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Pearl Harbor Attacks Missed US Subs That Later Crippled Imperial Navy

Aerial view of the Pearl Harbor submarine base (right center) with the fuel farm at left, looking south on 13 October 1941. (Photo: US Navy)
Aerial view of the Pearl Harbor submarine base (right center) with the fuel farm at left, looking south on 13 October 1941. (Photo: US Navy)

The Japanese dive bombers and torpedo planes made a huge mistake on Dec. 7, 1941, by ignoring the U.S. submarine base at Pearl Harbor.

Four subs were tied up there as the attacks began at about 7:55 a.m. on that Sunday morning 74 years ago -- the USS Narwhal, USS Dolphin, USS Tautog and USS Cachalot.

The crews of the subs swiftly went into action, manning anti-aircraft guns on the decks and inflicting the first damage on the enemy by U.S. submarines that would escalate throughout the war and devastate the Japanese merchant and Imperial Navy fleets.

The Narwhal's crew was believed to have hit two enemy warplanes, and downed one; the Tautog knocked down a torpedo plane that exploded about 150 feet from the stern; the Dolphin was also believed to have shot down an enemy plane that exploded near the Cachalot, which was undergoing an overhaul, .

All four subs were undamaged in the attacks and went on to serve numerous Pacific patrols, according to an article by Katie Lange of Defense News. The Tautog alone was credited with sinking 26 Japanese ships, earning the nickname the "Terrible T."

But it was the undamaged submarine base left out of the battle plans of Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, commander in chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet, and Adm. Chuichi Nagumo, commander of the Japanese First Air Fleet, that the enemy would come to regret.

To that base, U.S. subs would return again and again in the course of the war with a broom proudly fixed to the conning tower signifying a "clean sweep" -- every target engaged had been sunk.

U.S. Navy submarines sank about 1,300 Japanese merchant ships and about 200 warships, including eight aircraft carriers, a battleship and 11 cruisers.

The overall destruction inflicted on Japan was noted by Adm. Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command (PaCom), in his remarks at the anniversary ceremonies at Pearl Harbor, but "We began to walk the pathway of reconciliation on the Missouri," the battleship on which the Japanese signed the surrender documents in Tokyo Bay in 1945.

"Our former enemies are now our close allies," said Harris, the son of Navy Chief Petty Harry Harris, Sr., and a Japanese mother. Harris was born at the U.S. Naval Base at Yokosuka, Japan, after the war.

Harris noted his enduring family ties to Pearl Harbor. His father was aboard the aircraft carrier Lexington, which was assigned to Pearl but was at sea during the attacks. The Lexington was later sunk at the Battle of Coral Sea.

PaCom now had the mission of "enhancing our already strong alliances with Japan," Harris said, as the U.S. rebalances forces to the Pacific.

"Let us re-dedicate ourselves," said Harris, the first Asian-American to reach four-star rank in the Navy, and deliver to future generations "the same gift of security and peace that was purchased for us" by those who died at Pearl Harbor. America has a duty "never to be caught flat-footed again," Harris said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at richard.sisk@military.com

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