The Buzz

Japan’s Midget Submarine Attack on Pearl Harbor Was a Suicide Mission

Boats on either side of the nets tugged them apart to allow friendly boats to pass through. On top of that, American destroyers prowled in a five mile arc around the harbor entrance, assisted by watchful eyes on orbiting PBY Catalina maritime patrol planes.

On paper, the Japanese intended for the submarine attack to work as well-planned heist. The midget subs would sneak in by following American ships passing through openings in the anti-submarine net.

Then the subs would lay low until the air attack sowed chaos throughout the harbor, at which point they would unleash their torpedoes at any American battleships that survived the bombing. Afterwards, the midget subs would slip away to Hawaii’s Lanai Island.

The submarines I-68 and I-69 would wait no more than 24 hours to pick up any surviving crew. The Japanese did not plan to recover the Type As themselves.

If everything worked out right, American officials would only receive the Japanese declaration of hostilities mere moments before the attack commenced. However, things didn’t go according to plan.

Just before 4:00 A.M., the minesweeper USS Condor spotted the periscope of the midget submarine Ha-20 and called over the destroyer USS Ward to search the area.

Just over an hour and a half later, crew aboard the Ward spotted a periscope in the wake of the cargo ship Antares as it passed through the anti-submarines nets. While a PBY Catalina patrol plane dropped smoke markers near the sub’s position, the Ward charged the sub.

Gunners fired two shots from the ship’s 4-inch main gun at less than 100 meters and followed up with four depth charges. The Type A vanished into the water.

For the crews, getting inside Pearl Harbor posed a serious challenge. Ships could only enter the port through a 65 foot-deep channel guarded by an anti-submarine net 35 feet deep.

Boats on either side of the nets tugged them apart to allow friendly boats to pass through. On top of that, American destroyers prowled in a five mile arc around the harbor entrance, assisted by watchful eyes on orbiting PBY Catalina maritime patrol planes.

On paper, the Japanese intended for the submarine attack to work as well-planned heist. The midget subs would sneak in by following American ships passing through openings in the anti-submarine net.

Then the subs would lay low until the air attack sowed chaos throughout the harbor, at which point they would unleash their torpedoes at any American battleships that survived the bombing. Afterwards, the midget subs would slip away to Hawaii’s Lanai Island.

The submarines I-68 and I-69 would wait no more than 24 hours to pick up any surviving crew. The Japanese did not plan to recover the Type As themselves.

If everything worked out right, American officials would only receive the Japanese declaration of hostilities mere moments before the attack commenced. However, things didn’t go according to plan.

Just before 4:00 A.M., the minesweeper USS Condor spotted the periscope of the midget submarine Ha-20 and called over the destroyer USS Ward to search the area.

Just over an hour and a half later, crew aboard the Ward spotted a periscope in the wake of the cargo ship Antares as it passed through the anti-submarines nets. While a PBY Catalina patrol plane dropped smoke markers near the sub’s position, the Ward charged the sub.

Gunners fired two shots from the ship’s 4-inch main gun at less than 100 meters and followed up with four depth charges. The Type A vanished into the water.

Taking on sea water caused the batteries to spew out deadly chlorine gas. A depth charge attack finally knocked out the periscope and disabled the midget submarine’s remaining undamaged torpedo.

Sakamaki decided to try and sail their stricken craft back to the mothership. He and Inagaki passed out as the choking gasses filling the inside of their ship.

The two managed to regain consciousness in the evening and decided to ground their sub near the town of Waimānalo to the east. However, they crashed on yet another reef.

A patrolling PBY bomber dropped depth charges on the crippled submarine. Sakamaki decided to abandon ship and attempted to detonate the scuttling charge — but even the ship’s self-destruct device failed to work.

Sakamaki succeeded in swimming ashore and promptly fell unconscious. His crewmate drowned.

The following morning, Hawaiian soldier David Akui captured a the Japanese sailor. The first Japanese prisoner of war of World War II, Sakamaki refused to cooperate during his interrogation, requesting that he be executed or allowed to commit suicide.

The Japanese military became aware of his capture, but officially claimed that all of the submarine crews had been lost in action. A memorial to the Special Attack Unit omitted his name.

The crew of Ha-18 abandoned ship without firing either of their torpedoes after falling victim to a depth charge attack. Nineteen years later, the U.S. Navy recovered the sub from the floor of Hawaii’s Keehi Lagoon and ultimately shipped it off for display at the Japanese Naval Academy at Etajima.

The fate of the fifth submarine, Ha-16, remains controversial. At 10:40 P.M., the crew of the I-16 intercepted a radio message that appeared to repeat the word “Success!” A few hours later, they received a second transmission: “Unable to navigate.”

The belief was that Ha-16 transmitted these alerts. In 2009, a Novadocumentary crew identified three parts of the midget submarine in a navy salvage pile off of West Loch, Hawaii.

A popular belief is that Ha-16 successfully entered the harbor and fired off its torpedoes. Then the crew slipped out and scuttled the sub off of West Loch island before perishing of unknown causes.

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