The P-38 Lightning would become a major part of the American war effort against the Japanese. It was flown by more aces than any other Army Air Force type in the Pacific. But it is perhaps best known for one mission that pushed the limits of what anyone had considered before.
Let’s take a look at an ambush that made history.
In early 1943 a small number of units flying P-38 Lightnings were making their presence known in the South Pacific. The P-38 was the first really modern fighter to come available to the AAF. It was fast and powerful with good firepower. Its twin engines provided security that was much appreciated by pilots on long, over-water flights. It was long ranged with plenty of load carrying ability to carry extra fuel and go even further. And it had state-of-the-art turbo-chargers behind each engine that could drive the type higher and faster than any previous fighter in theater.
In April of 1943 Japanese morale was badly bruised. The Guadalcanal Campaign had ended in defeat and US forces were starting to fight their way up the Solomon Island chain. The Navy commander-in-chief, Admiral Yamamoto, had sent a number of Navy aircraft into the area to try and blunt American operations. This was known as Operation I-Go and started on April 7. Early reports looked favorable to the Japanese; the Operation did do some serious damage, but much less than the pilots thought.
Admiral Yamamoto decided a personal inspection of the forward air units would provide a much needed boost. His precise itinerary was sent to all concerned.
Of course we know today that the Japanese codes were completely compromised. The decoded itinerary showed that on the morning of April 18 Yamamoto would be arriving at a base 400 miles from Guadalcanal. This was out of range for anything except a group (347th Fighter Group) of recently arrived P-38s. Even for the P-38 it was pushing limits. To avoid a direct route to the intercept (and risk revealing to the Japanese that we were reading their codes) a 600 mile route was selected. That meant 1000 miles of range were needed round trip.
The standard 165 gallon drop tanks weren’t enough. A special load of 330 gallon ferry tanks were flown in, enough so each plane could carry one in addition to the standard 165 gallon tank. The navigation needed to be perfect; group commander Maj. John Mitchell even had a Navy compass installed in his aircraft for better precision. Four aircraft were assigned to a “kill” team to get the Admiral and twelve others provided cover.
Yamamoto’s flight consisted of two Betty bombers escorted by six Zeros. The interception occurred exactly on schedule. The only mission of its sort at this kind of range in the entire war. The Lightnings had kept low, 50 feet off the water, to avoid any detection ahead of time. Making contact meant the “kill” team went to a full power climb after the bombers. At least Capt Thomas Lanphier and Lt Rex Barber did. Lt Holmes’ had a problem getting his drop tanks to detach and Lt Hines held back to cover him. Lanphier and Barber both attacked the lead bomber which was observed to crash in the jungle. Barber then went chasing after the other bomber that had turned back out to sea and joined with Holmes for the kill. A general melee involving the escort fighters and P-38s only resulted in one further aircraft loss, Lt Hines was not seen again.
Yamamoto had been on the first Betty that crashed into the jungle in flames. His body was recovered and it was found he’d been killed by gunfire before the crash. Admiral Yamamoto’s chief-of-staff, Vice Admiral Ugaki, was on the second bomber and survived the water landing.
This mission generated quite an enduring controversy, and I don’t mean the silly stuff about trying to kill someone during a war…
Thomas Lanphier and Rex Barber initially were both credited with Yamamoto’s plane. But post-War Lanphier wrote a memoir in which he claimed sole credit. He became insistent about it, perhaps because another Zero kill of his was disallowed post-War, which left him with 4.5 kills. Full credit would make him an ace.
This all led to a pretty epic clash between Lanphier and Barber with both requesting full credit from the Air Force. A more thorough investigation, including Japanese combat reports, was inconclusive; but would indicate Barber as the more likely victor. But “official” credit remained split. Other pilots on the mission mostly sided with Barber. That may be in part because Barber was a more likable sort; but the consensus seems to be that Lanphier’s account involves physically impossible maneuvers for a P-38 and is inconsistent with evidence from the crash site.
This is the Tamiya kit. Its currently their newest kit. My one word review is: WOW!
I think I said that word every five minutes while building it. The engineers at Tamiya are artists. This is simply the best scale model kit I’ve ever seen in my life. Make no mistake, any good thing you think when looking at these pictures is to Tamiya’s credit. I’ll accept the blame for any shortcomings; that is, any place I didn’t do this masterpiece of a kit full justice.