Lightning Strike: The Secret Mission to Kill Admiral Yamamoto and Avenge Pearl Harbor

Lightning Strike: The Secret Mission to Kill Admiral Yamamoto and Avenge Pearl Harbor

by Donald A. Davis

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312309077
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 03/07/2006
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 561,982
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.89(d)

About the Author

Donald A. Davis is a former war correspondent and the author of fourteen books, including three New York Times bestsellers.

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Lightning Strike

The Secret Mission To Kill Admiral Yamamoto And Avenge Pearl Harbor

By Donald A. Davis

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2005 Donald A. Davis
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-0344-8


Pilots Three

They didn't look like killers. At the time of Pearl Harbor, Rex Barber, John Mitchell, and Tom Lanphier had never so much as fired a shot in anger. Lanphier and Barber were so new to the military service that the brass bars on their collars showing they were second lieutenants had hardly had time to tarnish, and Mitchell was just happy that he was no longer clerking in his brother's store in Atlanta. All were pilots with the U.S. Army Air Corps, flying what were quaintly called "pursuit" planes in that age before they became more glamorously known as "fighters." Within seventeen months, all three would become hardened warriors who had survived countless deadly battles, led other men into ferocious fights, shot down Japanese planes, sunk Japanese ships, and bombed Japanese soldiers.

The President Johnson

Second Lieutenant Rex Barber was asleep aboard a passenger ship en route to Hawaii, snoring off a hangover, on the morning Pearl Harbor was attacked. The husky twenty-four-year-old pilot with startlingly green eyes had only won his wings about a month before and had only four hours of experience in flying P-40 pursuit planes, but he was headed for the Philippines as part of the headquarters squadron of the 35th Pursuit Group. One squadron of fighters and pilots from the 35th had already reached Manila, where reinforcements were being gathered to defend against a possible Japanese assault. Another squadron was almost there, aboard a second ship that had passed Hawaii. Barber's unit, filled with pilots just as untried as he, was the final group heading over.

They were going in style, sailing aboard the President Johnson, which gleamed like a beacon in the Pacific sunlight on Sunday morning as it rode alone, unescorted, on the blue sea. Its deep, wide holds were stuffed with big crates containing disassembled aircraft.

Despite the bright white hull and the single blue band around its stack that gave it the look of exactly what it was, a passenger liner, the Johnson had been specifically designed as a C3-type general cargo hauler by the United States Maritime Commission. The American President Lines operated it at a profit on peacetime passenger runs to the Orient, but in time of national emergency the Johnson and its sister "Presidents" were leased to the merchant marine to haul military personnel and cargo. The need to improve the defenses of the Philippines for an impending war had qualified as such an emergency.

The Johnson sailed from San Francisco on December 6, when the United States was still at peace. By the time the white hull slid beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, the pilots were partying and the first empty whiskey bottle had already hit the water. The ship had retained many of its peacetime accoutrements, and the young men were introduced to the good life at sea, with excellent food politely served by waiters, and there was more than enough booze to fuel card and dice games. Most had never experienced such casual elegance. They wound up portable phonographs and filled the air with popular tunes to help the time speed by. The entire first day of the voyage was a wonderful adventure, and they did not go to sleep until very late, rocking to the unfamiliar rhythms of the moving sea. Rex's schoolteacher mother had demanded that he write, but he could do that tomorrow.

Barber was from a close-knit, churchgoing family that had migrated to Oregon from Illinois on his mother's side, and from Massachusetts on his father's. They helped found the town of Culver, where Rex was born and raised. He had two sisters, but an older brother died as a baby. He would pester the girls but allow no one else to bother them. He might roll Eileen up in a rug and not let her out, but if she were alone in the schoolyard, Rex would break away from playing with the boys and stay with her.

From the beginning the stocky boy was a whirlwind of energy. The physical stamina honed through farm work translated easily into a natural athleticism, and he played football and baseball. Although a popular athlete can easily become outgoing and boisterous, Barber possessed a contrasting, quiet personality, which made his steady regimen of youthful pranks even more surprising.

After high school, Rex spent a year at a nearby small college, then transferred to Oregon State in Corvallis. He was not really interested in studying, for he had discovered a desire to fly through the stories he was told by his uncle, Edgar King, who had been a pilot in World War I. Still, it came as a shock to the family when, only a few weeks shy of getting his degree from Oregon State, he left college and joined the army as a private on the last day of September 1940.

He was accepted as an aviation cadet and left Oregon to learn how to fly Stearman biplanes at the Rankin Aeronautical Academy in Tulare, California. Then he moved up to BT-13s at Moffett Field and took his advanced training at Mather Field, outside of Sacramento. Barber possessed exceptional eyesight, and his boyhood skill at shooting rabbits made it easy for him to become an expert marksman as a soldier. He turned into a dead shot with the machine guns of his airplanes.

Within the 35th Pursuit Squadron, Barber was regarded as a quiet man who preferred to let his actions speak for him. No matter what happened, friends never saw Rex really lose control, although he never backed down from a challenge. When he knocked a front tooth out with a wrench while fixing a motorcycle, he simply got it fixed the next day and went back to work. About the most outrageous thing he would do was break out singing if he got drunk. Barber seemed guided by some sort of inner spirit that made him very confident about what he was doing and where he was going with his life. As one pilot said, "Rex had grit."

On the morning of December 7, he was shaken awake by some of his pals and wobbled topside as he felt the ship slowing down in the water. There was a buzz of news: The Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor, the destination of their ship. The Johnson slid to a halt halfway between Hawaii and California and bobbed in the Pacific Ocean until new orders were received. Then she turned around and sped for home. The pilots, boisterous the previous day and most of the night, quietly lined the railings, their sharp eyes searching the waters around them for the telltale periscope of a submarine and the horizon for enemy planes.

In so many ways, the party was over, both for those aboard the ship and for their fellow citizens back home. In the space of a few hours, peace had fled and war had come, and nothing would ever be the same.

Charlotte, North Carolina

The United States Army had prepared for war throughout 1941. The previous year, it had only 187,000 men, 488 machine guns, and 28 tanks. From that meager start, it had expanded to an active force of one and one-half million officers and men, although it took a narrow, single-vote majority in Congress to keep many of them in uniform for more than a year. The army spent the summer and fall of 1941 holding the largest maneuvers it had ever staged in peacetime, with mock battles raging from the state of Washington to the swamps of Louisiana. But the exercises lacked realism, due to the shortage of equipment and experience. Some troops used wooden sticks as rifles. Trucks with blaring loudspeakers drove about to simulate the sounds of attacking tanks. Generals fretted that the army just was not ready to fight a war and would suffer heavy losses if it met a competent enemy. A week after the exercises concluded, Japan struck Pearl Harbor.

One major purpose of the maneuvers was to prepare pilots for the roles they would play in combat. Eight pursuit groups of the Army Air Corps and a contingent of dive-bombers on loan from the U.S. Navy sowed confusion during the final war games in the Carolinas, roaring down on the masses of soldiers in simulated attacks. Had it been a shooting war, the planes would have mowed down the ground troops.

Among those flying the blunt-nosed P-40s that roamed the skies and swooped down in make-believe strafing runs on the unwary marching soldiers were First Lieutenant John William Mitchell and nine other pilots of the 70th Pursuit Squadron. The 70th was another squadron of the ill-starred 35th Pursuit Group, which had been staging through Hamilton Field, outside of San Francisco, en route to the Philippines. The 70th had been formed only ten months earlier out of pilots and enlisted men who were carved from another squadron that had been sent to Alaska.

Throughout 1941, the new unit slowly coalesced into a team as more manpower and planes became available under the command of Captain Henry Viccellio, a square-jawed Virginian with a gift for organization and administration. Viccellio, at the age of thirty when the war started, was older than his charges, and had been around the Air Corps for a while. He had started as a private in 1934 and served as a bomber maintenance crewman in the Panama Canal Zone before being accepted for flight training. He was commissioned as an officer and a pilot in 1937.

By December 7, 1941, most of his experienced fliers had finished their war-game work in the Carolinas and were back at Hamilton, and Viccellio was trying to figure out how to teach the newer men to fly the P-36 Mohawk pursuit plane, in which they had to qualify before they were allowed to fly the more powerful P-40s. Viccellio's problem was that there was only such plane on the base, and it was out of commission with a cracked cylinder. The new pilots, eager youngsters showing up with silver wings on their chests but little experience, were sitting around wasting valuable time because they had nothing to fly.

Back in North Carolina, one of the P-40s also was malfunctioning, and John Mitchell, the unit's assistant operations officer, stayed behind to babysit it. Mitchell had only been promoted to first lieutenant on November 1.

When he learned about the attack on Hawaii, it was if someone had struck him in the face, for to him Pearl Harbor was not just some faraway, exotic place. He had been valedictorian of his high school graduating class in tiny Enid, Mississippi, and had joined the army in hopes of going to West Point, but he flunked the entrance exams and had to begin his military career as a buck private with Battery F of the 55th Coast Artillery in the Territory of Hawaii.

What started off as a failure for the skinny Mississippi boy turned into some of the best years of his life. In Hawaii Mitchell grew taller — although he would never quite reach five-feet, nine-inches in height — and put on some weight; the vision in his brown eyes improved; the constant sun bleached his brown hair almost white; and his confidence grew with a new maturity. He qualified as an expert rifle and pistol shot, handled the brigade's publicity section as the company clerk, and leavened the boring military duty by becoming an instructor in tennis and basketball. There was little that he had not enjoyed as a soldier in Hawaii, and he liked army life so much that he reenlisted. He spent a total of four years and five months in the islands before he got out, became a civilian for a while, then went back in as a fledgling aviator.

Mitchell still had friends in Hawaii and could easily picture the bombs falling on a place he considered paradise. As anger rose in him, he felt cold pleasure that he was an army pilot with a fast plane. He was ready to go to war the moment he read about Pearl Harbor in a Charlotte afternoon newspaper, having just spent a few hours watching Gary Cooper play America's greatest hero of World War I, Sergeant Alvin York.

In a brief telephone call to Captain Viccellio in California, Mitchell promised to get there as soon as his plane was fixed but asked permission to stop over in Texas long enough to marry a girl he had met during his flight school training. Viccellio gave his blessing but told Mitchell to hurry. They had work to do.

San Francisco

As the clock ticked down to war, the army air corps, desperate for pilots, pursued an aggressive advertising campaign that emphasized the ethos of the cocky, swaggering, scarf-in-the-wind fliers of the previous war. An unmarried young man between the ages of twenty and twenty-seven, with some college and able to present evidence of high moral character, could volunteer to become an aviation cadet in a civilian training program. It was an irresistible call for many children of the Great Depression. All of the volunteers were white men, for the military services had not yet integrated, but this was a chance for poor boys to break free, to do something different, and go up there, as the poet John Gillespie Magee Jr. would write, "where never lark, or even eagle, flew." They would spend nine months learning their new trade, three months each in primary, secondary, and advanced training, with planes of steadily increasing complexity. Then the freshly minted pilots would be farmed out to squadrons around the country. The year and alphabetical order of their graduating class, such as 41-E or 41-G, designated their place in the pecking order, and the earlier the better when it came to assignments and promotions.

New bases were needed to accommodate these new men and planes, and one of the best was created in a picturesque hilly area just north of San Francisco. Once the hunting grounds of the Miwok Indians, it passed into a Spanish land grant for Don Ignacio Pacheco and evolved over the years into farmland for settlers before becoming the Marin County Air Field. In the 1930s, it was sold to the U.S. Army Air Corps for one dollar. Engineers built a system of dikes and pumps to hold back the waters of San Pablo Bay, and broad runways were laid out that were actually six feet below sea level. It was unlike any other air base in the United States, not because of its huge, boxy hangars, but for the architecture of its other buildings. The massive edifices, ornate façades, gleaming white stucco walls, and red tile roofs gave it the look of a California mission. It was named Hamilton Field after Lieutenant Lloyd Hamilton, the first American pilot to fly with the Royal Flying Corps in World War I.

Originally laid out to serve two-engine bombers, it was soon deemed too small to be a permanent base for the newer four-engine Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses and became the home of the 1st Pursuit Wing. The empty California sky was perfect for everything from single-plane training to massed flights of dozens of aircraft. In the coming years, thousands of pilots would pass between the twin towers of the entry-gate arch and go down the palm-lined Casa Grande Real to the tall and regal base headquarters building, with its wrought-iron balconies, arched loggia, and immaculate grounds.

For most of the new, young pilots, the best thing about Hamilton Field was that it was just over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, and when duty was not calling, they headed downtown in droves. That was exactly what Second Lieutenant Thomas P. Lanphier Jr. had done on the first weekend of December. He was a dashing soldier, slender and handsome in his crisp khaki uniform, with a thick shock of dark hair beneath his garrison cap. Lanphier checked into a hotel, then went out with his buddies in search of a party.

Whereas many of the newer pilots had experienced some sort of epiphany when they had first heard the grumble of an airplane engine overhead, looked up and thought — That's for me! — Lanphier had almost been born in a cockpit. He recalled his exciting boyhood in detail when he wrote his autobiography about ten years before his death. Entitled "At All Costs Reach and Destroy," the manuscript was circulated among friends but never published.

His dad was a West Pointer who had fought as a machine gunner in the trenches during World War I before learning to fly and rising to command the legendary 1st Pursuit Squadron. Flying was part of the family tradition, and other aviation pioneers were close friends. General Billy Mitchell, who had taught the world that planes could sink ships, helped young Tommy bury his dog after the animal was run over. The legendary Charles Lindbergh was a frequent guest at the house.

Tom was an army brat, born in Panama City while his father was away on jungle maneuvers, and his childhood memories included falling asleep to the mournful notes of Taps. Later, the family moved to Michigan after his father went to work in Detroit for Henry Ford. Smart as a whip, Lanphier devoured books and graduated from Grosse Pointe High School at the age of fifteen, by which time he already knew how to fly. Secretly instructed by a couple of his father's pilots, the boy had soloed in a rickety Jenny trainer when he was only thirteen. He worked as a copyboy for the Detroit News because he was too young to start college, studied Latin and typing on the side, and eventually went to Stanford University in California. Tom Lanphier Sr. had left the army to pursue a business career just in time for the Depression to wipe out his savings, and his namesake son had to intersperse his college years with work as a ranch hand and as a night reporter with the San Francisco News before he could graduate with a major in journalism in January 1941.


Excerpted from Lightning Strike by Donald A. Davis. Copyright © 2005 Donald A. Davis. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


BOOK I Dark Days,
1 Pilots Three,
2 War,
3 Yamamoto,
4 C-in-C,
5 Running Wild,
6 "They're Yanks!",
7 Islands,
8 Raid,
9 Midway,
10 The Quiet Time,
BOOK II Guadalcanal,
11 Guadalcanal,
12 Cactus,
13 Jagdstaffel,
14 Bloody Ridge,
15 Battleships,
16 2100 Banzai,
17 Homesick Angels,
18 Patrol,
BOOK III Bogeys,
19 I-Go,
20 Message,
21 Jackpot,
22 The Opium Den,
23 At All Costs,
24 The Fight,
25 The Curse,
BOOK IV Faded Glory,
26 The Report,
27 Picture Day,
28 Traitors,
29 The Perfect Hero,
30 Tex and Rex,
31 The Legend,
32 Showdown,
Author's Note,

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Lightning Strike: The Secret Mission to Kill Admiral Yamamoto and Avenge Pearl Harbor 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
jonbius More than 1 year ago
I found this to be a very engaging book. While it's primary focus is the mission to shoot down Yamamoto's flight, it does a very thorough job of covering the principal figures' histories to help support the authors findings regarding the truth behind who actaully shot down Yamamoto. I highly recommend this book.
john pattwell More than 1 year ago
being a armchair historian, I grew up with only oneaccount of the mission to shoot down Yamamoto. this is the definitive account what really occurred
Guest More than 1 year ago
A better title might be 'A Brief History of the War in the Pacific.' The vast majority of the book is a summary of the war in the pacific up to April 1943 -- and that is a good thing. So, while only a small part of the book is devoted to the mission itself and the controversy that occurred after, I thought the author did a good job of putting the mission in the proper context of the conflict up to that point in the war. The only criticism that I have (and it's minor) is his choice of providing explanations to certain military terms. Presumably, most readers will be military history buffs and will certainly know, for example, that an ¿ace¿ fighter pilot is one that has five confirmed kills. Yet the author mentions this no less than three times at different points in the book. At the same time, the author makes references to attacks in ¿regimental size¿ ¿ a term that can have different meanings depending on the army being discussed. Make no mistake however, this is a very good book and is a perfect reintroduction to an important chapter of our fighting history.