May 12, 2021

Kill Yamamoto: The Mission to Avenge Pearl Harbor - Part 2

Kill Yamamoto: The Mission to Avenge Pearl Harbor - Part 2

After the Battle of Midway, the Japanese Navy is in tatters and Yamamoto’s hopes of a quick victory against the Unites States have evaporated. He has no choice but to fight a war he knows Japan will lose. Tom Lanphier, Rex Barber, and the pilots of the 70th earn their stripes at Guadalcanal. The U.S. codebreakers at Hypo Station uncover the secret to intercepting the hated Yamamoto. John “Mitch” Mitchell plans and executes a borderline miraculous operation. Tom and Rex learn that victory builds careers, but destroys friendships. (Part 2 of 2)

After the Battle of Midway, the Japanese Navy is in tatters and Yamamoto’s hopes of a quick victory against the Unites States have evaporated. He has no choice but to fight a war he knows Japan will lose. Tom Lanphier, Rex Barber, and the pilots of the 70th earn their stripes at Guadalcanal. The U.S. codebreakers at Hypo Station uncover the secret to intercepting the hated Yamamoto. John “Mitch” Mitchell plans and executes a borderline miraculous operation. Tom and Rex learn that victory builds careers, but destroys friendships. (Part 2 of 2)




Davis, Donald A. Lighting Strike: The Secret Mission to Kill Admiral Yamamoto and Avenge Pearl Harbor. 2005. 

Lehr, Dick. Dead Reckoning: The Story of How Johnny Mitchell and His Fighter Pilots Took On Admiral Yamamoto and Avenged Pearl Harbor. 2020. 

Hampton, Dan. Operation Vengeance: The Astonishing Aerial Ambush That Changed World War 2. 2020. 

Paine, S.C.M. The Japanese Empire: Grand Strategy from the Meiji Restoration to the Pacific War. 2017.

Harmsen, Peter: Storm Clouds Over The Pacific, 1931-1941. 2018.

Davis, Burke. Get Yamamoto. 1969.

Hoyt, Edwin P. Yamamoto: The Man Who Planned Pearl Harbor. 1990.


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---- INTRO-----


Hello and welcome to Conflicted, the history podcast where we talk about the struggles that shaped us, the tough questions that they pose, and why we should care about any of it.


Conflicted is a member of the Evergreen Podcast Network, and as always, I’m your host, Zach Cornwell.


You are listening the conclusion of a two-part series on Operation Vengeance, the US military’s plan to ambush and assassinate Isoroku Yamamoto, the Japanese admiral who planned the infamous surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.


In Part One, we spent a lot of time getting to know Yamamoto - who he was as a person. We. learned about his talents, his character flaws, what he cared about – and WHO he cared about. We followed his career through the Japanese Navy, as well as his close, even intimate relationship with the United States and its people.


We also talked about the stark contrast between Yamamoto the man, and Yamamoto the propaganda caricature. After Pearl Harbor, Americans were as fixated on Yamamoto as they would be on Osama Bin Laden in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks. But unlike Osama Bin Laden, Yamamoto was not an idealogue or a fanatic; He had warned Japan over and over not to go to war with America. It was suicide, he said. But despite his best efforts, Japan’s war in China and an alliance with the Nazis made a clash with the United States a foregone conclusion. And Yamamoto was forced to put together the only war plan that offered even the slimmest chance of success.


We also met two young American pilots, Tom Lanphier and Rex Barber, who in the months following Pearl Harbor found themselves shipped out to Fiji to complete their flight training. The two became close friends, but Rex Barber was already beginning to see the shades of ambition in his friend Tom that would end up fracturing their relationship just a few years later.


All of these different threads were about to intersect in a fateful battle over the jungles of the South Pacific. A hastily, but meticulously planned mission to kill America’s public enemy number one.


So now that we’ve had a quick refresher on Part One, let’s dive in and conclude our story.


Welcome to Episode 22, Kill Yamamoto: The Mission to Avenge Pearl Harbor, Part 2.


---- BEGIN -----


June 7th, 1942 was probably one of the worst days of Isoroku Yamamoto’s life.


It was the day he learned the full scope of what had happened at the Battle of Midway.


It had been six months since the stunning attack on Pearl Harbor. And in that time, the Japanese had been running wild all over the South Pacific. Victory followed victory followed victory. It felt like they could not lose. Like they were invincible.


At home in Japan, the flags fluttered and the propaganda swooned over the indomitable Admiral Yamamoto, the man who had brought the United States Navy to its knees in the blue bays of Oahu.


But Yamamoto knew better. Even as stacks of fan mail arrived at his flagship, Yamamoto could not take much comfort in what he called the “small success” at Pearl Harbor. As he bitterly confided to a friend:


“The mindless rejoicing at home is really deplorable, we are far from being able to relax at this stage.”[…] The sinking of four or five warships is no cause for wild celebration.”[…] It is not so hard to open a war as to conclude it.”


Because there was a piece of unfinished business from the Pearl Harbor attack. And it stuck in Yamamoto’s brain like a splinter. A nagging, irritating x-factor that he could not let go of. Even though dozens of ships had been sunk and destroyed at Pearl Harbor, they had not managed to destroy America’s aircraft carriers.


If you’ll recall, Yamamoto was obsessed with aircraft carriers. He saw them as the ships of the future, and a must-have for navies of the present. A perfect weapons system blending the mobility of a seafaring vessel with the range and firepower of aircraft. And he knew that unless he destroyed America’s carrier fleet, Japan would never be truly safe.


His fears were confirmed in mid-April of 1942. The same people who’d been waving flags and singing the praises of Yamamoto in Tokyo were shocked to hear the roar of American airplanes over their capital. Bombs fell, homes were burned, people were killed. Even the Emperor’s palace had nearly been hit.


The Doolittle Raid, as it came to be known, only did miniscule damage, but the psychological shock and whiplash it incurred on the Japanese people was incalculable. Japan’s leaders had promised their people that Americans would never, ever be able to attack the home islands. Like ever. And yet, they had done it.


It soon came to light that the raid had been launched from an American aircraft carrier in the northern Pacific. And just like that, everyone was suddenly on Yamamoto’s wavelength. You see? He said. Aircraft carriers are the most dangerous weapon in a modern navy’s arsenal. The United States will never be completely out of the fight unless we get the carriers. We have to get the carriers.


The problem was finding them. During this period in the mid-20th century, radar and reconnaissance technology were still extremely primitive. There’s no satellites, there’s no drones, or google earth imaging. Yamamoto needed to find these US carriers, but it was like trying to find a needle in a needle stack. Like the two phantom fingers on his left hand, they were there, but not there.


So - he decides to set a trap.  At a lonely little sand spit called Midway Island, which lies roughly “mid-way” between Japan and the continental US. The idea, essentially, was to attack the US instillation at Midway, draw the American carrier fleet into a decisive engagement and destroy it.


As Dan Hampton helpfully summarizes:


By invading Midway Island, the admiral sought to lure the remaining U.S. aircraft carriers into a strategically tactical counterstrike. Once committed and isolated in midocean, Yamamoto would spring his trap with at least four frontline carriers and nearly 250 aircraft. It would finish the job he had begun at Pearl Harbor, and be a deathblow to the Pacific Fleet. With no defense for Hawaii or the U.S. west coast, Washington would be forced to negotiate a peace.



Now, before we get into this – I just want to set some expectations. Midway is one of those battles that is a bit of an obsession for World War 2 buffs all over the world. The armchair generals have been dissecting this thing for the better part of a century, so I’m not interested in examining it from a tactical, play-by-play perspective. There are tons of great documentaries and podcasts that go deep into the details of Midway.


But for our purposes, the battle of Midway is important because of what it did emotionally to the people in our story. Particularly, what it did to Yamamoto.


Leading up to the battle, Yamamoto was very, very nervous. It was probably the most anxious he’d felt since his very first naval engagement against the Russians back in 1905. The same battle where he’d lost the two fingers on his left hand. And while he wasn’t in any mortal danger this time…he was putting everything on the line. Japan’s future would be decided at this little sandbar in the middle of watery blue nowhere.


Yamamoto’s anxiety was also compounded by other factors, un-related to the coming showdown with the Americans.


As we’ve mentioned, Yamamoto had a wife and four children at home in Japan, but his thoughts were rarely with them. Instead, he was thinking about his lover in Tokyo. The gorgeous geisha, Chiyoko Kawaii.


Yamamoto and Chiyoko wrote to each other constantly, sometimes they talked on the phone, and to be apart for so long, with their future together clouded by the uncertainty of war, well that was agonizing for both of them. They were 19 years apart in age, but there bond went far beyond the typical geisha-patron relationship. There was real love and affection here.


But in March of 1942, Yamamoto received some alarming news. Chiyoko had fallen very ill. She had come down with pleurisy, which is a severe inflammation of the lungs. Yamamoto could hear it in her ragged little breaths over the phone; she could barely talk. In her own words, she “hardly spoke by telephone due to so much coughing. I lost patience with tears.”


But even severe illness could not come between the two star-crossed lovers. On May 13th, Chiyoko hopped on a train from Tokyo bound for the coastal city of Kure for a secret rendezvous. When she got off the train, she saw Yamamoto, disguised in civilian clothes, spectacles and a gauze mask. He’d traveled all the way from the front just to see her. As Chiyoko wrote later, when she stepped onto the platform, “my darling awaited me, and I was wild with joy.” Yamamoto scooped her up and literally carried her to the car.


Yamamoto and Chiyoko spent the next four days and four nights holed up in a hotel room. At this time, they’d known each other for ten years, and their affair was almost as old. Each of them had taken other lovers in that time; As a Geisha, Chiyoko had plenty of clients. But she was an expert, according to another geisha, at “keeping her heart and her body separate.” The true-north of her internal compass always pointed towards Yamamoto. And his to her.


In the old days, they would’ve spent those four days in a tangle of sheets and sweat and passion, but this time, they just talked and spent time in each other’s arms. Chiyoko was extremely ill; a doctor even had to give her injections periodically as part of her recovery regimen. But she was tough. Yamamoto had seen men go through hell in war, but even a battle-hardened commander like Yamamoto was impressed by her resiliency. As he told her: “Your spiritual strength in overcoming illness day by day is amazing indeed.”


After their four days were up, Yamamoto took Chiyoko back to the train station. And they said a short, tortured goodbye. As the geisha wrote later:


“Though I was so weak that I could not hold your hand strongly, you were very, very strong in holding my hands. I wished I could get off the train and remain beside you. When the train started to move, I hated to loosen our firmly held hands.”


Yamamoto and Chiyoko’s last glimpse of each other was on that train platform in the city of Kure. They didn’t know it at the time, but they would never see each other again.


Chiyoko was on Yamamoto’s mind as he prepared to set the trap at Midway on June 3rd, 1942. Not only was he heartsick, but an intestinal infection had turned his stomach into pressure cooker of cramps and pangs of discomfort. He was soaked in sweat as he looked at his watch, waiting for news from the fleet at Midway. Both from the stress and the tempest in his belly.


And then the reports start coming in.


In the space of six minutes, Yamamoto watched his entire war plan dissolving like cotton candy dropped in a puddle. The aircraft carrier Kaga = on fire. The carrier Soryu = on fire. The carrier Akagi = on fire. The carrier Hiryu = disabled and out of action.


Somehow - the Americans had known they were coming, and had set a trap of their own.


Towards the end of Part One, we talked about the American codebreakers at Station Hypo. The workaholic analysts who were systematically unraveling Japan’s secret naval code in a basement office known affectionately as the Dungeon. Well by the summer of 1942, they had it fully deciphered. They could read Yamamoto’s communications like a children’s book. And through some very clever counter-intelligence, they knew exactly where the Japanese were going, in advance.


The accuracy of the codebreakers in Hawaii was almost supernatural. As Donald A. Davis writes: “When contact actually was made and the battle commenced, that analysis was off by five degrees, five miles, and five minutes”.


The codebreakers at Station Hypo had pinpointed almost the exact latitude and longitude of the Japanese carriers, and the American fleet had hunted them down with ruthless efficiency. In the end, Yamamoto lost four of his precious aircraft carriers, a battle cruiser, and hundreds of planes. The admiral had rolled the dice, and come up with snake eyes.


As I said at the top, June 7th, of 1942 was probably one of the worst days of Isoroku Yamamoto’s life. A Japanese navy clerk described the mood on the bridge of Yamamoto’s flagship:


“The admiral and his staff looked at one another, their mouths tight shut. There was an indescribable emptiness, cheerlessness, and chagrin.”


It’s difficult to even comprehend how Yamamoto felt at this point.


He had been a gambler all his life. He’d watched roulette wheels land on black when he’d picked red. He’d watched stacks of money disappear. He’d seen lucky streaks evaporate and fortunes won and lost. But this was like a gut punch. He must’ve felt like the wind had been knocked out of him


The gravity of the loss would have sent visceral panic racing across his synapses. He had held Japan’s fate in his hands…and he’d totally blown it. Of course, on a tactical level, it wasn’t Yamamoto’s fault. There were myriad mistakes and miscalculations that could be blamed on his subordinate commanders, but Yamamoto was never, ever the kind of guy to blame the people under him. He did not throw people under the bus. The buck stopped with him, and he knew it.


As he said in the aftermath of the battle: “I am the only one who must apologize to the Emperor.”


Back in the States, the media framed the Battle of Midway as payback for Pearl Harbor.


In Japan, the people were told absolutely nothing about the catastrophic loss. Yamamoto had always pushed for transparency with the Japanese people; he believed they needed to be just as clear-eyed about what they were facing as he was. Well, the government censors didn’t have much faith in the average Japanese citizen. In their eyes it was best that they believe Japan was winning naval battles hand over fist, guided by their very own God of War, Isoroku Yamamoto.


But in reality, Midway kinda broke Yamamoto. He became reclusive, quiet, and joyless. The same man who could charm a roomful of American cowboys or do a handstand on the deck of a ship, could barely get out of bed.


It’s easy to see why. When the news of their losses at Midway crackled over the radio on June 7th, 1942 – Yamamoto knew, in his gut, that the war was lost. His government would labor under the delusion of a possible victory for the next three years, but he understood it was just a matter of time. America’s war machine, the thing he had long feared, had been activated. As Winston Churchill had once said, it was a boiler that once heated, could not be put out.


But Yamamoto was a slave to appearances. He was expected to play it all out, the best he could. He’d already lost the game of chess, but he had to see it out to the conclusion. And hopefully save as many Japanese lives as he could. Just as he’d dutifully married a woman he didn’t love and fathered kids he didn’t want, Yamamoto would do what was expected of him. Even to the bitter end.


And while many Americans saw Midway as successful revenge for Pearl Harbor, others found it unsatisfying. They wanted a body. They wanted Yamamoto, dead on a slab. And circumstances were moving into place that would soon bring the Admiral into American crosshairs.


---- MUSIC BREAK -----


Tom Lanphier could smell the island of Guadalcanal before his plane’s wheels even touched the ground in December of 1942.


Six months had passed since the battle of Midway.


The war in the Pacific had been raging, and yet Tom, along with his good friend Rex Barber and the other pilots of the 70th Squadron, had been stranded on the Fiji Islands in an endless purgatory of training exercises and empty routine. Tom was getting anxious, and frustrated. It had been an entire year since the Pearl Harbor, and yet still he had not flown a single mission against a Japanese target or shot down a Zero.


It certainly wasn’t for a lack of skill. Tom was one of the best pilots in the 70th. His buddy Rex was just as good - if not better. And they were chomping at the bit to get a taste of the action. Admittedly, life had been pretty good on Fiji. The pilots spent their time on the ground playing cards, sipping grain alcohol and chasing nurses.


But that got really old, really fast. Especially when all they had to do was switch on a radio to hear that an entire war was raging on. Without them. Tom Lanphier didn’t want a glorified vacation on Fiji in relative comfort and safety. He wanted to carve out a name for himself in this war. He wanted to be a legendary pilot. A hero. Just like his father, Tom Lanphier Sr., had been in World War One.


Tom had even confided in his friend Rex that he had aspirations to the US Presidency. As he tried to explain to his pal: “Rex, you are over here because you are patriotic. Well I’m here because I’m patriotic, but I have another reason.”


But for a career in politics to flourish, Tom needed a sparkling war record. Hell, any war record. And right now, all he had to his name was a few hundred hours of flight time and a pretty good tan.


After months upon months of doing nothing, Tom and the other pilots got some very good news. They were being called up. They were being sent into the action. To some patch of god-forsaken jungle east of Papua New Guinea. None of them had heard the name “Guadalcanal” before then. But in the months to come, they would experience things there that would burn those four syllables into their brains forever.


Guadalcanal. It was part of the Solomon Islands chain. As the celebrated author Jack London had once written: “If I were a king, the worst punishment I could inflict on my enemies would be to banish them to the Solomons.”


If Fiji was paradise, Guadalcanal was hell. The island was “slug-shaped” as one historian puts it, but there were more than just slugs crawling through the dense, jungle mountains. On an evening stroll through Guadalcanal, you might encounter crocodiles, venomous snakes, centipedes, three-inch wasps, poisonous spiders, swarms of mosquitos or a giant colony of white ants all in the same twenty-foot radius.


It rained, constantly. Every single day. Everything was wet or damp or soaked – all of the time. Which results in smells the human nose does not often encounter. It’s a jungle, everything is constantly decaying and rotting and fertilizing and growing on top of itself. And then there’s the heat. Triple digits. Choking humidity. This was a far cry from the cool coconut groves of Fiji.


To put it simply, this is not a place where people are supposed to live. These kinds of conditions destroy the human body. Think of it kind of like a slow cooker or braising meat - right? Constant heat and moisture over a long period of time, and you just start to slowly fall apart.


As Donald A. Davis writes: “The human organism simply broke down under the extreme tropical conditions. Even the strongest men suffered substantial weight loss and aching joints, and their thinking could become so clouded they might even lose the will to live.”


One pilot from the 70th summed it up nicely: “God, it’s spooky”.


Since the summer of 1942, fierce fighting had been raging on “the Canal” as some Americans called it. Or by the island’s codename, Cactus. But most guys just called it “The Shithole”.


The Japanese hated Guadalcanal too. Many of their soldiers called “Starvation Island”.


Without getting too deep into  the strategic weeds, Guadalcanal became a key piece of real estate in the war plans of both Japan and the United States, and in the back half of 1942 it was the axle around which the entire Pacific War revolved.


Tom, Rex, and the rest of the pilots of 70th Squadron had wanted a challenge. And they were about to get it. As Tom climbed out of the cockpit of his fighter and his boots hit the crunchy, crushed coral of Guadalcanal’s airstrip, he knew this would not be anything like Fiji. And he was happy. He couldn’t wait to blast his first Zero out of the sky.


Rex and Tom’s immediate commander, the man they would be answering to day-to-day, was a guy named Major John Mitchell. But everyone just called him “Mitch”.


Now in the pantheon of boring white-guy names, John Mitchell is pretty up there. But it’s really important to commit the name John Mitchell to memory. I always really try and resist the urge to flood episodes with names that don’t mean anything to the story we’re telling. It’s just a distraction from the people we’re here to learn about. And thankfully, this cast is pretty small. We’ve got Yamamoto, his geisha lover Chiyoko. The two flyboy buddies Tom & Rex. Well, now it’s time to round out the cast with our last figure.


Major John “Mitch” Mitchell was a small, spritely little good ‘ol boy from Mississippi. He was only 27 years old – that cursed age of all prodigies - but Mitch was a natural born leader of men. In the corporate world, you’ll often hear people talk about the “coaches vs players” theory. The general idea is that people tend to fall into two categories; you’re either a good at execution – scoring points, a “player”, or good at leadership - coaching. A player or a coach. Well, John “Mitch” Mitchell was a player AND a coach.


By the time Tom Lanphier and Rex Barber hopped out of their cockpits onto Guadalcanal, Mitch had been fighting and flying on the island for three months. He was a certified Ace pilot. He had 8 or more confirmed kills in the air.  An absolute pro. He was the Lebron James of that squadron and everyone knew it.


Like Isoroku Yamamoto, Mitch was a good boss. Although his leadership style was entirely different. Yamamoto could be warm, but also very strict and unbending. Mitch relied on a softer touch. Draconian discipline would not work in a punishing environment like Guadalcanal. He needed to be a respite from their suffering, not an extra layer of it.


As Mitch said in his own words:


“I tried to lead my guys on a loose rope. I knew you had to lead by example more than anything else. They watched what I did, and I tried my best in every way. So I couldn’t just hand out orders. They were learning art as well as skill. I tried to make ‘em aggressive, too. Good fighter pilots can’t think defensively, I wanted to make ‘em killers so they could survive. I didn’t mind if they got into fist fights or chased women – I just kept telling them they were the best. I approved a certain amount of wildness in them.


When the first batch of pilots had arrived on Guadalcanal in the fall of 1942, some of the pilots were scared to death of encountering a Japanese Zero. The hummingbirds with machine guns. Veteran pilots from the Navy had told some terrifying stories about the Japanese airmen. Mitch tried to squash that fear right out of the gate in his unmistakable southern drawl.


“All right. Any of you guys who believe that crap from the new squadron, let me know it. I mean it. The road forks right here. Don’t you believe one goddamn word they say. It’s pure unadulterated horseshit. They haven’t really fought Zeroes – but you sure as God will. If any of you think we can’t lick Japs, say it now, and you can stay right here. Nobody’s going with me who can’t cut the mustard. Y’all are getting hotter and hotter [he meant better at flying] You can handle anything that flies, if you stick to our teamwork.


You’re great pilots and don’t you forget it.”


That ladies and gentlemen, is the kind of boss you want to have in a warzone.


Now It’s tempting to read that speech and picture some grizzled, grey-haired General. But again, Mitch was only 27 years old at the time. He was younger than me. That’s the amazing thing about some of these pilots; you look at pictures of these guys and they look so, so young. Like high school kids. Well luckily, an airplane doesn’t care what age you are; just that your reflexes are fast enough. Needless to say, the men of the 70thSquadron thrived under Mississippi Mitch’s energetic leadership.


For the ambitious Tom Lanphier Jr., it was like a release valve had been hit. Tom was a really smart guy, a Shakespeare buff, but he had a compulsive need to prove himself. Not only to his famous father back home, but to himself. And a few weeks after he arrived at Guadalcanal, he bagged his first Zero.


It was Christmas Eve 1942; Tom had gone up in his fighter plane to guard an attack run of American bombers, when a Japanese Zero shrieked into his field of vision. As Tom would tell it later, in a very self-congratulatory tone:


“I found myself close enough behind the Zero, who was ignorant of my lethal presence, to have him filling my whole gunsight.” He squeezed the trigger and the Zero exploded as it was ripped apart by 50 caliber rounds. As Tom remembered, it “instantaneously converted into a firecracker.” It was the best Christmas present he could’ve hoped for. He’d only been on Guadalcanal three days.


To the amusement of the other pilots, Tom also claimed he’d also brought down a second Zero, which no one could confirm. He said he’d done it, but no one had seen it. So he got credit for just the one. Tom’s buddy Rex Barber got his first kill around the same time too. The two friends had been itching to get into the fight, and to experience such instant validation was an amazing feeling. It was a joy even their commander Mitch had to acknowledge:


“I won’t say you remember it like your first girlfriend. But it’s something like that, the first time you shoot down an airplane.”


The pilots spent Christmas Eve of 1942 drinking, celebrating, decorating little shrubs as impromptu Christmas trees, and singing joke carols like “I’m Dreaming of a White Mistress”. They drank grain alcohol out of Clorox bottles and listened silently to the Chaplain give mass. As a soldier named Bob Miller recalled:


“The moon shining through the palms on a clear blue background, the roar of the Flying Fortresses pulling their loads of death and destruction into the air, the candlelit expressions on the faces of the men, the chant of the mass—all very storybookish,”


In the weeks and months that followed, Mitch’s pilots, Tom and Rex among them, just start racking up kills. You read about this period in the Guadalcanal campaign and it seems like the Americans are shooting fish in a barrel. Two days after his first kill, Tom got two more Zeroes. Rex Barber scored a miraculous kill on a Japanese bomber shortly after, earning him the Silver Star. A few months later, they both won Silver Stars for destroying seven Japanese float planes and strafing a nearby destroyer.


One American Admiral touring the island was pleasantly surprised at all the success in the air. He said his guide: “This place is a goddamn tiger pit. It’s like this every day?” The guide answered: “It’s a little light for a Thursday. But it’ll pick up.”


It was easy to focus on being a good pilot on Guadalcanal, as a flight commander named Vic Vicciello joked: “There were no bars, no women and the Japs were moving everywhere and so we had plenty of incentive.”


Tom and Rex were both clearly extremely talented pilots, in a squadron full of extremely talented pilots. But with accolades and success, came comparison and envy. As a Lieutenant named Jay Buck remembered: “Selfish motives did begin to appear. Petty jealousies.”


Tom’s demeanor, once loquacious and fun, began to rub people the wrong way.  He seemed more arrogant. More aloof. His colorful stories started to grate. His bookishness, love of Shakespeare, and ability to quote philosophers at will, once considered lovable eccentricities, now just reminded the other guys of the very different walk of life Tom had come from.


Tom was the son of a famous Colonel. Aviation royalty with political connections. A big shot who talked about chatting with Charles Lindbergh and seeing Scarlett O-Hara naked. In the war they were all equals, but when it ended, if it ever ended, Tom would toss them all aside like yesterday’s beer cans.


As one commander noted with a touch of resentment: “He was a handsome guy—Mister Personality.”


Tom also started exhibiting a troubling pattern of exaggeration. No one could spin a tall tale like Tom Lanphier. He had a storyteller’s eye and a former newspapermen’s instinct for embellishment, but some of his claims outright stretched credulity. For example, back when they’d been stationed at Fiji, Tom had asked to be taken along on a bomber run as a liaison from their Squadron.


When he returned, he told a story that the bomber had been attacked by Japanese Zeroes and that he’d personally taken command of one of the bomber’s 50 caliber guns and fired back. But none of the airmen on the bomber could confirm the story. The inconsistencies were weird, but people just chalked it up to Tom being Tom.


Then there was the tale of the Jap in the Jungle. You can find this story in Tom’s autobiography. Now to be fair - There are no copies of that autobiography in print, at least that I could find, so I’m working off a historian’s secondary account. Just to be transparent. Anyway.


According to his autobiography, Tom was accompanying a Marine patrol through the jungle on Guadalcanal; Someone had wanted an airman’s opinion on this or that part of the terrain. Well, somehow, Tom became separated from the group, and found himself alone in a deep, dark jungle. Through the din of chattering birds and buzzing insects, Tom heard a rustle in the bushes. Suddenly, a lone Japanese soldier burst out of the foliage and sliced Tom’s left hand with his bayonet. According to Tom, this is what happened next: “I squeezed his slender neck as we both fell to our knees, and he died, struggling.”


But yet again, no one saw it happen. No one could confirm it. And there is no record of Tom Lanphier ever receiving medical treatment for a wounded hand.


Then there was the claim of getting the second Zero on his 4th day on Guadalcanal. He definitely got the one, but he’d adamantly insisted he’d gotten two. But as Donald A Davis writes:


The accounting rules for aerial combat victories were simple. A pilot got credit for downing an enemy plane only if there was a witness to the crash, because a wounded pilot might be able to nurse his plane back to safety. A “probable” meant no one could say for certain exactly what had happened to an enemy plane that had been damaged in a fight, although it most likely crashed.


Things happen so fast in a dogfight that the eyes play tricks, reports are easily confused, and, as Admiral Yamamoto [himself] once noted, fighter pilots tend to exaggerate. Therefore, “no proof, no victory” was a hard-and-fast rule of the pilot fraternity, and it would play a huge role in the events to come.”


Now I just want to stop and clarify, and lower the temperature a bit.


It’s not that Tom was lying about this stuff. That is not the implication I’m trying to make. We don’t know the full truth of these stories. We’ll probably never know. What we do know is that Tom was a brave, brilliant pilot - a credit to the US Army. But he was also a human being, with flaws. And he had a tendency to embellish. When faced with uncertainty or ambiguity, Tom always, always erred on the side of his own reputation. He was, as one, historian wrote, a “supersalesman” and the product he was selling was the legend of Tom Lanphier.


Maybe it was the stress. Maybe it was the heat. But Tom’s bonds with the other men, even his good friend Rex, began to fray. They were all still incredibly close and trusted each other implicitly – they had to. To not do so was an occupational hazard… but the low-key days and white beaches of Fiji were long gone. The rot of Guadalcanal, what one historian called an “evil nature”, was beginning to take its toll.


But on the other side of the Pacific, near the sapphire shores of Hawaii, magic was happening.




On April 13th, 1943 a message was intercepted by the American analysts at Station Hypo, the codebreaking cabal in Pearl Harbor responsible for the intelligence that had led to the victory at the battle of Midway.


In the aftermath of the gut-punch loss at Midway, the Japanese deduced that the reason their fleet had been intercepted and crushed was that the Americans had broken the code. There was no other reasonable explanation. So, they immediately scrambled the code and went with a new cipher.  


For the Americans, the champagne high of Midway was quickly followed by the hangover realization that their codebreaking efforts were back to square one. They were starting from scratch, more or less.


And this time, the Japanese had learned their lesson. In the months to come, they periodically changed the code to stay one step ahead of the US codebreakers.


In less than a year the Japanese had changed it three or four times. It was a moving target, but Station Hypo’s massive IBM tabulating machines could still work out about 15% of the messages. And that remaining 85% was where the codebreakers of Station Hypo thrived.


15% wasn’t ideal, obviously, but it was a running start. It was enough to contextualize the intercepted messages, and under the hum and glow of fluorescent lights in a windowless basement, the analysts worked on cracking the code. Each message was a partially solved puzzle. A high-stakes game of mad libs that could cost actual lives if you got it wrong.


Hundreds of intercepted messages flooded into Station Hypo every single day, but on Tuesday April 13th, one message in particular practically jumped out of the stack. It mentioned the “C-in-C of the Combined Fleet.”. And there was only one Commander in Chief of the Japanese Fleet.


Isoroku Yamamoto.


After a long night filled with cups of black coffee and frenzied Japanese-to-English translation, the codebreakers realized that it was a travel itinerary. And it was shockingly precise. It said that in exactly five days’ time, Admiral Yamamoto would be visiting troops on the front lines near Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands, and to get to those forward bases, he would be flying in a modified passenger bomber, escorted by six Japanese Zeros. The codebreakers knew the exact times of takeoff and touchdown.


This was huge. Easily the biggest piece of information they’d come across since Midway. As Lieutenant Colonel Red Laswell, the man who deciphered the message, told one of his linguists: “We’ve hit the jackpot.”


A few hours later, the memo was soaring up the chain of command to the Commander in Chief of the American Fleet, Admiral Chester Nimitz. When Nimitz opened the file folder and read the report the Station Hypo guys had prepared, his face barely twitched. But there was obviously a current of excitement crackling under the Admiral’s famously stony exterior.


“Our old friend Yamamoto.” He said. He looked up at the codebreakers in his office and asked “ Well – what do you say? Do we try and get him?”


For Nimitz, it wasn’t as simple as signing a kill order. Taking out Yamamoto could have serious implications for the American war plan in the Pacific. For one thing, it would signal to the Japanese that, once again, their code had been broken. Which would result in an immediate scramble and the Americans would be starting from scratch again. Being in the dark like that could costs lives – or worse, ships.


They had to ask themselves the question: Was one man – even the man who had planned Pearl Harbor, the man Americans loathed second only to Adolf Hitler himself – really worth the risk?


The debate was certainly had at the highest levels of the US military and government.


The intelligence guys argued that killing Yamamoto would be an invaluable blow to Japanese morale. One officer named Edwin P. Layton, a man who had known Yamamoto from his days as a naval attaché in DC, argued that Yamamoto was “unique among their people. He’s the one Jap who thinks in bold strategic terms. […] He is head and shoulders above them all. […] He represented the very heart of the Japanese Navy.”


But others made the point that Yamamoto’s special and unique disposition cut the other way too. The Japanese would eventually lose this war;  that was never in doubt. It was only a matter of time. But there would be no negotiating with the Bushido fanatics in the Japanese Army. But maybe Yamamoto might be more reasonable? Maybe he could convince the Emperor that it was a lost cause. Maybe keeping Yamamoto alive would bring a swifter peace and save more lives in the long run?


But they all knew the clock was ticking. Yamamoto was stepping on that plane in less than four days. After some brief deliberation, Nimitz decided it was worth the risk. The morale boost at home would be huge, and killing the architect of Pearl Harbor would be a body blow to the Japanese navy. He closed the folder and said, “Let’s try it.”


The order flowed like mercury back down through the chain of command, and on Friday April 16th, just 48 hours before Yamamoto was supposed to depart, a message arrived on the desk of the commander of combined air forces on Guadalcanal. It told him to select some of his very best pilots for a top-secret mission to intercept and kill Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. Three names came to mind immediately. The very best pilots on Guadalcanal.


Tom Lanphier, Rex Barber, and their CO Mitch Mitchell. The message ended with a post script:


“It appears the Peacock will be on time. Fan his tail.”


--- ----- ---- MUSIC BREAK --- ---- --


On the afternoon of Saturday, April 17th, 1943, Tom Lanphier was packing his bags. He, Rex and the other pilots were scheduled to go on leave the next day. A long overdue and well-deserved vacation from jungle rot, flak, and fifty-caliber bullets on Guadalcanal.


Amid the hustle and bustle of the airfield, Tom spotted a jeep coming down the road. In the passenger seat was his CO, Major John Mitchell, or Mitch, as we’ve come to know him. Mitch waved Tom over and told him to hop in the jeep. He was on his way to a mission briefing, and he’d been told bring Tom along as well.


If Tom had any disappointment about the sudden revocation of his scheduled leave, he didn’t show it. He hopped in the jeep next to Mitch and the two drove over to the big Navy Headquarters tent.


Tom and Mitch walked into the tent to find it filled with senior officers. Thirty people.  All important Navy guys. As Tom remembered: “We found every brass hat on the island”. It felt like they’d walked into a room they weren’t supposed to be in. Cigarette smoked filled the tent, such a common feature of the space that it was known jokingly as “The Opium Den”.


All of these men turned to Mitch and Tom, and the two twenty-something pilots realized they were suddenly the center of attention. Then the Navy officers told them why they were there. Tomorrow, on the 18th, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto would be on a plane just a few hundred miles away. Mitch and his boys were going to intercept him and kill him.


What the Brass didn’t tell them, was how they’d gotten the information. The secret of the broken Japanese code was so vital, so sensitive, that even the pilots going on the mission were told an outright lie. They were told that Australian coast-watchers had come by the information – somehow.


And for whatever reason, the name Yamamoto didn’t ring a bell for Mitch. But Tom quickly whispered in his ear “Pearl Harbor.” Then the weight of what they were being asked to do fully sunk in, and Mitch listened quietly as the details of the proposed mission were explained.


The Navy guys had it all figured out; During his itinerary, Yamamoto was scheduled to board a ship after his plane touched down. Mitch, Tom, Rex and the rest of a hand-picked killer squadron would sink the ship, Yamamoto would drown or burn to death, and that was that.


Mitch listened to the plan with growing irritation. The briefing was chock full of esoteric nautical terms that he did not understand. No Army pilot knew this stuff. They were planning this thing in another language. The breaking point for Mitch came when the briefer mentioned that they should expect strong winds off their “Port quarter”


Mitch interrupted the briefing and blurted out in his southern drawl: “What the hell does that mean?”. All eyes turned to the 27-year-old Major. Even Tom had to steal a “oh shit” glance at his CO. Mitch explained that idea of getting Yamamoto while he was on board a ship was a terrible idea:


“I don’t know one boat from another, and even if we sink the boat, he could jump in the water in a life vest and survive. What if there are several boats? Which one would he be on?” We’re fighter pilots. We should take him in the air.”


Tom agreed, saying: “All boats look alike to us”. Mitch went back and forth with the planners for a couple minutes. He felt they were setting him up for failure. They felt he was being nitpicky and uncooperative. Finally, the highest-ranking man in the room, an Admiral, shut down the argument:


“Well, since Mitchell has to make the interception, I think it should be done his way,”


So he asks Mitch: “Where do you want to do it?”


Without missing a beat, Mitch nodded: “In the air, sir,”


“You got it” said the Admiral. And that was that. Mitch had gotten his way. Now all he had to do was make a flight plan, calculate the route, pick the pilots, brief the squadron, and have it all ready in less than 24 hours.


Tom Lanphier was practically hopping with excitement as they drove back to the pilot barracks, but Mitch must’ve had a sobering suspicion that maybe he’d bitten off a little more than he could chew. At 435 miles round trip, he knew that this would be “the longest planned intercept – ever”.  Nothing like it had ever been attempted. And there were so many unknowns; so many variables that they could not possibly know.


As Dick Lehr writes: “They had Yamamoto’s basic itinerary but not his route or altitude, nor did they know whether he’d be on time. Furthermore, there was no way for them to know his speed—or whether they’d get there at the right time.”


Just as the codebreakers at Station Hypo had been forced to fill in the blanks of so many messages and coded intercepts, Mitch would have to make a lot of assumptions of his own. And even the slightest error would mean failure.  


But he’d been chosen to make it happen, not to fret over what could go wrong. So Mitch grabbed a flashlight, a ruler, and a map, and spent the next several hours doing math. Lots and lots of math.


To ground all of his calculations, he had to assume that Yamamoto would reach his destination on time. That nothing would go wrong on the Japanese side of things. Not a forgotten pair of gloves, or an overlong conversation, or so much as a flat tire on the way to Yamamoto’s plane.


Based on the timing of the intercepted itinerary, from wheels up to touchdown, the Admiral’s passenger plane would have to fly at an airspeed of 180 miles per hour. So Mitch based his calculations on that. They needed to catch him about 30 miles away from his destination, a massive regional Japanese airbase brimming with anti-aircraft cannons and Zeros that could tear them to shreds if they were alerted to an attack on Yamamoto’s plane.


It almost reminds you of a dark, macabre version of an old-school math problem. “If a plane carrying America’s public enemy #1 leaves an airfield 435 miles away, flying due southwest at 180 miles an hour, at what speed would an American killer squadron need to fly to catch and kill him.”


Well - as Mitch scribbled and scratched out calculations by lantern-light, some of the Navy guys came over to help. And they were very impressed with his work. As one remembered:


“Mitchell laid out the course, speeds, gas mixture settings, and finger-to-the-wind estimates of what the weather elements would be the next day. All the credit for the planning should stop with Mitchell.”


In his tent just a few hundred yards away, Tom Lanphier could barely sit still. He knew Mitch was working up a plan of attack, and he didn’t know his role in it yet, but this was big. He was going to be in the killer squadron, he just knew it. Why else would the Brass ask for him by name? This was the career-making opportunity he’d been waiting for since news of the Pearl Harbor attack crackled over the radio in his San Francisco hotel room.


At midnight, Mitch called his squadron over to a big chalkboard behind the pilots’ tents. Everyone was there. Forty pilots, mechanics, ground crews, everyone who would be involved in the operation the next day. On the blackboard Mitch had written sixteen names, and the pilots anxiously scanned it like students looking at the cast list of a high school musical.


At the top of the list, Tom saw his name. And he saw his friend Rex Barber’s. The two of them would be the lead fighters in the “killer flight”, four hunter planes who would actually do the shooting and bring down Yamamoto’s bomber. Mitch and the other eleven pilots would provide cover from above.


As mosquitos swarmed around the lanterns and monkeys shrieked in the distant jungle, Mitch took his guy through the plan, point-by-point.


He explained their route, a zig-zagging nightmare over enemy territory and wide-open ocean. He told them that Yamamoto would likely be accompanied by at least six and up to fifty Japanese Zeroes. They could be heading into a very nasty fight. And finally,  he closed the briefing with a sobering note. The Navy brass had made it clear that Mitch and his pilots were expected to get Yamamoto at any cost. Even if that meant ramming his plane and sacrificing themselves along with it. With that, Mitch dismissed the men and told them to get a good night’s rest. Takeoff would be just after 7:00 AM the next morning.


Tom exchanged an excited glance with his wingman Rex Barber and retired to his tent to get some sleep. The gravity of what they were about to do started to dawn on Tom. Tomorrow, they would kill the man who planned Pearl Harbor. The smug bastard who said that he intended on marching into the White House and dictating peace terms.


Tom couldn’t have asked for a more perfect situation. He would have Mitch watching his back. His trusted wingman Rex at his side. And a very valuable trophy in his cross-hairs. Tomorrow morning could be – potentially – the most important day of his life. Maybe the future Presidency of Tom Lanphier Jr would be born right here, on a lonely airfield on Guadalcanal.


The adrenaline must have been pumping, and Tom had to fall asleep, somehow. A few tents over, another pilot named Doug Canning was playing an easy-listening tune called “Blue Serenade” on his phonograph. And the fighter pilots on Guadalcanal drifted off the night before the most important day of their lives to the lyrics: “When I hear a serenade in blue/I’m somewhere in another world,/alone with you”. A love song was darkly fitting for the occasion. Because the next day, they had a date. With Admiral Yamamoto.




Two weeks earlier, on Friday April 2nd, 1943, Isoroku Yamamoto sat down in his personal quarters aboard his flagship and wrote a letter to a certain geisha back in Tokyo.


It had been months since he’d seen Chiyoko. The last time he’d held her in his arms, she’d been a sickly, shivering wreck. Her lungs barely able to support an extended conversation. But somehow, she’d made a full recovery. He’d recently gotten two letters from her, and he wanted to promptly respond, so she wouldn’t worry about him.


He wrote that he was relocating much closer to the front. “Tomorrow, I’m going to the front for a short while. I will go in high spirits since I have heard about you.”


He also told her that because of his grueling travel schedule, he would not be able to write her for a couple of weeks. To soften that disappointment, he included a lock of his hair in the envelope, as well as a haiku poem: “If I think of you as ordinary passion dictates / Could I have had a dream of you only every night.”


Of course, English doesn’t really do justice to what was likely very beautiful phrasing in Japanese. But the gist was, “I love you so much, that even dreaming about you every single night, is not enough.” At least that’s my interpretation. Haiku enthusiasts of the world, please feel free to enlighten me on social media.


Two weeks later, on April 18th, 1943, Isoroku Yamamoto got up around dawn and got dressed. He put on a pair of white gloves, with the two fingers on the left one tied up where his missing digits would’ve been. It was an old wound, a reminder of a career that spanned four decades. The aches in his joints and the cramps in his stomach were also stark reminders that he was an old man now. He’d turned 59 just a few days after he’d sent Chiyoko his most recent letter with the lock of hair. He was not the spry, energetic gambler that had charmed people from New Mexico to Monaco. He was tired, and he couldn’t help wondering what would happen to him after Japan eventually lost this cursed, pointless war.


Nothing good, probably. The Americans would insist on labelling him a war criminal for his attack on Pearl Harbor. His royal flush in Hawaii had disintegrated into a disastrous hand at Midway, and now Japan was just bleeding chips.


At one point, Yamamoto dragged on a cigarette and turned to a subordinate and said: “I imagine I’ll be packed off either to the guillotine or to Saint Helena.” It was a dark, pithy reference to the sad fate of Napoleon Bonaparte in the aftermath of Waterloo.


But just as he’d put on a brave face for his loveless marriage, Yamamoto had a job to do. He was scheduled to visit the troops at the front. And they could not see the weak, disillusioned man that was lurking beneath the surface of the legendary exterior. They could only see the war god. He didn’t have any hope left, but he could not condemn them to desperation and despair. They were all expected to fight to the death, and he had to bolster that resolve.


But Yamamoto’s underlings were nervous about his trip. The itinerary had been broadcast by radio, and there was a danger that it had been intercepted. As a Rear Admiral named Joshima complained:


“What a damn fool thing to do, to send such a long and detailed message about the activities of the C. in C. so near the front! This kind of thing must stop.”


Yamamoto wasn’t worried though. They would be flying through their own territory, protected by six Zeroes flown by some of the best pilots in the Navy. Plus, there would be not one, but two, passenger bombers in the flight group. Anyone hunting for Yamamoto would have no idea which bomber he was in.


Just after 8:00AM, Guadalcanal time, Yamamoto’s plane roared off the runway at the Japanese airbase at Rabaul. It was going to be a long day. Full of speeches, photo-ops and strategic discussions. A long day, but hopefully uneventful.


Little did Yamamoto know, his assassins were already in the air and skimming over the waves toward him at 200 miles an hour.




We’ve talked about the men that were chosen to kill Yamamoto. But before we get into what actually happened in the skies of the South Pacific that fateful morning, we have to talk about the machine that was chosen to kill Yamamoto.


In April 18th, 1943, Mitch, Tom, Rex and the rest of the pilots were flying a fighter plane called the P-38 Lightning. Now, I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a huge hardware guy. I don’t get super-super excited about the specific kinds of bullets, bombs, or weaponry that were used in these conflicts. Unless of course, they have an important role in the story; an important effect on the human beings that we’re talking about. And this is one of those cases.


If the Mitsubishi Zero was a hummingbird, the P-38 Lightning was a [frickin’] pterodactyl.


A twin-engine killer Cadillac with wings that could zip through the skies at a top speed of 395 miles per hour. This was American engineering at its finest. It was easily the fastest fighter aircraft in the Pacific theatre. Enemy pilots often called it “the forked-tailed devil”.


Pilots like Mitch, Tom and Rex, loved this airplane. It could dive, it could zip, it could climb “like a homesick angel”, and best of all it was very easy to kill enemy pilots with this thing. Because the guns – the 50 caliber machine guns - were located in the nose of the plane, rather than the wings. When they’re in the wings you have to account more for distance and angle of attack. Well the P-38 was essentially point-and-shoot. Those forward guns create what’s called a “cone of fire”, that could turn a Japanese Zero into a firecracker, as Tom Lanphier once put it, in a matter of seconds.


But on April 18th, 1943, the P-38 Lightning’s most attractive quality was its range.


Mitch and his pilots would have to fly a very long way to intercept Yamamoto. Over 400  miles, and not as the crow flies. They would be changing direction multiple times over open, endless ocean, with no identifiable landmarks. A normal fighter would not be able to make that flight, purely because there just wasn’t enough gas in the tank.


Thankfully, in addition to internal fuel tanks, the P-38 had an external fuel tank that could be jettisoned after it was used up.


In short, the P-38 Lightning could fly farther than Zeroes, faster than Zeroes, and deliver more firepower than Zeroes. It was the perfect weapon to put Isoroku Yamamoto in the ground.




As Yamamoto’s plane was taking off, Tom Lanphier had already been in the cockpit of his P-38 for 55 minutes.


They’d taken off from Henderson field about ten minutes after 7AM that morning. And almost immediately things had started to go wrong. One plane blew a tire on the runway. Another had a fuel problem in the air. Right out of the gate, they were down two valuable pilots.


But they had to press forward. Strict radio silence had to be maintained to avoid alerting Japanese radar stations in the region. And Mitch could only communicate with his 16-man squadron through wiggles of the plane’s tail or a slight-dip with his wings.


Mitch had planned this flight plan down literally to the minute. And all the other pilots had to do, was follow him, Turn when he turned. Climb when he climbed. In truth, all the pressure was on Mitch. This entire mission was resting om his judgement, his compass, his watch and the hasty calculations he’d made just a few hours earlier.


But - if those calculations were right, if Yamamoto was on time, and if the intelligence was accurate – and those were all big “ifs” - they would intercept Yamamoto at about 9:35 in the morning about 30 miles outside of the largest Japanese airbase in the region. When that happened, Mitch’s hand-picked hunters - Tom Lanphier and Rex Barber - would do their deadly work while everyone else engaged Yamamoto’s escort of Zeroes.


But Mitch and his guys were fighting more than just the Japanese out there over the Pacific. They were fighting a different, more subtle kind of enemy. Prolonged disorientation, mind-numbing discomfort, and good old-fashioned boredom.


From runway to rendezvous, this would be a two-hour flight. Now think about what you do on a two-hour flight. From say, Dallas to Denver. Maybe you read a book. Take a nap. Get a little tipsy on a few Bloody Mary’s. Even in the most comfortable circumstances, that two hours tends to crawl. I don’t know about y’all but I’m about ready to leap out of my seat after a two-hour commercial flight.   


Well the route Mitch’s squadron was taking had no landmarks. No mountains. No islands. No trees. Nothing Mitch could rely on to let him know he was going the right way. It was just empty, endless ocean. As Mitch remembered: “Not a rock in sight. Nothing, except waves. And one wave looks like another.”


And to make it more disorienting, they were flying just 50 feet above the water. A necessary measure to stay below the Japanese radar scanners.


Now flying that low, that fast, with so little visual variety, does things to the human eye and the brain. When you’re that low, you begin to feel as if you’re in a bowl, and the horizon is the lip of that bowl, looming above you. And the reason this is so dangerous is because if you blink or get disoriented or dip too low, you’ll smash into the waves. And if the impact doesn’t kill you, no one can radio for help. Radio silence, remember? You’re done.


But that’s not all. The P-38, as magnificent a machine as it was, had a slight design flaw that only made itself known in these very specific mission circumstances. As Dick Lehr writes in Dead Reckoning:


The Plexiglas bubble over the cockpit was locked tight. Ordinarily that was a nonissue. The P-38 was a high-altitude twin-engine fighter usually flown at 20,000 feet and above. {…] But now, hugging the ocean, the bubble was like a magnifying glass for the sun’s unfiltered rays, and there was no way to open it. The temperature inside soared. Mitch read the gauge: 95 degrees in the cockpit. Everyone was soon soaked in sweat.


All of these physical factors compound – the heat, the boredom, the waves. And even though  these guys were heading towards one of the most important encounters of their lives, some of them start feeling like they’re going to doze off. There weren’t any whitecaps to visually mark the passage of distance. It was hypnotizing almost. Mitch and Tom and Rex and the other guys felt like they were flying in the bottom of a bowl made out of mirrors.


And they had to do this for two hours.


One of the guys, Doug Canning, the same man who had soothed everyone to sleep with his record player the night before, started counting sharks to pass the time. He saw a pod of whales. Man ‘o War jellyfish. A colossal manta ray. Doug ended up counting something like 48 sharks and other sea life.


At one point, a pilot clipped the waves with one his propellors, and Mitch was terrified he’d lose a pilot. But the guy adjusted, and everything was fine.


Well at about 9:30, land – sweet, green, blessed land – came into view. After four hundred miles of endless blue, Mitch heaved a sigh of relief. They’d made it to their destination. The intercept point.


The island mountains held a touch of foreboding though. As Dan Hampton writes in his book on Operation Vengeance, the craggy jungle peaks looked like “a rotten tooth embedded in green gums.”


But as Mitch scanned the skies, there was nothing. No planes. No Zeroes. No Yamamoto.


Mitch started thinking, oh my god - what if I made a mistake?. What if my math was wrong? Maybe we’re too early, too late? At those speeds, even a slight deviation could’ve potentially sent them hundreds of miles off course. Or maybe they’d been picked up by Japanese radar and Yamamoto had turned back already.

But then a voice came over the radio. It was Doug Canning. The record-player enthusiast and counter of sharks.


“Bogeys, 10 o’clock high.” He said. Canning’s sharp eyes had found a handful of pinpricks leaping out like eyeball floaties in an endless blue sky. Two bombers and six fighters.


Mitch’s calculations had been correct. They’d found him.




A lot can happen in two minutes.


On the morning of April 18th, 1943, it only took two minutes for Mitch and his squadron to kill Isoroku Yamamoto, but it was one of the most blinding, chaotic, and confusing time crunches that most of them would ever live through.


When you are flying an airplane, at 200 hundred miles an hour, it is very difficult to have a clear understanding of the bigger picture. That is to say, how you fit into the larger choreography of a dogfight. The noise is deafening. There are huge tracer rounds that can cut you in half zipping through the air. The horizon is less of a constant line and more of a see-saw that dips and bobs and sways in the most disorienting way. It is very easy to see things from the cockpit of a fighter that did not happen the way you remember them happening. Time seems to contract and compress and bend in ways that only life-or-death circumstances can provoke in the human mind.


When you read accounts of what happened in the space of that handful of minutes…it is shocking how inconsistent and frankly, confusing, the stories are. The facts, as individual pilots tell them, especially Tom Lanphier - often do not add up. In fact, sometimes they’re downright contradictory. I have been reading about this handful of minutes for like two months straight now and I still struggle to keep it coherent in my head. And truth is, the men who lived through it did too.


Suffice to say - Tom Lanphier, Rex Barber and Mitch Mitchell, the other dozen or so American pilots, and the Japanese Zero pilots all emerged from the engagement that was about to happen with very different perceptions of what had occurred.


So what I’m going to try and do is tell you what happened. Then we will look at what the men involved *thought* happened. And how those differing versions of reality infected their relationships with one another. And again, this is one of the weaknesses of the podcast medium; I can’t show you what happened. My narration will have to do.


When Tom Lanphier caught sight of the Japanese planes, he counted 8 little specks. As he got closer, he realized there were two bombers and six Zero fighters. Yamamoto would be in one of those bombers – although which one was anyone’s guess.


Rex Barber, flying just behind Tom to the left, noticed that the Japanese planes looked “bright and new-looking”. As writer Burke Davis phrases it: “They sparkled in the light, streaking against the background of the mountains.”


For the last two hours, there had been complete radio silence. But once the Japanese were sighted, the American pilots were free to communicate. Tom’s adrenaline was hammering as he heard his name squawk over the radio. It was his commander, Mitch. And Mitch said: “Tom, he’s your meat.”


As leader of the killer group, Tom had just gotten the greenlight to turn those shiny new bombers into scrap metal. Mitch and the rest of the squadron would watch their backs from 15,000 feet.


Having been let off his leash by Mitch, Tom pulls back the stick of his P-38 Lightning and rockets upwards towards the two bombers. His wingman, Rex Barber, is following him on his left. At this point, it is only Tom and Rex pursuing the two bombers. They are closing fast – remember these P-38 Lightnings are like Cadillacs with teeth – the distance between them is rapidly shrinking.


But then, Tom sees a problem, The Japanese escort of six Zero fighters is heading directly towards them. Tom realizes they will not reach the bombers before the Zeroes reach them. So he turns hard and upwards at a 45 degree angle directly towards the Zeroes.


Mitch, is watching all of this like the choreographer of a ballet, and he starts freaking out. Tom was not supposed to break formation and go after the Zeroes. The Zeroes didn’t matter they were here for Yamamoto, and Yamamoto was in one of the bombers. He yells over the radio:


“Leave the Zeroes, Tom. Bore in the on the bombers. Get the bombers, damn it, the bombers”.


No answer. Tom was twisting his twin-engine P-38 upwards into a hail of gunfire and tracers.


That left only one pilot pursuing the bombers. Rex Barber.


When I first introduced Rex in Part 1, I told a story about how he’d jumped off the roof of his family barn at the age of 11, trying to use his mother’s bedsheets as a parachute. Honestly, I really wish we’d been able to spend more time with Rex, as a person. But your time is precious and unfortunately that necessitates some hard decisions when I’m writing these scripts.


With Tom off engaging the Zeroes, Rex was along pursuing the bombers. And he is approaching the two bombers so fast, that he almost collides with the closest of them. But even if he had  o ram them, he had to take down the bombers. As Rex said: “My primary job, as I saw it, was to get that bomber,” The lead bomber comes into his crosshairs and he presses the trigger.


As Dan Hampton writes: “As he raked the fuselage from tail to nose, some twenty-three pounds of lead smashed into the thin-skinned bomber for each burst. Metal was cut apart, seat cushions disintegrated, and people were shredded.”


The bomber’s left engine erupts into flame and smoke and it starts plummeting toward the jungle canopy. But before Rex can watch it crash and confirm his kill, he is fired upon by a Japanese Zero, so he twists away and evades the fighter. As he does this, he catches sight of the second bomber, which he then pursues, along with another pilot – a man named Besby Holmes – peppers that second bomber with bullets until it crash-lands in the water.  


While all this was happening, Tom Lanphier had evaded the other Japanese Zeroes and had turned back in the direction of the bomber Rex had just fired upon. In his autobiography, Tom describes rocketing towards the bomber at a perfect right angle and firing upon it. He said he saw the right engine burst into flame, and then the wing ripped off. And the bomber plunged into the jungle and crashed.


The entire engagement, from sighting of the Japanese planes, to the crash-landing of the second bomber had taken only a handful of minutes.


Circling at 15,000 feet, Mitch decides he’s gotta call this thing. It seemed like the bombers were down, and if Yamamoto was on either of them, he was most likely dead. Their fuel tanks were running dangerously low. It was time to go home. He radios Tom, Rex, and the rest of the squadron: “Let’s get the hell out of here.”




Back on Guadalcanal, the American Navy and Army personnel were anxiously awaiting some sign – any sign – of how the mission had gone. They knew the gravity and the significance of this operation. Killing Yamamoto had been on almost every American serviceman’s mind since Hawaii’s pristine waters had been clouded with blood and oil less than two years earlier.


The powdered eggs and SPAM that made up their breakfasts that morning went down a little harder not knowing if their friends were safe. It’s worth noting that many airmen experienced the death of their comrades a little bit differently than sailors or the infantry. They just…never came back. There’s a beautiful sentence in Donald A. Davis’ book Lightning Strike that captures the feeling of losing friends on missions like this:


A friend who was killed was just suddenly gone, as if he had left a party without saying good-bye, a presence no longer around except as a snapshot of memory.


Well, just after 10AM on April 18th, a voice came over the radio. It was Tom Lanphier, the leader of the killer group of Mitch’s Squadron:


“I got that son of a bitch. He won’t be dictating any peace terms in the White House now.”


Men all over Guadalcanal erupted in cheers like their favorite team had just scored a last second touchdown at the Super Bowl. It was classic Tom; the former newspaper writer always knew how to craft a headline.


During the chaos of the mission, Mitch’s squadron become scattered, so all the pilots from the Yamamoto kinda straggled in one at a time. And the very first one back was Tom Lanphier.


Tom ripped his headgear off and leaped out of the cockpit, brown curls tumbling in the Pacific heat, white smile flashing for the ground crews to see. He looked like the consummate star quarterback. From the second his boots hit the ground, Tom started saying over and over again, to anyone who would listen: “I got him! I got that son of a bitch! I got Yamamoto!”


When the other pilots heard him take credit for the Yamamoto kill over an unsecured channel, they were horrified.


First of all, there was no way of knowing for sure if Yamamoto was dead. There was no way of knowing if he’d been on board either of those bombers at all. The Admiral could be safely dozing on back his flagship for all they knew. Not to mention, kills had to be confirmed. It was way too soon for Tom to take credit; Mitch’s entire squadron needed to be debriefed, to compare accounts and testimony from each individual pilot. Half the squadron wasn’t even back yet.


But Tom was writing history in real time. Taking credit for killing America’s greatest enemy even when he knew he could not confirm it.


One pilot named Larry Graebner said he thought to himself at the time: “Oh, my God. “What are you doing?”


Tom’s celebrating left a bad taste in many people’s mouths. As a pilot named Joe Young said:


H]e claimed victory over Admiral Yamamoto in no uncertain terms. His reaction was astounding to me and appeared to be irrational. He was visibly shaken, but very adamant about his victory.”


A pilot named Roger Ames put it more simply:


“All I can remember is how upset I was when Tom Lanphier made his statement over the open mike.”


But most alarming of all was that Tom’s specific reference to Yamamoto’s White House quote over a hot mic was a dead giveaway that the US codebreakers had cracked the Naval Code again. Tom’s self-congratulation, if picked up by the Japanese, could put the entire Pacific strategy at risk.  


The pilots from Mitch’s squadron returned to Guadalcanal one by one. And the very last man to touch down was Rex Barber. His plane was full of holes, his fuel tank was almost nothing but fumes, and there were even scraps of the Japanese bombers embedded in his P-38’s fuselage.


Rex walked into the headquarters tent to find a huge party atmosphere. The whiskey was flowing, the songs were being sung, backs were being slapped. And at the shining center of it all was his friend Tom Lanphier Jr., repeating over and over again how he had shot down  Yamamoto singlehandedly.


Rex was normally a very calm guy. He didn’t get mad, as one colleague remembered. But something about chatterbox Tom Lanphier basking in the glory of a momentous kill he could not confirm set Rex’s blood on fire. Rex had shot down two bombers. The first one for sure, the second with the help of another pilot, Besby Holmes. Tom had had been hundreds of feet above them tangling with the Zeroes. How could he have possibly gotten either of them?


As he seethed in the corner, Rex no doubt remembered he and Tom’s back in Fiji, when Tom had told him about his goal of becoming President of the United States, and how he needed to do something big during the war make that ambition a reality.


Finally, Rex couldn’t take it anymore. And he walked right up to his friend Tom, in front of everyone and asked: “How in the hell do you know you got Yamamoto?”


Tom’s big white grin faded. He was taken aback. Rex never talked like this. Especially not to him. They were friends, but here he was challenging Tom’s victory in front of everyone. Ruining his big moment. What was his problem? They were friends sure, but who did he think he was talking to? He was Tom Lanphier Jr. And some bumpkin from Oregon was raining on his parade. Tom answered Rex’s question with pure venom: “You’re a damned liar! You’re a damned liar!”


Rex fired back: “But I haven’t made a statement. I just asked you a question.”


Still Tom kept being hostile. Eventually, Tom took shelter in the reeds of ambiguity, saying: “As long as we live Rex, we’ll never know which one of us got Yamamoto, and that’s the way it ought to be.” Rex, disgusted with the whole thing, walked out of the tent to be alone. The party was over.


Later that night, Tom sat down at his typewriter. He flexed the old fingers that had hammered out articles and film reviews for the San Francisco newspaper, and put his poet’s mind to task. He decided to write an official report of the mission, something that would put his achievements in stone, so that the likes of jealous Rex could never question them again.


He certainly didn’t consult Rex, but he also didn’t consult his commander, John Mitchell. Mitch had seen Rex and Tom’s altercation, but said nothing. He remembered later thinking at the time: “No one on God’s green earth knew who had shot down which bomber, much less who had shot down Yamamoto.”


Well, now, in the modern day, thanks to tireless research by journalists and historians, we do know the answer to that question.


Rex Barber is the man who killed Yamamoto. But his friend Tom Lanphier is the man who took credit for it.


--- ---MUSIC BREAK -- ---


While the myth of Tom Lanphier was being composed on a typewriter by lamplight, a Japanese search party was hacking through the jungles east of Papua New Guinea in search of Yamamoto’s plane.


Japanese flight control had lost contact with Yamamoto’s plane that morning, and they feared the worst. Survivors from the second bomber that Rex and Besby Holmes had shot down over the water had confirmed that Yamamoto had been in the plane that crashed into the jungle.


Pilots from Yamamoto’s Zero escort gave their superiors the approximate location of where they had been attacked, and a search party was immediately dispatched to find the Commander in Chief of the Japanese Navy. Or what was left of him.


On April 19th, a day after the aerial ambush, a member of the Japanese patrol started to smell the distinct chemical tang of gasoline wafting above the rot and stench of the Jungle. They followed their noses, and eventually came upon the fresh wreckage of a Japanese bomber.


The wings had been torn off, and the fuselage was shredded by fifty-caliber bullets from an American P-38. A “burned out hulk” as one Japanese soldier described it. There were bodies scattered all around the wreckage, men who had been lurched and heaved and tossed out in the process of the violent crash landing.


Several hundred feet away from the crash, the search party found something very eerie. It was a single man, still strapped into his seat, but very clearly dead. Somehow, he and his seat had been thrown out of the plane, landing perfectly upright amidst the foliage. To the casual observer, it looked like he was just napping quietly in a chair. Members of the search party noted that the man had two wounds from where molten bits of shrapnel had sliced clean through his body. The fatal wound had been delivered by a shard of metal entering under the jaw and exiting the top of his skull – a skull that was covered with close-cropped gray hair.


Then they noticed something odd. The man was missing two fingers on his left hand. But it was an old wound, not caused by the crash. The two empty fingers of the gloves had been tied up with a little string. It was clear he’d been missing these fingers before he’d boarded the plane.


That little detail was a dead giveaway. They had found Yamamoto’s body. The man who had planned Pearl Harbor was really dead.


Once Yamamoto’s death was confirmed, the Japanese government sat on the information for an entire month. The public was not told. They were not ready for the psychological blow, it was believed. But eventually, they couldn’t keep a lid on it any longer. The Japanese people had to be told. On May 21st, 1943, the news of Yamamoto’s death was broadcast nationwide across Japan. The announcer had tears in his eyes as he read the following:


“In April of this year, Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, commander in chief of the combined fleet, met a gallant death on board his plane in an encounter with the enemy in the course of directing overall operations at the front line.”


Two days earlier, Yamamoto’s lover, the Geisha Chiyoko Kawaii had received a phone call. The voice on the other line said: I am very sorry to tell you this sad and unexpected news”. Yamamoto was gone, they told her. Chiyoko almost dropped the receiver and fainted when she heard the news.


She hadn’t received a letter from Yamamoto for weeks. The last one she’d gotten had come with a small lock of his hair and a heartfelt Haiku. And just like that, he was gone. To echo an earlier quote from an American pilot, it was like he had left a bar without saying goodbye. Just vanished. She could still remember him scooping him up in her arms and carrying her to the car on that long weekend they’d spent together just months before.


In the immediate aftermath of Yamamoto’s death, Chiyoko felt “bottomless sorrow”. She felt as if “Everything was finished”.  Her pain and anguish were only exacerbated when stern men in dark suits came to her home in Tokyo. As Dick Lehr writes:


Chiyoko Kawai was visited several times by officials, including men she’d once considered friends. The point of the visits was clear—to suppress the story of the long love affair and thus to keep untarnished the reputation of the country’s naval hero.


Several of them even urged her to commit suicide. What’s the point of living anyway, they told her. Without Yamamoto, you’re just a used up old Geisha that could only bring stain and scandal to his memory.


But Chiyoko did not kill herself. She moved to the outskirts of Tokyo, and opened a restaurant by the sea. Yamamoto was gone, but she’d always have the memory of that image of him disguised on the train platform, waiting to surprise her for a long weekend together. That was the Yamamoto she knew, not the stern white-clad War God or the sneering, racist caricature. To her, he was just Isoroku. Life, and Japan, had to somehow go on without him.


Thousands of miles away, reporters asked US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to comment on the news that the hated Admiral Yamamoto was finally dead. Roosevelt’s coy response made the entire press pool laugh: “Is he dead? Gosh?”

In other words, “I had no idea, wink wink.”


Roosevelt even composed a fake letter addressed to Yamamoto’s widow that he passed around the White House as a joke:


Dear Widow Yamamoto: Time is a great leveler and somehow I never expected to see the old boy at the White House anyway. Sorry I can’t attend the funeral because I approve of it. Hoping he is where we know he ain’t. Very sincerely yours, Franklin Delano Roosevelt”


Chet Huntley of CBS Radio spoke for all of America when he gloated on air: “Public enemy number one of the American Navy is dead.”




Back on Guadalcanal, tensions had cooled slightly between Tom and Rex. Mostly because they were being absolutely showered with praise.


It was an open secret that they had been the guys to kill Yamamoto, and for a time, their animosity toward each other thawed underneath the warm glow of celebrity status. They had done something really big here, and word around the campfire was that every man in the squadron that killed Yamamoto was going to be awarded the Navy Cross. Not only that, Tom, Rex, and Mitch were going to get the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest award an American soldier can receive.


Clearly, there was plenty of credit to go around. Why quibble about the details?


But unfortunately, the sad truth about friendships is that a lot of times they don’t so much break, as rot. And that was the case with Tom and Rex. They had faced death together, saved each other’s lives, in theory their bond should’ve been strong enough to weather a disagreement like this; But the lingering controversy over Yamamoto’s death would prove corrosive to their relationship.


In the weeks after the successful mission to kill Yamamoto, Tom and Rex were sent to Auckland, New Zealand for some well-deserved R&R. They spent the majority of the time on the golf course, decompressing after months and months of grueling conditions beneath the sweltering jungle canopies of Guadalcanal.


Well, one day, during one of their golf excursions, they were joined by a man J. Norman Lodge. Lodge was a war correspondent for the Associated Press, and he was curious about their top secret mission to take out Yamamoto. Like any good reporter, he’d greased enough palms and called in a few favors to get close to the men who supposedly had done the deed.


He flattered their egos and stroked their pride, and squeezed details out of them that they should not have given. It was completely against Army regulations to talk so candidly with the press about the details of such a clandestine mission, but the warm golf course, the ice-cold beer, and the friendly reporter worked its magic on our twentysomething year-old heroes.


A few hours later, ‘ol J. Norman Lodge was pinging away on his typewriter with a story about the Yamamoto mission. He submitted it to Army HQ for approval…and the censors absolutely flipped.


This war correspondent knew details about the mission that he could not possibly know. Clearly, he had talked to some of the men involved. The language in his story was very, very similar to the report that Tom Lanphier had written and submitted almost immediately after the mission. This lead the Brass to the conclude that the reporter had spoken to Tom and Rex.


The pilots had broken protocol, and the heroes were about to get chewed out and disciplined in a way that would stick with them for the rest of their lives.




The reason the Army Brass was so mad, is because they were terrified that the story would somehow leak, the Japanese would put two-and-two together, realize the US had broken their code again, and change the cipher. It was what had made Admiral Nimitz and others hesitant to go forward with the plan in the first place.


Every single pilot on Guadalcanal was questioned and cross-examined by military intelligence. As for Rex and Tom, they were summoned to the office of the biggest hard-ass in the Navy, Admiral Bull Halsey. They received a blistering, scorched-earth avalanche of profanity and insults that neither of them ever forgot. As Rex remembered:   


“He accused us of everything he could think of, from being traitors to our country to being so stupid that we had no right to wear the American uniform. He said we were horrible examples of pilots of the army air force, that we should be court-martialed, reduced to privates, and jailed for talking to Lodge about the Yamamoto mission. We had been tried and judged guilty.”


And then Halsey laid out the consequences of their loose lips:


“As far as I’m concerned, none of you deserve even the Air Medal for what you did! You ought to face a court-martial, but because of the importance of the mission, I’m reducing these citations to the Navy Cross.”


Tom and Rex would not get the Medal of Honor for their role in the Yamamoto mission. Nor would their commander, John “Mitch” Mitchell, the man who had planned the miraculous, time-sensitive mission down to the nautical mile.


Mitch had even written to his wife back in San Antonio how excited he was to get the Medal of Honor: “I’m tickled to death over being recommended for the Medal of Honor. Of course, I haven’t got it yet, but enough of the brass hats got their signatures and endorsements on it, and I’m pretty sure it will go through. The President hangs that one on—and you will be with me.”


For Rex, Tom, and Mitch especially, it was a slap in the face. A stinging rebuke that soured the hard-earned feelings of success and accomplishment. They could’ve had the highest decoration in the land, but because of one stupid conversation on a golf course in New Zealand, it would be ripped away forever. And the worst part was, “Mitch” hadn’t even been there at all. He was purely collateral damage of Admiral Halsey’s wrath, even though he, probably more than any other man in the Squadron, deserved to receive it.


It’s hard to say if things might have unfolded differently between Tom and Rex had they not talked to that war correspondent, had they not been stripped of their chance to receive the Medal of Honor, but in the years that followed, the bitterness between them only intensified.


In the months and years that followed, Tom Lanphier became solely credited for killing Yamamoto. He had typed up his version of events in the after-action report, and it was that version of the mission that American media and the government bureaucracy accepted without question. Rex Barber, the man who actually shot Yamamoto down was rarely mentioned. Neither was Mitch, the man who had planned the mission and choreographed almost every tactical detail of it.


Tom had once told Rex that he was “going to be the most famous pilot to come out of this war”, and he was hell bent on keeping that promise. That night after the mission, when he had told Rex that neither of them would ever know for sure who actually got Yamamoto…that had been pure placation. A temporary balm meant to get his friend off his back while he typed up his version of events alone in a tent.


After the Japanese lost the war and surrendered in 1945, and there was no more need for intense secrecy about the mission, article after article came out crediting Tom Lanphier Jr with the Yamamoto kill. Tom went on a whirlwind tour of publicity, loudly trumpeting that he was the man who had shot down Isoroku Yamamoto.


Rex was furious. At one point he called Tom directly and demanded he be given partial credit. This was not what they had discussed back on Guadalcanal. As Rex remembered:


“I told him I had read the story and that if this story was anything like the official report that he had told me that he had written … he’d better get some changes made quickly because there were so many inaccurate statements,”


In the moment, Tom was apologetic and told Rex he’d get it changed right away. But he never did.


During the 1950s-60s, the legend of Tom Lanphier continued to grow. His version of events appeared in magazine after magazine. Articles with titles like: “Tom Lanphier’s Mission: Destroy the Jap Who Plotted Pearl Harbor.” At one point, Tom even appeared on the Today show, introduced by the emcee as “The man who shot down Admiral Yamamoto.”


Rex and Mitch were powerless to do anything to correct the record. It was like Tom had chiseled his account into stone, and the entire country had bought into it. In a letter to a friend Mitch bitterly complained, saying Tom’s account was:


“a strongly biased version, written to play himself up as the hero and as the planner and leader of the flight, with me playing a minor role. […]


“It’s a question of one man taking it upon himself to claim something happened and defying anyone to say it wasn’t so. With his father, Colonel Tom Lanphier Sr., being in the intelligence department in the Pentagon, it is understandable how a one-sided version of such an account could develop. […] It’s a question of an individual telling a story, retelling it, and with no refutations, it eventually becomes the gospel.”


There is practically no chance that Lanphier shot down Yamamoto”


In an infuriating twist of irony, it seemed like Lanphier’s version of events could neither be questioned or fully corroborated. In that grey area of ambiguity, Tom’s stardom shined very brightly. His political connections were powerful and his instincts towards self-aggrandizement ceaseless.


But there was one loose end from the Yamamoto mission that Tom had not counted on. A new perspective that helped untangle the truth of who had really shot down Yamamoto.


Of the six Japanese pilots who had escorted Yamamoto’s plane in April of 1943, all had died during the war. All except one.


A Japanese ace named Kenji Yanagiya had seen everything that had happened that day from an entirely different viewpoint. In the mid-sixties, during a conference of former WW2 pilots, both Japanese and American…Kenji recounted what he remembered from that day more than 20 years prior.


The assumption that had always been held by the American military was that there were three bombers. One carrying Yamamoto and two others. The official version – Tom’s version – had always maintained Tom had shot down the bomber that Yamamoto was in. Rex Barber and Besby Holmes had shot down the two other bombers. Three bombers was the only way that everyone’s recollection of the events could make any sense.


Well Kenji Yanagiya said no, no there were only two bombers that day.


That detail, from an eyewitness source put a huge crack in Tom’s version of events. If that was true, then it was Rex Barber who really shot down Yamamoto. Maybe Tom had only seen what he wanted to see, what he needed to see. At 200 miles an hour, the split-second details of a dogfight can play tricks on the memory. Which is understandable. But despite the ambiguity, Tom yet again chose to err on the side of his own ego. It was the culmination of a pattern of embellishment that Tom had displayed for his entire war record.


The Kenji Revelation, as we’ll call it, got people looking into the details of the mission again. Forensic excavators even went back into the jungle to find the crash site and look at the precise angle of the bullet holes. Well, in 1978, the Army revised its official version of events to split the credit between Tom Lanphier and Rex Barber.


When someone showed Tom a copy of the report, he threw it across the room, saying “I’ve never seen this before!”


Over the next several years, Tom and Rex sent angry, bitter letters to each other. It had been more than three decades since they flew together, but Tom’s ego and Rex’s indignance were intractable. Once good friends, now bitter rivals. Men who trusted each other with their lives, played baseball on the beach and drank whiskey in the coconut groves. As Rex wrote to Tom:


“For the dignity of the Aces Association and the credibility of all fighter pilots, I have wanted to leave this historic event alone. I am satisfied with the fact that under the brilliant leadership of Colonel John W. Mitchell, the mission was successfully completed. The inaccurate reports have served only to enhance an individual, not the result of the mission. However, you have gone so far in an attempt to discredit me that I can no longer remain silent.”


A week later, Rex got a letter from Tom, which said: “You discredit yourself in your campaign to get off a losing horse and onto a winning one.”


Neither man forgave the other. Tom Lanphier Jr died in 1987, still absolutely certain – or at least appearing to be – that he was the man who killed Yamamoto. He never did become President of the United States. In fact, he never held any significant elected office at all.


As another pilot named Jacobsen opined: “Lanphier should not have consistently promoted the fact that he shot him down…. He stuck his neck out so far, he wasn’t a big enough man to say, ‘Well, I guess I maybe made a mistake and we should share’—he didn’t want to give that up.”


At an Aces Convention a couple years earlier, John Mitchell and Rex Barber had attended a reunion of their old Squadron – the ones who were left anyway. Tom did not attend. At one point. Mitch, the man who had commanded the mission, spoke to the audience and pointed at Rex:  “You’re looking at the guy right there who got Yamamoto. Period. I don’t care what you hear from anybody else, there he is right there.”


Rex deeply appreciated the praise from his friend and former commander, but he always felt wracked with guilt about the fact that Mitch had been deprived of the Medal of Honor because of he and Tom’s reckless golf course chatter. As he told a historian:


“I have felt badly over this ever since—not for myself or Lanphier, as we should not have talked at all. Mitch should have received the Congressional Medal. I wish to this day I could do something about this injustice.”


And even after all their feuding and the anger, Rex could not deny that Tom Lanphier Jr was a brave man, an exceptional soldier. As he said: “Make no mistake, he was a good pilot.”


Rex Barber passed away in 2001.


Three years later, the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States passed a resolution that settled the issue once and for all. Rex Barber killed Isoroku Yamamoto. He deserved “100 percent credit”




So, what are we to make of all this?


This story, on its face, seems so simple. A mission to kill the man who attacked Pearl Harbor. On the surface, it seems to have the ethical and moral simplicity of the raid to kill Osama Bin Laden in 2011, just ten years ago.


It’s easier and more comfortable to think of it in those terms. To think of Yamamoto as the evil monster. To think of Tom Lanphier and Rex Barber as dashing heroes, brothers in arms who took on the bad guy together and won.


But the reason I love this story, and the reason I felt compelled to tell it to you, is everyone in it is so human. Everyone is real. There are no perfect heroes. Or perfect monsters. As historian Dick Lehr writes about Yamamoto:


“He was the hate-filled warmonger in the United States and the indomitable naval patriot in Japan, but neither caricature truly captured Yamamoto.


And for me, at least, that ambiguity has a grounding effect that you don’t get a lot when you’re discussing World War 2. When war or politics or international relations get uncomfortable and complicated, we tend to retreat to the safe harbor of World War 2. The righteous war, fought between sparkling heroes and inhuman monsters. But our generation, Millennials and Gen Z especially, removed from the looming shadows of our grandparents and great grandparents, have the responsibility to dissect those events with the subtlety and nuance they deserve.


In recent decades, there’s been a lot of discussion about whether it was the right call to kill Yamamoto at all. Not from a legal perspective, after all it was a wartime operation, but strategically was it the right call? Many have speculated that is Yamamoto had been alive during the last days of World War 2, he might have been able to talk the Emperor and his fanatical counterparts in the Army off the ledge.


As a wartime correspondent named Bob Miller wrote: “Because of the respect and admiration with which he was held by both the Palace and the populace, Yamamoto was the one man with enough clout to force the bitter pill of defeat down the throats of the Japanese.”


It’s generally considered to be in bad taste for historians to engage in speculative history, but luckily I’m not a historian. And an argument could be made, that if the United States Navy had not made the decision to kill Yamamoto, the war would’ve turned out very differently.


As Bob Miller continues: “This macho-military blunder, motivated solely by pique, eliminated the one Japanese who might have shortened the Pacific war.”


Maybe if the United States hadn’t killed Yamamoto, the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki might never have gone off at all.


But on the other hand, maybe the death of the man who had planned Pearl Harbor was exactly the shot in the arm and morale boost the US forces need to overcome the apocalyptic conditions that they faced at places like Saipan and Peleliu and Okinawa. It’s impossible to know for sure.


A few weeks after Yamamoto was killed, they were cleaning out his personal quarters aboard his flagship, at that time a vessel called the Musashi. They opened the Admiral’s safe, and among the personal effects and bits and bobs, they found a poem. Not one addressed to the geisha Chiyoko Kawaii, or to his wife, or to his children, but to all of his men. A poem he could never read to them or show them, but one that expressed his true feelings about the nature of the conflict:


Since the war began, tens of thousands of officers and men of matchless loyalty and courage have done battle at the risk of their lives, and have died to become guardian gods of our land. Ah, how can I ever enter the imperial presence again? With what words can I possibly report to the parents and brothers of my dead comrades? The body is frail, yet with a firm mind with unshakable resolve I will drive deep into the enemy’s positions and let him see the blood of a Japanese man. Wait but a while, young men!—one last battle, fought gallantly to the death, and I will be joining you!”


This has been Conflicted. Thanks for listening.


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