Thursday, December 10, 2009

Pearl Harbor: Two Mysteries Solved

Accounts of the the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor usually focus on the two waves of Japanese carrier-based warplanes that attacked the U.S. Pacific Fleet in the morning of December 7, 1941. Rarely is any attention given to the five Japanese midget submarines that were ordered penetrate Pearl's harbor defenses and attack the U.S. fleet. Four of the midget subs have been found, but mystery has shrouded what happened to the fifth, at least until just recently.

The five midget submarines were carried by five "mother" submarines to within 10 miles of Pearl Harbor and launched in the early hours of December 7. Midget A (U.S. Navy designation) was sunk by the USS Ward, a destroyer on patrol outside the harbor entrance, about 6:45 am by the first shots fired in the Pacific theater. This sunken submarine was located in 2002 by a team from Hawai‘i Undersea Research Laborator. Midget B penetrated the harbor, but was rammed and depth-charged by the destroyer USS Monaghan, sinking it. It was raised in 1942. Midget C suffered mechanical difficulties and ran aground. It was captured the next day on the east side of Oahu along with one surviving crew member, who became the first Japanese POW. The sub was later used in U.S. war bond drives. Midget D launched its two torpedoes at the cruiser USS St. Louis off the coast of Oahu, but missed. The cruiser returned fire and apparently sank it. U.S Navy divers located in 1960 during a training exercise.

The fate of Midget E has been unknown until recently, but at 10:41 pm that night, its mother submarine received a radio message indicating a successful surprise attack. A recent report in the Los Angeles Times seems to confirm this and may require a slight rewrite of history:
[A] variety of new evidence suggests that the fifth fired its two 800-pound torpedoes, most likely at the battleships West Virginia and Oklahoma, capsizing the latter. A day later, researchers think, the mini-sub's crew scuttled it in nearby West Loch.
A disaster at West Lock in 1944 destroyed LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank). In the cleanup, the wreckage of the LSTs and Midget E were dumped in the ocean south of Pearl. Pieces of the sub were discovered in between 1994 and 2001, but were not recognized as the fifth midget sub until recently.

The discovery of Midget E appears to resolve a second mystery: why the battleship USS Oklahoma rolled over when she sank, killing hundreds of crewmen. (See picture.) The other battleships that were sunk that day sank on an even keel, except for the USS Arizona, which blew up. A hit from a submarine-launched torpedo, rather than from an aerial torpedo appears to explain this.

This discovery may be only a minor footnote to military history, but it illustrates several points that are relevant today.  Two dedicated men willing to sacrifice their own lives can cause a lot of death and destruction. Their successful attack was probably responsible for killing the majority of the 429 men that died on the USS Oklahoma that day. Fortunately, the other torpedo was a dud or that tragedy might have been repeated on the USS West Virginia.

More importantly, it illustrates the skill and bravery of the servicemen (and women) who go into harm's way to protect us. If the crew of the minesweeper USS Antares, which alerted the USS Ward, had not been alert or if the crews of the other ships had not sunk three of the midget subs, more men could easily have been killed and more ships sunk. I am deeply thankful to those who are serving in the U.S. armed forces and the millions that served before them and in many cases made the ultimate sacrifice.

Picture of the USS Oklahoma courtesy of the National Archives via Wikipedia.

Hat tip: George Smiley at In From the Cold.

Additional Reading:
Thomas H. Maugh II, "Pearl Harbor mini-submarine mystery solved?" Los Angeles Times
James P. Delgado, "Japanese Midget Submarine HA-19," National Park Service

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