Mariners' Museum lecturer recounts midget submarines' attack on Pearl Harbor

A Japanese midget submarine is shown soon after its recovery near the entrance to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in 1960. It had participated in the Dec. 7, 1941 attack, but had apparently been unable to enter the harbor, as its torpedoes had not been fired.


By ALI ROCKETT | Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) | Published: December 7, 2015

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (Tribune News Service) — When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor 74 years ago Monday, they launched hundreds of airplanes over Hawaii.

But also, beneath the blue Hawaiian waters, five midget submarines — 80-feet-long, battery-powered craft, crewed by two men and equipped with two deadly torpedoes — made their way toward the harbor early that day. Most have forgotten the part these small craft played in the attack.

James Delgado, director of maritime heritage for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has been piecing together the history of these mysterious subs for more than 30 years, and will be sharing what he's discovered at The Mariners' Museum later this week.

"The midget submarines epitomized for many Americans the nature of the attack (on Pearl Harbor)," Delgado said. "Tiny, stealth weapons; they were seen as sneaky. And the entire attack, of course, because it was a surprise attack and war had not been declared, not only was denounced as a terrible act, but anger over Pearl Harbor immediately propelled the United States into World War II. Midget subs, because of their failure at Pearl Harbor, have often been seen by historians as a failed craft. What I'm going to be talking about is how they really were an effective submarine, and were misused by the Japanese high command leading to the not only characterizing them incorrectly, but also for the loss many of the Japanese submariners."

Delgado's research started several decades ago at the Newport News museum studying a rare piece in its collection: a prototype of the Japanese midget submarine program. Built in 1938 by the Japanese Navy shrinking earlier designs from fisherman Ishimatsu Nishimura, this submarine was donated by the U.S. Navy to the Mariners' Museum in 1946 and is the only remaining Nishimura-style submarine left in the world, according to Jeanne Willoz-Egnor, director of collections management and curator of scientific instruments.

This early version looks nothing like the ones that attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, Delgado said. But it was the start of the program.

"They were built to be launched off a big ship," he said. "In battle, they would launch them in squadrons to zoom on out. They were built to be fast, and they could fire their two torpedoes delivering a deadly punch. So basically they swarmed like bees in the midst of a big sea battle, which is what the Japanese Navy believed in and had trained for. But that was not the war they ended up fighting."

As the attack on the U.S base neared, Delgado said "the midget submariners begged for a chance to show their valor."

"It was a tragic mistake, not only for those crews of those five subs but for that entire program," he said.

Through his research, which included interviews with Japanese historians and veterans of the submarine corps, and underwater dives to the wrecks of two midget submarines that were discovered at the entrance of Pearl Harbor, Delgado has recreated the attack.

Around 12:32 a.m. Dec. 7, 1941, the five midget subs were launched about 10 miles off Pearl Harbor's entrance, he said. One was spotted around 3:45 a.m. Another, a little after 6 a.m. when the destroyer, USS Ward, shot and sank it.

"That was the first shot the Pacific war," he said. "But it failed to warn everybody else at Pearl Harbor. It was just as the message was making its rounds and finally it reached the top ... the Japanese planes struck. Historians have often said had the Ward's report come in faster, like modern times, then the fleet would have been at full alert when the Japanese planes came in."

Only two subs are believed to have made it into the harbor. One, spotted just after 8 a.m., fired its torpedoes missing their target, was sunk by the destroyer USS Monaghan. Another was photographed during the attack firing its torpedoes.

Two others sunk just outside the harbor entrance with their torpedoes still attached. A final sub drifted around the island until it beached. Its pilot Kazuo Sakamaki became the first prisoner of war in World War II.

Delgado said he's excited to share what he's learned, much of which is newly developed, with The Mariners' Museum, which he said was key to his research.

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