No one in Japan’s military was responsible for more devastation and humiliation to the United States in the opening months of the Pacific war than Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. His cunning and strategizing, beginning with the Pearl Harbor attack, permitted a sweep across the oceans to achieve a success unlike any the empire had ever known. For almost 6 months, his navy ruled the sea and sky, felling all who tried to interfere with its sizable victories.
His name became a household word in Japan.
Then, came that fateful day of June 4, near a tiny atoll in which sat two specks of islands.
Yamamoto’s gamble to lure the U.S. Navy into one final battle to render it impotent failed in the worst way possible, with its main striking force, 4 aircraft carriers, and all veterans of Pearl Harbor, sent to the bottom. Never had Japan suffered so grave a loss. And at that moment, forevermore would it be trying to stave off defeat, as the U.S. war machine began its slow and bloody march to the shores of the home islands, starting with the Solomon’s campaign in 1942/43.
By now, even though less than a year had passed since Pearl Harbor, Yamamoto knew the odds of Japan rebounding from such an overwhelming advantage of U.S. industrial might was slim to none, though he dared not speak about it. His job was to keep fighting no matter how long the odds and continue planning future operations without realizing that his immense popularity and respect among his people was becoming a double edged sword. For his name often crossed the lips of American war planners from Hawaii to Washington. They respected him, too… And hated him. Because to them he was the architect and reason for a war which America never wanted. Responsible for its greatest insult, a sneak attack, while the two nations were technically still at peace.
For these sins, they prepared a suitable ending for him.
As a result of cracking the Japanese navy code known as JN-25D, U.S. naval intelligence intercepted a message pertaining to the Admiral’s travel plans in April 1943. In it, they learned he would be flying from the island of Rabaul to Balle, part of the Solomon’s chain for an inspection tour on the 18th. The dates, arrival and departure times were analyzed, and information sent up the chain of command and presented to President Roosevelt. After hearing the briefing, His reply was to the point.
Back down the command it went, with highest priority from his lips to Navy Secretary Frank Knox, and then to Admiral Chester Nimitz, who relayed it to Admiral William Halsey, commander in the South Pacific.
Soon a plan began to formulate.
They deduced one sure way to hit Yamamoto: When he was in the air traveling between airfields. This would occur early in the morning. If the timing was spot on, they could be intercepted. His formation was small, 2 bombers (G4M ‘Bettys’) acting as transports and 6 fighters A6M ‘Zeroes’ for escort.
With U.S. forces hundreds of miles away, the nearest base lay on Guadalcanal, the famous Henderson field, of which so much blood was shed to protect, and now had several squadrons of fighters available.
It would be no Navy or Marine Corps undertaking, though. Their fighters, the F4F Wildcat and the newer F4U Corsair were found lacking the range even with external fuel tanks. Only the Army Air Corps had the answer: the Lockheed P-38 Lightning. Twin engine, twin tailed and mounting 4 machine gun and 1 cannon in its nose, it could make the round trips with external tanks, and providing there were no errors in navigation, get home with just enough.
16 Lightnings of the 339th Squadron, under command of Major John Mitchell were chosen. He was presented with a dossier labeled TOP SECRET, while inside was the operational codename: ‘Vengeance’. He began work right away, coming up with the route they needed to hit Yamamoto’s group in the air at about 0935 hours. 14 Lightnings, which he would lead, would engage the escorts and any other threat while 4 more would act as a ‘killer’ group for the transports. This group was commanded by Captain Thomas Lanphier and included Lieutenants Rex Barber, Raymond Hine, and Besby Holmes.
When the intricate details were finalized, it involved a 1,000 mile roundtrip between enemy held islands at wavetop level to avoid radar. Once Yamamoto was spotted they would climb to engage. They had to do everything possible to make it look like a chance encounter, to prevent the Japanese from growing suspicious of their code’s security.
They also knew they must get in and out quick, as it was known on the nearby island of Kahili up to 100 enemy fighters would be less than an hour’s flying time away from the sector of action.
The last thing Mitchell did before the mission was to replace his planes compasses with more reliable Navy compasses, and preserve the origins of the Yamamoto’s itinerary by lying to his pilots, informing them that a coast watcher had seen Yamamoto boarding an aircraft bound for the Solomons.
On the 18th, just as the sun began peaking its face above the ocean upon the purple and pink horizon, the pilots headed to their mounts to begin their checklists. Minutes later, propellers rotated into a steady grumble as the engines wound to idle. It was 0700 hours. One by one the olive and gray machines taxied to their takeoff points, turning to a stop, then revving into a howl as full throttle shot them down the tarmac. They rose above the dark jungle and began forming up above the field. They aligned into 4 flights of 14 aircraft, with two aborting safely due to mechanical difficulties.
They pointed their noses to the desired heading and roared away low over the water, passing countless crops of islets as the sun climbed higher in brilliant red through the clouds. One, then two, hours crept by with monotony growing and blue water continuing an endless trek beneath them until the hour of 0900 arrived.
They knew this was the area. Eyes scanned the sky for their prey as they began a gentle climb to 18,000 feet. Over 30 more minutes passed until way off in the distance, someone spotted them. Tiny dark specks against pale blue. 2 transports and two vees of 3 fighters each.
It was 0934.
“Skin em’ off.” Mitchell radioed. Auxiliary tanks under each wing tumbled away, and Mitchell called Lanphier. “Go get ’em, Tom.”
The killer group shoved their throttles to the wall and swooped in toward the Japanese, from the right rear, above and line abreast.
Lanphier turned toward the nearest escort of 3 fighters trying to divert them. The entire Japanese formation fragmented at that moment in a flurry of dipping wings and panicked pilots, while Rex Barber homed in on the lead transport, in a steep bank.
He pressed the firing button, and tracer bullets leaped out in a concentrated cone of red, reaching for the transports fuselage.
Aboard, bullets tore into the unprotected passengers, ripping flesh in great chunks as rounds bored gaping holes into the compartments.
50. Caliber rounds penetrated Yamamoto’s jaw and shoulder, blasting out the other side, he slumped forward, spraying blood over his dead entourage while the plane began a dive, right engine afire, plummeting toward the deep green jungle of Bougainville.
It leveled just a bit, trying to stay airborne, then crashed through the trees disintegrating into large flaming parts, leaving black plumes to etch over each one as they rolled to a stop.
By now the sky was full of turning planes and thousands of crisscrossing bullets as the rest of the Lightnings engaged the escorts, downing one, and focus turned to the second bomber, now diving toward the ocean.
Barber was on this one too, and he was pursued by 3 zero’s trying to line him up. But Barber didn’t budge as his mount shuddered under the chatter of his guns, hits flashing on the bomber until its wing poured smoke. It never recovered its dive, hitting the water at a shallow angle and breaking apart. There were 3 survivors later recovered; one of these was Vice Admiral Matome Ugaki, Yamamoto’s chief of staff.
A call came to rejoin formation, and as quick as they had arrived the Lightnings streaked away, fuel levels worrisome, leaving the 5 surviving Japanese escort pilots in a state of shock over what was just stolen from them. They flew home as fighters arrived from Kahili, dejected and certain of punishment, which they received.
A search party chopped its way through the jungle and reached Yamamoto’s destroyed plane a day later. They found the Admiral had been thrown clear upon impact, still strapped in his seat and clutching his samurai sword, his white uniform stained with blood and soot. They loaded him onto a stretcher and began the process that would take him back to Japan for a hero’s funeral.
Morale fell to the bottom among the Japanese military. They realized that they lost the best, most popular military leader they ever had. A legend. One whose mere presence always reassured them.
Now, he was gone, and no one would ever match his abilities again.
Back at Henderson, elation reigned. Lanphier even broke radio silence as he approached, saying: “That son of a bitch will not be dictating any peace terms in the White House!” His plane touched down and ran out of fuel before it reached the end of the runway. All the P-38’s managed to make it home except 2, with 1 pilot recovered.
For those involved, it was mission accomplished the moment the debriefings began.
Awards would later be handed out and controversy started when there were questions raised over who actually downed the Admiral when Lanphier wrote he had pulled the trigger. Both Barber and Lanphier were eventually given half credit for the shoot down and the case closed. But further inquiries over the years have generally come to one, conclusion: Barber, alone, did the deed.
Once word of the Admiral’s demise was released to the American public, a feeling of satisfaction, justice and sweet revenge ruled the day. And only on May 1st 2011, would the nation again experience such a similar feeling, that at last, the man who had visited so much violence upon them, had himself perished in violence.
(Featured Image Courtesy: Fold3)
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