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While demonized by the American press, Yamamoto had no desire to play the role of wartime villain. 

Dead Reckoning: The Story of How Johnny Mitchell and His Fighter Pilots Took on Admiral Yamamoto and Avenged Pearl Harbor

By Dick Lehr. 416 pp.

Harper, 2020. $28.99.

ADMIRAL ISOROKU YAMAMOTO’S death during a crucial juncture in the Pacific War robbed Japan of its chief naval architect—and of a beloved national figure—even as it provided Americans with the payback they craved. Dead Reckoning, a riveting new book by journalist and Pulitzer Prize–finalist Dick Lehr, tells the story of how the infamous planner of the Pearl Harbor attack met his end in the skies above Bougainville in the Solomon Islands on April 18, 1943.

Dead Reckoning follows two figures: Yamamoto and U.S. Army Air Forces pilot Major John W. “Mitch” Mitchell, the leader of Operation Vengeance, the military mission to kill Yamamoto. But although Lehr’s book is indeed something of a revenge tale (parallels are drawn between the Japanese admiral and Osama bin Laden, a comparative modern-day villain), Dead Reckoning benefits the most from Lehr’s successful efforts to humanize Yamamoto. 

While understandably disparaged by the American media, Yamamoto was a reluctant warrior whose goal was not to conquer the United States but to force a peace agreement that would protect Japan’s economic interests in the Pacific. He was a modest officer who had outsmarted and outworked his peers to become the most prominent of his country’s military leaders. And importantly, Yamamoto, who valued honor, insisted that the United States be notified that a state of war existed before Japan’s December 7, 1941, attack. He was mortified when his own government failed to deliver that communiqué until after Pearl Harbor was in flames.

Indeed, Lehr effectively portrays the admiral as a revered figure who rather uncomfortably bore on his shoulders the weight of his country’s expectations. But what he secretly confided to just a few people was his view that the U.S. could not be defeated. As devastating as Pearl Harbor proved to be, it was not the knockout blow Yamamoto believed was needed to force a thus-far neutral United States to the negotiating table.

The shock of defeat at Midway in June 1942 further disheartened the Rising Sun’s most notable military leader, as he knew the window was closing on Japan’s chance at victory. He did not see, however, that his own days were numbered: less than a year later, in April 1943, he decided to set out from his base at Rabaul, New Guinea, and tour several Japanese-held islands. Yamamoto’s itinerary was cabled to their commanders, and when codebreakers intercepted it, Operation Vengeance was born. 

For the Allies, debate ensued about the morality of assassinating a foreign military leader, even during wartime. Persuasive arguments in favor were that the bomber that would be carrying Yamamoto on April 18 was equivalent to the admiral being on his flagship—a legitimate target—and that a surprise attack would be appropriate payback for the date that lived in infamy.

Admiral Chester Nimitz authorized an attempt to shoot down the bomber, and he granted supervision of the mission to Admiral William “Bull” Halsey. Eventually, that assignment found its way to a group of P-38 pilots led by Mitchell. The tick-tock telling of the ensuing pursuit is gripping, and its successful follow-through is cause for jubilance for Mitchell—but readers themselves might feel a twinge of sadness, as Lehr has succeeded in transforming the exalted admiral from wartime caricature into three-dimensional human being.

The impact on Japan of the attack on Yamamoto can be compared to that of Pearl Harbor’s impact on the United States, even though the Imperial High Command kept the Bougainville strike secret for more than a month after Yamamoto’s death. Unlike the U.S. after December 7, 1941, however, Japan did not, of course, rally and regroup to win the war; the death of Yamamoto was a morale-crusher as well as a military defeat. Even his successor, Admiral Mineichi Koga, lamented, “There was only one Yamamoto. His loss is an unsupportable blow to us.” War in the Pacific would continue for more than two years, but with very few exceptions it would lead to one blood-soaked defeat after another for Japan.

Although World War II buffs will begin this book knowing fully well how it ends, Lehr knows how to tell and structure a good story: Dead Reckoning is a thoroughly researched book that readers will want to put down only once they’ve reached the final page.  ✯   —Thomas Clavin is a New York Times bestselling author who’s written or co-written 18 books. 

This article was published in World War II’s August 2020 issue.