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War Stories with Oliver North: Attack of the Japanese Midget Subs!
Produced and written by Cyd Upson
Fox News Channel, 2002, 44 min., DVD

This episode of War Stories presents the history of the attack by five Japanese two-man midget submarines at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The program focuses on the sinking of one of the midget submarines by USS Ward (DD-139) and on the capture and interrogation of Kazuo Sakamaki, who piloted one of the other midgets. War Stories is a successful historical documentary series with more than 100 episodes broadcast by Fox News between 2000 and 2010. Oliver North, who became famous during the Iran-Contra Scandal in the late 1980s, conducts the interviews for this program.

The American and Japanese WWII veterans appearing in this episode entitled "Attack of the Japanese Midget Subs!" provide fascinating commentary. These eyewitnesses to the attack include Navy Captain William Tanner (pilot of PBY reconnaissance aircraft who spotted midget submarine and dropped smoke canister to mark location for USS Ward), Navy Fireman 1st Class Kenneth Swedberg (on one of gun mounts of USS Ward when it sank one of midget subs), Kichiji Dewa (crewman of I-16 submarine that launched one of the midgets), and Army 2nd Lt. Steve Weiner (interrogated midget submarine pilot Kazuo Sakamaki right after his capture). The two historians who appear in the film, Burl Burlingame (author of Advance Force Pearl Harbor (1992)) and Jack Green (Curator and Historian at the Naval Historical Center) also provide insightful comments regarding the midget submarine attack.

The first part of the documentary goes slowly as quite a bit of time is spent on background information for the actual attack. The episode shows several clips from a Japanese wartime propaganda film about the attack, but there is no explanation that these clips contain historical inaccuracies such as the five midget submarines being grouped together as they approach the harbor entrance rather than being released by the mother submarines at different geographical locations and different times. North mentions at the beginning that certain information related to the midget submarine attack was declassified after he attended the Naval Academy (in the 1960s), but this comment never gets further explained later as to how this new information helped to understand what happened during the attack. The film only briefly mentions what is known about what happened to each of the five midget submarines without going into details except for Sakamaki's midget and the one sunk by the USS Ward. A map showing the supposed or possible route traveled by each midget submarine would have greatly helped to understand the attack.

The program's highlight is the presentation of the sinking of a midget sub by USS Ward and the finding of this midget sub on the sea bottom on August 28, 2002. At 3:42 a.m. on December 7, 1941, the minesweeper USS Condor spotted what looked like a submarine periscope, and Ward went to check out the report but found nothing after searching for an hour. At daybreak, men aboard the cargo ship USS Antares sighted a conning tower following close behind the ship, and USS Ward went to general quarters and shot at it. One shot hit the conning tower, and Ward dropped depth charges to ensure the sinking of the submarine about one hour before the beginning of the aerial attack on warships in Pearl Harbor. The documentary shows when the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory discovered the midget submarine wreck, which has a 4-inch hole through its conning tower from one of Ward's guns. This finding provided further proof that the first casualties were Japanese in the Pearl Harbor attack, and it showed that Ward's crewmen were not caught unprepared when the battle at Pearl Harbor started.

Admiral Yamamoto insisted that midget submarine crewmen be recovered as a condition to his acceptance of the risky plan. Although theoretically they could be picked up after a rendezvous with the mother submarines, they prepared themselves beforehand as if they would not return. Green explains that it really was a suicide mission considering the shallowness of Pearl Harbor and the narrowness of the harbor entrance. Dewa explains (translated from Japanese), "I don't think the commanding officer himself considered returning alive. He used to say, 'Kill the small insect to kill the big insect.' That was our way of thinking, so nobody intended to come back." Lt. Naoji Iwasa, leader of the mission and pilot of the midget submarine launched from mother submarine I-16, left behind for his family the following poem that clearly indicates his belief that he would die in the attack [1]:

As the cherry blossoms fall
At the height of their glory
So, too, must I fall
That men may call me
A flower of Yamato,
Though my bones lie scattered
In the bleak wilderness
Of strange and distant lands

In the reading of the above poem, the narrator makes one of several mispronunciations of Japanese names in this episode when he reads "a flower of Yamamoto" rather than "a flower of Yamato." Yamamoto was Japanese Fleet Admiral, whereas Yamato is a poetic name that refers to Japan.

Steve Weiner vividly describes Sakamaki's capture and interrogation in the latter part of the documentary. Just after Sakamaki had been found washed up on the beach after he had to abandon his midget submarine that had got lost due to a malfunctioning gyroscope, Weiner and other Army men with him gave the prisoner a shot of booze and a hard-boiled egg. They took turns holding a .45 pistol to his temple to try to get information from him. He asked in English for paper and a pencil, and he wrote the following: "I am Japanese naval officer. My ship catch in coral. I jump in water, swim to this airplane land. Kill me in honorable way. No tell about ships." In 1991, Weiner met Sakamaki again at a symposium held at the National Museum of the Pacific War (Fredericksburg, Texas), where Sakamaki's captured midget submarine is now on display, but Sakamaki at that time did not remember Weiner's presence at his first interrogation after being captured.

This documentary provides an good introduction to the Japanese midget submarine attack at Pearl Harbor, but many topics get covered only cursorily in the time frame available. Don Burlingame's fine book Advance Force Pearl Harbor (2002), which was used for many details mentioned in this episode of War Stories, provides a comprehensive history of the midget sub attack for those who want to know more.


1. This poem is from Burlingame 1992, 158.

Source Cited

Burlingame, Burl. 1992. Advance Force Pearl Harbor. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press.