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