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War and Tragedy

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Sub Warfare Plays Vital Role In Pearl Harbor, Defeating Japan
by Katie Lange, DOD News / DMA - December 22, 2015

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American Pride: Poems Honoring America and Her Patriots! by David G. Bancroft

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, will forever be remembered for launching the U.S. into World War II, as well as the destruction and loss it caused. By the end of the two-hour sneak attack, five of eight American battleships were damaged or destroyed, several other ships and combat planes were out of commission, and more than 2,400 U.S. lives were lost.

But one thing the Japanese didn't think to take out was Pearl Harbor Submarine Base – a decision that would prove costly to them by the end of the war.

The view of the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard from the Submarine Base during the Dec. 7, 1941, attack. The USS Narwhal is in the left foreground. In the distance are several cruisers, with large cranes and 1010 Dock in the right center. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph)
The view of the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard from the Submarine Base during the Dec. 7, 1941, attack. The USS Narwhal is in the left foreground. In the distance are several cruisers, with large cranes and 1010 Dock in the right center. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph)

Here are some cool facts on how submarine warfare played a big role at Pearl Harbor and in the defeat of Japan.

A Sub Was the First Enemy Contact, Not Airplanes

Most people assume the dive bombers that flew over Pearl Harbor at 7:55 a.m. initiated the raid, but it was a submarine spotted hours earlier that was officially logged as the first enemy contact.

U.S. Navy records show that Japan launched five midget submarines near Pearl Harbor the night before the attack. An action report showed one of those subs was first seen by the USCG Condor at 3:50 a.m., about two miles from the harbor's entrance.

The Condor notified the USS Ward, which spotted the sub tailing the USS Antares into the harbor, opened fire and sank it. About an hour later, the air attack began.

Other Japanese Subs Were Sunk; 1 Still Missing

Americans sank two other Japanese subs during the battle. One was found in the harbor and eventually salvaged. The second was found off the harbor entrance in 1960 and is now on display in Japan.

A fourth Japanese sub called the Ha-19 never made it into the harbor and instead drifted around until it was captured near Oahu the next day. It was recovered immediately and is now on exhibit in Fredericksburg, Texas.

The sub that initiated the Pearl Harbor attack wasn't found until 2002, when crews discovered it in deep water about five miles from the harbor's entrance. It remains there as part of the Pearl Harbor National Historic Landmark.

A fifth Japanese sub that was launched that day was never found.

How U.S. Submarines Helped

Four U.S. subs stationed at Pearl Harbor Submarine Base helped fight off the attack: the USS Narwhal, USS Dolphin, USS Cachalot and USS Tautog.

According to action reports, once the Narwhal saw the first bomb drop, crew members started firing the sub's anti-aircraft guns, eventually hitting two enemy planes. One of them exploded and crashed in the channel before it could fire any torpedoes.

The Tautog was being manned by a relief crew at the time, having just returned from a 45-day mission, so only a quarter of its regular crew was on board. But that didn't slow anyone down – all on board were able to bring down a torpedo plane that exploded about 150 feet from its stern.

It's believed that the Dolphin shot down one plane that crashed into the Navy Yard, where the Cachalot was undergoing a scheduled overhaul. Its crew immediately opened fire regardless. It's not clear if they damaged any enemy aircraft, but the action report showed just how close the Cachalot was to being hit itself – a torpedo came within 100 yards of it, while an undetonated bomb landed about 20 feet off its starboard quarter.

No losses or damage were reported by any of the U.S. subs at Pearl Harbor that day.

What Japan Overlooked Cost It in the End

The U.S. had a relatively small submarine force in the Pacific, so that could be why the Japanese didn't strike Pearl Harbor Submarine Base. But that was a decision they likely regretted. U.S. subs were quickly able to take the war back to Japan's homeland, sinking ships all along its shoreline.

The submarine USS Sea Dog on war patrol in the Pacific in May 1945. (National Archives photo)
The submarine USS Sea Dog on war patrol in the Pacific in May 1945. (National Archives photo)

Even though the U.S. Submarine Force represented only 1.5 percent of the U.S. Navy, by the end of the war, it destroyed 1,314 vessels in the Pacific, including eight aircraft carriers, a battleship and 11 cruisers. U.S. subs sank 1,200 Japanese merchant ships carrying nearly 5 million tons of supplies – 60 percent of Japan's merchant losses.

Submarine successes during the war meant the U.S. was able to completely cut off Japan's supply lines to the Indies and Southeast Asia, drastically reducing its ability to wage war.

A Presidential Save

George H.W. Bush Sr., a carrier pilot during World War II, is rescued by the USS Finback after he was shot down while on a bombing run of the Island of Chi Chi Jima in September 1944. National Archives photo

George H.W. Bush, a carrier pilot during World War II, is rescued by the USS Finback after he was shot down while on a bombing run of the Island of Chi Chi Jima in September 1944. National Archives photo

Aside from seeking out enemy ships in the Pacific, American submarines also rescued hundreds of airmen from its waters. One of those just happened to be future President George H.W. Bush, a carrier pilot who was rescued by the USS Finback after his plane was shot down during a mission over the Bonin Islands in 1944.

So there you have it. U.S. submarines may not be the first thing you think of when Pearl Harbor comes to mind, but they certainly played an important role in the fight that day and over the course of the war.

Be sure to say a thank you today to all those who fought bravely!

By Katie Lange
DOD News / Defense Media Activity
Copyright 2015

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