The Lightning Riders: Brought the Thunder

posted Jun 29, 2020, 3:16 PM by Bruce Rowe   [ updated Jun 29, 2020, 3:17 PM ]

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Imperial Japanese Navy, was ready to embark on 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, Admiral 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 the Japanese commander. They jumped at the chance to eliminate the brilliant strategist and military leader. On April 14, the U.S. naval intelligence effort code-name “Magic” intercepted and decrypted Yamamoto’s travel itinerary. The original message, encoded in Japanese Naval Cipher JN-25D, was designated NTF131755.

Awake for three days, future Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens was monitoring enemy radio chatter. When the 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 unlock 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 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?”

“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 for the window.

When Admiral Halsey read the report it indicated that Yamamoto and his staff would be flying from Rabaul to Balalae Airfield on an island near Bougainville in the Solomon Islands. Six A6M Zero fighters  would escort two Mitsubishi G4M Betty medium bombers. Halsey contacted Admiral Chester W. Nimitz with the good news, then 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 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 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 greeted him at Henderson Field. “Johnny Boy! As glad as I am to see you, this ain’t no place 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 Henderson 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 they had to keep going.

Once, 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, he said, “You zipper-suited, sky dog, puddle jumpers really got the life. What’s this, the South Pacific version of the Waldorf Astoria? In my next life, I’m going to come back as one of your guys.”

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. Know where I can find some Japanese?”

“Care to join us for dinner?”

“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 boned chicken, beefsteak, and spaghetti with meatballs. Mixing them together in a big pot, they served large portions to the Marines and pilots.

“My compliments to the chef,” Basilone called out as he savored his meal.

As soon as the sun went down, the Japanese soldiers sang their nightly rendition to rattle the Americans. “Tonight you die! Hey Joe, where you going to go…back to kokomo!”

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 go some tough men.”

On October 24, 1942, 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.”

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-engine 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 patterns of wing-mounted guns, they were effective at all ranges, but the P-38s had some drawbacks, including feeble heaters and 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.”

Mitchell knew it would be extra work for the mechanics who were already stretched to their limits. “I know, but without you guys on the ground, we don’t get in the air. These P-38s 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 Mitchell about Admiral Yamamoto’s flight, “Your P-38s, equipped with drop tanks for extra fuel, are the only planes with the range to intercept and engage.”

Major Mitchell responded, “We lost a lot of good men at Pearl. 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 Command Operations flight plan and responded, “I don’t think this is going to work.”

It took him less than two hours to recalculate it and come up with five precise legs of the trip, the last one curving in a search pattern if Yamamoto was not found at the chosen point. Eighteen P-38s would carry out the mission. The pilots would “wave hop” all the way to Bougainville at altitudes no greater than 50 feet while maintaining radio silence. It was a high risk, high reward endeavor from beginning to end. Overnight at Henderson Field, ground crews fitted the large fuel drop-tanks under the wings. By dawn all the planes were ready.

At 0700 hours, Mitchell gave his last instructions.

“We will maintain radio silence at all costs. If you go down, you’re 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 who doesn’t want to fly under these circumstances, step forward and step aside.” Not one pilot accepted Mitchell’s offer. “I knew none of you guys would back out, but I had to ask.”

The flight, the longest-distance fighter intercept mission of the war, 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 nonexistent. Every pilot had to remain alert, for even the slightest dip in altitude could send him crashing into the water. 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 four o’clock position and 1,500 hundred feet higher.

At 0820, Mitchell changed heading for the first time with his fellow pilots following. 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, heading the final 40 miles directly for the coast of Bougainville, 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-38s lagged behind and waited. When the two bombers came into view, 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 to fly parallel to the bombers. He radioed, “Engage!”

Lt. Holmes and Captain Barber came in hot with their .50 caliber machine guns and 20mm cannons spitting death and destruction. As Mitchell opened fire on one bomber, 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 cannon. Captain Barber came in right behind, riddling the crippled bomber’s fuselage with machine gun fire. His bullet strikes produced 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 wrath on the P-38s, attacking the bombers. Barber’s aircraft received 104 hits, but remained airborne.

Mitchell knew his pilots needed enough fuel to make the 400 mile 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. They didn’t know if he’d been killed or rescued. Luckily, the P-38s caught a favorable tailwind as they headed home. One pilot, unsure he could make it back, radioed Major Mitchell, “Vengeance Leader, this is Wolverine. I won’t make it…too low on fuel.”

Mitchell looked at his fuel gauge, seeing that he was also running low on fuel. 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 Basilone and his machine gun platoon were pulled off the front lines for some much-needed rest, repair of their weapons, and replacement. Only seven men remained who were not killed or seriously wounded. When they reached Henderson Field it was teeming with excitement.

 “What’s going on?” Basilone inquired.

A young ground crew member, not much older than 18 years, responded, “Major Mitchell and the squadron shot down Admiral Yamamoto’s airplane! They’re on their way back right now.”

Basilone knew the Japanese would be looking for some major retaliation once they learned of the attack. His experienced eyes scanned the jungle surrounding 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 almost hear a collective sigh of relief echo across the South Seas skies. Mitchell could see the propellers on the other planes sputtering. His own P-38 was struggling to stay airborne for lack of 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 got word about Yamamoto and began attacking the airfield. Sergeant Basilone commandeered two jeeps. He put one machine gun team in one, with as much ammunition as it could hold, then gave an order to Corporal Adrian Levine. “Get out to the edge of the airfield and give those planes some cover fire!”

Basilone climbed into the back of the other jeep with a .30 caliber machine gun. Pfc Traylor was behind the wheel and Lance Corporal Watkins took the assistant gunner position, ready to feed the ammo belt. Basilone told the driver, “Run parallel to the runway. Move!”

The first machine gun team took up a defensive position on the end of the driveway. Basilone and his Marines raced back and forth, firing at the advancing Japanese, allowing the fuel starved P-38s to land. 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. But just then, the jeep with 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 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 Mitchell stepped out of his P-38, the first thing he saw was the .30 caliber machine, red hot and smoking. Then he recognized the Marine behind it, “Thanks Sergeant.”

 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 pilots and 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 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.

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 coast-watchers in the Solomons observed Yamamoto boarding a bomber, then relayed the information by radio to American naval forces. A story that conveyed to the Japanese military that the Americans’ successful attack was only a stroke of luck.

Sergeant Basilone would make the ultimate sacrifice on February 19, 1945, during the landing on Iwo Jima. For his bravery, he was awarded the Navy Cross to go with the Medal of Honor he earned on Guadalcanal. Major Johnny Mitchell and the pilots of the 339th Fighter Squadron would always be remembered as the Lightning Riders who brought the thunder during Operation Vengeance.


Read this story and many more from Thomas Calabrese at The Vista Press.

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