The attack on Pearl Harbor wasn’t some last-minute plan that was thought up over the course of several hours. It was a complex, highly-orchestrated assault that took many months to plan and the best military minds in Japan to pull off.
Leading up to December 7th, 1941, relations between the United States and Japan were suffering under the Imperial nation’s insistence of spreading its power through East Asia and the Pacific. During the summer of 1941, the US decided to embargo exports to Japan, depriving the nation of its main supplier of vital resources needed to keep its war machine running.
The reaction to the American decision was furor. The Japanese refused to let the United States stand in the way of their continued conquest, so they gathered a brain trust of military strategists to contemplate potential courses of action.
The Minds Behind Pearl Harbor
At the top of the list of the men who orchestrated the December 7th assault was Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. The decorated Japanese admiral served his country for over 40 years and took control of the Imperial Japanese Navy after his promotion to admiral in November of 1940, a little over a year before the attack.
That Yamamoto was behind the attack wasn’t a secret to the United States. In a retaliatory maneuver, American code breakers deciphered the flight path of his plane and, on April 18th, 1943, American fighters were launched over Bougainville to hunt down the admiral. Yamamoto was killed when his plane was shot down by the fighters.
After Yamamoto was Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, the commander-in-chief and senior officer of the 1st Air Fleet directed towards Pearl Harbor. Though the US didn’t get a chance to target him directly, Nagumo was killed during the bloody battle of Saipan, as was Lieutenant Commander Takashige Egusa of the second wave dive-bombers.
Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi, who served as commander-in-chief for the 2nd Carrier Division, met his end during the Battle of Midway six months after the Pearl Harbor attack. His aircraft was shot down during what is often considered the turning point of the Pacific war.
Lt. Commander Kakuichi Takahashi, leader of the dive-bombers of the first attack wave, was killed in action during the 1942 Battle of the Coral Sea and five months later, Lieutenant Commander Shigemaru Murata of the first wave of torpedo bombers was killed at Santa Cruz.
Over the Kuril Islands, Lieutenant Commander Shigeru Itaya, who led the first wave of fighter planes at Pearl Harbor, was killed by one of his own men in a friendly-fire incident.
On the last day of World War II, just after the Emperor announced that Japan was defeated, Rear Admiral Matome Ugaki, Yamamoto’s the chief of staff, committed suicide when he piloted a kamikaze plane into the ocean.
Commander of the second-wave attack force on Pearl Harbor, Lieutenant Commander Shigekazu Shimazaki, fought until January 9th, 1945, when he was killed in the Philippines.
Though most of the key players in the Pearl Harbor attack perished, Minoru Genda, the tactical planner of the attack, and Mitsuo Fuchida, the attack’s overall flight leader responsible for the radio message “Tora! Tora! Tora!,” both survived until well after the war.