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Inside the Assassination of Imperial Japanese Admiral Yamamoto

Michael Peck

Key point: Tokyo didn't know that Washington had broken its codes.

Some sixty-eight years before U.S. special forces killed Osama bin Laden, America conducted an assassination of another kind.

This time, the target wasn’t a terrorist. It was the Japanese admiral who planned the Pearl Harbor operation. But the motive was the same: payback for a sneak attack on the United States.

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In early 1943, Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, commander in chief of the Japanese Navy, was one of the most hated men in America. He was seen as the Asian Devil in naval dress, the fiend who treacherously struck peaceful, sleeping America. And when the United States saw a chance for payback in April 1943, there was no hesitation. Hence a code name unmistakable in its intent: Operation Vengeance.

As with today’s drone strikes, the operation began with an intercepted message. Except it wasn’t a call from a cell phone, but rather a routine military radio signal. In the spring of 1943, Japan was in trouble: the Americans had captured Guadalcanal despite a terrible sacrifice of Japanese ships and aircraft. Stung by criticism that senior commanders were not visiting the front to ascertain the situation, Yamamoto resolved to visit naval air units on the South Pacific island of Bougainville.

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