Lt. Rex Barber speeds past the G4M Betty carrying Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto
to his doom in Death by P-38
by Don Hollway

70 years ago, American aviators did the impossible
—and set a precedent—by deliberately targeting
the enemy’s most notorious leader


Postwar propaganda film.
Mission was top-secret throughout the war.
Gun-camera film is spliced in for effect;
the Lightnings did not carry gun cameras at the time.


hat Saturday afternoon the “Opium Den”—the smoky, sweltering, ramshackle command bunker at Henderson Field, on Guadalcanal—was packed with Navy and Marine brass hats. Lowly flyboys Captain Thomas Lanphier Jr. and Major John W. Mitchell, commanding officer of the U.S. Army Air Forces’ 339th Fighter Squadron, arrived last, but were treated like guests of honor. Mitchell was handed a teletyped radio message marked “Top Secret”: a flight schedule for an inspection tour by Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto.

Mitchell asked, “Who’s Yamamoto?”

Lanphier just said, “Pearl Harbor.”

Admiral Yamamoto, commander of the Imperial Japanese Navy's Combined Fleet, was the Harvard-educated, poker-playing mastermind of the December 7, 1941, attack. Navy code-breakers had intercepted Japanese radio traffic indicating that the admiral, known for his fanatical punctuality, would fly over Bougainville Island early the next morning, April 18, 1943—coincidentally the first anniversary of the Doolittle Raid. The newly appointed air commander in the Solomons, Rear Adm. Marc A. Mitscher, who had captained the carrier Hornet on the Doolittle mission, now saw the chance for another long-range surprise attack, this time with the 339th's Lockheed P-38G Lightning fighters.

“We’re going to get this bird,” the Navy planners told Mitchell and Lanphier. “We mean for you to nail him if you have to ram him in the air. But he’ll be taking off more than 635 miles away from here, and only good long-range flying will intercept him. Major Mitchell, that means Lightnings.”

Read their story in its entirety in AVIATION HISTORY magazine—free!

Henderson Field, Guadalcanal, August 1942

Operations bunker, Henderson Field, July 1943

The target:
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, IJN

The survivor:
Vice Admiral Matome Ugaki, IJN

The escort:
Warrant Officer Kenji Yanagiya, IJN

The men who flew the Yamamoto Mission:
Back row, L-R: Lt. Roger J. Ames, Lt. Lawrence A. Graebner, Capt. Thomas G. Lanphier, Jr., Lt. Delton C. Goerke, Lt. Julius Jacobson, Lt. Eldon E. Stratton, Lt. Albert R. Long, Lt. Everett H. Anglin
Front row, L-R: Lt. William E. Smith, Lt. Douglas S. Canning, Lt. Besby F. Holmes, Lt. Rex T. Barber, Maj. John W. Mitchell, Maj. Louis R. Kittel, Lt. Gordon Whitakker
Not pictured: Lt. Raymond K. Hine, MIA, presumed dead

“Miss Virginia” met an ignominious end when another pilot bellied her in and wrote her off against one of Henderson’s latrines

Capt. Tom Lanphier’s P-38G-13-LO, “Phoebe,” USAAC 43-2338, Lockheed #3447. Aircraft name also appeared twice on the starboard engine boom.

Approximate routes taken by the Japanese (red) and Americans (green) on the morning of April 18, 1943.
“The Slot” was still Japanese-controlled, requiring the Americans to circle around it to avoid detection. This was the longest fighter-intercept mission of the war, and was so skillfully planned and flown that the Americans arrived at the intercept point just one minute early. Click to zoom.

“Bogeys Eleven O'Clock High” by Robert Taylor

“Yamamoto Ambush” by Ron Cole

“Mission Accomplished” by Roy Grinnell

Read their story in its entirety in AVIATION HISTORY magazine—free!

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