Lightning Strike: The Secret Mission to Kill Admiral Yamamoto and Avenge Pearl Harbor (Book Review)

6/12/2006 • Book Reviews

Reviewed by Robert Citino
By Donald A. Davis
St. Martin’s, New York, 2005

Donald Davis’ book will appeal to general readers, but as a work of history it is sadly lacking in many respects. The book covers an interesting episode in the Pacific War but not in a way that brings out the episode’s major themes or lessons for students of the conflict.

For one thing, the author takes too much time and space to set the context for his readers. Out of a 365-page book, it takes 200 pages to set the stage for the American mission against Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. Granted, the information conveyed is important, dealing as it does with Yamamoto’s early life, his career in the Imperial Navy and his objections to war against the United States. Moreover, general readers will probably be interested in the stories of the American fighter pilots who killed Yamamoto and how they made it to the point where they flew the mission on April 18, 1943. However, this context could have been set much sooner and more concisely.

Davis’ rendition of the mission itself, while riveting, is journalistic. Much of the writing is clichéd, unimaginative and one-dimensional. For instance, Davis usually refers to Japanese planes attacking as “swarms,” as if we are still back in World War II, reading newspaper accounts that equate the Japanese with insects.

Probably most egregious of all is that Davis does not directly cite sources. While he includes a brief bibliography at the end of the book, his work does not include a single footnote or endnote. This may have been an editorial decision, but the reader is left wondering about several matters. Was Captain Thomas Lanphier Jr., the pilot originally credited with shooting down Yamamoto, really the “glory hound” Davis makes him out to be? Did Lanphier really falsely promote himself as the shooter? And did the U.S. Army Air Forces and later the Air Force really keep that story going because of institutional politics and embarrassment? Physical evidence of Yamamoto’s plane indicates that Rex Barber actually shot the plane down. Since Davis has not cited any sources, however, the account merely offers Barber’s and other pilots’ opinions against Lanphier’s. Historians, both professional and popular, need cited evidence to study and judge such heated controversies.

The greatest problem from this reviewer’s perspective is that the “big picture” is lost. Davis mentions one or two other authors who have written about this mission and its resulting controversies, but without delineating for the reader how his work is different and what justified writing another book on this narrow subject. Unfortunately, Davis fails to explain to the reader that the purpose of another such book is to demonstrate that relatively minor episodes in conflicts like the Pacific War tell us a lot about history, memory, myth and the “creation” of the past. The larger aspects of “small history” are important in relating events like the Yamamoto mission. These larger themes, in turn, should have been the central theses of the entire book.

Finally, Davis never adequately confronts whether this was a mission to avenge Pearl Harbor or a strategic one to kill the Imperial Navy’s brain trust. As the subtitle clearly indicates, he concludes that it was a revenge mission, although he does briefly entertain other ideas. For instance, he relates statements by Naval Intelligence officers who allegedly thought Yamamoto should not be killed, as he may have been a potential peace candidate for a future Japanese cabinet that might have ended the war sooner. The problem is that Davis does not cite any of these sources, and this reviewer has never seen accounts that indicate any of the American intelligence agencies in World War II saw Yamamoto in this light. Davis does cite John Prados’ Combined Fleet Decoded about various aspects of the Yamamoto mission, such as who had ultimate authority in ordering it and what the implications were for keeping U.S. knowledge about Japanese codes secret. He does not, however, discuss Prados’ analysis of the negative future implications of the United States targeting enemy leaders for assassination. Probably the mission was a mix of both revenge and strategic calculation, though Prados does not mention revenge as a motive. Without source citation, Davis’ conclusion that this was primarily revenge is a difficult one to accept.

Again, general readers will probably love this book since it is a good story. As a professional historian with a focus on the Pacific War and its aftermath, however, I find it highly problematic because of its organization, lack of source citation, and dearth of significant analysis. Perhaps this book will lead another author to take on this “little” episode of the Pacific War and see if there is a “big picture” in it after all.

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