Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was, by a long stretch, the greatest Japanese leader of World War 2. A naval genius, the primary planner behind Pearl Harbor, he had an impact far beyond any other Japanese leader on the conduct of the war.
And while the general American public have lionized leaders in the past – Patton, MacArthur, Schwartzkopf, Petraeus – it’s hard for Americans to comprehend what a huge public figure a successful leader could become in a society as militaristic as pre-1945 Japan. Rarely since the Vikings had there been a society that so revered accomplishment on the battlefield.
And rarely had any society a warrior leader as accomplished as Japanese admiral Isoroku Yamamoto.
And the Americans knew it. And seventy years ago today, they carried out an unprecedented action to change that – an action that showed the strengths, weaknesses, and ludicrous foibles of both sides of the war in the Pacific.
The Japanese military was deeply divided before and during World War 2. ”Interservice rivalry” is, of course, endemic in every nation.
Healthy expressions of esprit de corps are a good thing in the military, of course; what would the Marines be if they didn’t think they were better than the rest of the services?
But in Japan, the problem swerved almost beyond caricature. The Japanese military was divided between the Army and the Navy, and the Generals and the Admirals operated their services like feudal fiefdoms, to the point where both services were nearly completely redundant to each other. Not only did the Army and Navy each have their own air forces (with completely separate development, procurement and manufacturing efforts, with all the duplication of effort and waste that attended such redundancy), each duplicated each others branches; the Japanese Army built its own navy (including cargo-carrying submarines), and the Navy’s “Marines” served as a duplicate Army.
And each service had its own culture.
The Japanese Army was steeped in the samurai tradition and “State Shinto”, the militaristic Japanese state religion; it was insular, Japanese-culture-centric, and by western standards a little barbaric. It became moreso over time; before World War 2, most of the Army served in Korea (a Japanese colony at the time), Manchuria (which Japan had annexed in 1931) and China (which Japan had invaded in 1937); its entire background was in Asian societies that had changed little in hundreds of years.
The Navy, on the other hand, had been heavily influenced by the British, adopting British design standards and working with many British advisors. While it had its samurai traditions as well, it was much more cosmopolitan than the Army.
Young Japanese naval officers went on long training cruises before the 1930s, routinely docking in in Western ports, including San Francisco and Seattle.
Yamamoto knew America; he’d studied at Harvard (1919-21) and as Naval Attache (1925-28).
Yamamoto’s respect for America varied; he didn’t much care for the Navy’s officer corps, thinking them a bunch of careerist golf-course commandos.
But he had much respect for America’s industry, and its drive to innovate. And as he rose through the ranks, he urged the Army to show a little restraint about engaging the US in a war he felt Japan could not win in the long run.
The road to Pearl Harbor led through an epic political battle between the Army – especially its radicals who believed that they could sweep aside the soft, effete British, French, Dutch and American presences in the Pacific – and the Navy, which favored expansion (indeed, needed it to get the resources they’d need to continue expanding, to say nothing of the justification for more Navy).
In 1938, the Army won the political battle, empaneling Hideki Tojo – an Army man – as Prime Minister. While some worried that that could have resulted in Yamamoto’s ouster or even murder, Tojo kept Yamamoto on as head of the Combined Fleet – the highest operational command in the Navy – and charged him with planning to sweep the enemy from the Pacific.
Yamamoto realized that the only way to effect this against the US was to wipe out its Pacific Fleet, buying the Japanese fleet (carrying the army) time to consolidate the advances into a position that the US couldn’t recover.
The rest is history; they nearly did it. But for the fact that the Navy’s aircraft carriers had left Pearl Harbor for a training exercise, Yamamoto might have won World War 2 in the Pacfic on December 7. It nearly worked anyway.
And Yamamoto’s stock soared; in a nation that revered martial accomplishment, he became a superstar.
And the US needed to fix that.
In recent years, as information has been released with the end of the Cold War, the story of US intelligence’s great coup in cracking Japanese codes has become less obscure. Like the British efforts against the Germans, the US code-breaking effort led to our knowing most of what the Japanese were doing in nearly real time; the biggest Japanese successes, like Pearl Harbor, were the ones that relied on absolutely no radio traffic.
And in the spring of 1943, Navy code breakers found out that Admiral Yamamoto would be touring Navy installations in the southwest Pacific. In particular, the tour – aboard a couple of Japanese bombers that were being used as passenger ferries – would spend a bit of time on the Japanese-held island of Bougainville, in the Solomon Islands chain.
Which was about 400 miles away from the nearest US base, on the island of Guadalcanal.
It was the Navy’s job – but 400 miles was beyond the range of any current Navy or Marine fighter planes. So the Navy “borrowed” the US Army Air Force’s 339′s Fighter Squadron. The 339th flew the Lockheed P-38 Lightning – the longest-ranged fighter in the US arsenal at the time.
To avoid detection by Japanese radar, the Navy and Army planners drew a route for the 339th that would take it far out to sea at wavetop level and approach the airfield indirectly, from over the mountains; four of the P38s would drive straight for Yamamoto’s plane, while the rest would fly top cover against any escorting fighters; then, with no further need for stealth, they’d fly the 400 miles directly back to Guadalcanal.
And seventy years ago this morning, the mission went ahead.
The mission was a very difficult one in the context of the times; in the days long before GPS or any other electronic navigation aids, the pilots navigated by dead reckoning and timing. Flying very, very low was dangerous, with little visual cue as to actual height and no radio altimeters (which would have tipped the Japanese off anyway); one of the P38s actually brushed the water with its propellors, but averted disaster, recovered and kept flying.
The attack itself went off as planned; as the cover team rocketed up to altitude, the four planes of the killer team saw the two Japanese “Betty” bombers in the landing pattern, with six escorting “Zero” fighters orbiting above.
Two P38s, flown by Captain Thomas Lanphier and 1st Lt. Rex Barber, engaged the first of the two bombers; Lanpher fired in a slashing attack from the front, while Barber lined up behind the “Betty”, which burst into flame and disappeared, crashing into the jungle.
Barber and another pilot, 1st Lt. Besby Holmes, attacked a second bomber which was trying to sneak away at wavetop level; the bomber crashlanded in the ocean.
The first bomber carried Yamamoto; all aboard, including the Admiral, were killed. The second plane yielded three survivors, including Yamamoto’s chief of staff, Admiral Matome Ugaki.
One P38 was apparently shot down by the escorting Zeros, although the plane, flown by 1st Lieutenant Ray Hine, was not seen to get hit or crash, and apparently fell into the sea. Hine was the only US casualty; the remaining P38s made it back to Guadalcanal, so short of fuel that some of the planes’ engines sputtered to a stop on rollout after landing. As he came in on final approach, Lanphier radioed ” “That son of a bitch will not be dictating any peace terms in the White House” – a huge security breach that risked tipping the Americans’ intelligence hand to their enemies.
But the secret was safe.
The Japanese government, knowing the blow Yamamoto’s death would be, concealed the news from the public for six weeks. The American press ran it immediately, of course – with the cover story that Yamamoto’s plane had been spotted taking off by Australian “Coastwatchers”, scouts who operated on the small islands in the middle of Japanese territory with radios and binoculars. They were a key part of the Allied intelligence network (and played a key role in John F. Kennedy’s crew’s survival after the sinking of PT109), but had no involvement; the story was intended to prevent the Japanese from figuring out that their codes were nearly transparent to the Navy’s code breakers.
But the story didn’t end there. It went on for nearly fifty more years.
Lanphier immediately claimed credit – and popular accounts, starting with a Time Magazine story in 1943, and including the first story I myself read about the raid as an eight year old history geek, credited Lanphier – who was a one-man public relations machine. Indeed, one of his squadron-mates noted that Lanphier started a manuscript in which he claimed to have gotten the kill himself.
That – and a meeting after the war with one of the Japanese fighter pilots that’d unsuccessfully escorted Yamamoto – irked Barber, who appealed to the Air Force, getting half credit for the kill. The case between Barber, Lanphier and the Air Force wended its way through channels until 1991, when the US Ninth Circuit refused to hear it; good thing, as the Ninth Circuit would have awarded the kill to Michael Moore.
Lanphier died in 1987 after a career in the Idaho Air National Guard; Barber passed away in 2001 after working as an insurance salesman and Little League baseball supporter.
And in 2003, after both men were long gone, an examination of the wreck showed that all of the damage to Yamamoto’s plan came from fire from the rear – Barber’s approach. At long last, the Air Force gave full credit for the kill to Barber.