“A perfect killing machine” is how noted World War II historian Herb Zinn described the P-38 aircraft that shot down Japanese Admiral Yamamoto. Zinn spoke to a Sun Lakes Aero Club gathering on February 19 at the Sun Lakes Country Club. A near-record crowd of 104 club members and guests attended.
The P-38 had distinctive twin booms and a central nacelle containing the cockpit and armament consisting of four 50 caliber machine guns and a 20-millimeter cannon in the nose. Zinn explained this meant that the aircraft had better useful gun range than other aircraft, whose wing-mounted guns had crisscross trajectory.
Zinn described how a group of 16 P-38s flew more than 400 miles on April 18, 1943, to ambush the Japanese admiral as he flew to an airfield in the Solomon Islands. Eighteen P-38s took off from an airfield in Guadalcanal. Each was fitted with external fuel tanks to extend its range to over 1,000 miles for the mission – made longer by the need to take a circuitous route to avoid Japanese radar. A flat tire on takeoff and a mechanical failure reduced the flight to 16 planes.
Shortly before 10:00 a.m., the pilots spotted two Japanese Betty bombers and their escorting Zero fighters. The P-38s’ bullets and cannon shells quickly downed both bombers, and the one carrying Yamamoto crashed into the jungles of Bougainville. Only one American aircraft was lost during the ensuing dogfight. Much of Zinn’s presentation centered on the controversy over which pilot actually shot down Yamamoto. On returning to Guadalcanal, one pilot, Capt. Thomas Lanpher, boastfully took credit for the kill, claiming he shot down the Betty bomber carrying Yamamoto. Another pilot, Lt. Rex Barber, shot down the second Betty bomber, believing the Japanese admiral was a passenger in that aircraft. The controversy went on for years, until, some 30 years later, the U.S. Army Air Forces credited both pilots with the kill.
The Sun Lakes Aero Club is an official Sun Lakes organization made up of pilots, former pilots and others interested in any aspect of aviation. The club has monthly gatherings November through April featuring speakers on a wide variety of aviation-related topics. The public is invited to all gatherings. Additional information on the club is available from Cannon Hill at 509-539-7857, Gary Vacin at 480-298-7017 or on the group’s website, www.sunlakesaeroclub.org.