Sasebo seeks to preserve station linked to Pearl Harbor attack order
By MATTHEW M. BURKE AND ELENA SUGIYAMA | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 5, 2011
SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — “Niitakayama nobore 1208.”
With those words, 2,390 lives, 164 aircraft, and some might even say the innocence of a nation, were lost on Dec. 7, 1941. The attack on Pearl Harbor had plunged the U.S. into a brutal world war
The message, which translated means “Climb Mount Niitaka 1208,” was uttered over the radio from the Japanese battleship Nagato and relayed to a transmission station in Tokyo. From there, it was relayed to another station before reaching the fleet and setting off the infamous surprise attack.
In recent months, Japanese officials in Sasebo have made efforts to protect and preserve a mysterious piece of the history that might have played a key role that fateful day: the Hario wireless telegraph station. The station is believed to be the last station on mainland Japan to receive and relay the message before it reached the strike group.
Officials said they hope to designate the site, located about 15 miles from Sasebo Naval Base, a cultural asset that can be used to educate future generations about the war.
“Because the site in a way symbolizes the war, we use it as a place to teach the children about the war,” said Hideaki Matsuo of the Sasebo City Board of Education and a leader of the preservation efforts. “We tell the children how the war began, what happened and how sad it was, and that’s why we need to treasure it.”
Matsuo said a final decision getting the site designated — a process that includes an investigation by the Council of Cultural Affairs — could take place by the end of 2012.
Construction began on the three 446-foot transmission towers at the station in 1918 and was completed in 1922. Improved communications were needed as Japan began to expand its empire. Despite heavy bombing in Sasebo by the U.S., the towers remained standing after the war.
Sasebo Naval Base historian Philip Eakins, who has studied the towers and visited them many times, said rumors swirl to this day that the Americans couldn’t find them to bomb, something he doesn’t believe. He said the Americans knew where they were there based on aerial reconnaissance he has seen from the time. The American GIs might have left them alone because they wanted to use them or they weren’t an important enough target, he said.
They were decommissioned by the Japanese in 1997 and today are in the care of the Japanese Coast Guard.
The towers are easily spotted from air and sea, but almost impossible to find by car, hidden on paths off the maze of farming roads near U.S. military housing and surrounded by groves of citrus. Despite what is known about the towers, there is no consensus on what role, if any, they played in the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Historians, Japanese military officials, and Sasebo residents alike believe the radio towers did in fact relay the attack message, but no one may ever know with certainty. Japanese officials acknowledge that after Japan surrendered, the government ordered all of their documents burned.
“I believe the message was transmitted through Sasebo,” said Chief Petty Officer Kazuhiko Tomonaga, a public affairs officer with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force Sasebo District Headquarters. “Hario station was built to send out signals to Asia and China so I think it’s possible that the transmission came through Hario.”
The Japanese believe that the message was relayed from the towers in Sasebo to a larger station in Taiwan (then called Formosa), then out to the fleet. The JMSDF even display two actual copies of the message in their museum in Sasebo, one next to a photo of the three radio towers, and another next to a photo of the burning American ships at Pearl Harbor.
“We have heard stories where a Japanese military pilot (not involved in the raid) flying over Sasebo captured the transmission to attack Pearl Harbor,” Matsuo said. “It is said that the pilot knew that it was transmitted from Hario radio station… But we have no documents to prove the stories are true.”
“I don’t have any reason to doubt that it did come through there,” Eakins said. “Right after they surrendered, they started burning stuff. A lot of documentation was purposely destroyed. Whether that report was one of them? It could have been.”
Norikatsu Shika, curator at the JMSDF museum, said that he has seen documents proving the theory but couldn’t remember which ones or where he saw them.
“I believe the message that was sent out from the battleship Nagato transmitted through Hario,” he said. “It’s in the books.”