In May of 2011, nine years after he orchestrated the 911 Attacks on the United States, US special forces, Navy SEALS to be exact, killed Osama bin Laden in a clandestine operation in Pakistan. It would be the first official US assassination of an enemy in nearly 60 years.
The first happened nearly a century ago, during World War II, when the US was embroiled in a war on both fronts and we wanted revenge against the people who attacked us…
Prime targets for clandestine American operations in those days were not people Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein, but men like Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini. At this particular juncture, near the end of World War II and after having endured a great deal of opposition from the Pacific theater of the war, the target was none other than the man who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor.
In early 1943, Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto was acting commander in chief of the Japanese Navy. He also happened to be the man who planned the Pearl Harbor operation and was therefore probably the most hated man in America. Many Americans agreed the attack on Hawaii was a cowardly cheap shot by the Japanese and while it angered the country, it also brought us together…
Worse Than He
Of course, Yamamoto was hardly the worst of the worst when it came to America’s enemies in 1943. He wasn’t a pacifist, but he also wasn’t as militaristic as his compatriots either. Yamamoto also had a distaste for the way Nazi Germany was doing things and a few years earlier he’d even gone so far as to oppose their alliance, to no avail.
Not in Opposition
Yamamoto believed that the US oil embargo of 1941 was worth fighting against, which was why he helped plan the Pearl Harbor attack in the first place. He did however, advise that his country not act in haste when it came to declaring war against the US and her allies. Yamamoto knew even in 1941 that the longer the war went on, the less successful the Japanese would be against the Allies…
In April 1943, just as the war was going the right way for them, the United States saw a chance for payback against Yamamoto. The operation would be aptly named, Operation Vengeance and it would begin when the United States intercepted an important message from the Japanese.
It was spring and Japan wasn’t really doing too well. Amidst terrible losses of Japanese ships and aircraft and after a dreadful and unsuccessful sacrifice, the American forces had captured Guadalcanal. The intercepted communication came as a result of a routine military radio signal about the Admiral’s great displeasure towards his senior commanders…
Yamamoto was getting a lot of criticism from his senior commanders, who incidentally couldn’t even be bothered to visit the front to assess things. He decided, as he usually did, to take things into his own hands and take a group of naval air units to the South Pacific island of Bougainville. He sent out a coded signal in April 13, 1943, and the Americans got hold of it.
The transmission not only had information on the number of transport and fighter planes that the Admiral was bringing along with him, but also the admiral’s personal itinerary for the trip. as well as the number of transport planes and fighter escorts in his party. Once they got this info, it fell upon Adm. Chester Nimitz, the U.S. commander in the Pacific, to authorize Operation Vengeance. But it wasn’t gonna be easy…
There were some issues with sending any Navy or Marine fighters after Admiral Yamamoto’s entourage. Many planes at the time simply didn’t have the range to intercept Yamamoto’s aircraft over Bougainville, which was four hundred miles from the nearest American air base. The best they could do was send a squad of Lockheed P-38G Lightning planes, and even they had some issues.
The plan was to fly the P-38s at least 50 miles offshore of the islands Yamamoto was heading for. This meant they had to fly over 400 miles of water at a height of 50 feet or less. It was going to be no easy task. Eighteen P-38s were assigned for the mission, and four of them were going to “pounce” essentially, directly on the Admiral’s plane…
The tricky part, as if the former wasn’t tricky enough, was that they had to calculate the speed of the Japanese G4M Betty bomber carrying Yamamoto. For this they had to take probable wind speed, probable flight path, and assume that the enemy admiral would be as reliably punctual as they had heard him to be. The team estimated they would intercept the Admiral at 9:35 a.m.
Remarkably, the Americans arrived just a minute ahead of schedule, at 9:34 in the morning. The Japanese were, as expected, right on time. A minute later the Americans located two Betty bombers, one carrying Yamamoto and the second carrying Vice Admiral Matome Ugaki, his chief of staff, flying 4,500 feet up. Six Japanese A6M Zero fighters were keeping watch above them…
Luckily for the Americans, all twelve P-38s remained undetected as they climbed up to 18,000 feet. Capt. Thomas Lanphier Jr. and Lt. Rex Barber, the brave men flying the two leading American planes, attacked both the Admiral and the Vice Admiral’s ships without warning. The two bombers dived to evade the interceptors, while the rest of the P-38s went after the entourage.
Though they didn’t know which of the two Betty Bombers carried the Admiral, the Americans knew he was there somewhere.One of them crashed into the sea, the other, into the jungle on a nearby island. Admiral Ugaki survived the crash but would take off in a kamikaze plane a few hours after Japan finally surrendered. As for Admiral Yamamoto, he and his entire plane went down in the jungle…
They Found Him
Though they didn’t know it at first, Yamamoto and his entire crew had perished when the plane hit the island. Soon after, a Japanese search party made their way through the steaming jungle and discovered the remnants of the Admiral’s plane, as well as the remnants of the Admiral himself. They cremated the bodies of the crew and put the ashes into two boxes.
Admiral Yamamoto’s cremation pit was eventually filled, and two papaya trees, which were his favorite fruit, were planted on the same mound. They even erected a shrine there soon after. Eventually, when the war ended, Yamamoto’s remains were returned to Japan for a state funeral. The ceremony drew a million mourners. As for the two pilots who’d shot down the Bettys…
Despite the satisfaction the Americans felt about the admiral having finally been dispatched by their own hand, controversy loomed. For the next sixty years, an argument loomed over who actually shot down Yamamoto’s plane: Barber and Lanphier. Both men were “credited” with a half kill apiece, but many still believe it was Barber who made the shot.
One of the questions that people asked after Operation Vengeance had been completed was, if the operation was worth it at all? Yamamoto’s many defeats, especially at the battle of Midway a year earlier, had left him a beaten, sick, exhausted man. Chances are good he would have continued to make mistakes until the end of the war even if they hadn’t shot him down…
At the time, there was remarkably little fuss made over the decision to kill Yamamoto. The country was animated, the people were out for Japanese blood. Americans even allowed Japanese citizens to be taken to internment camps without much pushback. It was a routine assassination at a time when such things were even considered without presidential approval.
Still, Yamamoto’s assassination significant for many reasons. It has been cited as a precedent for today’s drone strikes against military targets. It was not controversial in any way, because Yamamoto was an enemy soldier in uniform, as were his soldiers. Yet today, drone strikes are often conducted without taking civilian casualties into account.