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A Rush to Join the Attack Force
Captain Hanku Sasaki, commander of the 1st Submarine Division of the Imperial Navy, was puzzled and angry. It was the middle of October, 1941, and something important was in the air. He could smell it. His new submarines should be at sea, undergoing training, shaking out the construction bugs, doing the thousand and one things a warship needs to be ready.
They weren't ready, and Sasaki knew it. In the previous 20 months, three Japanese submarines had been lost, due to crew error and possibly but not admitted publicly to design flaws. And now five submarines under his command had been ordered to Kure Naval Arsenal for "special fittings."
What did that mean? Mystified, Sasaki had been suddenly ordered to take newly built I-22 from Saeki Bay, Kyushu, to Kure. As they pulled up to the dock a dozen technicians leaped on board and began making sketches. Sasaki asked what they were doing and they muttered "special work" and ignored the officer.
He stepped around the rattle and clang of workmen bustling on the decks of I-16, I-18, I-20, I-22 and I-24, Sasaki's five fleet submarines, all of the same class. Some of the "emergency modifications" made sense air-purifying equipment, protection against anti-sub nets, internal telephone lines.
Others did not, such as the weird structures on the subs' afterdecks. Huge half-moon-shaped clamps, looking like bent railroad ties, were beingwelded to the hull. Ports for electrical and phone lines were being opened nearby, leading into the sub's interior.
Sasaki discovered that Commander Kiyotake Ageta, the new skipper of I-22, was just as mystified as his superior officer and had gone to 6th fleet headquarters to find out what was happening.
"What are these?" Sasaki asked a workman.
The worker flipped up his face mask, said he didn't know. He only knew everything had to be in place by Nov. 10. There was a deadline.
Sasaki spotted Commander Midori Matsumura inspecting the work and hurried over to him. Matsumura had 15 years in submarines and was a staff officer. He should know what was happening. Sasaki asked.
"This equipment is to enable you to haul midget submarines close enough to Pearl Harbor to attack the U.S. Pacific fleet," said Matsumura, absentmindedly. "These are the Special Attack Unit."
Special Attack Unit? The news rocked Sasaki. Waiting until the last minute to give him the word seemed wildly irresponsible. Would the hulls take the special equipment and the weight of the midgets? The secret midget submarines were designed to be launched, like ducklings, off the backs of converted seaplane tenders like Chiyoda, not lashed to the deck of another submarine.
Sasaki knew that the massive Imperial Navy war games held in September had led to certain plans of attack against America and Britain. The games were held at the Army War college auditorium, as the navy auditorium was too small to seat all the interested officers. He may also have known that the brunt of the attack on Pearl Harbor would be borne by carrier aircraft.
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, backer of the air-attack plan designed by Imperial Navy aviators Minoru Genda and Mitsuo Fuchida, merely planned to have submarines of Admiral Mitsumi Shimizu's 6th Fleet engage in conventional, long-range undersea warfare. During the war game maneuvers, a large circle was drawn in a 600-mile radius from Pearl Harbor. This was the outside limit American search planes could fly from Oahu. This was the "danger zone" all submarines in this area would operate with extreme caution, passively submerged by day and running quietly at night. Although every detail of the aerial operation was known when the war game maps were rolled up, the maneuvers ended with little decided about submarines. Not even the number of participants were estimated, nor details of their operation.
On X-Day, as the opening of war was called, Japanese submarines were to "observe and attack the American fleet in the Hawaii Area; make a surprise attack on the channel leading into Pearl Harbor and attempt to close it; if the enemy moves out to fight he will be pursued and attacked."
The five midgets' vague mission was to attack the fleet inside the harbor and prevent American warships from escaping. The five midget-carrying submarines and other I-boats would move independently and forward of the main striking fleet; they were the "Advance Force." Initial plans for the advance force included six vessels for a supply train, a concept soon abandoned as risky.
The Imperial Navy had 48 of the new I-class fleet submarines and 15 of the older, slower RO-class submarines. The ROs were considered a back-up force, obsolete and useful only for training and nosing around Japan' s coasts. There were 18 submarines under construction for 1942 delivery, another 11 scheduled for 1943, and an additional 38 had been approved for rush construction in 1942. These figures don't include the 20 or so Japanese midget submarines, an unproven weapon sniffed at by the battleship admirals.
Lieutenant Naoji Iwasa, a master of midget-sub tactics, worked hard to convince the practical Yamamoto that midgets could sneak undetected into Pearl Harbor. He and understudy Lieutenant Saburo Akieda had been the test pilots for the midget program and had faith in their capabilities. They considered the tiny submarines one of Japan's mysterious technological aces, like the Zero fighter.
The midget weapons were developed in line with Imperial Navy objectives, which since 1909 had been primarily concerned with using inferior strength against an enemy of superior strength, in other words, the U.S. Fleet. Every aspect of strategy, tactics, preparations, education and training was geared toward achieving a quick, decisive victory over American ships, without being dragged into a long-term, ship-eating conflict.
From the beginning, emphasis had been placed on submarines and their long-range torpedoes as a way of drawing out the American fleet. But the valuable submarines were still considered too slow, and the torpedoes too limited, to be useful.
The speedy, stealthy midget utilized the advantages of both torpedoes and submarines to overcome their defects. Instead of an elegant, skirmishing sword, it was a dagger meant for bloody, close-in work.
Yamamoto objected it would be difficult to get the midgets close enough to Pearl without tipping off the Americans.
Iwasa suggested carrying them on "mother" submarines that could hide beneath the waves.
The wild notion had its romantic side, and Yamamoto gave the midgets a go-ahead during the maneuvers, depending on whether technical problems could be ironed out. He insisted that the midget crews be rescued after the attack.
From that moment, the plan could not be stopped; the midgets were an integral part of the assault. Iwasa was put in charge, and in October the ship fitters began scrambling in Kure.
And now Sasaki, who would have to command these jury rigged weapons into battle, found out by accident what he was in for.
Like many submariners, Sasaki was an orderly person. He was deeply troubled by what he perceived as scattershot planning. "There was too much hurry, hurry, hurry," he recalled distastefully. Too many desktop pipe dreams, with too little experience to back them up. The "tubes," as they were jokingly called by the I-boat crews, were to be carried into battle on ships barely out of the shipyard, untested weapons upon untested warships, into the struggle that could determine the fate of the Japanese Empire.
I-24 was so new that she shook and rattled her way from the shipyards at Sasebo to the secret naval base at Kure. It was her maiden voyage. Torpedo Officer Mochitsura Hashimoto was alarmed to see bubbles rising from the forward starboard dive plane. At Kure, a diver discovered the heavy steel blade was attached to the hull with temporary wooden bolts the shearing stress of an open-ocean voyage would have torn off the plane, leaving the submarine unable to dive or surface. Whatever the Imperial Japanese Navy needed submarine I-24 for, thought Hashimoto, it was daunting enough to risk the lives of her crew.
At Kure, another load of workmen swarmed over the submarine's after deck, attaching a strange cradle-like apparatus. When Hashimoto asked what it was for, the workmen looked at him blankly. They were following the blueprints. Unknown to Hashimoto, the commander of the submarine fleet was nearby, wondering the same thing.
Eventually, a lance-like midget submarine was craned onto the cradle, lashed down, and a test run made at sea in the middle of the night. The main ballast tank crumpled on the midget and it took the rest of the night to repair.
A COLLISION IN MID-OCEAN
The United States and Japan Square Off
The eventual collision was obvious. A Japanese-American struggle to dominate the Pacific had been predicted by everyone from Vladimir Lenin to H.G. Wells.
Japan shifted into colonialism at about the same time the Western nations were considering getting out. Long isolated, to outside influence and to internal change, the Imperial island nation rapidly caught up to the rest in terms of military capabilities. The crushing defeat of the Russian fleet during the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 served notice that Japan had arrived in the balance of powers.
The emergence of a strong, local power in the Far East was a worry to Western powers, whose reins were tightly stretched across the planet. Japan, figuring to move into the power vacuum created as the West moved out, rattled sabers so ominously that the United States which considered the Pacific an American lake was forced to divert military resources from traditional bastions on the East Coast.
Hawaii's sleepy frontier garrisons were considered vulnerable, particularly when Japan began to support Pancho Villa's Mexican revolution in 1913. Could such a revolt find root in Hawaii, itself seized by the United States only two decades before? The American government took no chances, and began constructing a massive series of fortifications on the island of Oahu, soon dubbed "The Gibraltar of the Pacific." These included a major naval base at Pearl Harbor, dozens of gigantic coastal cannon, airfields, fueling depots and regiments of infantry and armor. The United States had no global commitments at the time, so the fortifications were built with a single, potential enemy in mind Japan.
The outbreak of World War I gave Japan an opportunity to capitalize on shifting alliances, declaring war on Germany and Austria, Japan marched on the German garrison at Tsingtao and laid siege, capturing it after a furious battle that also saw the introduction of war planes in the Pacific. Tahiti and Bora Bora were attacked by German raiders Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, under the command of Admiral Graf Spee. Papeete in particular was heavily raked by shellfire, causing an unknown number of deaths.
Japan sent few combat troops but many observers to the trenches in Europe. Flying general Billy Mitchell noted in his diary that Japanese seemed to be everywhere, taking notes.
Using the opportunity to occupy islands colonized by Germany, Japan was awarded title to them by League of Nations mandate at war's end. These scattered islands, popularly called the Mandates, lay north of the equator; Australia received title to those islands in the southern hemisphere. The carving up of the former German, Austrian and Ottoman empires was controlled by the League of Nations, and everybody got a piece or two. Britain grabbed Palestine and Iraq, France got Syria, New Zealand got Western Samoa. The League expected the conquering nations to improve living conditions for citizens of the mandated territories, and to prepare them for eventual democracy and, some day, a measure of independence.
Instead, the doled-out territories became the last gasp of European empire, and Japan, stung by a post-war Washington treaty that limited the size of her fleet, turned the Mandate Islands into top-secret Imperial Navy garrisons. U.S. Marine Corps intelligence officer Earl "Pete" Ellis may have been caught and executed there during 1923; Ellis also had a severe drinking problem, probably the real reason for his death. Had he lived, he could have brought the startling news that the formerly quiet Pacific island had been transformed into a mighty naval anchorage. Ellis also devised a plan for an amphibious war against Japan, anticipating the one-step-at-a-time "island-hopping" campaigns of World War II by nearly two decades.
America, in a burst of racially motivated legislation in the 1920s, shut the door on Japanese immigration and turned those Japanese already residing in the United States into second-class citizens. Japan, itself no stranger to racist motivations, regarded this as another slap; Imperial policy dictated that those of Japanese blood anywhere on the planet, regardless of successful assimilation into foreign cultures, were Imperial subjects at heart. This attitude would cast much suspicion on Japanese-American loyalty a few years later. Japanese political ambitions took practical form in the "New Order in East Asia" scheme, and its successor, the "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere." The official line of the Imperial Foreign Office preached partnership and liberation from white colonialism. Retired admirals from the Imperial Navy were turned into instant diplomats and scattered across the capitals of Western countries; their British-based training allowed them to voice these goals with conviction. Many believed it.
The Japanese Imperial Army had other ideas. "The credo of Japan's dominance in Asia and the superiority of the Japanese over other Asiatics were sacrosanct," pointed out a French historian. "In the minds of the military elite, all of Tokyo's notions of equality had to fall before it."
More than notions fell. Military schemers were behind the assassinations of Prime Minister Takashi Hara in 1921, Yuko Hamaguchi in 1931 and Tsuyoki Inukai in 1932, and of other politicians and business leaders wedded to the Western notions of democracy and capitalism. Inukai's murder, in particular, was the final blow to a gradual democratization that had begun to flower during the Meiji Restoration of 1868. By the 1930s, in fact if not in policy, Japan was ruled by the military.
The Imperial Army began to set its own foreign policy, independent of the Japanese government. On Sept. 18, 1931, troops of the Kwangtung Army assaulted Mukden and went on to conquer all of Manchuria. The excuse given was to provide "living space" on the Asian continent. In Europe, Hitler used the same language before conquering Czechoslovakia.
The League nations protested Japan's move, and the Japanese delegation responded by walking out. The United States, in the midst of a great depression and nearly disarmed after The War to End All Wars, responded weakly by firing a flurry of diplomatic notes. It was "diplomacy by incantation," scoffed diplomat John Paton Davies. This feeble reaction heartened Japanese resolve.
What could Japan not do? The Shinto credo of hakko-ichiu dictated Japan's holy mission was to rule the world, or to die gloriously trying. On July 7, 1937, at the Marco Polo bridge near Peking, the Imperial Army began a grab for all of China. Once again, the civilian government in Tokyo was powerless to prevent it, and governments in Europe and the Americas unwilling to stop it. In short order, Peking fell, then North China, then Inner Mongolia. By the end of the year, Shanghai was in Japanese hands, and by 1938, so were Canton and Hankow. China's rich coastline became an unwilling part of the Prosperity Sphere, and China's government withdrew into the barren interior. Western responses were once again limited to sputtering diplomatic cables and occasional protests when Japanese bombs fell too close to their warships.
Excerpted from Advance Force Pearl Harbor by Burl Burlingame. Copyright © 1992 by Burl Burlingame. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.