The Commander Who Launched the Pearl Harbor Attack
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was responsible for planning the devastating attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, but he was not present for the attack itself. While he remained in Japan, Yamamoto’s plan was carried out by Chuichi Nagumo, a colleague who had actually criticized Yamamoto’s plan.
Though he had his doubts, as commander of the First Air Fleet it fell to Nagumo to lead the Imperial Japanese Navy's First Air Fleet towards Pearl Harbor. At 0755, the fleet's fighters and bombers commenced the attack, which lasted two hours and resulted in the deaths of over 2,400 Americans and the total loss of two US Navy battleships. Many other ships and dozens of aircraft were heavily damaged.
Though Chuichi Nagumo was known to disagree with Yamamoto about the Pearl Harbor strike, many historians believe it was the commander’s own fault that the attack ultimately ended up being a failure. With two waves of airstrikes, Nagumo's planes inflicted what appeared to be considerable damage to the base and nearby airfields. A third attack wave waited for the order to launch from the aircraft carriers, and though they were prepped and ready for battle, that order never came.
Nagumo decided against unleashing the third attack wave, one that could have targeted the fuel tanks and repair facilities that could have dealt a truly crippling blow to the US Pacific Fleet. Instead, Nagumo feared for the possible losses of more of his planes in the event that the United States was able to prepare for a third strike. Therefore, he opted to hold back the third wave.
It was a move that would ultimately cost Japan the war, but Nagumo continued to serve the Imperial Navy. After Pearl Harbor, Nagumo was responsible for the bombing of Darwin in Australia in February of 1942. It was the largest attack ever mounted on Australia by a foreign power. Much like Pearl Harbor, Nagumo attacked with two waves and a total of 242 aircraft, resulting in major damage.
As the war dragged on and Nagumo continued in his post, his luck would eventually run out and his decision to not launch a third wave on Pearl Harbor would come back to haunt him.
Nagumo’s command came to an end in June, 1944, two years after the devastating loss at the Midway Atoll. The Battle of Saipan saw the Imperial Japanese Navy fail once again at repelling the Allied fleet. The immense losses – 600 aircraft and three carriers – left Nagumo and General Yoshitsugu Saito to defend Saipan. Realizing it would be a futile effort, Nagumo retreated to a cave and shot himself.
For his lengthy service to the Empire, Chuichi Nagumo was promoted to admiral after his death.