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Attack on Yamamoto: The Daring Mission to Shoot Down Japan’s Pacific Fleet Commander

Pacific Vista Publishing Co., Newberg, Ore., $24.95.

It was one of the boldest missions of World War II, reminiscent of the surprise attack on Japan led by Jimmy Doolittle and his Tokyo Raiders exactly a year earlier. On April 18, 1943, 16 Lockheed P-38s, under the command of Major John W. Mitchell, commander of the 339th Fighter Squadron based on Guadalcanal, were assigned to intercept and attack a Japanese aircraft transporting Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Japan’s top admiral, more than 400 miles away. In Attack on Yamamoto, Mitchell and several other members of that flight tell viewers their recollections of that eventful day.

American code-breakers had intercepted a secret Japanese radio message stating that Yamamoto, who had masterminded the attack on Pearl Harbor, would be en route from Rabaul to a base in southern Bougainville. That meant the Japanese admiral, known for his meticulous adherence to an announced schedule, could be counted on to be at a precalculated point when his plane began to descend for a landing.

Major Mitchell carefully plotted a five-leg route that took the P-38s offshore of enemy-occupied islands and then to an intercept point. Exactly on cue, the Lightnings arrived to see two enemy bombers—escorted by six Zeros—descending. Twelve of the P-38s climbed, expecting to be met by fighters from the Japanese destination base, while four of the Lightnings headed for the two bombers. However, two had to pull away when one couldn’t shake his droppable fuel tank. The other two P-38s separated. Lieutenant Thomas G. Lanphier turned upward toward the fighters, claimed one victory and then said he pursued and shot down one of the bombers. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Rex T. Barber continued toward one of the bombers and scored hits on it, then pursued and finished off the other as it flew out to sea.

From that point, accounts differ. Both pilots laid claim to having shot down the admiral’s bomber, and the Army Air Forces officially decided that the credit for downing Yamamoto should be shared, despite much evidence to the contrary. A more careful study of the encounter points to Barber as the pilot who deserves full credit for the bomber’s shootdown, although Lanphier claimed the victory for the rest of his life. Later, when a surviving Zero pilot said none of the escorting enemy fighters were shot down, Lanphier was also denied credit for that victory.

This DVD is a valuable contribution to military aviation history, as it features live testimony for the first time from a number of the P-38 pilots who flew this longest aerial intercept of World War II. It brings the controversy into much clearer focus 65 years after this famous mission.


Originally published in the September 2008 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here