Operation Vengeance – 1943

There are only two significant attacks by enemies on American soil — Pearl Harbor and 9/11. All of us are aware of the efforts to “get bin Laden” and its ultimate success, but not many know about the retribution for Pearl Harbor.

The Pearl Harbor attack was planned and executed by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Commander-in-Chief, Japanese Combined Fleet. The US had successfully broken the Japanese codes, and on April 13 a message was intercepted that said that Yamamoto was to conduct an inspection of the Japanese forces in the Solomon Islands.

A plan aptly named “Operation Vengeance” was prepared where Army Air Force fighters from Guadalcanal would intercept and shoot down the Admiral’s plane. Although the distance from Guadalcanal to Ballalae Airport south of near Bougainville was 550 miles, the mission required an round-about flight that made the entire flight over 1,200 miles at 50 feet above the sea. The only aircraft capable of that range was the P-38G Lightning flown by the 339th Fighter Squadron, 347th Fighter Group, Thirteenth Air Force. The mission was assigned to Major John W. Mitchell and he assembled a squadron of 18 aircraft for the effort.

Operation Vengeance Flight Path
Mission Flight Path

There was no concern over whether assassinating a Japanese officer morally right. The concerns were whether US knowledge of the admirals trip would lead the Japanese to conclude their codes had been compromised, and more importantly, would Yamamoto be replaced with someone more aggressive and capable? It is interesting to note that Yamamoto had repeated spoken against war with the United States, but he obeyed his emperor. When his superiors asked about how the war might go, he replied he would “run wild for six months or a year, but after that I have utterly no confidence.” The admiral’s flight consisted of two G4M “Betty” bombers,  one carrying Yamamoto and the other carrying his chief of staff, with cover by six A6M Zero fighters

So on April 18, 1943 at 0725, exactly one year after Doolittle’s raid on Tokyo, The flight of P-38’s set off for the intercept. Two aircraft had to turn back, and the remaining 16 continued on. Mitchell had determined that Yamamoto would arrive on approach to Ballalae Airport at 0935 and calculated the intercept for that time. Mitchell arrived early at 0934. Eight of the P-38’s climbed for high cover and the remaining four attacked the Betty’s. First Lieutenant Rex T. Barber rolled in hard right 100 yards behind Yamamoto’s plane and quickly destroyed it, then broke off to attack the second Betty.

Barber’s military flying career spanned 20 years with 5 confirmed kills and 3 probables, making him an ace. He retired in 1961 as a Colonel commanding one of the first jet fighter squadrons.

Barber is an Oregon native son, raised in Culver near the Crooked River and the bridge that now bears his name. He was educated at Linville College near the Evergreen Aviation museum in McMinnville. When he retired from the Army, he returned to Culver and lived his life in service to his town and country as an insurance agent, Culver Mayor and Justice of the Peace.

It is unclear that killing Yamamoto had much impact on how the war in the Pacific Theater evolved. Much has been written on Yamamoto’s contribution to the war if you are interested. There is no question that it provided a great uplift to America.

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