Pearl Harbor and the Japanese Midget Submarines

The Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, on December 7th, 1941, was a two pronged attack, comprised of both aerial and underwater components. Five Midget submarines were launched from I-Class mother subs, at the entrance to the harbor. The five Midgets took part in the attack, but history was unclear as to what degree. Remains of two of the midget subs were located shortly after the attack.The third was located by Navy divers in 1960. The fourth, sunk by the USS Ward prior to the air assault, was located by HURL in 2002. That left the last of the midget submarines, and the full story of the underwater attack at Pearl Harbor, still something of a mystery.

I helped to put together a TV project for Nova on the Japanese Midget submarine attack at Pearl Harbor, and the missing fifth Midget. While working on the project, I had the opportunity to dive the USS Arizona with the National Park Service, and with divers from the US Navy Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit One. I was also able to dive in HURL's Pisces submersibles to the newly discovered wreckage of the last of the five Japanese Midget Submarines, in 1200 feet of water. The location of the last Midget Submarine answered many questions,but inspired many more.

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Hawai'i Undersea Research Lab

PBS Nova Killer Subs of Pearl Harbor companion website

Killer Subs in Pearl Harbor DVD


I-16tou website by Parks Stevenson

Combined Fleet chronology of the Midget Submarine attack

US Navy History of the West Loch Disaster

Advance Force Pearl Harbor by Burl Burlingame

13 Responses

  1. Jon
    Of interest, a quote from website NOAA website: In 1951, one of the two missing submarines was discovered in shallow water off the entrance to Pearl Harbor. It had been partially destroyed by an internal explosive charge, probably set off by its crew when they could not escape. Raised by the U.S. Navy, it was quietly taken out to sea and dumped in deep water. In 1960, the second missing submarine was discovered. It, like the other submarine, lay in shallow water near the entrance to Pearl Harbor. It was raised by the Navy, and its bow, still armed with torpedoes, was taken off and dumped at sea. The rest of the submarine, at the request of Japan, was returned to Japan. It was restored and is now on display at the former Japanese naval academy at Eta Jima.
  2. How and when were the mini subs deployed to pearl harbor in 1941?
    • John Chatterton
      In the early morning hours before the Air Attack began, the midget subs were launched from the larger I-Class subs. The book <em>Advance Force Pearl Harbor</em> by Burl Burlingame, is an excellent book and puts it the two pronged attack into perspective.
  3. Today is the 75th Anniversary of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor here in Hawaii. I had wanted to honor the surviving family of the late Seaman 1st Class ALAN C. SANFORD by sending them a special copy on PEARL HARBOR from the newspaper Honolulu Star-Advertiser. ALAN SANFORD as you know was one of the gun crew which fired against a Japanese mini-submarine attempting to enter the harbor. Mr. Sanford was gratified DECADES LATER when the submarine was found. Please advise me the address of Mr. Sanford's immediate family. I believe his son is a retired Navy officer. Aloha, Mel Domingo
    • John Chatterton
      That is a nice gesture. I do not know of any immediate family, but I would imagine you can find them through the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, or the Sons and Daughters of Pearl Harbor Survivors Facebook Page. JC
  4. Hi John, I was told, from as far back as I remember that my father, John Ryan, along with diving students, found the (I think) 3rd mini sub on July 4th, 1960. Do you have any insight into this? Please feel free to contact me with additional questions. Thank you, Lori
    • John Chatterton
      That would be the Keehi Lagoon submarine that was found with the two torpedoes on board, and the crew missing. This submarine was returned to Japan, restored, and is currently on display at the Japanese Naval Academy in Etajima. Keehi Lagoon is east of Pearl Harbor, and far enough outside the main traffic lanes as to explain why it was not found until 1960. JC
      • Mr. Chatterton, I have a small model of a Japanese midget sub made from the ballast of the submarine recovered from Keehi Lagoon. My father was the public affairs officer at Submarine Force Pacific from 1961 until 1964. After the submarine was raised the Navy removed lead ballast and made a small number of models of the submarine from that ballast. They used them as gifts for VIP visitors. My father retained one and passed it on to me. Have you ever heard of this event or existence of these models? My father always told me that the existence of these models was sensitive since the Navy told the Japanese that we returned the submarine intact. Can you point me to sources of additional information on the recovery of the submarine in 1960?
        • John Chatterton
          Hey Kevin, I have not heard of about these models before. The Keehi Lagoon Midget Submarine had to have the torpedoes disarmed, so there was some work done to the submarine and it was not entirely returned to the Japanese. If I were you, I would try contacting the US Navy and see what information they can provide. You could start at the US Navy History and Heritage Command, which has an online presence. Just talk to them, and see what it is they can tell you. They will most likely direct you elsewhere, but let me know how you make out. Cheers JC
  5. Mr. Chatterton--How possible do you think it is that the crew of the one mini sub which presumably made a successful attack on Battleship Row, and was later scuttled in West Loch, made a clean getaway? On the one hand, suicide attacks were not to become standard for Japanese for almost three years, and preparations for the overall attack were so meticulous that I find it hard to believe that some plans weren't made (a safe house owned by sympathetic Nisei, fake papers, clothes, etc.) for the crews to have a hope of escape in the event of scuttling. And the West Loch area would have given them a lot of foliage cover to hide out until they could rendezvous with help--possibly at night. On the other hand, why wouldn't the crew have come forward after the war, or who ever helped them confessed in the decades since? Seems to me this is less an underwater archeology problem than a detective story, but I'd welcome your speculations.
    • John Chatterton
      Very interesting questions. The Midget Sub attacks were not suicide attacks, and almost were scrubbed by the Admirals because of the concern over submarine withdrawal and crew survival. It was the Midget Sub crews who pushed for their inclusion in the mission. When it comes to the missing crew members, we only know two things. They were not in the Midget Sub, and they all had a detailed escape and evasion plan. At the time, a significant amount of the Hawaiian Island population was sympathetic to the Japanese. It is not unreasonable to assume that the crew survived the scuttling of their sub, and made their way onto the island. It was only a matter of days before the Midget Sub crews were declared "Hero Gods", by the Emperor of Japan. Considering that the Emperor was perceived as a deity in Japanese culture, and it was the Emperor who had declared them dead, could they have ever returned home alive? Who would have been willing to correct the Emperor? There is lots of food for speculation. JC
  6. I grew up in the town of Ewa Beach, Oahu, during the '70s and our little home had the usual ocean related paraphernalia. Surf boards, coral specimen's, numerous round Japanese floats, etc... of course we also had the ubiquitous dried out and varnished puffer fish hanging near the outside bar. One item that always intrigued me was the small ships wheel, with Japanese writing usually found leaning against one of end table legs. Supposedly, so the story goes, my step-father a former hard hat diver and Navy EOD frogman, acquired it while helping to salvage one of the Japanese Midget Subs! As a kid I didn't realize the historical significance of such an artifact, if indeed the story was true, because most of my thoughts were directed toward young boy endeavors. The ship's wheel was about 1 1/2 feet from the tip of the handle to the tip of the handle on the opposite side. It was made of brass and had wooden handles one of which was missing it's wood. My parents had since moved and passed on and I often wonder what happened to that ship's wheel with the Japanese writing that, according to my understanding, loosely translated to "Don't tread on me round eye".
  7. I am one of the three divers who were doing a one hundred and twenty foot bounce dive when we spotted the strange object the instructor had a small foot line with bouy to mark what looked like a small sub with two cone shaped objects in the bow returned to surface and told what we found leave pictures the three divers were LARRY McInnis Fred stock and I believe the instructor was an x frog man slash diver. Semper. Fl.

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