By: Warren Gray
Copyright © 2021
“Fly on and fight on to the last drop of blood and the last drop of fuel, to the last beat of the heart.”
— Captain Manfred von Richthofen, 1917.
“Demoralize the enemy from within by surprise, terror, sabotage, assassination. This is the war of the future.”
— Adolf Hitler, 1934.
Most of us have heard of the fabled, “Doolittle Raid” of World War Two, in which Lieutenant Colonel James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle valiantly led a formation of 16 modified, stripped-down, B-25BMitchell twin-engine bombers from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet at wavetop level to the Japanese homeland on April 18, 1942, a mere four months after the devastating, Japanese attack against Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, striking military targets in downtown Tokyo, Yokohama, Yokosuka, Nagoya, and Kobe, to demoralize the Japanese public. This was vividly dramatized in the 1944 war film, “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,” starring Spencer Tracy as Jimmy Doolittle.
The raid caused very little permanent damage to enemy industry, but it was a tremendous morale boost and psychological victory for U.S. forces. Doolittle himself was subsequently promoted two ranks, directly to brigadier general, and was awarded the prestigious Medal of Honor for this daring, seemingly-impossible exploit. All 80 of his raiders received a promotion and the Distinguished Flying Cross, and in 2014, they were all awarded a Congressional Gold Medal for “outstanding heroism, valor, skill, and service to the United States.” More recently, the brand-new, Northrop B-21 Raider stealth bomber was formally named in their honor.
But few Americans know about another, top-secret raid that took place exactly one year later, on April 18, 1943, codenamed “Operation Vengeance.” The Japanese mastermind behind the terrible, surprise attack on Pearl Harbor was Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, age 59, commander-in-chief of the Combined Fleet of the Imperial Japanese Navy, a brilliant, immensely-popular, Harvard-educated (special student, 1919 to 1921), poker-playing strategist who spoke fluent English, had twice served as the Japanese Naval Attaché in Washington, D.C., and traveled all over the United States, so he thoroughly understood American customs, culture, and practices. He called himself “the Sword of Emperor Hirohito,” and was a great proponent of naval aviation.
Yamamoto had repeatedly cautioned Japanese leaders that it was inadvisable to go to war against the United States, even writing to one ultranationalist that, “Should hostilities once break out between Japan and the United States...To make victory certain, we would have to march into Washington and dictate the terms of peace in the White House.” He was fully aware that Japan possessed neither the manpower nor the resources to ever conquer the United States in such a grandiose manner, and he was merely trying to suggest the impossibility of fighting America, but this was later grossly misinterpreted as an arrogant boast of what he planned to do, rather than as a stern warning against battling the mighty United States.
His other writings were far clearer in this regard, stating that, “If you carefully analyze the military power of Japan against the United States and Great Britain, you have to conclude that there is no way for Japan to compete and survive...No way...I have to be a piece of stone which stays to oppose a torrent...A stone will be swallowed up by the main flow sooner or later. But I must do it for Japan. It is the way of the samurai, my destiny...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...Japan cannot vanquish the United States.”
In fact, Yamamoto routinely carried a custom-made, inscribed, 1934 Sadayoshi Amada (an award-winning swordsmith) katana (samurai sword) from Echigo Province, and a special, extremely-rare, presentation-grade, seven-shot, Nambu Type B (“Baby Nambu”) officer’s pistol in 7x20mm (.276-caliber) Nambu as an “Imperial Gift.”
On April 14, 1943, a U.S. naval intelligence effort code-named “Magic” intercepted a vital, Japanese message, designated NTF131755, encrypted in the Japanese Naval Cipher JN-25D, which the Navy had already secretly broken, thanks largely to the efforts of the Military Intelligence Service (MIS), comprised primarily of second-generation Japanese-Americans. In fact, it was MIS soldier Harold Fudenna who intercepted the critical message containing the whereabouts of Yamamoto.
The decrypted text revealed that Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto would be flying from Rabaul, New Guinea, to Ballalae Airfield on a tiny island near Bougainville (pronounced “Booʹ-gən-vil”) Island (127 miles long) in the Solomon Islands chain on Palm Sunday, April 18th, with his staff on a morale-boosting, inspection tour in a Mitsubishi G4M1 “Betty” medium bomber, escorted by six Mitsubishi A6M2b Zero (or “Zeke”) fighters, taking off at eight AM local time, and arriving at Ballalae at 10 AM. Yamamoto was known for his fanatical punctuality, so he was certain to be precisely on time. Bougainville was named in 1768 for the French admiral and explorer Louis-Antoine, Compte (Count) de Bougainville.
Unknown to the Allies at that time was the fact that Ballalae Island was the scene of a horrific, Japanese war crime. The airfield there had been constructed by the forced labor of 517 British prisoners of war from various artillery regiments under Lieutenant Colonel John Bassett, captured after the Battle of Singapore. As soon as the airfield was completed, all of the British prisoners were executed, and buried in mass graves, which were only discovered after the war. The Japanese had lied, and claimed that the prisoners were lost at sea when their transport vessel was torpedoed.
Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox immediately consulted with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the decision was made to locate and kill Admiral Yamamoto, who was a legitimate, uniformed, armed, military leader in wartime, so the aerial attack would be completely legal by international standards. No official record of this grim order exists, however, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill actually protested the decision directly to Roosevelt himself, but the British did not share the same visceral feelings toward Yamamoto, having not suffered any British losses in the Pearl Harbor attack, and didn’t think that killing one admiral was worth possibly exposing Allied codebreaking efforts against Japan.
President Roosevelt responded to Knox, “Get Yamamoto,” and then Knox transmitted the following message to Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Sr., commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet: “Squadron 339 P-38 must at all costs reach and destroy. President attaches extreme importance to mission.”
Ultimately the decision to kill Yamamoto was left to Nimitz, who officially authorized the mission on April 17, 1943. The order was immediately passed that same afternoon to the 1st Marine Division (Department of the Navy) command post, jokingly nicknamed the “Opium Den,” at Henderson Field on the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, and U.S. Army Air Forces Major John W. “Mitch” Mitchell, a fighter ace with eight kills to his credit, currently commanding the 339th Fighter Squadron (“Gremlins”), was ordered to report to the base commander and his assembled staff.
Mitchell’s P-38G Lightning large, twin-engine fighters, designed by famous, Lockheed aeronautical engineer Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson, had greater flying range than any of the Navy or Marine Corps F4F Wildcat or F4U Corsair fighters that were available on Guadalcanal, and the mission called for an 1,100-mile flight route. So, embarrassingly enough, Operation Vengeance, which was directed by the Department of the Navy, would actually have to be executed by Army pilots. But even then, the P-38Gs would require external, jettisonable fuel tanks to cover the required distance.
The Lightning was an unusual aircraft for its time, with distinctive, twin booms containing two 12-cylinder (V-12), turbo-supercharged, 1,400-horsepower, Allison engines, and a central nacelle holding the cockpit area and five nose guns. The engines were unusually quiet because of the muffling effect of the General Electric turbo-superchargers, and the counterrotating, aluminum propellers, rotating outward from the tops, made the fighter exceptionally stable and vibration-free.
Its armament consisted of four Browning M2 heavy machine guns in .50-caliber, with 500 rounds per gun (often reduced to just 300 rounds per gun on long-range missions, to save weight and lower fuel consumption) and a single Hispano M2(C) 20x110mm autocannon with 150 rounds of ammunition. The P-38 could reliably hit aerial targets at any range out to 1,000 yards, with a combined rate of fire of over 66 rounds per second, and every sixth projectile was a high-explosive, 20mm round.
It had some minor, flight-control problems under certain circumstances, but it was the first military aircraft to fly faster than 400 miles per hour in level flight. General Carl A. Spaatz, the 8th Air Force commander in Europe, dryly noted that, “I’d rather have an airplane that goes like hell (414 mph top speed) and has a few things wrong with it, than one that won’t go like hell and has a few things wrong with it.”
The Germans called it the “fork-tailed devil,” while the Japanese referred to it as, “Two planes, one pilot,” and the P-38 Lightning was responsible for shooting down more enemy aircraft in the Pacific Theater than any other fighter type, downing more than 1,800 Japanese fighters and bombers, with more than 100 P-38 pilots becoming “aces,” with five or more confirmed kills. In fact, Major Richard Ira “Dick” Bong, America’s top flying ace of the entire war, with 40 confirmed kills to his credit, and the Medal of Honor, flew the P-38F-5-LO in 1942 to 1943, and P-38J-15-LO in 1944.
At this same time of the afternoon, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was touring the massive, Japanese military garrison at Rabaul, New Guinea, manned by as many as 100,000 Japanese soldiers, sailors, and airmen, to boost troop morale following the disastrous, Guadalcanal Campaign. He was photographed there in his formal, dress-white uniform, inspecting the troops and saluting them, while still wearing his prized, Sadayoshi Amada katana at his left side. He dined late in the afternoon with Lieutenant General Hotoshi Imamura, the Japanese Army commander at Rabaul, who had narrowly escaped being shot down over Bougainville only two months earlier. Imamura and others urged Yamamoto to cancel his trip, but the admiral stoically replied, “Even if it were dangerous, I could not turn back now.”
Operation Vengeance called for 18 P-38G Lightnings, led by Major Mitchell, to fly to Bougainville Island the next morning, intercept Yamamoto’s bomber, and shoot it down, killing the infamous admiral. Four of the fighters would act as the “killer flight,” while the remaining 14, including Mitchell himself, would climb to 18,000 feet to act as “top cover” against the 75 Japanese fighters based at Kahili, on the southeastern corner of Bougainville. In order to avoid Japanese radar detection and coastwatchers, the Lightnings would all fly at a breathtaking altitude of just 50 feet or less above the Coral Sea, while maintaining total, radio silence.
To avoid compromising the fact that America had broken the Japanese codes, most of the pilots (except for Mitchell and one captain) were told that the information came from Australian coastwatchers, and Mitchell’s raid had to appear to the Japanese be a chance encounter at Bougainville, rather than a calculated ambush. His fighters were each equipped with two external fuel tanks (one 165-gallon drop tank, and a 330-gallon tank) to attain the desired range, and Mitchell’s own aircraft, nicknamed “Mitch’s Squitch,” was fitted with a special, Navy ship’s compass for precise navigation to and from the target area.
A zigzagging, roundabout, approach route west of the Solomon Islands was plotted, adding many extra miles to the route so the Lightnings would appear to be simply passing by instead of taking a direct route from Guadalcanal. P-38 pilots were handpicked for the mission from three different fighter squadrons, departing from Kukum Field (“Fighter 2”) on Guadalcanal, with a calculated, intercept point over Empress Augusta Bay (named for Empress Augusta Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein, the last German empress and queen of Prussia, married to Kaiser Wilhelm II. The island was part of the German Empire from 1899 to 1920, and Empress Augusta died in 1921), west of Bougainville, at 9:35 AM, well before Yamamoto’s projected, landing time at Ballalae.
The Army pilots wore standard, tan, tropical uniforms with brown, leather flight helmets, and Colt M1911A1service pistols on their belt holsters, for ground survival in case of being shot down. Their P-38G Lightnings were painted overall Olive Drab on the upper surfaces, and Neutral Gray below.
They took off from Kukum Field at 7:10 AM on Palm Sunday morning, April 18, 1943, and experienced immediate problems when two of the four P-38s in the killer flight had to drop out of the mission due to a blown tire on one aircraft, and a failure of fuel tanks to feed the engines on another aircraft, so two of the other pilots were substituted, instead. Now, the killer flight consisted of Captain (later Colonel) Thomas G. “Tom” Lanphier, Jr., First Lieutenant (later Colonel) Rex T. Barber, his wingman, First Lieutenant Besby F. “Frank” Holmes, leading the second element, and First Lieutenant Raymond “Ray” K. Hine, who was Holmes’ wingman. After forming up over the airfield, they finally departed from Guadalcanal Island at 7:30 AM, headed in a westerly direction.
Major John Mitchell led the formation of 16 remaining Lightnings at ultra-low altitude, carefully navigating with his GI wristwatch and special, Navy compass at 250 miles per hour. In the heat of the sunny, greenhouse cockpit, which could not be opened to allow fresh air inside, and lulled by the engine drone on this longest, fighter-intercept mission of the entire war, he was trying very hard not to fall asleep. He later mentioned that he probably dozed off a couple of times, but received a light tap from “The Man Upstairs” to keep him awake. They were flying so low that some of the other pilots counted sharks to keep their minds occupied during the long, monotonous flight of more than two hours in the tropical heat.
Meanwhile, at Rabaul, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, now attired in an ordinary, dark-green, combat uniform in solidarity with the Japanese troops stationed there, but with his service ribbons on his chest, and wearing white, cotton gloves and his handcrafted, Sadayoshi Amada katana at his waist, strapped into a spare, crewmember seat as a passenger aboard a green, G4M1 “Betty” twin-engine, naval bomber, tail number 323, and took off precisely at eight o’clock AM. But he was followed by Chief of Staff Vice Admiral Matome Ugaki, aboard a second G4M1 bomber, tail number 326, together with part of Yamamoto’s staff, so there were now two bombers, escorted by six A6M2b Zero naval fighters, leaving Rabaul exactly one half-hour after the P-38s departed from Guadalcanal, and maintaining a flight altitude of 6,500 feet, enroute toward Ballalae Airfield, with clear skies all the way.
Major Mitchell’s timing was absolutely perfect, and the 16 Lightnings arrived over Empress Augusta Bay precisely at 9:34 AM, with just one minute to spare before the Japanese aircraft were due to arrive. They didn’t want to appear to be waiting, in a cold, calculated ambush, so it had to look like a chance encounter, or pure luck, in order to protect the Top-Secret, codebreaking effort.
As they entered the bay area at wavetop altitude, there was a low-level haze, so Mitchell led his raiders up to 2,000 feet, and Yamamoto’s eight aircraft began slowly descending to 4,000 feet as they flew closer toward their destination. The six Japanese Zero fighter escorts were 1,500 feet higher than the two bombers, and offset behind them at the four o’clock position, arranged in two V-shaped formations of three fighters each. Yamamoto’s bomber was slightly ahead and to the right of Ugaki’s.
Sharp-eyed First Lieutenant Douglas S. “Doug” Canning, nicknamed “Old Eagle Eyes,” spotted the enemy formation first, calling out on the radio, “Bogeys! (‘Unidentified aircraft!’) Eleven o’clock high!”
Preparing for aerial battle, the American P-38 pilots then jettisoned their external fuel tanks for extra speed and maneuverability, having just enough remaining fuel for no more than 10 to 15 minutes of combat, and the long trip back to Guadalcanal. They expected to see 50 to 75 Zero fighters from Kahili Airfield rising up to protect Yamamoto, but none of them had materialized yet, and Mitchell’s top-cover section of 12 P-38Gs firewalled their throttles, climbing swiftly to 18,000 feet to fend off the mass of Zeros that was certain to arrive any minute now.
But, in the killer flight, Frank Holmes’ drop tanks failed to detach, making him slow and vulnerable, so he and Ray Hine turned westward, back over the sea, avoiding direct contact until Frank could roughly shake his fuel tanks loose.
Major Mitchell was alarmed to see two enemy bombers instead of just one, especially now that his killer flight was temporarily down to only two fighters, Lanphier’s and Barber’s. Now they’d have to shoot down both bombers to be certain of killing Yamamoto, because there was no way to know which one was his personal transport.
“Alright, Tom,” Mitchell radioed hastily. “Go get him. He’s your meat.”
Now, Tom Lanphier, brash and ambitious, with four aerial victories to his credit already, plus the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Silver Star, and soft-spoken Rex Barber, his wingman, with three confirmed, aerial victories to date, and the Silver Star, suddenly found themselves alone against eight Japanese naval aircraft, with a minimum of fuel remaining, and a seemingly-impossible task ahead. When they were about a mile in front of the bombers, the escorting Zeros spotted the P-38s and dropped their own external fuel tanks to prepare for battle. The first “Betty” bomber, with Admiral Yamamoto aboard, dove eastward toward the treetops for safety, while Ugaki’s bomber turned seaward over the bay.
Lanphier and Barber initially climbed to engage the six Zeros, but quickly remembered that their real targets were the twin G4M1 bombers, so Lanphier, flying his assigned P-38G, nicknamed “Phoebe,” with the number “122” on its nose, zoomed upward toward the Zeros led by Petty Officer First Class Kenji Yanagiya, a 100-mission, veteran pilot, engaging three of them them head-on, hitting one of them, which he later claimed as an aerial kill, and breaking up their escort formation as he reached an altitude of 6,000 feet.
This gave Rex Barber the opportunity to go after the two naval bombers, flying a borrowed P-38G (technically a P-38G-13-LO model) normally assigned to First Lieutenant (later Major General) Robert L. “Bob” Petit, nicknamed “Miss Virginia,” with the number “147” on the nose in yellow numerals, and Petit’s three kill markings, for a Japanese destroyer that he sank, and two A6M2-N “Rufe” floatplanes (basically an A6M2 Zero fighter with seaplane floats attached.) His own assigned aircraft, nicknamed “Diablo,” was currently down for maintenance.
Barber banked steeply to the right to tuck in behind the bombers, momentarily losing sight of them behind his upraised, left wing, but suddenly he was directly behind one of them, Yamamoto’s, and he began firing his four .50-caliber machine guns and single 20mm cannon into its right engine, rear fuselage, stabilizers, and tail section, closing the engagement range to less than 100 feet as heavy, black smoke, flames, and metal debris from the rudder streamed back toward him.
On the P-38G Lightning, unlike many other modern fighters of its day, there was no central control stick, with a firing trigger attached. Instead, the Lightning still had an old-fashioned, two-handed, control yoke, exactly like a very plain steering wheel with the top one-third removed. The firing button was on a black box attached to the upper, right corner of the yoke, and activated by the pilot’s right thumb.
At this same moment, Tom Lanphier had reached the top of a half-loop maneuver overhead, and looked down to see three Japanese Zeros chasing Barber’s P-38, which was directly behind one of the bombers, and making repeated, firing passes at him. Lanphier dove back down and banked around for a desperate, long-range, right-angle burst against the fleeing bomber from its right side, briefly firing his guns.
With its right engine totally engulfed in bright, orange flames, the G4M1 bomber snap-rolled violently to the left as Barber narrowly avoided a mid-air collision with it (see the dramatic painting above), and the bomber went down into the dense jungle nine miles southwest of the mining town of Panguna on Bougainville Island. Barber didn’t witness the crash himself, but noticed thick smoke billowing up from the jungle.
Lanphier then broke radio silence for the first of three times on this ultra-secret mission, breaching operational security to transmit, “I got a bomber. Verify him for me, Mitch. He’s burning.” Yet, no one witnessed Lanphier shooting the Betty down, so it was an unverifiable claim, and Lanphier broke radio silence two more times to the way home to say, “I got Yamamoto,” and “That son of a bitch will not be dictating any peace terms in the White House.” Rex Barber, however, properly maintained strict, radio silence for the entire mission.
Meanwhile, two P-38G Lightnings from Major Mitchell’s top-cover flight zoomed down just in time, and cleared the three Zeros off of Barber’s tail as he now headed back toward the coastline at treetop level, taking evasive action. Rex was aware that there was still another bomber in the area, and they did not know which one contained Admiral Yamamoto, their assigned target.
Out over Empress Augusta Bay past Moila Point, Barber spotted the second bomber, low over the water, attempting to dodge an attack by Frank Holmes, who had finally shaken his drop tanks off. Holmes damaged the right engine of the G4M1, which emitted a white vapor trail, but he and Ray Hine came in so fast from behind that they overshot the stricken bomber toward the south. Barber attacked it next, from so closely behind that its metal debris hit his own right wing, tearing out the turbo-supercharger and badly denting the central nacelle. The bomber descended, and crash-landed in the water, with Vice Admiral Ugaki and two others miraculously surviving the fiery incident.
Barber, Holmes, and Hine were then attacked by the Zeros, with Barber’s aircraft riddled by 104 bullet holes. Holmes and Barber each claimed a Zero shot down during this savage dogfight, but Japanese war records show that no fighters were lost that day. The top-cover flight briefly engaged the Zeros without scoring any kills, and Ray Hine’s P-38Gdisappeared during this fight, last seen trailing vapor from his right engine, with three Zeros behind him, and presumably crashed into the sea. Running very low on fuel by this point, the P-38s had to break off contact and return to base in groups of one or two. Everyone made it back by noon, except for Ray Hine, who was never seen again.
Later, Tom Lanphier and Rex Barber, who had both filed separate claims for downing Yamamoto’s bomber, were each officially credited with a half-kill against Yamamoto, while Holmes and Barber received similar half-credits for shooting down Ugaki’s bomber. This led to a huge controversy and dispute that lasted for many years, and was never formally resolved.
In the fierce confusion of aerial battle, the Americans also claimed four Zeros shot down, which turned out not to be true, although one was damaged, and the Zero pilots claimed three P-38s shot down, which was also incorrect. Only Ray Hine went down in the dogfight, probably killed by Kenji Yanagiya, who reported shooting down a vapor-streaming, P-38 straggler.
Admiral Yamamoto’s body was recovered the very next day in the deep jungle three-quarters of a mile south of the Jaba River, by a Japanese search-and-rescue party led by army engineer Lieutenant Tsuyoshi Hamasuna. Yamamoto, still strapped into his crew seat, had been thrown clear of the wreckage, and was propped upright under a tree, probably placed there reverently by a wounded and dying crewmember. His white-gloved hand was grasping the hilt of his custom katana, which was gently positioned between his legs.
A post-mortem examination of the body revealed that he was hit from behind by two .50-caliber bullets as he sat facing forward in the aircraft, turning his head to the left as he heard the loud gunfire behind his bomber. One bullet pierced the back of his left shoulder, and the other entered the left side of his lower jaw, exiting above his right eye and killing him instantly. His sword sustained three bullet strikes itself. Subsequent investigations reported that “all visible gunfire and shrapnel damage was caused by bullets entering from immediately behind the bomber.” These grim details were concealed from the Japanese public “on orders from above.”
This was confirmed by the testimony of Japanese fighter pilot Kenji Yanagiya, who personally witnessed Yamamoto’s lead bomber crash within 20 to 30 seconds after being hit from behind by a P-38 Lightning. The other Zero pilots all died in combat later in the war. The only Lighting that was ever positioned behind that bomber was Rex Barber’s, so the forensic evidence, ground investigations, and eyewitness testimony all fully support Barber’s wartime claim for shooting down Admiral Yamamoto.
Yamamoto’s remains were cremated at Buin, in southern Bougainville, 35 miles from his crash site, and his death was not announced to the Japanese public until May 21st. Japan is such an overcrowded nation (with literally halfof the U.S. population, all living in the habitable 12 percent of a very mountainous nation the size of California. This author has been there, and those facts are accurate) that at least 99.8 percent of dead bodies are cremated, and family burial plots (currently costing $20,000 each) in cemeteries are very tiny, indeed, compared to American burial plots. The admiral’s ashes were given a state funeral in Tokyo on June 5, 1943.
Six months after the highly-successful mission, in October 1943, TIME magazine published an article about the operation, mentioning Tom Lanphier by name, along with other unauthorized details that threatened to compromise military codebreaking efforts, although the Japanese never caught onto the fact that their JN-25D code was broken by the Americans, so they continued to use it throughout the rest of the war. But the U.S. Navy was outraged at this flagrant breach of security, and the sudden, national media attention to this very sensitive mission. As the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw astutely observed, “The only secrets are the secrets that keep themselves.”
Major John W. Mitchell and each of the four shooters had already been nominated for the Medal of Honor, America’s highest award for valor, by that time, but that would have created unwanted publicity for the Top-Secret mission, which was already on the verge of public release, so their medals were downgraded to the Navy Cross instead, the Navy’s second-highest award, which was still extremely unusual for Army pilots, but it was a Department of the Navy operation, after all.
Rex Barber’s citation reads, in part: “Presenting the Navy Cross to First Lieutenant (Air Corps) Rex Theodore Barber...United States Army Air Forces, for extraordinary heroism while serving as pilot of a P-38 fighter plane...attached to a Marine Fighter Command...on 18 April 1943. Participating in a dangerously long, interception flight, First Lieutenant Barber...struck fiercely, destroying one Japanese bomber at such close range that fragments from the explosion lodged in the wings of his plane...His brilliant airmanship and determined, fighting spirit throughout a daring and vital mission were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Armed Services.”
Admiral Yamamoto’s violent death by targeted killing was an enormous blow to Japanese, military morale during World War Two, but had quite the opposite effect in the United States, boosting American morale immeasurably, where it was viewed as completely justifiable revenge for the 3,546 Americans killed or wounded in the Japanese, surprise attack at Pearl Harbor. After his death, Japan never again won a major battle in the Pacific Theater of operations.
Only a very short time after Emperor Hirohito announced the final, Japanese defeat on August 15, 1945, Vice Admiral Matome Ugaki, who had survived the Yamamoto raid, strapped on a wakizashi (short, samurai sword) given to him by the late admiral, climbed into the back seat of a Yokosuka D4Y “Judy” carrier-based, dive bomber, and disappeared on a kamikaze suicide flight north of Okinawa at 7:24 PM. U.S. military records show no successful, kamikazeattacks that day, however, so Ugaki was likely shot down by American antiaircraft fire.
The next morning, an American landing craft at Iheya Island, 20 miles north of Okinawa, located the smoldering remains of an aircraft cockpit, with three battered bodies strewn on the sandy beach. The third man, obviously not a pilot or copilot, wore a dark-green, combat uniform, exactly like Ugaki’s (or Yamamoto’s, two years earlier), and had a wakizashi lying nearby. His head was crushed, and his right arm was missing, but he was later identified as Admiral Matome Ugaki, and was buried in the sand by American sailors. The Japanese Empire posthumously awarded him the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun.
The United States government did not officially acknowledge the full story of Operation Vengeance until September 10, 1945, after the war was over, when many newspapers published an Associated Press account. It’s a dramatic, true tale of code-breaking espionage, highly-precise planning and navigation, determination and heroism in aerial battle, and the sheer audacity to penetrate deeply behind enemy lines in order to strike a vital, leadership target of enormous significance to the overall war effort.
Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, and four college degrees, including a Master of Aeronautical Science degree, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He visited Japan in 2004 on a Fulbright Memorial Fund teaching scholarship, and is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.vistaprintdigital.com.
Lead Photo Credit: Courtesy of artist Jack Fellows