The last of the six
Text: Jan Bobek
Illustration: Piotr Forkasiewicz
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto is one of the
most important military commanders
of World War II. He held the key position
of Commander of the Combined Fleet and
was one of the most persistent and influential opponents of war with the US. He was
aware of the military and industrial potential of the USA, as he studied there and later
worked as a Naval Attaché in Washington.
Ironically, he was tasked with planning the
attack on the Hawaiian Islands. As early as
1940 he predicted that a war with the USA
and Great Britain could be successfully
fought for no longer than six to twelve months. For the first half of April 1943, Yamamoto ordered an airborne operation, I-gō,
to improve situation in New Guinea and
in the air battles over Guadalcanal.
Yamamoto personally supervised this operation from Rabaul, accompanied by his
chief of staff, Vice Admiral Matome Ugaki.
To everyone’s surprise and over the protests of his staff officers, he decided to
inspect the Ballale, Shortland and Buin bases in the Bougainville area. The flight was
scheduled for April 18, 1943, with two Betty
bombers from Kōkūtai 705 and an escort of
six Zeros from Kōkūtai 204. On the morning
of April 18, exactly one year after Doolittle’s
raid on Tokyo, Yamamoto and Ugaki flew to
On the American side, Operation Vengeance was in full swing. In fact, the Americans
had managed to intercept a Japanese radiogram with the itinerary of Yamamoto’s
trip. Sixteen P-38 fighters from the 347th
FG were on the way from Guadalcanal. The
two formations met at 9.35 am over Bougainville Island. The Japanese flew higher
than the Americans, who kept low to reduce the risk of being spotted. They had to
climb rapidly, and Lightning was perfect
for that. The bombers flew at 4,500 ft and
the two Zero formations 1,500 ft higher.
Twelve Lightnings provided top cover and
four pilots attacked the formation of eight
Japanese aircraft. They included Doolittle’s
godson, Capt. Thomas G. Lanphier Jr., 1st
Lt. Rex T. Barber, 1st Lt. Besby F. Holmes
and 1st Lt. Ray Hine.
These four attackers crossed the coast at
1,000 ft and climbed toward the Japanese.
Holmes, however, was unable to drop his
tanks and had to briefly disengage from the
fight along with Hine. Thus, only Lanphier
and Barber headed for the bombers. Soon,
however, they had to split up, Lanphier
alone facing one trio of Zeros and Barber
sending Yamamoto’s bomber into the jungle. Holmes and Hine fought off the Zeros
closing on Lanphier. Lanphier hit another
bomber over the jungle, presumably the
one with Ugaki on board. Shortly thereafter,
Lanphier, Holmes and Hine attacked Ugaki’s
bomber again, forcing it to land into the sea
near the coast.
The Japanese escort was commanded by
Lieutenant Takeshi Morizaki with wingmen PO1c Toyomitsu Tsujinoue and Seaman
Sho-ichi Sugita. The other trio was led by
CPO Yoshimi Hidaka PO2c Yasuji Okazaki
and Seaman Kenji Yanagiya. Hidaka was the
first to spot the Americans. However, their
Zeros did not have radios, so he signalled
the danger by waving his wings. Morizaki’s
trio attacked Lanphier and Barber to drive
them away from the descending Bettys.
Hidaka and his wingmen attacked Holmes
and Hine. Hidaka hit the auxiliary tanks on
Holmes’ Lightning, but the American didn’t
notice the damage and eventually dropped
them. Sugita hit the engine of Hine’s machine. Yanagiya flew to Buin Base and fired
into the surface of airfield, alerting the fighters. He later met Hine and shot him down.
Yamamoto did not survive the crash of the
bomber, and the escort pilots took it for
granted that they should be killed in action,
although no one blamed them. Hidaka and
Okazaki were killed in action over Guadalcanal on June 7, 1943, and Yanagiya was
severely wounded in same action. Morizaki
was shot down off Lunga Point on June 16,
1943, and Tsujinoue was killed at Rendova
on July 1, 1943. Sugita, who was to become
one of the Navy’s most successful fighters,
was shot down by Hellcat over Kanoya on
April 15, 1945. The opening part of this legendary encounter was captured in a painting
by Piotr Forkasiewicz, showing Yanagiya
with Barber’s Lightning in the background.
For more details on this Japanese pilot, the
only one of the six to survive the end of the
war, see the text included in our October kit
A6M3 Zero Model 32.