While this may sound an awful lot like the May 1, 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden, it is also a description of the April 18, 1943 death of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. No analogies are perfect. There are always differences. But in all significant respects, the killing of Admiral Yamamoto is mirrored by the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Before discussing those similarities and differences, this is a brief rundown of Adm. Yamamoto and the operation titled “Vengeance,” that resulted in his death.
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was the commander of the Japanese Navy. He was responsible for planning and executing the attack on Pearl Harbor, which brought the United States to war against Japan. He also planned and executed the all of the Japanese naval engagements between United States and Japan until his death. He was highly respected as a military tactician but he was a truly hated man in United States for both bringing about the war and for the death and destruction caused as a result of the war.
In April, 1943 United States Naval intelligence intercepted messages that gave detailed accounts of his upcoming travel plans in the South Pacific.
Yamamoto, the itinerary revealed, would be flying from Rabaul to Ballale Airfield, on an island near Bougainville in the Solomon Islands, on April 18. He and his staff would be flying in two medium bombers (Mitsubishi G4M Betties of the 205th Kokutai Naval Air Unit), escorted by six navy fighters (Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighters of the 204th Kokutai NAU), to depart Rabaul at 06:00 and arrive at Ballale at 08:00, Tokyo time.
With that information in hand, President Roosevelt was approached about a plan to kill Yamamoto. President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox to "get Yamamoto."
With the go-ahead of President Roosevelt, a plan was developed that was highly secret and totally audacious. While there was no certainty that they would actually be able to target Yamamoto's plane but they had a high degree of confidence in their chances.
To avoid detection by radar and Japanese personnel stationed in the Solomon Islands along a straight-line distance of about 400 miles (640 km) between US forces and Bougainville, the mission entailed an over-water flight south and west of the Solomons. This roundabout approach flight was plotted and measured to be about 600 miles (970 km). The fighters would therefore travel 600 miles out to the target and 400 miles back. The 1,000-mile flight plan, with extra fuel allotted for combat, was beyond the range of the F4F Wildcat and F4U Corsair fighters then available to Navy and Marine squadrons based on Guadalcanal. The mission was instead given to the US Army's 339th Fighter Squadron of the 347th Fighter Group, Thirteenth Air Force, whose P-38G aircraft, equipped with drop tanks, would have the range to intercept and engage.
As with the attack on Bin Laden sixty-eight years later, the mission was not flawless.
Two of the P-38 Lightnings assigned to the killer flight dropped out of the mission at the start, one with a tire flattened during takeoff and the second when its drop tanks would not feed fuel to the engines.
Yamamoto was flying in one of two medium bombers, known as Betties. They were escorted by six fighters. The Americans did not know which Betty Yamamoto would be flying in and also didn't know that the other was carrying Chief of Staff Vice Admiral Matome Ugaki and part of Yamamoto's staff. On May 18 both of the Betty bombers were shot down and crashed on the island of Bougainville. Yamamoto was dead. His body was recovered by the Japanese and eventually shipped back to Japan. But the fact of his death was so devastating that the Japanese government did not disclose the information for over a month.
So how does the killing of Yamamoto compare with the killing of Osama Bin laden. Both involve the death of military leader of an enemy against whom we were at war. Japan declared war on us on December 7, 1941, and we reciprocated on December 8th. In 1996 Osama Bin Laden's Al Qaeda declared war on the United States in a Fatwa entitled "Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places."
When it first issued there was concern about the Al Qaeda declaration but no one knew with certainty what it meant. We found out on August 7, 1998, with the bombings of the US embassies in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya. Those attacks were followed with the October 12, 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen. Then, eleven months later, New York, Washington DC, and Shanksville PA were attacked on 9/11. That caused the US to issue the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists on September 18, 2001, which granted the President the authority to use all "necessary and appropriate force" against those whom he determined "planned, authorized, committed or aided" the September 11th attacks, or who harbored said persons or groups. There are reasons why the AUMF was used rather than a "Declaration of War" but in all respects relevant to engaging the enemy, it gave the President the same authority as a war declaration.
While Adm. Yamamoto and his forces wore uniforms and identified themselves as our enemy, Bin Laden and his forces did not. Rather they use secret, disguise, and stealth, to confuse us as to their identities and their intentions.
In the case of Yamamoto we attacked him over foreign soil. Bougainville had been placed under the jurisdiction of Australia after WWI and Australia was our ally in WWII. In the case of Osama Bin Laden, he was attacked while illegally residing in a country which was our nominal ally.
In the case of Yamamoto no advance warning was given of the attack just as with the attack on Osama Bin Laden. At the time of both attacks neither man was armed. At the time of both attacks, neither man was given the opportunity to surrender. Certainly the United States could have attempted to force the plane carrying Yamamoto to land but it did not. If it had landed somewhere and he was taken prisoner that would've been fine but that was not the primary goal. The same was true with Osama bin Laden.
In both cases these actions are governed by the Laws of Armed Conflict, also known as the Rules of War, which have three basic elements, military necessity, distinction and proportionality. In both cases, "military necessity" is clear. Both men were military leaders of the enemy. " Distinction" speaks to the need to minimize affects on non-combatants. No non-combatants were killed in 1943. We can't be sure about 2011 because at this point we don't have details on what roles, if any, the three other persons who were killed had played in instigating or facilitating attacks on us. "Proportionality" relates to only using a level of force necessary to achieve the objective. In the case of Yamamoto there was significant but reasonable collateral damage to planes that were shot down together with all of their occupants. In the case of Osama Bin Laden, the choice of bombing it from the air was specifically not chosen, in part because of the other damage it could cause.
It is possible that some Americans in 1943 were outraged over the killing of Yamamoto. A few may have thought he should have been captured and not killed. Or maybe they thought the attack should not have occurred under any circumstances. Yes, there may have been a few. Similarly there are a few who may have the same sentiments about the killing of Bin Laden today. Thankfully, most do not. There is no legal or logical reason the leader of an enemy who declared war on you cannot be killed wherever and whenever you find him. The country he is hiding in may be embarrassed and complain about its sovereignty being violated, but those are separate issues. They are not comfort to the enemies who have declared war on us.
Today, as in 1943, we don't need to revel in the event. But we can still be very happy about the prospect that it will hasten the end to this war and bring our troops safely home.