaul in June 1942 by Japanese forces, before boarding the Montevideo Maruas a civilian prisoner of war. Harold is of course the great-uncle of the Hon. Don Page, the current state member for Ballina—which is within my federal seat of Page—and Minister for Local Government and Minister for the North Coast in the New South Wales Parliament.

During that debate in parliament, many other representatives drew connections between their constituents and the loss of the Montevideo Maru, much the way, across the United States, many towns established connections to the losses of September 11.

From the memorial, I walked back to the hotel, as the skies were threatening rain. For much of the walk small children trailed beside me to cage small change, which I doled out at many intersections in the ghost town.

The heavens only opened once I was back in the hotel lobby, but for the next two hours, as I hid in the hotel restaurant, it rained as if the clouds were aligned with fire hoses.

Now I could well understand William Manchester’s claim that in one day during the New Britain campaign it rained sixteen inches. I am sure that four or five inches of rain fell just during my lunch, as for two hours the water came down in sheets.

Around 2:00 p.m., when the downpour stopped, I borrowed the keys to the Rabaul Museum and the Yamamoto Bunker from the front desk, and headed back out on the town.

The only good news about the volcanic ash covering the streets of Rabaul is that it is an ideal substance to absorb tropical rain, and while I did have to leap over a few large puddles, I was surprised at how clear Mango Avenue was after the deluge.

* * *

The building housing the Rabaul Museum was once, back in the 1930s, the headquarters of the German Club of Rabaul, which itself would have dated to the pre-World War I years, when this part of New Guinea was known as Kaiser Wilhelm Land and the Bismarck Archipelago, and it was one of the few German colonies ever established. (Bismarck was opposed to overseas acquisitions, but even he consented to a few, mostly in southern Africa and here—hence the name of the archipelago.)

I fiddled with the keys to the front gate and door, and eventually let myself in and turned on the lights in the museum, which was a collection in several rooms of pictures, flags, documents, and war remnants from Rabaul’s past, dating from the German occupation.

Included in the displays is a proclamation, dated August 6, 1914, explaining to the residents of Rabaul that war had broken out between Germany and, on the other side, England, France, and Russia.

The memo was to clarify to the residents that the local police were not members of the armed forces, but only on station for domestic tranquility. As the memo makes clear: “The distinctive mark of membership of the military forces is wearing of a military head-dress with imperial cockade.” Despite such fancy headgear on their enemies, the Australians landed a force at Kabakaul (near the new airport) and took Rabaul from the Germans.

It started raining again when I was inside the museum, so I was in no hurry to skip some of the cabinets, even the one devoted to The Palms Restaurant (as close to a London chop house as you could get in Rabaul) and its new management in 1931 (“Grills a Speciality – Suppers by Arrangement”). Nearby there was a fading photograph of H.M.Y Britannia “in Simpson Harbour during Royal Visit of Queen Elizabeth II in 1971.”

It had the look of a still photograph clipped from the Netflix serial, The Crown, but it struck me as out of date as the proclamation (in another cabinet) of Dr. Albert Hahl, a local imperial judge of the German protectorate, who issued an opinion in 1897 “concerning the view on legal matters of the natives in portion of Blanche Bay and the interior of Gazelle Peninsula.”

* * * 

Mostly I lingered over the exhibits devoted to the Japanese use of Rabaul as one of the headquarters of its South Pacific fleet and as the forward base in the naval and land campaigns in the Solomon Islands, including Guadalcanal.  

During those battles, which lasted more than a year, Rabaul was the loading dock for the so-called Tokyo Express, the nightly run of destroyers, cruisers, and barges that plied the waters of The Slot to resupply ground troops in the Solomons or to engage American war ships in fights such as those for Savo Island or Cape Esperance.

The greatest sea battles in American history were fought to control the sea lanes around the Solomon Islands, and it was in one such encounter, on the night of August 2, 1943, that Lt. (jg.) John F. Kennedy’s PT-109 was sent to the bottom. Nearly all the ships that engaged American forces steamed out of Rabaul’s Simpson Harbor or the wider Blanche Bay. 

The museum has a large model of the Imperial Japanese Navy Heavy Cruiser Haguro. I assume it was a gift, in years’ past, from a model enthusiast in Japan.

Although I almost had to get down on my knees to read the inscription (if anyone had been peeking in a window, they might have thought I was bowing in respect to the Emperor), it was worth it to learn how Japan in the 1920s had navigated its way around various international treaties and conventions that limited the size, proportionally, of the navies of England, the United States, and Japan. The inscription reads:

The Hagaro was one of four Myoko class cruisers, the first generation of the Japanese 10,000 ton cruisers. They were built in the period 1924 to 1929 and were limited in tonnage by the Washington Naval Treaty. The design pushed the allowable weight to the limit, however, and they were actually substantially overweight. The fact [was] that the class broke (accidentally or deliberately?) the Treaty, but no sanctions were imposed [which] encouraged the Japanese to cheat-on or ignore other treaties.

Reading that passage in the museum reminded me of my father’s quip that when he was on Guadalcanal and under heavy bombardment from Japanese cruisers, he often thought to himself: “I wonder if we’re being hit with the Second Avenue El.”

It was a New York witticism, and involved the possibility that the steel from the dismantled elevated train along Second Avenue might have been sold a scrap to Japan, which turned it into shells.

The joke reminded me of a remark, usually attributed to V.I. Lenin but also to Marx and others: “The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.” (When I first went on business to Russia in 1991, it was in the spirit of a rope salesman.)

* * *

Across the street from the museum, but still on the grounds of what had been the German Club, was the Yamamoto Bunker, from which presumably he departed in April, 1943, for his flight from Rabaul to the Shortland Islands (in the north Solomons).

It was on that flight, over Buin on Bougainville, when he was shot down and killed by American fighter planes. Intelligence gathered with broken Japanese codes and from wireless messages alerted the Americans that he would be flying that route.

The decision to intercept the admiral’s flight was only taken at the highest levels of the American government—for several reasons. Firstly, no one wanted to tip off the Japanese that the U.S. government had broken their military codes and were reading their cables.

Second, even in 1943, there was reluctance in many governments, especially among the Allies, not to use assassination as an instrument of war, even against someone such as Admiral Yamamoto, who had planned and carried out the attack on Pearl Harbor.

In the end, Admiral Nimitz, the naval commander, checked with Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr., Commander, South Pacific, who gave his okay to the intercept, which a squadron of P-38s from Guadalcanal successfully carried out.

Keep in mind it was Halsey who came up with the idea for a billboard that read: “Kill Japs, kill Japs, kill more Japs!”

* * *

The admiral’s bunker is a dreary affair. With the keys from the hotel, I managed to get the gates open, but I didn’t linger in the sweltering, moss-covered dungeon. Basically the bunker is a series of underground rooms, encased in concrete and coated with dirt and vegetation.

On some of the tables there were a few candles, although I suspect they were for the use of military tour groups more than anything left behind by the admiral. (And any time I am in an Axis bomb shelter, I remember the exchange between a foreign diplomat and his Nazi counterpart, who were forced to meet in an underground shelter. During the meeting, the diplomat asked the tough-talking Nazi hierarch: “If you are winning the war, how come we’re meeting down here?”)

In the museum, there was a biographical sketch of Admiral Yamamoto, which read as follows:

For propaganda purposes, Yamamoto was portrayed by the American government as evil incarnate, perhaps second only to Adolf Hitler in despicability. In fact, however, Yamamoto was an educated, sensitive man who, based on his visits to America, realized the inherent danger in awakening the sleeping giant. His overall plan was to defeat America quickly. He knew that a prolonged war against the U.S. and the British Empire would be disastrous for Japan.

With the fall of Rabaul in 1941, the Gazelle peninsulas and Simpson Harbour became the main lynch pin in Japans’ southern adventure. The port of Rabaul and the surrounding airfields were to become a base second only to the Japanese homeland. Yamamoto conducted much of what was left of his war from here.

Yamamoto did not live to witness Japan’s defeat. Leaving Rabaul town on April 18, 1943, American fighters shot down his plane over southern Bougainville. The ambush was possible due to an intercepted and decoded message that provided Yamamoto’s travel schedule.

Poking my head into Yamamoto’s bunker, I remembered having a biography of his life back in my library at home. I had owned it for about twenty years but had never read it. As I recalled, I had bought the book in New York City at an excellent Japanese bookshop by the name of Kinokuniya, which was located (and may still be) near Rockefeller Center.

Occasionally after trips to the Far East, I would browse among its collection of books devoted to World War II. It must have been one such excursion that I acquired Hiroyuki Agawa’s The Reluctant Admiral: Yamamoto and the Imperial Navy.

Occasionally, when my wife was pruning books from our collection, I could see her eyes fall upon Yamamoto, as if it were time to consign the admiral to the dustbin of history. But I remained hopeful that I might someday get around to reading the biography, which I did, with great pleasure, on my return this time from the Pacific. In the book it says that, while in Rabaul, the admiral lived in a cottage on Residency Hill where “the air was cooler in the evening.”

* * *

Agawa’s biography is beautifully written and, in many places, quixotic, which gives the account, and Yamamoto himself, its personal qualities. He writes: “The picture of Yamamoto as a kind of idol worshipped by all former naval men without fail is no more than a pleasant fiction.”

Agawa presents a portrait of the man, and both his sentences and his chapters have a spare elegance in their construction. (“As he [Yamamoto] once remarked, he wouldn’t mind being assassinated if only it led the nation to reconsider the course it was taking.”)

It speaks to the credit of postwar Japan that Agawa could publish in 1969 an objective—usually serious but occasionally humorous—biography of Yamamoto Isoroku, and that the book would retain its vital freshness when I read it in late 2018. (The admiral was famous for telling his critics about the coming war with the Americans: “…Japan would only last for a year and a half.”)

The biography begins with Yamamoto in mid-career, shifts back to his early days in the Russo-Japanese War (in which he was wounded), and focuses the last chapters of the biography on the campaigns against Pearl Harbor and Midway, which together defined the admiral’s life and career.

At the same time, Agawa is not so wrapped up in the greatness of his subject that he cannot write amusing anecdotes about Yamamoto as a man—his fondness for gambling of any kind, his affection for geisha (one in particular), and his insouciance (he had no problem with his nickname, “80 sen,” which referred to the fact that he was missing two of his fingers, from a battle wound at Tsushima, and that a ten-finger manicure cost 100 sen or 1 yen).

Yes, the admiral was the commander of the Pacific fleet and the architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor, but I can imagine Yamamoto having a laugh at a remark made by a member of the search party that found his crashed plane in the jungle near Buin on Bougainville.

On finding that the plane was full of toilet paper (in short supply elsewhere in the empire), the searcher remarked: “You get to use good paper when you get to be C. in C.!”

* * *

The contradiction in the life of Yamamoto Isoroku is that he was opposed to everything that Japan represented in the Second World War, yet he was its frontman at Pearl Harbor, which brought the nation to ruin.

He also hated the Tripartite Treaty that bound Japan to Germany and Italy, and once, on a train trip through Berlin, he refused to have a meeting with Hitler, saying he was “otherwise engaged.” His friends would have joked, “Yes, either with cards or a woman,” but probably not to Hitler.

Agawa quotes him as saying of a war with the West: “We would have no chance of winning. In the first place, the Japanese navy is not constructed with a view to taking on the United States and Britain. And as for the German and Italian navies, they can be discounted.”

Having worked during his career for several years in the United States, Yamamoto knew the country well and liked America (and, in particular, Abraham Lincoln), but also feared her as an opponent, and in privy councils around the Emperor he often denounced the idea of war with the United States as folly. He called the country: “…another powerful enemy—an extremely perilous matter for the nation.”

According to Agawa, the admiral’s time in the West allowed him to see shifts in naval warfare that were lost on some of his contemporaries, who rarely left Japan. Agawa writes: “…his two years in America and later nine months in America and Europe persuaded him that the world was gradually shifting from an age of coal and iron to one of oil and gasoline and light metals (specifically, planes).”

At the end his life, Yamamoto was the senior Japanese fleet officer in the Pacific, and yet, for a long time, he had come to the conclusion that the future of seapower was through the power of aviation.

He scoffed at the building of heavy cruisers and battleships, believing that they would not last long in a modern war. Playfully he liked to say that “the three great follies of the world were the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids, and the battleship Yamato,” which would become his flagship. Later in the war, as he predicted, an American submarine dispatched it to the ocean floor.

Nor did he believe that naval war in the Pacific, against the Americans, would be a replay of the Battle of Tsushima, which vanquished the Russians in 1905. He said, questioning Japan’s readiness for new warfare: “As I see it, naval operations in the future will consist of capturing an island, then building an airfield in as short a time as possible—within a week or so—moving up air units, and using them to gain air and surface control over the next stretch of ocean. Do you think that kind of thing is possible with Japan’s present industrial capacity?” As Agawa points out, it was precisely the tactics used by the Americans across the Pacific, beginning at Guadalcanal.

* * *

Yamamoto’s leadership role in the attacks at Pearl Harbor and Midway—along with those intercepted cables at Rabaul—put him on a course to personal destruction. (In American eyes, he was the Osama bin Laden of the Pacific War.)

Yamamoto might have been a great naval strategist, if left to his own devices, but in the imperial system that the Japanese army had made its own, he had little more power than a junior ensign with a minder standing over his desk. He liked to joke, of the post he had in the 1930s: “A navy vice-minister’s just a high-grade office boy.”

He rolled the dice at Pearl Harbor because he was a gambler. He hoped that in the six months that the United States would need to rebuild its Pacific fleet, Japan could secure its positions in Australia, the Dutch East Indies, Indochina, and the Philippines—and be able to withstand an onslaught from Britain and the United States.

Before the attack he remarked to his superiors: “If you insist on my going ahead I can promise to give them hell for a year or a year and a half, but can guarantee nothing as to what will happen after that.” He knew what it was to draw deuces in a poker game against the full houses of two global powers.

At Midway, Yamamoto placed all his chips on the table and lost. By that point he must have figured he had everything to lose by waiting for the Americans to attack the Japanese homeland, and something to gain if he could find a hot table, for a second time, in the central Pacific. Agawa writes:

Thus the plan—as a plan, the grandest of them all—was to advance from Midway, if possible striking at Hawaii again and at the same time occupying vital points in the Aleutians, thus expanding Japan’s sea and air defenses two thousand nautical miles to the east—and, concurrently, to lure the U.S. Pacific fleet out on the ocean and destroy it….

Yamamoto’s idea in the Midway operation seems to have been to score a victory that would give a second chance for an early peace settlement, and the shock of failure must have been correspondingly great.

He lost not just because the Americans had cracked the Japanese naval codes and knew the movement of Yamamoto’s fleet. I am sure in his mind he lost because he, personally, had given in to the militarism that he knew would destroy Japan.

In the early years of the war, he remarked wistfully: “I expect to die in battle on board the Nagato [his flagship]. By that time, I imagine, Tokyo will have been set on fire at least three times and Japan reduced to a pitiful state.”

Yamamoto’s strategic prescience did not save him from that swarm of P-38s that attacked his formation over Buin. But he must have known that he was running out of time. By April, 1943, Guadalcanal had fallen and Jimmy Doolittle’s squadron (confirming Yamamoto’s worst fears) had raided Tokyo.

Of Yamamoto’s killing, Agawa writes: “From the American point of view, the most important outcome of the shooting down of Yamamoto’s plane was, perhaps, the psychological shock to the Japanese people, and to the higher echelons of the imperial navy in particular.”

It was a brilliant stroke and, in many ways, just payback for the death and destruction at Pearl Harbor. It’s too bad it removed from power the one Japanese admiral who thought the same way as did most American leaders.

Next up: From Rabaul around Blanche Bay to Kokopo, on the eastern end of New Britain, Papua New Guinea. To read other parts in this series, please click here.

More articles by:

Matthew Stevenson, a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine, is the author of many books including, most recently, Reading the Rails.

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