Brought the Thunder
Thomas Calabrese — Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto commander of the Imperial Japanese Navy, scheduled an inspection tour of the Solomon Islands and New Guinea. Next to Adolph Hitler, he was the most infamous man on the planet during World War II. For Americans it was deeply personal. He was responsible for the death of more than 2,400 U.S. servicemen and women in little more than two terrifying hours on December 7, 1941. To put it bluntly, Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was the Osama bin Laden of his day. He was also the face of arrogance and the poster boy for wartime propaganda in the Pacific Theatre.
So in April 1943, 16 months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States had an opportunity to kill Yamamoto. They jumped at the chance to eliminate the brilliant strategist and military leader. On April 14th U.S. naval intelligence effort code-name ‘Magic’ intercepted and decrypted the travel itinerary of Yamamoto. The original message was designated NTF131755 and was encoded in Japanese Naval Cipher JN-25D. Future Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens had been awake for three days monitoring enemy radio chatter. When this message was intercepted, Stevens immediately began trying to decipher it. When he realized the importance of the communication, he enthusiastically called out to his fellow cryptographers, “I got it!” Stevens was able to get the exact details, including the number and types of planes that would be transporting and accompanying Yamamoto on his journey.
When Admiral F. Halsey, Commander, South Pacific was notified about this valuable Intel, he rushed right over. In the 20 minutes that it took him to arrive, a mentally and emotionally exhausted Stevens fell asleep at his desk. Admiral Halsey inquired, “What’s with Stevens?”
Another cryptographer volunteered, “He’s been up three days straight, sir. Want me to wake him up?”
“Hell no!” He earned the right to get some rest. Tell him when he does wake up that I’d like to see him.” When Halsey saw sunlight from a window shining on Stevens’ face, he called out, “Get some shade on this patriot!”
Three sailors found a canvas tarp and quickly rigged up a covering above the cryptographer.
When Admiral Halsey read the report it indicated that Yamamoto would be flying from Rabaul to Balalae Airfield on an island near Bougainville in the Solomon Islands. He and his staff would be flying in two Mitsubishi G4M Betty medium bombers and escorted by six A6M Zero fighters. Halsey contacted Admiral Chester W. Nimitz with the good news, “Looks good” After being briefed, Nimitz contacted Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, who met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. After a short discussion, they authorized Halsey to proceed with the mission.
Having the Intel was one thing, being able to utilize it properly, well that was a completely different story and an enormous challenge. This wasn’t like politics where they could kick the problem down the road and let somebody else figure it out. Halsey and his staff had less than two weeks to come up with a plan. The first thing that needed to be determined was the route.
To avoid detection by Japanese radar and personnel stationed in the Solomon Islands, American planes would need a roundabout approach. The initial one plotted measured 600 miles to the target and four hundred back. This was beyond the range of the F4F Wildcat and the F4U Corsair fighters available to Navy and Marine squadrons based on Guadalcanal.
Captain Johnny Mitchell flew a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk with the 55th Fighter Squadron before being assigned to the 70th Pursuit Squadron. When he arrived at the 70th, Mitchell found out that most of the experienced pilots had been sent to Java, Indonesia to stem the Japanese onslaught. Most of them were killed or captured by the Japanese. Mitchell and eight of his pilots were detached from the 70th for duty during the darkest days at Guadalcanal. A pilot from Texas that Mitchell flew with in the 55th Squadron was already at Henderson Field, “Johnny Boy! As glad as I am to see you, this ain’t no place that you want to be.”
Johnny Mitchell was a hell of a pilot and a natural born leader. He had a way of looking at the most dangerous situations with a lighthearted bravado that instilled confidence in those around him. “Hey Bill, good to see you too. I just got here and you’re already trying to run me off. Where’s that good old-fashion Texas hospitality? I’ll look around a bit and you’ll be the first to know if I don’t like the accommodations.”
At one point the Japanese were only 600 feet from the airstrip and inching closer. Crew chiefs removed .30 caliber machine guns from some planes, to use in a last ditch stand if it came to that. The pilots slept under their planes and were ready to take-off at a moment’s notice. When they returned from missions, courageous ground crew members would stand with lanterns to mark the location of shell holes. This action exposed them to Japanese sniper fire, but there was no other option. The pilots and ground crew were continuously under siege, but there was no other option but to keep going.
There was this one day when a battle hardened Marine named John Basilone walked up with his war weary machine gun platoon and gazed upon the dismal conditions at Henderson Field , “You zipper suited, sky dogs, puddle jumpers really got the life,” Basilone joked, “What’s this, the South Pacific version of the Waldolf Astoria? In my next life, I’m going to come back as one of your guys.”
Johnny Mitchell walked up, his flight suit stained with grease and red with blood, “What brings Marines to our neck of the woods, slumming or being neighborly?”
“Just passing through,” John Basilone answered “Know where I can find some Japanese?”
“Care to join us for dinner?” Johnny Mitchell asked.
“It just happens that our social calendar is clear. We were going to have to set up for the night anyway before heading out.”
That night, the Marine machine gunners and the army fighter pilots ate together under the shelter of a damaged P-40 Warhawk. The crew chiefs got five cases of c-rations that included, spaghetti and meatballs, boned chicken and beefsteak and mixed them together in a big pot then served large portions to the Marines and pilots.
“My compliments to the chef,” John Basilone called out as he savored his meal.
As soon as the sun went down, the Japanese soldiers went into their nightly rendition to rattle the Americans, “Tonight you die! Hey Joe, where you going to go…back to kokomo!”
John Basilone grumbled, “Those guys oughta’ put some music to that tune and then maybe we could dance to it.”
When morning came, Basilone and his Marines prepared to leave Henderson Field. He took a deep breath and commented, “I can feel it in the air, there’s a reckoning coming and I aim to be part of it.”
Mitchell turned to his fellow pilots, “There goes some tough men”
On October 24, 1942, Marine Sergeant John Basilone’s unit came under attack from 3,000 soldiers in the Japanese Sendai Division. Despite his supply lines being cut by infiltrators and running out of ammunition, the Marine Sergeant fought through hostile ground to resupply his heavy machine gunners with urgently needed supplies. Basilone moved an extra gun into position and laid down suppressive fire against the Japanese forces. When the last of the ammunition ran out, he held off the enemy forces, using only a pistol and a machete. Sergeant Basilone would be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on ‘Bloody Ridge’.
On that same day Captain Mitchell shot down three Japanese planes and became an ace. He was promoted to Major and Commanding Officer of the 339th Fighter Squadron. His promotion was overshadowed by the arrival of the first P-38 Lightnings. The fast-twin-engined fighters had devastating firepower. They had four .50 caliber machine guns and a 20mm cannon mounted in the nose. Because the guns all fired straight ahead, rather than in the converging patters of wing-mounted guns, they were effective at all ranges, but the P-38’s had some drawbacks, feeble heaters and were high maintenance. The pilots loved the new planes, but the maintenance crews weren’t quite so enthusiastic. Maintenance Chief Master Sergeant Frank Rourke lamented, “My crews are going to be working around the clock keeping these birds in the air.”
Johnny Mitchell knew it would be extra work for the mechanics that were already stretched to their limits, “I know, but without you guys on the ground, we don’t get in the air. These P-38’s are going to help us shoot down more Japanese planes…it’s that simple. Tell your mechanics that if I can make it up to them somewhere else, you just let me know. Every pilot in this squadron appreciates what you do. If any of my men don’t give you or your mechanics the proper respect, you come see me.”
Master Sergeant Rourke knew that Major Mitchell was a man of his word and responded affirmatively, “We’ll get it done…somehow.”
The next day, Admiral Halsey arrived to brief Major Mitchell about Admiral Yamamoto’s flight, “Your P-38’s, equipped with drop tanks are the only planes that have the range to intercept and engage.”
Major Mitchell responded, “We lost a lot of good men at Pearl and I lost some good friends. It’s going to feel good to get some payback.”
“Then you’ll like the name of the mission, Operation Vengeance.”
Mitchell looked at the flight plan that was prepared by Command Operations and responded, “I don’t think this is going to work.” It took him less than two hours to re- calculate it and come up with five precise legs of the trip with the last one curving in a search pattern in case Yamamoto was not seen at the chosen point. Eighteen P-38’s were assigned to the mission. The pilots would ‘wave hop’ all the way to Bougainville at altitudes no greater than 50 feet while maintaining radio silence . This was a high risk, high reward endeavor from beginning to end. Overnight at Henderson Field, ground crews fitted large new fuel tanks under the wings. By dawn all the planes were ready.
Johnny Mitchell’s last instructions were given at 0700 hours, “We will maintain radio silence at all costs. If you go down, you are on your own. The mission is top priority, our survival or rescue is not. Yamamoto planned the attack at Pearl and we’re going after him. If only one of us makes it through then it will be up to that one pilot to get it done. Any man that doesn’t want to fly under these circumstances then step forward and step aside.” Not one pilot accepted Mitchell’s offer, “I didn’t think any of you guys would back out, but I had to ask.”
The flight proceeded northwest to avoid Japanese spotters, sweeping widely away from Japanese-occupied New Georgia. The ocean was calm so Mitchell tried to hold the planes at 30 feet altitude even though depth perception was almost-non-existent. Every pilot had to remain alert, for even the slightest dip in altitude could send him crashing into the water. This was the longest-distance fighter intercept mission of the war. At 0800 the American planes were 285 miles from the planned interception point.
In Rabaul, despite urgings by local Japanese commanders to cancel the trip for fear of ambush, Yamamoto’s airplanes took off as scheduled. They climbed to 6.500 feet with their fighter escort at their 4 o’clock position and 1,500 hundred feet higher. At 0820, Mitchell changed heading for the first time and his fellow pilots followed him. The Americans were still under strict radio silence orders. A half hour later, there was another course correction and at 0900, Mitchell made the last change and headed directly for the coast of Bougainville that was only forty miles away, while beginning the slow climb for altitude.
At 0934, Lt. Doug Canning called out “Bogey, eleven o’clock high!” There was no need for radio silence anymore. The pilots jettisoned their fuel drop tanks and attacked. The killer team of four P-38’s lagged behind and waited until the two bombers came into view.
When that happened Mitchell began a full power climb to intercept the primary targets while encouraging his wingmen to stay with him. “Go! Go!” He then banked to the right and got parallel to the bombers. He radioed, “Engage!” Lt. Holmes and Captain Barber came in hot with their fifty caliber machine guns and 20mm cannons spitting death and destruction. Mitchell opened fire on one bomber and it began to trail black smoke. Turning his attention to the other aircraft, he destroyed the starboard engine with a well-aimed shot from his 20mm cannon. Captain Barber came in right behind him and riddled the crippled bomber’s fuselage with machine gun fire. His bullet strikes caused enough metal debris that it damaged his own aircraft when he flew through a cloud of it.
The first bomber made a hard landing into the ocean and the second one crashed into the jungle. Japanese Zeroes turned their attention and wrath on the P-38’s attacking the bombers. Barber’s aircraft received 104 hits, but still remained airborne.
Mitchell knew that his pilots needed enough fuel to make the 400 miles return trip so he radioed, “Break off contact! Head for home!”
Even as they headed back to Guadalcanal, Mitchell and his pilots did not know which bomber Yamamoto was in and if he had been killed or had been rescued. Luckily, the P-38’s caught a favorable tailwind as they headed back to Guadalcanal. One the pilots wasn’t sure he could make it back and radioed Major Mitchell, “Vengeance Leader, this is Wolverine. I won’t make it…too low on fuel.”
Major Mitchell looked at his fuel gauge and saw that he was also running low on fuel so he radioed the other pilots, “All those that think they can make it back to Guadalcanal, stay with me. Those that don’t, go with Wolverine to Pavuru.”
Six planes changed course for the Russell Islands. (The Russell Islands are two small islands Pavuru and Mbanika. In 1943, as part of American military operations during the Solomons campaign of World War II, the islands were occupied by U.S. troops. The distance was 77 miles shorter than their own base on Guadalcanal. Not a great distance, but every mile counted on this mission.
Sergeant John Basilone and the remainder of his machine gun platoon, only seven men who had not been killed or seriously wounded walked back to Henderson Field. They were pulled off the front lines for some much needed rest, repair their weapons and pick up replacements. The airfield was teeming with excitement and Basilone inquired, “What’s going on?”
A young ground crew member, who couldn’t have been much older than 18 years old eagerly responded, “Major Mitchell and the squadron shot down Admiral Yamamoto’s airplane! They’re on their way back right now.”
Sergeant Basilone knew that the Japanese would be looking for some major retaliation once they found about the attack. His experienced eyes scanned the jungle that surrounded the airfield, searching for any indication when that might be.
Back in the air, Major Mitchell received radio communications from the pilots who had diverted to the Russell Islands. They made it, now he only had to worry about the planes with him. When Henderson Field came into view, you could have heard a collective sigh of relief echo across the South Seas skies. Major Mitchell could see the propellers on the other planes sputtering. His own P-38 was struggling to stay airborne without enough fuel, “We’re going in tight, nose to tail. When you hit the deck, pull off to the side and let the other guy go by. Goose lead us in. I’ll be going last.”
The timing couldn’t have been worse, the Japanese on Guadalcanal must have gotten the word about Yamamoto and began attacking the airfield. Sergeant Basilone commandeered two jeeps. He put one machine gun team and as much ammunition as it could hold in one and ordered Corporal Adrian Levine, “Get out to the edge of the airfield and give those planes some cover fire!” Sergeant Basilone got in the back of the other jeep with a .30 caliber machine gun. Pfc Traylor got behind the wheel and Lance Corporal Watkins took the assistant gunner position, (the man who feeds the ammo belt.) Sergeant Basilone told the driver, “We going to run parallel to the runway. Move!”
The first machine gun team took up a defensive position on the end of the driveway. Sergeant Basilone and his Marines raced back and forth, while firing at the advancing Japanese. This allowed the fuel starved P-38’s to land. Major Johnny Mitchell was the last to come in and he could see the Japanese soldiers racing toward his landing point. He knew he was a dead man once he touched ground. Suddenly the jeep with Sergeant Basilone raced up. The driver did a 360 and the hero of Bloody Ridge cut down the Japanese soldiers with long burst of gunfire before they could reach the plane. The jeep escorted Major Mitchell to a safe area of the airfield while army and Marine personnel engaged in a bitter battle to push the enemy back into the jungle.
When Major Johnny Mitchell stepped out of the P-38, the first thing he saw the .30 caliber machine, red hot and smoking then recognized the Marine behind it, “Thanks Sergeant.”
John Basilone joked, “Anybody that shoots down Yamamoto is my kind of pilot.”
“This was a squadron effort, besides we don’t know if we got him.”
That night, the P-38’s pilots and the Marines shared a dinner. There would be no celebration until they knew what happened to the Japanese Admiral. On the very next day after the attack, April 19, 1943, Naval Intelligence intercepted Japanese radio chatter that the crash site and body of Yamamoto had been found by a Japanese search-and-rescue party.
The retrieval party noted Yamamoto had been thrown clear of the plane’s wreckage, his white-gloved hand grasping the hilt of his sword, his body still upright in his seat under a tree. Yamamoto was instantly recognizable, his head tilted down as if deep in thought. In the United States, in order to cover up the fact that the Allies were reading Japanese codes, American news agencies were given the same cover story used to brief the 339th Fighter Squadron—that civilian coastwatchers in the Solomons observed Yamamoto boarding a bomber and relayed the information by radio to American naval forces in the immediate area.
This conveyed to the Japanese military that it was only through a stroke of luck that the Americans carried out the successful attack.
Sergeant Basilone would make the ultimate sacrifice on February 19, 1945, during the landing on Iwo Jima. He was awarded the Navy Cross for bravery to go with the Medal of Honor that he earned on Guadalcanal. Major Johnny Mitchell and the pilots of the 339th Fighter Squadron would always be remembered as the Lightning Riders that brought the thunder during Operation Vengeance.