Sunday, December 7, 2014

First Shot at Pearl Harbor

My brother John wrote a guest blog in honor of the 73rd anniversary of Pearl Harbor. I knew about the Japanese submarine but I had no idea people doubted its existence or that it had been sunk by an American ship.

Just as President Franklin D. Roosevelt suggested it might, December 7th 1941—the day of the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor—has indeed “lived in infamy.”  Seventy-three years latter most everyone is familiar with the general narrative of the events of that day.  At 7:55 am on a quiet Sunday morning Japanese carrier-based bombers attacked the ships of the US Pacific Fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  Of the eight American battleships present four were sunk and the others damaged.  Numerous other ships and shore facilities were destroyed or damaged.  2403 American sailors, soldiers, airmen and civilians were killed in the attack.   The USS Arizona, which sunk with the loss of 1177 men when her magazine exploded, is now a memorial operated by the National Park Service.  Visited by over a million people a year, the memorial keeps alive the tragic events of December 7, 1941.

USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor; photograph courtesy of the
US Navy

Another important part of the Pearl Harbor narrative are the warnings that went unheeded and the radar contacts of the incoming Japanese striking force that went unreported.  These failings contributed to the Pacific Fleet being caught by surprise at anchor.  But perhaps less well remembered are the actions of USS Ward, whose skipper and crew reacted quickly and decisively when a Japanese submarine was spotted trying to sneak into the harbor an hour and a half before the Japanese attack began.

An old World War I four-piper destroyer, Ward was manned by men of the Minnesota Naval Reserve when she joined the Pacific Fleet in 1941.  On the morning of the Japanese attack she was conducting a routine patrol off the entrance of Pearl Harbor.  At 0637 skipper Lieutenant Commander William W. Outerbridge was alerted when a periscope was spotted behind USS Antares, which was towing a lighter into the harbor.  The unidentified submarine was apparently trying to sneak through the anti-submarine nets behind Antares in an effort to gain entrance to Pearl Harbor.  Accelerating to 25 knots Ward closed on the submarine in a few minutes and initiated an attack by guns and depth charges.  A shell from #3 gun was observed to strike the submarine at the base of the conning tower, after which the submarine heeled over and sank.  A large oil slick was observed where the submarine went down.

USS Ward; photograph courtesy of the US Navy

To fully appreciate Outerbridge’s actions one must understand how easy it would have been to succumb to self-doubt before ordering the attack.  Obviously, the war had not yet started, so technically speaking he was operating in a time of peace.  Although aggressive actions on the part of the Japanese were not unexpected, most believed if anything happened it would be in the Far East.  It was certainly possible for a Japanese submarine to operate off Hawaii in peacetime, but highly unlikely for one to attempt to enter the harbor.  How easy it would have been for Outerbridge to assume the suspicious submarine was a friendly one?  Instead Outerbridge charged in for an attack without hesitation, and his actions likely saved further destruction and loss of life at Pearl Harbor.  Contrast his response with those manning Hawaii’s radar defenses that fateful morning.  When alerted to radar contact of an unidentified flight approaching Oahu’s north shore, officers of the Army’s Intercept Center assumed it to be the expected arrival of a flight of B-17s.  Consequently, they took no action and failed to pass on the information to higher staffs.

Captain William W. Outerbridge; photograph courtesy of USS Los
Angeles (CA-135) veterans website

For many years historians doubted the claims made by Ward’s crew to have successfully sunk the submarine engaged.  This was mainly because no wreckage was found; however, on August 28, 2002 a team from the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory spotted the sunken remains of a Japanese Type A midget submarine in 1200 feet of water.  It had a shell hole at the base of its conning tower, the result of the first shot fired in World War II in the Pacific.

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