On November 15, 1938, Matome Ugaki was promoted to Rear Admiral of the Imperial Navy of Japan. This ambitious military officer, who came from a poor Japanese family with Samurai traditions, quickly climbed high on the career ladder, but, interestingly, he was not an outstanding strategist. His way of fighting was an extension of the Samurai tradition, and the Rear Admiral himself did not understand the role of modern weapons such as aircraft carriers. Ugaki was one of the people who mentally stopped at the beginning of the 20th century, when Japan humiliated Russia at sea. He promoted the idea of large battleships, which, in his opinion, were to remain the core of the imperial fleet for a long time to come.
Ugaki’s subordinates baptized him as a “golden mask” as he never smiled. However, he aroused respect with his diligence, conscientiousness and zeal in executing orders. Less important was the fact that – to put it bluntly – he was a mediocre commander.
When Japan joined the Second World War, Ugaki was appointed Chief of Staff of the Combined Fleet of the famous Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, author of the plan to attack Pearl Harbor. As it turned out, Yamamoto did not endure his new subordinate, because he quickly noticed the above mentioned features. Additionally, the Admiral called Matome Ugaki a “drunk” and it was not an unfounded insult. Our character considered efficiency in drinking alcohol as one of the features of a good samurai and did not avoid drinking sake, at the same time he was characterized by the so-called “strong head”. It is worth quoting here one of the Japanese customs of kampai, i.e. the tradition of pouring water to each other and drinking sake in company. When the Japanese man had had enough, it was in a good tone to refuse to drink more alcohol. Matome Ugaki was known for the fact that he never once refused another sake cup, despite the fact that at some events he received even several dozen of such cups. He didn’t even show signs of being drunk, and after the feast he moved away as if he hadn’t drunk anything.
Yamamoto’s lack of trust in Ugaki was revealed, among other things, by the fact that samurai did not take part in the attack on Pearl Harbor, he learned about it after returning to service from a short holiday. Ugaki was already impressed by the suicide attacks on American warships (made by Japanese miniature submarines that took part in the Hawaiian offensive). The Chief of Staff contempted the Americans, which at times was even irrational. An example of this is the history of the American aircraft carrier Saratoga, which was damaged twice during the war – first by the submarine I-6, then repaired for six months, and after returning to battle was hit again by the I-26. A little surprised Ugaki quickly announced that Saratoga was sunk the first time, and the Americans produce new warships with the same names instead of fixing them – of course it was absurd.
As the war in the Pacific continued, Yamamoto and Ugaki approached the idea of fighting a decisive battle with the Americans to destroy their fleet. The Midway Atoll was chosen to carry out this plan, but as we know, its outcome was devastating for Japan, and the Imperial Navy lost four aircraft carriers there. It was no better for the Japanese at Guadalcanal, where after fierce battles the Americans captured the island, and Ugaki accused the land forces of defeat.
In November 1942, Matome Ugaki was promoted to the rank of Vice Admiral of the imperial fleet. This was the time when his and Yamamoto’s planned airborne offensive turned out to be a complete flop. The Vice Admiral accused his subordinate officers of cowardice and accused them of being too far from their soldiers during the command. As a consequence, the fighting troops were visited by Ugaki and Yamamoto. In April, the news of a future visit by both Admirals was intercepted by Americans who prepared a trap for two Mitsubishi G4M bombers and an escort of six fighters which were forming an air convoy for Japanese commanders. Sixteen P-38 fighters brutally attacked, focusing the fire on the Yamamoto plane, which tried to lose American pilots by taking a fast dive flight. Behind him was a second bomber, where Ugaki was located, but the older machine started to shake and there was a risk that it would crash. The pilot slowed down his speed, for which he was offended by the Vice Admiral, and was ordered to chase the aircraft of the commander-in-chief no matter what. It was too late, however, because the Yamamoto bomber fell into the jungle, burying all passengers, including the most outstanding strategist in the history of the Japanese fleet. Ugaki’s plane was also shot down, but it fell into the sea and the vice admiral was lucky to have fallen out of it before the machine sank. After arriving on land, he learned that he was one of only three survivors of the air raid.
Isoroku Yamamoto’s death was experienced by Matome Ugaki in the same way as the feudal rōnin experienced the death of his vassal. And just like rōnin, he also wanted to die in battle and blot out the disgrace that was (in his opinion) his survival of the clash, where Yamamoto died. After the recovery, he was quickly appointed commander of the 1st Battleship Division, which consisted of Yamato and Musashi battleships, the largest and heaviest battleships in history. In June 1944, Ugaki took part in a battle in the Philippine Sea, where the Americans won an overwhelming victory over the Japanese fleet, inflicting huge losses on it, virtually destroying its naval aviation. The broken vice admiral returned to Japan, where he devoted himself to drunkenness and fun.
Later, during the Battle of Leyte, Ugaki, commanding from the deck of Yamato, witnessed, among other things, the sinking of ships by the Americans: Musashi, Maja and the flagship Atago. When Admiral Takeo Kurita ordered the retreat, seeing the extent of the losses and the lack of hope for victory, Matome Ugaki counted it as depriving him of the chance for a glorious death worthy of samurai. He was transferred to the headquarters in Tokyo, and then he was entrusted with organizing kamikaze troops on Kiusiu. Apparently, Matome was drunk during his nomination as commander of the 5th Air Fleet.
We wrote more about the activities of kamikaze pilots during World War II in a recent article. It is enough to say that although the initial actions of the “divine wind” were not successful, already during the American invasion of Okinawa 1800 planes belonging to suicide pilots sent by Ugaki inflicted clear losses on the US Navy (218 American warships were damaged and 36 sunken). The Vice Admiral was ready to send even more kamikaze to fight, but his plans were never realized again.
The end of the Second World War came to the Japanese Empire. On August 15, 1945, a speech by Emperor Hirohito was broadcast on the radio, who informed the people of the need to surrender. Vice Admiral Matome Ugaki quietly listened to the radio announcement and then made the last record in his diary. He wrote there that he took responsibility for the failures of the kamikaze pilots, who with heroic courage tried to stop the enemy from reaching the gates of Japan. Ugaki pointed out that he had not yet received an official order to stop military action, so according to the spirit of Bushidō he decided to die like a real samurai during a suicide attack on American warships.
Ugaki took off his decorations from his uniform, leaving only a ceremonial short Tantō sword with him, given to him by Admiral Yamamoto. He asked to take his last photos, he took a place in his diving bomber Yokosuka D4Y, beforehand saluting his companions in arms. Despite the protests of some pilots, who claimed that his sacrifice was a senseless loss of people and equipment, Ugaki was joined by 10 other planes and 22 people (in the commander’s bomber flew three people). After the take-off, three planes immediately returned to base because of “engine problems”, i.e. probably their crews gave up their suicidal mission.
Vice Admiral Matome Ugaki sent his last message on August 15 at 19:24, reporting that he had begun diving towards the American vessel. The shots from the American deck weapon brought the vice admiral his longed-for death worthy of a Japanese samurai. The body of the last kamikaze pilot – without any decorations, but with a sword at the side – was thrown into the sea on the beach on the island of Iheyajima.