On April 14, 1943, US Navy intelligence intercepted and deciphered a Japanese message that began: “On April 18 CINC Combined Fleet will visit RXZ, R__, and RXP in accordance with the following schedule…” CINC Combined Fleet was Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the Japanese Navy’s most capable commander and the architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the intercepted message revealed that he would fly from Rabaul to Bougainville in the Solomon islands on April 18, arriving at 8 AM, Tokyo time, in two medium bombers, escorted by six Zero fighters.
The information quickly worked its way up the chain of command to the President, and FDR’s response was “get Yamamoto“. Plans were immediately begun to kill the Japanese admiral blamed for the Pearl Harbor attack, and given the apt name Operation Vengeance. The operation, which sought to shoot down Yamamoto’s plane, had to be precisely timed. Fortunately, the Japanese admiral was known for his punctuality.
Yamamoto’s flight route was beyond the range of US naval airplanes, but was within the range of US Army Air Force P-38 Lightning fighters recently deployed to Guadalcanal. Accordingly, 16 Lightnings, equipped with drop tanks for extra range, were sent on a 600-mile roundabout flight to meet Yamamoto’s plane as it arrived from Rabaul at Bougainville on April 18, 1943.
It worked like clockwork. Skimming the ocean at 50 feet to avoid detection, which also required swinging wide of islands between Guadalcanal and Bougainville and watchers therein, the P-38s reached the planned interception point within one minute of Yamamoto. The Lightnings, armed with 20mm cannon and .50 caliber machineguns, attacked. While a kill team of four P-38s fell upon the two medium bombers carrying the admiral and his staff, the remaining Lightnings took on the escorting Zeros and flew top cover to fend off any fighters scrambled from local airfields. Within minutes, both Japanese bombers were sent spiraling in flames to crash into the jungle below, with no survivors.
The P-38s then broke off contact, and avoiding detection no longer a necessity, flew a 400 mile straight line flight back to Guadalcanal, which they reached after completing a 1000 miles long mission. Yamamoto’s crashed bomber was located by a search and rescue party the following day, and his corpse was recovered from the wreckage strewn around the crash site.