On April 18, 1943, Besby Frank Holmes climbed into his P-38 and joined 15 other Lightning fighters that took off from Guadalcanal on a more than 400-mile flight to Bougainville in the Solomon Islands.
Their mission: To intercept and destroy the plane carrying Japanese Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, the mastermind of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
American cryptographers had cracked a new Japanese naval code, and a message had been intercepted revealing that Yamamoto would be flying in a medium attack bomber from the Japanese base at Rabaul on East New Britain to Bougainville with a six-fighter escort on April 18. The message even included the time of arrival.
"Granted, it was a wild gamble with many odds against success," Holmes recalled in "Aces Against Japan II," a 1996 book of oral histories by Eric Hammel, "but most of us were pretty good gamblers by then, having gambled our lives on the early days of the invasion of Guadalcanal. And won."
Holmes, who received the Navy Cross and a place in World War II history for his role in the successful mission to shoot down Yamamoto, died of a stroke July 23 at a hospital in Greenbrae, Calif. He was 88. A retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, he lived in San Rafael.
A San Francisco native who was credited with shooting down five enemy planes during World War II, Holmes was involved in the war from the start.
Sunday morning, Dec. 7, 1941, found the 24-year-old 2nd lieutenant in a Honolulu church, despite having spent the previous night at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and overindulging in sweet rum drinks while on a blind date.
"I was praying to God that my headache would go away when the first bombs fell," Holmes recalled in the first volume of "Aces Against Japan" in 1992.
Mass ended abruptly. Holmes and a fellow lieutenant wound up commandeering a civilian's Studebaker Champion and driving to an airstrip at Haleiwa on the north end of Oahu.
At one point, as he ran toward his P-36, a Japanese dive bomber strafed the dirt airfield about 45 yards away, and Holmes fired back with a .45-caliber pistol.
Still in the brown pinstriped suit and green tie that he had worn in church, Holmes spent 30 minutes flying over the island in an unsuccessful search for Japanese planes while avoiding fire from U.S. servicemen on the ground.
In the ensuing months, Holmes served with the 67th Pursuit Squadron, flying P-39 and P-400 fighters against Japanese Zeros during the Guadalcanal campaign.
Then came the mission to get Yamamoto, Japan's premier naval strategist and commander in chief of the imperial navy's combined fleet.
Maj. John Mitchell led the 16-plane mission, which took off from Guadalcanal at 7:15 a.m. on Palm Sunday, April 18, 1943.
Leading the four-plane "killer section" that would attack Yamamoto's plane was Capt. Thomas G. Lanphier Jr. The other pilots were Holmes and 1st Lts. Rex T. Barber and Raymond K. Hine.
As the American planes turned into the coast of Bougainville at 9:35 a.m., one of the 16 pilots broke radio silence to announce, "Bogies! 11 o'clock high!"
Instead of a single Japanese bomber as anticipated, however, there were two identical twin-engine bombers, dubbed Bettys, at 4,000 feet, with six Zero fighters about 1,500 feet above them.
Unable to determine which bomber carried Yamamoto, they would have to go after both.
Holmes, however, was unable to jettison his drop tanks and turned southeast to shake them off, according to a 2003 account of the mission in the journal Air Power History. As procedure dictated, Holmes' wingman, Hine, followed him.
That left Lanphier and Barber to initially deal with the two bombers and their six fighter escorts.
In the ensuing action, Barber and Lanphier fired at one of the bombers, which crashed on the island — the bomber that was later acknowledged to be carrying Yamamoto.
In the meantime, according to the 2003 account, Holmes and Hine attacked the other bomber, which had flown out over the sea. Barber joined the attack, and the bomber crashed into the sea. It had been carrying Yamamoto's chief of staff, Vice Adm. Matome Ugaki, who was able to make it ashore with two other seriously wounded survivors.
Controversy still persists over whether Barber or Lanphier deserves sole credit for destroying Yamamoto's aircraft.
And although Holmes was originally given full credit for downing the second bomber, Barber later claimed the kill.
Barber told the Houston Chronicle in 1993 that Holmes did not damage the bomber enough to down it. "I came in and finished it off," he said. Holmes responded by saying that he shot down the bomber after it crossed the coast and that Barber "didn't even fire until it had impacted."
The death of Yamamoto is said to have given the American war effort a major boost, while also inflicting a severe blow to the morale of the Japanese.
"In retrospect," Holmes said in the 1996 book, "it was probably one of the single most important air missions flown in the Pacific, and possibly in all of World War II. The Japanese did not win a single major engagement after the demise of Adm. Yamamoto."
During the Korean War, Holmes commanded a fighter-interceptor squadron based in Japan.
He also spent four years as chief of the Military Assistance Program for 17 Latin American countries and served in Vietnam before retiring in 1968.
He is survived by his wife of 62 years, Lavinia; children Katherine Roehm, Diana Movey, Frank Holmes and Robert Holmes; his brother, Robert; 10 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.