Some sixty-eight years before U.S. special forces killed Osama bin Laden, America conducted an assassination of another kind.
This time, the target wasn’t a terrorist. It was the Japanese admiral who planned the Pearl Harbor operation. But the motive was the same: payback for a sneak attack on the United States.
In early 1943, Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, commander in chief of the Japanese Navy, was one of the most hated men in America. He was seen as the Asian Devil in naval dress, the fiend who treacherously struck peaceful, sleeping America. And when the United States saw a chance for payback in April 1943, there was no hesitation. Hence a code name unmistakable in its intent: Operation Vengeance.
As with today’s drone strikes, the operation began with an intercepted message. Except it wasn’t a call from a cell phone, but rather a routine military radio signal. In the spring of 1943, Japan was in trouble: the Americans had captured Guadalcanal despite a terrible sacrifice of Japanese ships and aircraft. Stung by criticism that senior commanders were not visiting the front to ascertain the situation, Yamamoto resolved to visit naval air units on the South Pacific island of Bougainville.
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.
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.”
Yet getting Yamamoto was easier said than done. Navy and Marine fighters like the F4F Wildcat and F4U Corsair didn’t have the range to intercept Yamamoto’s aircraft over Bougainville, four hundred miles from the nearest American air base on Guadalcanal. 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…