Tomorrow is another "exact" date in military history. It was 70 years ago tomorrow that U.S. fighter aircraft shot down a Japanese transport plane during WW II. But one of the passengers on board the Japanese aircraft was far from being just your average passenger.
Lt. Isoroku Yamamato was a young naval officer during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 and was nearly dismissed from the service after losing two fingers on his left hand. He managed to remain on active duty and early in his career spent five years in America, as a student at Harvard from 1919 to 1921 and as a naval attaché in Washington from 1925 to 1928.
He learned much about America, and a few years later in his career he was chosen to plan the attack at the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. He didn't lead the attack on Dec. 7, 1941, but had been its primary architect.
He is listed in the U.S. Army's official history only once, with a quote: "It is not enough that we should take Guam and the Philippines, or even Hawaii and San Francisco. We should have to march into Washington and sign the treaty in the White House."
After Pearl Harbor the Japanese did take Guam and the Philippines, and a lot more islands in the Pacific, but never again came close to Hawaii.
Yamamoto was the commander of the Japanese fleet during its preparations for a war against Britain and the U.S., which is why he was in overall charge of developing the war plans. His aim at Pearl Harbor was to shock America into asking for a negotiated peace with Japan.
But even with all his exposure to Americans, he badly misread the will of the American people, and instead of discussing peace terms, America declared war on Japan on Dec. 8. The rest of his predictions all came true, however.
What he and the other leaders of Imperial Japan were not aware of is that even before the war began, code experts in the U.S. had broken the top secret Japanese military codes. In April 1943 code breakers learned that Yamamoto planned to fly in a passenger plane to tour Japanese installations on Shortland Island.
Eighteen U.S. Army Air Force P-38 fighter aircraft were sent to intercept and shoot down the passenger plane. The mission was accomplished on Apr. 18, 1943, and the aircraft crashed near Bougainville.
Two of the American pilots, Thomas Lanphier and Rex Barber, both claimed to have been the one who shot down Yamamoto's aircraft, but three different reference books did not say who was given the credit. That reminds one of the controversy that lingers today over whether Australian infantrymen or a British pilot shot down The Red Baron in 1918.
Page 2 of 2 - Pieces of Yamamoto's aircraft, Barber's map, and other items are on display at the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas. Sounds like an ideal site for a future road trip with my fellow volunteer and road trip buddy from the National WW I Museum.
Several years ago a colonel named Yamamoto from the Japanese Self-Defense Force visited Fort Leavenworth and I had the pleasure of touring him through the Frontier Army Museum. I asked if he had a famous ancestor in his family tree, and he laughed and said no, the admiral was not an ancestor, that in fact Yamamoto was a quite common name in Japan.
Now to find a Texas map and see where Fredericksburg is. Off we go…..
John Reichley is a retired Army officer and retired Department of the Army civilian employee.