Monday, April 18, 2011

April 18, 1943 - The Death of Naval Marshal General Isoroku Yamamoto

April 18, 1943 -- In the midst of an inspection tour throughout the South Pacific, Naval Marshal General Isoroku Yamamoto and his staff took off from the Japanese stronghold at Rabaul in two Mitsubishi G4M fast transport aircraft bound for Ballalae Airfield near Bougainville. The commander-in-chief of Japan's Combined Fleet, and the mastermind behind the at Pearl Harbor and Midway, would not survive the day.

In the following excerpt from Fortress Rabaul: The Battle for the Southwest Pacific, January 1942-April 1943, author Bruce Gamble details the U.S. interception of Yamamoto's aircraft and the ensuing aerial combat that would result in the death of one of Japan's most honored military figures.

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At 0710 on Sunday, April 18, celebrated around Christendom as Palm Sunday, Maj. John W. Mitchell gunned his P-38 Lightning down  theairstrip known as Fighter 2 on Guadalcanal. Behind him, seventeen hand-picked pilots—eight from the 339th Fighter Squadron commanded by Mitchell and nine from the 12th Fighter Squadron—waited their turn to roll. Over the past two days, aided by the expert staff at Fighter Command, Mitchell had carefully scripted a mission to intercept Yamamoto’s flight. A circuitous route, nearly five hundred statute miles in length, would be flown well out to sea at barely fifty feet of altitude to avoid all possibility of detection by Japanese coastwatchers. Navigation would rely entirely on dead reckoning, since the airmen would be flying too low to see any landmarks. Therefore, the compass headings, air speeds, and timing of the route’s five legs were laid out as precisely as possible. Yamamoto’s punctuality was well known to Allied intelligence, so Mitchell designed a scheme to catch the entourage at a point along the Bougainville coast, about ten minutes before the flight neared the airdrome at Buin. Four of the pilots, led by Capt. Tom Lanphier, were assigned as the “killer” flight.The remaining sixteen Lightnings would provide cover against counterattacking Zeros.

Within minutes of Mitchell’s takeoff, two Lightnings were scrubbed: one with a blown tire, the other with fuel transfer problems. Both were part of the attack flight, so two designated alternates—lieutenants Besby F. Holmes and his wingman, Raymond K. Hine—slid into the vacated spots. In all, sixteen pilots joined up and skimmed the waves as they headed outbound on the first leg of their roundabout route. At sea level the temperature was above ninety degrees, which meant the pilots sweated profusely as the sun blazed through their Perspex canopies. Mitchell’s wingman, 1st Lt. Julius Jacobson, wondered how his squadron leader was handling the extraordinary responsibilities. He could only imagine the critical questions that must have constantly cycled through Mitchell’s mind:

Am I on course?
            Did I turn to the compass heading on time?
            Are the winds as predicted?
            Will Yamamoto be there when we arrive?
            Can we get him?

After completing the first four legs as carefully as he knew how, Mitchell turned to the final heading, which was pointed right into the morning sun. If everything went according to plan, the nineteen-mile-long northeasterly track would bring the P-38s to the coast of Bougainville in the vicinity of Torokina village, where they would intersect the path of Yamamoto’s aircraft at right angles.

The Lightning pilots squinted hard, trying to see through the glare caused by a thin layer of haze. So far they had maintained strict radio silence, but a few minutes into the final leg, the voice of 1st Lt. Douglas S. Canning suddenly filled their earphones: “Bogeys, ten o’clock high!”

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At 0730 Japan Standard Time, Yamamoto’s flight was just beginning its descent over the jungles of Bougainville. Vice Admiral Ugaki, seated directly behind the pilot of the second bomber, was handed a note: the bombers would land at Ballale in fifteen minutes, exactly on schedule. Ugaki barely had time to digest the reassurance before the plane abruptly pitched downward. It took him a moment to realize that the pilot, Petty Officer Hayashi, was taking evasive action.

The bomber leveled off at 150 feet, and the flight crew jumped into action, opening gun blisters and the dorsal port. “It got noisy for a while with the handling of machine guns and the wind blowing in,” recalled Ugaki. Only later did he learn that the escorting Zeros had spotted enemy fighters and dived to intercept them. This alerted the bomber pilots, but there was nowhere to run. Within seconds, both of the Bettys were under attack.

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After flying for two hours on five different compass headings using only a simple compass and dead reckoning, John Mitchell’s P-38s intercepted the Yamamoto flight within a minute of the estimated time. Jack Jacobson, like everyone else on the flight, considered Mitchell a magician. Undetected because of their olive drab paint, the Lightnings held their course and altitude until they were almost underneath the Japanese formation. Then Mitchell swung his fighters to a parallel course and hauled back on the controls in a thirty-degree climb. The other pilots followed with smooth coordination, sending their P-38s skyward like a volley of surface-to-air missiles.

“Skin ’em off,” Mitchell said over the radio, and the pilots flipped the switches that released their external fuel tanks.

The four shooters tightened their formation. Flying on Lanphier’s wing was 1st Lt. Rex T. Barber, followed by the two alternates, Holmes and Hine. But a problem arose when Holmes could not get his drop tanks to release. If they failed to disconnect, he would be out of the fight. He’d used up the tanks’ combined three hundred gallons of gasoline getting to Bougainville, which meant they now contained raw vapor—far more explosive than the fuel in its liquid state. He finally shrugged the tanks loose, but only after putting his P-38 into a power dive and then yanking back on the wheel while simultaneously kicking full left rudder. The sudden high-g maneuver literally ripped the tanks from beneath the wings. By this time, however, Holmes and his wingman (who had faithfully stuck with his leader) were out of position to attack the Bettys.

That left only Lanphier and Barber to charge after the bombers, which crossed their path from left to right while descending through three thousand feet. As the two fighters positioned themselves for an attack run, the three Zeros on the right side of the Japanese formation raced forward to intervene. Seeing their approach, Lanphier abandoned his gunnery run and pulled up to face the Zeros head-on.

John Mitchell, leading the top-cover Lightnings in a climb to their assigned altitude, could scarcely believe his eyes. The P-38 drivers had been instructed by Rear Admiral Mitscher to get Yamamoto “at any cost,” which meant ramming his bomber if need be. Tom Lanphier, the most talented young pilot in the killer group, was mere moments away from shooting down the most important target of the Pacific war—yet he deliberately turned away because of a few inconsequential Zeros. Flying on Mitchell’s wing, Jack Jacobson had a similar reaction. “I cannot understand why Lanphier would give up a hero’s chance of a lifetime by relinquishing his lead shot to his wingman,” Jacobson later wrote. “He was a very aggressive combat fighter pilot; an ‘A’ type personality [with] political ambitions. Did he chicken out?”

Only one P-38 remained in position to attack the bombers, which were now down to about one thousand feet.  Rex Barber rolled his big fighter to the right and simultaneously lowered the nose, not realizing that the second bomber was beneath his belly. Petty Officer Hiyashi was forced to take hard evasive action, diving to the left to avoid colliding with Barber. At the same time, the lead Betty dived out to the right, and the two rikko became widely separated.

Rolling wings-level, Barber found himself behind and slightly left of the lead bomber—and closing fast. He wondered briefly why the potent 20mm tail cannon didn’t blast him, not learning until much later that the gunner’s position was vacated to make room for the luggage brought by Yamamoto and his staff Boring in to almost point-blank range, Barber thumbed the trigger buttons on the P-38’s control wheel. Four tightly concentrated streams of .50-caliber slugs blazed from the nose of the fighter, joined by the rapid thumping of the 20mm cannon. The heavy rounds angled across the fuselage and impacted the right engine, so Barber tapped the left rudder pedal and sent the next rounds through the vertical stabilizer. Firing another burst into the right engine, he dragged his gunfire across the Betty’s fuselage and into the opposite engine. Black smoke erupted from the bomber, which suddenly slowed, then rolled to the left so rapidly that the P-38 almost struck the bomber’s right wingtip.

In the second bomber, Vice Admiral Ugaki had the presence of mind to check on the condition of Yamamoto’s plane. He was not prepared for the shock of what he saw.

The first plane was staggering southward, just brushing the jungle top with reduced speed, emitting black smoke and flame. It was about four thousand meters away from us. I just said to myself, “My God!” I could think of nothing else. I grabbed the shoulder of Air Staff Officer Muroi, pointed to the first aircraft, and said, “Look at the commander in chief’s plane!” This became my parting with him forever. All this happened in only about twenty seconds.
In the meantime, my plane turned again sharply to evade another enemy attack, and we lost sight of the commander in chief’s aircraft. I waited impatiently for the plane to get back to the level while full of anxiety, though the result seemed apparent. The next glance revealed that the plane was no more to be seen, only a pall of black smoke rising to the sky from the jungle. Oh! Everything was over now!

The sudden and erratic movements of Yamamoto’s bomber, which crashed into thick jungle on Bougainville, gave Barber the impression that he may have hit the pilot. This may have been true. Admiral Yamamoto, sitting to the left of Chief Petty Officer Kotani, was almost certainly dead. In fact, he had probably died instantly when Barber’s gunfire raked across the bomber from the right engine to the left. Among the bullets that penetrated the fuselage, two struck the commander in chief from behind as he sat in the left front seat. One, evidently half-spent, entered his left shoulder but did not exit; the other struck his lower left jaw and exited from his right temple, near the eye. No one could have survived such a wound from a .50 caliber slug.

The second Type 1 bomber, carrying Chief of Staff Ugaki, eluded the P-38s for only a few minutes longer. All of the available evidence suggests that Frank Holmes, after shedding his wing tanks and allegedly shooting down two of the defending Zeros, caught up with the bomber as it tried to escape seaward at wave-top altitude. The scene aboard the bomber was one of bedlam, according to Ugaki. “The enemy P-38 rapidly closed in, taking advantage of his superior speed. His gunfire caught us splendidly, and oncoming bullets were seen on both sides of our plane. I felt them hitting our aircraft from time to time. Now we were hopeless, and I thought my end was very near behind.”

One of the staff officers was sprawled over a worktable, probably dead, when Petty Officer Hayashi began losing control of the bomber. Smoke trailed from at least one engine. Hayashi retarded the throttles, but the aircraft suddenly shed its right wing, rolled more than ninety degrees to the left, and slammed into the sea. By some miracle, three men were ejected from the aircraft on impact and survived. Vice Admiral Ugaki sustained serious injuries, including a broken wrist and numerous lacerations, while Petty Officer Hayashi only had a few bumps and scratches. The other survivor was the fleet paymaster, Rear Adm. Gen Kitamura, who was partially blinded and could not speak due to “a big hole in his throat.”

Rex Barber had also fired upon the second bomber just before it crashed. In fact, pieces of the exploding plane damaged the belly and wing of his P-38. Thus both of the Betty bombers were successfully shot down thanks to the split-second perfection of John Mitchell’s plan. The Lightnings promptly headed back toward Guadalcanal, every man for himself, before the Zeros at Buin and Ballale could intercept them. Barber’s plane was badly shot up by some of the six defending Zeros, but it got him home; Frank Holmes, low on fuel, landed at the Russells; Ray Hine never did show up. He may have been the victim of an avenging Zero, but the cause of his demise has never been positively determined.

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