Colonel Rex T. Barber is one of the principal P-38 pilots who participated in the famous (and then highly classified) "Yamamoto" mission, which helped turn the tide of World War II against the Japanese. Born in Oregon in 1917, Barber joined the Army Air Corps in late 1940. After graduation from flight training, he checked out in the P-40 and was halfway to Hawaii aboard a ship when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. His unit was eventually moved to Guadalcanal in December 1942 where he transferred to the 339th Fighter Squadron flying P-38 Lightnings.
On 18 April 1943, he participated as one of the four designated "kill flight" pilots in a 16-plane mission to intercept and shoot down an aircraft carrying Admiral Yamamoto, Chief of the Japanese Navy, and most of his key staff. For his heroic action on this mission, Barber was awarded the Navy Cross. After the "Yamamoto" mission, Barber returned to the United States, but soon volunteered to fly against the Japanese with the Fourteenth Air Force in China under General Claire Chennault. He briefly commanded the 449th Fighter Squadron and flew 28 combat missions in P-38s until he was shot down over enemy territory near the Yangtze River in April 1944. Despite serious injuries, he evaded capture for 2 months with the aid of Chinese guerrillas and returned to friendly territory in June. After convalescing in the United States, Barber began testing the new P-80 Shooting Star jet fighter.
In July 1945, he assumed command of the 31st Jet Fighter Squadron--the first operational Air Force unit to receive jet aircraft. In this capacity, he also flew one of the first jet aircraft to participate in the famous Bendix Trophy Race. Colonel Barber retired from the Air Force in 1961 and returned to Oregon. He was a highly successful businessman and owned and managed several companies until his final retirement in 1984.
At dawn on 18 April 1943, 18 P-38s fitted with special long-range fuel tanks departed from Guadalcanal. The mission was to intercept an aircraft carrying Admiral Yamamoto on an inspection tour of front-line units. Intelligence sources revealed the Admiral would arrive over Bougainville Island approximately 2 hours later. On the way, two P-38s dropped out due to mechanical troubles. The remaining 16 continued and navigated over 420 miles of ocean at an altitude of 30 feet to avoid detection by the Japanese. Lieutenant Barber's P-38 was part of the 4-ship division designated to attack Admiral Yamamoto's aircraft while the rest of the formation flew "top cover." With uncanny accuracy, the P-38s arrived at the intercept point just as two Japanese twin-engine "Betty" bombers with the Admiral and his staff, and escorted by six Zero fighters, began to let down for a landing at the airfield at Ballale. In the incredibly swift action that followed, the attacking P-38s destroyed both bombers and claimed three of the fighters. Barber pressed the attack on one bomber so close that when it "exploded in his face" parts from the stricken aircraft damaged an engine of his P-38 and left paint streaks from the bomber on the fighter's wing. The victorious Lightnings returned home with the loss of only one aircraft. In the confusion of the attack, it was difficult to determine exactly who shot down Yamamoto's bomber. Lieutenant Barber is officially credited with one victory and the shared destruction of two other aircraft on this mission--this brought his total to five aerial victories.