The journey had been uneventful so far: having taken off from Rabaul, New Britain, on 18 April 1943, the Japanese admiral was preparing for his arrival at Buin airstrip on Bougainville, part of the Soloman Islands. Isoroku Yamamoto and his entourage were being transported in two G4M2 ‘Betty’ bombers, accompanied by a fighter escort of six Zeros. The visit was to be a morale booster for some of the men who had participated in Operation I-Go from 1-16 April, an attempt by the Japanese to temporarily assert aerial dominance and to destroy Allied shipping, installations and aircraft in the southeast Solomon Islands and New Guinea. More importantly, the operation was thought to have bought time for the Japanese to bolster their defences and prepare for the renewal of an Allied offensive in the region.
The reverie for those on board was suddenly broken by shouts of warning: US Lockheed P-38s Lightnings had appeared from nowhere and were approaching fast. No doubt the passengers and crew cursed their bad luck, with the admiral and his entourage tightening their buckles just before the Betty was thrown into evasive action. Desperate to avoid being targeted, the pilot plunged the aircraft towards tree-top level, leaving the fighter escort to fend off the attackers. He was hoping the jungle would act as a form of camouflage, helping the aircraft make its escape. These efforts were in vain: P-38 cannon fire ripped into the Betty’s right engine, smashed up the tail and raked the fuselage. On fire and belching smoke, the machine was doomed and its precious passenger already dead. Yamamoto, the man who was instrumental in executing the attack on Pearl Harbor, had been killed instantly by a direct hit from a P-38 shell. The Betty crashed into the jungle canopy, ploughing to a halt in a cacophony of cracking branches and tearing metal.
Yamamoto’s death deprived Japan of a superb and renowned naval commander, and the news of his demise was met with heartfelt grief across the country. By contrast, there was satisfaction among the majority of Americans: the admiral’s demise had undoubtedly helped shorten the war in the Pacific, saving the lives of Allied personnel and those suffering under Japanese occupation in the process. In addition, almost all Americans felt justice had been severed given the shock and outrage engendered by Pearl Harbor. They did not know the finer details of how the mission had been formulated and the extraordinary efforts that had been needed to deliver success. Neither was the public aware of the acrimonious fight that had erupted between the P-38 pilots claiming to have made one of the Second World War’s most important aerial kills.
An unyielding enemy
The clash at Midway in June 1942 had been a disaster for the Japanese Imperial Navy and Yamamoto. American ships should have blundered into a deadly trap, but the opposite had happened. Somehow, as if Americans had suspected Japanese moves all along, the tables had been turned and four precious carriers had been destroyed for the loss of just one US carrier. The USA had the industrial might to build replacements. Japan did not. Her efforts to control the sea lanes of the eastern Pacific had been dealt a serious blow and, unlike many of his counterparts, Yamamoto understood what this ultimately meant: Japan was now on the defensive in a war against the world’s most advanced industrial nation – one that had only just started to flex its military muscles.
In fact, this was probably on Yamamoto’s mind when he cut short his staff’s gloating in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, warning them that their country was now in serious danger.* Years earlier, he had gone on the record as being concerned about Japan’s foreign policy and the county’s alignment with the Rome-Berlin Axis, angering many powerful opponents, including army general and later Prime Minister Hideki Tojo. However, it is important to stress that Yamamoto believed in his country and the Emperor's cause; like millions of Japanese, he willingly and keenly directed all his knowledge, skill and energy towards fighting the USA. And despite the losses at Midway, he still controlled a fleet that remained a deadly threat. Yamamoto also had the inherent advantage of knowing his enemy first hand, having studied at Harvard and served as a Japanese attaché to the US Navy during the early- to mid-1920s. It was his skill, capabilities and tenacity that made him so deadly and why the USA considered any realistic chance of neutralising him worth taking – even if it meant American lives were lost in process.
*Dramatically depicted in the movie ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’ with the line: 'I fear we have awakened a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible resolve.'
After months of waiting, a golden opportunity through which Yamamoto could be targeted presented itself. Having cracked Japan’s secret naval codes,* US intelligence picked up an intriguing intercept that outlined the itinerary surrounding Yamamoto’s forthcoming visit to Bougainville on 18 April 1943. Importantly, the time that Yamamoto’s flight would arrive over Kahili aerodrome was given as 09:35.+ The admiral would then land at the Buin airstrip nearby and start his morale-boosting tour of the troops and airmen stationed there. The Japanese erroneously believed the location was outside of American aircraft range, with the nearest American airbase of note about 430 miles south of Buin at Guadalcanal. That meant only standard fighter protection was arranged for the admiral’s transport. With this information at their fingertips, American planners started formulating a strike mission to eliminate Yamamoto. They were working under the direct orders of Admiral Chester Nimitz who was backed by both US Naval Secretary Frank Knox and President Roosevelt.
*A vital breakthrough that helped the US Navy to prepare for and then win Midway.
+This time and location has sometimes created confusion in accounts as to where the admiral actually intended to land that day.
Several unlikely schemes were mooted until it was decided the men of 339th Fighter Squadron and the 70th Fighter Squadron, based at Fighter Two Strip, Guadalcanal, would make the attack. The sortie’s leader would be Major John Mitchell who adapted his P-38 cockpit with a naval compass to help with navigation. His task was going to be immensely difficult: Mitchell had to guide his men on a 2hr 25min flight in total radio silence and at low level (between 50ft and 100ft). They would have to avoid passing over any of the islands on the way to Kahili in case Japanese spotters sent back warnings and they needed to arrive ready to fight at the exact time the target approached.
The attack group would comprise 18 specially-adapted Lightnings, the aircraft fitted with extra 165-gallon and 310-gallon fuel tanks. Two pairs of P-38s would form the ‘Kill Section’ tasked with destroying Yamamoto’s aircraft. The first pair comprised Captain Tom Lanphier and Lt Rex Barber as his wingman. Barber had already created quite a name for himself by sinking a Japanese destroyer, the symbol of which he had painted alongside the conventional kills on his aircraft’s nose. Lt Jim McLanahan and Lt Joe Moore made up the second pair, while the other Lightnings would be responsible for providing overhead cover and tackling the enemy’s escort flight.
Mitchell gathered his men on the evening of 17 April and told them they were about to take part in a sortie that could, with determination and an awful lot of luck, change the course of the war. Having witnessed the aircraft adaptations, and knowing that the target was something big, the men had little rest before pre-mission briefing at 06:00, 18 April. Mitchell now unveiled the operation's details to a hushed audience, stressing how important the mission was and making it crystal clear that attacking Yamamoto’s aircraft was priority number one, even if their own lives were at risk. Not one to pull any punches, he added ‘the chances of complete success are perhaps one in a thousand’. With Pearl Harbor still at the forefront of American minds when it came to Yamamoto, the mission was codenamed ‘Operation Vengeance’.
The P-38s took off at 07:25. However, McLanahan blew a tire in taxiing and had to abort, while Moore developed problems with his external fuel tanks soon afterwards and was forced to return to base. It was not an auspicious start. Mitchell replaced the two pilots from the Kill Section with Lt Besby Holmes and Lt Ray Hine; Holmes had combat experience, Hine did not. The tense low-level journey was both nerve-jangling and dull at the same time and Barber admitted this many years later. ‘For us, the flight was almost boring,’ he recalled. Captain Doug Canning, a pilot in the covering group, whiled away the time by counting the number of sharks he could spot and even managed to note a pod of whales.* Mitchell and his men arrived at the target area at 09:34, almost exactly 2hrs and 25mins from take-off and just one minute before the enemy's estimated time of arrival, a testament to the Mitchell’s exceptional navigational skills that day. Craning their necks and looking for the enemy, nothing could be seen until Canning broke radio silence, shouting ‘bogies 11 O’clock high!’
*See endnote 1 for read Canning’s impressions of the mission.
The Japanese aircraft were starting their downward approach past Kahili aerodrome and towards Buin. However, there was a significant problem for the attackers: there were two transport aircraft instead of just the one that had been expected. Both Betties were flying at 4,500ft, while six Zeros, in two three-fighter sections, flew in protective formation a further 1,500ft above them. The 12 P-38s responsible for giving overhead cover started their ascent, dropping the external fuel tanks and knowing full well that their enemy would offer fierce resistance. The Kill Section also prepared to make their attack and dropped their external fuel tanks, although something was stopping Holmes from ditching his. Signalling Lanphier, he left the formation and shook his P-38 in a frantic effort to jettison his now-unwanted cargo. Hine, his wingman, went down to give cover. It was now up to Barber and Lanphier to pull off a mission that was looking increasingly impossible as the Betties rapidly descended.
One outcome, two versions
It was important for Barber and Lanphier to build up speed before making their interception. They would be unable to hang around for long as their fuel load necessitated a short combat time, while more Zeros would undoubtedly be scrambling in response to any mayday calls. Unknown to the Americans, the Lightnings’ drab olive camouflage had made them difficult to spot on their climb. Indeed, the pilot of the second Betty later recalled: ‘The first I knew of the attack was when I saw tracer bullets going into the admiral’s aircraft and I looked up and saw the P-38 directly above me: it was shooting into the admiral’s aircraft.’ While the Betty crews failed to see the P-38s on approach, their comrades piloting the Zeros had and were swift to react. They jettisoned their fuel tanks and nosed over to make a steep descent in order to reach the Kill Section before it could inflict serious damage.
Lanphier and Barber’s machines were roaring upwards at 280mph on a 90-degree angle and the two men suddenly realised they were entering a potential death trap: once the P-38s reached the bombers, which were travelling from left to right, they would become sitting ducks for three Zeros on the right-hand side. Rather than attack the Betties, Lanphier decided to make a charging pass at the Zeros. He would risk his life to buy time for Barber to make an attack on the Betties. According to the official post-combat report, Barber attacked the second Betty – the one that was not carrying Yamamoto. Approaching 6,000ft, Lanphier claimed he destroyed one of the Zeros* and then plunged down to attack the primary target, now at treetop level, skilfully avoiding his other opponents. He attacked the aircraft by blasting it from the side, his cannon fire detaching one of its wings in the process. Coming out of his run, Lanphier observed the flaming aircraft plunge into the jungle below.
*He did not. See endnote 2.
Still pursued by Zeros, Lanphier powered his P-38 out of enemy range. Running low on fuel, and having suffered damage to his horizontal stabiliser, he decided to return to base, where he immediately reported shooting down Yamamoto’s aircraft. Barber and Holmes had also shot down a Betty each, he added. However, that would have meant three Betties were present and not two. No one else on the mission reported a third aircraft of this type in the vicinity. In addition, how could Lanphier be so sure the Betty he claimed at this stage was definitely the one carrying Yamamoto? Lanphier's account seemed muddled but was later taken at face value and became the official version of events. Rex Barber was incredulous; he had arrived at the debriefing tent to find Lanphier making the claim. ‘I asked him, “How do you know you got Yamamoto?” His only answer was: “You’re a damn liar; you’re a damn liar!”’
Years later, the only known survivor from the Zero escort, Kenji Yanagiya, came forward and outlined events from his perspective. Importantly, he stressed that only two Betties were present that day, while his recollections also matched up with an account given by Yamamoto’s surviving chief of staff, Vice-Admiral Matome Ugaki, who had been travelling in the second Betty. He had also confirmed that only two Betties were involved in the flight. Both men’s testimonies revealed further discrepancies in the official version of events and – as historians noted with great interest – did much to bolster Rex Barber’s rejected account. He had doggedly refused to change his version of events despite official rebuttals and had seemed obstinate as a result. Was he right after all? What if Lanphier’s account was mistaken or, worse still, a fabrication?
Barber’s story went like this: he had swung right to line up the targets for an attack after Lanphier’s decision to tackle the Zeros. Having made this move, he noted that one of the Betties had disappeared from sight. In fact, if one believes Barber’s account, the missing Betty was just beneath him and it was soon afterwards that the second Betty pilot testified to noting the P-38 above, making its attack on Yamamoto’s aircraft. The primary target was now at around 1,000ft and descending to treetop level, with Barber having throttling back to increase his attack time. While doing so, he noted something strange: there was no return fire from the rear gunner. This little mystery was resolved when the wreck of Yamamoto’s Betty was later investigated by US forces. For reasons unknown, the bomber had been stripped of its armaments, including the rear gun. It was a small point, but an observation that increased the credence of Barber’s account.
With little time left before the Zeros reached him, Barber now had to act fast. Almost 60 years later he recalled making the kill in his memoirs that is worth recounting here in detail:
‘I opened fire, aiming over the fuselage at the right engine. My aim was good and immediately I could see bits of engine cowling coming off. As I slid over to get directly behind the target, my line of fire passed through the vertical fin of the Betty and some of the pieces of rudder separated. As I moved further right, I continued firing into the right engine. The engine began to emit heavy black smoke from around the cowling. I still had time to move my fire back along the wing root and into the fuselage, then into the left engine. Now I was no more than 100ft behind the Betty and almost level with it. Suddenly, the Betty snapped left and abruptly slowed. His right wing reared up in front of me and I almost ran into it.’
‘As I roared by, I looked over my left shoulder and saw the bomber with its wing upended vertically and black smoke pouring from the right engine. I believed he dived into the jungle, but I did not see the actual crash. As far as I was concerned, I had achieved my objective and the number one priority was now to save my own skin – if I could. All six Zeros had caught up and, now that I was clear of the bomber, three were on my tail, making aggressive flying passes. I jammed on full throttles, turned hard to the right and headed towards the coast at treetop level, taking violent evasive action ... The Zeroes had found their range and I was taking hits all over my aircraft. A later count back at the base showed 104 holes, including seven in the two props.’
Once out of harm’s way, and in control of what can only be described as a flying colander, Barber frantically looked around for the second Betty as it could have been the one carrying Yamamoto for all he knew at this point. Hine and Holmes – who had finally shaken off his fuel tanks – were circling at 1,500ft and also trying to find the elusive aircraft. Holmes eventually spotted it trying to make an unnoticed getaway, heading south along Bougainville’s shoreline almost wave height. He dived down to make a strike, his bullets splashing harmlessly into the water until ‘walking up’ and smashing into the right engine, which promptly started to smoke. Hine’s effort was wide of the mark and was probably due to his inexperience. Both pilots were now low on fuel and decided to head home, hoping the damage they had caused to the Betty had been enough to destroy it.
Barber had observed this action and noted he was also running low on fuel. However, the covering P-38s were doing their job in holding up the escorting Zeros and he decided to try and finish off the stricken aircraft before returning to base. ‘With the Zeros off my tail, I was free to go after the Betty myself. I dropped in behind, closed to less than 50 yards and opened fire, aiming at the right engine. Almost immediately, the bomber exploded. As I flew through the black smoke and debris, a large chunk hit my right wing, cutting my turbo supercharger intercooler. Another large piece hit the underside of my gondola, leaving a large dent.’ But the battle was not over yet: Holmes and Hine had been jumped by more Zeros, ones that had probably scrambled from Kahili. Holmes claimed a probable victory at this point,* while Hine appeared to have taken some damage. With his engine smoking, and his P-38 rapidly losing altitude, Hine was last seen heading towards the nearby Shortland Island. All other members of the P-38 force made it back, albeit in dribs and drabs after being separated in the swirling vortex of aerial battle.
*There was no kill. See endnote 2.
Claim and counterclaim
Barber’s efforts to get Lanphier’s version of the mission overturned were only partially successful as an official re-evaluation of the mission’s outcome, conducted much later and only after much persistence, decided to award the men half a kill each. Perhaps the review body felt unable to make what would have been a dramatic volte-face with regards to such an important mission. Plenty of commentators since have suggested that both Lanphier and Barber might have attacked Yamamoto’s aircraft but at different times. After all, Barber admitted he had not seen the primary target crash into the jungle canopy. What if Lanphier had hit the bomber when Barber was flying down to finish of the second Betty that Holmes and Hine had left critically damaged?
Barber gave this possibility short shrift: ‘His [Lanphier’s] pass at the Zeros took him 180-degrees from the way the bombers were going. He says he went up and rolled over on his back, but we were miles down the track by then. There’s was no possible way that could’ve gotten around and back to that bomber before it crashed. He was going the other way!’ There was only one way to check if Barber’s counter-argument was correct: a P-38 flown by investigating pilot Lefty Gardner made a bid to duplicate the manoeuvres Lanphier claimed he had performed in order to reach Yamamoto’s Betty. Gardner concluded it would have been impossible to have attacked the Zeros and then dived 6,000ft to destroy a target flying along at treetop level within the timeframe suggested.
Lanphier also insisted that he had blasted the Betty from the side-on, while Barber said he had approached from the rear. What did the aircraft’s wreck reveal about the angle of attack? A detailed forensic examination was undertaken, noting that Yamamoto’s Betty had taken severe damage just before hitting the jungle canopy and that this particular destruction was caused by rear-entry strikes. Importantly, the autopsy made by the Japanese on Yamamoto’s corpse concluded that the fatal cannon fire had entered his body from behind. The remains of the wreck also revealed that both of the bomber’s wings were still attached before crashing into the jungle canopy. The right wing remained with the Betty, while the left wing was torn off after hitting the trees. Thus, Lanphier’s assertion that Betty’s wing detached casts additional doubt on his version of events.
In a letter dated December 15, 1984, to General John Condon, Lanphier inadvertently highlighted further difficulties with his account. ‘The bomber I shot the wing off of was intact from nose to the tip of its tail,’ he wrote. This assertion again contradicts the evidence gleaned from the wreck: as we have seen, the wing was not detached until torn off by jungle canopy, while Yamamoto’s aircraft had been badly damaged by a fusillade from behind before crashing. If Lanphier delivered the coup de grace, then the target would have shown signs of obvious damage as he went in to make the kill. Simply put, he would not have seen an intact aircraft.
Whoever one believes – and with the benefit hindsight it appears Barber’s claim was probably the truth* – it should still be noted that both men displayed courage beyond the normal call of duty. They had flown into a hornet’s nest and returned with the mission completed successfully. It is also worth remembering Lanphier’s daring in tackling the three Zeros and buying Barber the necessary time. Still, the authorities were keen to downplay the achievement of the Kill Section and the mission itself; not even the slightest hint that the Japanese codes had been cracked could be publicised and so, without witness accounts or detailed press releases to rely on, the banner-headline story was soon dropped. None of the men involved received the Medal of Honor, America’s highest award for bravery, due to an erroneous report that they had let slip mission details to a journalist while on leave in New Zealand. They received the Navy Cross instead.
See endnote 3.
Lanphier and Barber are no longer with us, but the mission they and the others flew is rightly remembered as one of the defining moments in the Pacific Theatre and the Second World War. Yamamoto’s death presented Japan with an immense strategic loss and a severe blow to national morale – the death of a naval commander considered by the public to be military demi-god was a bitter pill to swallow. Conversely, his demise put a spring in the step of most Americans. In addition, the Japanese warlords also had tangible proof that the USA was ready, willing and able to bring the perpetrators of Pearl Harbour to account by whatever means possible even during wartime. On this occasion, justice just happened to be delivered by young pilots who, in a confusion of adrenaline and stress, achieved a single aerial kill that possibly remains unsurpassed in terms of its impact.
The author would like to thank Captain Doug Canning for his assistance.
Witness to history:
Captain Doug Canning was the first of the P-38 pilots to spot the Yamamoto flight. He corresponded with the author and, presented immediately below, are some of his main impressions of the mission and the heated debate that still surrounds it.
On the Yamamoto flight:
‘I saw two Betty bombers and two ‘vees’ of three Zero escorts, each trailing right and left of the Betties. I then called in “Bogies 10 o’clock high!” The mission report states that I said 11 o’clock high, but my memory says 10 o’clock.’
On Rex Barber destroying the Betty:
‘He corrected and began shooting at the bomber, getting hits on the fuselage and the right engine. Shortly after that the bomber crashed in the jungle.’
On the Yamamoto kill:
‘I can easily say that, even though I saw none of this action, my interest in this mission and my direct connection with all those involved, leads me to only one conclusion: only Rex Barber shot down Yamamoto’s aircraft.’
There is a bizarre twist in the tale concerning Yamamoto’s fighter escort: the Japanese authorities did not report any Zero losses that day, either from the escort flight or of any other fighters in the vicinity. Kenji Yanagiya, the only post-war survivor from the escort, was adamant that none of his comrades were lost. While it is possible that some Zeros from other units may have wandered into the area to be subsequently shot down, it seems far more likely that the claims for the fighter kills were erroneous. Altogether, it shows how confusing and disconcerting the dog fighting was during the Yamamoto mission.
The American Fighter Aces Association examined all of the available evidence surrounding the Yamamoto flight and concluded that Rex Barber, alone and unassisted, shot down the Admiral’s Betty. The Confederate Air Force (CAF), now renamed the Commemorative Air Force, also examined the evidence and unanimously passed the resolution that Rex Barber, alone and unassisted, made the kill. Rex Barber was inducted into the CAF Combat Airman Hall of Fame in October 1998. On 29 August, 2003, the State of Oregon posthumously recognised Rex Barber for his heroism and named a highway bridge after him. Oregon’s governor also released an official proclamation honouring the war hero and also confirmed that Rex Barber, alone and unassisted, shot down Yamamoto’s aircraft.
'As I roared by, I looked over my left shoulder and saw the bomber with its wing upended vertically and black smoke pouring from the right engine. I believed he dived into the jungle, but I did not see the actual crash'
© 2016 Simon Rees. All rights reserved