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Livestream to Reveal Japanese Mini-Sub Sunk Near Pearl Harbor

The conning tower of the mini submarine sunk by the USS Ward. Photo courtesy of the University of Hawaiʻi/HURL
The conning tower of the mini submarine sunk by the USS Ward. Photo courtesy of the University of Hawaiʻi/HURL

A submersible from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will dive down more than 1,100 feet off Pearl Harbor on Wednesday to show the public for the first time a Japanese mini-submarine that was sunk by the first shot fired by the U.S. in the war in the Pacific.

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The "Discoverer" remotely operated submersible is expected to reach the mostly intact wreck of the Japanese midget submarine at 6:30 a.m. local time (11:30 a.m. East Coast time), the approximate time 75 years ago when the U.S. destroyer Ward on Dec. 7, 1941, fired a shell from a four-inch deck gun that doomed the mini-sub, said James Delgado, director of Maritime Heritage at NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration and Research.

Speaking to Military.com from the deck of NOAA's research ship Okeanos Explorer, which will launch and pilot the Discoverer, Delgado said the wreck of the Type "A" Ko-hyoteki class mini-sub was evidence that "we weren't caught napping" in the attack by Japanese warplanes that decimated the U.S. Pacific Fleet and killed more than 2,400.

The Ward immediately sent the message that a Japanese submarine several miles off Oahu had been "sighted, fixed upon and sunk," but it took about 45 minutes as the message worked its way through channels to reach Adm. Husband Kimmel, commander of the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor.

The bombs from the first wave of Japanese attack planes began falling at 7:53 a.m., and there wasn't enough time to mount a defense, Delgado said.

'Not Napping'

"The Ward was not napping, Bill Tanner was not napping," Delgado said in reference to Navy Lt. (j.g.) Bill Tanner, the pilot of a PBY Catalina on patrol off Pearl Harbor, who also spotted what he thought were two or possibly three Japanese mini-subs just before the Ward opened fire.

The damage inflicted by the Ward on the mini-sub was unmistakable, said Hans Van Tilburg, a NOAA marine archaeologist. "Yes, you can see it on the side of the conning tower; it's very noticeable. It's a four-inch hole about the size of what the shell would have left," he said.

The Japanese mini-sub was one of two at the bottom of the sea in the same general area that will be shown in the NOAA livestream. The second sub was in three pieces and was believed to have foundered because of design and system failures.

"Until now, only a handful of explorers and scientists have seen these relics of the war in the deep sea," Delgado said, "but thanks to technology, anyone and everyone can now dive with us in the first live exploration of the 'midget' submarines that represent the beginning of the war in the Pacific."

The mini-subs were the brainchild of Marshal Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Combined Fleet of the Imperial Japanese Navy and architect of the Pearl Harbor attacks, but he never intended to use them in the first strike, Delgado said.

Yamamoto's Grand Plan

In Yamamoto's grand plan, the two-man, 78-foot mini-subs, which carried two torpedoes and were capable of speeds in excess of 20 knots on the surface, were defensive weapons to be used to thwart the inevitable U.S. counter-attack on the home islands.

Dozens of the mini-subs would be launched from submarine tenders to swarm "out of nowhere" against the approaching U.S. fleet under Yamamoto's original plan, Delgado said, but others in the high command convinced him to include the mini-subs in the Pearl Harbor attack. The Japanese rigged a "cradle" for the mini-subs to be carried on the decks of larger submarine "mother ships" in the advance on Pearl Harbor.

On the morning of the attacks, five of the large submarines launched five mini-subs despite problems with the smaller subs that had been detected on the long journey to Hawaii. An inspection sheet found after the war showed 25 defects in one of the mini-subs, Delgado said, but on that morning they were in position to attempt to follow U.S. ships into Pearl Harbor to get past the submarine nets.

The orders were to fire their torpedoes once inside the harbor and then attempt to escape to rendezvous with the mother ships off Lanai Island.

The mini-sub sunk by the Ward first tried to follow the U.S. minesweeper Condor into Pearl Harbor but was spotted by the Condor. The Condor sent a blinker message to the Ward: "Sighted submerged submarine on westerly course 9 knots," according to the Board of Inquiry convened after the attacks.

The Ward made a sonar search but could not find sub. The mini-sub then tried to follow the Navy cargo ship Antares, which also notified the Ward. The destroyer went to general quarters and fired twice.

The first shot went high, but the second hit the mini-sub. The Ward followed up with depth charges, the Board of Inquiry said.

The deck gun from the Ward that fired the "first shot" is now a monument on the grounds of Minnesota's state capitol in St. Paul. The inscription says that "By sinking Japanese submarine on the morning of 7 December 1941 off Pearl Harbor, this gun has the distinction of being the first naval gun to speak America's reply in World War II."

All five of the Japanese mini-subs launched against Pearl Harbor were lost, as were nine of the 10 Japanese sailors aboard them who had been designated the "Special Attack Forces." Only one of the five mini-subs managed to get inside the harbor, and it was quickly sunk with depth charges by the destroyer Monaghan.

'First Prisoner'

The sole survivor of the mini-subs was Ensign Kazuo Sakamaki, whose mini-sub washed up on Dec. 8 on Oahu's Waimanalo Beach. He became the "first prisoner" taken by the U.S. in World War II.

Sakamaki asked permission of his captors to commit suicide, but the request was denied and he spent the remainder of the war in prison camps, where he became a pacifist. His name was stricken from the military rolls and he officially ceased to exist in Japan for surrendering to the enemy.

In his memoir, titled "I Attacked Pearl Harbor" in the U.S., Sakamaki wrote, "We were taught, and we came to believe, that the most important thing for us was to die manfully on the battlefield -- as the petals of the cherry blossoms fall to the ground -- and that in war there is only victory and no retreat."

He was repatriated after the war and in 1946 married his wife, Sadako, whose father and brother had been killed in the Hiroshima atomic bombing. He later became an executive for Toyota Corp. but was still scorned in Japan and so served in the company's Brazilian subsidiary.

The captured mini-sub became a traveling exhibit to raise money for war bonds. Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt inspected it. The mini-sub is now permanently on display at the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas.

In 1991, Sakamaki came to the U.S. and visited the Texas museum. He approached his mini-sub and caressed its side. "Hello, friend," he said, and then wept. Sakamaki died in Japan at age 81 in 1999.

The mini-subs at the bottom off Pearl Harbor are now considered war graves and, for Delgado, they are part of the legacy of the attacks that must be kept inviolate. "They're almost all gone now," he said of the veterans of Pearl Harbor, both Japanese and U.S.

When they are gone, "the memories of them will be as distant as the Civil War is to us," Delgado said. "How do we carry it forward?"

What will be left is the legacy in the artifacts and the places, he said. "These are the touchstones," he said, including mini-subs at the bottom of the sea. "The coming generations can learn from them."

Pearl Harbor is "more than just the story of young men, full of patriotic fervor and idealism, going off to war." It is also the story of the following generations of both nations, and how "75 years later those enemies became friends," Delgado said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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