Today in military history: Admiral Yamamoto, Pearl Harbor mastermind, is shot down - We Are The Mighty
Today in Military History

Today in military history: Admiral Yamamoto, Pearl Harbor mastermind, is shot down

On April 18, 1943, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, mastermind of the attack on Pearl Harbor, was shot down by American pilots.

American forces have begun to turn the tables in the Pacific. Midway had seen the decimation of the Japanese carrier fleet, and the Japanese Navy had failed to cut off American Marines at Guadalcanal. Admiral Yamamoto planned an inspection tour of various bases in the Solomon Islands, and his itinerary was radioed to the bases he would visit.

Admiral Yamamoto
Portrait of Admiral Yamamoto

But it turns out American codebreakers were also listening. The Japanese Admiral’s travel plans made it into the hands of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, and before long the 347th Fighter Group was on their way to rain on Yamamoto’s parade. 

A squadron of P-38s led by Captain Thomas G. Lanphier and Major John W. Mitchell took off from Guadalcanal. They soon intercepted the Japanese formation of two Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” bombers and six Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” fighters.

Today in military history: Admiral Yamamoto, Pearl Harbor mastermind, is shot down
Replica of Mitsubishi A6M3 Zero Model 22 (NX712Z) (Commemorative Air Force / American Airpower Heritage Flying Museum)

Yamamoto’s Betty was shot down by Captain Lanphier, who also claimed to have shot down a Zero. Lieutenant Rex Barber shot down the second Betty carrying many of Yamamoto’s senior staff officers. Barber and Lieutenant Besby Holmes also each claimed to have shot down Zeroes as well. The last pilot from the “killer flight,” Lieutenant Raymond Hine, never returned to base.

The mission, code-named Operation Vengeance, had been a success. Pearl Harbor had been avenged.

Featured Image: U.S. Air Force P-38 Lightning similar to those flown by Captain Thomas G. Lanphier.

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Today in military history: US declares war on Mexico

On May 11, 1846, President James K. Polk asked Congress to declare war on Mexico.

Tensions with Mexico were on the rise since the United States annexed Texas and admitted it to the Union as the 28th state. Texas had received its independence from Mexico in 1936, but northern states were hesitant to incorporate another slave-state into the union.

On April 25, 1846, 2,000 Mexican cavalry attacked a 70-man patrol with the United States Army, leaving 11 American troops dead. Later, six more Americans were killed at the Siege of Fort Texas and the Battle of Palo Alto.

Declaring that Mexico had “invaded our territory and shed the blood of our fellow-citizens on our own soil,” Polk asked for Congress to declare war on Mexico. Polk operated with an expansionist mindset, believing that the United States had a “manifest destiny” to conquer the North American continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

The Mexican-American War would become America’s first war fought chiefly on foreign soil. No declaration of war ever came from Mexico.

The resulting conflict would take a year and nine months, and over 13,000 American troops would die – although the Department of Defense notes only 1,733 were killed in combat. 

The United States would eventually force Mexico to cede the territory that would include Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, California, and New Mexico, among other states or parts of states — nearly one third of its pre-existing territory.

Featured Image: Bombardment of Veracruz by Adolphe Jean-Baptiste Bayot. Originally published in The War Between the United States and Mexico, Illustrated, 1851.

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Today in military history: Apollo 13 returns to earth

On April 17, 1970, the Apollo 13 spacecraft safely returned to earth after suffering major malfunctions on its journey to the Moon. 

“Houston, we’ve had a problem,” Apollo 13 astronaut John “Jack” Swigert famously told the NASA Mission Control Center “Houston” during the Apollo 13 spaceflight. 

Today in military history: Admiral Yamamoto, Pearl Harbor mastermind, is shot down
Apollo 13 lunar module pilot Fred Haise chats with Guenter Wendt and other members of the pad closeout crew in the White Room following a countdown demonstration at Launch Complex 39A. Image Credit: NASA

200,000 miles from Earth, three astronauts and veteran test pilots were scrambling to adapt and overcome a seemingly impossible challenge. They were James Lovell — a Navy Captain and test pilot; Jack Swigert — a fighter pilot in the Air National Guard; and Fred Haise — a fighter pilot in both the Marine Corps and Air Force.

Two days into their mission to the Moon, an oxygen tank exploded, severely disrupting their supply of oxygen, electricity and water. They aborted their landing mission, and scrambled to implement creative and improvised solutions suggested by the support staff back in Houston. 

They’d have to improvise a way to make a square filter fit into a round hole. They’d conjured up a makeshift lifeboat. 

The support staff no longer cared what the spaceship had been designed to do – they had to figure out how to squeeze every bit of capability from the vehicle. 

Today in military history: Admiral Yamamoto, Pearl Harbor mastermind, is shot down
A perilous space flight comes to a smooth ending with the safe splashdown of the Apollo 13 Command Module (CM) in the south Pacific Ocean, only four miles from the prime recovery ship, the U.S.S. Iwo Jima. The Command Module “Odyssey” with Commander, James A. Lovell Jr., Command Module pilot, John L. Swigert Jr. and Lunar Module pilot Fred W. Haise Jr. splashed down at 12:07:44 p.m. (CST), April 17, 1970. The crew men were transported by helicopter from the immediate recovery area to the U.S.S. Iwo Jima.

Overcoming nearly impossible odds, the crew guided the spacecraft back to earth, reentered the atmosphere and touched down in the Pacific Ocean, where they were recovered by the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima. 

Featured Image: The crew of the Apollo 13 mission step aboard the U.S.S. Iwo Jima, prime recovery ship for the mission, following splashdown and recovery operations in the South Pacific. Exiting the helicopter, which made the pick-up some four miles from the Iwo Jima are (from left) astronauts Fred W. Haise, Jr., lunar module pilot; James A. Lovell Jr., commander; and John L. Swigert Jr., command module pilot. The Apollo 13 spacecraft splashed down at 12:07:44 pm CST on April 17, 1970. (NASA Image)

Today in Military History

Today in military history: Congress authorizes Privateers to attack British vessels

On April 3, 1776, Congress authorized Privateers to attack British vessels. 

Pop quiz: you’re the Continental Congress, and it’s 1776. There’s a bunch of British ships out there that need sinking, but you’re a young nation and you don’t have the dubloons to build a proper Navy. What do you do? You hire pirates.

Well, technically “Privateers.” What’s the difference between Pirates and Privateers? To the people they were attacking, not much… 

In a bill signed by President of the Continental Congress John Hancock, commanders of private ships or vessels of war were given authorization to capture British vessels and cargoes, with the exception of ships carrying new settlers and “friends of the American cause.”

Today in military history: Admiral Yamamoto, Pearl Harbor mastermind, is shot down

Fun fact: Old manuscripts such as this 18th Century declaration made use of “the long s” — written as ſ — which is a ye olde variation of the lowercase s. You have my permission to pronounce “vessels” as “veffels” as much as it pleases you, but rest assured, our forefathers weren’t lisping in such documents.

Privateers were permitted to, “by Force of Arms, attack, subdue, and take all Ships and other Vessels belonging to the Inhabitants of Great Britain, on the high seas, or between high-water and low-water Marks, except Ships and Vessels bringing Persons who intend to settle and reside in the United Colonies, or bringing Arms, Ammunition or Warlike Stores to the said Colonies, for the Use of such Inhabitants thereof as are Friends to the American Cause, which you shall suffer to pass unmolested, the Commanders thereof permitting a peaceable Search, and giving satisfactory Information of the Contents of the Ladings, and Destinations of the Voyages.” 

The privateers would still board and capture ships by force, which happened pretty often. If they captured a ship, any and all booty was split between the privateers and the government that hired them. 

The main difference between privateers and run-of-the-mill pirates is that legit privateers had a Letter of Marque and Reprisal, which was an official document stating that they were acting on behalf of the United States. 

If captured, pirates were often executed, whereas privateers that held a Letter of Marque were treated as prisoners of war, instead of criminals.

By this time, the Revolutionary War had been waging since fighting broke out at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. Tension would continue to rise until the Second Continental Congress unanimously adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 and officially separated from Great Britain.

Today in Military History

Today in military history: U-2 spy plane is shot down

On May 1, 1960, a U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union, sparking a diplomatic crisis. 

Built by Lockheed and operated by the CIA, the single-jet U-2 reconnaissance spy plane took its first flight on Aug. 1, 1955. Nicknamed “Dragon Lady,” the U-2 was the highest-flying aircraft available, reaching heights of 70,000 feet. At 70,000 feet, “the pilot is more astronaut than aviator. In the cocoon-like, pressurised cockpit of the U-2, wrapped in a bulky pressure suit with a large spherical helmet, the pilot breathes 100% oxygen.”

While that was nearly double the altitude of the highest flying Soviet aircraft, Soviet radar could still track flight above 65,000 feet. 

On May 1st, Francis Gary Powers, a former Air Force Captain and Korean war veteran, was flying a CIA reconnaissance mission over the Soviet Union when his U-2 was detected by Soviet Radar. Two aircraft, a MiG-19 and an unarmed Su-9, were launched to intercept. The MiG-19 couldn’t reach high-enough altitude to fire on the U-2. Meanwhile, the Su-9 was ordered to ram the spy plane, but failed due to differences in speed.  

However, the Soviets also launched 14 surface-to-air missiles — and hit the plane. Powers was forced to eject; he was taken into custody and remained in the Soviet Union for next 21 months as the U.S. negotiated terms of his release.

Today in military history: Admiral Yamamoto, Pearl Harbor mastermind, is shot down
A U.S. Air Force U-2 Dragon Lady from the 99th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron taxis to the runway for takeoff at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, Dec. 2, 2010. The U-2 is a high altitude reconnaissance aircraft that reaches altitudes above 70,000 feet. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Eric Harris)

Nearly twice as wide as she is long, the Dragon Lady still flies the skies today.  “We are not going away as a program and we are investing heavily to bring the U-2 into its new mission environment,” said Lockheed Martin U-2 program director Irene Helley. “In this new era there is no sunset date planned.”

Featured Image: The U-2 Dragon Lady is considered the leader among manned intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems. An aircraft such as this collected images over the Gulf Coast region after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Today in Military History

Today in military history: US troops land on Okinawa

On April 1, 1945, U.S. troops landed on the island of Okinawa. The Battle of Okinawa would be the last major battle of World War II and — lasting until June 22, 1945 — one of the bloodiest. While it would result in an Allied victory, there were heavy losses on both sides.

After a long campaign of island hopping, the U.S. sought to seize Okinawa as a forward base for the planned invasion of mainland Japan. 50,000 troops from the 10th Army made the landing under the command of Army Lieutenant General Simon B. Buckner, whose father was a Confederate General during the Civil War. 

The 10th Army was a cross-branch force consisting of the 7th, 27th, 77th, and 96th infantry divisions of the U.S. Army with the 1st and 6th divisions of the Marine Corps.

Even before the landings, three American aircraft carriers were damaged and 116 planes were lost. The campaign to take Okinawa would last for 81 days and cost over 20,000 American lives. Among them would be General Buckner, who was the highest-ranking American officer killed during World War II.

Japan had over 75,000 troops defending the islands and also conscripted thousands of Okinawans, some of them as young as 14 years old. As many as 110,000 Japanese and Okinawans were killed.

Today in military history: Admiral Yamamoto, Pearl Harbor mastermind, is shot down

USS Idaho (BB-42), a New Mexico-class battleship, shells Okinawa on April 1, 1945. (United States Navy photograph, photographed from USS West Virginia (BB-48))

Seven Americans would receive the Medal of Honor for heroism during the campaign, including conscientious objector Desmond Doss, whose story hit the silver screen in Hacksaw Ridge, a film that won two Academy Awards.

The fierce struggle for Okinawa led the United States to reconsider plans to invade mainland Japan and look into options to either blockade Japan or starve it into submission. This led to the ultimate decision to use atomic bombs in August 1945 to force Japan’s surrender, finally ending World War II.

Today in Military History

Today in military history: Wilson asks Congress to declare war

On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany, bringing the United States into the first World War.

America had been committed to neutrality in the ‘Great War,’ but tensions between the United States and Germany were already high by 1917. At the start of the war, German U-Boats were aggressively attacking shipping vessels. In 1915, a U-Boat sank the British luxury liner Lusitania, killing 1,198 civilians — including 128 Americans.

Germany knew that American industrial might and manpower would tip the scales for the Allied powers, so they backed off on their attacks after sinking the Lusitania. But in 1917 they resumed their provocation, hoping to break the stalemate on the Western Front. 

President Wilson was not happy.

The German Foreign Minister then made matters worse for Germany by sending a telegram to the German Embassy in Mexico, instructing them to offer Mexico a military alliance in the event of a German-American war. The British intercepted the telegram, and their codebreakers decrypted this piece of political dynamite.

The United States had already broken off diplomatic ties with Germany in wake of the recent submarine attacks. The telegram was publicly released on February 28, and to everyone’s surprise, the Germans openly admitted the telegram was genuine.

Over the course of that month, five American ships were sunk by German U-boats. That led President Wilson to ask Congress to declare war on Germany. 

Wilson declared, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” 

117,465 Americans would be killed in The War to End All Wars.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Today in military history: German sub is captured with Enigma machine onboard

On May 9, 1941, the German U-boat U-110 was captured by the Royal Navy, and with it, a number of German cipher documents and an intact Enigma machine.

The Enigma was a brilliant piece of German enciphering machinery that allowed their military to send messages securely. The Germans were so efficient with Enigma that they even had a method for changing the cipher system daily. The device was exceptionally sophisticated, mechanically scrambling the 26 letters of the alphabet based on the daily cipher code. In order to decrypt an Enigma-encoded message, one would need both a machine and the daily cipher.

Later named “Operation Primrose,” the U-boats’ capture remained a secret for months while codebreakers at Bletchley Park got to work. Using the documents on board, they were able to crack a hand-cipher system that was used as a backup to Enigma. In other words, they had access to German messages in plain text and in cipher text, which allowed them to decrypt future messages.

Codebreakers at Bletchley Park, including the now-famous Alan Turing and fellow code-breaker Gordon Welchman, were able to use critical intelligence like that obtained from U-110 to invent a machine known as the Bombe, which automated much of the Enigma decryption work.

With this information, the Allies were able to strategically respond to Enigma-encrypted messages and deliver decisive blows to the Nazi war force.

The work of Bletchley Park, including Turing’s role there in cracking the Enigma code, remained classified until the 1970s, but it has been estimated that the work of the code-breakers shortened the war by several years and saved countless lives.

Featured Image: U-110 was captured by HM Ships Bulldog, Broadway, and Arbretia. (Royal Navy Photo)

Today in Military History

Today in military history: USS Joyce sinks German U-Boat off New York coast

On April 16, 1944, the Coast Guard-manned destroyer USS Joyce sank a German U-boat off the coast of New York.

On the morning of April 16th, the USS Joyce — a US Navy destroyer manned by the Coast Guard — was escorting a convoy leaving New York harbor and bound for the United Kingdom. The North Atlantic was fertile hunting ground for German U-Boats, and large convoys were particularly tempting targets. 

Today in military history: Admiral Yamamoto, Pearl Harbor mastermind, is shot down
USS Joyce at Mare Island Naval Shipyard, San Francisco, CA (US Navy Photo)

Just the previous month, the Joyce braved two U-Boat attacks to rescue survivors from the USS Leopold, which was torpedoed while investigating a radar contact. Little did they know, they were about to get their revenge.

That afternoon, the gasoline tanker SS Pan-Pennsylvania was torpedoed by the U-Boat U-550, and set aflame while joining the convoy.

With all hands on deck, the USS Joyce headed west along with the USS Petersen to support the damaged ship. They picked up 31 survivors, including the tanker’s captain. Then they went hunting. 

At full speed, the pair of ships moved into position. The USS Joyce detected U-550’s sonar and deployed depth charges that bracketed the German submarine. 

Today in military history: Admiral Yamamoto, Pearl Harbor mastermind, is shot down
A U.S. Navy Lockheed VW-2 flies over the radar-picket destroyer escort USS Joyce (DER-317), in the 1950s. (US Navy Photo)

One bounced off the submarine’s deck before it exploded, damaging the enemy vessel and forcing it to resurface.

The nearby USS Gandy opened fire and rammed the surfaced U-Boat, then all three destroyers opened fire. The U-550 surrendered, but the crew scuttled her before she could be boarded and seized. 

The Joyce rescued 13 survivors from the U-550, including the ship’s captain. The rest went down with the ship.

Featured Image: Aft plan view of Joyce at Mare Island Naval Shipyard, San Francisco, CA. March 9, 1951 (U.S. Navy photo).

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Today in military history: The Red Baron is killed in action

On April 21, 1918, the Red Baron was killed in action.

Manfred von Richthofen, known to allies and enemies as the Red Baron, was a dog-fighting legend in a time when planes were made of wood, fabric, and aluminum.

After joining the German army as a cavalryman, the Barron quickly switched to the Imperial Air Service in 1915, and took to the skies over the western front by 1916.

Between 1916 and 1918, the Red Baron downed 80 enemy aircraft, easily surpassing all flying-ace records of the time.

While many Ace pilots of the era were known for risky and aggressive aerial acrobatics, the Baron was a patient tactician and expert marksman. He preferred to dive upon his enemies from above, often with the sun at his back. His two most famous aircraft, the Albatros D.III and Fokker Dr. I, were painted bright red to honor his old cavalry regiment. 

On April 21st, while hunting British observation aircraft, the Red Baron and his squadron ventured deep into Allied French territory. They quickly got into a tussle with an Allied squadron, and the Baron began to stalk a Canadian Air Force plane.

In the heat of the chase, the Baron flew too low to the ground, and was fired upon from below. Sources differ on who fired the shot, but the kill is often credited to an Australian machine gunner using a Vickers gun. 

The Baron was struck in the chest by a single .303 bullet. Even as he died, he still managed to make a rough landing. By most accounts, his plane was barely even damaged.

He was buried by Allied forces with full military honors.

Today in Military History

Today in military history: US evacuates Saigon

On April 29, 1975, Operation Frequent Wind began, evacuating the last Americans and “at-risk” Vietnamese from Saigon, South Vietnam.

After the orders came through, armed forces radio began playing Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” to signal that the evacuation was underway. 

Nearly 100 helicopters were deployed from aircraft carriers to airlift approximately 7 thousand men, women, and children out of harm’s way in under 24 hours. 

The heroic pilots swarmed in and landed on confined rooftops, enclosed courtyards, and other various spaces loading countless people into the already cramped cargo areas to shuttle them to nearby Navy ships as Vietnamese forces stormed towards the city.  

A South Vietnamese helicopter is pushed over the side of the USS Okinawa during Operation Frequent Wind, April 1975. The helicopter had to be disposed of to make room for the extensive Marine Corps helicopter operation helping to evacuate the city of Saigon.

So many helicopters landed on the decks of the nearby U.S. Navy aircraft carriers that empty helicopters were pushed overboard to make room for incoming aircraft. Other pilots were told to drop their passengers off then ditch their helicopter in the sea and await rescue.

The U.S. Marines — who provided security for the evacs — were the last to fly out, just as the Embassy fell to the Communists, leaving nearly 400 evacuees remaining.

Operation Frequent Wind remains the largest helicopter evacuation on record. In 19 hours, a total of 1,373 Americans and 5,595 Vietnamese and third country nationals were rescued. 

Featured Image: Vietnamese refugees board a U.S. Marine Corps Sikorsky CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter from HMH-463 at Landing Zone 39, a parking lot At Ton Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon, Vietnam, 29 April 1975.

Today in Military History

Today in military history: German airship Hindenburg crashes

On May 6, 1937, the German airship Hindenburg burst into flames while attempting to moor after a trans-Atlantic flight.

Billed as the largest airship ever built — nearly the size of the RMS Titanic — the Hindenburg had begun regular passenger service from Germany to the United States the year before, carrying commercial passengers (who, by the way, were allowed to smoke in the on-board smoking lounge…) across the Atlantic. 

The hydrogen-floated airship had departed Frankfurt, Germany, three days before, bound for the first of ten round trip crossings to the United States in a time when airplanes were not yet a viable trans-Atlantic option.

Today in military history: Admiral Yamamoto, Pearl Harbor mastermind, is shot down
The dining room of the Hindenburg (German Federal Archives, CC BY-SA 3.0 de)

The trip had been relatively uneventful until a storm began to brew in Hindenburg’s path. To avoid the inclement weather, Capt. Max Pruss re-charted his course over New York City, creating a sensation in Manhattan. He waited out the storm hovering over the Atlantic before ordering his ship to Lakehurst, New Jersey.

With heavy winds requiring challenging maneuvering, it was said to be a difficult landing. Nonetheless, the Hindenburg dropped her mooring lines and successfully tied in to the landing winches on the ground. Still, disaster was imminent.

The cause of the fire is still much debated, but the hull of the warship incinerated within seconds as it fell 200 feet to the ground, killing 13 passengers, 22 crewmen, and 1 civilian ground worker.

Surprisingly, 62 survived, but most of them were left with substantial injuries. As the radio reporter Herbert Morrison so famously uttered that day, “Oh the humanity…”

Hindenburg’s tragic disaster marked the end of the airship era.

Today in Military History

Today in military history: John Paul Jones takes the fight to England

On April 22, 1778, naval Commander John Paul Jones led a raid against Whitehaven, England, where 400 British merchant ships laid in anchor.

Hoping to carry the war directly to King George III’s doorstep, Jones intended to prove to the English that their homeland was not impregnable. In a memorandum outlining his “plans for expeditions,” Jones had once proposed that “three fast frigates with tenders might burn Whitehaven and its fleet, rendering it nearly impossible to supply Ireland with coal next winter”  while bringing “inconceivable panic in England. It would convince the world of her vulnerability, and hurt her public credit.” 

Charles Willson Peale may have painted his museum portrait of Jones as early as 1781. Jones wears the French Cross of the Institution of Military Merit (the gold medal hanging from a blue ribbon through the top left buttonhole). Louis XVI presented this medal to him in 1780. (Public Domain)

The Royal Navy commanded the seas and Jones knew well enough that to confront His Majesty’s ships was foolish. Instead, he planned his raid on Whitehaven for the dead of night, hoping to arrive with the ebb tide at midnight.

He had more difficulty than planned whilst rowing to the port, which was protected by two forts. They didn’t arrive until dawn, and while Jones’ boat was able to successfully take the southern fort, the other boat reportedly “heard a noise” and abandoned the mission — and the northern fort.

Jones set fire to the southern fort and continued to raid the British Isles, earning a reputation for terrorizing the British navy. His sailing and fighting exploits during the American Revolution have gone down in history as some of the most notable of all time. 

Featured Image: “First Recognition of the American Flag by a Foreign Government” by Edward Moran, 1898. The painting depicts the Continental Navy ship Ranger, commanded by Captain John Paul Jones, receiving the salute of the French fleet at Quiberon Bay, France, on Feb. 14, 1778. (National Archives)

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