The Assassination of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was the single name most synonymous with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto served as Commander in Chief of the Imperial Japanese Navy during the early years of World War 2.

Hideki Tojo was the real power behind the Japanese Imperial throne during WW2. He and Yamamoto did not get along.   

A perennial enemy of Hideki Tojo, many observers felt that Yamamoto’s career was over when Tojo became Prime Minister of Japan in October of 1941. However, Yamamoto’s gift for tactics and his remarkable strategic vision guaranteed his place in the halls of Japanese power.

Japanese Naval air forces reflected the state of the art at the onset of WW2. As a result, Japan’s capacity to project power over long distances was rivaled only by that of the United States.

More so than any other single man, Isoroku Yamamoto was responsible for the profound expansion of Japanese Naval aviation in the years immediately preceding the Second World War.

The Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, was the catalyst that brought the United States into the war.   

Given his position atop the Japanese Navy chain of command, Yamamoto was also the primary architect behind the sneak attack against Pearl Harbor that drew America into the war. It was this role that ultimately cost Yamamoto his life.

Yamamoto was a warrior poet with a passion for both calligraphy and poker.

Despite his bellicose profession, Yamamoto was a thoughtful philosopher who harbored significant personal misgivings about the war. He once wrote a friend, “Should hostilities once break out between Japan and the United States, it would not be enough that we take Guam and the Philippines, nor even Hawaii and San Francisco. To make victory certain, we would have to march into Washington and dictate the terms of peace in the White House. I wonder if our politicians have confidence as to the final outcome and are prepared to make the necessary sacrifices.”

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor culminated three and a half years later with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

While it has never been unequivocally tied to Yamamoto, tradition holds that he stated on December 7, 1941, the day of the Pearl Harbor attack, “I fear all we have done today is to awaken a great, sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”

Background

Isoroku Yamamoto was born into the samurai tradition.

Isoroku Yamamoto was born in 1884 to Sadayoshi Takano, a samurai of the Nagaoka Domain. Isoroku is an antiquated Japanese term meaning “56,” which was his father’s age at the time of his birth. He was adopted into the Yamamoto family in 1916 and subsequently assumed that name. It was a common practice at the time for sons of samurai to be adopted into other samurai families who were lacking male offspring.

Yamamoto espoused some surprisingly radical views for a senior Japanese flag officer.

Yamamoto graduated from the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy in 1904. He subsequently married and had two sons and two daughters. An ardent proponent of Japanese Naval Aviation, Yamamoto strongly and publically opposed the Tripartite Pact that allied Japan with Nazi Germany and Italy. These public positions brought Isoroku Yamamoto both hate mail and death threats.

The Mission

Yamamoto was an unusually organized and punctual man. The Allies serendipitously discovered his schedule.

In the aftermath of the stinging Japanese defeat at Guadalcanal, Admiral Yamamoto embarked upon an inspection tour of South Pacific military installations to raise the morale of Japanese sailors and soldiers defending sundry island enclaves against the coming American onslaught. On April 14, 1943, a US Naval Intelligence cell codenamed “Magic” decrypted a coded transmission that outlined Yamamoto’s agenda, schedule, departure and arrival locations, and the aircraft types involved for his next inspection. Future Justice of the Supreme Court John Paul Stevens was part of this intelligence unit.

From there, events unfolded quickly. The Allies only had four days to plan an ambush.

Only the Lockheed P38 Lightning possessed the requisite range, durability, and firepower to pull off such an audacious mission.

President Roosevelt is said to have personally authorized the targeted killing of the Japanese Admiral with the command, “Get Yamamoto” directed to his Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox. The effort was titled, Operation Vengeance. It was determined that only the Lockheed P38 Lightning offered the range to intercept Yamamoto’s aircraft and still have the fuel to return safely. Eighteen aircraft were assigned to the mission. Select pilots were drawn from three different P38 units.

The Ambush

Yamamoto’s destination was a small airfield near Bougainville in the Solomon Island chain.

Yamamoto’s destination was Balalae Airfield on a small island near Bougainville in the Solomons. His aides strongly encouraged the Admiral to cancel the trip out of fear of American attack, but Yamamoto persisted. The trip was to be around 315 miles. Yamamoto was a notoriously punctual man, and this attribute more than any other was the key to the mission’s success.

The Mitsubishi G4M Betty bomber was a general-purpose medium bomber used in a variety of roles during WW2.

Yamamoto’s entourage traveled in a pair of Mitsubishi G4M Betty bombers. Devoid of bombs but still sporting defensive weaponry, these Betty’s were quite fast. They included a 20mm tail gun as well as four 7.7mm defensive machineguns. Yamamoto also traveled with half a dozen A6M Zero fighters for top cover.

The American ambush was perfectly executed.

The sixteen Lightnings arrived over Bougainville at the precise moment to intercept Admiral Yamamoto’s small air armada. While several of the P38’s engaged the Zeros, four planes attacked the two Japanese bombers skimming low over the jungle. First Lieutenant Rex Barber opened up upon the lead bomber. It was later determined that this plane carried Yamamoto.

Both Japanese bombers were brought down in short order.

Barber’s P38 sported four Browning M2 .50-caliber machineguns as well as a single Hispano 20mm cannon all clustered in the nose. It was this tight arrangement of weapons that made the Lightning such an accurate and effective aerial combat weapon. Barber sprayed the lead plane with fire until the one engine began streaming smoke. The Japanese bomber crashed violently into the jungle. Barber then turned his attention to the second Japanese plane, earning partial credit for shooting it down.

While there have been some exceptionally acrimonious controversy regarding who fired the fateful shots, Barber’s narrative seems the most reliable. Barber’s plane sported 104 Japanese bullet holes when he finally landed. One P38 was lost on the mission.

The Kill

This is the wreckage of Yamamoto’s plane in more modern times.

A Japanese search and rescue party located the Admiral’s crash site the following day. Yamamoto was thrown clear of the plane yet remained strapped in his seat. He was found sitting upright and intact with his head slumped forward. His gloved hand was supposedly gripping the hilt of his katana sword, but I remain skeptical. This revelation just reeks of wartime propaganda.

Yamamoto’s aircraft was catastrophically damaged in the attack. The Admiral himself was killed by American gunfire.

Yamamoto had been hit twice with .50-caliber rounds. One of the big half-inch bullets penetrated his left shoulder. The second struck him in the left lower jaw and exited his right eye. The specific details of his post-mortem examination were withheld from the Japanese public to help preserve wartime morale.

The Weapon

The twin-engine Lockheed P38 Lightning was a unique combat aircraft.

The Lockheed P38 Lightning was, in my opinion, the most graceful warplane ever built. Originally designed by aviation luminary Clarence “Kelly” Johnson in 1937, the P38 was imagined from the outset as a high altitude interceptor. Powered by a pair of Allison V12 liquid-cooled engines each producing up to 1,600 horsepower, the P38 was the first military fighter aircraft to exceed 400 mph in level flight.

The concentrated firepower of the Lightning made it a deadly adversary.

The inclusion of a 20mm automatic cannon gave the Lightning an extra punch.

The 20mm Hispano cannon carried a war load of 150 rounds, while each of the M2 .50-caliber guns carried 500 cartridges. This made for a combined rate of fire of around 4,000 rounds per minute with every sixth round being a high explosive cannon shell. The 20mm magazine was good for fourteen seconds of continual fire, while the .50’s would run for thirty-five seconds at their maximum cyclic rate.

The concentrated armament of the P38 Lightning made it a fearsome gun platform.

Most fighter aircraft of this era carried their weapons in the wings and required that their guns be synchronized to converge at a set range. The parallax you experience between the bore of a precision rifle and an offset optic illustrates the same principle. This arrangement offered maximum fire concentration at a single set point but diluted the effect at ranges both nearer and farther. By contrast, the tightly clustered weapons of the P38 offered an intense and accurate volume of fire out to much longer ranges.

Ruminations

As assassin’s tools go, the Lockheed P38 Lightning was indeed more elegant than most.  

The P38 was a heavy airplane that was really no match for lighter single engine fighters in a close turning dogfight. However, the plane’s impressive range, especially when equipped with drop tanks, along with the redundant nature of its powerplants, brought many an American pilot home who would otherwise not have made it in a lesser airplane. Additionally, the Lightning’s exceptional speed in the dive made it a superb ambush predator.

Major Dick Bong was the leading American fighter ace of WW2, piloting his P38 to down 40 enemy aircraft.

The advent of the agile and long-legged P51 Mustang retired the Lightning to ground attack and similar missions toward the end of the conflict. Despite this fact, the two leading American aces of the war, Dick Bong (40 kills) and Tommy McGuire (38 kills) both flew the P38.

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was a gifted tactician and a strategic asset. After his death, the Japanese military did not win another military victory.

The death of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was a serious blow to the Japanese war effort. A compulsive practitioner of calligraphy, Yamamoto enjoyed a sharp wit and brilliant mind. He was also an accomplished gambler with a weakness for poker. He frequently joked that his life goal was to retire from the military and open a casino in Monaco. Yamamoto was posthumously awarded both the Japanese Order of the Chrysanthemum (First Class) as well as the German Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords.

1LT Rex Barber was just a typical American flyer who ultimately killed the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack. He is shown here in the top row, third from the right.

Rex Barber, the man who likely pulled the trigger, ultimately commanded one of the Air Force’s earliest jet squadrons before retiring from the Air Force and working as an insurance agent in Culver, Oregon.

Later in life, Rex Barber showed a passion for Little League baseball.

He was eventually elected mayor of the city of Culver. Barber was known for his passion for and patronage of Little League Baseball. In the tiny personal tidbits of this remarkably audacious mission, we seem a microcosm of the heroism and tragedy that was World War 2.

In April of 1943, Franklin D. Roosevelt used an American fighter plane to assassinate the commander in chief of Japanese Naval forces in the Pacific.

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About the author: Will Dabbs A native of the Mississippi Delta, Will is a mechanical engineer who flew UH1H, OH58A/C, CH47D, and AH1S aircraft as an Army Aviator. He has parachuted out of perfectly good airplanes at 3 o’clock in the morning and summited Mount McKinley, Alaska, six times…always at the controls of an Army helicopter, which is the only way sensible folk climb mountains. Major Dabbs eventually resigned his commission in favor of medical school where he delivered 60 babies and occasionally wrung human blood out of his socks. Will works in his own urgent care clinic, shares a business build-ing precision rifles and sound suppressors, and has written for the gun press since 1989. He is married to his high school sweetheart, has three awesome adult children, and teaches Sunday School. Turn-ons include vintage German machineguns, flying his sexy-cool RV6A airplane, Count Chocula cereal, and the movie “Aliens.”

{ 26 comments… add one }
  • Dave January 17, 2020, 11:40 am

    I am an ex chopper pilot.I very much enjoyed the article on the killing of Yamamoto.However,I very much resent it being referred as an”assassination.”It was not. He was killed in combat during a time of war.He had defensive arms and forces at hand to protect him,and they failed miserably to do so. Good riddance.Paybacks are a bitch!

  • Scott November 15, 2019, 2:50 pm

    Very glad to see the comments about Lindbergh. As an aviator, I have always “heard” that his instructions to the Navy pilots to the technique now commonly referred to as “running lean of peak” made the mission possible as the Japanese planned Yamamoto’s route to always be beyond the range of American aircraft.

  • RHT447 November 12, 2019, 10:24 pm

    This is the main factor that made the mission successful. The Japanese thought Yamamoto would be safely out of range. Charles Lindbergh changed that.

    “First one, then two pilots reported dwindling fuel and broke off for home. MacDonald ordered the squadron back but because Lindbergh had nursed his fuel, he asked for and received permission to continue the hunt with his wingman. After a few more strafing runs, Lindbergh noticed the other Lightning circling overhead. Nervously the pilot told Lindbergh that he had only 175 gallons of fuel left. The civilian told him to reduce engine rpms, lean out his fuel mixture, and throttle back. When they landed, the 431st driver had seventy gallons left, Lindbergh had 260. They had started the mission with equal amounts of gas.

    Lindbergh talked with MacDonald. The colonel then asked the group’s pilots to assemble at the recreation hall that evening. The hall was that in name only, packed dirt floors staring up at a palm thatched roof, one ping pong table and some decks of cards completing the decor. Under the glare of unshaded bulbs, MacDonald got down to business. “Mr. Lindbergh” wanted to explain how to gain more range from the P-38s. In a pleasant manner Lindbergh explained cruise control techniques he had worked out for the Lightnings: reduce the standard 2,200 rpm to 1,600, set fuel mixtures to “auto-lean,” and slightly increase manifold pressures. This, Lindbergh predicted, would stretch the Lightning’s radius by 400 hundred miles, a nine-hour flight. When he concluded his talk half an hour later, the room was silent.”

    From here–

    http://www.charleslindbergh.com/wwii/

  • missourisam November 11, 2019, 9:19 pm

    My maternal uncle was a P-38 pilot, and the hero of my youth. He seldom talked about his service, but did say one time that after the Germans developed the first jet fighters the accepted defense was to watch closely for them, turn away climb at an angle, which degree I can not remember and firewall the throttles. The jet would run low on fuel and have to turn back. That was when the P-38 pilot could return and shoot down the jet that was so low on fuel they were limited as to how much they could maneuver. Later he flew an unarmed P-38 as a recon plane filming the bombing results of the bombing of Germany. He loved the plane.

  • JCitizen November 11, 2019, 8:13 pm

    He was just too smart, and I am of the opinion that the US was very afraid he would be promoted to theater commander in much the same way MacArther was. We would have had a very bad time going up against him then! However, I don’t think the Japanese hierarchy operated in a logical way like that. We really had nothing to fear from him; but his itinerary was just too predictable, and we would have been fools not to take advantage of pouncing on him as was actually accomplished. God bless our veterans this day!

  • George M. Suggs, Jr. November 11, 2019, 3:16 pm

    I am a war baby and remain so proud of the sacrifice my Dad, my Father-In-Law and my Uncles all made, along with so many of their friends and fellow Americans. May GOD richly bless them all…they insured our nation’s
    very existence in a time of grave danger. Contrary to practice today, my Dad also served with me in Vietnam.

  • Archie Brown November 11, 2019, 3:07 pm

    God bless all American vets today and always. We owe them so much. A great read, but one small comment-I read that the Corsair was the first American fighter to achieve 400 mph in level flight. Doesn’t really matter, does it? All American fighter planes were good and some were exceptional.

  • Will Drider November 11, 2019, 12:38 pm

    Good read.

  • DAVID MILLER November 11, 2019, 11:02 am

    .50 to jaw my thought no head left

  • Peter Brown November 11, 2019, 11:02 am

    yamamoto studied at Harvard 1919 through 1921. He served as a naval attache in Washington, D.C.
    In 1924 he was part of the japanese delegation that visited our U.S. Naval War College.
    The United States is very generous. Who was the philosopher who wrote something about the high price of not learning from history and doom?

    • larry November 12, 2019, 12:04 am

      It was Santayana…Those who do not learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat it

  • Dean Davis November 11, 2019, 10:12 am

    I enjoyed reading Mr Dabbs article but must disagree with his use of the word “assassination”. Admiral Yamamoto had a target on him dating from Pearl Harbor and while a high ranking target indeed, he was an enemy combatant and as such assumed the risks inherent with any wartime enemy. The fact that he was a high ranking officer should have nothing to do with the terms or “vocabulary” of his death. The intercept was well thought out and executed. Congrats to all involved.

  • Ricky Price November 11, 2019, 9:51 am

    Just love reading these great war stories. Thank god for these men fighting for USA.

  • MDinKS November 11, 2019, 9:48 am

    Another great synopsis by Dr.Dabbs. Well done, sir! I would simply call Yamamoto’s death a military mission, he is a KIA. No different than Soviet snipers trying to kill a Germal general in Stalingrad. But assassins may use guns and calling the US pilots “assassins” (a misnomer) allows us to term the P38 Lightning the assassins “tool”. Thus we can discuss the P38’s guns, I suppose. Dabbs is 100% correct regarding the value of centrally concentrated firepower in fighter aircraft. In modern military parlance, Adm. Yamamoto was a high value target, albeit one with a secondary political value, as he planned Pearl Harbor. The IJN possessed one of the world’s best navies in 1941, having completely surpassed the Royal Navy by that point. Only the US Navy was on par, and Midway turned the tide. The USN steadily improved their tactics, planes, and numbers, while the IJN refused to learn the war lessons and even by 1944 most of their carrier planes were still built without pilot armor, or self sealing fuel tanks. Bushido code does not translate into a tougher more rugged aircraft.

  • Alan Robinson November 11, 2019, 9:31 am

    Great article, the P-38 is and always will be my favorite WW2 fighter, way ahead of it’s time, and despite the issues, a fine interceptor with a long list of firsts.

  • Joe November 11, 2019, 9:29 am

    As an RVN vet, I have an appreciation of the contributions and sacrifices of the Greatest Generation. My sincere thanks and appreciation to Will Dabbs for his articles, Are there any plans to collect these articles into a bound volume?
    Joe

  • Marcelino November 11, 2019, 9:00 am

    Thanks for history Will Dabbs. Must never forget those that saved us from tyranny.

  • CURTIS SCHMITT November 11, 2019, 8:24 am

    A DYNAMITE TRUE STORY. ABSOLUTELY LOVED IT. AND YAMAMOTO GOT WHAT HE DESERVED…TRUE JUSTICE THAT HE, THE ENEMY, NEVER SAW IT COMING. THIS IS WHAT ALL EVIL MEN DESERVE…TRUE JUSTICE. GOD BLESS AMERICA & ALL OF IT’S WARRIORS

  • Dave James November 11, 2019, 7:58 am

    Although the article is well written,and full of facts, you have done a great disservice,labeling Mr Barber an assassin,Yamotto was an enemy combatant,and highly sought after Target. As the architect of Pearl Harbor and other actions.

    • JT November 11, 2019, 10:35 am

      Absolutely correct on the assassination. One cannot “assassinate” an enemy combatant, it is a legal and therefore factual impossibility. An enemy combatant is a lawful, legitimate target during wartime unless that person is surrendering or out of combat due to wounds, injury or illness. That Yamamoto was specifically targeted is undeniable, but so is every single enemy that is engaged and shot by a sniper. That small issue aside, this was an excellent article and a superb summary of what was an extraordinarily complex and difficult military operation, particularly in 1943. It was dependent on timely and superb intelligence and precision execution by the tactical elements, all of which took place like the inner works of a Swiss watch. Were such an operation to take place today with all of the modern technology we have it would still be remarkable. In 1943 is was extraordinary.

  • Ted Robinson November 11, 2019, 6:34 am

    This was a good short story of what happened. As an aviation art enthusiast, particularly of WWII aviation, I think credit should have been given to the artists whose paintings were used here. Stan Stokes was the only visible signature.

    • Mike V November 11, 2019, 8:37 am

      Are you the other painter?

  • Dr Motown November 11, 2019, 6:33 am

    Thank you Mr Barber for your exceptional service! Yamamoto\’s death, combined with the Doolittle raid, helped to weaken Japanese moral and the myth of the invincible \”Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere.\” I love stories with a happy ending

  • Steve in Detroit November 11, 2019, 5:08 am

    Thanks for this great History Story. Today we Honor all Veterans, but those from WW2 are from what Historians call “The Greatest Generation” and most still alive are nearing or over 100 years old. I salute those and all who served and especially those that made the Greatest Sacrifice.

  • Jim Parker November 11, 2019, 3:05 am

    I had the pleasure of being friends with P38 fighter pilot Garland Fory. His outfit killed Yamamoto. Garland was a funny guy and a proud American pilot. He flew missions in World War ll, Korea and Vietnam.

  • catawampus November 9, 2019, 11:46 pm

    WOW!

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