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A Very Rude Awakening
by Peter Grose
Allen & Unwin, 2007, 320 pages

Three Japanese midget submarines, each carrying two torpedoes, made an attack in Sydney Harbor during the night of May 31 and June 1, 1942. Only one midget successfully launched its two torpedoes with one sinking the depot ship HMAS Kuttabul and killing 21 sailors. All six Japanese crewmen in the three midget submarines lost their lives in the attack. A Very Rude Awakening covers in great depth this unexpected attack that caused chaos among the warships in Sydney Harbor. The book shows how unprepared Sydney was for the attack and how responses by senior naval officers were delayed and inappropriate but later covered up in a report on the incident. Only by luck did Sydney not suffer more casualties during this night of mayhem. This excellent history, put together based on valuable contributions by several eyewitnesses and historical researchers, provides an exciting account of the Sydney attack with vivid portrayals of the principal persons on the Allied side who were involved in the battle.

The book's three parts, each with about equal length, thoroughly cover the preparation, attack, and aftermath of the attack by the midget submarines that entered Sydney Harbor. Several detailed maps clearly show the most likely paths of the three midget submarines and the two Japanese reconnaissance flights that took place two and eight days before the attack. Another map lays out the position of the 30 principal warships in Sydney Harbor at the time when the first midget submarine crossed into the harbor. The middle of the book contains 12 pages of WWII and postwar photos. The history focuses on battle participants on the Allied side but also provides background information, some more detailed than others, for the Japanese midget submarine crewmen, reconnaissance plane crewmen, and mother submarine captains. The author convincingly comes to sound conclusions based on evidence presented, although at times his justified criticisms of action or inaction by battle participants can come across rather sharply.

A Very Rude Awakening is the first book written by Peter Grose, but his engaging writing style, in-depth research, and logical presentation of evidence and conclusions surpass that found in history books written by most experienced authors. He started as a journalist and then later worked as a literary agent and book publisher, and his involvement with writing throughout his career is reflected in this first-class history of the Japanese midget submarine attack at Sydney Harbor. Grose's second book, An Awkward Truth, was published in 2009 and covers the February 1942 aerial bombardment of Darwin by the Japanese. The Acknowledgements section in A Very Rude Awakening praises the research and generosity of Steven L. Carruthers, who covered the Sydney midget submarine attack in two books: Australia Under Siege: Japanese Submarine Raiders 1942 (1982) and an expanded and revised version entitled Japanese Submarine Raiders 1942: A Maritime Mystery (2006). Carruthers provided Grose with full access to many valuable interview tapes and files that he had accumulated over 25 years in researching the attack. The Acknowledgements section also appropriately gives credit to the many people who kindly assisted Grose in his research and to key books and written documents that guided him. A fine history such as A Very Rude Awakening, which covers a complicated event with conflicting accounts, is the result of not just one author but many other people over several decades who provided valuable contributions to reach conclusions on what most likely actually happened.

Several passages explain that midget submarine attacks were definitely not suicide missions. The two crewmen of each midget sub had food and water to last for a week, and they were given orders to do their best to return to the mother submarine that launched the midget. Despite this, midget submarine crewmen recognized that they had almost a zero chance of surviving a mission. The crewmen were members of the Special Attack Corps in the same way as kamikaze pilots who made suicide attacks later in the war, and the Japanese Navy gave them special promotions of two ranks if they died during the mission. Of the ten midget submarines involved in the first three attacks at Pearl Harbor, Diego Suarez in Madagascar, and Sydney, all 20 crewmen except one died, and the one who survived (Kazuo Sakamaki) became the US's first Japanese POW when he lost consciousness as he washed up on the beach at Oahu Island.

Part I on "Preparation" discusses six warning signs that could have alerted Sydney to step up its defenses to prevent or detect sooner the Japanese midget submarine attack during the night of May 31 and June 1, 1942, but the city's military leaders made no changes in advance of the attack in order to put Sydney Harbor at an increased state of readiness. The six warnings that could have signaled an impending attack are the following:

  1. May 16 – Japanese submarine I-29 attacked the Russian merchant ship Wellen with two torpedoes and its deck gun near Newcastle off the New South Wales coast. Rear Admiral Muirhead-Gould, Naval Officer in Command at Sydney, closed the harbors at Newcastle and Sydney for one day but reopened them after a search for the submarine off the coast was unsuccessful.
  2. May 23 – Nobuo Fujita piloted a two-man Type 0 Small Reconnaissance Seaplane (Allied nickname of Glen) from submarine I-29 on a spy mission over Sydney Harbor in broad daylight. At least two eyewitnesses saw the plane, and a mobile radar station tracked this flight with no thought that it might be an enemy aircraft. The Combined Defense Headquarters incorrectly concluded that the radar unit must have something wrong with it, since there were no Allied planes in the air at that time.
  3. May 26-31 – On May 26, New Zealand intelligence intercepted a telegraphic message from submarine I-21, which indicated one or more enemy submarines were poised off Sydney. On May 30, the message was decrypted. On May 31, the intelligence digest was distributed to US Vice Admiral Leary, based in Melbourne as Commander of the Allied Naval Forces in the South-West Pacific Area, but the information seems to have been either discounted or ignored, since no notification was sent to those responsible for defending Sydney.
  4. May 29 – Japanese submarine I-21 launched a Glen reconnaissance plane for a spy flight over Sydney Harbor. Pilot Susumu Ito crossed over into Sydney a little after 4 a.m. The men at Georges Heights Battery saw the plane and notified the officer on duty, who verified that it was an unidentified aircraft and reported this to headquarters, but the two fighters eventually sent to investigate were too late to spot Ito before he left Sydney. The Glen got caught in spotlights three times, but each time it went back into the low clouds without being recognized. The Officer of the Deck on the heavy cruiser USS Chicago (CA-29) recognized the aircraft as a Japanese Glen reconnaissance floatplane when it flew by the warship, but somehow this information never got passed on to Rear Admiral Muirhead-Gould or others responsible for Sydney's defense.
  5. May 29 – New Zealanders picked up another telegraphic message from a single submarine (I-21) 40 nautical miles east-south-east of Sydney, but there is no evidence that this message was ever decrypted. The receipt of an message from a submarine was communicated to Sydney, but there was no attempt to increase the city's defenses.
  6. May 30 – Two midget submarines attacked Diego Suarez harbor in Madagascar, which damaged an old battleship and sank a motor tanker. The British did not immediately tell their allies, probably since they did not want the Japanese to know of the success of the raid and since in the beginning they were uncertain whether the attackers were Japanese or Vichy French. As a result, Sydney did not receive any message that they possibly could be the next place for a Japanese midget submarine attack.

The three Japanese midget submarines that entered Sydney Harbor were commanded by Lieutenant Keiu Matsuo, Lieutenant Junior Grade Katsuhisa Ban, and Lieutenant Junior Grade Kenshi Chuman. Chuman's midget submarine, launched from submarine I-27, crossed Inner Loop 12 into the harbor at 8:01 p.m., but his midget got caught in the boom net across the harbor entrance. When the two crewmen realized that they had been detected and had no chance of escape, they fired the scuttling charges at 10:37, which killed them both. Ban's submarine from submarine I-24 passed over Inner Loop 12 into the harbor at 9:48 and successfully got around the boom net that had ensnared Ban's midget. At 10:50, the submarine was fired on by the heavy cruiser USS Chicago. Ban's craft submerged but was fired on again at 11:10 when it resurfaced. At 12:29 a.m., the midget submarine fired two torpedoes at Chicago, but both missed. One of the torpedoes continued on and sank HMAS Kuttabul with 21 sailors aboard being killed. At 2:04 a.m., Ban's submarine crossed Inner Loop 11 and exited Sydney Harbor. The submarine never made it back to the mother submarine, and in November 2006 it was discovered sunk about three kilometers off Newport Reef on the northern Sydney beaches. Matsuo's midget submarine from submarine I-22 was detected entering the harbor at 10:54 p.m. and was rammed by the anti-submarine vessel Yandra and then at 11:07 was attacked with six depth charges from the same ship. Probably after waiting patiently near the sea bottom for several hours, Matsuo's submarine finally crossed Inner Loop 12 into the harbor at 3:01 a.m. He tried to fire his torpedoes after entering the harbor, but they failed to leave their tubes due to damage caused by the earlier attack. At 5:15, HMAS Sea Mist attacked and sank the midget submarine with depth charges. The two crewmen were found later with shots to the head as they had committed suicide to avoid capture by the enemy. Both Chuman's and Matsuo's midget submarines were recovered in the days after the attack.

Rear Admiral Muirhead-Gould, Naval Officer in Command at Sydney, had responsibility for the unpreparedness for Sydney Harbor's defenses on the night of the Japanese midget submarine attacks, but the Australian government refused to set up an independent commission, either public or private, to inquire officially into what happened but rather allowed Muirhead-Gould to prepare a report, never intended for the public, about the night's events. Grose explains the irony of such an assignment (p. 236):

If heads were to roll, then the most likely first head on the block would be that of the person in charge of Sydney's harbour defences. To put the entire inquiry into the hands of the man most likely to be its first victim was about as sensible as asking the average working criminal to conduct his own trial single-handed, and decide his own sentence. Muirhead-Gould must have accepted the challenge with relish.

The Rear Admiral's report, with its initial version dated June 22, 1942, and its final edited version dated July 16 that omits much of the initial criticism of junior officers, tends to say that defenses worked well even though they did not. The report's chronology and other explanations contain several factual errors, some which may have been intentional to hide the faults of top officers involved and some which have been identified only based on subsequent postwar research including interviews of participants in the battle and an examination of documents available from the Japanese side. He incorrectly concluded that four midget submarines participated in the attack, and he gave a false time of 10:20 p.m. as to when the Captain of the American heavy cruiser Chicago left Muirhead-Gould's dinner get-together at his shoreside home, since he did not actually return to his ship in his launch until about 11:30 p.m. despite his ship being anchored only a couple of minutes away across the water from the Vice Admiral's home. Grose concludes that Muirhead-Gould's report entitled "Midget Submarine Attack on Sydney Harbour, May 31st – June 1st, 1942" met its two real objectives of providing the Navy and Australian government a defensible narrative as to what happened during the confusing night and demonstrating that Sydney Harbor's defenses had been up to the mark, which allowed Muirhead-Gould to get off the hook.

Captain Howard Bode of the heavy cruiser USS Chicago gets presented as an incompetent and tyrannical leader. He had not yet returned from Rear Admiral Muirhead-Gould's party at 10:52 p.m., when men aboard Chicago sighted a midget submarine and fired upon it. When Bode finally returned to his ship about 11:30 p.m., he flew into a towering rage against his officers, called them "insubordinate jittery fools," and emphatically stated that there were no periscopes and no submarines. After midnight he accused all of the ship's officers of being drunk. At 12:29 a.m., the midget submarine piloted by Lieutenant Junior Grade Katsuhisa Ban fired its two torpedoes within 30 seconds of each other. They passed by on either side of USS Chicago, and the second one hit and sank the converted ferry ship Kuttabul, killing 19 Australian and 2 British sailors. At 2:14 a.m., Chicago left her mooring to proceed to sea, but Bode still had doubts of the officers' story of sighting and firing at a midget sub (p. 157):

On the bridge of the Chicago Captain Bode was still not convinced by his officers' account of sighting and firing at a midget submarine. As the cruiser steamed up to the harbour entrance Bode turned to Jimmy Mecklenberg and said: 'You wouldn't know what a submarine looks like.' In life it is seldom given to anyone to have a perfect riposte to this kind of remark, but this was Jimmy Mecklenberg's lucky night. 'They looked like that, Captain,' said Mecklenberg, pointing to a midget submarine passing down Chicago's starboard side, too close for the guns to depress and fire at it. The midget was so close that it probably collided with Chicago, though nobody aboard Chicago felt any impact.

The dictatorial and unreasonable Captain Bode soon met a tragic end. The Navy conducted a private investigation of Bode's actions during the Battle of Savo Island in August 1942. When he learned in April 1943 that he had been singled out for censure due to his questionable decisions during the battle that led to numerous Allied deaths, he shot himself.

In contrast to the questionable actions and attitudes of the leaders Rear Admiral Muirhead-Gould and Captain Howard Bode, little known heroes on the Allied side of the Sydney Harbor midget submarine attack stand out for their vigilance, prompt action, and determination. Lieutenant Reg Andrew in command of HMAS Sea Mist took decisive action to destroy Keiu Matsuo's submarine with depth charges, although he did not get the credit he deserved as he was intentionally sidelined by superiors for most of the war. Lieutenant Commander Jimmy Mecklenberg assumed command of Chicago when Captain Bode had not returned from his dinner party at Vice Admiral Muirhead-Gould's house. Mecklenberg issued prudent commands to get Chicago prepared to go to sea and to have the destroyer escort Perkins conduct screening patrols around Chicago. Nightwatchman Jimmy Cargill rowed over and investigated Chuman's midget submarine caught in the boom net. He made efforts to report his findings, but some men in positions of responsibility were skeptical of his story that there could be a midget submarine in the net. Roy Cooté and Lance Bullard were the principal divers to recover bodies from the sunken depot ship Kuttabul and to investigate and recover the two midget submarines that had been sunk in the harbor. They demonstrated sustained courage in diving for more than a week and especially when they first approached Matsuo's submarine, which was still considered to be alive at the time with the possibility of explosive charges aboard being detonated while they were near.

The Japanese side of the midget submarine attack on Sydney Harbor receives less attention than the Allied side, but Grose provides enough details and background to get a basic understanding of their strategy and thinking. Lieutenant Keiu Matsuo, one of the principal strategists of Japan's midget submarine program, has his personal history presented, whereas the book includes few details about the other midget submarine crewmen since less is known about them. The book also provides background information about the midget submarine attacks at Pearl Harbor and Diego Suarez in Madagascar. Details of reconnaissance flights carried out by Susumu Ito and Nobuo Fujita offer fascinating insights into the dangers that they each faced as a pilot of a Glen reconnaissance floatplane launched from an I-class submarine.

The thoroughness, objectivity, and writing style found in A Very Rude Awakening make this history the best of several books about the Japanese midget submarine attack on Sydney Harbor. The author Peter Grose readily acknowledges his debt to researchers and writers who went before him. His analysis at times leads to different conclusions than those widely accepted in the past, but his reasoning and inferences based on available evidence seem sound. 

"Postcard produced by the Royal Australian Navy and sold as a
souvenir of the submarine attack. This particular postcard shows the
fearful beating from depth charges suffered by Matsuo's midget.
The massive dent behind the conning tower is clearly the result of a
depth charge detonated at very close range. It may well be the
 outcome of Reg Andrew's first attack in Taylors Bay."
(6th page of photos between pages 148 and 149)