Aviation Artist Ron Cole’s Take on Admiral Yamamoto Shoot-down

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Acclaimed aviation artist, Ron Cole, has created another stunning portrait. This time he has chosen the fateful final flight of  Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto as his subject. Yamamoto, as most of you will know, was the architect of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor; the catalyst for America’s entry into WWII. We will let Ron Cole tell the story of the painting in his own words, but we think you’ll agree that he captured this dramatic and historic moment with great aplomb.

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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 7th, 1941. There was scarcely an American during WWII who would not have celebrated the man’s death.

However, as is often the case in times of war, 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 Japanese politics 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 so he did.

Unbeknownst to their enemy, the Allies had cracked the Japanese Naval codes. They had intercepted communications which showed that Isoroku Yamamoto was scheduled to fly to Balalae in the Solomons on April 18th, 1943 for an inspection tour of the front. Code named Operation Vengeance, without any will for subtlety to hide its true nature, the United States planned to intercept Yamamoto’s aircraft and shoot him down. It was a risky mission in many respects; most importantly because the Japanese might determine that their codes had been broken, but also because Balalae was barely within range of the P-38 Lightning fighters which would execute the operation 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 clearly overwhelmed by the sentiment expressed so blatantly in mission’s name. The President himself weighed in on the decision by simply saying, “Get Yamamoto!”

Two Japanese fast transports (converted Mitsubishi G4M1 bombers) and six escorting Zero fighters left Rabaul on the morning of the 18th. Meanwhile, eighteen P-38s from the 339th Fighter Squadron left Guadalcanal hoping to intercept them. Thanks to retrofitted naval compasses in the P-38s, their 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’s crash was marked by a thick plume of smoke.

In the trees and amid the fire, there was only one survivor of that crash. It is believed that the aircraft’s copilot, though mortally wounded, 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 the 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 these last seven decades, the wreck of Isoroku Yamamoto’s aircraft has remained where it fell, in the dense jungle on Bougainville. It is likely the world’s most historically significant aircraft wreck from World War II, 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 being cut up for scrap, the rules were very different in the region. Geological exploration companies were surveying remote areas in the South Pacific in the hopes of finding valuable natural resources. One such Australian firm had its crew on Bougainville in 1968, and during its down time they heard about the ‘famous’ wreck of an Admiral’s plane. For a small fee, local tribesmen led the crew to the site. There were bits and pieces everywhere, and many small items 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.

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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 were extremely rare and precious. When an Australian 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.

WarbirdsNews agrees, and would like to thank Ron for his latest article. Please do visit his website HERE and Facebook page HERE to see more of his work, and maybe even acquire an example for yourself.

1 Comment

  1. All that is said and shown (on the drawing) about the attack itself is wrong .

    It would be suicidal for the P38 pilot to stay behind the Betty and shoot at it while being exposed to all the rear gunnery of the bomber (like showed on this image which proves the ignorance of the drawer of aerial combat techniques)

    A P38 is an energy fighter and his tactic is Z&B (Zoom and Boom) and not to dog fighting bombers at close range. Bomber’s rear guns are very efficient vs a stable target.

    The guy who shoot Yamato’s Betty gave an interview later in his life and explained that he hit the enemy plane while trying his guns and everything was over. Pure luck …

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