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Chapter 39

Tojo and his claque of imperial army boneheads said to him, in effect: Why don’t you go out and secure the Pacific Ocean for us, because we’ll need a convenient shipping lane, say, oh, about ten thousand miles wide, in order to carry out our little plan to conquer South America, Alaska, and all of North America west of the Rockies. In the meantime we’ll finish mopping up China. Please attend to this ASAP.

By then they were running the country. They had assassinated anyone in their way, they had the emperor’s ear, and it was hard to tell them that their plan was full of shit and that the Americans were just going to get really pissed off and annihilate them. So, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, a dutiful servant of the emperor, put a bit of thought into the problem, sketched out a little plan, sent out one or two boats on a small jaunt halfway across the fucking planet, and blew Pearl Harbor off the map. He timed it perfectly, right after the formal declaration of war. It was not half bad. He did his job.

One of his aides later crawled into his office—in the nauseatingly craven posture that minions adopt when they are about to make you really, really unhappy—and told him that there had been a mix-up in the embassy in Washington and that the diplomats there had not gotten around to delivering the declaration of war until well after the American Pacific Fleet had gone to the bottom.

To those Army fuckheads, this is nothing—just a typo, happens all the time. Isoroku Yamamoto has given up on trying to make them understand that the Americans are grudge-holders on a level that is inconceivable to the Nipponese, who learn to swallow their pride before they learn to swallow solid food. Even if he could get Tojo and his mob of shabby, ignorant thugs to comprehend how pissed off the Americans are, they’d laugh it off. What’re they going to do about it? Throw a pie in your face, like the Three Stooges? Ha, ha, ha! Pass the sake and bring me another comfort girl!

Isoroku Yamamoto spent a lot of time playing poker with Yanks during his years in the States, smoking like a chimney to deaden the scent of their appalling aftershave. The Yanks are laughably rude and uncultured, of course; this hardly constitutes a sharp observation. Yamamoto, by contrast, attained some genuine insight as a side-effect of being robbed blind by Yanks at the poker table, realizing that the big freckled louts could be dreadfully cunning. Crude and stupid would be okay—perfectly understandable, in fact.

But crude and clever is intolerable; this is what makes those redheaded ape-men extra double super loathsome. Yamamoto is still trying to drill the notion into the heads of his partners in the big Nipponese scheme to conquer everything between Karachi and Denver. He wishes that they would get the message. A lot of the Navy men have been around the world a few times and seen it for themselves, but those Army guys have spent their careers mowing down Chinamen and raping their women and they honestly believe that the Americans are just the same except taller and smellier. Come on guys, Yamamoto keeps telling them, the world is not just a big Nanjing. But they don’t get it. If Yamamoto were running things, he’d make a rule: each Army officer would have to take some time out from bayoneting Neolithic savages in the jungle, go out on the wide Pacific in a ship, and swap 16-inch shells with an American task force for a while. Then maybe, they’d understand they’re in a real scrap here.

This is what Yamamoto thinks about, shortly before sunrise, as he clambers onto his Mitsubishi G4M bomber in Rabaul, the scabbard of his sword whacking against the frame of the narrow door. The Yanks call this type of plane "Betty," an effeminatizing gesture that really irks him. Then again, the Yanks name even their own planes after women, and paint naked ladies on their sacred instruments of war! If they had samurai swords, Americans would probably decorate the blades with nail polish.

Because the plane’s a bomber, the pilot and copilot are crammed into a cockpit above the main tube of the fuselage. The nose of the plane, then, is a blunt dome of curving struts, like the meridians and parallels of a globe, the trapezoids between them filled with sturdy panes of glass. The plane has been parked pointing east, so the glass nose is radiant with streaky dawn, the unreal hues of chemicals igniting in a lab. In Nippon nothing happens by accident, so he has to assume that this is a deliberate morale-building tip o’ the helmet to the Rising Sun. Making his way up to the greenhouse, he straps himself in where he can stare out the windows as this Betty, and Admiral Ugaki’s, take off.

In one direction is Simpson’s Harbor, one of the best anchorages in the Pacific, an asymmetrical U wrapped in a neat grid of streets, conspicuously blighted by a fucking British cricket oval! In the other direction, over the ridge, lies the Bismarck Sea. Somewhere down there, the corpses of a few thousand Nipponese troops lie pickled in the wrinkled hulls of their transport ships. A few thousand more escaped to life rafts, but all of their weapons and supplies went to the bottom, so the men are just useless mouths now.

It’s been like this for almost a year, ever since Midway, when the Americans refused to bite on Yamamoto’s carefully designed feints and ruses up Alaska way, and just happened to send all of their surviving carriers directly into the path of his Midway invasion force. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. Yamamoto’s chewing on a thumbnail, right through his glove.

Now those clumsy, reeking farmhands are sinking every transport ship that the Army sends to New Guinea. Double shit! Their observation planes are everywhere—always showing up in the right place at the right time—tally-hoing the emperor’s furtive convoys in the sawing twang of bloody-gummed Confederates. Their coast-watchers infest the mountains of all these godforsaken islands, despite the Army’s efforts to hunt them down and flush them out. All of their movements are known.

The two planes fly southeastwards across the tip of New Ireland and enter the Solomon Sea. The Solomon Islands spread out before them, fuzzy jade humps rising from a steaming ocean, 6,500 feet below. A couple of small humps and then a much bigger one, today’s destination: Bougainville.

Have to show the flag, go out on these inspection tours, give the frontline troops a glimpse of glory, build morale. Yamamoto frankly has better things to do with his time, so he tries to pack as many of these obligatory junkets into a single day as possible. He left his naval citadel at Truk and flew to Rabaul last week so that he could supervise his latest big operation: a wave of massed air attacks on American bases from New Guinea to Guadalcanal.

The air raids were purportedly successful; kind of. The surviving pilots reported vast numbers of sinkings, whole fleets of American aircraft destroyed on their mucky airstrips. Yamamoto knows perfectly well that these reports will turn out to be wildly exaggerated. More than half of his planes never came back—the Americans, and their almost equally offensive cousins, the Australians, were ready for them. But the Army and the Navy alike are full of ambitious men who will do everything they can to channel good news the emperor’s way, even if it’s not exactly the truth. Accordingly, Yamamoto has received a personal telegram of congratulations from none other than the sovereign himself. It is his duty, now, to fly round to his various outposts, hop out of his Betty, wave the sacred telegram in the air, and pass on the blessings of the emperor.

Yamamoto’s feet hurt like hell. Like everyone else within a thousand miles, he has a tropical disease; in his case, beriberi. It is the scourge of the Nipponese and especially of the Navy, because they eat too much polished rice, not enough fish and vegetables. His long nerves have been corroded by lactic acid, so his hands quiver. His failing heart can’t shove fluid through his extremities, so his feet swell. He needs to change his shoes several times a day, but he doesn’t have room here; he is encumbered not only by the curvature of the plane’s greenhouse, but also by his sword.

They are approaching the Imperial Navy airbase at Bougainville, right on schedule, at 9:35. A shadow passes overhead and Yamamoto glances up to see the silhouette of an escort, way out of position, dangerously close to them. Who is that idiot? Then the green island and the blue ocean rotate into view as his pilot puts the Betty into a power dive. Another plane flashes overhead with a roar that cuts through the noise of the Betty’s engines, and although it is nothing more than a black flash, its odd forktailed silhouette registers in his mind. It was a P-38 Lightning, and the last time Admiral Yamamoto checked, the Nipponese Air Force wasn’t flying any of those.

The voice of Admiral Ugaki comes through on the radio from the other Betty, right behind Yamamoto’s, ordering Yamamoto’s pilot to stay in formation. Yamamoto cannot see anything in front of them except for the surf washing ashore on Bougainville, and the wall of trees, seeming to grow higher and higher, as the plane descends—the tropical canopy now actually above them. He is Navy, not an Air Force man, but even he knows that when you can’t see any planes in front of you in a dogfight, you have problems. Red streaks flash past from behind, burying themselves in the steaming jungle ahead, and the Betty begins to shake violently. Then yellow light fills the corners of both of his eyes: the engines are on fire. The pilot is heading directly for the jungle now; either the plane is out of control, or the pilot is already dead, or it is a move of atavistic desperation: run, run into the trees!

They enter the jungle in level flight, and Yamamoto is astonished how far they go before hitting anything big. Then the plane is bludgeoned wide open by mahogany trunks, like baseball bats striking a wounded sparrow, and he knows it’s over. The greenhouse disintegrates around him, the meridians and parallels crumpling and rending which isn’t quite as bad as it sounds since the body of the plane is suddenly filled with flames. As his seat tears loose from the broken dome and launches into space, he grips his sword, unwilling to disgrace himself by dropping his sacred weapon, blessed by the emperor, even in this last instant of his life. His clothes and hair are on fire as he tumbles like a meteor through the jungle, clenching his ancestral blade.

He realizes something: The Americans must have done the impossible: broken all of their codes. That explains Midway, it explains the Bismarck Sea, Hollandia, everything. It especially explains why Yamamoto—who ought to be sipping green tea and practicing calligraphy in a misty garden—is, in point of fact, on fire and hurtling through the jungle at a hundred miles per hour in a chair, closely pursued by tons of flaming junk. He must get word out! The codes must all be changed! This is what he is thinking when he flies head-on into a hundred-foot-tall Octomelis sumatrana.

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