Lanphier and Barber: The First to Make Contact With the Enemy
Lanphier and Barber headed for the enemy. When they were about a mile in front and two miles to the right of the bombers, the Zeros spotted them. Lanphier and Barber headed down to intercept the Zeros. The Bettys nosed down in a diving turn to get away from the P-38s. Holmes, the leader of the second element, could not release his belly tanks so, in an effort to jar them loose, he turned off down the coast, kicking his plane around to knock the tanks loose. Ray Hine, his wingman, had no choice but to follow him to protect him. So Lanphier and Barber were the only two going after the Japs for the first few minutes.
From this point onward, accounts of the fight get mixed up about who shot down whom. Briefly, here is probably what happened based on the accounts of all involved. I did not see what was happening 18,000 feet below me.
As Lanphier and Barber were intercepted by the Zeros, Lanphier turned head-on into them and shot down one Zero and scattered the others. This gave Barber the opportunity to go for the bombers. As Barber turned to get into position to attack the bombers, he lost sight of them under his wing, and when he straightened around he saw only one bomber, going hell bent for leather downhill toward the jungle treetops.
Barber went after the Betty and started firing over the fuselage at the right engine. And as he slid over to get directly behind the Betty, his fire passed through the bomber’s vertical fin and some pieces of the rudder separated from the plane. He continued firing and was probably no more than 100 feet behind the Betty when it suddenly snapped left and slowed down rapidly, and as Barber roared by he saw black smoke pouring from the right engine.
Shooting Down the Betty
Barber believed the Betty crashed into the jungle, although he did not see it crash. And then three Zeros got on his tail and were making firing passes at him as he headed toward the coast at treetop level taking violent evasive action. Luckily, two P-38s from Mitchell’s flight saw his difficulty and cleared the Zeros off his tail. Holmes said it was he and Hine that chased the Zeros off Barber’s tail. Barber said he then looked inland and to his rear and saw a large column of black smoke rising from the jungle, which he believed to be the Betty he’d shot.
As Barber headed toward the coast he saw Holmes and Hine over the water with a Betty bomber flying below them just offshore. He then saw Holmes and Hine shoot at the bomber with Holmes’ bullets hitting the water behind the Betty and then walking up and through the right engine of the Betty. Hines started to fire, but all of his rounds hit well ahead of the Betty. Then Holmes and Hine passed over the Betty and headed south.
Barber said that he then dropped in behind the Betty flying over the water and opened fire. As he flew over the bomber it exploded, and a large chunk of the plane hit his right wing, cutting out his turbo supercharger intercooler. Another large piece hit the underside of his gondola, making a very large dent in it.
After this, he, Holmes, and Hine fired at more Zeros. Barber said that both he and Holmes shot down a Zero, but Hine was seen heading out to sea smoking from his right engine. As Barber headed home, he saw three oil slicks in the water and hoped that Hine was heading for Guadalcanal, but that was not the case.
Lanphier, having scattered the Zeros, found himself at about 6,000 feet. Looking down, he saw a Betty flying across the treetops, so he came down and began firing a long, steady burst across the bomber’s course of flight, from approximately right angles. In another account, Lanphier said he was clearing his guns. By both accounts, he said he felt he was too far away, yet, to his surprise, the bomber’s right engine and right wing began to burn and then the right wing came off and the Betty plunged into the jungle and exploded.
Return to Guadalcanal
Lanphier said that three Zeros came after him, and he called Mitchell to send someone down to help him. Then, hugging the earth and the treetops while the Zeros made passes at him, he unwittingly led them over a corner of the Japanese fighter strip at Kahili.
He then headed east and, with the Zeros on his tail, he got into a high-speed climb and lost them at 20,000 feet; he got home with only two bullet holes in his rudder. Contrast this to the 104 bullet holes in Barber’s plane, plus the knocked-out intercooler and the huge dent in his gondola.
Flying back to Guadalcanal, I heard Lanphier get on the radio and say, “That SOB won’t dictate peace terms in the White House.” This really upset me because we were to keep complete silence about the fact that we had gone after Yamamoto. The details of this mission were not to leave the island of Guadalcanal.