Steel Coffins: 7 December 1941 Part II

USS Ward opens fire on a Japanese sub. Art by Tom Freeman.

At 6.45 a.m. the Ward opened fire, the first shot from its No. 1 gun sailing over the little conning tower to land in the sea beyond. At this point the midget submarine was seen to noticeably increase speed, the commander evidently attempting to charge the open gate in the net and get inside the harbour. Shot number two from the Ward decided the issue, however, as the round ploughed into the base of the conning tower, but did not explode. The midget immediately heeled over violently and started to sink. Outerbridge decided to make sure and passed alongside the foundering submarine, four depth charges rolling off the back of the destroyer. The detonations finished the Japanese submarine, and she disappeared rapidly into the disturbed sea. The Ward now signalled to shore a message for the attention of Rear-Admiral Claude C. Bloch, Commandant of the 14th Naval District, and responsible for the Pearl Harbor base and facilities: ‘We have dropped depth charges upon sub operating in defensive area.’ Theoretically, such a message should have set alarm bells ringing all over Pearl Harbor that something was amiss, but when the first message was received (a second followed a couple of minutes later) at the Harbor Control Post at 6.51 a.m., getting the signals sent up the chain of command quickly proved difficult. A twenty-minute delayed ensued while the messages were decoded and re-sent, and because it was very early on Sunday morning only skeleton crews were manning the communication equipment anyway. The duty officer in charge of the security of the antisubmarine and ship net guarding the harbour, Lieutenant Harold Kaminski, took it upon himself to try to get things moving regarding some sort of response to the Ward’s messages. He telephoned Admiral Bloch’s chief-of-staff, Captain John B. Earle, and Kaminski also ordered the ready-duty destroyer, the USS Monaghan, to ‘proceed immediately and contact the Ward in defensive in sea area’. Captain Earle in turn telephoned Admiral Bloch, and the two senior officers discussed the reports, and concluded that it was probably just another false submarine sighting. With the Monaghan assisting the Ward the two vessels were more than capable of dealing with the situation. Earle told Kaminski to inform the 6th Fleet’s Operations Officer of the event, but to take no further action. Confusion reigned ashore, as the Ward now reported that she had intercepted a fishing sampan inside the security defence zone, and required a navy cutter to escort the vessel away from the vicinity. When Earle was informed he wondered why the Ward would go off intercepting sampans when she believed a submarine to be in the area, and concluded that the Ward’s crew had misidentified their earlier submarine contact. Therefore, it was just another false alarm.

The Japanese air armada of carrier aircraft, led by Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, was fast approaching Oahu. Another American destroyer, the USS Chew, reported to 14th Naval District that she had attacked and sunk a midget submarine outside the entrance to the harbour. The Ward continued depth-charging operations as American patrol vessels charged about seeing submarines everywhere. They were still busily engaged in this when the first Japanese aircraft passed overhead and roared down to bomb and strafe Ford Island, Battleship Row and Hickam Field US Army Air Corps base. The reports of submarine contacts were soon drowned out by the full-scale aerial assault being made on the naval base and vessels moored in the harbour. The Ward and the Monaghan sounded ‘General Quarters’ at 8 a.m., after a Japanese bomb landed close to the Monaghan. Anti-aircraft guns were hastily manned, the crews doing what they could to return fire against the Japanese planes knocking Pearl Harbor and the Pacific Fleet to pieces virtually at will.

By 8.14 a.m. the harbour patrol destroyers had commenced a steady anti-aircraft barrage directed against Commander Fuchida’s carrier air group. The Monaghan was ordered to move down the harbour approach channel, and while making this journey she encountered the seaplane tender USS Curtiss at 8.53 a.m. Although a massive air battle raged overhead, the Curtiss was flying signal flags indicating that a submarine was threatening her. Crewmen aboard the destroyer watched as the Curtiss trained her guns on the water and opened fire at a floating object. The destroyer quickly identified the object as a small submarine before the craft slinked beneath the surface, reappearing at 8.40 a.m. This midget submarine was well within the harbour defences, cruising around off Ford Island in the centre of the harbour. The midget had been able to penetrate so deeply into Pearl Harbor because, as related earlier, a gate had been left open from 5 a.m. that morning at the entrance to allow the USS Antares to enter. It had remained open while the destroyer USS Ward had attacked and sunk a midget submarine by the harbour entrance, and no one had subsequently closed the boom and net as Pearl Harbor came under sustained and heavy air attack that morning. The midget that was lurking off Ford Island shot a single torpedo that sailed past the Curtiss, narrowly missing the light cruiser USS Rayleigh, before running into the land opposite Pearl City and exploding.

The Monaghan now attempted to deal with the midget, firing a single 5-inch shell at the small conning tower from her main gun, but the midget turned about and shot its final torpedo at the destroyer. The Japanese torpedo shot past the Monaghan and blew up when it struck land at Ford Island. Lieutenant-Commander W. P. Burford, captain of the Monaghan, decided upon a drastic course of action at this point. He ordered the engine room to give him full speed, and then pointed the destroyer’s bows at the little submarine and set to ram it. After a few seconds the destroyer struck the midget, which was dragged along the length of the Monaghan before it passed by. A quick-thinking torpedoman stationed in the destroyer’s stern watched the midget submarine trail along the side of his ship, and quickly fused a depth charge that he dropped overboard alongside the midget. Burford ordered another depth charge dropped, but then the Monaghan ran aground onto a submerged mud bank. The two depth charges exploded, and great geysers of seawater, black with oil, shot high into the air marking the destruction of the Japanese submarine. The Monaghan extricated herself from the mud. All the time this little action was occurring Japanese air attacks continued all around the Americans, but the Monaghan and her crew were unharmed.

The Japanese submariners continued in their efforts to press home attacks on the US fleet. At 9.50 a.m. the destroyer USS Blue obtained a contact with a suspected submarine outside the harbour. The Blue laid a pattern of depth charges and reported the probable destruction of the enemy vessel. Attempting to exit the carnage that was Pearl Harbor that morning, the light cruiser USS St. Louis dodged two torpedoes running towards her before they exploded. A small submarine conning tower was seen, and the cruiser engaged the target with her main batteries, claiming to have scored hits.

The I-24’s temperamental Type-A, whose defective gyrocompass had almost cost Ensign Sakamaki his place on the mission, was now the only midget still operational. Sakamaki’s boat, however, had been extensively damaged by the depth charge barrages laid at the harbour entrance. The midget’s steering gear was almost gone, and the batteries were cracked and leeching noxious fumes into the crew compartment as Sakamaki and Petty Officer Inagaki struggled to nurse their vessel towards the harbour entrance channel, and its open gate. Both men were buoyed up immensely when Sakamaki viewed through the periscope the huge columns of black smoke rising from Pearl Harbor, indicating the success of the aerial assault. Sakamaki was determined that he would add to the destruction with his two torpedoes, never considering abandoning his mission and attempting to rendezvous with the mother submarines. At 8.15 a.m. Sakamaki surfaced the boat to attempt to locate the harbour entrance and a potential target through his periscope, only to have the American destroyer USS Helm loom large in the lens as the ship raced for the open sea. The destroyer clearly discerned the midget submarine limping towards the harbour entrance. As the two vessels converged, the Japanese submarine ground onto a submerged reef, exposing herself completely to the Helm’s guns. But, although the destroyer blazed away no hits were made, and gingerly, Sakamaki was able to get the Type-A off the reef and submerged. Once beneath the waves the two Japanese sailors assessed their situation. The air inside the submarine was becoming unbearable, and the men were in danger of being overcome by the battery fumes. The defective steering meant the Type-A wallowed around uncontrollably, making directed movement or assuming a firing position almost impossible. One of the torpedo tubes had also become inoperable as a result of striking the reef, so Sakamaki decided to use his entire vessel as one giant torpedo and ram the next American warship they encountered. This would result in their deaths, but both men were fully committed to such an end. For the rest of the morning Sakamaki vainly tried to obtain some measure of control over the submarine, but another grounding on a reef knocked out the second torpedo tube. The midget was now adrift, with the crew swimming in and out of consciousness in the thick air inside the submarine, as they attempted to reach Lanai Island and the mother ships waiting there. Sakamaki opened the submarines hatch to air the crew compartment, before falling asleep again, and for the rest of the night of the 7–8 December the submarine drifted about, hatch open, crew asleep until further efforts were made to use the engine to get them to Lanai. The engine barely worked, and the attempt was abandoned, for without a compass they also had no idea where they were, and which direction salvation lay. At some point on the early morning of 8 December the midget submarine ran aground for the final time on a reef some way off a deserted beach. Sakamaki ordered the vessel abandoned, and the two Japanese plunged into the heavy sea and attempted to swim for the shore. Unfortunately, Petty Officer Inagaki was lost in the waves and drowned, while Sakamaki washed up exhausted but alive on Waimanalo Beach, close to a devastated Bellow’s Field Army Air Corps base. Sakamaki came ashore virtually into the arms of a patrol of American soldiers from the 298th Infantry Regiment and was taken prisoner. Sakamaki was the first Japanese serviceman taken prisoner during the Second World War, and the young naval officer was stricken with humiliation and shame. It was to prove an intelligence coup for the Americans, and they hoped to discover from Sakamaki more about the strange little submarines that had so boldly attacked the anchorage.

The First Special Attack Flotilla’s assault on Pearl Harbor was an abject failure. All of the Type-As were destroyed during the operation, and not a single torpedo fired by the midgets struck a single American ship. Of the ten sailors who crewed the vessels, only Ensign Sakamaki survived the ordeal. However, the men who undertook the mission had not really thought much of their chances of coming back alive. The Imperial Japanese Navy honoured the memories of the nine dead men, and they were elevated to the level of war-gods, and posthumously promoted. Lieutenant Iwasa, the leader of the First Special Attack Flotilla was promoted to commander. Yokoyama and Furuno were advanced to lieutenant-commanders, and Ensign Hiro-o was made a lieutenant. Petty Officer First Class Yokoyama and Sasaki were commissioned with the rank of special ensign, while Petty Officer Second Class Ueda, Katayama and Inagaki became warrant officers in the afterlife. Ensign Sakamaki, who had had the misfortune to fall alive into enemy hands, was studiously ignored in the praise and honours distributed after the operation. His bravery was, in the eyes of the Imperial Navy, cancelled out by his failure to sacrifice his life for the Emperor when placed in an impossible situation. To add insult to injury, the scuttling charge that Sakamaki had set inside his midget before abandoning ship had failed to detonate, and the Americans were able to recover an intact example of the Type-A to study.

As regards American preparedness concerning this new form of underwater warfare, the harbour defences were not impregnable to submarine attack even when carefully monitored. Although the Americans usefully would leave the gate in the harbour protective net wide open between 4.58 and 8.46 a.m., even if the gate had been firmly shut it would not have been impossible for the Japanese midget submarines to have penetrated Pearl Harbor. They could have passed beneath the net. According to Gordon W. Prange on 7 December 1941, the net extended to a depth of forty-five feet, but the harbour channel plunged down to a maximum depth of seventy-two feet. The Type-A midget was twenty feet tall, from the bottom of the keel to the top of the conning tower, and this would have given a midget seven feet of leeway beneath the net. Because the Americans left the net gate open for so long none of the five Japanese midgets was forced to attempt the tricky manoeuvre of passing under the net, but it remain theoretically possible, further demonstrating the usefulness of the Type-A in overcoming harbour defence measures.

The activities of the other submarines involved in the Pearl Harbor operation were similarly disappointing. The four boats of the 3rd Submarine Squadron achieved only two kills before returning to Kwajalein on 17 December. The I-68 was damaged after being heavily depth-charged by American patrol boats thirty miles from the entrance to Pearl Harbor on 7 December, and the I-69 ended up entangled in floating line off southern Oahu after an unsuccessful torpedo attack on a merchant ship. Whilst caught up the boat was also depth-charged, and the crew only managed to extricate their submarine by working flat out for forty hours. The boat came to the surface with the crew almost asphyxiated by the stale air onboard. The I-72 managed to sink a small freighter 250 miles south of Oahu on 8 December, and the I-75 made a similar claim when 100 miles south of Kauai on the 17th. The seven submarines forming the 1st Submarine Squadron under Rear-Admiral Sato only managed to sink one merchant ship on 11 December. The seven ocean cruising boats of 2nd Submarine Squadron would continue patrols until 11 January 1942. The I-7 successfully conducted a dawn reconnaissance of battered Pearl Harbor on 17 December, the E14Y1 floatplane obtaining enough data to enable a complete damage report to be sent to Tokyo. Three days previously the I-4 had sunk the 4,858-ton Norwegian merchant ship Hoegh Merchant off Makapuu Point, Oahu.

Later, the Japanese had endeavoured to find and destroy the American aircraft carriers that they had missed during the Pearl Harbor attack, and in January 1942 a Japanese submarine had torpedoed the USS Saratoga 500 miles west of Hawaii. The Saratoga, though damaged, survived to fight again, and on every occasion Japanese Naval Intelligence discovered the possible locations of American aircraft carriers all forces were directed towards locating and sinking them, often to the detriment of submarine operations then in play. This kind of strategy continued to demonstrate that in the Japanese Navy’s mind submarines were vessels designed to work in close cooperation with the surface fleet, taking them away from the more valuable, with hindsight, tasks of sinking Allied merchant ships. The Japanese resolutely refused to use their submarine force in a similar fashion to the Germans, often with terrible results for the submarines employed against the increasingly technologically advanced antisubmarine detection equipped Allied warships.

The Japanese determined to understand why their massively potent submarine service deployed during and after the Pearl Harbor operation had failed to achieve the kind of impact expected. One reason was a command structure that saw the commander of 6th Fleet submarines, Admiral Shimizu, ensconced firmly on dry land at his headquarters in Kwajalein. Shimizu was simply too far removed from the situation to make much impact, or to have changed plans while the operation was ongoing. The overall commander also had a penchant for sending radio messages to his submarines when they were laying in position around Hawaii before the attack, alerting the Americans to a suspicious build-up of Japanese forces in the region. The Americans took care in routing merchant ships away from the reported locations of Japanese submarines, thereby limiting the boats’ abilities to find and sink targets around the islands when war came. Planning was rather uncoordinated, with much of the potential the submarines posed being squandered, leading to all the glory going to the Imperial Naval Air Service. A final factor that upset the Japanese sub-surface plan was the unexpected strength of American anti-submarine forces, emphasized by the fate of the Special Attack Force midget submarines.

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