You can find a wealth of information on Operation Vengeance on the internet, including the decently organized Wiki entry, and the U.S. Naval Institute has a decent blog post about the operation.
And there's this: The second part appears to be from a Japanese documentary on the mission, with much of the film other than stock footage from U.S. sources. But the first part is a delightful trip down memory lane to the days when Our Boys in Uniform really were all heroes, our enemies were Evil, and killing them was not just necessary but really, really good.The Background: Even today, most Americans with any sort of knowledge of history know the story of Pearl Harbor, the broad outline of the course of Great Pacific War (as they know it in Japan) and the role of ADM 山本 五十六 (Isoroku Yamamoto) in crafting the attack on the U.S. fleet that opened the conflict.ADM Yamamoto was unquestionably a gifted military leader. He was also an interesting contradiction, a very able naval commander who disagreed strongly with his country's geopolitical aims.Yamamoto had spent some time outside Japan - atypical for the Japanese political and military leaders of the Thirties and Forties - and had some better sense of his nation's extreme vulnerability to an economic war of attrition. Resource-poor, Japan was dependent on surface shipping for pretty much all its industrial materials. An enemy with a powerful navy - the United States, for instance - would be extremely likely to put Japan in danger through a campaign of commerce raiding.
This, in turn, led Yamamoto to oppose the Army leadership's desire for conquests both in China and elsewhere in southeast Asia.
But the man was not big enough to force the issue. While he considered his nation dangerously reckless in seeking war with the United States, he continued to plan that war.And Yamamoto's great innovation was to overthrow the strategic thinking of Japan's naval planners. The 軍令部 (Gunreibu) - the Navy General Staff - had always thought in terms of fighting a Mahanist battle against the USN in the western Pacific, after using light forces to attrit the American fleets advancing to meet the IJN near the Home Islands, where the IJN would smash them in a classic Tsushimaesque gunbattle.Yamamoto dryly noted that even in the Gunreibu's own wargames this cunning plan had worked like a fucking sieve spoon. The U.S. simply had too much shipbuilding and force-construction might. Given the time and the space the USN would just load up, steamroller west, and overwhelm the IJN.
The cost to the gringos might be be enormous, but the end result would always be bloody defeat for Japan.
What's my understanding that Yamamoto honestly believed that there was never any real means of defeating the U.S.
He is said to have remarked that if he was allowed to fight the war his way that he could run wild in the central Pacific for half a year or so; then the U.S. would begin putting the squeeze on and the endgame would begin.
His idea was said to be, rather, to force an immediate decisive battle on the USN in the central Pacific, defeat it, and - with the prospect of a Japanese invasion of the U.S. west coast (which he knew in fact to be logistically impossible and strategically suicidal) - frighten the Americans into a negotiated peace.
The other thing to remember is that the U.S. didn't really have anything the Japanese wanted in 1941. The war didn't happen because the Japanese wanted to fight us.No, the real objectives of the Army and militarist-civilian cabal that ran the country were territorial gains in China. In order to keep the Japanese war machine running, though, the Army needed petroleum. The nearest, and most seizable, petroleum producing region was in the Dutch East Indies (modern Indonesia).But to get to this region the Army would need command of the South China Sea and there, like a great big fucking unsinkable aircraft carrier, was the Philippine Islands just sagging with U.S. aircraft and warships.
So the Japanese government needed the U.S. to stay out of their Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. But the signs at the time weren't good.
For one thing, the Japanese were their own worst enemy. The Army really was a brutal disaster in China, murdering, raping, and generally acting like the Ugly Japanese. Add to that stuff that showed their contempt for the whities like the Panay Incident, and the result was that the Americans had already embargoed a number of critical war materials to show Japan their dissatisfaction; Miss America was not a happy gal.
And then, worse. No, the worst; in July 1941 the U.S. stopped oil exports to Japan.
For the Imperial war machine this was hell and fucking disaster. At the time the Japanese purchased 80% of their petroleum products from the U.S. (Hard to believe now, innit? But we were one of the major oil producing nations in the Forties).
The end of American oil meant the end of mechanized war and the end of the conquest of China, unless the Indonesian fields could be seized. And all that lovely dinosaur wine from the "Southern Resources Area" would be practically unuseable if the U.S. fleets and aircraft from the Philippines were in place and the command of a government furious at Nipponese aggression, and capable of attacking Japanese shipping.
So the Americans had to go.
Well, we know how that went.The screwups began 7 DEC; Yamamoto's boy Nagumo missed the American carriers at Pearl, failed to smash the tank farms and drydocks.
And, true to his prediction, in June 1942 the IJN was viciously hammered at Midway. In general terms Midway meant that the IJN's air arm was no longer capable of inflicting the decisive defeat on the USN that Yamamoto had hoped for. But in human terms, Midway meant that Yamamoto was no longer the Golden Boy of the Gunreibu; the General Staff wanted no more of these grandiose flotillas across the Pacific.
Now they would play the game they had all during the Twenties and Thirties. The Army would capture the islands of the Solomons and New Guinea, and then the Japanese would await the coming of the Americans.This plan, in turn, fell apart.
The Imperial Japanese Army proved unequal to the task of securing New Guinea and Guadalcanal
(One thing I don't think really receives enough attention - which is fairly amazing, since all things WW2 have been scrutinized and re-scrutinized and re-rescrutinized - is the strategic and tactical crudity of the IJA. In short, the Japanese Army really was almost comically inept. Of all the major powers in 1941 the IJA was virtually incapable of sustained strategic mobility and on the tactical level was largely pathetic at combined arms warfare. The infantry was decent and the artillery was crude but effective but its armor was already antique before the beginning of the Pacific War and the Japanese never figured out close air support. For a bunch of impulsive, arrogant racist hotheads who dragged their country into a war they couldn't win, tactically the Imperial Army generals generally were a bunch of worthless fucking oxygen thieves.Worse, the Army had very little intellectual horsepower involved in war planning and was violently bitten with senshobyo ("victory disease"; the intellectual conviction that one's own military is incapable of being defeated) and thus tended to completely overestimate its own capability)and the Navy, reeling from the loss of pilots and carriers at Midway, continued to bleed from naval battles that, while often victories or at least favorable draws, cost it ships, sailors, and especially planes and pilots it couldn't afford.So by April 1943 Yamamoto was a very diminished man. He is said to have been retained as commander of the Combined Fleet more because of the Japanese government's fear that his sacking would be admission of defeat - Japanese never lost, senshobyo, remember? - and therefore a blow to morale than for his strategic abilities.
In fact, the Tojo government cancelled Yamamoto's planned attacks down the Solomons chain - Plan FS - after the defeat at Midway. The supposed commander of the Combined Fleet was informed that he would fight the battle of attrition he loathed.By the spring of 1943 Yamamoto must have known that the clock was counting down his navy and his nation; the mindset of the man is hard to imagine, but I suspect that he was resolved on seeing what he saw as his duty through to the end.Certainly that must have been in his mind when he decided on an "inspection tour" of the southern Solomons in that spring. Guadalcanal had been abandoned in February, and the losses there and in the surrounding islands must have been eating away at the Japanese troops enjoying the lush tropical islands (read malaria, beri-beri, jungle rot, and starvation rations) of the Solomons chain.
In the United States of 1943 the architect of the Pearl attack was a symbol of Japanese treachery; the ultimate in Charlie Chan villains, sneaking up bowing and hissing only to stab the honest cowpoke in the back.Along with the Emperor himself and the leader of the military cabal that ran the Japanese civil government Yamamoto symbolized the Ultimate Evil that we were fighting.I have never read anything that suggests that the U.S. government or any of the military branches of the U.S. War Department had any sort of ideas, much less a pre-prepared plan, to assassinate any of the Japanese leadership. Certainly there must have been some idle sorts of coffee-table speculation; there definitely was in the case of Hitler (and the decision, I understand, was that - logistical and operational difficulties aside - the geopolitical value of Hitler in place, making mistakes, was more valuable than Hitler assassinated) and may well have been on the part of the Japanese leaders.But the nature of the war, and, in particular, the geography of the fighting areas, meant that an enemy leader was typically located well behind a thicket of armies, fleets, and/or aircraft. And operational security meant that the physical location of the enemy's higher was often a matter of conjecture; you might know where their headquarters was, or where they were likely to be found, but getting a man or a bullet within the same room? A lucky bomb might dispatch one or two but nothing specifically directed at these leaders was either practical or even really possible. It wasn't that the U.S. wouldn't have liked to - the Japanese leaders were hated as few enemies in U.S. history have been;But the technical and tactical capabilities just weren't there.
Until...on 14 APR 1943 at least three U.S. radio intercept stations picked up a broadcast cyphered in the Japanese naval code "D" that the U.S. cryptanalysts called "JN-25". It began:
"ON APRIL 18 CINC COMBINED FLEET WILL VISIT RXZ,R–, AND RXP IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE FOLLOWING SCHEDULE: 1. DEPART RR AT 0600 IN A MEDIUM ATTACK PLANE ESCORTED BY 6 FIGHTERS. ARRIVE RXZ AT 0800. IMMEDIATELY DEPART FOR R- ON BOARD SUBCHASER (1ST BASE FORCE TO READY ONE BOAT), ARRIVING AT 0840..."The achievements of the Allied codebreakers are now art of the public record, so this interception - part of the overall cryptanalysis war against the Japanese that has been called "Magic" - was pretty much part of business as usual for the American electronic warfare people.
The critical parts were in the message itself. From other traffic the analysts knew that "RR" was the Japanese main installation at Rabaul on the island of New Britain, and that "RXZ" was the airfield at Ballale, a tiny island in the Shortlands chain to the southeast of New Britain.
For perhaps the only time in the entirety of WW2 one side knew, to the minute, where one of their enemy leaders would be. And not just any leader, but the man who, to many Americans, symbolized the evil treacherous enemy they were fighting.
The authority for the mission went all the way up the chain to President Roosevelt, who ordered the military to attack the flight carrying Yamamoto. The order was relayed from the War Department through CINCPAC to ADM Halsey, CINC South Pacific Area, and from there to the 13th Air Force on Guadalcanal, the so-called "Cactus Air Force".On 17 APR 1943 the commander of the 339th, MAJ Mitchell, was briefed on the concept of operation by the naval officer commanding the Guadalcanal area, VADM Mitscher, and his staff. Here's how the U.S. Navy account describes that morning;
"Most of the disagreement centered on whether to shoot his plane down or try and get him on the sub chaser. Eventually Mitchell was pulled back into the planning discussion, and asserted that the P-38’s would go for an air- vice ship-borne intercept (“My men wouldn’t know a sub-chaser from a sub. It’ll have to be in the air,” Mitchell said).In fact, the mission profile was extremely complex due to the problem of flying around the Solomon islands still held by the Japanese. The route looked like this:
Special long-range tanks would be needed, and of course, weren’t’ available on Henderson. They were, however, at “nearby” Port Moresby and were quickly located, placed on a transport and flown to Henderson where the modifications to fit them to the P-38s immediately began.
Mitchell, wary of the long overwater distances involved and mindful of the importance of precise dead reckoning navigation would have on mission success, asked that the “wet” magnetic compass in his aircraft be replaced with a larger and more reliable Navy compass."
Leg # Compass Miles Time
1 265° 183 miles 55 min
2 290° 88 miles 27 min
3 305° 125 miles 38 min
4 020° 16 miles 5 min + 16 min loitering
5 090° 69 miles 21 minThe P-38 fighter was a critical element to the success of the mission. Huge for a fighter, with twin engines and enough fuel space to fly long distances overwater, the P-38 was a perfect fit for this attack. The only potential problem was at the actual site of the ambush; while the P-38 was fast and well-protected it couldn't "dogfight" with an A6M; the "Zero" was simply too nimble. So surprise was critical; a swarming defense of Zekes might make interception too chancy. The assassination team had to get in unseen.
Eighteen aircraft were prepped for the strike; at 0700 local time sixteen took off from "U.S. Airfield Lunga Point Guadalcanal" - Henderson Field - and rose into the bright April sky, headed northwest.Operation Vengeance had begun.
The Engagement: The U.S. aircraft flew their long route at very low level; the flight was, as military flights often are, remarkable only for its boredom. About two hours later the aircraft approached the southern tip of the island of Bougainville, Point Moira and began looking for their target.The Japanese flight had taken off on schedule (0600 Tokyo time, about 0800 local time), and about an hour later were approaching Ballale from the northwest. The U.S. fighters sighted the Japanese about 0930.The pre-flight briefing had told the American pilots to expect a G4M "Betty" twin-engined bomber and small escort; the approaching aircraft included two "Betty"s and six A6M "Zeroes", but were right on time and in the right place. The U.S. fighters had their target.One of the 339th pilots, 1LT Caning later wrote about the brief gunfight:
"Mitchell later said that he was not sure that we had our target as we had been briefed that there would only be one Betty bomber. However, he quickly realized we had our enemy in sight and said, “Skin em off” meaning to get rid of our belly tanks and then said “go get em Tom”.
At that time it appeared we still had not been seen by the enemy. As I later read in the mission report, Tom and his flight immediately turned towards the enemy with max power and climb. As he neared the Jap formation, Tom saw that if he turned left into the nearest Zeroes he could divert them allowing Rex to go in and shoot at the lead Betty bomber. Rex did so coming out of his right turn slightly to the left of his target. He corrected and began shooting at the bomber getting hits on the fuselage and right engine. Shortly after that the bomber crashed in the jungle."
"The second bomber made a right turn toward the ocean. Besby Holmes who had had trouble dropping his belly tanks now was able to get on the tail of the second bomber getting numerous hits on it. In the meantime Rex turned to his right, but was being pursued by the second vee of Zero’s, however he was able to get enough distance to where he was able to shoot at the second bomber too. It then crashed in the ocean. Besby Holmes at this time was chasing Zero’s off of Rex’s tail. After the crash of the second bomber there were three survivors, one of whom was Admiral Ugaki, Yamamoto’s chief of staff."With both the potential victims down and dusted the U.S. attackers accelerated out southeast before support from the nearby Japanese airfield at Kahili could arrive.
One U.S. pilot died, his aircraft damaged in the fight with the escorts and was then lost en route to Henderson.
All nineteen passengers and crew on G4M1, tail number T1-323, were killed either in the air or on impact.A patrol from the IJA post near Aku on Bougainville, is supposed to have arrived the following day to secure the crash site. In the Wiki entry one LT Hamasuna is described as finding the Admiral's body:
"Yamamoto had been thrown clear of the plane's wreckage, his white-gloved hand grasping the hilt of his katana, still upright in his seat under a tree. Hamasuna said Yamamoto was instantly recognizable, head dipped down as if deep in thought". The website Pacific Wrecks adds a ghoulish detail.In its entry for the wreck of the bomber, the website's author claims that "Next, a Japanese Navy patrol was sent to the site to recover the Admiral's body. When they arrived, they found Yamamoto's sword and Admiral rank insignia (shoulder bars) missing. They have never been located to this day."
I have no idea what to make of this tale or whether it is true; frankly, it sounds implausible. The only people hanging around the wreckage that day would have been Japanese soldiers, and a private Japanese soldier found in possession of a dead Japanese flag officer's personal sword and uniform items, especially that Japanese officer, would have suffered a particularly nasty fate.
Again we have a discrepancy between the standard accounts and the Pacific Wrecks website. Most published accounts describe the admiral's injuries as fifty-caliber bullet wounds, either one to the head and one to the upper torso (or only one, to the chest), either of which would have been fatal.
But the Wrecks account states that
"According to the the Navy doctor who examined his body at the crash site and performed his autopsy, Yamamoto's had no visible wounds aside from a small cut above his eye. This caused speculation he might have survived the crash, but died hours later from internal injury or shock."Again, I have not idea whether this is correct, and it disagrees with most of the other accounts; I think that it should be treated with skepticism.
In accordance with Shinto tradition the admiral's body was burned, and his ashes returned to Tokyo. His death was announced on 3 MAY 1943, and he received a "state funeral in June. Some of the remains of the man still lie at Tama Cemetery in the countryside west of Tokyo, while the remainder of his ashes were buried in his family shrine at Nagaoka.
The reaction in the United States is said to have been a sort of muted satisfaction. There was little of the excitement that surrounding the assassination of bin Laden, up to and including the T-shirts. The American people of 1943 knew perfectly well that there was a lot more war and a lot more dying yet to come.
Perhaps the most ridiculous sideshow associated with the assassination was the minor USAAF conniption about "who killed Yamamoto". The credit at the time was given to two officers, 1LT Barber and CPT Lanphier. The latter then went on record as claiming the "credit" for the assassination which provoked a nasty little scuffle in which his claim was largely debunked. LT Rex Barber, of the little town of Culver, in eastern Oregon, is now officially credited with the shootdown.He and Lanphier were both awarded Navy Crosses for the action in 18 APR 1943.
The Consequences: It's interesting to speculate about the larger effect that the death of Yamamoto had on the Pacific War.On the one hand, Yamamoto was a very gifted officer, and there is no reason to assume that he would have ceased to fight for his country before the atomic bombs fell. Such a commander might have made the eventual defeat - and, as he himself understood, by 1943 defeat really was unavoidable - much more painful and bloody than it was, for both sides.
Plus the man was still an important symbol for the Japanese nation and its armed forces. By reaching out and striking him down the U.S. military seemed to prove that no one, not even the feared artisan of Pearl Harbor, was safe. Several historians have claimed that the news of Yamamoto's death was the equivalent of a major military defeat in shaking the resolve of the Japanese fighting forces.
So his killing might well have helped shorten the war.
On the other hand, by April 1943 Yamamoto was a much-diminished factor in the war. His carrier strike force had been largely destroyed at Midway, and his pilots were being decimated; the Battle of the Philippine Sea the following year would finish the Japanese naval air arm as a combat force. Even at the time the IJN was reduced to trying to fight the war of attrition its own forecast predicted it would lose.
And for all the claims that Yamamoto's death was a crucial blow to morale the U.S. had still to fight on for more than two years. Tens of thousands of U.S. and Japanese soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines would die at places like Biak, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, retaking the Philippines, and Okinawa. Yamamoto himself said; "To die for Emperor and Nation is the highest hope of a military man. After a brave hard fight the blossoms are scattered on the fighting field. But if a person wants to take a life instead, still the fighting man will go to eternity for Emperor and country. One man's life or death is a matter of no importance."So the death of this one man may not have so much as knocked a single day off the war.
One thread of commentary that I consider an extreme counterfactual is the notion that a living Yamamoto in 1944-45 brings a moderating force into the decisions of the Tojo government, possibly even pushing them into accepting unconditional surrender earlier in the war and avoiding the hideously bloody battles of the spring of 1945.
Given what we know of the man's intellectual objections to the initial attack but involvement in the planning I find it impossible to believe that he would have seriously pressed for surrender late in the war, even as Japan's position became untenable.His attitude was always one of obedience to his country's political leadership, and I can't think that he would have had the gumption to change, even with disaster apparent and no end in view but a sanguinary defeat. No, the entire idea is extremely weak sauce; Operation Vengeance may not have had a decisive impact on ending the war, but what it did not do was lengthen it by removing Yamamoto as a voice for surrender...
What is hard to escape is that in a sense, everyone involved in Operation Vengeance got what they wanted.
The U.S. - from the public to the Roosevelt Administration to the fighting troops - got revenge and a fearful victory to boost their spirits.Yamamoto died facing his enemies, before being faced with the choice between betraying his nation by continuing the hopeless war and betraying his military oath.
Idle Thoughts and Random Speculations: When I started writing this I had a small tangle of ideas bouncing around inside my head.
One was that the thing that strikes me about Operation Vengeance, the thing that got this post started, is the similarity between it and last year's Operation Neptune Spear, the military operation directed against bin Laden.
In both cases we had the use of strategic intelligence and communications interception to pinpoint an individual high up in the enemy chain-of-command followed by a military mission tailored to kill that individual. The only real difference I see seems to have been in method; somehow the air-to-air scrap seems more impersonal, makes the 1943 event seem more like a "battle" and less like cold-blooded murder.
The 1943 assassination seems to me to stand on its own as a legitimate military operation.
The U.S. had no idea where Yamamoto stood in the IJN heirarchy in 1943, but they knew he had hurt them badly before and might again. As an enemy commander he seems to me to have been a legitimate "target" the same as any other Japanese troop.The bin Laden operation seems less straightforward.
First there's the entire question of whether the U.S. was "at war" with bin Laden's organization or "terror" in general. I don't buy the nonsensical "War on Terror", and think that we would have done better to show up at his door with a Pakistani cop backed up by the local SWAT team.(Isn't that a great image, by the way? "Knock, and the door shall be opened"? I guess the graphic artist wanted us to know that Gott was really mit uns.)
While it is not always good to confirm your enemy's vision statement, in all honesty there seems little chance that law enforcement could have worked, given the conditions in Pakistan.
And I cannot second-guess the acts of the troops on the ground; it is highly likely that the possibility of capture for his crimes was not ever possible.Interestingly, I also think in both cases the benefits of the success of the operations were and are overstated.
Both targets were past their prime as enemy leaders.
Both of the deaths had, or currently appear to have had, little active effect on the geopolitical situations of the factions the two leaders belonged to.
Both were, to some extent, I think, vanity projects; designed more than anything else to please the U.S. public.
And, in the end, both men died as they would have preferred, at the hands of their enemies as soldiers in combat, rather than being hung for war criminals after a victor's tribunal.
Perhaps the most difficult part of judging these two events is that we know the outcome of Operation Vengeance; we have run out all the threads of possibility to their ends, while the conflict between the West and his faction still continues so we are yet unsure what the effects of the killing of bin Laden will be.For us the stone in the Tama-Reien 多磨霊園 lies quiet beneath the pines, and in the deep forest of Bougainville the vines grow thick on the wreckage of airframe aluminum and shattered glass that slowly returns to the fecund jungle around them.