On its face, it was innocuous enough – simple administrative traffic providing notification of an inspection by a senior officer of some outposts:
ON APRIL 18 CINC COMBINED FLEET WILL VISIT RXZ,R–, AND RXP IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE FOLLOWING SCHEDULE:
1. DEPART RR AT 0600 IN A MEDIUM ATTACK PLANE ESCORTED BY 6 FIGHTERS. ARRIVE RXZ AT 0800. IMMEDIATELY DEPART FOR R- ON BOARD SUBCHASER (1ST BASE FORCE TO READY ONE BOAT), ARRIVING AT 0840. DEPART R- 0945 ABOARD SIAD SUBCHASER, ARRIVING RXZ AT 1030. (FOR TRANSPORTATION PURPOSES, HAVE READY AN ASSAULT BOAT AT R- AND A MOTOR LAUNCH AT RXZ.) 1100 DEPARTRXZ ON BOARD MEDIUM ATTACK PLANE, ARRIVING RXP AT 1110. LUNCH AT 1 BASE FORCE HEADQUARTERS (SENIOR STAFF OFFICER OF AIR FLOTILLA 26 TO BE PRESENT). 1400 DEPART RXP ABOARD MEDIUM ATTACK PLANE; ARRIVE RR AT 1540.
Further details on uniforms, places to be inspected and the like were provided. To the recipients in the war zone, it undoubtedly was met with mixtures of resignation and anticipation. Across the broad Pacific, however, it was met with a sharp intake of breath by CDR Ed Layton, CINCPAC’s chief intelligence officer. For some time now, since before Midway, the US Navy had been able to read Japanese message traffic with increasing veracity, translating gathered intelligence into degrees of operational success. The implications of this message, however were far reaching – for it literally delivered the architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor into the hands of the Americans. How so? This was the itinerary of an upcoming inspection in the Solomon’s area by none other than the commander of the Combined Fleet himself.
The question, two actually, was whether to act upon it and if so, how to carry it out? Because, without question, this was the death warrant of Admiral Isoruko Yamamoto.
The first was answered in a one-on-one with CINCPAC himself, ADM Chester Nimitz. To be sure, there were pros and cons on acting on this intel – worst case scenario being that the Japanese quickly deduce that their naval codes (the JN-25) had been compromised and shift accordingly, thereby depriving the US and Allies of valuable information. This was a not altogether easily dismissed factor. One of the significant intelligence gains from reading this traffic was the ability to identify and track the merchant shipping that brought the vital raw supplies of war back to the Japanese homeland from their far flung conquests – rubber, oil, food and prisoner labor. What came to the Empire, left with the instrumentalities of war. Armed with this information, COMSUBPAC was instituting procedures to pass shipping info and steer US subs to intercepts, with a toll that was, finally, beginning to mount. Besides the possible compromise of the code, there was another concern on Nimitz’s mind, that being the prospect of someone more capable taking his place. On the other hand, there was the prospect of landing a demoralizing blow to the Japanese psyche by killing Yamamoto.
Much discussion ensued with Layton, who had personally come to know Yamamoto in the decade or so before the war, in social and formal settings alike. Layton argued that there was no one with the skills and knowledge of Yamamoto. In characteristic fashion Nimitz made his decision and the die was cast – get Yamamoto. Now the ‘how’ part of the question came into play.
Barely 9 months ago the only hope of intercepting Yamamoto’s flight would have been an extensive carrier operation that would have placed the very limited number of carriers then available in jeopardy of attack from Rabul by sea- and land-based air. Forced to operate close to the scene in hostile waters, the potential costs in lost ships, aircraft and airmen could have set the nascent US/Allied progress in the region considerably back on its heels, even after the staggering win at Midway. Fortunately, that would not have to be the only COA available. Since the invasion and occupation of Guadalcanal, even in the face of continued enemy resistance, more aircraft continued to fly into and become established on Guadalcanal. Besides the carrier aircraft and early USAAF fighters, newer, longer-range patrol, bomber and fighters began arriving in larger numbers. Among these were the Lockheed P-38G Lightnings, flown by the 339th Fighter Squadron of the 347th Fighter Group, 13th Air Force. The Cactus Air Force.
Barely a month earlier, aircraft of the Cactus Ari Force had scored a remarkable number of kills in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. Establishing and extending a dome of air superiority from the bases on Guadalcanal, long range fighters cleared the way for medium attack aircraft to fly in low and fast, delivering their lethal payloads via ‘skip-bombing’ sending a number of Japanese troop and supply carriers to the bottom.
Now, however, the Lightnings were going to have one of the most significant challenges of the war placed before them – a long-range, over water covert intercept in enemy airspace.
As a Major in the USAAF, even a squadron commander at, one normally didn’t interact or receive guidance directly (or undistilled) from what we today euphemistically call “senior leadership.” On a sweltering April 17th, Maj John W. Mitchell, USAAF found himself looking across the table at Admiral Marc Mitscher and all the “senior leadership” present on Guadalcanal that day. In the close confines of the Admiral’s tent he read again the message marked ‘TOP SECRET’ and signed by the Secretary of the Navy himself, Frank Knox:
SQUADRON 339 P-38 MUST AT ALL COSTS REACH AND DESTROY. PRESIDENT ATTACHES EXTREME IMPORTANCE TO MISSION.
As is usually the case in matters like this, when the ‘heavies’ (aka elephants) gather, the junior folks get pushed to the outer fringes and left unconsulted even though they are the ones who will be flying the mission. Most of the disagreement centered on whether to shoot his plane down or try and get him on the sub chaser. Eventually Mitchell was pulled back into the planning discussion, and asserted that the P-38’s would go for an air- vice ship-borne intercept (“My men wouldn’t know a sub-chaser from a sub. It’ll have to be in the air,” Mitchell said). Special long-range tanks would be needed, and of course, weren’t’ available on Henderson. They were, however, at “nearby” Port Moresby and were quickly located, placed on a transport and flown to Henderson where the modifications to fit them to the P-38s immediately began. Mitchell, wary of the long overwater distances involved and mindful of the importance of precise dead reckoning navigation would have on mission success, asked that the “wet” magnetic compass in his aircraft be replaced with a larger and more reliable Navy compass. Throughout the night the ground crews worked relentlessly on the eighteen P-38s (sixteen mission birds and two airborne spares) while Mitchell began his strike planning. Armed with the departure and arrival times, he “walked back” the timing and flight path to a launch time from Fighter Two (the field just to the west of Henderson).
- CONOPS: A route of flight was picked using the islands to screen the aircraft, avoiding known Japanese holdouts and staying at wave top height most of the way to avoid radar. The route selected was also made to look like a long-range patrol that chanced upon Yamamoto’s flight (the official background to the mission was that Australian coast watchers had spotted the aircraft, providing cover to the real use of code intercepts). Four flights of four aircraft each would constitute the mission. Mitchell, in the lead flight had overall responsibility for the mission. At the intercept his flight and the second and fourth would fly screen for the killer flight, led by Capt Tom Lanphier with 1st Lt. Rex Barber as his wingman, 1st Lt. Jim McLanahan as his element leader and 1st Lt. Joe Moore as Jim’s wingman. Expectations were for a single Mitsubishi “Betty” bomber to be escorted by up to 6 “Zero” fighters. While the larger, heavier P-38s could be surprisingly maneuverable in the hands of a skilled pilot (and make no mistake, by this point in the war the pilots of the 339th and sister squadron, 12th Fighter Squadron were well skilled), the lighter, more maneuverable Zeros in number could jeopardize the mission. Additionally, another 75-100 Zeros were thought to be at nearby Kahili and would definitely be a factor. At the merge, Lanphier’s flight would concentrate on the Betty while everyone else went for the Zeros.
- Mission Aircraft: The P-38Gs were relatively recent introductions to the theater. Previously confined to flying the much slower and less maneuverable P-39, the longer range, concentrated firepower and most importantly, twin-engine redundancy of the Lightning in the long overwater missions made it an ideal long-range fighter for the Southwest Pacific theater and a quick favorite of the pilots that flew it. Up front, the concentrated firepower of the 4 x .50cal guns could be augmented with bombs and later, unguided rockets. But it was the solid punch of those four .50’s that gave the Lightning its well earned reputation for lethality, especially against the lightly, if at all, armored Zero.
- P-38G-1-LO Specifications:
- Maximum speed: 345 mph at 5000 feet, 360 mph at 10,000 feet, 400 mph at 25,000 feet.
- Range: 850 miles range on internal fuel at cruising speed of 219 mph at 10,000 feet. 1750 miles range at 211 mph at 10,000 feet with two 125 Imp. gall. drop tanks.
- Climb: 10,000 feet in 3.7 minutes, climb to 20,000 feet in 8.5 minutes.
- Service ceiling: 39,000 feet.
- Weight: 12,200 lbs empty, 15,800 lbs normal loaded, 19,800 lbs maximum loaded.
- Dimensions: wingspan 52 feet 0 inches, length 37 feet 10 inches, height 9 feet 10 inches, wing area 327.5 square feet.
- Armament: One 20-mm Hispano M1 cannon with 150 rounds and four 0.50-in Colt-Browning MG 53-2 machine guns with 500 rounds per gun. Could carry two 325, 500, or 1000-lb bombs. (Source: P-38G/F-5A Lightning)
- P-38G-1-LO Specifications:
Dawn on April 18 was met with bright, clear skies. Coincidently, this day was also the first anniversary of the surprise strike on Tokyo by Doolittle and his raiders, flying off the USS Hornet.
Today, the Japanese psyche was about to be dealt a blow just like it had been a year earlier.
Final mission briefing was conducted with parting words form a Marine Lt Col to the effect of “don’t come back until Yamamoto is dead…” On takeoff at 0700 local, sixteen a/c successfully made it airborne and outbound – one of the remaining two had suffered a punctured tire and aborted takeoff and the other failed to transfer fuel from the drop tanks. Under strict radio silence, the mission set off at near wave top height (50 ft).
An hour later (and forty-seven sharks counted, by one pilot’s reckoning) Yamamoto’s flight and escorts lifted off from the field at Rabaul. Mitchell’s flight was 280 nm out and closing. Approaching the predicted intercept point at 0900, the P-38s began a gentle climb for altitude and started to look for Yamamoto’s flight. At 0934, Lt. Caning spotted the flight, almost exactly where predicted. Two Betty bombers with two vees of three Zeros each as escorts. The attack phase of the mission now swung into action. As Doug Caning wrote:
Mitchell later said that he was not sure that we had our target as we had been briefed that there would only be one Betty bomber. However, he quickly realized we had our enemy in sight and said, “Skin em off” meaning to get rid of our belly tanks and then said “go get em Tom”.
At that time it appeared we still had not been seen by the enemy. As I later read in the mission report, Tom and his flight immediately turned towards the enemy with max power and climb. As he neared the
Jap formation, Tom saw that if he turned left into the nearest Zeroes he could divert them allowing Rex to go in and shoot at the lead Betty bomber. Rex did so coming out of his right turn slightly to the left of his target. He corrected and began shooting at the bomber getting hits on the fuselage and right engine. Shortly after that the bomber crashed in the jungle.
The second bomber made a right turn toward the ocean. Besby Holmes who had had trouble dropping his belly tanks now was able to get on the tail of the second bomber getting numerous hits on it. In the meantime Rex turned to his right, but was being pursued by the second vee of Zero’s, however he was able to get enough distance to where he was able to shoot at the second bomber too. It then crashed in the ocean. Besby Holmes at this time was chasing Zero’s off of Rex’s tail. After the crash of the second bomber there were three survivors, one of whom was Admiral Ugaki, Yamamoto’s chief of staff.
Tom later said that as he turned back toward the bombers he saw a bomber ahead of him. He was at a large angle off from a bomber and as he fired his guns he was surprised to see he had strikes on the bomber, a wing came off and as he caught up with the crashing bomber he began a shoot out with the tail gunner. This made the third bomber shot down. The latter is from Tom’s unpublished manuscript of which I have a copy.
The other fighters were busy with the escorting Zeros and by now the alert had been passed to Kahili, which was struggling to launch every available fighter. In almost no time since the initial intercept, with both Betty’s down, the P-38s turned for Guadalcanal (this time above twenty-thousand feet) and made tracks for Guadalcanal. One failed to return (circumstances unknown) and another was forced to land in the Russell Islands with less than 2-3 gal of useable fuel left. On the whole though, it was a remarkable mission in terms of execution and most importantly, objective attained with Yamamoto dead. Another mission was launched to Bougainville the following day to get the Japanese to think that the previous days events were the outcome of a normal patrol. But the loss was soon felt as Yamamoto’s body was discovered a few hours after the rescue crews reached the remote site (even today, to reach the crash site requires hours of travel over rough, primitive roads and a final trek by foot of over an hour).
The mission had both immediate and long-lasting effect. Whether it actually shortened or (as some asserted) lengthened the war is left to those who game fictional history. That the Combined Fleet had lost a leader of the caliber of Yamamoto was certainly to be felt in the subsequent planning and operations of the Fleet the remainder of the war. How much different the drive across the central and southern Pacific in the dual leg actions of Nimitz and MacArthur would have been facing Yamamoto can’t be said. The same for the action in the Philippine Sea (especially Samar). Conversely, there are those who assert that with his knowledge of the US, Yamamoto could have been a moderating influence in the War Cabinet, eventually persuading a negotiated peace that might have foregone the awful price extracted in human lives in the final year of the war.
There was some controversy (and in some quarters, still) over who actually shot down Yamamoto. Initially, both Barber and Lanphier were given shared credit for downing Yamamoto’s plane. Post-war, in an un-published manuscript Lanphier claimed full credit, to the dismay and disagreement of Mitchell and Barber. Subsequent analysis and testimony from the lone surviving Japanese pilot has led many, including Martin Caiden in “Forked-Tail Devil” to assign sole credit to Barber. The USAF hasn’t re-opened the issue.
There were 5 Japanese pilots, all Zero pilots, who survived the encounter. Their punishment was to be kept on combat duty until they perished in combat – never to return home. The sole survivor of the group gained survivorship after he lost a hand in combat with the Navy F6F later in the war and was no longer able to fly. It is his testimony that has been key in the controversy described above.
And back in the US, a young naval lieutenant who joined the service before Pearl Harbor and was working on the cryptological staff that broke the code was deeply disturbed at the process and sequence of events. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Chicago in 1941 and Bronze Star awarded for his cryptological work, he related much later in life that he had been much troubled by the fact that Yamamoto was shot down with so little apparent deliberation or humanitarian consideration. The experience, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens related in a 2007 interview, raised questions in his mind about the fairness of the death penalty. “There is a very different notion” he said “when you’re thinking about killing an individual, as opposed to killing a soldier in the line of fire.” A notion, he relayed in the interview, that later led him to narrow the category of offenders who are eligible for the death penalty and ensure it is imposed fairly and accurately. He has been the most outspoken critic of the death penalty on the court.
Cross-posted at USNI’s blog
Wikipedia: Operation Vengeance
AcePilots.com: Major John W. Mitchell
Attack on Yamamoto by Carrol V. Glines
Forked-Tail Devil: P-38 by Martin Caidin
Yamamoto mission memoir – published by Lt. Doug Canning at http://www.dougcanning.com
“The Dissenter,” New York Times Magazine, 23 Sept 2007
Article Series - Solomon Islands Campaign Blog Project
- The Solomons Campaign: Geographical and Political Background
- The Solomons Campaign: Status of the United States Fleet and Plans After Midway
- The Imperial Japanese Navy after Midway
- The Solomon Islands Campaign: Prelude to the Series
- The Solomons Campaign: WATCHTOWER — Why Guadalcanal?
- The Solomons Campaign: Guadalcanal 7-9 August, 1942; Assault and Lodgment
- The Solomons Campaign: Unleashing the Assassin’s Mace
- The Solomons Campaign: Execution at Savo Island
- The Solomons Campaign: The Battle of the Eastern Solomons, 24-25 August 1942
- The Solomons Campaign: Strategic Pause and Review – Japan’s Last Chance for Victory?
- The Solomons Campaign: THE BATTLE OF GUADALCANAL, Part I
- The Solomons Campaign: THE BATTLE OF GUADALCANAL, Part II
- The Solomons Campaign: Cactus Air Force and the Bismarck Sea
- The Solomons Campaign: Operation Vengeance – The Shootdown Of Yamamoto
- The Solomons Campaign: Ground Action – The New Georgia Campaign, June 20-November 3, 1943
- The Solomons Campaign: The Bougainville Invasion, November – December 1943(Part I)
- The Bougainville Invasion: November – December 1943 (Part 2)
- The Bougainville Invasion (Part 3): December 1943 – March 1944
- The Bougainville Invasion (Part 4): March 1944 – May 1944
- The Solomons Campaign: Battle of Santa Cruz (Part I)
- The Solomons Campaign: Battle of Santa Cruz (II)
- Solomon Islands Campaign: Battle of Santa Cruz (III)
- Flightdeck Friday – MIA Edition: WWII Navy Aircrew Returns Home