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Japanese Mini-Subs At Pearl Harbor

Updated on June 30, 2015

First Shots

Contrary to popular belief, the first shots at Pearl Harbor were fired by an American naval vessel, nearly an hour before the Japanese air attack started.

The date was December 7, 1941 and the morning the Japanese Imperial Navy launched its infamous massive air attack killing 2,403 Americans and wounding 1,178.

The attack left 21 U.S. ships and 321 aircraft heavily damaged or destroyed, bringing America into World War II. Until relatively recent discoveries what many people didn’t know is Japan had a secret weapon. They were two man “midget submarines” launched earlier that fateful morning to sneak into Pearl Harbor and attack U.S. ships.

The Japanese Navy included five Type “A” midget submarines in the Pearl Harbor raid which were reportedly twice as fast as many U.S. subs of the times. Wreckage of the last of the five was identified recently with the help of Hawaii scientists. They had been transported on board large I type submarines and launched near the entrance to Pearl Harbor the night before the attack was to begin.

One was spotted trying to enter the harbor before dawn, was attacked and sunk by the USS Ward in the as yet undeclared Pacific War. Another entered the harbor and was sunk by the USS Monaghan. One more, in an unsuccessful attempt to penetrate Pearl Harbor, was found on the east coast of Oahu and captured the day after the attack.

USS Monaghan

The submarine sunk by the USS Monaghan was buried in a landfill shortly after its recovery. Two are on exhibit, one at Fredericksburg, Texas, and one found in 1960 at Eta Jima, Japan.

Recent examinations of Pearl Harbor attack photographs have led some researchers to conclude one of the midgets was in place off "Battleship Row" and may have fired its torpedoes at the USS Oklahoma or USS West Virginia. However this assumption is still controversial.

“Pearl Harbor was always seen as an aerial attack,” explained Parks Stephenson, lead investigator of an underwater expedition for PBS science series “Nova,” which explored the wreckage of a midget submarine.

All but one of the five was found over the years, “either destroyed, scuttled or run aground,” NOVA expounded. “They missed the targets, failed to fire or were recovered with torpedoes intact. But historians have long puzzled over the fate of the missing sub.”

Stephenson, a Lockheed Martin engineer, found three sections of the missing sub in cruises over the past few years in the same area south of Pearl Harbor. Why it was found in three sections several miles outside of Pearl Harbor had been a mystery. Then classified information was recently discovered about an ammunition explosion that killed about 200 sailors and wounded hundreds of others in West Loch on May 21, 1944.

First POW at Pearl

NOVA explained “The U.S. Navy quickly and quietly cleaned up the remnants of the West Loch disaster to get the top-secret Normandy invasion back on track.”

As further exploration ensued, Pearl Harbor veterans informed “NOVA” investigators the Arizona had been torpedoed from below, but “NOVA” divers who filmed the hull 40 feet beneath the surface found no visible signs of a torpedo hit.

According to Burl Burlingame, a Star-Bulletin writer, author of “Advance Force Pearl Harbor” and a historian for the “NOVA” project, “The more we learn, the more mysterious it gets.”

However, there was a Japanese midget submarine survivor, according to the Gonzales Inquirer edition of December 9, 1948.Kazuo Sakamaki, a midget submarine captain, was the only Japanese survivor of the midget submarine participation at Pearl Harbor as well as the first US Prisoner of War captured there.

Sakamaki had been ready to die for his country in 1941. But, when interviewed in 1948 his opinion had dramatically changed. At the time of his interview, Sakamaki, worked as a clerk at a Toyota truck company. He no longer believed he disgraced himself, his family, his country, the Imperial Japanese Navy and emperor by being captured after his submarine grounded off Pearl Harbor.

Sakamaki recalls the rigorous studies and long, hard hours he endured for the upcoming battle. He studied at the naval academy, learned to fly at Kasumigatura, practiced seamanship aboard the training ship Abukuma and took special training at Chujo Bay, which closely resembles Pearl Harbor. He was commissioned a sub-lieutenant.

He told how his midget submarine was launched from its "hanger" on the afterdeck of a mother submarine off Pearl Harbor when he was only 23 years old. His orders were to coordinate an underwater attack in conjunction with the aerial bombardment and to attack, in order, aircraft carriers, battleships, and heavy cruisers. His orders also included instructions to rendezvous after the attack off Lanai Island. But he knew that would not happen as all were expected to die for their country.

Could the Americans have been warned in time to defend themselves? Imagine what may have happened had they an hour's advance notice? And did any of the midget subs actually succeed in their mission?


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    • EQTactics profile image

      Etienne Luu 

      7 years ago from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States

      Very Interesting!

    • JY3502 profile imageAUTHOR

      John Young 

      7 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Well, I write a lot of those...look'em up!

    • leabeth profile image


      7 years ago

      What an interesting article! I like reading about events in the past.

    • wsupaul88 profile image


      7 years ago from Seattle, WA

      Nice Hub, I found it very interesting!


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