THE YAMAMOTO MISSION
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 airplane.