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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, August 29, 2002

1941 Japanese mini sub found off Pearl Harbor

A Japanese "midget" submarine rests on the ocean floor off Pearl Harbor in this image from a video.

Photo courtesy of Hawai'i Undersea Laboratory

See underwater video of the submarine (RealPlayer required)
 •  Graphic: Submarine found

By Curtis Lum
Advertiser Staff Writer

On an ocean bottom littered with military debris, researchers from the University of Hawai'i yesterday discovered what is believed to be the first casualty of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor.

The finding of the Japanese two-man submarine is significant because it confirms accounts by the crew on the destroyer USS Ward that the first shots fired on that day of infamy were from American guns, not the Japanese.

A little more than an hour before Japanese bombers attacked Pearl Harbor, the Ward fired on a submarine while patrolling just outside the harbor. Crewmembers believed they had sunk a Japanese "midget" submarine, but until yesterday, their story had gone unconfirmed.

After years of searching the murky waters of Pearl Harbor — including a two-week search by Titanic discoverer Robert Ballard — researchers from the university's Hawai'i Undersea Research Laboratory (HURL) aboard the research vessel Ka'imikai-o-Kanaloa said they found the 78-foot, two-man submarine three to four miles off Pearl Harbor in about 1,200 feet of water.

An hour before the air attack on Pearl Harbor, the destroyer USS Ward said it fired a shot into the base of the conning tower of an unknown submarine.

Photo courtesy of Hawai'i Undersea Laboratory

The two teams were doing test dives in the submersibles Pisces IV and V when they came across the vessel.

Daniel Martinez, historian for the National Park Service's USS Arizona Memorial, called the discovery one of the most significant finds since the war.

"This confirms the events of the eyewitnesses who were out there that morning, that said they fired and sunk a submarine," Martinez said. "More importantly, this is a significant part of history. This is the first opening sequence of World War II for the United States and Japan."

Terry Kerby led the research team yesterday and said the submarine — complete with two torpedoes — is sitting on the ocean floor intact and in good condition.

Kerby said HURL has been doing dives in the area for years to test the submersibles and to train the pilots. On each trip, he said, the missing World War II relic was always in the back of their minds.

"A lot of people have been looking for this sub for a long time, and it was a pretty exciting moment to actually come across and realize it was the one that the Ward sank minutes before the attack started on Dec. 7," Kerby said. "It was kind of a sobering moment realizing that that was the shot that started the Pacific war."

A submersible is visible inspecting the wreck of a Japanese "midget" submarine sunk shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor began.

Photo courtesy of Hawai'i Undersea Laboratory

He said it was also a somber moment because the remains of the two Japanese crew members are likely entombed in the sunken submarine.

The two submersibles made several "fly bys" to be sure of their find. The confirmation, Kerby said, came when he saw the submarine's two torpedoes still in their tubes and a gaping hole at the base of the vessel's conning tower.

"The Ward was able to get very close to them and they were so close when they fired the shot from the deck that the gunner said he had to aim it like a squirrel rifle," Kerby said. "The first-shot crew claimed that they hit the sub right at the base of the conning tower, and that's what we saw."

Martinez said it is too early to say whether there will be any attempts to recover the submarine. He said many agencies — including the Japanese government and family members of the two crew members — will have to be consulted.

But he said there is no doubt that there will be international interest in the find because of the Ward's place in history.

In the early morning on Dec. 7, the Ward was notified of a vessel in the Pearl Harbor "defensive sea area," where submarines were supposed to sail above water. At 6:40 a.m., the Ward sounded general quarters.

Five minutes later, the Ward opened fire on the suspicious object. At 6:53, about an hour before the aerial attack on Pearl Harbor began, the Ward sent a radio message that it fired on and dropped depth charges on a submarine. The vessel, the Ward said, did not come up.

Terry Kerby, left, led the team from the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory that found the sub. National Park Service historian Daniel Martinez, right, said Kerby's find confirms accounts of the first shots of America's war in the Pacific.

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

The crew was not aware of the origin of the submarine, only that it did not belong in those waters. History would show that the submarine was one of five sent by the Japanese to slip into the harbor and wait for the air attack.

None of the submarines returned to the Japanese fleet. One got into the harbor and was rammed and sunk by the destroyer USS Monaghan during the attack. Another one washed ashore in Waimanalo. Another was found in waters off O'ahu in the 1960s.

Until yesterday there was no trace of the other two, including the one that was sunk by the Ward.

Since 1988, the U.S. Parks Service and University of Hawai'i has searched for the sunken sub. In 2000, Ballard, known for his discovery of the ocean liner Titanic and German battleship Bismarck, led a National Geographic expedition that searched without success for the submarine.

Martinez has made a half-dozen trips in search of the submarine. He said the waters off Pearl Harbor became a dumping ground for used military equipment and other items and finding the mini-sub was nothing short of a miracle.

"The bottom that exists off the entrance to Pearl Harbor is a virtual World War II museum. To find a metal object among that kind of debris field is extremely difficult," he said.

Among the items that Martinez said are down there are trucks, airplanes, landing craft and tractors. He credited the persistence and dedication of Kerby and the HURL team with finding the submarine.

"The University of Hawai'i has made a hyper-leap in underwater archaeology. Lesser people would have given up," Martinez said. "When I went out there and I saw what they were challenged with, I thought when we didn't find it, it was over."

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