THE 456th FIGHTER INTERCEPTOR SQUADRON
THE PROTECTORS OF S. A. C.
Who Really Shot Down Yamamoto?
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The Yamamoto Shootdown
The 14 April 1943 message schedule for C-in-C of the Combined Fleet Admiral Isuroku Yamamoto’s visit to Ballale and Buin was immediately recognized by Hypo traffic analysts and given to Marine Major Alva Lasswell, who worked on it most of the night. The first decrypt was hand carried by Commander W. Jasper Holmes to Layton, who immediately notified Nimitz. Nimitz passed the information to Halsey, who forwarded it to his subordinate air commanders. Further decrypts of this and a supplementary message were also made by navy stations. Rear Admiral Marc. A. Mitscher, Commander Air Solomons advised Halsey that Army Air Force P-38’s on Guadalcanal had the range to interdict Yamamoto’s flight. Halsey and Nimitz approved his recommendation. Early accounts that Washington, including Secretary Knox or Roosevelt, had to approve the shootdown attempt are unsubstantiated and have been discounted. Army Air Force Major John W. Mitchell’s 339th Fighter Squadron based at Fighter 2 on Guadalcanal intercepted the flight killing Yamamoto and all personnel in his plane, while Chief of Staff Matome Ugaki and Flight Petty Officer Hiroshi Hayashi survived in the second plane shot down. Initially, credit for shooting down Yamamoto was claimed and awarded to Captain Tom Lanphier. Later research shed considerable doubt on that conclusion and indicates Lieutenant Rex T. Barber may well have been the Army Air Force pilot that shot down Yamamoto.
One Day in War: Lt. Rex Barber bags an Admiral
Written by Don Bourgeois
Thursday, 05 June 2008
Lt. Rex Barber
By the spring of 1943, April 18 was starting to look like a lucky date for American forces.
Exactly a year before, on April 18, 1942, the crews of 16 B-25B “Mitchell” medium bombers undertook the most daring, and ultimately successful allied air raid so far. Launched from the USS Hornet CV-8, the twin-engine army bombers under the command of “Jimmy” Doolittle managed to totally surprise defenders and bomb targets in Japan.
While the damage inflicted was minimal, the positive effect upon the morale of the American public was immeasurable. Moreover, the raid convinced Japanese military leaders that the capture of Midway Atoll was necessary. Incredibly, Midway had been passed by on December 8, 1941. The attempt by the Japanese to invade Midway 6 months later on June 4-5, 1942 resulted in such a disaster at the Battle of Midway that their defeat in the Pacific was ensured.
By 1943, the Americans had captured Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands and had established a base of operations there to support an advance northwest up the chain. The big prize on Guadalcanal, and the reason for the island’s invasion by the marines in August 1942, was the newly-constructed airfield. In American hands, this field was to bear the name Henderson Field after Maj. Lofton Henderson, one of the many heroes of Midway.
The 339th Fighter Squadron under the command of Maj. John Mitchell was based on Henderson. Originally supplied with the P-40 Tomahawk and the P-39 Airacobra, the squadron ultimately flew the famed P-38 Lightning. When it was first learned that the P-38 was coming to Guadalcanal, the AAC pilots jumped for joy. The powerful, rugged and (due to its two counter-rotating Allison engines) safe fighter was already a legend with the flyers, even though some of them had never seen a P-38. Lt. Rex T. Barber declared the Lightning “The best plane I ever flew.” Its battle record in the Pacific Theater would later ratify Barber’s assessment.
The Japanese, arrogant in their assessment of the Americans’ intelligence capabilities, assumed that their transmission code was secure. In fact, however, the U.S. victory at Midway had been a direct result of the breaking of that code. By April, 1943, the Japanese continued to use the same code with few modifications. Accordingly, American cryptanalysts were again able to crack a crucial message.
Fleet Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto
This time it was learned that Isoroku Yamamoto, the commander of Japanese forces in the Pacific and the architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor, was scheduled to visit a forward base on Bougainville on April 18…just 4 days hence. Yamamoto, a terrific leader and strategist, was extremely popular with his troops as well as with the Japanese people. It was thought that his loss could deal the Japanese a terrible blow.
The decoded message laid out Yamamoto’s precise schedule for the base visitation. Knowing that the admiral was extremely punctual, American planners knew that they could count on him being right on time. It was obvious that circumstances presented a tremendous opportunity to eliminate the legendary Japanese leader…if it could be done.
It was a navy show. Admiral Chester Nimitz gave final approval to the plan to try to intercept Yamamoto’s transport aircraft, presumably a Mitsubishi Betty bomber. But how could it be accomplished? No navy fighter of the time had the range to fly 1000 miles from Guadalcanal to Bougainville and back. And certainly an aircraft carrier would be detected if it tried to position itself close enough to launch an attack. Therefore, the job fell to the army flyers stationed on Guadalcanal. Only the P-38 had the long-range capability to make the trip.
Maj. Mitchell planned the mission to the second. He assumed Yamamoto’s punctual departure from Rabaul and an average speed of 180 mph (the Betty was a guess). His own Lightnings would cruise at an estimated 197 mph. In order to escape detection, the American fighters would first head west, away from land, then northwest along the string of islands stretching up the Solomons. Flying low and over the horizon, the P-38s could not be detected by land-based spotters. But with no visual references, the 500-mile trip would be tricky, at best. The chances of an actual interception of Yamamoto’s Betty, even if he was right on time, were considered to be 1000 to 1.
Mitchell would fly the lead and do the navigating personally. The other pilots would simply follow and turn with him. Precise navigation was essential: the five planned course changes would be accomplished by elapsed time and heading. Mitchell considered the P-38’s standard magnetic compass to be too inaccurate, so he had a navy instrument installed in his aircraft.
This historic mission would be flown by Mitchell and 17 other hand-picked pilots. Sensing that something big was afoot, flyers of the 339th darkened the door of Mitchell’s tent to lobby for a spot on the team. In the end, the chosen 17 were individuals Mitchell had flown with in the past and whom he was certain were up to the task. However, this did not mean that others were unqualified. Mitchell found the choice difficult.
The group would be made up of 9 sections of two aircraft each. Two sections made up a division. Pilots Lt. Rex Barber and Capt. Tom Lanphier made up one section of the four-plane “Killer Division.” The other two pilots in the division were Lt. Besby Holmes and Lt. Ray Hine. These men were the fortunate four who were assigned the task of attacking Yamamoto’s aircraft itself…if they were fortunate enough to encounter it. The other 14 P-38s would fly cover and engage any fighters escorting the admiral or those that might scramble from nearby Kahili Airfield. Mitchell anticipated a real dogfight.
To be able to make the 1000 mile trip, the Lightnings were fitted with two drop tanks, one of 165 gallons, the other 310. A pair of the larger 310 gallon tanks had been deemed preferable, but they wouldn’t fit together under the wings. The total weight and the imbalance of the odd-sized tanks worried the pilots as no such configuration had ever been attempted. “We didn’t know if we’d even get off the damned runway,” Rex Barber told this author.
Barber’s usual mount was a P-38G, with “Diablo,” (Spanish for “Devil”) painted prominently on its nose. However, as Diablo was down for maintenance on that morning, he flew Lt. Bob Petit’s “Miss Virginia” instead.
Regardless of the unusual equipment modifications, at 0630 on April 18, 1943 the group took off from Fighter Two, near Henderson. Everyone got airborne without incident except for two P-38s that aborted because of mechanical problems. These were immediately replaced by stand-bys.
The group flew southwest into the Solomon Sea, away from Guadalcanal. Because they would be flying at altitudes of 50-100 feet over water, the men knew that the flight would be long, hot, humid and boring. And that it was. To amuse himself, one pilot counted sharks (he saw 48) and whales (one pod) along the way. In the heat, another flyer nodded off…as he did, the tips of his props clipped the water’s surface. The resulting seawater spray over his canopy and windscreen dried into a haze that impaired his vision for the rest of the mission.
Of course, absolute radio silence was maintained. Until enemy aircraft were encountered, no one was to touch their mike button. Mitchell flew directly ahead of the others, carefully noting the elapsed time, airspeed and heading. When he turned onto the next leg, he made sure the others turned with him.
Eventually, the group made the last turn toward Bougainville, right to course 020. They began a climb to match Yamamoto’s expected altitude. At first, Mitchell saw nothing…had he made a colossal error in his calculations? Then through the haze ahead, he spotted a beach. He checked his watch…0934…a minute ahead of schedule.
Just as Mitchell was about to take action, pilot Doug Canning called out: “Bogeys, eleven o’clock high!” The pilots looked up. There, right where they should be, were Betty bombers with 6 Zeros flying cover above them. Mitchell ordered external tanks stripped. The chase was on.
Mitchell and the 13 other P-38s climbed to challenge the Zeros while the four Lightnings of the “Killer Division” moved in on the Bettys. Besby Holmes found that he couldn’t strip his tanks so he pulled aside with wingman Lt. Hine accompanying him. With this, only two pilots, Lanphier and his wingman Rex Barber remained to press the attack on the Bettys.
According to the account provided by Rex Barber, the attack went like this:
When Holmes and Hine moved aside, Barber spotted at least two Bettys. They were approaching these Bettys on their right side at approximately 90 degrees. The enemy planes were slightly nose-down as if starting an approach to a landing. Suddenly their angle steepened and three of the six Zeroes also dived, stripping their tanks at the same time….they had been spotted! Lanphier immediately broke up and left to intercept the Zeros. Normally, as Lanphier’s wingman, Barber would follow him. However, his orders were that the “prime purpose” of this mission was to shoot down Bettys, not Zeros. He stayed put.
As he banked right into position behind one Betty, Barber completely lost sight of the other. (The second Betty was directly below him) From his position above and astern of the Betty, he swung from left to right and back again, continually firing .50 caliber and 20mm slugs into the enemy bomber. He saw pieces of the plane’s rudder and right engine cowling come off. The engine began smoking heavily. Barber moved his line of fire toward the right wing root, into the fuselage and the left engine.
The Betty then suddenly “snapped left” and nosed down vertically into the thick jungle of Bougainville. As it rolled, its wing nearly struck Miss Virginia. He noted that there had been no returning fire from the Betty’s tail gun position. As he passed over the bomber, he saw it descending vertically into the jungle, only 1000 feet below. He did not see it crash. He also did not see any other P-38 participate in the attack on this Betty.
In order to press this attack, Barber had to slow Miss Virginia’s airspeed to somewhat match that of the Betty. This gave three pursuing zeros an opportunity to catch up with him. They opened fire. Before he could open his throttles and speed away to relative safety, Miss Virginia received 104 hits, including 7 through the propeller blades.
In making his escape, Barber raced low over the jungle treetops and out over the water with the Zeros close on his tail. Fortunately, Maj. Mitchell had dispatched two Lightnings to assist. They roared overhead past Barber and head-on at the Zeros. The Zeros scattered.
Once over the water, Barber encountered a second Betty that had already been attacked by Lts. Holmes and Hine. It was limping out to sea and was so low over the water that its prop wash was kicking up a trail of spray. He slipped in behind it and easily finished it off. He watched it as it exploded and saw it crash into the sea.
When Barber looked back at Bougainville, he could see “a large column of black smoke” coming up from the jungle at a spot where he assumed his first Betty had gone in.
There was no time to celebrate, muse or linger…it was only a matter of time before a swarm of Zeros from Kahili would be pouncing on them. His orders were to get back to Henderson when the party was over. He and 16 other Lightning pilots did so, but not in any particular formation; every man was on his own.
Everyone’s fuel was low to critical. Barber limped back to Guadalcanal and had his fingers crossed the whole way. It was a straight trip; there was no spare fuel for sightseeing and certainly none for a dust-up with any enemy fighters. Fortunately none were encountered.
Eventually all but one returned safely. The only pilot lost was Lt. Hine. His Lightning was last seen drifting out to sea, one engine emitting smoke. He was never found.
Mitchell and Barber were standing on the tarmac when Lanphier rolled up in a jeep (his plane had run out of fuel down the runway just after landing). He was shouting “I got Yamamoto!” at the top of his lungs. Mitchell and Barber stared blankly at each other. How could he know if he shot down any Betty and if he did, how did he know who was on it? Rex asked him these questions. “You’re a damned liar!” Lanphier shouted in angry reply. This set up the controversy that raged for years: who got Yamamoto? No contemporaneous record of the attack was made. At that time no formal debriefings were conducted after combat missions. And none was conducted after this one.
After the mission, word of Yamamoto’s demise quickly spread around the world: the great, inspirational leader of the Japanese forces in the Pacific had been killed. To prevent the enemy from learning that the Americans had broken the Japanese naval code and taken ultimate advantage of it, the flyers were immediately pulled out of combat. This eliminated the possibility of the capture and torture of a pilot who knew how the mission had been pulled off.
Mitchell and the members of the Killer Flight were written up for the Medal of Honor. However, details of the mission were inadvertently leaked by three of the flyers to an AP reporter during a golf match. When Admiral William “Bull” Halsey learned that the secrecy surrounding the attack had been compromised, he called pilots Lanphier, Barber and Strother into his cabin on his flagship. Using classic Halsey profanity, he berated the flyers and threatened to court-martial them for their lack of judgment. But ultimately he merely reduced their decorations to the Navy Cross.
As far as the question of who actually shot down Yamamoto’s Betty, the matter lay dormant for years. Lanphier and Barber each received a full “kill” for downing a Betty over Bougainville. Then, after the war when the Japanese revealed that there had been two, not three Bettys on the flight, one that crashed into the jungle and one into the sea, the matter heated up once again. The U.S. Air Force reviewed the case and took away a half credit from Barber.
Historians got involved. In 1988 the surviving P-38 pilots who flew the mission met at the Nimitz Museum in Fredericksburg, Texas to attend a Yamamoto Retrospective. Also in attendance was Kenji Yanagiya, the only Zero pilot still alive who was over Bougainville that day. Unfortunately, Lanphier was not in attendance as he had passed away just the year before. Here, all aspects of the mission were reviewed. The consensus: Rex Barber should get full credit for downing Yamamoto’s transporting aircraft.
Summary of the evidence:
1. Lanphier’s own account makes it unlikely that he shot down the admiral’s plane. At the start of the action, he had broken left and up to confront Zeros above. In doing so, he probably could not have engaged the enemy and gotten back to the lead Betty in time to participate in shooting it down.
2. Even if he had, by his own statement, his angle of attack was at 90 degrees to flight path of the Betty. This presented him with a very low probability shot.
3. Even if he took the shot, he did not hit Yamamoto’s Betty. Japanese examiners of the wreckage as well as investigators in the 1970s and thereafter, found that all of the .50 cal. and 20 mm slugs that struck the bomber came from its 6 o’clock.
4. Lanphier’s claim that he shot off a wing was disproven by an examination of the crash site. The wing in question was found near the fuselage in the jungle…sheared off by a tree upon impact.
5. Lanphier reported being fired upon by the Betty’s tail guns. Incredibly, this plane carried no such guns.
6. Lanphier emphatically stated that he witnessed Barber down a Betty on his own.
7. Zero pilot Yanagiya witnessed a sole P-38 firing on the lead (Yamamoto’s) Betty from a position on its tail…not from either side.
Accordingly, the great weight of the evidence favors the view that Lt. Rex T. Barber of Culver, Oregon deserves credit for shooting down the Betty bomber that was transporting Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto on April 18, 1943.
Evidence that was later released by the Japanese is even more remarkable in determining Barber’s actions that day. Yamamoto’s corpse was quickly recovered from the crash site in the mountainous jungle of Bougainville. The admiral was found lying to the side of the burned-out plane. He had been thrown clear of the wreckage. His body appeared unmarked and it seemed almost as if he was alive. An autopsy revealed that Yamamoto likely had not died from the effects of the crash. Rather, there were bullet entry and exit wounds found in the body that would have been fatal. In other words, Barber actually shot Yamamoto.
In eliminating one of the United States’ most formidable enemy leaders in World War II, Barber’s contribution to the war effort and to history is incalculable. However, it is no less significant than that of every person who made the mission possible on that day in April, 1943. The cryptanalysts, ground crew, John Mitchell who brilliantly planned the strike, the pilots who flew cover for the Killer Division and Capt. Tom Lanphier who faced the three Zeros that threatened to end Barber’s attack on the lead Betty are American Heroes all. These are “Heroes” with a capital “H.” And it should not be forgotten that the entire enterprise, the interception of the Japanese message, the planning, the preparation and the successful downing of Yamamoto’s Betty, took only four days.
Until his death in 2001, Rex Barber emphatically maintained his entitlement to a credit for downing an enemy aircraft on April 18. He even brought legal action against the Air Force to try to restore his _ point. As he told this author: “As for who got Yamamoto, I don’t really give a damn. Let the history books take care of that. But I know that I shot down that Betty!”
Copyright 2008 Donald P. Bourgeois
Who Really Shot Down Yamamoto?
Member Of The Shoot Down Team
Because over sixty three years have transpired since this mission, the statements I make here are to the best of my knowledge but I would not argue if someone proves something different.
On the afternoon of the 17th of April, 1943 we became aware that Major Mitchell and Captain Tom Lanphier had gone by jeep over to Admiral Mitscher’s cabin (actually a tent with head high boards) at Henderson Field to be briefed on an important mission. There they were told of an intercepted message giving Admiral Yamamoto’s itinerary for a trip from Rabaul to Balale Island near Bougainville and then a short boat trip to the Faisi seaplane anchorage on the Shortland Islands. The discussion mainly centered on how to kill him: some arguing to get him in the boat and others saying to shoot his Betty bomber aircraft down. Finally it was decided to let Major Mitchell pick the way to do the job. As reported by him, he said he didn’t know one boat from another and even if we sunk his boat that didn’t necessarily mean the Admiral was dead but he knew if his plane was shot down, he would be.
To get ready for the mission he asked for larger belly tanks to be installed on our planes. None being locally available, they were quickly ordered from Port Moresby, Australia, flown to Guadalcanal and after arrival were attached to eighteen P-38’s that night. He also asked for a large Navy compass to be installed in his plane so his navigation would be more accurate. This also was done that night. Then he returned to Fighter Two to organize the mission and brief the pilots selected to fly the mission.
Initially Mitchell posted a list of the pilots and their positions and then proceeded with the briefing. I remember some of it as my flight was selected to be the second flight. Captain Tom Lanphier was to lead the third flight (the so-called Killer flight) with 1st Lt Rex Barber as his wingman, 1st Jim McLanahan as his element leader and 1st Lt. Joe Moore as Jim’s wingman. As to the Mitchell’s lead flight I only remember 1st Lt Jack Jacobson to be Mitch’s wingman and I cannot remember who were selected to be in the fourth flight. 1st Besby Holmes and 1st Lt Ray Hines were selected to be replacements if some one could not take-off or had to abort.
It should be pointed out that most us had been in the 70th with Mitchell in Fiji where he trained us. This first listing is moot anyway as Major Lou Kittel, the Commander of the 12th Squadron, asked John that his squadron be assigned eight of the sixteen slots. At that time we had two squadrons of P-38 pilots on the Canal and only enough P-38’s for one squadron, so one day the 339th flew the P-38 missions and the next day the 12th flew them. Mitchell quickly realized the validity of Lou’s request so he rearranged the pilot selections with Jacobson as his wingman and I was his element leader with Goerke as my wingman. The Killer flight was the same as the first listing and Kittel’s crews to fly in the 3rd and 4th flights for a total of sixteen pilots. Particularly emphasized was that once aloft “Radio Silence” was the absolute rule. We were also told there would be one Betty bomber with the Admiral on board to be escorted by six Zero fighters. The idea of our attack was for Tom’s flight to make the attack on the Betty bomber with the rest of us turning toward Kahili climbing rapidly so we could intercept any Jap fighters from Kahili so Lanphier’s flight could do their job. As there were 75 to a 100 Zero’s at Kahili, Mitchell expected a pretty big fight. Then we were dismissed with the admonition to get a good nights rest and be back at the OP’s tent for an early morning briefing with take-off time at seven ten followed by join up and be on our way at 0725 local time.
Mitchell then went to his tent and worked late that night using the little meteorology information available, figuring the distance and direction of the legs and flight times necessary so we would be well out of view from land and low enough so we could not be detected by radar and also so that we could intercept Yamamoto’s airplane before he got close to landing at Ballale.
The next morning was bright and clear. We attended a briefing by Mitchell and given all details of the route plus a reminder about strict radio silence. Then finally a terse but strong statement by a Marine Lt Colonel that we were not to return until Yamamoto was dead. After takeoff everything went well with my wingman and myself making a normal join up with Mitchell and Jacobson. However, one of McLanahan’ tires was punctured by an upturned piece of Marsten mat and Joe Moore had trouble getting a belly tank to feed so he too had to abort. Holmes and Hines then took off and filled in Lanphiers flight. We were on our way.
For the entire flight we rarely got over fifty feet off the water. It was hot as we had no cooling system in the plane. It was boring and while ensuring that I didn’t fly into the water, I noticed sharks in the ocean and started counting them… and finally got to a total of forty-eight while en route. I also remember seeing a pod of whales cavorting in the ocean. Then as we neared Bougainville,we turned onto our final leg heading directly at a right angle to Torokina Bay. Then we test fired our guns to be sure they would be ready to go.
As we approached the shoreline, with the mountains showing in the distance, I saw two Betty bombers and two vees each of three Zero escorts, each trailing to the right and left of the Betty’s. I then called in “Bogies ten o’clock high!” The mission reports states I said eleven o’clock high but my memory says ten o’clock. Mitchell later said that he was not sure that we had our target as we had been briefed that there would only be one Betty bomber. However, he quickly realized we had our enemy in sight and said “Skin em off” meaning to get rid of our belly tanks and then said “go get em Tom”. At that time it appeared we still had not been seen by the enemy. As I later read in the mission report, Tom and his flight immediately turned towards the enemy with max power and climb. As he neared the Jap formation, Tom saw that if he turned left into the nearest Zeroes he could divert them allowing Rex to go in and shoot at the lead Betty bomber. Rex did so coming out of his right turn slightly to the left of his target. He corrected and began shooting at the bomber getting hits on the fuselage and right engine. Shortly after that the bomber crashed in the jungle.
The second bomber made a right turn toward the ocean. Besby Holmes who had had trouble dropping his belly tanks now was able to get on the tail of the second bomber getting numerous hits on it. In the meantime Rex turned to his right, but was being pursued by the second vee of Zero’s, however he was able to get enough distance to where he was able to shoot at the second bomber too. It then crashed in the ocean. Besby Holmes at this time was chasing Zero’s off of Rex’s tail. After the crash of the second bomber there were three survivors, one of whom was Admiral Ugaki, Yamamoto’s chief of staff.
Tom later said that as he turned back toward the bombers he saw a bomber ahead of him. He was at a large angle off from a bomber and as he fired his guns he was surprised to see he had strikes on the bomber, a wing came off and as he caught up with the crashing bomber he began a shoot out with the tail gunner. This made the third bomber shot down. The latter is from Tom’s unpublished manuscript of which I have a copy.
Back to we twelve. After Mitchell’s call to Tom, he then turned with the rest of us toward Kahili with a rapid climb to about eighteen thousand feet. As we neared this altitude, I saw a Zero to my left and behind, climbing and evidently trying to position himself to come up behind us. I then made a sharp left turn and dived down about four thousand feet where I came up directly behind him and on his tail. I had him boresighted, he was dead, but just as I started to fire, my canopy was covered with a mist, evidently from moisture in the air condensing on my canopy. Now I was completely blind to the outside world. I quickly got my handkerchief out and frantically wiped my canopy. But to no avail, when I could see out, the Zero was completely out of my sight so I climbed to twenty thousand feet, had a quick look around and saw I was the last one on the scene and turned and headed for home.
I flew directly over Kahili which looked like an exploding beehive as multiple Zero’s were taking off and climbing. The coral runway was almost obliterated from view because of the clouds of coral dust being generated. My reaction was that with this crowd of Zero’s in the air this was no place for me so to be so I proceeded on course back to Guadalcanal well above all the Zero’s.
After about thirty minutes I caught up with Besby Holmes who was low on fuel and whose engines were running rough. His instrument panel was vibrating so badly he could not read his tachometer (Engine RPM) so I got into position where I could look through my right propeller and see his left propeller. Then by changing my engine RPM I could sync my props with his and read his RPM. Because he was low on fuel I stayed with him in case he went down and I could go on to alert our base and get help back to him. Luckily we soon came into sight of the Russell Islands where the Seabee’s were building a new runway. I then went down and buzzed the runway hoping they would get their equipment off so Besby could make a landing. Instead they thought I was just giving them a buzz job, waved at me and kept on working.
Next I did a “Widowmaker” to try to convince them that I was going to land and for them to get off the runway. This maneuver was one that in execution was a beautiful sight, especially when done by four airplanes in close echelon. You come straight in diving at the end of the runway followed by a left, very tight climbing turn. When the airplane has slowed down enough, you put your gear down immediately followed by flaps. At this point you should have your wing pointed vertical to the earth. Your flaps coming down push you around the turn. You chop your throttles and you are on the ground almost immediately. Newly checked out pilots were prone to stall out at the top, and then crash so this maneuver was quickly outlawed by the higher-ups. After I did this the runway cleared immediately and Besby came in right behind me safely landing on the short 2800 feet runway. Upon examination, it was found that he only had three or four gallons of usable fuel left. He spent the night on the Island and the next morning aviation fuel was sent from Tulagi. (aviation fuel was used by their PT boats) After getting enough fuel he took off and returned to Fighter Two. Sadly his wingman, Ray Hines, disappeared during the fight and to this day no one has any knowledge about what happened to him. The next day, the 19th of April we flew one more time to Bougainville with the hope that the Japanese would think we had accidentally ran into Yamamoto’s flight while on reconnaissance.
The sequel to the mission was that Mitchell, Lanphier, Barber and Holmes were put in for the Congressional Medals of Honor. The rest of us were to get Navy Cross’s. However rumors were spread that we were going all over telling about the intercepted message. In fact, it seemed to be common knowledge around our airfield. (There were some forty other people at Mitchell’s briefing). Admiral Halsey called Mitchell and Lanphier in to chew them out about this so-called disclosure. In turn they tried to explain we were not the ones spreading the word. As a result he down-graded the Congressionals to Navy Crosses and for the rest of us, a classified Air Medal signed by Secretary of the Navy Forrestal. Next all of us were called in by the 13th Air Force Commander - General Milliard Harmon. He also chewed us out about spreading the word on the intercepted message. Finally we convinced him we had been strongly briefed not to disclose this information. He then asked us - what did we want- and we told him we had been in the Pacific for over fifteen months and would like to go home. He slapped his hand on his table and said we were all going home and that the minute we stepped foot on American soil we were immediately promoted one rank. He also said if we ever said anything about the mission until the war was over we would immediately be court-martialed.
At one time or another Tom had told me of how he had shot down Yamamoto’s plane and so, for many years, when anyone asked who I thought shot down Y, I said it was Tom. Then in Martin Caidin’s book “Fork Tailed Devil” I read that only two bombers were shot down and no Zero’s.
Next in the 80’s at a 339th Squadron reunion one of the members had a translated tape by Kenji Yanagiya, the only living Zero pilot who had been in the fight. In it he stated the exact same details as Rex had stated so many years before. He described in detail his seeing Rex shoot down Yamamoto’s plane.
In 1988 the Admiral Nimitz Museum had their first symposium, the subject of which was the Yamamoto Mission, with seven American pilots and Kenji Yanagiya participating. After each of us talked at the gathering (with Henry Sadaki, a West Coast historian as an interpreter) I was able to ask Kenji several questions, including when he saw Rex about to attack Yamamoto’s plane “Why didn’t he call Y’s plane to tell them of the attack” and his answer was “He couldn’t as they had removed their radios to make the Zero lighter to turn and climb better”. For the same reason, their fuel tanks were not self sealing which made the plane explode when it was hit and so many of their pilots did not even wear parachutes! How Pitiful!! He said that instead of going after Rex he dived and tried to get to where he could fire his guns so his tracers would warn the Admiral’s pilot that an enemy attack was about to occur. I also asked him “What was their punishment for failing to protect the Admiral’s plane. His answer was “all six Zero pilots survived the fight”. Five landing at Kahili and one at Ballale. Then at two that afternoon, the six took off and returned to Rabaul.” Then he told me they were to fly combat missions until they were killed. He even knew where and when each of the other five were shot down. In his case he was in a fight with a F6F which hit him in his hand which he lost and thus his life was saved as he couldn’t fly any more..
From then on I was convinced that only Rex had shot down Yamamoto’s plane and that the Air Force Victory Review Board’s decision to award half credit to Rex and half to Tom was an injustice to Rex which is still in effect to this day.
As time goes by I have seen more corroboration to Rex’s claim when I recently read in the book “Fire in the Sky” by Eric M. Bergerud on Page 217, it cites a portion of a dairy by Admiral Matome Ugak. In it he relates the attack on Yamamoto’s plane and that within twenty seconds it was shot and on its way to crash. At this same time Tom’s airplane had turned opposite to the flight of Y’s plane. This Tom had done to make a head on attack on the first vee of Zero’s so Rex could proceed to attack Y’s plane. There was no way Tom could have turned 180 degrees, then caught up to Y’s plane and shot him down within twenty seconds as he had said.
Also in Tom’s unpublished manuscript he states as he got closer he shot it out with a tail gunner who was firing a twenty millimeter cannon at him. This is in direct disagreement with Japanese records which show the gun and the tail gunner were not there so that more room would be available for the Admiral’s luggage plus that of other of his staff members on the flight.
Furthermore Tom had reported and claimed that he shot down a Zero. This is direct conflict with the statements in Caidin’s book, plus “ The Reluctant Admiral” by Hiroyuki Agawa, page 376 quoting Japanese records and Kenji’s words that no Zero’s were shot down that day at Bougainville.
In summary 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
Who Really Shot Down Yamamoto?
Pearl Harbor's WWII Collector's Edition
The Official 50th Anniversary Magazine-1991
Thomas G. Lanphier,
Jr., Besby F. Holmes & Rex Barber
In early April, 1943, Fleet Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was intercepted in mid-air by American fighter pilots over open water and killed in a daring raid. One of the men on that fateful mission was Colonel Rex T. Barber, US Air Force, Retired.
On the morning of April 14th, 1943, US Naval Intelligence in Hawaii intercepted, decoded and translated a message concerning the movements of Admiral Yamamoto and his plan to inspect the forward troops on Bougainville and Shortland Islands. The message read: "0600 depart Rabaul by medium attack plane (accompanied by six fighters). 0800 arrive Ballale. Depart immediately for Shortland by sub-chaser (1st Base Force will prepare one boat), arriving Shortland 0840..." The rest of the message detailed the remainder of the Admiral's trip, but the important part was that we knew exactly when he would arrive and with what accompanying escort places. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz decided to order a strike, and that decision was backed up by both US Navy Secretary Frank Knox and President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Why was your unit chosen for this mission over any other on Guadalcanal?
We were the only ones who had aircraft with the range to get up there to Bougainville, where the Admiral was scheduled to land. The way our unit commander Colonel John Mitchell, then a major, planned and then flew the mission, it was 425 miles over open water---and an extreme range for us at that!
The Navy men wanted Adm. Yamamoto to be shot down on the sub-chaser in the water after he had landed from his Betty bomber and was en-route to Shortland Island. Major Mitchell stated that Adm. Yamamoto should be shot down in the air, which would almost guarantee his death. If he was strafed on a boat at sea, he might jump in the water and thus survive. Admiral Marc Mitscher gave Mitchell the go-ahead on that basis and that was that.
Major Mitchell selected Lieutenant Tom Lanphier to lead the flight of four P38s designated as the "Killer Section." Besides Lanphier, it included myself [Colonel Rex Barber] and Lieutenant Joe Moore and Lieutenant Jim McLanahan. All total, we had 16 P-38s---four for the "Killer Section" and 12 to fly top cover.
It was expected that the Japanese would send up an Escort of Honor for Admiral Yamamoto from Kahili Fighter Base, but of course, they didn't.
All total, it took us two hours and 25 minutes to get there. Almost immediately, Doug Canning---who was Mitchell's wing man in the top cover flight---broke radio silence just as we were reaching the Bougainville coastline to call out, "Bogies 11 o'clock high!" They were there, all right, just as scheduled, at approximately 3,500 feet above us on a direct course to Ballale Island Air Strip. We could see them because they were silhouetted against the sky, but they couldn't see us because our planes were camouflaged against the water in olive drab paint.
The attack began when Mitchell signaled for Lanphier to take the "Killer Section" to the interception, while Mitchell and the remaining 12 P-38s started their scramble for altitude to protect the "Killer Section". We started our climb to intercept the two Betty bombers and the six Zeros---which were above and behind them. Lanphier's line of interception was about 90 degrees to the Bettys line of flight. Lieutenant Besby Holmes signaled that he could not drop his external tanks, so he and his wing man, Lieutenant Ray Hine, left us and circled along the coastline while Holmes attempted to jettison the tanks.
Meanwhile, the Bettys started to nose down, starting their letdown to destination approach altitude. I was on Lanphier's right wing when suddenly the Bettys markedly increased their rate of descent. Next, the six Zeros suddenly nosed over in a steep descent and jettisoned their external tanks also. We had evidently been sighted. Lanphier and I were approaching the Bettys from approximately 90 degrees and still climbing to get to an altitude at least level with the bombers. The three Zeros closest to the Betts and on the right side, would catch the Betts about the same time as we would turn in on our firing pass. Thus, we would be perfect targets for the Zeros.
Just before we would break right to fall in behind the Bettys to open fire, Lanphier broke approximately 90 degrees left and started a head-on pass into the oncoming Zeros. This was a wise maneuver on his part, as it allowed me an opportunity to attack the Bettys without the momentary concern of Zeros on my tail. I banked sharply right to fall in behind the Bettys and, in so doing, my left engine and wing---for a second---blocked the two Bettys from my view. As I rolled back, there was only one Betty in front of me. by this time we were no more than 1,000 feet above ground, and the Betty again increased his dive in an attempt to get to treetop level. My turn had carried me slightly left of the Betty and a little above and less than 100 yards behind. I opened fire, aiming over the fuselage and at the right engine. I could see bits of engine cowling flying off. Also, as I slid over to get directly behind the Betty, my line of fire passed through the vertical fin of the Betty. A piece of the rudder separated. As I moved right, I continued firing into the right engine, which began to emit heavy, black smoke from around the cowling. I moved my fire back along the wing root and into the fuselage, then on into the engine, then back into the fuselage. By this time, I was probably no more than 100 feet behind the Betty and almost level in altitude. Suddenly the bomber snapped left, and as it rotated, I almost struck the right wing. The Betty had slowed rapidly as it snapped left. I looked over my left shoulder and the Betty appeared to have rolled up about 90 degrees, and black smoke was pouring from the right engine. I believe that it crashed into jungle, although I did not see it crash, but the black smoke certainly indicated fire.
This, in your opinion, was the bomber carrying Admiral Yamamoto. In a detailed investigation backing up your story, author George Chandler states, "One of these bullets killed Yamamoto, entering his left jaw and exiting the right temple of his head." Where were the Japanese fighters by now?
The were now three Zeros on my tail---the second light had caught up with me and were firing. I turned to the right, hit the deck and took violent evasive action, heading for the coast. Luckily, two P-38s cam to my aid and cleared the Zeros from my tail. I looked inland and to my rear, and saw a large column of black smoke rising from the jungle. I believed this to be the Betty I had shot down.
What about the second bomber?
As I headed for the coast, I saw Lt. Holmes and Lt. Hine circling over the water at about 1,500 feet, and I also saw a Betty very low over the water and just offshore, heading south. He was so low that his propellers were making waves in the water! Lt. Holmes spotted the Betty also, and he and Lt. Hine peeled off aft it, with Hine flying in very close formation with Holmes. As they approached the Betty, Holmes commenced firing. His initial bullets hit the water behind the Betty. He then "walked" his fire up and through its right engine, which started trailing a white vapor. Lt. Hine also fired, but all of his bullets hit well ahead of the Betty. They then passed over the Betty and headed south. I dropped in behind the Betty and, as I closed in to less than 50 yards, I opened fire, aiming at the right engine. Almost immediately, the Betty exploded and, as I flew through the black smoke and debris, a large chunk of the Betty hit my right wing, cutting out my turbo supercharger inter-cooler. Another large piece hit the underside of my gondola, making a very large dent in it, right under my feet.
How does Lanphier's story differ from yours?
Lanphier claims that---when he peeled off and up to go into the Zeros, he shot down a Zero. next, he says that he rolled his airplane over, looking for the bomber, and saw it flying just over the treetops. He didn't know which one it was, but dived down. It lost its right wing in the descent, then crashed and burned in the jungle.
Is there any possible way, in your view, that you both could have shot at and through Yamamoto's bomber on its way down?
No. His pass at the Zero 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 was no possible way that he could've gotten around and back to that bomber before it crashed. He was going the other way! Sixty miles an hour is 88 feet per second. The bombers were going about 375 mph to get away. In his story, he says he made a 90 degree angle off, which means he had not only to overtake the bomber, but get into position to fart firing. He would have to be even with the bomber he strafed when he began firing. He though he was well out of range, and was surprised to the bomber break into flames and start burning---and then the right wing broke off. As Col. Mitchell has said, Lanphier later verified that I did, indeed, shoot down one bomber, but nobody ever verified Lanphier's alleged bomber shoot down. At the time, because of the conflicting stories, we thought we'd shot down three bombers---two that had gone down on land and one in the water. In an interview, however, Kenji Yanigiya, the only known surviving pilot of the six Japanese Zero escort fighters, said there were only two bombers, and the survivors of the second one testified that they were rescued from the water.
Back at Guadalcanal, I landed with almost no fuel. Lt. Holmes landed on the Russell Islands and Lt. Hine did not make it back. When I got out of my P-38, my crew chief shoed me four bullet holes through the blade of my left prop, and three through my right prop---with all holes passing from rear to front. he also later told me that he counted 104 holes altogether, probably 52 hits from rear to front, in and out. thus, the bullets that hit me were from Zeros---confirming my belief that neither Betty bomber had fired at me at all.
What happened when you first say Lanphier?
Back on Guadalcanal, he came down the runway screaming out of the back of a jeep that he had gotten Yamamoto. I challenged this, and he called me a "damned liar!" When we got back to our Operations then, everyone was celebrating, hollering and beating each other on the back. As a consequence, we were never properly debriefed---that is, interrogated after the mission. If this had happened, I've always felt, these contradictions, which have existed all these years, would never have developed.
What did the search team find when they came upon the plane in the jungle"
The leader of the rescue party, when interviewed in 1984, stated, "When we entered the fuselage, we were surprised at it emptiness. There were no seats nor guns," so that means there was no tail gun firing at Lanphier as he said there was---at least not from that plane. Both Col. Mitchell and I are firm in our belief that there simply was no third bomber.
What about the apparent contradiction of the right wing separating in air from Yamamoto's bomber as Lanphier claimed?
On Dec. 15th, 1985, Ross Channon gave the following testimony in a letter after having visited the crash site: "The left wing is about 150 feet from the main wreckage, directly behind. Even at low altitude, if the wing had been shot off, it would surely be further away from the wreckage. The position of the wing is more likely to be where the plane first came into contact with the trees"---or when it crashed, not before. The right wing was in line alongside the fuselage.
Contrtributed by Bernard McMurrary
Click on Picture to enlarge
A search team, led by Japanese Army Lieut. Hamasuna, found the wreckage the evening of the following day – 19 April 1943 – and reported “that the ‘wings and propellers had survived’, but the fuselage had broken just ahead of the Rising Sun insignia, and the section forward from there to the cockpit had been burned out. No one had survived the crash, except possibly Chief Surgeon Takata, whose body was found next to that of Yamamoto. It was speculated that Takata may have placed Yamamoto, while still alive, in his seat where he was found, and then Takata died near him. Yamamoto was found dead outside the fuselage, sitting on the cabin seat, with the seat belt on, as if he were still alive. He wore white gloves. His hand grasped his sword and his right hand rested lightly upon it. His head lolled forward as though he was deep in thought, but he was dead. Yamamoto’s watch had stopped at 7:45 a.m.....”
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