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

31 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.
    • The midget subs were transported on the decks of full-sized submarines and launched towards Pearl just prior to the attack. One sub was beached, and the sole survivor captured. He begged to be allowed to commit hara kiri (ritual suicide) but was denied. That was Ensign Sakamaki. Japan printed a memorial of the lost crews. Sakamaki was omitted.
  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
    • I do not think the machinery or crew of the Japanese Midget Submarine that was observed and fired at, reportedly rammned & depth charged in Pearl Harbor could survive a depth charge attack even in close proximity in the average depth of 45' - the blast would be horrendous.
  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".
    • Do you mind me asking: What was your step-father's name? When did he participate in the salvage? What ship was he stationed on at the time? I have been trying to find the salvage report, but do not know where to start. Any help would be appreciated. Thanks,
      • Hi G. Quinn, Sorry for taking so long to reply. My step-father's name was James L. Tucker Jr. He was a retired Master Chief Petty Officer who served in the US Navy for over 34 years. He started his Navy career during WWII as a young 17 year old assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Lexington as a TBF Avenger rear gunner. Sometime after the war my father decided to become a hard-hat salvage diver/EOD frog man. He used to be fond of saying that "he went through 3 wars but was able to skip 1" as he was assigned to Navy units in Key West Florida and Bermuda during the Korean Conflict. My father's last duty assignment was as a Command MCPO assigned to West Lock Navel Ammunition Station, HI. As far as the mini sub salvage... wish I had more concrete information to share. Unfortunately, any information that I could have gleaned from my father, The Old Seahorse, went with him as he passed away on 1/3/2016. I seem to remember some pics and if memory serves... I believe my brother Tim Tucker has the subs wheel. My brother Tim followed in my father's foot steps and had became a commercial diver. My brother Tim dove off of North Sea oil rigs as a saturation diver and various oil rigs around the world with Subsea International. He currently lives in my home town of Ewa Beach and runs his own project management business.
  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.
  8. John, What is your reference source for the 1951 discovery of the midget submarine. Do you have a copy of this reference source for review? What a coincidence that the three pieces of recovered submarine pieces found in 1951 fell in line with the LVTs recovered from the 1944 West Loch disaster cleanup.
    • John Chatterton
      The 3 sections of the Midget sub that were found outside Pearl Harbor mixed in with the debris removed from the West Loch, were not discovered until H.U.R.L. began searching for the Midget sunk by the USS Ward, on their shake out dives with the Pisces submersibles. I think it was around 2002? It took a while to realize that the sections they were looking at were actually from a Pearl Harbor Midget, not from later in the war.
      • I assume Tom Taylor is the researcher who, with Parks Stephenson, was behind the Nova documentary on the midget attack on Pearl Harbor. He's right to ask about the source of the reference to a 1951 recovery of one of the attackers, as this is a new suggestion about what became of the fifth midget. All that the National Marine Sanctuaries site has to say is: "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." Plainly this isn't the Keehi Lagoon midget discovered in 1960, nor, apparently, can it be the midget presumed to have been recovered during salvage operations following the West Loch disaster in 1944. So, is there any official USN record of such a 1951 recovery, and if so, is it accessible online?
        • John Chatterton
          There is none that I am personally aware of. JC
  9. I read many years back about the accounts that one Japanese midget sub successfully attacked Battleship Row early in the attack. It was stated that it fired its torpedoes at Oklahoma - and one of the aerial photos taken by a Japanese pilot shows the midget broaching after firing its torpedo(s). And, as mentioned by one of your previous writers, this sub escaped through West Loch and was abandoned by its crew. I don't remember exactly when this boat was discovered, but it was apparently found with wreckage that had been cleared after an amphibious assault exercise. I do believe that this sub was in two pieces, and that its torpedo tubes were empty. My question is this: Has it been proven that a single Japanese midget successfully fired two torpedoes which struck Oklahoma, and was the wreckage discovered this particular boat? I also remember hearing something that there were at least two explosions which were more powerful than the rest of the explosions from torpedo hits.
    • John Chatterton
      History can be somewhat subjective. There is a credible hypothesis that a single Midget sub successfully deployed their two torpedoes during the Attack. However, I do not believe that this is proven beyond a shadow of doubt? The Midget that is believed to have been removed from the West Loch was in 3 sections, not two, and the torpedoes had apparently been launched. I am not aware of any explosions that seemed to be more powerful, indicating torpedos from a Midget sub. JC
  10. Hi John,I really enjoy your work on TV and reading about finding the Pirate ship. My question ,my father was stationed in Norfolk Va. on board the USS Tidewater in the late 50's. While there I remember going to Ocean View amusement park and near the entrance was a Japanese midget sub on display. I was about 9 or 10 at the time and I believe the info stated that it was one used at Pearl Harbor. If I'm correct it had to be the one abandoned and run aground and it's Captain was POW #1 .Is there any way to see if the sub was displayed there around that time. I wanted to go inside so bad.Thanks Tom
    • John Chatterton
      Hey Tom, Thanks for the nice comments. It seems like you are referring to the HA 19 Japanese Midget Submarine, which is on display at the National Museum of the Pacific War. Peraps they can answer your question? JC
  11. John, some clarification for your readers, the West Loch midget was found intact, not in pieces, The Navy sectioned it up before it was dumped with the debris from the West Loch disaster (May, 1944), hence the LVT's et al that were found with it. All of the surrendered / war prize subs were scuttled and or sunk as targets in much deeper waters. Thanks. Brian O'Connor, Author, IN REPOSE - Diving on the USS Arizona with the National Park Service
    • John Chatterton
      Thanks for the clarification. In May of 1944, while covertly cleaning up after a munitions loading disaster, the West Loch Midget was accidentally found intact, open, and without torpedoes or remains of the crew? It was cut into 3 sections, and quickly disposed of in 1,000 feet of water outside Pearl, along with other debris from the West Loch Disaster. More than 50 years later, the 3 sections would be re-discovered in deep water over numerous dives by Terry Kirby working for the Hawaii Undersea Research Lab. JC
  12. Hi John, I am a museum curator in San Jose, California. Over the past week, I have had two interesting conversations with a 95 year old Navy man, Harry Davidson, who was stationed at Pearl about a year after the attack. He has a story related to the "fifth" sub. Harry emphatically claims that he stood over the intact fifth sub which was docked behind the Dillingham House(?) in Pearl Harbor. According to Harry, both torpedo tubes were empty. After his investigation, he brought a friend over who saw the sub as well. It was getting dark, so the two decided to return in the morning with a camera. Upon returning, the submarine was gone. According to Harry, the dock location was well hidden with vegetation. His assumption is that someone saw him and his friend looking over the vessel and decided to move it overnight. Mr. Davidson is insistent that this story is true. Do we know exactly when the fifth submarine was scuttled? Could Mr. Davidson's story be true and a mini-sub survived intact for over a year after the attack? Any advice is welcomed. Ken
    • John Chatterton
      Hey Ken, The Fifth Midget was initially discovered in the West Loch during the covert cleanup of of the Ordinance Loading Disaster. I am not aware of anything that gives us an a location more exactly? Although we do not know precisely when the Fifth Midget was scuttled, the assumption would be that it was some time shortly after the Pearl Harbor Attack? My initial reaction is that Mr Davidson's story would not coincide with what we think we already know about the Fifth Midget. JC
  13. Both those subs towed out of the harbor were sunk by the USS St Louis as the ships logs written by Captain Rood infers. (*Navy wartime style) The sub that was rammed and the sub that was shot by the type 38 five inch round that did not detonate on contact was the second sub that was later towed out to sea & dumped, on the hush hush I guess! Frank Du Bosque fired that round and said it hit but did not detonate on contact as it should have. Frank was awarded for the action in later life by Congressman Robert Andrews - Democrat NJ and given to Frank in his then residence in Florida, he has since passed.
  14. Regarding the "West Loch" Sub, it is my understanding that the only indication that the sub came from the West Loch is that it was found in the area of debris from the cleanup of the West Loch after some LSTs there were destroyed in an ammunition explosion. There are no Navy records to indicate that a submarine was found or salvaged in the West Loch, only that the sub was found in the dumping ground with the 1944 debris. So other than its position on the ocean floor next to the debris, there is nothing to indicate it was found in the West Loch. The 1951 sub apparently mentioned was reported to Life Magazine by Roger Pineau, a Navy intelligence officer, and author and was subsequently published in Life Magazine in 1951. It is apparently reported again in book The Lost Submarines of Pearl Harbor, by James P. Delgado published in 2016, and is also reported on the NOAA Website here: though the website does not cite the source. The submarine was apparently found in shallow water near the Pearl Harbor entrance, examined and then dumped, in 1951. It's torpedoes are missing, so I would speculate this is the sub that fired on USS St. Louis as she exited the harbor (this attack is well established). In 1992 part of it was discovered, and the rest in 2002. I would speculate this is the fate of the last submarine. She fired her torpedoes at USS St. Louis and her crew then scuttled the sub outside the harbor. She was found there in 1951 by the Navy, examined (to include sectioning her into three pieces) and then dumped in a known dumping ground (i.e. where the West Loch debris was dumped). I would further speculate that if the area where the sub and West Loch debris was found were to be examined more thoroughly, other debris, for example scrap from the Pearl Harbor salvage efforts after the 7 December Raid would be found there as well.

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