Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto, a prophet of the naval air power that devastated Pearl Harbor, was the Japanese Navy’s dominant figure. A determined and aggressive commander, he drew bold and imaginative plans. His strong leadership ensured that such plans were embraced by subordinates, who idolized Yamamoto and strove to execute his orders with vigor and skill. A chess champion of the Japanese Navy, he also became an excellent poker player while studying and serving in America. US intelligence deemed him “exceptionally able, forceful and quick thinking“. In short, American commanders realized that Yamamoto was a one-of-a-kind, and wanted to get him. That was about more than mere payback. Yamamoto was preeminent in all categories. If any harm befell him, any potential Japanese successor was bound to be personally and professionally inferior. Not to mention that Yamamoto’s death would both demoralize the Japanese, and simultaneously give Americans a huge morale boost.
However, to actually get Yamamoto lay more in the realm of wishful thinking and revenge fantasies, than in the world of the possible and probable. That changed with a fortunate break on April 14th, 1943. That day, US Navy intelligence intercepted a coded telegram sent in Japanese Naval Cipher JN-25D. Unbeknownst to the Japanese, the JN-25 code had been cracked by a secret US cryptanalysis effort known as “Magic”. American cryptographers, whose ranks included future United States Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, deciphered the telegram to reveal a momentous message. It began: “On April 18 CINC Combined Fleet will visit RXZ, R__, and RXP in accordance with the following schedule…” CINC Combined Fleet was Yamamoto. The decrypted transmission stated that he and his staff would fly on an inspection and morale-boosting mission from Rabaul to the northern Solomon Islands.
The intercepted message provided detailed departure and arrival information, mode of travel, the number of escort fighters, and contingencies in case of bad weather. The party would leave Rabaul in two Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” medium bombers. Yamamoto’s would be escorted by six Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighters. The other, carrying his chief of staff, Vice Admiral Matome Ugaki, was assigned three Zeros. Takeoff was scheduled for 6AM, Tokyo time, for an 8AM arrival at Balalae Airfield, near Bougainville. That would be the closest Yamamoto had ever come to American front lines, and a golden opportunity not to be missed. President Roosevelt reportedly authorized Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox to “get Yamamoto“. Planning was immediately begun to kill the enemy admiral blamed for Pearl Harbor, and was given the apt codename Operation Vengeance. The intercept and shoot down of Yamamoto’s plane had to be precisely timed.
For American fighters to takeoff from a base and intercept enemy planes hundreds of miles away, a tight schedule had to be followed. If all went right, US fighters leaving Henderson Field in Guadalcanal at 5:25AM Tokyo time could fly a circuitous route that would intercept Yamamoto at 7:35AM near Bougainville. A few minutes’ deviation from the schedule by either side could doom the mission, with the Americans arriving at an empty patch of sky devoid of enemy airplanes. Fortunately for the Americans, and unfortunately for the Japanese, their target was known for his compulsive punctuality – a fact known to US intelligence from Yamamoto’s time in America. There was a hiccup, however: the flight route from Rabaul to Bougainville was beyond the range of US Navy airplanes. However, it was within the range of US Army Air Forces P-38 Lightning fighters, recently deployed to Guadalcanal.
Eighteen P-38G Lightnings, each armed with four .50 caliber machineguns and one 20mm cannon, and equipped with drop tanks for extra range, were selected for Operation Vengeance. They were to be led by USAAF Major John Mitchell. A flight of four was designated as a “killer team” to go after the two bombers. The other Lightnings, whose numbers included two spares, were to fly cover above and keep the Japanese Zero escorts and swarms of other enemy fighters expected to take off from nearby airfields off the killers. Sixteen 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 18th, 1943. The mission went like clockwork. The P-38s skimmed the ocean at 50 feet to avoid detection, and swung wide of islands between Guadalcanal and Bougainville and watchers therein.
They 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 other Lightnings took on the Zero escorts and flew top cover to fend off any fighters scrambled from local airfields. Within minutes, both Japanese bombers were shot down. One crashed into the jungle below, and the other made a crash landing into the ocean. The P-38s then broke off contact. Avoiding detection no longer a necessity, they 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.
The Oil Campaign that Sought to Starve the Nazi War Machine of Fuel
The Allied strategic bombing campaign against Germany in WWII sought to destroy, or at least degrade, the Nazis’ ability to wage war. Key to that was the “oil campaign”, which went after facilities that supplied Hitler’s forces with fuel. Targets included oil refineries, synthetic fuel factories, storage depots and other supporting infrastructure. The Romanian oil field and refinery complexes around Ploesti, some thirty miles north of Bucharest, were a vital source of oil for the Axis, and provided them with roughly one third of their needs.
The Germans were alerted by a small American air raid in June, 1942, that met little opposition and inflicted little damage. What the raid did accomplish was to alert the Germans to their potential vulnerability. So they surrounded Ploesti with antiaircraft guns, and set up one of the world’s densest and best integrated air defense networks. When American bombers returned a year later, Ploesti was far more hardened than it had been in 1942, protected by hundreds of 88mm flak guns and thousands of smaller ones, plus squadrons of Bf 109 and Me 110 fighter planes.
In 1943, as the Allies grew more focused on the Third Reich’s fuel, American air commanders drew plans for Operation Tidal Wave. It was to be a significantly more ambitious raid against Ploesti than the paltry affair of 1942. It would be carried out by Consolidated B-24 Liberator heavy bombers of the Ninth US Air Force, reinforced by bomber groups loaned them by the Eighth Force then forming in Britain. Unescorted by fighters, they would head north from Libya across the Mediterranean, then turn northeast towards Ploesti when they reached the Greek coast, for a 2,000 mile round trip raid.
On August 1st, 1943, which came to be known as “Black Sunday”, 177 Liberators took off from Libyan airfields for Ploesti. To achieve tactical surprise and catch the defenders unaware, the American warplanes maintained radio silence. They also flew at 50 feet or less to avoid German radar. For hours, the heavy bombers skimmed over the Mediterranean, then flew at treetop level when they reached land. However, as seen below, the Germans were alerted and the raid came to grief because of a cascade of mishaps.
Various hiccups plagued and doomed Operation Tidal Wave before the bombers reached their target. A navigation error took some bombers directly above a German position, and thus gave the enemy a heads up. A lead navigator’s bomber crashed, and bomber groups that had relied upon him arrived over the target staggered instead of simultaneously. A bomb group leader, who saw that all formation was hopelessly lost, broke radio silence to order the scattered B-24s to make their way to Ploesti individually and bomb as best they could. Thus, when the B-24s arrived at Ploesti, they did not catch the Germans off guard and hit them with a concentrated and well-coordinated blow, as planners had hoped. Instead, the American heavy bombers arrived in separate groups, and were met by alert defenders who’d had time to prepare a warm welcome.
Hundreds of antiaircraft guns, heavy machineguns, and a specially designed flak train whose cars’ sides dropped to reveal flak guns, opened up on the bombers, while fighter airplanes fell upon them. The low-flying B-24s also had to contend with smoke stacks that suddenly loomed in their path amid the billowing smoke. Of 177 B-24s that took off that day, 162 reached Ploesti. Of those, 53 were shot down. 660 crewmen were lost. Of the 109 surviving Liberators that reached an Allied airbase, 58 were damaged beyond repair. The damage to Ploesti was quickly repaired. Within weeks, the oil complex was producing even more oil products than it had before the raid.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading