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Yamaguchi file photo [1064]

Tamon Yamaguchi

Given NameTamon
Died5 Jun 1942


ww2dbaseTamon Yamaguchi was born in the Shimane prefecture in Japan in 1892, and graduated from the Japanese Naval Academy in 1912. In 1918, as a navigation officer, he was exposed to naval aviation while escorting German submarines en route to be delivered as repatriation payments. Between 1921 and 1923 he studied American History at Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey, United States, though did not pursue a formal degree; instead, he returned to Japan and completed his studies at the Naval Staff College in 1924. However, he was described as enthusiastic about the American university. After participating in the London Naval Conference in 1929, the diplomatic Captain Yamaguchi was Japan's last naval attaché to Washington D.C., which lasted from 1934 to 1937. He returned to Japan for sea-bound service once again, filling the role of Chief of Staff to the Japanese 5th Fleet from 1938 to 1940. In 1940, he was promoted rear admiral and assigned the 2nd Carrier Division which consisted of the Hiryu and the Soryu. By this time, he was often understood as the successor to Isoroku Yamamoto for the position of the commander of the Combined Fleet.

ww2dbaseCommonly credited as being perhaps Japan's most gifted carrier admiral, Yamaguchi was astute, aggressive, and ambitious. Unfortunately for Japan's war effort, he was also heavily steeped in the Bushido Code, which meant that he was pretty much obligated to do away with himself after having lost his carrier Hiryu during the closing stages of the Battle of Midway. "He was, in short, the epitome of the traditional samurai - hot tempered, aggressive to a fault; a man who valued honor as the ultimate virtue", as described in the book Shattered Sword; or as Japanese navy officer Masatake Chihaya said, the "Oriental Hero Type". When he determined that Hiryu was unsaveable, he gathered the 800 men who were still aboard the ship, including the wounded, on the flight deck near the bridge, and led them in yelling banzai three times toward Tokyo, followed by the playing of the national anthem. After the ceremony, the order to abandon ship was issued. It was recorded that Yamaguchi and Tomeo Kaku (Hiryu's captain) had this exchange as they shared naval biscuits and water while the ship being abandoned, the exchange signifying how much the two officers had in common.

ww2dbase"Let us enjoy the beauty of the moon", Yamaguchi said to Kaku.

ww2dbase"How bright it shines," Kaku responds.

ww2dbase"It must be in its 21st day."

ww2dbaseThe foundation of the decision to go down with the ship probably was established when his top pilot Joichi Tomonaga bravely headed off to attack the carrier Yorktown in a damaged torpedo plane that carried too little fuel for a return trip. "I will gladly follow you", Yamaguchi said to Tomonaga before the pilot boarded the plane. He probably could have saved himself to fight another day, but that was not the Bushido way. His idealistic devotion to Bushido was likely one of the key reasons why Japan, after three fleet carrier on the verge of sinking (and eventually would sink), was unable to steer Hiryu from the same fate. Yamaguchi placed Hiryu in increasingly more dangerous positions by sailing toward the enemy, therefore eventually sacrificing assets for his personal honor instead of preserving the strength for his country in a later fight.

ww2dbaseSources: Nihon Kaigun, the Pacific Campaign, Shattered Sword, Wikipedia, World War II Plus 55.

Last Major Revision: Jan 2006


Tamon Yamaguchi, Shigetaro Shimada, Takijiro Onishi, and others in China, late 1930sPortrait of Tamon Yamaguchi, date unknown
See all 4 photographs of Tamon Yamaguchi

Tamon Yamaguchi Timeline

1 Jan 1892 Tamon Yamaguchi was born in Shimane, Japan.
17 Jul 1912 Tamon Yamaguchi was promoted to the rank of midshipman.
1 Dec 1913 Tamon Yamaguchi was promoted to the rank of ensign.
13 Dec 1915 Tamon Yamaguchi was promoted to the rank of sub-lieutenant.
1 Dec 1918 Tamon Yamaguchi was promoted to the rank of lieutenant.
1 Dec 1924 Tamon Yamaguchi was promoted to the rank of lieutenant commander.
10 Dec 1928 Tamon Yamaguchi was promoted to the rank of commander.
1 Dec 1932 Tamon Yamaguchi was promoted to the rank of captain.
15 Nov 1938 Tamon Yamaguchi was promoted to the rank of rear admiral.
21 Feb 1942 Japanese Navy Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi, commanding officer of Carrier Division 2, distributed copies of his plans for a new offensive against Hawaii beginning in early 1943.
5 Jun 1942 Tamon Yamaguchi went down with the sinking carrier Hiryu. He was promoted to the rank of vice admiral posthumously.

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Visitor Submitted Comments

1. Martim says:
3 Oct 2005 10:17:24 AM

Why cant I find the USS Rixie. It was an attach hospital ship in WW 2. I know it has been dismantled but there should be some reacor of it.
2. Tom Black says:
7 Jun 2006 08:08:46 AM

While the strict code of Bushido doubtless encouraged self-sacrifice, it seems unlikely that Yamaguchi really had any opportunity to save Hiryu.

Perhaps the only chance would have been to turn tail and flee the moment the other three Japanese carriers had been disabled by the US dive-bombers. But such an action would surely have been unthinkable to any commander, Japanese or other.

The US had just struck a devastating blow. Hiryu was the only fighting force left able to strike back. It had the power to sink a US carrier: and it did so. Not to have used that power would have been disgraceful to any leader, not just a Bushido warrior.

Suppose Yamaguchi had wanted to to sail away instead: this was presumably against orders, and would hardly have saved the ship. He could not have got out of range. The US planes would have searched and probably found Hiryu and sunk her anyway.

By taking the action he did, Yamaguchi brought Japan the only real gain achieved from the whole mission: the destruction of the Yorktown. But that was not his only contribution.

It is said that when the first sighting of US ships was reported, Yamaguchi urgently proposed to Nagumo that all available planes should be re-armed with anti-ship weapons and then launched on the quickest possible strike against the American fleet. Nagumo however decided against this, as no carriers had been reported. He continued with the plan of preparing a second land strike against Midway, so that when a carrier was eventually reported, and the change of plan was finally forced upon him, Nagumo had to accept a far longer delay than if he had followed Yamaguchis advice.

This delay was fatal: because it meant the Japanese carriers had to receive the US dive-bomb attack when in the most vulnerable possible condition, their decks crowded with planes loaded up with fuel and explosives, not to mention the unstowed ground-attack ordnance still on deck: the absolute worst-case scenario.

If Yamaguchis advice had been taken, the US attacks would still have come in, and would still have been able to do damage: but hardly so great as in the actual fact, seeing that the condition of the Japanese carriers would have been that much less vulnerable with their bombers away. At the same time, the Japanese strike would have been able to hit the Americans. Seeing that a one-carrier strike from Hiryu was able to doom the Yorktown, what would have happened if a four-carrier Japanese strike had gone in? It seems reasonable to believe that all three US carriers would have been destroyed or at least badly damaged.

Who was right, Nagumo or Yamaguchi? Hindsight says Yamaguchi was clearly right. But consider the question without hindsight. Should Nagumo have decided immediately to change plan and go for the anti-ship strike, even though no carriers had been reported? Japanese intelligence led him to believe no US carriers were near. The Japanese submarine screen had seen no US ships leaving harbour. Earlier air search had found nothing. Now some ships were reported, but no carriers. Did this one report really change the whole picture?

The answer is yes, but to accept this meant abandoning the mindset in which the commander had viewed the whole operation up to now. This Nagumo proved unable to do. It meant suddenly thinking the unthinkable: that the Americans had outwitted the Japanese and were about to turn the tables by surprising the surpriser. It was US intelligence work which had enabled this, by revealing the Japanese plan and putting the Americans one step ahead, instead of one behind.

What Yamaguchi saw was the significance of any US ships being found: why would the US have put any ships into the operational area, moving before the Japanese submarine screen was in place, if they were unaware of the Japanese plan? Of course, it might be an exercise, or some routine manoeuvre, but no commander in war can afford to dismiss a sighting in this way, when his ships are so vulnerable.

Yamaguchi saw that the sighting of US ships meant, or at least could mean, that the Japanese approach was known in advance and was already being acted against. This meant it was necessary to react fully. And the critical time situation meant it was necessary to react immediately. That was Yamaguchis true insight and sound judgement. His recommendation of this course to the commander shows that he did his duty in full. Yamaguchi proved himself equal to the occasion, while Nagumo proved himself unequal to it.

Suppose Yamaguchi had been commander in place of Nagumo: what would the outcome have been? Seeing that the US dive-bombers came in just as the Japanese strike was about to launch, it is clear that Yamaguchis decision to change plan earlier means that the Japanese strike would have been airborne some time before the US attack went in. Given that the Japanese ships were both less vulnerable with their bombers away and better able to deploy fighters in defence, it seems unlikely they would have lost all four carriers. The superiority of the Zero fighter at this stage of the war may well have meant the destruction of many of the US bombers, as it had done for each earlier US attack in the battle.

The Americans on the other hand had only three carriers to bear the brunt of a four-carrier strike. The bombs that in actual fact exploded inside the Japanese planes, while still on their own flight-decks, which made the US strike so devastating, would instead have been exploding in and around the US ships. It is difficult to believe the Japanese planes would have failed to sink at least two US carriers.

Given the vulnerability of Yorktown, still not properly repaired after the Coral Sea, the chances are the US would have had all three carriers either sunk or out of action for a long time. Whereas the Japanese that evening may well have had two or more carriers still in fighting condition.

In this situation, the Japanese battle fleet with its heavy ships unopposed by anything on the US side, could have come up to Midway under carrier screen and carried out bombardment preparatory to the planned invasion. That invasion might then have gone in successfully. All this turned on the failure of Nagumo to follow the sure military instinct of Tamon Yamaguchi.
3. clarence says:
20 Dec 2006 05:33:10 AM

The way I’ve read the encounter, Yamaguchi insisted that all reserve aircraft be immediately launched *as is* to loft a strike before the Midway aircraft would return. About 12 of an immediate strike would have been armed with general purpose bombs rather than the proper armor piercing bombs or torpedoes.

Even so a 100+ aircraft strike against wooden deck aircraft carriers would have been devastating. The gassed & armed aircraft wouldn’t have been sitting around to burst into flames & explode inside their own hangars, they’d have been off putting ordnance on target placing the 2 USN task forces on the defensive.
4. clarence says:
20 Dec 2006 05:37:30 AM

In my comment of 20 December the backslash between the 1 and the 2 did not appear. The sentence ought to read, About half of an immediate strike.
5. Anonymous says:
16 Feb 2008 08:18:34 PM

I have some information on the usss Rixie. I had a Brother that served aboard her. may be reched at bootstruck74@yahoo.com
6. Peter C Smith says:
20 Jun 2008 01:37:39 PM

I am inclined to agree with the arguments put forward here by Mr Tom Black and clarence. In fact, in my book Midway Dauntless Victory, I have already included just such a suggestion to my readers for their consideration.

Peter c Smith
7. Yamaguchi Fan says:
16 Mar 2010 09:24:02 PM

Had Japan not been shortsighted about promotions of admirals, Yamaguchi could and should have been in charge of Pearl Harbor and Midway. We might not have had any carriers after December of 41. Yamaguchi was wanting to hang around and wait for Halsey.

Too bad Nagumo and Kusaka didn't go down with the Akagi. Nagumo was strange and played "not to lose" and Yamaguchi as well as Yamamoto despised him.
8. John Baxter says:
6 Jan 2012 07:59:12 AM

I don't fault RADM Yamaguchi for putting the Hiryu in harm's way in order to attack the U.S. carriers, and I realize that Bushido governed his thinking, but deliberately going down with his flag ship at Midway merely deprived the IJN of one of its best military minds. You can bet Spruance would have done his utmost to live to fight another day, had his flag ship been similarly compromised, not out of a need for self-preservation but because it was the militarily logical thing to do. Captain Kaku was already determined to die with the Hiryu, so honor had been served and there was no need for Yamaguchi to join him. The outcome of the war was inevitable, and it is impossible to say what influence Yamaguchi would have wielded had he survived Midway, but he certainly did Nimitz a huge favor by killing himself.
9. Charles C. says:
27 Sep 2013 10:46:46 PM

A great article by Mr. Tom Black. One of the most insightful & knowledgeable description of Admiral Yamaguchi & Midway battle I've ever read. Yes, he is correct - there is no way any admiral would have ran away from the battle even after destruction of 3 carriers & Hiryu undoubtedly would have been sunk anyway.

Though not necessarily disagreeing, I would like to add my thoughts. Yamaguchi was a great carrier commander & if he was put in charge at Midway instead of Nagumo, things definitely would have been different. But by how much? My assessments sort of differ from Mr. Black's. I think Midway would been more or less a draw, and there is no way Midway Islands would have been occupied by Japanese.

For one thing, American carriers were superior to Japanese at Midway. Akagi & Kaga were converted carriers & were rather clumsy. Soryu & Hiryu were of good design but too small (under 20,000 ton) with less hits needed to sink them. The only Japanese carriers equal to American counterparts were not at Midway - namely Shokaku & Zuikaku - due to damages they sustained at Coral Sea (Shokaku to its body; Zuikaku to its pilots & aircrafts). Further, Americans had radar which enabled them to launch planes even after enemy was sighted - a huge advantage.

It should also be noted that only American carrier sunk at Midway, Yorktown, was not exactly done in by Hiryu's planes. They somehow survived two massive damages & was close to being saved - until a Japanese submarine found & torpedoed it later.

Another factor is US also had fourth carrier - the unsinkable Midway Island. Putting these factors together, I believe even if Japanese launched their planes earlier, they were unlikely to dominate the Midway battle. It should also be considered that Japanese pilots were returning from Midway attack during the time, and if the launches were made, many of the returning planes & pilots would have been lost - including their best aviator - Lt. Tomonaga - whose plane was damaged. Plus, using land bombs against warships doesn't really work too well - I guess somewhat similar to using HE (not AT) guns against tanks.

Japan did have things going on their favor. They had probably the finest group of naval aviators in the world at the time and their fighter plane, Zero, was superior to anything. Japan also had excellent Torpedo Planes as well as Dive Bombers. Only on last category (Dive Bombers), did Americans had parity (or perhaps even a slight advantage) with Dauntless. Japan also had experienced & well trained maintenance crew (mechanics) - and so many of them were lost at Midway.

So in the end, I foresee significant damages to both sides - with neither side having more than one undamaged carrier at the end of the battle. And, both sides would have sustained severe attrition on pilots & planes. Therefore, Japanese would have been unable to gain air superiority necessary to occupy Midway. BTW, Midway garrison was greatly re-enforced & even if Japanese landed, it would been more or less like Guadalcanal anyway - eventual withdrawal along with harakiri of its commander.

But still, Japan would have bought some extra time in the Pacific - let's say 3-6 months - before Americans will eventually overwhelm them. Just as South did against North in Civil War & Nazi Germany against the Allies, I don't think Japan really had a realistic chance in winning the war. They were going against much stronger foe - at least 5 times, perhaps over 10 times stronger than they are.
10. idahoguy101 says:
24 Jan 2016 11:15:01 PM

Adm Yamamotos plan for Operation MI had two flaws.

The first being that the Japanese JN25 code had been compromised to where his strategy and his forces assigned were known to Adm Nimitz. The Japanese should have known to change JN25 after being intercepted at Coral Sea. Poor code security!

Second, Yamamoto's plan was too complex. The IJN had eight Aircraft Carriers available for the Battle of Midway. Yamamoto sent only four. Had all available IJN Aircraft Carriers been used at the Battle of Midway they would have overwhelmed the US Pacific Fleet. Three American Carriers could not have defeated eight Japanese Carriers.

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Event(s) Participated:
» Attack on Pearl Harbor
» Battle of Midway and the Aleutian Islands

Ship(s) Served:
» Hiryu
» Ise
» Isuzu
» Soryu

Tamon Yamaguchi Photo Gallery
Tamon Yamaguchi, Shigetaro Shimada, Takijiro Onishi, and others in China, late 1930sPortrait of Tamon Yamaguchi, date unknown
See all 4 photographs of Tamon Yamaguchi

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