Nagumo Chuichi (1886-1944)

Photograph of Admiral Nagumo Chuichi

Naval Historical Center Photo #63423

There is always a scapegoat when a nation suffers disastrous defeat in wartime, and Nagumo Chuichi is the usual scapegoat for the Japanese defeat in the Pacific War. As commander of 1 Air Fleet, or Kido Butai, Nagumo was the terror of the Pacific for a few brief months between the raid on Pearl Harbor and the disaster at Midway. His star's trajectory was all downhill from there.

Nagumo graduated from the Naval Academy in 1908 and the Naval Staff College in 1920. He later commanded Cruiser Division 8, which covered the Japanese landings north of Shanghai in August 1937. He was serving as president of the Naval Staff College when he was offered command of 1 Air Fleet. He was an unlikely choice, having devoted his earlier career to perfecting torpedoes and torpedo tactics for the night actions prescribed by Decisive Battle Doctrine, and he had no experience whatsoever with naval aviation. He never really believed in air power, he never believed in the Pearl Harbor operation, and he was a member of the Fleet Faction within the Imperial Navy, which put him politically and personally at odds with Yamamoto, who was a leader of the Treaty Faction. But the strict rules of seniority in the Japanese Navy put him in the unlikely position of commanding the most powerful carrier armada the world had ever seen. He had the good fortune of commanding an exquisitely trained force with excellent staff officers, include the brilliant Genda Minoru.

Nagumo's command decisions have been subject to scathing postmortems. Airmchair strategists have suggested that he blundered badly in not launching a third wave at Pearl Harbor to destroy the oil tank farm and the harbor facilities. But, at the time, he was concerned about his fuel supply, the possibility of a devastating counterattack by land-based aircraft (whose effectiveness against ships under way was overestimated by both sides at the time), and the disproportionate losses that might be incurred by an attack against a now thoroughly-alerted defense on targets obscured by dense smoke from the earlier attack waves. Zimm (2007) finds the likelihood that a third wave could have inflicted damage great enough to justify the cost to be negligible.

Nagumo waffled badly at Midway, which led to disaster. But his order to rearm the reserve aircraft, which left his carriers terribly vulnerable at a critical time, was a natural consequence of the weaknesses of Yamamoto's operational plan, which was inflexible, put too much reliance on surprise, and set out two contradictory objectives — the destruction of Pacific Fleet and the capture of Midway. Nagumo had never shown much interest in nor mastery of the technical details of carrier flight operations, relying even more than most Japanese admirals on his gifted staff.  But Genda had come down with influenza at about the time Nagumo sailed for Midway, and Fuchida Mitsuo, his flight leader, was grounded with appendicitis. Neither was fully recovered on the day of the big battle, and their weakness seems to have infected the mind of their commander.

Nagumo also performed poorly in the carrier battles that took place during the Guadalcanal campaign. He was overly cautious and failed to push his advantage, which is perhaps unsurprising in the man who lost so much at Midway. Ironically, his chief opponent, Jack Fletcher, was also accused of excessive caution, after having had two carriers sunk underneath him, at Coral Sea and Midway. These carrier battles were indecisive because neither commander was willing to force a decision.

Nagumo was finally removed from command of carriers after the Battle of Santa Cruz, October 25-27, 1942. He was given a paper fleet in the Marianas, and shot himself in the head towards the end of the battle of Saipan, on 6 July 1944.

Though a hot-tempered man and a conservative commander, Nagumo seems to have been beloved by his staff. He was something of an old sea dog, always happier on board ship than shore. Like many Japanese men, he kept a diary, but to the chagrin of historians, it is sparse and unrevealing. He was sloppy in dress and outgoing in manner, and if his heart often became hot it was more usually warm. Prange (1988) likened him to a Japanese Halsey.

Service record

1887-3-25   born
1908-11-21 Midshipman     
Graduates from Naval Academy, standing 8th in a class of 191. Assigned to CA Soya
1909-8-2   CA Nisshin
1909-12-1   CA Niitaka
1910-1-15 Ensign  
1910-5-5   CA Asama
1911-4-20   Gunnery School Basic Course
1911-8-4   Torpedo School Basic Course
1911-12-1 Lieutenant junior grade     
1911-12-20   BB Aki
1913-5-24   DD Hatsuyuki
1913-12-1   Naval College B-Course
1914-5-27   Torpedo School Advanced Course
1914-12-1 Lieutenant Naval Shipbuilding Command
1914-12-15   Kirishima
1915-12-13   DD Sugi
1916-12-1   Staff, Cruiser Division 4
1917-4-13   Staff, 3 Special Task Fleet
1917-12-15   Commander, Kisaragi
1918-12-1   Naval College A-Course
1920-12-1 Lieutenant Commander     
Commander Momi
1921-11-1   Staff, Destroyer Squadron 1
1922-12-1   Naval General Staff
1924-12-1 Commander  
1925-6-1   Trip to Europe, United States
1926-3-20   Commander, PG Saga
1926-10-15   Commander, PG Uji
1927-11-15   Instructor, Naval College
Captain Commander, Naka
1930-12-1   Commander, Destroyer Division 11
1931-10-10   Naval General Staff
1933-10-1   Chief, S2, N1, Naval General Staff
1933-11-15   Commander, Takao
1934-11-15   Commander, Yamashiro
1935-11-15 Rear admiral
Commander, Destroyer Squadron 1
1936-12-1   Commander, Cruiser Division 8
1937-11-15   Schoolmaster, Torpedo School
1938-11-15   Commander, Battleship Division 3
1939-11-15 Vice admiral
1940-11-1   President Naval College
1941-4-10   Commander, 1 Air Fleet
1942-7-14   Commander, 3 Fleet
1942-11-11   Commander, 3 Naval District
1943-6-21   Commander, 2 Naval District
1943-10-20   Commander, 1 Fleet
1944-3-4   Commander, Central Pacific Area Fleet
1944-7-6 Admiral Commits suicide at Saipan


Boatner (1996)

Fuller (1992)

Harmsen (2013)

Lundstrom (2006)

Materials of IJN (accessed 2008-2-18)
Morison (1953)

Prange (1981)

Zimm (2007)

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