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Japan’s Attempt To Use Miniature Submarines To Attack Pearl Harbor

One of the minisubs may have hit the USS West Virginia battleship at Pearl Harbor, based on at least circumstantial evidence.

It is the morning of December 7, 2022, the 81st anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. A few hours from now, the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS) National Capital Commandery will host its annual Pearl Harbor Memorial Dinner.

Even though I have no personal ties to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the events of that day still resonate with me for two reasons: (a) my father had just graduated from Omaha North High School in Nebraska six months before Pearl and was soon after enlisting in the Marine Corps to serve as a B-25 Mitchell armourer with Marine Air Group (MAG) 61; and (b) the day after Pearl, Imperial Japan began its invasion of the Philippines, forcing my mother, who was only two at the time, to leave.

Although an overwhelming success for Japan and a shattering humiliation for the United States, Hideki Tojo’s victory at Pearl Harbor was not without cost:

  • The enemy shot down 29 planes.
  • Five mini-submarines were sunk or ran aground.
  • Fifty-five sailors and airmen were KIA.

In an otherwise very impressive—but ultimately misguided—Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) attack, those minisubs stood out as a particularly embarrassing failure.

Five IJN midget submarines of the Type A K-hyteki () class met an untimely end. One junior commissioned officer, usually an ensign (Kaigun-shi) or a lieutenant (Kaigun-chi) (the equivalent of a lieutenant j.g. in the U.S. Navy), commanded the vessel. In contrast, a petty officer handled valves and transferred ballast to manage trim and diving.

Type A is 9 feet 10 inches tall, 5 feet 11 inches wide, and 78 feet 5 inches long (as if a submarine wasn’t claustrophobic enough). Forty-seven tonnes submerged. The test took place at 98 feet at 23 knots and 19 knots.

The USS Ward takes first blood from the IJN Midgets.

Boat No. 20’s crew was the first to die in the December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor attack. The USS Ward crew caused these fatalities (DD-139). As explained by PearlHarbor.Org:

The minesweeper Condor sent a message to Ward at 3:58, stating that they had sighted what seemed to be a submarine—only that weekend had Lt. William Outerbridge assumed command of the Ward as its skipper. He then started “pinging” and calling H.Q. immediately. Ward could not locate the sub that Condor had spotted, and the pinging had no effect. By 6:30 AM, a PBY aircraft sighted a submarine. The USS Antares, a repair ship, spotted the submarine it was attempting to target. After spotting it, the Ward sped up to 25 knots and headed straight towards the submarine. As she closed within 500 yards of the Japanese minisub, she fired at it and scored a direct hit. There was a heel in the submarine, and it started to sink. In total, Ward released four depth charges. The oil flowing from the submarine was visible from both Ward and Antares.

The wreck of the No. 20 get found in August 2002, and on the 75th anniversary of her sinking, on December 7, 2016, she was recovered from a depth of 400 metres (1,312 feet).

By 7:30 that morning, word of the sinking had reached Pearl Harbor’s C.O., Admiral Husband E. Kimmel; however, Kimmel did not take action on the claim since similar reports had previously turned out to be “kid who cried wolf” stories and the Army was not aware. This fed conspiracy theories that high-ranking American government and military members were aware of the impending attack.

No. 20’s teammates didn’t fare much better.

None of the other three sister ships, numbered 18, 19, and 20, fared much better: No. 18 got damaged in a depth charge attack, and her crew abandoned ship without firing the torpedoes; No. 19 ran aground on the east coast of Oahu, and its pilot, Ensign Kazuo Sakamaki, became the first Japanese prisoner of war captured by American forces; and No. 22 paid with her life when the latter sank her.

Based on photographic evidence and other hints, it appears that one of the minisubs, possibly No. 16, fired her torpedoes and hit the battleships USS West Virginia and USS Oklahoma. Aichi D3A “Val” dive bombers and Nakajima B5N “Kate” torpedo bombers from the Japanese air force caused most of the damage throughout the war. Whatever the reason, the crew of the No. 16 most likely scuttled the ship, and its debris was found about three miles from the Pearl Harbor entrance.

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