Most Pearl Harbor days I don’t learn anything new. The History Channel shows the same documentaries, news programs run essential the same stories, etc. Yesterday was different. I found out that one of the enduring controversies of the attack had been indisputably laid to rest.
Until recently only historians and WW2 nerds like myself even knew about the underwater component to the Pearl Harbor attack. In addition to the airplanes, you see, Japan had launched five midget submarines against the ships at anchor that day. Their mission was to penetrate through the torpedo nets, lay on the harbor floor until the air attack started, and then rise up and torpedo (in this order) aircraft carriers, battleships, and heavy cruisers.
The controversy regards the actions of the USS Ward, a destroyer whose crew has always claimed that they sank a small Japanese sub a full hour before the aerial attack. The crew maintained that they sent a shell through the conning tower and then depth charged the sub for good measure. They reported that they had sunk this sub right outside Pearl Harbor, but for reasons that remain murky this did not set off any alarms with higher command. So it was that the base was caught sleeping by the air attack an hour later.
For over 60 years, some people have disputed the statements of the Ward’s crew. They were inexperience, it was argued, and they didn’t know what they were seeing. No midget sub wreck from their attack was ever found either. Now, however, all that has changed. As you can see in this article, the wreck was finally located last year. And still visible after all these years is the shell hole in the conning tower that sank her, just like the Ward’s crew always said. The pictures and video footage are really something. The whole sub is intact, including the torpedoes.
That now accounts for four of the five midget subs (click here to see a neat diagram). None of the subs returned to the Japanese fleet and only one crewman survived the attack. I found an interest article from 1948 about the one survivor, who became Japanese POW #1 in the US.
The fifth sub remains elusive. A radio message was sent to the Japanese fleet 12 hours after the attack, but that’s the last that was heard from the midget subs. Last night’s episode of Unsolved History on the Discovery Network tried to prove that the fifth sub made it into the harbor and launched its two torpedoes at Battleship Row. If true, this would rewrite history a bit, since the midget sub attack is usually written off a complete failure. The evidence for this theory is an aerial photograph taken by the Japanese, which purports to show the missing sub on the surface during the attack and having just launched its torpedoes. The show was interesting and the evidence at least somewhat convincing. Unfortunately, the quality of the picture isn’t that great so the debate boils down to “is that blur in this photo a midget sub or not?”
Interestingly enough, the evidence that could have likely solved this question was sent to the bottom of the sea in 1942. During the Battle of Midway, the US sank four Japanese carriers and most of the Japanese footage of Pearl Harbor sank with them.