75 years ago, America got her man

April 15, 2018

Yamamoto’s plane in the Bougainville jungle.
U.S. Naval Institute Blog

There was no Facebook, Twitter or Google; no Amazon Prime, no Netflix binge watching.

Satellites were moons that circled planets. Television was invented but the range so limited and reception so poor it was at best a “maybe” for the future. Radar was around but still an infant. And anything remotely resembling a computer was a mechanical behemoth of tubes and wires whose physical size greatly belied its limited computing power.

News was not “posted”. It was broadcast or printed via radio, newspapers and magazines.

It was a far different time, yet a time not that long ago.

The time is the middle of World War II, the place is the Pacific theatre of operations, and the date is April 18th, 1943. One year to the day that Colonel Jimmy Doolittle’s Raiders appeared in the sky above Tokyo and let the world know that despite the devastation of Pearl Harbor, America would not go quietly into the night.

It is a date that now marks an historic victory for American army air forces, but at the time could not even be acknowledged.

The mission was code named Operation Vengeance and its target was Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the mastermind behind the Pearl Harbor attack that had left over 2400 Americans dead and the USS Arizona a permanent reminder of treachery among nations.

Writing in the National Interest last year, writer Michael Peck put it into perspective:

The intelligence variable:

As was customary, a coded signal was sent on April 13, 1943, to the various Japanese commands in the area, listing the admiral’s itinerary as well as the number of transport planes and fighter escorts in his party. But American codebreakers had been reading Japanese diplomatic and military messages for years, including those in the JN-25 code, used in various forms by the Imperial Navy throughout World War II. The Yamamoto signal was sent in the new JN-25D variant, but that didn’t stop American cryptanalysts from deciphering it in less than a day.

The decision variable:

Adm. Chester Nimitz, the U.S. commander in the Pacific, authorized an operation to shoot down Yamamoto’s plane. With typical spleen, Pacific Fleet commander William “Bull” Halsey issued his own unambiguous message: “TALLY HO X LET’S GET THE BASTARD.”

The operational variables:

The only fighter with long enough legs was the U.S. Army Air Forces’ twin-engined Lockheed P-38G Lightning.

But even the P-38s faced a difficult task. To avoid detection, American planners wanted them to fly “at least 50 miles offshore of these islands, which meant dead-reckoning over 400 miles over water at fifty feet or less, a prodigious feat of navigation,” according to a history of the Thirteenth Fighter Command, the parent organization of the 339th Fighter Squadron that flew the mission.

…..They would essentially have to intercept Yamamoto where and when he was scheduled to be.

However, by calculating the speed of the Japanese G4M Betty bomber that would carry Yamamoto, probable wind speed, the enemy’s probable flight path, and assuming that Yamamoto would be as punctual as he was reputed to be, American planners estimated the intercept would occur at 9:35 a.m.

That the Americans arrived just a minute early, at 9:34, was remarkable. Even more remarkable was that the Japanese appeared on time a minute later.

Minutes later, the bomber carrying Yamamoto was a smoking pile of rubble in the jungle of Bougainville; A jungle so thick that his body would not be recovered until Japanese troops cut their way to crash site the next day.

But unlike the Doolittle Raid which made immediate news, the death of Yamamoto would take over a month to reach the American home front. And even then, it came from an Associated Press dispatch from Japan: “A Tokyo broadcast said he (Yamamoto) was killed “on the very front lines of the south” while directing operations against Allied naval forces from an airplane.

The American military could not divulge the truth without letting the Japanese know their naval code had been broken by U.S. intelligence so it was not until September 10, 1945, eight days after the official surrender, that the truth of the mission made its way into the New York Times.

It was an amazing story when it broke, but I find it even more amazing now. Sixteen Americans, guided only by their brains and skill, flew over 400 miles to arrive at the exact spot at the exact time required to intercept their target.

Kind of makes you think doesn’t it? That for all our tech of today, there was a time not that long ago when it was the human brain, not silicon chips that determined our fate.

PUBLISHER NOTE:  A version of this column first appeared in the Sunday, April 15th, 2018 print edition of the Joplin Globe.

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