Early on the morning of December 7, 1941, radar emplacements on the island of Oahu picked up the signature of approaching planes. The commander of the Pearl Harbor naval base was notified, but he naturally assumed that they were scheduled American planes returning from a mission. After all, the US wasn’t at war with anyone. The first indication that anything was out of the ordinary was when the approaching planes opened fire. Within moments, several of the American planes flying over the base went down in flames. The Attack on Pearl Harbor had begun.
Over 200 Japanese planes converged on the harbor in the first wave, dropping bombs on the decks of the battleships at port. The rumble of explosions and heavy machine gun fire split the early morning calm as the loudspeakers called the defenders of the base to battle stations. American aircraft responded, engaging the Japanese planes over the base. For the next ninety minutes, the men on the base held out against the waves of attacking aircraft. By the time the Japanese planes withdrew back to their waiting carrier group, eight American battleships had been sunk, along with dozens of smaller vessels. When the casualties were totaled, more than 2,000 Americans were dead.
It was, as FDR later declared, “a date which will live in infamy.” Yamamoto had gambled that the attack would give him enough time to take control of the Pacific. But just six months later, the U.S. Navy was rearmed and back on the offensive. And at the Battle of Midway, Yamamoto and the Americans would meet again. This time, the Japanese would be dealt a crushing defeat. From then, the tide shifted. And in 1943, the Americans would get a chance for a more personal form of revenge. They would kill the man who engineered the Attack on Pearl Harbor.
On April 14th, American intelligence officers intercepted a message from the Japanese. Admiral Yamamoto was scheduled to fly between Rabaul in New Guinea to an island near Bougainville on a tour to boost the morale of the now hard-pressed Japanese troops. The message was passed along to Lieutenant Commander Edwin T. Layton, head of intelligence at Pearl Harbor. Layton knew Yamamoto personally. He had played cards with the man as a young naval attaché in Tokyo. Layton took the message to Admiral Chester Nimitz. “What do you say we try to get ’em?” Nimitz asked.
The decision wasn’t entirely up to Nimitz. An attack on Yamamoto might reveal to the Japanese that the Americans had cracked their naval codes years ago and force them to change them. So the decision made its way up the chain of the command. It’s likely that President Roosevelt himself authorized the attack, but no one is sure. All we know for certain is that Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox decided to give the go-ahead the next day. With that, Operation Vengeance was born. Time was now critical. The Americans had just three days to organize the assassination of one Japan’s top admirals. And it would be up to a small group of brave airmen to carry it out.