Vengeance: The Mission to Kill the Architect of the Pearl Harbor
P-38 Lightnings were used for the attack.
On April 18, 1943, 18 P-38 Lightning fighters
took off to intercept a plane carrying Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto.
Two years earlier, the Admiral's plan to cripple the U.S. Navy
at Pearl Harbor had killed 2,403 Americans and wounded 1,178
more. Now it was time to take revenge. It was an emotionally
satisfying move, but was it a wise one?
"Yesterday, December 7th, 1941- a date which will
live in infamy - the United States of America was suddenly and
deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of
Japan," declared President Franklin Roosevelt as the United States
entered World War II. The attack, while the country was still
officially at peace with Japan, had shocked and enraged the nation.
In addition to the thousands of people killed and wounded, the
nation had lost twelve warships, either beached or outright sunk,
and nine others had been damaged. In addition, 160 aircraft were
destroyed and another 150 impaired. The public wanted someone
to blame and the logical person was the man who conceived the
plan for the attack, Admiral Yamamoto.
Marshal Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was born on April
4, 1884. Graduating from the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy in
1904, he served aboard a cruiser during the Russo-Japanese War.
After the war, he traveled to the United States and studied at
Harvard for two years, during which time he learned English. Reading
several biographies of Lincoln, he became a great admirer of the
President as a man born into moderate circumstances who later
became a "champion" of "human freedom." He was later assigned
as a naval attaché in Washington from 1926 to 1928. During this
period, he travelled across the country observing such diverse
sights as the automobile factories and oil fields.
When he returned to Japan in the 1930's, he was
decidedly against the aggressive warmongering policies of the
Japanese Army. Knowing this would eventually bring the country
into conflict with the United States, he feared an eventual Japanese
defeat at the hands of America, which he realized had an enormous
manufacturing capacity. "Anyone who has seen the auto factories
in Detroit and the oil fields in Texas," he would later remark,
"knows that Japan lacks the national power for a naval race with
This made him unpopular with the ultranationalist
right and he often found himself the target of death threats.
When Japan signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy in
Berlin in September, 1940, however, Yamamoto, now the Commander-in-Chief
of the Japanese Combined Fleet, realized that war with the United
States was inevitable. Given this, he started to conceive a plan
that would give his country the best chance of effectively winning
the war on the first day by striking a massive blow to the America
Pacific Fleet which was moored in Hawaii at Pearl Harbor. Even
if the plan was successful, however, Yamamoto always doubted that
Japan would win in the end. "In the first six to twelve months
of a war with the United States and Great Britain, I will run
wild and win victory upon victory. But then, if the war continues
after that, I have no expectation of success," he admitted.
With his knowledge of the American people, Yamamoto
realized they would never give up short of total defeat, something
he knew was impossible for Japan to achieve. "Should hostilities
once break out between Japan and the United States, it is not
enough that we take Guam and the Philippines, nor even Hawaii
and San Francisco. To make victory certain, we would have to march
into Washington and dictate the terms of peace in the White House."
Despite Yamamoto's reservations, Japan started the
war and this quote was later twisted by the Japanese propaganda
machine to suggest that Yamamoto expected that he would
be able to dictate surrender terms in the White House, just the
opposite of what he meant. The misquote further raised American
anger at the Admiral and the desire for vengeance against him.
By 1943, much of what Yamamoto had predicted had
come true; he was extremely successful for the first half year
of the war, but suffered a stunning defeat in June of 1942 at
the Battle of Midway when all four of Japan's large aircraft carriers
were sunk, turning the tide of the conflict. Yamamoto was still
popular with his men and to raise morale, he planned an inspection
tour of many of the front line bases. His subordinates were anxious
that such a move might expose him to attack, but the Admiral insisted.
As it was, his people had good reason to be concerned.
Since before the beginning of the war, American
Intelligence had been breaking and reading Japanese encrypted
communications. While this had not averted the disaster at Pearl
Harbor, the project, code named "Magic," had given the Americans
the advantage at Midway, allowing them to score an important victory.
Now it gave them Admiral Yamamoto's itinerary for the inspection
tour, including the types and number of aircraft escorting him.
The question was whether the Americans should use
this information to extract revenge. As satisfying as such a move
would be, there were reasonable arguments against it, the most
important being the continuing security of the Magic project.
A squadron of American fighter planes flying hundreds of miles
from their base to intercept Yamamoto's tour would suggest a deep,
inside knowledge of Japanese operations and the possibility that
the Americans were reading their communications. If the Japanese
came to this conclusion, they might decide to make radical changes
to their codes, causing the United States to lose this valuable
intelligence. This would invariably translate into lost American
Still, the desire for vengeance outweighed caution.
There were rumors that the order came down from the top and that
President Roosevelt himself may have commanded the navy to "Get
Yamamoto!" In any case, on April 18, 1943, the squadron left Kukum
Field in the Solomon Islands to intercept Yamamoto's flight near
Betty bomber similar to one carrying Yamamoto goes down
in the Pacific, trailing flame.
To avoid being detected on radar, it was determined
that the planes would need to take a roundabout route flying at
wave top levels some 600 miles, then after the attack return directly
to their base, another 400 miles. Only one U.S. fighter in the
area had the kind of range necessary to carry out this 1,000 mile
mission: The P-38G "Lightning."
The Lightning was an odd-looking aircraft. Unlike
most WWII fighters, it had twin engines which extended back to
two separate tails. In the center of the wings was a pod for the
pilot, guns and ammo. The squadron of 18 Lightning fighters were
divided into two groups: Four would be the "Killers," who would
actually make the attack, and the rest would handle any fighters
that would rise to defend the flight. The flight also included
two extra aircraft to take the place of any forced to turn back
early in the mission because of mechanical problems. This was
good planning as just that number never made it to the interception,
but needed to return to base for maintenance.
The timing of the attack was almost perfect with
the Lightnings arriving at the interception point just one minute
before Yamamoto's tour came into view. The Admiral's flight consisted
of two Mitsubishi "Betty" Bombers (the Admiral riding in one of
them) escorted by six Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighters.
Though accounts differ, historians believe that
Lt. Rex T. Barber struck the fatal blow coming up from behind
Yamamoto's aircraft and firing into its left engine until the
plane went out of control and crashed into the jungle below, while
his wingman, Capt. Thomas G. Lanphier, attacked the defending
Zeros. Afterward Barber, not knowing which plane carried the Admiral,
turned his attention to the second bomber which was trying to
escape. It had been attacked by Lt. Besby F. Holmes and his wingman,
Lt. Raymond K. Hine. Holmes had managed to damage the bomber's
right engine, but then overshot the target before he could finish
it off. Barber came in to complete the kill, with the bomber making
a crash landing in the ocean.
Holmes, Hine and Barber then came under attack by
the enraged Zero escorts. Holmes and Barber escaped, but Hine's
plane was shot down, killing him.
As the victorious flight returned to Kukum Field,
Lanphier radioed the fighter director "That son of a bitch will
not be dictating any peace terms in the White House!" This was
a huge breach of security. The cover story for the mission was
that an Australian coastwatcher had spotted an important high-ranking
Japanese naval officer boarding an aircraft, and that the mission
had been launched on this information. There was no way, however,
such a coastwatcher could have known the identity of the high-ranking
officer, so Lanphier's outburst, if picked up by the Japanese,
would have suggested a breach in the Japanese's encrypted communications.
remains of the crashed "Betty" carrying the Admiral.
Fortunately, the Japanese never made the connection.
A few days later, a search and rescue party found the body of
Yamamoto still strapped to his seat of the "Betty" that
had crashed in the jungle. He had been killed by one of the Lightning's
rounds which had passed through his head. The Japanese hid his
death from the public for over a month before announcing it on
May 21, 1943.
One wonders, though, if the satisfaction of vengeance
on Yamamoto was worth risking the "Magic" codebreaking project.
In addition, Yamamoto was an opponent of the war before hostilities
broke out. Perhaps he would have been a voice of reason as the
war came to its conclusion. Could his influence have brought the
conflict to a quicker end and saved perhaps thousands of American
and Japanese lives? We will never know.
Copyright 2018, Lee Krystek.
All Rights Reserved.