When the announcement of Tamiya’s latest 1/48 scale release hit, I could only think of my “wish list” from back in January 2019. There I wished not only for a Tamiya 1/48 Lightning, I also wished that it would be an early variant with “Miss Virginia” markings.
Earlier this year I got to see a P-38 Lightning in the flesh during a trip to the USAF Museum. This just reinforced my want to build a kit of this fighter.
So I was very happy to get this news and from what I have been able to read, it looks like it will be another excellent Tamiya kit. One ‘in-box review’ is available at Ninetalis Scale Models. Some interesting things to note in the kit:
- The classic challenge of putting any P-38 together is alignment. Paul Budzik details this issue and his clever solution in this article. To deal with this problem Tamiya has included a wing spar and likely has some other design features to eliminate what I call “Scale Model P-38 Wonkiness”
- Separate interior and exteriors to landing gear doors – a real masking time saver
- Speaking of masking – there is a masking sheet for the canopy
- Drop tanks – for reasons I will get into further on in this article, Tamiya has included the larger drop tanks that were used on this particular Lightning. This was confirmed in a Modelling News Review of this kit.
Unfortunately Tamiya did not send me one of those pretty white pre-production boxes for a build review 🙂 but I am sure there will be more in-box and pre-production build reviews that will tease out further information. No matter what, I am looking forward to October 2019 or whenever it is available for purchase and that reason is because this is going to be the Miss Virginia Lightning.
So what is the significance of Miss Virginia? Well it all has to do with one of the most interesting missions in World War 2, the individuals involved and the controversy that followed the end of this successful operation.
Operation Vengeance was the name of the intercept of Admiral Yamamoto over Bougainville Island (in the Solomons) in April of 1943. The mission was based on United States Navy decoded intelligence of Yamamoto’s itinerary in the Solomon Islands area. Most know this was the longest distance planned intercept mission ever flown by US forces in World War Two and that the Lightning was pretty much the only airplane that could fly this mission. Some might know of the controversy that followed the mission and continues to this day.
Unsurprisingly, there is a lot more to it.
It All Started with an intercepted message
The Guadalcanal campaign had just ended disastrously for the Japanese in February of 1943. The next major operation for Japanese air forces, known as “I-Go”, was ongoing. The objective of this operation was to halt the Allied offensives in New Guinea and the Solomons and to give Japan time to prepare a new set of defenses.
Admiral Yamamoto planned to do an inspection tour and morale boost for units participating in this operation and Yamamoto was punctual to a fault.
On April 14, the US NAvy intercepted a coded message alerting affected Japanese units of this inspection tour. The message was quickly deciphered and it contained precise time and location details of Yamamoto’s itinerary, as well as the number and types of planes that would transport and accompany him on the journey.
The Intercept Plan: Extremely long odds.
It is important to note the message was intercepted by Navy intelligence and the decision to intercept Yamamoto was made by Navy Admirals, but the mission itself went to the Army because the P-38 was the only fighter that could make this long flight and return.
Once the authorization was given, it ultimately fell to Major John Mitchell to plan the longest fighter intercept mission ever attempted in the Pacific. Mitchell was commanding the 339th Fighter Squadron out of Kukum Field on Guadalcanal and had only a few hours to plan this flight. He was told the Navy would be delivering 18 large drop tanks (310 gallons) and when asked if he needed anything more, Mitchell requested a “good compass.”
The quality of the compass would be crucial as the flight would be navigated without any sight of landmarks or any land at all:
Using plenty of guesswork and assuming that Yamamoto would depart and arrive exactly as the decoded message said he would, Mitchell planned for an intercept 30 miles from the destination air base. Using his knowledge of the P-38 and the weather forecast, Mitchell drew up a 5 legged over-water flight plan that circumvented the Solomon Islands chain and would intercept the Yamamoto flight as it was in its descending phase. Flying low and out of sight of any island would avoid both radar and any potential Japanese coast watcher whose radio warning could jeopardize the entire mission.
Mitchell used only a Navy ship compass*, a constant airspeed and a clock to navigate to the final leg. At that point the planned 18 Lightnings would split up into a 14 plane ‘High Cover group’ (to intercept the Japanese fighters expected to receive the Admiral’s flight from Kahili air base) and a 4 plane ‘Killer group’ to go after Yamamoto’s Betty and the Zero escorts.
Despite these preparations, Mitchell thought the mission had little chance of a successful interception. Too much could go wrong: a delay in either side’s take off, a change in the weather, Yamamoto diverting to a different air field, etc.
However, it turned out that a significant amount of things went right for the Americans that morning. All aircraft had the new drop tanks installed the night before the mission, the weather forecast held and only two airplanes dropped out due to mechanical issues.
At the Point of Intercept; It actually worked!
The 16 remaining Lightnings had a 2 hour flight skimming the wave free surface of the ocean in complete radio silence. Mitchell’s newly installed ship’s compass worked flawlessly and he timed his turns exactly as planned.
Soon after the flight made it’s last turn and the beaches of Bougainville could be seen, one of the pilots broke radio silence with: “Bogeys! 11 O’clock High!” Yamamoto’s flight was exactly where it was supposed to be and in its final descent. From this point, Mitchell led the “High Cover Group” on a climb to 18000 feet fully expecting to intercept and dispatch dozens of zeros out of Kahili air base. However, the High cover Group would end up being disappointed.
The Killer Group and the two Stories of who shot down Yamamoto
In contrast to the High Cover Group, the Killer Group saw plenty of action that morning. The members of the Killer Group were:
- Tom Lanphier;
- Rex Barber (It was Barber flying the P-38 named “Miss Virginia”);
- Besby Holmes; and
- Ray Hine
At the moment the Killer Group saw the Yamamoto Flight, they increased power and began a slight climb. For an incredibly long two minutes, no Japanese pilot saw these four Lightnings approach. However, Besby Holmes was unable to detach his drop tanks and stayed over the water. His wingman, Ray Hine, broke off as well and dutifully protected his element leader. That left Lanphier and Barber alone to contend with two Betty bombers and six Zero Fighters.
Everyone agrees on what happened all the way up to this point. Japanese accounts state that Yamamoto’s Betty bomber was shot down over land on Bougainville with everyone on board killed. We also know the other Betty bomber crashed into the ocean off the coast of Bougainville. However, exactly how these planes were shot down are subject to two very different accounts by the pilots themselves.
According to Lanphier:
- He and Barber continued towards the flight as both Bettys were diving towards the Jungle;
- He broke off his approach to the Bettys when he saw the escorting Zeros diving towards him and Barber;
- He aimed his Lightning at one of these Zeros, shot its wing off and looped over to see where the Bettys were;
- When he rolled upright he saw a Betty directly in front of him and he shot it down where it crashed into the jungle.
According to Barber:
- Initially Lanphier and he were headed towards the Bettys but Lanphier broke off to intercept diving Zeros giving Barber the opportunity to attack the Betty’s unopposed;
- He banked in order to shoot the Bettys from behind but when he leveled out, he could only see one Betty in front of him at less than 1000 feet altitude;
- He made machine gun and cannon passes at this Betty and on his last pass he overshot as the Betty banked sharply with it’s nose down and one engine burning badly – he did not see that Betty crash;
- He then headed towards the coast where he saw Holmes and Hine making multiple passes at another Betty over the water;
- He made a firing pass at the second Betty and it exploded over the water;
A Lasting Controversy
While the High Cover Group had no difficulty returning to Guadalcanal, those in the Killer Group barely made it back as they had burned a lot of fuel in the engagement. Lanphier was the first to arrive and in his final approach to the airbase he announced over the radio “I got Yamamoto!” once on the ground Laphier made sure to tell everyone his version of the events. Word of this mission quickly spread around Guadalcanal and one reporter attempted to publish Lanphier’s account of this mission.
Due to these breaches in security on Guadalcanal about what was supposed to be a secret mission and for risking the Navy’s capability to decode Japanese messages, the awards given to Mitchell, Lanphier and Barber were severely downgraded. Each was transferred back to the United States where they were forbidden to discuss any details of this mission until after the war.
The official version of the events is largely that of Tom Lanphier’s story. This is because Lanphier was the only pilot officially debriefed about these events. Historians, using eye witness accounts of all of the pilots, physical evidence obtained at the crash site and access to Japanese records, agree that it was Barber who shot down Yamamoto over Bougainville.
That is the significance of Miss Virginia
However, for various reasons, the Army and later the Air Force has not amended the record of this mission.
Further Reading and Final Thoughts
Modelers pursue this hobby in different ways. Some build, some collect. Some are fascinated by the technology or a specific era. And some, like me, are interested in the history and want to recreate specific machines with stories attached to them.
One can hardly have a better story about a model than that of Operation Vengeance. There have been many books published about this mission, its planning and the later fallout. For further reading I recommend “Lightning Strike” and “Attack on Yamamoto” as both a well researched and well written.
I wish I could have been one of the lucky ones to get a pre-release “Miss Virginia” kit from Tamiya as I have been looking forward to building this model for a very long time. I’d certainly do the kit justice but in any event, I will wait patiently for this new P-38 to be released in the fall of 2019.
Are there any others out there who like to build models because of specific events, people or historical significance? If so, I’d like to hear about some of your builds in the comments. Otherwise I’d love to know if your modelling has gotten you interested in specific historical events.
*A picture or at least an accurate description of what this compass looked like would be very much appreciated!