“April 18th seems to be our day.” Rear Admiral Marc Mitscher, then Commander of all U.S. and Allied Air Forces in the Solomon Islands, radioed this celebratory message to headquarters on April 18, 1943, seventy five years ago last week. Exactly one year before, to the day, Mitscher had been the commanding officer of the USS Hornet. From Hornet’s flight deck, the sixteen B-25 bombers comprising the legendary Doolittle Raid had shocked the Japanese, unloading their payload over Tokyo and other enemy cities. Now, on this same date in 1943, long range fighter planes under Mitscher’s overall command had downed a Japanese aircraft carrying the enemy’s most revered naval leader, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. Highly esteemed head of their combined fleet, and mastermind of the treacherous attack on Pearl Harbor, Yamamoto now lay dead in thick jungle growth on the island of Bougainville.
Isoroku Yamamoto, recognized at the time by many Americans as a symbol of Japan’s aggression, had, in fact, strenuously opposed war with the United States. If any Japanese political or military leader had reason to be wary of war with America, it was Yamamoto. From 1919 to 1921, he had studied English at, of all places, Harvard University. Using free time from school to travel around his host country, the future Admiral grew fluent in English and became greatly impressed with America’s natural resources and industrial might. Those impressions were only strengthened in subsequent years, when he served two separate tours of duty as a naval attaché at the Japanese embassy in our nation’s capital.
As Japanese nationalists, intent on building an Asian empire, clamored for war with the U.S. In the late 1930s, Yamamoto argued strongly against such action. He was also strenuously opposed to Japan signing the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy, feeling it was not in his country’s best interests. Due to rising nationalism, militarism, and desire for empire, his views were not well received by many of his countrymen. Hate mail and death threats poured in. Because of the very real possibility of assassination, the Navy ordered him to sea in 1939, a move designed to save his life. Although unpopular with empire-minded Army officers and governmental leaders, Yamamoto managed to remain near the top of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s command structure. This was due largely to his immense popularity in that powerful branch of the military and because of his close relations with the Emperor’s family. Yamamoto, a son of one of Japan’s last samurai, had distinguished himself as a young naval officer in the Russo (Russian)- Japanese War of 1904-05, and had risen through the ranks as Japan’s foremost proponent of the burgeoning field of naval aviation. Idolized by many and opposed by some, he had risen to the top post in Japan’s vaunted navy by the start of World War II.
Loyalty is deeply ingrained in the Japanese psyche. Despite Yamamoto’s deeply held reservations about conflict with the U.S., he devoted himself fully to the war effort once his nation had made the decision to proceed. He hoped that a decisive strike on Pearl Harbor would cripple the American Pacific Fleet for a season, and buy time for Japan to subdue more resource-laden nations and territories across much of Asia and the Pacific islands. Convinced that after six months or so America would begin to recover and fight back, he envisioned another great sea battle with the U.S. In this one, which turned out to be the Battle of Midway, his plan was to lure out the rebuilding, but still inferior, American Navy and deal it a death blow with vastly superior forces. Although some have looked back over the decades since then and criticized the Yamamoto strategy at Midway, it was an essentially sound plan. It should have worked. But, nothing short of a miracle occurred in the waters off Midway Atoll in June of 1942. The overwhelming, crushing defeat of the Japanese there, through a series of incredibly timed opportunities, can be explained by this author only in terms of the mighty, intervening hand of God.
Now, fast forward ten months, to April of 1943. Following the miracle at Midway, the U.S. Marines and Navy have outlasted the Japanese in a bitter seven month fight for Guadalcanal, a dismal, yet geographically pivotal, piece of jungle real estate in the southern reaches of the Solomon Islands. It is Japan’s first loss in a land campaign since the war began. Feeling the need to boost the morale of Japanese forces in New Guinea and other parts of the Solomons, Admiral Yamamoto is in the process of visiting and rallying the troops in these locations.
On April 14, U.S. code-breakers intercept and read a Japanese message which contains details of Yamamoto’s itinerary. He is to fly from the stronghold of Rabaul in northern New Guinea to Bougainville in the northern Solomons on the morning of April 18, arriving at the Kahili airfield at 9:45 AM. Pacific Fleet Commander, Admiral Chester Nimitz, forwards this information to Washington. President Roosevelt’s purported response was, “Get Yamamoto!” The mission was code-named Operation Vengeance, and was not finally approved until April 17, the day before Yamamoto’s flight to Bougainville the next morning.
The success of Vengeance was by no means a sure thing. In fact, the commander of the squadron chosen for the mission, Major John Mitchell from Mississippi, privately felt that the odds of even seeing Yamamoto’s aircraft was 1000 to 1. Factor in the some 75 Japanese Zero fighter planes which would certainly scramble from Kahili’s airfield to protect their great leader, and it seemed almost like a suicide mission.
Just to get to the intercept area, undetected by the enemy, would be a daunting undertaking in itself. No Navy or Marine Corps fighter aircraft had sufficient range for the mission. The Army Air Force’s P-38 Lightning fighter, with special fuel storage modifications, would be able to make the trip and return to base, but just barely. There would then only be enough fuel to fight the enemy for a short period of time, after arriving at the designated intercept area. The sixteen P-38s, four designated to go after the Admiral’s transport plane and twelve more to engage the accompanying Japanese fighters, would have to fly a circuitous 600 mile route over the open waters of the Coral Sea, just to reach their target. They would also need to maintain complete radio silence, navigate by dead reckoning using compasses loaned by the Navy, and fly low, just over the wave tops, all to avoid detection by the enemy. They also needed to time their arrival off Kahili airfield precisely, to the minute, to achieve surprise and have any hope of downing Yamamoto’s transport aircraft. Success in the mission, even bare survival, seemed all but impossible.
Squadron leader Mitchell led the way for the just over two hour flight. It would be the longest fighter intercept mission of the entire war. The plan was to arrive at the intercept point, after traveling over 600 miles, at ten minutes before Yamamoto’s planned landing time at Kahili. Arriving a mere one minute ahead of schedule, the P-38s immediately spotted the approaching enemy aircraft, two bombers acting as transports for Yamamoto and his staff and six Zero fighters serving as protective escorts. In the no more than ten minute fight that ensued, both bomber transports were downed and Admiral Yamamoto plunged to his death. Fifteen of the 16 American P-38s made it back safely, suffering the loss of one pilot and his aircraft, Lieutenant Raymond Hine of Indiana.
Upon return, both Lieutenant Rex Barber and Captain Thomas Lanphier claimed to have shot down Yamamoto’s plane, a dispute which continued for decades after war’s end. When all the evidence is weighed, it seems far more likely that Barber, a soft-spoken Oregonian, and not the self-promoting Lanphier, should get the credit for actually downing the Admiral’s plane. In the end, all sixteen hand-picked pilots acted as a team in successfully carrying out one of the most daring missions in the history of aviation warfare.
Isoroku Yamamoto reportedly said, upon hearing of Japan’s great victory at Pearl Harbor, “I feel all we have done today is to awaken a great, sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” There can be no doubting the firm, courageous resolve of the American people during the course of World War II. Their resolve brought down the murderous tyrants and preserved freedom for Americans and others in the decades ahead. Remember the young men who flew in Operation Vengeance....75 years ago.
“ If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are....” Ronald Reagan