Sunday, September 8, 2002

First to die: Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941
Clockwise from lower left, the "hero gods" of Pearl Harbor -- Yoshio Katayama, Naokichi Sasaki, Shigenori Yokoyama, Masaji Yokoyama, Naoji Iwasa, Shigemi Furuno, Akira Hiro-o, Sadamu Ueda, and Kioshi Inagaki. Hiro-o was likely the first to be killed on either side in the Pacific War.

The first casualty of the
Pacific War was also one
of the youngest to fight

By Burl Burlingame
© Honolulu Star-Bulletin

It's probably not possible to overestimate the cultural and historic significance of the sunken Japanese "midget" submarine found off Pearl Harbor in late August. Apart from the splendid and dogged scientific spirit of the Hawaii Undersea Research Lab -- the sub, sought for more than a decade by HURL, turned up in the last few minutes of its last search of the season -- the tiny craft bears not just the scars of the first encounter of the Pacific War, but holds the remains of the first casualties.

It's like the sacred ground of Lexington and Concord, the first footstep on the moon and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier all in one -- and it has as much resonance to Japan as it does the United States. At this point, through that tiny shell hole in the Japanese submarine's conning tower, America reluctantly entered the 20th century and became a dominant power, and Japan embarked on a path that caused the nation to fall and be reborn.

The University of Hawaii's Pisces V submarine illuminated the missing submarine last month for the first time since 1941.

Even though the craft lies well within American territorial waters, it remains the property of Imperial Japan. This precedent is well established for sunken ships of war. It remains to be seen how Japan will react to the sub's discovery. Given the cultural imperative to bring home all Japanese soldiers who have fallen in foreign lands, it's inconceivable that Japanese authorities would not at least consider raising the submarine.

The small craft landed some miles away from where the battle took place. The dark landscape of its location is not as important as the nature of the craft itself, the battle scars it wears or the remains of the crew that it possibly cradles.

The location of the shell hole in the submarine's sail already tells us that the gunnery of the crew members of the U.S. destroyer Ward was excellent, that their action report was accurate, that the 3-inch shell punched through without exploding and that the shot was a killing stroke. The skipper of the submarine likely was standing in the exact spot penetrated by the shell, and became the first casualty of the Pacific War.

Who was that sailor? Recovery of the submarine and a careful forensic examination of the interior may tell us, even if there are no physical remains to be studied. But by deduction and elimination, it's possible to pinpoint the probable identity of this first casualty.

The ko-hyoteki class of the two-man midget submarines had no assigned names, but were referred to by their relationship to the "mother" submarine that carried them to the launch point. These were large, first-string submarines, and the midget submarine assigned to each was called "tou," or boat. So, for example, the midget submarine assigned to fleet submarine I-16 was called "I-16tou," or "I-16's boat."

The crews of each tou are legendary within the Imperial Navy:

>> I-16tou: Skipper Masaji Yokoyama and crewman Sadamu Uyeda.
>> I-18tou: Skipper Shigemi Furuno and crewman Shigenori Yokoyama.
>> I-20tou: Skipper Akira Hiro-o and crewman Yoshio Katayama.
>> I-22tou: Skipper by Naoji Iwasa, who also was commander of the group, and crewman by Naokichi Sasaki.
>> I-24tou: Skipper Kazuo Sakamaki and crewman Kiyoshi Inagaki.

Although there was an elaborate escape route planned, none of the crews expected to return, and carried swords and pistols in the event of capture. In addition to the two torpedoes, each submarine carried a 300-pound scuttling charge, big enough not only to destroy the craft but to disable any ship it was near.

American sailors examined a Japanese midget submarine raised in 1960 from Keehi Lagoon. It was returned to Japan.

I-24tou was found washed up at Bellows beach the day after the attack, with Inagaki killed and Sakamaki captured. All of the midget submariners became "hero gods" to Japanese wartime propagandists, except for the ignominiously captured Sakamaki. I-24tou is the best known of the midget submarines, having toured the United States during the war. It is on display in Texas.

I-22tou entered Pearl Harbor and engaged in a running fight with destroyers to the northwest of Ford Island before being rammed and depth-charged. It was raised after the attack and used as landfill at Pearl Harbor, with the crew supposedly aboard. We know it was Iwasa's submarine, as his muddy and tattered sleeve with his rank upon it, pulled from the mangled wreck, was quietly returned to his family in Japan after the war and is now on display at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where 2.5 million Japanese war dead are kept.

I-18tou was depth-charged outside Pearl Harbor and came to rest in Keehi Lagoon. It was discovered by Navy divers in 1960 and raised. The bow section, with the intact (and still-dangerous) torpedoes, was unbolted and dumped at sea, and has not been rediscovered. The rest of the submarine was shipped to Japan and a new bow fabricated. It's on display at the Maritime Self-Defense Force school in Eta Jima. While cleaning it out, Japanese technicians discovered a shoe linked to Furuno.

Yokoyama in I-16tou radioed back on the evening of Dec. 7 that the attacks had been carried out successfully, and Yokoyama was given credit for sinking the USS Arizona by Imperial Navy propagandists, to the annoyance of the naval aviators. Photographic evidence uncovered recently shows what appears to be a midget submarine inside Pearl Harbor firing torpedoes at Battleship Row. On the other hand, the cruiser St. Louis reported being attacked by torpedoes just outside Pearl Harbor. Wherever I-16tou made its final stand, the submarine remains missing. The U.S. Navy will not allow searches of Pearl Harbor.

At a memorial shrine to his son in 1943, Akira Hiro-o's father examined his son's ritual katana sword.

This makes I-20tou, with Hiro-o at the helm and Katayama at the controls, the submarine sunk by the USS Ward an hour before the aerial attack on Pearl Harbor.

Hiro-o, the first casualty of the Pacific War, was also, at 22, the youngest of the submariners. The Imperial Navy monograph "Special Attack Flotilla," published in 1942, gives some insight into the personal lives of these warriors.

The son of schoolteachers in Asahi-mura, Saga, Hiro-o had perfect school attendance his entire life. Even by Japanese standards, he was considered short. He compensated for his lack of height by constant drilling and out-testing his classmates. He often fell asleep sitting upright on the tatami mat by his study table. His attitude was reflected in his last letter to his parents:

"The true value of a man is revealed when he proceeds toward a righteous goal on a righteous path. Consequently, his brilliance or dullness is of secondary importance for all phenomena within the sphere of possibility can be accomplished through human efforts. If one fails to accomplish his goal, the failure is ascribable to a lack of efforts."

Crewman Yoshio Katayama was from a poor family of farmers in the village of Gojo, Okayama. Education was his passion. Katayama stipulated that his military pay be forwarded to his school instead of his family. On his last night with his family, Katayama startled his 9-year-old niece by weeping.

Hiro-o's grim dedication was masked by an ebullient, joking nature. As he was boarding the midget submarine for the last time, Hiro-o called out to the crew of I-24, "The ice cream in Honolulu is especially fine. I will bring you some when I come back!"

The crew laughed, and Hiro-o added, "No, really! I'm looking forward to landing on Oahu. I promise the Americans some hot action with my sword!" and he whirled about on the deck, demonstrating.

I-20's duty station was the one closest to Waikiki, and the lights from the Royal Hawaiian played on the water. The crew gave Hiro-o and Katayama gifts of wine and food, and they shook hands. "We must look like high-school boys happily going on a picnic," observed Hiro-o in his last recorded statement. The hatches were sealed and the submarine launched at 2:57 a.m., Dec. 7, 1941.

Rediscovered 61 years later, I-20tou is in remarkably good shape, scoured clean by fierce, sand-laden currents. Unlike the recently raised Confederate submarine Hunley, which was filled with anaerobic silt that helped preserve organic elements inside, I-20tou is open to the sea, and it's probable that no trace of Hiro-o and Kata-yama remains, except perhaps some uniform items. The submarine was filled with batteries that would have seeped acid, and seawater mixing with oil creates a corrosive cocktail as well.

I-20tou could easily be raised, given current technology, but would have to be immediately placed in an 80,000-gallon freshwater tank, kept at 10 degrees centigrade and subjected to cathodic protection, driving out the chlorides embedded in the steel and introducing more stable materials.

This process would require the building of a special temporary tank, perhaps on the grounds of the Arizona Memorial Visitors Center, and the cathodic protection would take more than a year to complete. In that time, working in the shallow, chilly water of the holding tank, archaeologists could study and clean the exterior, and explore the interior with endoscopes and X-ray mapping techniques.

According to James Delgado, head of the Vancouver Maritime Center, Japanese and American marine archaeologists have been looking for a World War II project on which they can collaborate.

"This would be perfect, small-scale and do-able, and talk about putting the war to rest, once and for all," he said. "Conservation of the greatest conflict in Pacific history has to be the responsibility of all nations, not just the winners. No one owns history. This would be the ideal joint project."

It's ironic that of the famous "four-stacker" class of destroyers, the same kind that sank Hiro-o's boat, the U.S. Navy preserved not a single one. Even though this class fought in two wars and led the way for modern destroyers, no example exists out of hundreds built.

Any remains or personal items found aboard the midget submarine would certainly be returned -- with appropriate memorialization -- to Japan. As for the submarine itself, although it's the property of the Japanese government, it's rightful place is in Pearl Harbor. Perhaps, after 61 years, Hiro-o and Katayama can complete their mission into the heart of Pearl Harbor.

Burl Burlingame is a Star-Bulletin staff writer and author of "Advance Force: Pearl Harbor," an account of Japanese submarine attacks on Hawaii and the West Coast.

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