Thomas G. Lanphier
347th FG Ace - 5.5 Aerial Victories
Yamamoto Mission "Shooter"
By Stephen Sherman, Dec. 2002. Updated January 26, 2012.
Thomas G. Lanphier, Jr. was born on Nov. 27, 1915 in Panama City, Panama. After graduating from Stanford, he joined the USAAC, getting his wings in October, 1941.
When the war started, he went to Fiji with the 35th Pursuit Group. His squadron, the 70th, was soon moved to Guadalcanal, joining the 347th Group. Lanphier flew 97 missions, in P-39's and P-38's, out of Henderson Field.
He made his first kill in late December, 1942, shooting down a Zero. On April 7, the Japanese struck at Guadalcanal, with 67 Judy dive bombers, supported by 110 Zero fighters. Along with all the other "Cactus" fighter pilots, Lanphier scrambled to intercept. He claimed three Zeroes over Cape Esperance.
The Yamamoto Mission
Tom Lanphier played a leading role in one of the most successful and controversial missions of WWII, the shoot-down of Admiral Yamamoto. Lanphier was temporarily attached to the 339th squadron, and selected to lead the flight of four "shooters," the Lightnings that would actually intercept the Betty bombers of Yamamoto's party. On April 18, sixteen Lightnings took off from Guadalcanal, headed for Bougainville and their deadly rendezvous with Admiral Yamamoto. The caught him and shot him down. (Read a longer description of the Yamamoto Mission.)
From the moment they touched down on Henderson Field, the pilots disagreed about what happened. They were briefed, and an intelligence report summarized the events:
... It was almost as if the affair had been pre-arranged with the mutual consent of friend and foe.
The picture was this: The Lightnings were at 30 feet, heading in toward the coast, and just about to begin to get their altitude for the presumed att. The enemy was sighted, in a "V," about 3 miles distant, proceeding down the Southern coastline toward Kahili. The two bombers were together, flying at 4500 feet, with two sections - 3 Zeros each - 1500 feet above them and slightly to the rear. As the enemy force, apparently unaware of opposition, pursued his course, Mitchell led his covering group in their climb for altitude, ultimately reaching 15-18,000 feet, from which point they stood their protecting vigil. Lanphier led his force parallel to the course of the enemy, flying in toward them a bit, and indicating 200[?] MPH in his 35 degree climb. The P-38's actually climbed at 2200 feet per minute. When level with the bombers, and about 2 miles away, Lanphier and Barber dropped their belly tanks and swung into the attack at 280 MPH indicated [air speed]. Holmes had difficulty in releasing his tank, and Hine remained with him until he could do so.
When Lanphier and Barber were within one mile of contact, their attack was observed by the enemy. The bombers nosed down, one started a 360 degree turn dive, the other going out and away toward the shoreline; the Zeros dropped their belly tanks and three peeled down, in a string, to intercept Lanphier. When he saw that he could not reach the bomber he turned up and into the Zeros, exploding the first, and firing into the others as they passed. By this time he had reached 6000 feet, so he nosed over, and went down to the tree tops after his escaping objective. He came into it broadside - fired his bursts - a wing flew off and the plane went flaming to earth.
The Zeros were now pursuing him and had the benefit of altitude. His mission accomplished, he hedgehopped the tree tops and made desperate maneuvers to escape. He kicked rudders, slipped and skidded, tracers were flying past his plane, - but he finally outran them. In all the action he had received two 7.7's in his horizontal stabilizer.
Barber had gone with Lanphier on the initial attack. He went for one of the bombers but its maneuvers caused him to overshoot a little. he whipped back, however, and although pursued by Zeros, caught the bomber and destroyed it. When he fired, the tail section flew off, the bomber turned over on its back and plummeted to earth.
By this time, Holmes had been able to drop his tank and with Hine, who had stayed in formation with him, came in toward off the Zeros who were pursuing Barber. A dogfight ensued, many shots were exchanged, but results were not observed. The flight was on its way out of the combat area (in the neighborhood of enemy bases at Kahili, Ballale, and Shortland-Faisi) when Holmes noticed a stray bomber flying low over the water. He dove on it, his bursts getting it smoking in the left engine; Hine also shot at it and Barber polished it off with a burst in the fuselage. The bomber exploded "right in my face;" a piece of the plane flew off, out through his left wing and knocked out his left inner cooler and other chunks left paint streaks on his wing - so close was his attack driven home.
Holmes, Hine and Barber then turned for home, their mission - to destroy the bombers - a complete success. However, Zeros were coming in on Barber's tail and Holmes whipped up and around and shot one down in flames. Another attempt to drew away ended in another dogfight during which Barber exploded a further Zero. During these minutes, Hine's left engine started to smoke and he was last seen losing altitude south of Shortland Island. It is believed that Hine also accounted for a Zero as a total of three enemy fighters were seen to fall into the sea during this part of the combat. ...
Source: now-defunct Second Yamamoto Mission website
From this report, credit was given to Barber, Lanphier, and Holmes for one Betty bomber each, as well as a number of Zeros. (It's an interesting and unusual report, not at all in the dry, officialese of most air combat reports. Its exuberant language resembles Lanphier's later article in the Reader's Digest; it's possible that Lanphier himself drafted the report.) For many years, that's how it stood. Whatever their opinions, the official record showed that each man had downed a Betty bomber.
But in 1969(?), Admiral Ugaki, a Japanese survivor of the bomber that had gone into the sea (Holmes target) made it clear that only two Betty bombers had been involved, and both were destroyed. Since all sources agreed that Holmes had sent one into the sea, Barber and Lanphier, between them, had only gotten one. With an unusual amount of public acrimony, Barber and Lanphier stuck to their stories. The Air Force, presumably reluctant to discredit either man, allocated one half credit to each man.
Many believe that Barber had the better claim. Besby Holmes wrote that during the battle, it was his impression that Barber had shot down Yamamoto. A group of aviation enthusiasts and pilots, led by the ace George Chandler, has lobbied strenuously on Barber's behalf. Nonetheless, Lanphier always maintained that he had scored the kill, gunfire from his P-38 sawing off the Betty's right wing.
Here's a great picture of Rex Barber, receiving the Navy Cross.
After the famous mission, he was promoted to Lt. Colonel and was assigned to the 2nd Air Force. When the war was over, he made his home in Idaho and later California. He died in 1987.
Read more about P-38 Lightning Aces of the Pacific and CBI in this excellent book from Osprey's Aircraft of the Aces series.