Midway, had sapped Yamamoto’s confidence, and thereafter conservation rather than expenditure of force became the watchword in the imperial fleet. On June 4, the admiral had sat on Yamato’s flag bridge digesting every morsel of the Kido Butai’s disaster with groans of anguish. Putting in at Truk several months later with his fleet on the way to the Solomons, Yamamoto seems to have had a premonition of impending personal as well as national calamity, writing to a friend, “I sense that my life must be completed in the next hundred days.” So Yamamoto, the supreme gambler, lost his nerve. Instead of throwing his two finest battleships into the fight for Guadalcanal at its climactic moment, he dispatched the old battle cruisers Kirishima and Hiei. The sea-air battles of mid-November that concluded with a dramatic night duel between capital ships sealed Japan’s fate. Hiei was mauled by Callahan’s gallant cruisers and destroyers on the night of the twelfth, then bombed to death the next morning. Kirishima, returning two nights later at the head of another cruiser-destroyer force, led by Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo, found the fast new battleships Washington and South Dakota waiting along with four destroyers. The battle did not go all the Americans’ way. The destroyer force was wiped out, and South Dakota suffered a massive failure to its electrical system that kept it useless for long moments while Japanese gunfire pummeled its upper works. But that left Washington free to shoot Kirishima to pieces, and the battle cruiser was scuttled the next morning. Kondo, on the bridge of the cruiser Atago, had had enough and rushed away. The Japanese would never again send a battleship force against Guadalcanal and Henderson Field.
Historians can profitably imagine what would have happened if Admiral Willis Augustus Lee on the nights of November 14–15, 1942, had confronted both—or even one—of Japan’s superbattleships. Standing out of range of American 16-inch guns, Yamato and Musashi would have pounded Washington and South Dakota under the water before turning their huge 18-inch batteries on Henderson Field. With the Cactus Air Force ripped to pieces, the two Japanese ships could have returned night after night until the U.S. Marines and Army units would have either surrendered or evacuated. The battleship might well have resumed its place as queen of the seas. Instead, by refusing to risk his most precious ships in admittedly perilous circumstances, Yamamoto lost Hiei, Kirishima, the battle, the campaign, and whatever faint chance Japan might have had to keep its fledgling oceanic and East Asian empire through stalemate.
Yamamoto’s faintheartedness reflected a peculiar aspect of the Japanese character that contributed to that island nation’s defeat. To the people of Nippon, enmeshed in both a warrior culture and a scarcity economy, warships were sacred entities. Each of the big carriers and battlewagons carried a portrait of the emperor, and the loss of any one of these vessels was deemed a national disaster spiritually as well as economically. Crews believed their ships to be irreplaceable, and they fought those ships to the bitter end; the few who at last abandoned a sinking or burning vessel did so in tears. Not so the Americans. Ships, however much they might be a temporary or even long-term home, were, in the last analysis, pieces of machinery that were expendable. When they could no longer function, they were abandoned, with regret to be sure but with anticipation that a replacement would soon be on the way. Although a few men wept at seeing their ship go down or burn uncontrollably, the great majority seem to have taken the attitude of two sailors on the sinking Hornet at Santa Cruz. As they went down the lines from the fatally stricken carrier, one asked the other if he would reenlist. “Goddamit, yes,” the other replied. “On the new Hornet.” The supreme irony of Yamato and Musashi was that their very existence as the world’s greatest battleships precluded their effective use. By the end of January 1943, the Japanese conceded defeat, moved their fleet back to Truk, and over a two-night period removed the last of their by now starving and tattered troops from Guadalcanal.
The Imperial Japanese Navy was burdened by more than the low morale of its commander during the Solomons campaign. It simply did not possess the detailed intelligence of enemy strength and movement available to the Americans through the breaking of the Purple Code. Throughout the Pacific war, the Japanese navy fought blind in many ways on many fronts: its intelligence was poor to nonexistent, its radar belated and crude, and its antisubmarine instruments rudimentary. In technology as in so many other areas, the Japanese were simply overwhelmed, as Yamamoto surely understood.