By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 27, 2006; B07
Lt. Col. Besby Frank Holmes, 88, a World War II fighter pilot who in 1943 took part in the famous -- and famously controversial -- mission to kill the legendary Japanese admiral who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor, died of a stroke July 23 at Marin General Hospital in Greenbrae, Calif.
Col. Holmes -- "Besby" is a family name -- was born in San Francisco on Dec. 5, 1917. Fishing off a San Francisco pier one day when he was a teenager, he watched in gape-mouthed awe as a gaggle of Army Air Corps P-26 fighters flew over him just a few hundred feet above the water.
He recalled his excitement in "Aces Against Japan," a 1992 oral history compiled by writer and military historian Eric Hammel: "The pilots had their helmets and goggles on, and their white scarves were streaming in the wind. The planes screamed by, and I said to myself, 'I just gotta fly one of those things one of these days.' "
About a decade later, then-2nd. Lt. Holmes was a 24-year-old rookie pilot in Hawaii. On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, he was sitting in church, nursing a hangover from too many sweet rum drinks the night before at Honolulu's Royal Hawaiian Hotel. "I was praying to God that my headache would go away when the first bombs fell," he recalled in the oral history.
Mass came to a quick end, and Lt. Holmes and a buddy dashed into the street and commandeered a Studebaker driven by a civilian. The two pilots and the car's owner made their way to Haleiwa, where Lt. Holmes's own plane, a P-36, was ready to fly.
He ran across the dirt airstrip toward his plane just as a Japanese dive bomber, fast and lethal, strafed the field. The young pilot, still wearing the brown, pinstriped suit he had worn to church, fired back -- with his .45-caliber pistol.
Lt. Holmes managed to get his plane into the air, where he came closer to being shot down by American antiaircraft fire than by Japanese Zero fighters.
After that baptism of fire, Lt. Holmes became a member of the 67th Pursuit Squadron, flying P-39 and P-40 fighters against Imperial Navy Zero fighters during the Guadalcanal campaign. In October 1942, he blew up a beached Japanese ammunition ship; three months later, he shot down his first Japanese plane -- the first of five he was credited with shooting down during the war.
In early 1943, American cryptographers cracked a new Japanese naval code, and in April intercepted a message revealing the complete itinerary of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto and his staff. As commander-in-chief of the Imperial Navy's operational arm, the English-speaking, Harvard-educated Yamamoto, mastermind of the Pearl Harbor attack, was considered the most brilliant tactician Japan had ever known.
The plan, based on Lt. Holmes's suggestion to the staff of Vice Adm.William F. "Bull" Halsey, was to ambush Yamamoto just before he reached Kahili Airdrome on Bougainville Island while on an inspection tour of forward troops. His entourage would be in two twin-engine "Betty" bombers escorted by six Zeros.
On April 18, 1943, sixteen P-38 "Lightnings," with Lt. Holmes as part of the attack team, took off from Guadalcanal on a 400-mile looping course toward Bougainville. To many, including the pilots themselves, it seemed a suicide mission because of the distance over water and because the planes lacked sophisticated radar.
"Granted, it was a wild gamble with many odds against success," Col. Holmes recalled in "Aces Against Japan II" (1996), "but most of us were pretty good gamblers by then, having gambled our lives on the early days of the invasion of Guadalcanal. And won."
They won on that day, as well. Just off the Bougainville coastline, at almost the exact time and place planners had calculated, a wingman broke radio silence: "Bogies 11 o'clock high!"
Coming in below the Japanese planes, Lt. Holmes and his fellow pilots began firing. One of the Betty bombers -- the one carrying Yamamoto -- crashed and burned in the jungle; another crashed into the sea. Three of the Zeros also fell into the sea.
Lt. Holmes was credited with shooting down the Betty that crashed offshore, but controversy erupted almost immediately about which of his fellow pilots, Rex Barber or Tom Lanphier, shot down the Betty carrying Yamamoto. Although both men were awarded official credit for the downing, disputes continue to this day.
Col. Holmes himself always said he had no way of knowing which pilot actually shot Yamamoto's bomber out of the sky, although he had no doubt about its significance.
"In retrospect," he recalled in "Aces Against Japan II," "it was probably one of the single most important air missions flown in the Pacific, and possibly in all of World War II. The Japanese did not win a single major engagement after the demise of Admiral Yamamoto."
Col. Holmes, who received the Navy Cross for his part in the Yamamoto mission, remained in the Air Force after World War II. Among numerous assignments, he commanded a fighter-interceptor squadron based in Japan during the Korean War and spent four years in Latin America as chief of the Military Assistance Program for 17 countries in the region. He also served in Vietnam before retiring in 1968.
A resident of Arlington and Falls Church during postings in the Washington area, he had lived in San Rafael, Calif., since his retirement.
"He was an amazing guy," said his son-in-law Jeffrey Roehm. "I used to love listening to him. Like all old fighter pilots, he could sit in a chair and tell you exactly what happened during a moment in his life that took maybe five seconds, while he was in a sheer panic, more than 60 years ago."
Survivors include his wife of 62 years, Lavinia Holmes of San Rafael; four children, Katherine Roehm of Fairfax, Diana Movey of Fresno, Calif., Frank Holmes of Petaluma, Calif., and Robert Holmes of St. Petersburg, Fla.; a twin brother; 10 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.