With the long, bloody Guadalcanal campaign coming to a close in early 1943, the United States had turned the tide of the war in the Pacific. After Japan had brushed aside everything in its path in its heady, unstoppable advance across the Pacific in the war’s first months, everything had now begun to turn.
The Japanese were turned back in the Battle of the Coral Sea, then six months after the debacle at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese suffered a crushing defeat at the Battle of Midway, losing four of their top aircraft carriers. Then in August of 1942, the U.S. invaded Guadalcanal. The Japanese and Americans fought over the island until January 1943, when the island was secured.
Guadalcanal is the key backdrop in “Operation Vengeance” the riveting new book by NY Times best-selling author and former Air Force pilot Dan Hampton. SOFREP was fortunate enough to get an advanced copy of the book for review. We also recently had Hampton as a guest on our upcoming podcast episode where we discussed his book.
Just after the first Japanese land defeat in the war, the United States learned that Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet, was planning on visiting the forward areas to inspect the troops and boost morale.
He was an icon in the Japanese navy and the architect of the raid on Pearl Harbor. The loss of him would be another devastating loss for the Japanese war effort and take away arguably their greatest tactician. Yamamoto knew America well. He had gone to Harvard, spent time in Washington as a naval attaché, and was well aware of America’s industrial might. He knew that Japan had to defeat the Americans quickly in the Pacific or it would be overwhelmed by the sheer number of American might. American intelligence had broken the Japanese codes and learned of Yamamoto’s itinerary.
His quote about going to war with America was foreboding and ominous and proven right.
He told Japan’s Prime Minister Prince Konoe, “If I am told to fight regardless of consequence, I shall run wild for the first six months or a year, but I have utterly no confidence for the second or third years.”
Being the C-I-C of the Japanese Fleet made him a viable target, but the Americans had other considerations to weigh. If they purposely targeted Yamamoto, the Japanese would know that their codes had been broken and it may take months or even years to break the newer ones.
The distance to where the intercept would take place made the trip impossible for all the fighter aircraft available to the U.S. except the Army’s P-38 Lightning. Even then, they would require extra fuel drop tanks that would have to be flown in just for the mission. Finally, since he was the C-I-C of the fleet flying in, the Americans expected up to 100 Japanese Zeros flying cover for his Betty bomber. Despite these factors, the mission was approved and was given to the Army. This was to the great consternation of the Navy, a sentiment that would surface again after the mission.
Hampton weaves his story by alternating between the backdrop of the Guadalcanal campaign and the mission, because without the Americans having secured Guadalcanal, Yamamoto would not be visiting the front lines trying to boost morale. Also, without Guadalcanal, the Americans would not have been able to fly at the limits of their range to try to intercept the plane as it would be making its approach into the forward areas.
The Americans knew that Yamamoto was a stickler for being punctual and that was their biggest obstacle in the mission: the pilots of the P-38s had to be in exactly the right place at exactly the right time in order to accomplish the mission. That planning went to John Mitchell.
Mitchell planned the entire mission down to the second. The pilots had to fly a circuitous route to avoid Japanese detection. Four separate legs of the journey covering 416 miles using a map, compass, and a wristwatch with no GPS, no satellite, and no landmarks. The P-38s would be flying between 50 and 100 feet above the ocean. The slightest deviation or mistake by the pilots could result in a crash into the ocean. But it was the only way to avoid the Japanese ground-based radar and visual detection.
Mitchell had a navy compass installed in his P-38; it was a magnificent bit of piloting and navigation. Flying at 200 mph for two hours, pilot fatigue could have played a role, but it didn’t. The P-38s arrived exactly where they were supposed to be within one minute of their timed planning.
The plan called for 16 P-38s to fly the mission; 12 of them would go after the Zeros flying cover Yamamoto’s bomber. The remaining four led by Captain Tom Lamphier and his wingman Rex Barber would go for the kill on the bomber.
Hampton’s story and the amazing details he offers puts the reader right inside of the cockpit of the P-38: hot, humid, made worse by flying at such a low altitude, and smelling of hot metal, leather, and urine. The two opposing forces met exactly at the time the Americans had planned. But the Americans were shocked by two developments: There were two Betty bombers and Yamamoto’s fighter cover consisted of just six fighters.
One of the fighters on the “kill” team couldn’t jettison his drop tank so he and his wingman left for the coast. That left Lamphier and Barber alone to get the now two bombers. With Zeros plummeting down and going after the fighters, Lamphier turned straight into the six Zeros. Barber was on his own. He settled behind the bomber and blew it apart using his four .50 caliber machine guns and his 20mm cannon. Yamamoto’s plane crashed into the jungle.
After the initial contact, the second bomber dove for the coast. Barber’s route put him right on course with it and he sent that one down into the ocean.
The United States had gotten its vengeance for Pearl Harbor.
What followed was a SNAFU of epic proportions. Mitchell and Barber were put in for the Medal of Honor, something that each richly deserved. But because of a perceived breaking of silence to an AP reporter, Admiral Bull Halsey wanted to have each court-martialed.
Lamphier tried to take credit for the shootdown, but Hampton’s research clearly showed that Barber scored the kill. Lamphier had very openly stated that his long-term objective was a career in politics… Barber kept his silence. It was enough that he knew who did the job.
Hampton’s book is a must-read for any aviation enthusiast or history buff, especially those who enjoy World War II history. It is an electrifying, page-turner. Once you pick it up, you won’t put it down, so be prepared for lost meals and sleep as this is a fantastic book.
It is now available for order on Amazon.com. Also, be sure to check out our podcast with Dan Hampton soon on SOFREPRadio.com.