Besby Frank Holmes, 88, Ace Who Scored a Big Kill in 1943, Dies

New York Times, August 3, 2006

By Richard Goldstein

Besby Frank Holmes, a World War II ace who took his fighter plane fruitlessly to the air when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor but was finally able to pursue vengeance as part of the 1943 mission that brought the death of Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of the attack, died July 23 in Greenbrae, Calif. He was 88.

The cause was a stroke, said his daughter Diana Movey.

On Dec. 7, 1941, Lieutenant Holmes was stationed at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked. On April 18, 1943, he was among 16 pilots of the Army Air Forces flying P-38 Lightning fighters, who left Guadalcanal on a flight of more than 400 miles to the island of Bougainville in the Solomons.

American intelligence, having broken Japanese naval codes, knew that Yamamoto, Japan’s foremost naval strategist and commander of its Combined Fleet, was flying to Bougainville and would arrive shortly after 9:30 a.m.

Lieutenant Holmes, along with Capt. Thomas Lanphier Jr., Lt. Rex Barber and Lt. Raymond Hine, were ordered to shoot down Yamamoto with the other pilots’ support.

After flying for some two and a half hours, the 16 pilots arrived over Bougainville and spotted two Japanese bombers, known as Bettys, accompanied by six Zero fighters.

The lead bomber was shot down and crashed in a jungle, killing everyone aboard. Soon afterward, Japanese soldiers found Yamamoto’s body. Captain Lanphier and Lieutenant Barber received joint credit for killing Yamamoto, but a dispute has long endured over which pilot was instrumental in downing his plane.

Lieutenant Holmes and Lieutenant Barber attacked the second bomber, which crashed in the ocean. That plane was carrying Yamamoto’s chief of staff, Vice Adm. Matome Ugaki.

“A huge puff of smoke, followed by orange flame, burst from the engine cowling,” Mr. Holmes later wrote in Popular Aviation magazine. “As I pulled up to make another pass, I saw the Betty crash. It hit the water with great force, broke into pieces and scattered over the surface of the ocean.”

But Ugaki scrambled from the wreckage with two other survivors and made it to shore, seriously wounded. He led a kamikaze raid to Okinawa the day Japan surrendered and was never heard from again.

Lieutenant Holmes and Lieutenant Barber were jointly credited with shooting down Ugaki’s plane, and Lieutenant Holmes also downed a Japanese fighter that day.

He received the Navy Cross and was credited with five and a half kills in World War II, giving him designation as an ace.

Besby Frank Holmes, a native of San Francisco, remained in military service until 1968, when he retired as a lieutenant colonel.

In addition to his daughter Diana, of Fresno, Calif., he is survived by his wife, Lavina; his daughter Katherine Roehm of Fairfax, Va., his sons Frank, of Petaluma, Calif., and Robert, of St. Petersburg, Fla.; a brother, Robert, of San Diego; 10 grandchildren; and 6 great-grandchildren.


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