Dec. 7 sinkers of sub in spotlight as heroes
By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer
By William Cole
As a Navy reservist on the destroyer USS Ward outside Pearl Harbor, Will Lehner remembers seeing the conning tower of the midget submarine jutting above the waves a few hundred feet away.
It was just after 6:30 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941. The U.S. was not at war — yet — but the Ward had orders to intercept anything that was not supposed to be there.
The order was given to fire, and the first round sailed high. A second shot put a 4-inch shell through the conning tower. Depth charges were dropped, and Lehner watched the sub glide into oblivion.
"We didn't know whose it was," said Lehner, one of five USS Ward veterans invited in by the Navy League for the 64th anniversary of the attack. "In fact, the skipper said later: 'God, I hope it wasn't one of ours.' "
The surprise aerial attack that shocked the nation and ushered the U.S. into World War II began more than an hour later, but proof that the reservists who manned the aging warship fired the first shots of the Pacific war didn't come for 61 years.
On Aug. 28, 2002, deep-diving submersibles with the Hawai'i Undersea Research Laboratory, part of the University of Hawai'i, located the intact wreck in 1,200 feet of water, with a hole clearly punched through the 78-foot Japanese midget submarine's conning tower.
This Dec. 7, the 64th Pearl Harbor Day will commemorate the belatedly recognized success of the reserve forces, who continue to make contributions and sacrifices in Iraq and Afghanistan today.
The National Park Service and Navy Region Hawai'i are holding a combined ceremony — the first ever — with the theme "First to Fight: The Reservists at Pearl Harbor."
As the U.S. was swept into World War II, the 298th and 299th regiments of the Hawai'i National Guard became the famed 100th Battalion; reservists with the 251st Coast Artillery were brought to Hawai'i from California to be part of antiaircraft battalions.
"In light of where our country is now, and the number of reservists being used (in Iraq and Afghanistan), it fit very well honoring them by honoring the reservists who served at Pearl Harbor," said USS Arizona Memorial historian Daniel Martinez.
The 64th commemoration of Pearl Harbor Day will be held from 7:40 a.m. until 9:30 a.m. on the waterfront lawn of the memorial visitor center.
Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chief of naval operations, will be the keynote speaker. For years, the Navy and National Park Service conducted separate observances. This year, the ceremony will be combined.
Tomorrow, a new documentary titled "First Shot: The Secret Submarine Attack on Pearl Harbor" is premiering at 6 p.m. and 7:15 p.m. at the Arizona Memorial.
The 23-minute documentary, put together by students in Hawai'i Pacific University's visual communications program, explores the buildup to war, the USS Ward's sinking of the Japanese midget sub more than an hour before the aerial attack, and the reconciliation that has taken place between veterans on both sides of the engagement.
On Wednesday, the Navy League's Honolulu Council will honor five of the Ward veterans who fired the "first shot" of the Pacific war. The men will be recognized at the 45th annual Sea Services Awards luncheon, which begins at 11:30 a.m. at the Hale Koa hotel.
It was on a Sunday morning in 1941 — at 7:55 a.m. Dec. 7 — that a Japanese force of 183 airplanes attacked U.S. military and naval facilities on O'ahu. A second wave of 170 planes winged over at 8:40 a.m.
Some 2,343 U.S. personnel were killed, 960 were missing, and 1,272 wounded. A total of 151 U.S. planes were destroyed on the ground and all eight U.S. battleships at anchor in Pearl Harbor were either sunk or damaged.
Seventy minutes before the attack, the little-known — until 2002 — naval victory by the USS Ward occurred off Honolulu.
The old "four-stack" destroyer, built for World War I duty and launched in 1918, was manned by Navy reservists from Minnesota. It bore down on what looked like a black buoy in the wake of the USS Antares, a supply ship with a barge in tow that was approaching an anti-submarine net gate outside Pearl Harbor.
Seeing the conning tower of a submarine, Capt. William Outerbridge at first considered ramming the sub, but decided to fire on it instead. The two-man sub was one of five attached to Japanese I-class mother submarines and launched in conjunction with the aerial attack. All would be unsuccessful in their mission.
At 6:53 a.m., the Ward sent the message to headquarters: "We have attacked, fired upon and dropped depth charges upon submarine operating in defensive sea area."
The answer came back: "Confirmed."
Lehner, 84, a retired printer from Stevens Point, Wis., is one of about a dozen Ward veterans still alive. "I knew we had sunk it, but when someone said, 'You've got no proof,' I had to be quiet, because I had no proof," said Lehner, who was an ammunition handler on the Ward.
That changed when he saw the sunken midget sub — upright and in remarkably good condition on the ocean floor — firsthand on a 2002 submersible dive to the site with the Hawai'i Undersea Research Laboratory.
"It was remarkable to see the hole that put it out of commission," Lehner said. "It was a closure for me. Now I had proof. Now when they say, 'How do you know that's the one you sunk?' I say, 'Well, I've got pictures of the hole we put in it with a 4-inch gun.' "
The HPU "First Shot" documentary, which includes interviews with Lehner, involved trips to Japan and the Mainland for interviews with veterans of both sides of the war.
Martinez said the film is so good, it is being shown at the Arizona Memorial tomorrow and at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday on KFVE. It also will be sold at the Arizona visitor center.
As for the valiant Ward, Dec. 7 remained the most significant date in its history. On Dec. 7, 1944, the Ward was sunk after being attacked by Japanese aircraft in the Philippines. The old warship was in flames, and after the crew abandoned ship, the USS O'Brien threw enough shells into it to send it to the bottom. The commander of the O'Brien that day was Outerbridge, the same skipper who commanded the Ward when it sank the Japanese sub three years before at Pearl Harbor.
Reach William Cole at email@example.com.