Contents - Hirohito's War
21 Yamamoto Assassinated and the Battle of New Georgia
[March 1943–October 1943]
[Maps: 21.1, 21.2, 21.3, 21.4, 21.5, 21.6]
The Assassination of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (p 605) The Air Battle for the Solomons (p 606) Degraded Performance of the Japanese Navy Air Force (JNAF) (p 611) The Sorry Story of Mitsubishi A7M ‘Sam,’ the Zero Replacement (p 613) The Development of Rabaul (p 615) Meeting at Casablanca (p 616) MacArthur and the Bypass of Rabaul (p 618) Operation CARTWHEEL (p 620) Landings at Segi Point and Rendova Island: The Battle of New Georgia (p 620) The Battle of Kula Gulf (p 623) The Rescue of Captain J. F. Kennedy (p 624) Griswold’s Hard Slog to Take Munda Airfield (p 624)
The Assassination of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto: [Map: 21.1] At 7.25 a.m. on 18 April 1943, a few weeks after the establishment of American air supremacy at the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, eighteen Lockheed P-38 Lightnings, with their distinctive twin-engine, twin-boom frame, set out from Guadalcanal toward the Solomon Islands’ northernmost major island of Bougainville. They flew at wave height to avoid detection. The course they took was not direct. Two planes developed engine problems and had to drop out. A wide semi-circular sweep would take them on a 435-mile course toward their planned interception point at 9.35 a.m. with Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s flight. Major John Mitchell, who planned the operation, arrived with a specially selected flight of sixteen P-38s at precisely the moment that two Japanese Mitsubishi G4M ‘Betty’ medium bombers accompanied by six Zero escort fighters arrived over the coastal area of Buin in southern Bougainville Island. The ‘Bettys’ broke off and scampered for safety—to no avail. Captain Thomas Lanphier Jr., formerly a journalism graduate from Stanford University, and his group of four designated attack planes hunted them down. The ‘Bettys’ crashed deep in the jungle. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of Japan’s war-opening victory at Pearl Harbor had been assassinated.
The success of Operation VENGEANCE was immediately signaled with the pre-arranged message ‘POP GOES THE WEASEL.’ When the message was transmitted to South Pacific command, Rear-Admiral Turner whooped with joy while Halsey demanded, “What’s good about it? I’d hoped to lead that scoundrel up Pennsylvania Avenue in chains, with the rest of you kicking him where it would do the most good.”1 Halsey refused to release the news to the press on the grounds that he did not want to compromise US intelligence operations.
The following day, a Japanese search party led by army engineer Lieutenant Hamasuna found their iconic naval leader still strapped to his cabin seat under a tree, head bowed forward but still holding the hilt of his kitana (samurai sword). He had been killed by a 0.50 caliber bullet fired by Lanphier’s wingman, Lieutenant Rex Barber, an agricultural engineer from Culver, Oregon, from one of his P-38’s Browning machine guns; the bullet entered the back of Yamamoto’s jaw and exited above his right eye. Admiral Yamamoto, known by US intelligence to be an officer who demanded exacting punctuality of himself and others, had left Rabaul on the 315 mile inspection trip to Ballalae Airfield that was located on a small island adjacent to Shortland Island off the