My Turn

By Burl Burlingame

Immediately after the successful attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese military propaganda officers gave the midget submarines credit for blowing up the USS Arizona, to the annoyance of Imperial Navy bomber pilots.

Sub finding rekindles
the blame game

Following World War II, during a Congressional hearing on the causes of the Pearl Harbor attack, our elected representatives got into a spirited debate about who was to blame. Some Congressmen, it seems, were ensnared in the nets of sophistry and pure cussedness. The United States, they argued, had started the Pacific war by firing first, upon a Japanese "midget" submarine trespassing at the harbor entrance. The sub had committed no overt act other than to try to sneak into Pearl Harbor with a pair of torpedoes.

The debate elicited laughs in the gallery. This was some sort of moot-point nadir -- the submarine was simply the first weapon of a massive armada already in the air and sea, aimed directly at the U.S. fleet, and the Japanese government had been warned many times to keep their warships out of harm's way.

The submarine off Pearl Harbor surprised the destroyer USS Ward's crew. They'd never seen anything like it. They shot at it and depth-charged it, and were still so unsure that they didn't even claim to have sunk it. It simply vanished -- until last week, when University of Hawaii scientists found the craft. Once again, the submarine was in the news.

Except, apparently, in Japan. I received a call from the Vancouver Maritime Center's Jim Delgado, a midget-sub scholar who was actually interviewing surviving midget-sub crews in Eta Jima when the news broke.

"Man!" he yelled. "These people are going nuts. And the reporters here are excited, too."

But Japanese newspapers quashed the story, and other Japanese news outlets speculated that the attack on Pearl Harbor was just retaliation for the sub sinking.

Other countries reacted curiously, as well. Britain's The Independent's story began, "An accidental discovery on the seabed could provide proof that an American sailor, not a Japanese pilot, fired the first shot in the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor ..."

Suddenly we're back in the gassy chambers of Congress, 1945. Nobody plays the blame game quite as poorly as the United States. Guilt trip, anyone?

The hostile intent of the Imperial Navy's advance on Hawaii is beyond debate. The midget-submarine crews, in fact, carried swords and pistols to carry the fight ashore after firing their torpedoes. They tried this while attacking Diego Suarez in Madagascar, and the sword-waving crew ran screaming at a British machine-gun nest. They didn't get very far.

As for who shot first, Imperial Navy submarine I-26 sank the civilian freighter Cynthia Olson more than an hour before the attack on Pearl Harbor and machine-gunned all survivors.

It will be interesting to see how the world reacts to this new artifact. The saga of 10 brave souls sneaking into the lair of the powerful U.S. Navy certainly has a romantic cachet, and Japanese propagandists declared the midget-sub crews to be "hero gods" during the war, to the annoyance of Imperial Navy aviators who did the real damage at Pearl Harbor.

There may be a tug-of-war over custody of the submarine. Technically, it's the property of Imperial Japan, and word around the university is that Emperor Akihito himself is interested in recovering any swords aboard the craft.

"It is the property of Japan under the principle of sovereign immunity; it is an extension of Japanese soil," explained Delgado in a conversation several years ago. "There is already legal precedent, regarding the Confederate raider Alabama, which was sunk in battle within the territorial waters of France in 1863. The United States has signed an agreement with France declaring that the Alabama remains the property of the American government. The same thing has been done with U-boats off East Coast of the U.S. -- they remain the property of the German government."

Should efforts be made to raise the submarine, to make it a shrine or tourist attraction?

"This is really troubling, and it's not just a question of finders-keepers," mused Delgado. "Who does history belong to? Pearl Harbor, of course, was an intensely personal event for the people who were involved, but it has transcended that and become an important part of our cultural history. The artifacts of Pearl Harbor are our temporal touchstones, one of the rare bits of history you can actually touch, and should be beyond the taint of commercial exploitation.

"To turn this vessel into a privately owned thing is a fundamental betrayal of why we preserve history."

The ball's in Japan's court. It's their submarine. Come get it. And do right by it.

Star-Bulletin staff writer Burl Burlingame is the author of the book "Advance Force -- Pearl Harbor."

My Turn is a periodic column written by
Star-Bulletin staff members expressing
their personal views.

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