Like Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, in the United States he was a universally hated emblem of the Axis. This was the man who had supposedly boasted that his nation would one day take America's surrender in the White House. Isoroku Yamamoto was Japan's top Admiral, commander of its Combined Fleet, and the force of will that lay behind his country's attack upon Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. There was scarcely an American who would not celebrate the man's death.
As is often the case in times of war, however, Yamamoto was a misunderstood enemy. No one in Japan could have opposed the war more vigorously than Admiral Yamamoto and avoid being assassinated - which was an accepted risk in politics in Japan at the time. In fact he was a political Admiral who was given command of the fleet in part to get him out of Tokyo; to save his life. His remarks about surrender in the White House were taken far out of context. The rant was actually uttered as a means of illustrating, to Japan's war proponents, the absurd lengths that his country would have to go if it ever hoped to defeat the United States - an aim Yamamoto believed was impossible. Not unlike Robert E. Lee, he took his forces into a war he'd hoped to avoid out of a sense of duty. "I will throw everything into the fight," the Admiral said on the eve of war, then added, "I expect to die in battle."
And he did.
It was called, with no will to be subtle about it, Operation Vengeance. Due to the secret Allied ability to read Japanese Naval codes, it had been determined that Isoroku Yamamoto was scheduled to fly into Balalae in the Solomons on April 18, 1943 on an inspection tour of the front. It was a risky mission in many respects: the Japanese might determine that their codes had been compromised, Balalae was barely within range of long range fighters (P-38 Lightnings), and after the Japanese debacle at Midway there was concern among American strategists that someone more capable than Yamamoto might take his place. But all of these concerns were overwhelmed by the sentiment expressed in the name of the operation. The President himself weighed in on the decision by simply saying, "Get Yamamoto!"
Two Japanese fast transports (converted G4M1 bombers) and six escorting Zero fighters left Rabaul on the morning of the 18th. Eighteen P-38s of the 339th Fighter Squadron left Guadalcanal to intercept. Thanks to retrofitted Naval compasses, extra large drop tanks, near miraculous navigation and sheer luck on the part of the Americans, the two flights met each other over the island of Bougainville. The action was swift. One G4M1 transport went down in the water. The other, carrying Yamamoto and marked with the tail code 'T1-323', went down in the jungle. The latter was marked by a thick plume of smoke.
In the trees and amid the fire, there was only one survivor of the crash. It is believed that the aircraft's copilot, though severely injured and with only a few more minutes to live, took it upon himself to pose his Admiral's body in a position of dignity: sitting upright in his chair with his sword in his hand. He was discovered in that position by a Japanese Army search team. For the United States the operation was a much needed moment of justice, and for its air forces a triumph of operational planning on every level. For many Japanese, Yamamoto's death foretold an inevitable end that the Admiral had himself predicted. For one pilot, Kenji Yanagiya, who flew one of the escorting Zeros that day, the shame and agony never abated. Sixty years later he accompanied Japanese 'Ace' Saburo Sakai to Texas for a reunion of pilots from both sides of the action. When he was asked to autograph a painting of Yamamoto being shot down in flames, he pulled Sakai aside with tears in his eyes and said, "I cannot bear to sign the most shameful failure of my life." He did, nevertheless, respect all present by adding his signature. Photos from the reunion reveal that old hatreds, misunderstandings, and the most brutal war in a century may be healed among great men of honor - no matter who they'd fought for.
Throughout all of these years the wreck of Isoroku Yamamoto's aircraft has remained where it fell, in the dense jungle of Bougainville. It is likely the most historically significant World War II aircraft wreck in the world, and in more recent years it has been coveted and protected as such. Visitations to the now cleared and guarded site are regular and help support the local economy. Taking a piece of the aircraft away from the site is akin to trying to steal a piece of the pyramids of Giza. But in the 1960s, while similar wartime aircraft were still being cut up for scrap in the area, the times were very different. Remote areas in the South Pacific were being surveyed by geological companies and explored in the hopes of finding valuable natural resources. One such Australian firm had its crew on Bougainville in 1968, and during its down time heard about the 'famous' wreck of an Admiral's plane. For a small fee, natives led the crew to the site. There were bits and pieces everywhere, and many were taken away.
That's how I obtained pieces of Yamamoto's aircraft forty years later.
I was commissioned by a wealthy collector of sports memorabilia to paint the moment that Yamamoto's aircraft was shot down. He'd obtained a piece of the aircraft and thought a painting of it would make for a valuable investment when displayed together. Of course the action had already been painted by many artists, so I sought to depict it in a different and hopefully more dramatic way.
My opportunity to acquire pieces of the aircraft myself occurred later, after I'd released the painting as a limited edition. The promotion of the print actually acted like a net among people all over the world who'd acquired pieces from the wreck at one time or another and wanted the print as a companion to them. One person had a control wheel, another a piece that he claimed was part of the bomb sight, others simple little pieces of metal. All extremely rare. When an Aussie offered up a couple of aluminum panels in exchange for a print, I happily agreed! He shared his story of their acquisition in 1968. Upon study they were found to be consistent with panels from the undersurface of the wing: Japanese transparent 'Aotake' green on one side, faint traces of light gray over iron oxide red primer on the other. In 2013 I began offering my print and pieces of these panels in my 13 x 19 inch framed displays through Cole's Aircraft. To me, it's a great source of pride that I can disseminate this kind of tangible history to others who can appreciate it.
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- Ron Cole