Advanced to vice admiral in 1939, Nagumo took command in April 1941 of the First Air Fleet, which concentrated Japan's six most powerful aircraft carriers into a single force. He opposed the Pearl Harbor operation advocated by his chief air officer Genda Minoru, the air fleet's air wing commander Fuchida Mitsuo, and commander of the Combined Fleet Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku. Nevertheless, his carriers attacked on 7 December 1941, crippling the U.S. Navy's battle fleet. Nagumo was criticized in some quarters for his caution in refusing to carry out additional air strikes against port facilities or to attempt to locate and destroy U.S. aircraft carriers then at sea.
Nagumo's First Air Fleet next undertook strikes on Rabaul and Port Darwin before beginning operations in the eastern Indian Ocean that devastated Allied naval power in the region. The fleet returned to Japan to refit in the spring of 1942. The carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku were detached to support the Port Moresby operation that ended with withdrawal after the Battle of the Coral Sea. Following their refit, the other four carriers sortied as the principal striking force for the Midway operation, which ended in their loss.
The defeat at Midway ruined Nagumo's reputation. Afterward, he commanded carriers during the Guadalcanal Campaign, and in August and October 1942 he inflicted losses on American forces in the Solomon Islands, but he also sustained heavy damage to his own air groups. Regarded as excessively cautious, Nagumo was relegated to a series of second-line shore commands until recalled to frontline service in late 1943 as commander of the 6,000-member force assigned to defend Saipan against an impending American assault. The invasion began on 13 June 1944 and Nagumo, foreseeing another defeat for which he would be blamed, committed suicide on 6 July 1944. Paul E. Fontenoy
Evans, David C., and Mark R. Peattie. Kaigun: Strategy, Tactics, and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1887–1941. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997.; Peattie, Mark R. Sunburst: The Rise of Japanese Naval Air Power, 1909–1941. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2001.; Prange, Gordon W., with Donald Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon. At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981.; Stillwell, Paul, ed. Air Raid: Pearl Harbor! Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1981.
Paul E. Fontenoy