Ball”Bogies, 11 o’clock high!”, shouted Lt. Doug Canning, breaking a two-hour radio silence. Maj. John Mitchell had led sixteen P-38’s of his 339th fighter Squadron from Guadalcanal’s Henderson Field to Bougainville on 18 April 1943 to intercept the Betty bomber carrying Japanese Imperial Combined Fleet commander Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. Now, after flying 400 miles at 50 feet above the water, navigating by pure dead-reckoning, the flight sighted two Betty bombers escorted by six Zeroes descending toward Ballale Island.
Maj. Mitchell and twelve Lightning’s climbed to provide high cover while Capt. Tom Lanphier and Lts. Rex Barber, Frank Holmes, and Ray Hine – designated ‘attack flight” – turned to intercept the bombers. As they climbed toward the Betty’s, Lanphier saw three Zeroes diving to defend the bombers and turned sharply into the lead fighter, leaving Barber to continue the attack on the bomber. Curving in behind the lead bomber, Barber raked the descending Betty from wingtip to wingtip. Thick black smoke began to stream from the right engine and the bomber snapped to the left. Moments later is sliced into the jungle, the crash site marked by a rising column of black, oily smoke.
Turning toward the coast, Barber finished off the second Betty now under attack by Frank, and downed a Zero that had belatedly joined the battle from nearby Kahili Airdrome. Shortly after, Mitchell call “Mission accomplished!” and fifteen Lightning’s turned toward Guadalcanal. Lt. Ray Hine, last seen skimming the water with smoke trailing from his engine, did not return from the mission and was never found.
This extraordinary interception, executed by P-38’s based near Guadalcanal, was made possible through radio interception and signal decryption efforts by Navy intelligence facilities at Pearl Harbor and other Pacific locations.
Of note- For many years there were a number of books, articles, claims and counter claims over who actually shot down Yamamoto. Lanphier initially claimed credit, and later he and Barber were each given 1/2 credit. THIS article, done by a historian sides with Barber…