Of the more than 110 missions Thomas George Lanphier Jr. flew during World War II, a single one ensured his place In history. On April 18, 1943, over the Solomon Islands In the South Pacific, Lanphier shot down Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander-in-chief of the Imperial Japanese Navy and the man who planned and commanded the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Following the war, Lanphier edited a newspaper In Idaho and served as an adviser to the military In Washington, D.C. In 1951 he moved to San Diego, where he became vice president for Convalr. For most of the next thirty-six years, he lived In San Diego and La Jolla, working as a business consultant and a high-level executive in heavy industry. He died last November 26 in the Veterans Administration Medical Center In La Jolla. The following interview was conducted by his sixteen-year-old granddaughter, Kathleen Beth Mix, shortly before his death.
Kathleen Beth Mix: Before we discuss the mission, I would like you to tell how you came to be in the Army Air Corps.
Thomas Lanphier: My father. Colonel Tom Lanphier, Sr., was a career officer in the Air Corps. In feet, he commanded its First Pursuit Group. I was brought up on army bases and developed a love for flying at an early age. I had just graduated from Stanford when my father told me that he believed the United States would be involved in World War lI very quickly. Germany was already rumbling over Europe, and Japan (was] getting nasty in Asia. My father told me I should join the Air Corps immediately so I could obtain proper training before hostilities started for the U.S.
KBM: Did you feel you received proper training?
TL: Not by today’s standards. Training methods then were not very sophisticated, and equipment was difficult to obtain. Also, there was a reluctance to waste live ammunition in training. Therefore, ultimately, our training was on-the-job training in actual combat missions.
KBM: Why were you selected for the Yamamoto mission?
TL: My flying unit had been stationed in the South Pacific and had been very active in the fighting. We were experienced and had a great deal of success. A few of us were what was known as "fighter aces," pilots who had downed five or more enemy planes in air combat. Probably most important was that our group had recently flown a mission over the area where Yamamoto’s flight was to be intercepted. So we were familiar with the area, and every little edge helps, especially where it is necessary to pull off a surprise attack, a long distance from base, against what we knew would be superior forces.
KBM: I would like to explore, for a moment, this "fighter ace" business. Obviously, the aces are superior pilots. What makes one pilot superior to another?
TL: One of the things is opportunity. There were many great pilots who simply did not find themselves in combat situations enough to obtain the necessary kills. But to speak about what qualities are necessary to be a superior pilot. I would say eyesight is the first requisite. My eyesight was not 20-20; it was 20-10, which meant I had great vision for distance. While in flight. I could spot enemies long before most pilots and then had time to make the decision of how to adjust our flight pattern and whether we should fight or flee. Now sightings are done by radar, but then it was all vision. Now fighting takes place by heat-seeking missiles fired from long distances often before the enemy plane is actually seen. Then, the air combat took place at close range. “Dogfights," we called them. Finally, once in battle, you had to be willing to die if necessary. I should also point out that some people simply have a flair for doing something. They are called “naturals.” Superior pilots are like that; their plane becomes a part of them.
KBM: I understand that the United States somehow learned where Yamamoto would be going and used that information to plan the mission. How did they find out?
TL: I want to share with you a quote attributed to Winston Churchill in 1939: “The sinews of war have become whispers on the ether. If you recover the whispers. I’ll find the interpreters of what they say.” Churchill was referring to the intelligence system that England and the United States were developing and working together on from the late 1930s through World War il. The system developed by the U.S. and Britain was superior because of its sophistication and because the information obtained was used. Hitler had an excellent intelligence system, but he often ignored the information to follow his own intuitive impulse — a big mistake.
In any event, the United States Navy had been building a system of cryptanalysts, trained by the British. This jelled in 1942 into a cohesive and effective Pacific oceanwide force called “Magic,” which alerted our naval forces to victory in the Coral Sea and at Midway and ultimately gathered and decoded the information which put me, so to speak, in the executioner’s seat in a fighter plane in pursuit of Yamamoto.
KBM: You have told me in the past that the order to kill him came directly from the president, Franklin Roosevelt.
TL: Yes, that is my understanding. The history is recorded that when Captain Layton, chief intelligence officer to Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander of all U.S. Naval operations in the war against Japan, carried the decoded message of Yamamoto’s April 18, 1943 itinerary to Admiral Nimitz, this conversation took place. He reaches over and picks up a book called Get Yamamoto by Burke Davis and reads from if.)
Nimitz to Ljyton: "What do you say? Do we try to get him?"
Layton responded. "Assuming we have the planes able to intercept him — you should first consider, I suppose, what would be gained by killing him. He's unique among their people. He's the one officer who thinks in bold, strategic terms — in that way more American than Japanese The young officers and enlisted men idolize him. Aside from the Emperor, probably no man in Japan is so important to civilian morale And if he's shot down, it would demoralize the Japanese navy You know the Japanese psychology. It would stun the nation "
The recommendation of Nimitz reached the Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, who had the matter taken to President Roosevelt on his train in Georgia, where the order to kill Yamamoto was given, but off the record.
On April 16, a day and a half before Yamamoto’s arrival. Admiral Halsey sent a message to Admiral Mitscher, the air commander in our area: “It Appears The Peacock Will Be On Time. Fan His Tail."
When we, the attack pilots, were assembled, we were shown a blunt directive signed by the Secretary of the Navy:
“Squadron 339 P-38s Must at all costs Reach and Destroy. President attaches extreme importance to this operation.”
KBM: Do you remember what you thought when you were selected?
TL: I knew what the phrase "at all costs” meant, and I felt the same tingling of fear and excitement that I always felt before a combat mission. By the time the entire plan was outlined. I knew there would be major problems. First of all, Yamamoto would be escorted by six Zeroes, undoubtedly flown by the finest Japanese fighter pilots available; second, the only logical intercept point was 300 miles away from our base, and Yamamoto was coming from 300 miles' distance also, so unless he was on time, we would miss him. Finally, the intercept point was close to Yamamoto's ultimate destination. Kahili, and we assumed that some one hundred Zeroes known to be at Kahili would be covering his arrival. Frankly, we assumed that most of our P-38 pilots who went out on the mission would not return.
KBM: How many planes went on the mission?
TL: We sent eighteen P-38s, four to attack the bomber that Yamamoto would be in and the six Zeroes, and fourteen to provide protection from the one hundred Zeroes we believed would be in the area.
I was designated to lead the attack group and be accompanied by three outstanding pilots — Rex Barber, Joe McLanahan, and Joe Moore.
KBM: Well, the big question ... what happened?
TL: McLanahan blew a tire on the runway and had to be left behind. Then, two minutes into the flight, Joe Moore gestured to me that his wing tanks were not feeding to his engine properly, and he had to abort the mission. The leader of our cover planes, John Mitchell, waved in Bisby Holmes and Ray Hines to join me. Our plan was to spend two hours skimming the waves at 100 to 200 feet, below the enemy sight, then position the cover group at an altitude of 20,000 feet and my attack group at 10,000 feet so that we would be above Yamamoto at the time of attack. Unfortunately, we were only at 1000 feet altitude when we intercepted Yamamoto, and instead of there being just one enemy bomber, there were two. escorted by the six Zeroes. I immediately dropped my wing tanks so I could move with agility and speed and revved up towards the enemy. Holmes could not release his wing tanks and had to leave. Hines, as was his job as Holmes' wing man. had to go with him. That left only Barber and me to complete the attack. As I streaked towards Yamamoto, I saw the Zero belly tanks flutter away, a sure sign they had seen us and were clearing for action. They nosed over and dove to head us off. My only fear then was that we might not kill Yamamoto before his men killed us.
I headed straight up towards three Zeroes, firing my four machine guns.
Just as I thought I would collide head on, one of the Zeroes twisted under me, streaming flames and smoke — and the other two passed on either side of me. At that moment, I pulled my ship over on its back and looked for a bomber and saw the lead bomber I had been seeking. I rolled off my back and dove at the bomber, which now was flying low above the jungle. As I dove towards the bomber, I saw two Zeroes to my right, also diving towards the bomber, their intent obviously to hit me before I got the bomber. From where I sat, it looked like the bomber, the two Zeroes, and I were all going to arrive at the same place at the same time. We very nearly did. I remember feeling very stubborn, absent of fear, determined to get the bomber. Of all the moments of combat I experienced throughout the war, this was the one time I calculatedly determined to trade my life for the target. I hit my guns and stayed on them until I saw the bomber begin to burn. The two Zeroes swooped over my canopy, and then the bomber crashed into the jungle and exploded. I turned towards home before the Zeroes could get another run at me.
Later, I was to learn that the bomber I shot down had indeed carried Yamamoto and that he had been found in the wreckage with two 50-caliber bullets in the left side of his neck and head. Many years later, two Americans went into the dense jungle and found the wreckage. They counted thirty-seven 50-caliber holes in the right side of the bomber’s fuselage.
KBM: Do you ever have any regrets over what you did?
TL: Never. The Yamamoto mission was critical to our war effort. In war. soldiers die and that’s just the way it is. As a pilot, it was an impersonal thing for me; almost machine against machine. The only action I regret in the war was in a combat mission when I saw a downed Japanese pilot running along the beach. I dove my plane and strafed him, killing him. Intellectually, I know I did what a soldier in war had to do: eliminate an enemy. But the inequity of it, a machine against an unarmed human ... still tortures me. I still have nightmares.