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The Politics of Defeat
The Yamato, 0600, June 5, 1942
Hiroshi woke up and dressed quickly. The staff had been ordered to get some sleep, and, welcome as it was, he was now anxious to know what was happening.
When he reached the bridge, Miwa and Ugaki were already there. There had never been any news of Murata, but the withdrawal had gone smoothly. The float planes which had been sent out in sequences since before dawn were reporting no enemy ships within their radius of 500 kilometers. Off to port they could see the damaged Mogami, listing heavily and steaming at only five knots. She had turned back when torpedoed, some five hours before the rest of the fleet. They would soon leave her behind, and the Americans were almost certain to catch her and finish her. There was nothing anyone could do about it.
Putting his glasses on the Mogami, Hiroshi saw that she was down by the bow and listing so much that a motionless blade of the outboard propellor occasionally broke the surface. It was a wonder she could navigate at all. Heavy seas, much less a torpedo, would capsize her and trap her crew as she went to the bottom.
They could take off most of her 800 man crew, leaving just a skeleton crew in the engine room, on the bridge, and at any AA guns that could still be fired. No other crew members would be able to contribute anything to her unlikely survival. While that possibility must have been in everyone's mind, no one on the Yamato even suggested such an action. It was again a matter of honor, both the glory and the bane of the IJN. No one would have agreed to leave the ship, and, even if there were some weak ones, they wouldn't have been tolerated.
As they passed the stricken ship, there was an exchange of signals with the flagship. Although Hiroshi was much too slow to read the rapid signals, he knew the sorts of messages that would be sent in the circumstances.
It wasn't long before another question of honor arose, one that touched Hiroshi more closely. The matter was forcibly brought home to him when Ugaki stopped and said,
"You'll have to decide what to do with that prisoner. There's nothing else he can tell us, is there?"
Hiroshi hadn't expected to be put in this position, and he found himself admitting that there wasn't. Ugaki replied,
"Well, you handle it, then."
Hiroshi went down to Captain Kuroshima's cabin and banged loudly on the door until the other awoke. Even then, he had to be plied with tea and beer before the matter could be explained to him. Kuroshima commented only,
"An unfortunate young man."
"I think we owe him something. When we first picked him up, he was really in a rather good position. He had done well and had launched his torpedo. If the Americans had picked him up, they probably would have given him a medal."
Kuroshima, sitting further up in bed, made an expansive gesture with his arm.
"And then he gave us information that might well have won the battle for us."
There, between them, lay the issue. Kuroshima, though still in bed in his mauve pajamas, was nevertheless the best judge Hiroshi could imagine. Hiroshi, as counsel for the defense, stated his case.
"I helped him destroy himself in a gentle way. Watanabe finished it in a hard way. But, who knows? If Watanabe had come first, Tabor might have refused to divulge anything."
Kuroshima nodded in agreement and replied,
"In such matters the smallest thing may make the greatest difference."
Hiroshi then concluded his case.
"I regard it, then, as a case in which honor, while lost, hasn't necessarily been totally and irretrievably lost."
Kuroshima scratched his head and remonstrated gently.
"But he's not Japanese. He won't know how to perform seppuku. A suicide of the American sort would only be squalid and meaningless."
"It can be explained to him. I can put the matter to him and explain the significance."
"Won't he refuse?"
"I won't demand it, but only present it as a possibility. I wouldn't want him to further demean himself by pleading."
"How will it occur even if he agrees?"
"I'll send Chief Petty Officer Abe with the sword."
Kuroshima still seemed doubtful.
"It won't count if Abe has to handle the sword."
"I think Tabor will do that himself. He's an intelligent man, and he'll understand that there's no other hope."
Kuroshima made a gesture of reluctant agreement. He then asked,
"Will there be a final stroke?"
"Yes. I'll return and perform it. In this situation I'm the nearest thing to his closest friend."
"Have you ever done it?"
It looked at this point as if Kuroshima were going to declare the whole plan absurd. However, still without saying anything, his expression softened somewhat. He ended by pointing his finger at Hiroshi and saying emphatically,
"Practice with a sword on a pillow or life jacket! It's not easy to sever a head. It takes a full stroke with both hands."
"It'll still be possible to communicate with him after he has disembowelled himself won't it?"
"Certainly. Perhaps for several hours."
"Then, before the final stroke, I may find some things to say that will be of comfort to him."
At this point Kuroshima laughed mirthlessly. He said, again rather forcefully,
"Tell him that his family will be informed that his death was in all respects, and in all circumstances, honorable."
"If he were Japanese, they would be informed only that the death itself was honorable."
"I know. But he's American!"
Kuroshima asked Hiroshi to reach him another beer. When he had it, he declared his judgment.
"I am much less an advocate of the code of honor than most of our colleagues. However, the present case is an extreme one. Life couldn't possibly be worth living after such acts of betrayal. So it's only a question of how life should be ended. I'm not optimistic about your plan. However, even if Lt. Tabor performs the act badly, it's still better than shooting him and tossing him overboard. If nothing else, we can say to ourselves that we tried."
The Yamato, 1100, June 5.
It had been an extremely awkward morning. Hiroshi had hoped that, even if Tabor didn't quite follow his reasoning, he would accept his end with resignation. Instead, he had been horrified at the idea of seppuku. There had been no reasoning with him at all. He had been forced to leave the matter with Abe, who had presented the sword to Tabor.
Before returning to perform the final stroke, Hiroshi again consulted with Kuroshima. The latter said,
"It won't be easy, particularly if he tries to crawl away. Have you ever played golf?"
Hiroshi owned that he had played a little. The other replied,
"It's a bit like the golf stroke. But, instead of keeping your eye on the ball as you swing, you keep it on a certain point in the neck. Keep the left arm straight and shift your weight to your left foot as you enter the follow-through. If you hit the neck on the way down, it doesn't matter if you take a little turf, so to speak."
Hiroshi later realized that he must himself have looked horrified. Kuroshima replied,
"You'd better let me do it."
Having so spoken, he was off immediately, leaving Hiroshi in his cabin. It was fortunate that Kuroshima had dressed, and was no longer in his mauve pajamas.
Hiroshi, extremely nervous, was about to go down to see what had happened when Kuroshima returned with the sword. It hadn't been used. Kuroshima said,
"He hadn't even gotten started with his seppuku. I don't think it's feasible in such a case. We'll take him back as a prisoner."
The Yamato, 1200
The main event of the day was to be a staff conference. This would amount to an informal inquest into the losses they had suffered. With the exception of Admiral Yamamoto, who remained on the bridge, everyone assembled in the chart room with the purpose, as Ugaki put it, "of seeing what lessons could be learned from the defeat." Genda was present, not yet officially, but, again according to Ugaki, "as someone who can provide valuable insights as to the reasons for certain decisions that were taken."
After the facts were laid down, and the chronology straightened out, Captain Miwa was given the opportunity of speaking. He came out in defense of Nagumo's conduct of the battle, and, for that matter, of Admiral Yamamoto's conduct of the whole operation. He put the loss down to two factors. First, the enemy's more numerous fighter force. Secondly, he pointed out that the Americans, as evidenced by the prisoner Tabor, had the Japanese plan even before they left the Inland Sea. He suspected that the Americans, or perhaps the Russians, had a well-placed spy in Japan.
Miwa's statement was a popular one. After all, it absolved everyone present. But it didn't please Admiral Ugaki. Hiroshi was sure that Ugaki didn't want anything to emerge which would look like a whitewash when they got home. But, quite apart from that, the chief of staff obviously wanted an immediate villain.
Ugaki next called on Genda to speak. It had been, Ugaki said, a defeat by air. The two air staff officers should therefore speak first.
Genda attempted to personally take responsibility for the defeat. It proved to Hiroshi that he hadn't really learned to play chart-room politics. First, no matter how many mistakes Genda might have made, the villain of the piece would have to have a rank considerably higher than that of commander. Even the rank of Rear Admiral could qualify one only for assistant villain.
More important, Genda unwittingly gave the game away. He admitted, in fact stated, that the First Mobile Striking Force had made mistakes. Hiroshi wondered why he hadn't realized that those mistakes would automatically be assigned, not to him, but to Nagumo. If, instead, Genda had spoken of the prowess of the American fighters, as he had in their private conversation, his account would have dove-tailed with that of Miwa.
It was really amazing to see how thoroughly Ugaki, with half Genda's ability and intelligence, could mop him up in this kind of debate. Genda soon realized what he had done. In desperation, he referred to Hiroshi's accusatory remark when he had come on board the day before. Hiroshi, called on to speak, admitted the remark, but pointed out that it had been uttered in the heat of the moment. He now retracted it entirely, and most humbly begged Commander Genda's pardon. That settled that.
When an intermission was finally called, Genda, quite distraught, sought out Hiroshi and apologized for putting him on the spot. Hiroshi, in turn, expressed regret for not being able to help him.
"You were already sunk by that time. The world's best strategist may find himself an amateur in a certain kind of staff wrangle."
"What do you think will happen when we go back?"
"Ugaki first called on those who might be expected to support Nagumo, you and Miwa. He wanted to get your views out of the way. Now, we'll hear from everyone who's critical of Nagumo. Ugaki will sum up judiciously and neutrally, confident that the weight of evidence is on his side."
"Will you be called on?"
"I think neither Kuroshima nor I will speak. Why should Ugaki call on uncertain voices when he has so many he can rely on?"
The Yamato, 0800, June 6, 1942
Another blue Pacific day with a light northeast breeze reminded Hiroshi, pausing on the main deck, of a pre-war passage he had made with Mitsuko. They had been returning to Japan for a holiday, and had often watched the water rush by from just this perspective. That had been a happy time. He had been confident that all the problems they had had in Washington would disappear when they got home. Mitsuko had been quiet and a little flat, but he had taken it only for the resignation entirely appropriate in a Japanese wife.
Shaking his head, Hiroshi began mounting the many steps to the bridge. A message from the Mogami that she was being attacked had been received at 1800 the day before. Since they were by then out of the enemy's range of search, and it was thus necessary to observe radio silence, it had been impossible to query her. No messages had been received after that. No one had said anything about it since.
The staff conference of the day before had ended as Hiroshi had predicted. He was himself not displeased. His loyalty certainly lay with Admiral Yamamoto. If someone had to get the blame, it had best be Nagumo.
Commander Genda, standing alone on a wing of the bridge, appeared to be extremely upset. On joining him, it seemed to Hiroshi that Genda's defeat in the chart room of the Yamato bothered him more than the defeat by the Americans. In the latter case he was philosophical. He wanted only to reach a thorough understanding of what had happened. In the former case, something much more immediate was involved. After some discussion, Hiroshi accompanied Genda down to the main deck, where a visitor was expected.
The Yamato, now far from the enemy, went full astern on two engines. As the wake suddenly frothed up and surged forward, Hiroshi watched the cruiser Nagara draw near. When both ships had slowed to six knots, the Nagara dropped a boat. In it stood a figure in full dress uniform and sword, Rear Admiral Kusaka.
If Genda's visit to the flagship had been improvised and informal, Kusaka's was as formal as any visit could be. Protocol in such matters dictated that Kusaka call on Rear Admiral Ugaki. Commanders called on commanders, while chiefs of staff called on chiefs of staff. Admiral Ugaki, also in dress uniform, was ready to receive him. Commander Genda, in ordinary uniform, wasn't even acknowledged by the visitor.
Admiral Kusaka's message wasn't put to Ugaki privately. It was not, indeed, a private proposal. It was addressed to Ugaki in his capacity of chief of staff of the Combined Fleet with his senior staff officers drawn up around him. Captain Kuroshima was on Ugaki's right and Captain Miwa on his left, but it was understood that only Admiral Ugaki had the right to reply.
The message was an overtly simple one. Vice Admiral Nagumo wished to atone for the defeat his fleet had suffered. Feeling himself too humble a person to occupy the Emperor's attention by apologizing to him, he was prepared to perform the ceremony of seppuku.
The minute Hiroshi heard the statement, he knew that it had come, not from Nagumo, but from Kusaka himself. Hiroshi was also reminded of something the wags had always said: Anything that Kusaka could do, Genda could do better. This was something that Genda couldn't have done nearly as well.
There were really two hidden messages in the statement, messages that Ugaki would immediately detect. The first was the choice of words. Admiral Nagumo was "prepared" for death. He was not "intent" on it, nor was he "resolved" to perform seppuku. Still less, was he already engaged in it. Decoded, the message meant that the admiral wished to live.
The second element came close to insolence, but just barely avoided it. Admiral Nagumo couldn't apologize verbally to the emperor because he was too humble a person to be admitted to the emperor's presence, at least unless brought there by specific invitation. Such invitations were issued only to victors. On the other hand, Admiral Yamamoto, as commander-in-chief of the Combined Fleet, was routinely admitted to the emperor's presence. If he apologized for the whole fleet, it might not be necessary for Nagumo to make this sacrifice. It was for this reason that Nagumo hadn't come himself to put his question to Admiral Yamamoto. It would have been too obvious that he would have been asking Admiral Yamamoto to apologize for him.
Admiral Ugaki responded by thanking Admiral Kusaka for his message. He then begged to be allowed to consult with his staff in order to help him reply suitably to Admiral Nagumo. Both men bowed. Commander Watanabe presented himself to Admiral Kusaka, bowed, and conducted him to quarters he could use while awaiting the reply. It was only then that Genda, who wasn't to be part of this staff meeting, was able to join Kusaka.
It was, it seemed to Hiroshi, an impressive medieval pageant. The chieftain has failed. In consequence, he offers the ruler his head. Will the ruler deign to take it?
In a truly feudal society, the chamberlain, who has received the offer, would take it privately to the ruler. The ruler would make his decision, based largely on the likely future utility of the chieftain. That decision would then be taken back to the chieftain's emissary. That would be that.
In the IJN things were much more democratic. Subject to the overall, but very gently exercised, authority of Admiral Yamamoto, a committee of the thirty odd members of the Combined Fleet staff of the rank of Lt. Commander and above really did run the fleet. Rear Admiral Ugaki, as chairman, had power only because he really did reflect the prevailing views of the naval establishment. He was perfectly honest. Despite occasional appearances to the contrary, he didn't engage in intrigue. He had no need for it.
On the present occasion, as often, he called on each member of the senior staff to make a brief statement. Hiroshi, for example, argued that Admiral Nagumo's proposal be accepted on the ground that he was the officer in command of the force which had been defeated. All told, there were thirty one such statements. The whole process took over three hours. The Americans wouldn't have had the patience.
It wasn't a part of the system to take a vote. That would have struck everyone as crude. It wouldn't have reflected differences in experience, nor the degree to which a proposal was favored or disfavored by a particular officer. Nor would it have reflected the force of the arguments, as perceived by the totality of those present.
As chief of staff, Ugaki had one rather uncanny ability. He could take account of all these factors and reach a verdict which was judged fair even by the losers. Moreover, he could take a strong stance himself and still make an objective assessment of the consensus. It wasn't unusual for him to rule against the position he had taken. For better or worse, it was democracy beyond anything the Americans had ever dreamed of. In the present case, the decision wasn't even close. The mood of the day before, when Miwa's exhoneration of everyone had been so appealing, was now gone. Hiroshi put it down to the growing realization that someone would have to pay.
The next question was whether the matter should be referred to Admiral Yamamoto. Hiroshi had a feeling that it wouldn't be. If they did send a delegation up to the bridge to tell Admiral Yamamoto that the staff had, in effect, recommended suicide for Admiral Nagumo, the admiral would be put on the spot. He might well feel that he should veto the staff decision and take responsibility himself. That, of course, was exactly what most of the staff was trying to avoid. On the other hand, the matter could be discussed only in the most roundabout way.
Hiroshi, uncharacteristically, spoke at some length himself. He pointed out that it certainly wasn't an operational matter. Moreover, it wasn't even official. No orders were to be given on any subject. It was simply a matter of complying with Admiral Nagumo's request for guidance.
Captain Kuroshima then spoke.
"The relation of the staff to Admiral Yamamoto consists in our recommending courses of action to him. But we do this only when it is necessary to take account of masses of data which are not possessed by any one man. Other than that, the function of the staff is purely administrative. In the present case, it would be presumptuous to suggest to Admiral Yamamoto what he ought to say to Admiral Nagumo. No evaluation of data is involved. If the commander in chief has a message which he wishes to send to Admiral Nagumo, he is perfectly capable of sending it. It is the opinion of the staff that has been requested, and that is what we should supply."
For once, Kuroshima had spoken without any irritating eccentricities. A consensus was quickly reached not to trouble Admiral Yamamoto with this matter, or recommend any course of action to him.
When Kusaka arrived, with Genda behind him, every member of the staff rose and bowed. Ugaki faced him and spoke.
"The staff of the Combined Fleet wishes to thank you, Admiral Kusaka, for acting as emissary in this most important matter. After much thought and discussion, it has been decided that Admiral Nagumo's suggestion lies entirely within the code of honor for officers of the Imperial Japanese Navy."
Hiroshi saw that Ugaki had left Kusaka and Nagumo a tiny sliver of a way out. It was again a matter of Ugaki's strict adherence to the rules, and to the consensus as it had evolved. Much as Ugaki would have liked to simply instruct Nagumo to commit seppuku, it wasn't the business of a staff to order anyone to commit suicide.
In its administrative capacity as regards a senior officer, the staff could only rule on the propiety of such an action. If Nagumo had been judged not substantially at fault, it would have been ruled that he should not, by suicide, deprive the emperor of the services of a valuable officer. To allow the propiety of such an action would still put Nagumo under extremely strong pressure to execute it. Then, to add a little more pressure, Ugaki added.
"Admiral Nagumo may be concerned that such an action would leave his fleet at sea without a commander. However, I can put his mind at ease on that point. The First Mobile Striking force can, in the present circumstances, easily be integrated into the Main Body of the Combined Fleet."
There was thus no need for Nagumo to delay getting on with his seppuku until they got home.
Admiral Kusaka thanked the staff rather elaborately for its consideration of the matter. He said that Admiral Nagumo had anticipated this outcome, and would welcome it. He then added,
"In this anticipation, he has given me a last personal message for Admiral Yamamoto. I would therefore beg to be allowed to wait upon the admiral in order to deliver it."
Hiroshi noticed Genda nod slightly as Kusaka spoke. This had been Kusaka's idea, but they had discussed it. The request was one that could hardly be refused. The way Kusaka put it, it sounded as if the message was simply one of apology and farewell, to which Admiral Yamamoto could reply with a suitable sentiment.
In fact, everyone knew that it was the clever Kusaka's way of by-passing the staff. Kusaka had probably guessed that the staff would decide not to consult Admiral Yamamoto, but he could now pretend blissful ignorance of such a decision.
Hiroshi couldn't guess how frankly Kusaka might speak to Admiral Yamamoto. However, even if everything Kusaka said was purely ceremonial, and did just consist in relaying some appropriate last words, Admiral Yamamoto would have an opportunity to intervene.
After Ugaki took Kusaka off to meet with Admiral Yamamoto, the staff drifted up to the bridge. Hiroshi found himself next to Genda.
It had always fascinated Hiroshi how the Yamato, in anything less than a gale, made no concession to the waves at all. They broke against her bow and sides, but with no tangible effect whatever. It was almost as if the ship wasn't supported by water at all, but was making the ocean part. One had the feeling that she was leaving, not an ordinary wake, but a permanent groove in the ocean. Hiroshi remarked to Genda,
"I don't think I ever really believed that this ship could be sunk."
"It's not easy to imagine. The Akagi would be pitching slightly now. She was much more a living thing."
After that, there was silence. Hiroshi was fairly sure that Genda knew, or guessed, that he had spoken against Admiral Nagumo. But the other didn't seem at all hostile. There was only sadness and a certain amount of apprehension.
During this time, the Chikuma, on the starboard bow, catapulted a float plane. Scouting went on, no matter how far away the enemy fleet was. Among other things, the fleet, now running low on fuel, had to find its tanker train off somewhere to the west.
Finally, Genda spoke.
"I could never be a chief of staff."
"No. You wouldn't be good at it. But you might command a fleet in the next war."
"I wonder if there really will be a next war for Japan. The Americans will never again let us build up the kind of naval force we just had. Or even the kind we still have. We'll be allowed only patrol boats and fishery protection vessels. The flagship will be something like the Nagara with two boilers and half her guns removed."
This last was said with a certain humor. Hiroshi reciprocated.
"You can command a fleet of patrol boats from the Nagara. I'll be your chief of staff. My primary duty will consist of negotiating with the police when our sailors get drunk and start fights in bars."
Hiroshi then continued more seriously.
"You should get out of the navy when this ends. The Japanese people have too much energy and ability to be denied. If that energy doesn't go into war, it'll find some other outlet."
"Yes. I suppose our assault on the rest of the world will take a spiritual turn. We must develop our art and religion. We two could go through America as Zen practitioners convincing the young there to give up the materialist ways of their parents."
"Someone who really did that would strike their culture a far more serious blow than anything the IJN ever dreamed of."
This series of fantasies was interrupted when a young staff lieutenant told them that Admiral Yamamoto had called for a full staff meeting, including Rear Admiral Kusaka and Commander Genda.
Hiroshi knew that the purpose of the meeting would have to be a reprieve for Nagumo. If Admiral Yamamoto had refused the opportunity Kusaka had given him to intervene, he surely wouldn't have called a meeting to announce that fact.
As it turned out, the meeting was extremely brief. Admiral Yamamoto, for the first time since the action had begun, rose and addressed the whole group. He didn't specifically mention Nagumo at all. He said only,
"There has been some question of atoning for our recent defeat. I have decided that there will be no suicides. I am alone responsible for the loss of our ships, our aircraft, and our men. I will apologize to the emperor."
After that, the meeting broke up. There was nothing left to say.
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