Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, commander in chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet, was one of his nation’s most prominent military leaders. He had masterminded the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and the attempted invasion of Midway, which ended in a disastrous naval defeat in June 1942. Earlier in his career, Yamamoto had studied English at Harvard and served as naval attache in the Japanese Embassy in Washington. Although Americans did not know it at the time, he had argued strongly against starting the war, warning that Japan could not match America’s industrial power.
In early 1943, after a ferocious six-month struggle over Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, the Japanese had pulled their last remaining forces out of the island, acknowledging defeat. In April, Yamamoto ordered a renewed aerial assault on Allied bases throughout the region. For its April 18 conclusion, the admiral planned to visit Japanese troops and air bases in Bougainville and the northern Solomon Islands. A detailed itinerary for his tour of inspection was radioed to Japanese commands throughout the region on April 13.
The signal, encoded in a Japanese naval cipher, was intercepted by several Allied radio listening stations. Within 18 hours, codebreakers in Pearl Harbor and Washington had decrypted and translated its key elements, including the specific information that Yamamoto would travel in a Mitsubishi G4M bomber escorted by six A6M Zero fighters and would arrive in Ballale, an island off southern Bougainville, at 0800 Tokyo time.
Edwin T. Layton, the Pacific Fleet intelligence officer, briefed Adm. Chester Nimitz on the morning of April 14. Studying the wall chart in his office, Nimitz saw that Ballale could be reached by American fighter planes based on Guadalcanal. According to Layton’s later account, Nimitz mulled over the pros and cons, considering both the ethical issues and the wisdom of assassinating Yamamoto.
Layton, who had been slightly acquainted with Yamamoto while serving in Tokyo before the war, argued that the Japanese admiral was the most revered military leader in Japan and that his death would strike a “tremendous blow” at the enemy’s morale. “You know, Admiral Nimitz, it would be just as if they shot you down,” he said. “There isn’t anybody to replace you.”
Nimitz did not take long to make up his mind. He ordered his South Pacific commander to attempt a fighter interception of Yamamoto’s plane, concluding: “Best of luck and good hunting.” Certain early postwar accounts suggested that President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized a “get Yamamoto” operation, but no evidence for this theory appears in the documentary record or in the recollections of those close to the president.
The job was assigned to the U.S. Army Air Force’s 339th Fighter Squadron, whose twin-engine Lockheed P-38 Lightnings were the only American fighters with the range for such a mission. As the crow flies, Ballale was 340 miles from the airfield on Guadalcanal, but the American fighters would have to take a circuitous route to evade radar detection.
The round-trip mission would require at least a thousand miles of flying, a distance that lay at the outer limit of the P-38’s range. Precise timing was critical, because they would not have extra fuel to burn while waiting for Yamamoto’s aircraft to arrive. Maj. John W. Mitchell, commander of the 339th, picked 18 P-38 pilots to fly the mission. Four were designated “killers,” assigned to shoot down the G4M bomber carrying Yamamoto; the others would fly “top cover” against the escorting Zeros.
Taking off from Guadalcanal at 7:15 a.m., the P-38s flew over the sea at extremely low attitude, less than 30 feet above the wavetops. This allowed them to avoid the radar net and kept them under the visible horizon of Japanese-held islands along the route. The flight arrived at the interception point over southern Bougainville at 9:34. Almost immediately, the inbound Japanese airplanes were seen descending through a thin cumulus layer to the north. The P-38s climbed at maximum speed, throttles to the firewall. The escorting Zeros dived into the melee, but they were too late to break up the attack.
Lt. Rex T. Barber, flying one of the “killer” P-38s, banked sharply to the right and fell in behind Yamamoto’s plane. He fired into the target’s right engine and fuselage. The bomber began trailing flames, rolled over and descended toward the dark green canopy of the jungle hills below. It crashed, with a column of black smoke marking the point of impact.
Japanese search parties took more than a day to find the crash site. Yamamoto’s body was cremated, his ashes flown to Tokyo. Just as Layton had predicted, Yamamoto’s loss was a heavy blow to the morale of the Japanese people. The news was concealed from the public for more than a month. When it was finally announced on May 21, the radio announcer broke into tears, and a Tokyo diarist noted, “There is widespread sentiment of dark foreboding about the future course of the war.” A grand state funeral for Yamamoto was held on June 5, with hundreds of thousands lining the funerary route from Hibiya Park to the Tama Cemetery.
Such public mourning may recall recent images from Iran after Soleimani’s death, just as Americans cheering the killing of Yamamoto, the man behind the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, may bring to mind the way they welcomed the death of Soleimani, a man with much innocent blood on his hands. But the context and circumstances of the Soleimani and Yamamoto killings are vastly different. Japan and the United States were in the midst of a savage, all-out war, and Yamamoto, as a combatant, was unquestionably a legitimate target; the United States and Iran are not formally at war — and there is much that we do not yet know about President Trump’s decision to order a drone strike on Soleimani. As for the longer-term consequences of the decision to “get Soleimani,” we await the verdict of history.