At six in the morning of April 18, 1942, (Tokyo time) Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, Japanese Marshall Admiral of the Imperial Navy and commander-in-chief of the Combined Fleet was wearing green khakis as he boarded a twin-engine Mitsubishi G4M1 “Betty” bomber and took off from Rabaul on New Britain Island northeast of New Guinea.
He was on an inspection tour of Japanese bases in the area. First destination was Ballale Field in Bougainville Island.
He didn’t want to go, but Vice Admiral Matome Ugaki, his chief of staff persuaded him to undertake the mission anyway “to boost morale.” It was bad advice and would cost Yamamoto his life three and a half hours later.
Two Bettys took off at exactly 6 a.m., Tokyo time, with 12 Zero fighters flying as protection 1,500 feet above the bombers.
Yamamoto was descended from a noted samurai family and adopted by another — not an uncommon Japanese practice. Rex T. Barber — the man who later that day would shoot him down and make military aviation history — was a former student from Oregon State University.
Isoroku Takano (later Yamamoto) was born in Nagaoka, Japan, 130 miles north-northwest of Tokyo in 1884. He graduated from the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy in 1904 and served aboard a cruiser during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, losing two fingers on his left hand at the Battle of Tsushima.
He studied at Harvard University, was naval attaché in Washington, D.C., and traveled extensively in the U.S., learning to speak English fluently.
He knew America’s power and warned against making it an enemy in World War II. Nevertheless, following orders as an Imperial Navy command officer, he planned the attacks on Pearl Harbor, Midway Island and the Aleutians.
“In the first six to twelve months of a war with the United States and Great Britain I will run wild and win victory upon victory. But then, if the war continues after that, I have no expectation of success,” he warned.
Rex T. Barber was born and raised in Culver, Ore., in 1917. He studied at Linfield College and Oregon State College (now University) before joining the Army Air Corps in 1940 and became a pilot.
In sweltering tropical heat on the afternoon of April 17, 1943 officers of the 339th Fighter Squadron were called to a meeting in the “Opium Den” bunker at Henderson Field on Guadalcanal Island.
They were told about a Japanese message intercepted and decoded in Honolulu giving details of an inspection tour of Japanese bases in the northern Solomon Islands by Adm. Yamamoto.
His flight would leave the following morning from Rabaul, heading for Bougainville Island just over 400 miles from Guadalcanal.
Orders from Washington said President Roosevelt said go get him.
The officers in the bunker were elated at the assignment. Revenge time for Pearl Harbor!
Eighteen P-38G “Lightings” were readied, with four pilots selected as the “Killer Section” to attack the bombers—one of them carrying Yamamoto — while the rest of the planes engaged the expected escort of Japanese Zeros.
The four Killer men were Capt. Thomas G. Lanphier, Jr., flight leader, 1st Lts. Raymond K. Hine, Besby F. “Frank” Holmes and wingman Rex T. Barber.
Overnight, the P-38s were fitted with drop fuel tanks for the 1000-mile roundtrip flight.
At 7:10 a.m., Guadalcanal time, the P-38s took off. Two aborted — one with a flat tire on takeoff and the other with fuel flow problems. Barber’s plane was out for repairs so he borrowed another P-38 named “Miss Virginia.”
The flight headed west, flying a circuitous route just above the wave tops to avoid being detected.
Flight leader Maj. John W. Mitchell, commanding officer of the 339th, didn’t think they had more than one chance in a thousand of finding Yamamoto — a Japanese hero like America’s Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Adm. “Bull” Halsey.
But find him they did.
Flying under orders of strict radio silence, they navigated only with watch, compass and airspeed indicator. Accounts say the pilots suffered from boredom on the flight, with pilot Doug Canning counting sharks to keep awake. He counted 48.
Another counted driftwood, and one nodded off but woke up when his propellers hit the top of a wave.
Spotting the bombers, Barber, Lanphier, Holmes and Hines attacked while the other 12 P-38s went after the Zeros.
“I started shooting across the tail into the right engine,” Barber said. “Pieces of the cowling flew up and hit me. The Betty slowed up so much I almost hit it. After I had passed it, I looked behind me and saw some black smoke. I thought it might be the Betty I shot.”
The plane crashed in the jungle.
A Japanese search party found Yamamoto’s body thrown clear of the wreckage and sitting upright under a tree, holding the hilt of the sword given him by his dead brother. Reports claimed that they’d placed him in that position out of respect for the admiral.
Two .50-caliber bullets had hit him — one in the shoulder and the other his left jaw, passing through his head and exiting his right temple.
Admiral Ugaki, Yamamoto’s chief of staff flying in a separate plane was shot down but survived — his plane plunging into the sea, with Ugaki swimming safely to shore.
Ray Hine was never found when his plane went down trailing smoke. It was his first and last combat flight in a P-38.
Though the world soon knew that the great Japanese admiral had been killed, U.S. military officials kept the details quiet — U.S. newspapers attributing the discovery of Yamamoto’s plane to coast watchers intelligence. Thus the Japanese did not know that their code had been intercepted and didn’t change it.
Except for Hines, Barber and the rest made it back to Guadalcanal — Barber’s plane riddled with 104 bullet holes.
After the mission, Capt. Lanphier immediately claimed credit for downing Yamamoto, unleashing a controversy that continues to this day.
Some reports say Lanphier was dog-fighting Zeros at the time Barber downed Yamamoto.
When his Guadalcanal tour of duty ended, Barber — who had been promoted to captain — joined the 449th Fighter Squadron in China as part of the 14th Air Force, commanded by former Flying Tigers leader Maj. Gen. Claire L. Chennault.
The 449th’s mission was to protect the “Burma Hump” air corridor into China, attack Japanese ground and sea forces as far as Hong Kong, Canton and Hainan Island, while also helping Chinese ground operations.
During his tour in China, Barber destroyed or damaged three Japanese aircraft, but was shot down on his 139th mission, bailing out near Kiukiang on the Yangtze River. He was severely wounded but rescued by Chinese guerillas who nursed him back to health and returned him to Allied lines five weeks later.
At the end of the war, Barber attained the rank of major and commanded one of America’s first jet squadrons, flying Lockheed F-80s. He flew in the Korean War and retired as a colonel in 1961, with a record of shooting down five enemy planes — making him an ace — with two more “probables” and damaging two. He also sank a Japanese destroyer.
He earned the Navy Cross, Silver Star with Oak Leaf Cluster, Purple Heart, Air Medal and the Air Force Commendation Medal.
It was tough to prove who shot Yamamoto down, as none of the planes had gun cameras. After years of controversy and debate, in 1973 the Air Force gave each man half credit, determining that both pilots had shot up the admiral’s plane.
Finally in 1998, after much research and examination of the plane wreckage, a “Yamamoto Retrospective” panel at the War in the Pacific Museum in Fredericksburg, Texas, that included all of the surviving American P-38 pilots and even one Japanese Zero pilot concluded that Rex Barber alone should receive credit for downing Yamamoto’s aircraft.
Rex Barber died peacefully at home in Terrebonne, Ore., in 2001 at the age 84. His son, Rex Junior, said, “His afterburner just flamed out on him.”
The memory of his historic day in a remote corner of the Pacific remains.
History and aviation buffs love talking about controversies — like “Who shot down Adm. Yamamoto?”
Maybe it’s a good thing that we’re still talking about the flying ace from Oregon.
Contact Syd Albright at email@example.com.
In 1916, Isoroku Tanako was adopted into the Yamamoto samurai family from his home area of Nagaoka in northwestern Japan, and took the Yamamoto name. It was common practice for samurai families that didn’t have sons to adopt suitable young men to carry on the family name, along with the rank and income that comes with it.
— Donald Davis, “Lightning Strike: The Secret Mission to Kill Admiral Yamamoto and Avenge Pearl Harbor”
Did Yamamoto make the quote?
Admiral Yamamoto’s famous quote after the Pearl Harbor attack was, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve,” but it has never been proven that he made that remark — though it may have accurately reflected his sentiment. The quote was used in the film “Tora, Tora, Tora.”
Future Supreme Court justice…
The intercepted coded Japanese message giving the details of Admiral Yamamoto’s inspection tour was deciphered by U.S. Navy cryptographers in Honolulu. On the team was future U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens.
Rex Barber’s family…
Rex Barber married Margaret Trollope (1918-2005) at Tyndall Field on October 3, 1947. They had two sons — Rex Barber, Jr. and Richard Barber.
The controversy continues…
“Aces Association gave Barber 100 percent credit for the shoot down of the bomber carrying Yamamoto. In 1998 the Confederate Air Force recognized that Barber alone and unassisted brought down Yamamoto’s aircraft and inducted him into the American Combat Airman Hall of Fame.
“The Air Force hierarchy… still refuses to correct their obviously erroneous records, nor to award the nation’s highest honor to both John Mitchell and Rex Barber for their epic wartime performance.”
— 456th Fighter Interceptor Squadron