Chuichi Nagumo (1887-1944) commanded the Japanese aircraft carrier striking force during the early stages of the Second World War. He lead this force in the raid on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor and the battles of Midway, Eastern Solomons, and Santa Cruz Islands.
Chuichi Nagumo was born in Japan in 1887, during a crossroads period in Japanese history. The island nation had existed as an almost completely closed society for two hundred years, following the defeat of Shogun Hideoshi's invasion of Korea in 1596. By the early 19th century, small European settlements had been established in Japan, but trade with the outside world was nonexistent. All this changed overnight in 1854, when Commodore Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay and forced the Japanese to open their borders to international trade.
In the wake of Perry's exploits, Japanese authorities began a remarkable effort to develop a modern navy. They were assisted by European navies eager to sell their equipment and expertise. By 1873, the Imperial Japanese Navy operated its own dockyard, sent cadets for education at the U.S. Naval Academy, and established its own naval college in Tokyo. The Japanese naval college was operated with British assistance and the Imperial Japanese Navy would continue to maintain British seafaring traditions, including the playing of Western music on ceremonial occasions and the use of Western utensils during shipboard meals, throughout World War II. At the turn of the century the Japanese naval college had moved to the island of Etajima, off Hiroshima. Japanese orders for warships exceeded those of all countries except England. The Japanese navy was also beginning to build its own modern warships. In less than 50 years, it had become a modern force, capable of competing with minor naval powers. For ambitious young men, the navy offered opportunity for advancement. Seeking a promising career, Nagumo entered the naval college at Etajima in 1904.
Territorial disputes touched off the Russo-Japanese War the same year that Nagumo entered Etajima. The Japanese navy began the war with a devastating surprise attack on the Russian Pacific Fleet at Port Arthur. While the war on land quickly became a stalemate, the Russian Baltic and Black Sea fleets traveled to Asian waters to avenge Port Arthur. The Russian and Japanese fleets met in the Straits of Tsushima on May 27, 1904, and the new Japanese navy annihilated the Russians in one of the most decisive naval battles in history.
Nagumo completed his naval training in 1908, specializing in torpedo warfare, and rose steadily through the ranks during the next twenty years. He served as captain of the light cruiser Naka, the heavy cruiser Takao, and the battleship Yamashiro, before receiving a promotion to rear admiral and being transferred to the naval general staff for arms limitation negotiations with Britain and the United States in 1930.
Japanese success in the Russo-Japanese War marked Japan as a naval competitor with the major European powers for the first time in its history. Japan's position was further enhanced by its conquest of German possessions during World War I, including the Mariana, Marshall, and Gilbert Islands, and Truk Atoll. By the late 1920s, Britain and the United States were becoming concerned about the growth of Japanese naval strength and convened the first London Conference in 1930, in an effort to avoid a naval arms race in the Pacific. Nagumo served on the Japanese delegation to the conference, where he helped secure the right of the Japanese navy to build as many submarines and light cruisers as any other country. He was promoted to the rank of admiral in 1935.
Throughout the 1930s, Japanese involvement in China expanded steadily. Using the pretense of protecting Japanese nationals and their property, the Japanese army gradually occupied substantial territories within China, arousing a storm of international protest. What became known as the "China Incident" also created a division within the Japanese armed forces between those who favored expanding the war in China and those who urged withdrawal. Nagumo, who became the naval general staff chief of operations in 1936, was staunchly in favor of expanding the war. He also opposed the results of the second London Conference in 1934, at which Japan had agreed to limit its building of capital ships (battleships, battle cruisers, and aircraft carriers) to 60% of those built by the United States and Britain. By 1937, the China Incident had developed into a full-scale war, and diplomatic relations between Japan and the Western powers steadily worsened.
Japan further distanced itself from Britain and the United States by signing the Tripartite Pact with fascist powers, Germany and Italy on September 27, 1940. Continued Japanese expansion in China eventually led the United States to stop exporting oil to Japan on July 26, 1941. Without oil, Japan would have been unable to continue military operations in China. Therefore, Japanese military leaders decided to conquer the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia), an oil-rich region, to supply its needs. The conquest of the Netherlands East Indies would entail operations near the shores of the U.S. territory of the Philippines and British Malaysia. It was, therefore, decided to attack U.S. and British forces, in conjunction with the with the move against the Dutch.
Japan's military leadership, aware that a war with the United States would be difficult to win, devised a daring strategy to knock the U.S. out of the war at its outset and secure U.S. acquiescence in Japan's conquest of the Netherlands East Indies. Their plan involved a massive air attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet based at Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. Nagumo opposed the plan due to his doubts regarding the effectiveness of aircraft against warships. However, the head of the combined fleet, Isoroku Yamamoto, insisted that the operation go forward. Ironically, Nagumo was appointed to lead the attack due to his seniority.
Nagumo's fleet, comprising three battleships, six large aircraft carriers, and numerous smaller vessels, left Japanese waters to attack Hawaii in late November 1941. Despite rough seas north of Hawaii, Japanese carriers launched their planes without incident on the morning of December 7, and complete surprise was achieved in the initial attack. By the time the first raid was completed, the U.S. Pacific Fleet had suffered a staggering defeat, with four battleships sunk and nearly every aircraft on Oahu destroyed on the ground. Japanese losses amounted to 29 aircraft. Nagumo's unfamiliarity with naval aviation showed itself, however, when he opposed the launching of further raids, which could have destroyed millions of gallons of fuel stored at Pearl Harbor, Nagumo later summarized his reasons for the withdrawal by stating, "1. The first attack had inflicted all the damage we had hoped for. Another attack could not be expected greatly to increase the extent of the damage. 2. Enemy fire had been surprisingly prompt even though we took them by surprise. Another attack would meet strong opposition. This would make our losses disproportionate to the additional destruction that might be inflicted. 3. Intercepted enemy messages indicated at least fifty large planes still operational. Also we did not know the whereabouts of the enemy carriers, cruisers, and submarines." On their return from Pearl Harbor, Nagumo's air forces also assisted in the Japanese conquest of Wake Island.
Nagumo was hailed as a national hero following the Pearl Harbor raid, and he was granted an audience with the Emperor. After a brief stay ashore, Nagumo and his carrier striking force embarked for the Indian Ocean. There Nagumo's forces attacked merchant shipping, bombed the British naval bases at Trincomalee and Colombo on the island of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and won a naval air engagement with a British fleet, sinking the aircraft carrier Hermes on April 9, 1942. Nagumo's performance during this operation was effective, as his confidence had been boosted by the success of the Pearl Harbor venture. In fact, many Japanese leaders were infected with what was termed "victory disease," a form of overconfidence leading to carelessness, at this time.
Despite the success of the Japanese during the Pearl Harbor raid, the United States showed no intention of giving up. American resistance led Admiral Yamamoto to devise another plan to draw the U.S. fleet into a decisive action, this time by attempting to occupy Midway Island in the central Pacific. Once again Nagumo opposed Yamamoto's plan, but was placed in command of the operation nonetheless. His striking force, this time comprising four fleet carriers and supporting ships, was assigned the dual mission of bombing the military facilities on Midway Island and destroying any U.S. fleets that appeared to oppose the invasion. In contrast with the Pearl Harbor raid, security was quite lax during preparations for the Midway operation and U.S. code-breakers were able to deduce when and where the Japanese would attack. Furthermore, in simulations of the Midway invasion plan, Nagumo and his staff foresaw a dilemma that could arise if American carriers should enter the battle while Japanese carrier aircraft were engaged in bombing the island, and this is exactly what came to pass on the morning of June 4, 1942.
Nagumo launched a raid on Midway Island at first light and had been attacked by planes from the island later in the morning. While his aircraft were preparing for a second attack on Midway, Japanese scout aircraft spotted an American carrier force. Nagumo was faced with the decision he dreaded: to rearm the planes already prepared to attack Midway, or to send them on their way and fail to respond to the challenge posed by the presence of the American carrier force. He chose to rearm his planes. While this process was underway, and his carriers' decks were loaded with aircraft, fuel lines, and armaments, he was attacked by American carrier-based planes. In a matter of minutes, three of Nagumo's four carriers, including his flagship, were in sinking condition. Nagumo at first refused to leave his stricken ship, but was physically dragged to safety by his staff. The battle continued throughout the day, resulting in the eventual loss of one U.S. fleet carrier, and the fourth and last of Nagumo's fleet carriers. Yamamoto called off the Midway operation, with Nagumo's agreement, in the early morning hours of June 5. The Japanese defeat was total, and the initiative in the Pacific War would soon turn to the Allies.
Following the disaster at Midway, Yamamoto considered relieving Nagumo of his command. He feared, however, that Nagumo would commit suicide if removed from his post. The losses suffered at Midway forced the Japanese navy to abandon its quest for a decisive encounter with U.S. forces and concentrate instead on supporting land operations on Guadalcanal, in the Solomon Islands. In late August 1942, Nagumo's striking force, now comprising two fleet carriers and a smaller carrier, approached Guadalcanal while guarding troop transports sent to reinforce Japanese forces on the island. The American force was also comprised of two fleet carriers. In the ensuing battle, the Japanese lost their small aircraft carrier while heavily damaging one of the American fleet carriers. This battle at sea was inconclusive but Japanese land operations on Guadalcanal failed miserably. Nagumo was unable to avenge his defeat at Midway, but had performed competently and was to be given one last chance.
The land battle on Guadalcanal continued into the fall, and the Japanese navy made one of its last attempts to support land operations on October 22, 1942. Although he was not in overall command of this mission, Nagumo did command its carrier forces, which comprised two fleet carriers and one smaller carrier. Once again, the Americans had two fleet carriers. The opponents made contact with each other on October 25 and launched attacks on the following morning. This battle ended in a marginal victory for the Japanese, who sank one American fleet carrier at the cost of suffering heavy damage to one of their fleet carriers and the loss of Nagumo's smaller carrier. This incomplete victory did not allow the Japanese to adequately reinforce their troops on Guadalcanal, and they evacuated the island in February 1943.
Admiral Yamamoto died when his plane was shot down in April 1943, and in the ensuing reorganization of the Japanese naval command structure, Nagumo was "promoted" to command the Central Pacific Area Fleet based on Saipan in the Northern Marianas Islands. This fleet existed only on paper, however, and Nagumo would not command any significant forces again in the war.
Nagumo remained on Saipan and assisted in the island's defense against the U.S. invasion, which commenced on June 15, 1944. Although Japanese forces offered suicidal resistance, their inferiority in numbers and firepower left the issue in no doubt, and American forces steadily overran the island. With nearly all of Saipan in U.S. hands and no escape possible, Nagumo committed suicide on the night of July 6, 1944.
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