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The Coffin Boats: Japanese Midget Submarine Operations in the Second World War
by Peggy Warner and Sadao Seno
Leo Cooper, 1986, 206 pages

Japanese midget submarines carried out torpedo attacks during WWII at Pearl Harbor, Sydney, and Diego Suarez in Madagascar. The Coffin Boats presents an in-depth examination of these three attacks and provides background information on Japanese midget submarines and their pilots. Midget submarines, referred to as special submarines (tokushu senkōtei) in Japanese, were Japan's first tokkōtai (special attack units) since the pilots did not expect to return alive from their missions. Peggy Warner and Sadao Seno, who collaborated with Denis Warner on the 1982 book The Sacred Warriors about Japan's kamikaze operations, thoroughly researched this narrow topic of Japanese midget submarines as evidenced by a four-page bibliography of both Japanese and English language sources and by the number of people interviewed who were connected with Japan's use of midget submarines during World War II.

Most chapters of The Coffin Boats cover the history of the first three midget submarine attacks on Pearl Harbor (Ch. 3-6), Sydney (Ch. 7-10), and Diego Suarez (Ch. 11). The book's first chapter has the story of the capture of midget submarine pilot Kazuo Sakamaki, who became America's first prisoner of war when his submarine ran aground after being released from the mother submarine. Chapter 2 describes the development of the Target A (Kō-Hyōteki) midget submarine and the decision to use five of them in the attack on Pearl Harbor. The book's last chapter covers sorties of other Japanese midget submarines later in the war, and the Epilogue tells several postwar stories of persons associated with Japan's midget submarines. The book includes 12 pages of photos.

Advance Force Pearl Harbor (1992) by Burl Burlingame thoroughly covers the midget submarine attack on Pearl Harbor, but The Coffin Boats also has detail descriptions of the attacks on Sydney and Diego Suarez and the pilots who participated in these attacks. Peggy Warner is an Australian, which explains the extensive details of the Sydney attack covering four chapters. The two authors objectively present the history of Japan's midget submarines and critically examine the Japanese propaganda surrounding the war god status of the midget submarine pilots who died in the attacks. The book generally has a tight narrative, but at times the background material, especially Chapter 7 for the Sydney attack, seems long and does not have much direct relevance to the main history.

The midget submarine units were designated as tokkotai (short for tokubetsu kōgekitai and meaning "special attack units") even though the mother submarine that launched the midget would try to rendezvous after the attack with the midget submarine. However, the crewmembers clearly understood that there would be little likelihood of survival as they wrote last letters to their family members, and no mother submarine successfully recovered a crewman from a launched midget for the attacks on Pearl Harbor, Sydney, and Diego Suarez. The Japanese public first heard the term tokkotai (special attack unit) on December 18, 1941, in an official Japanese communiqué reporting the results of the opening of the Greater East Asia War. The Japanese military also used the term tokkotai later in the war to apply to kamikaze aircraft and to other suicide weapons such as kaiten torpedoes and shinyo motorboats. Although both kamikaze and midget submarine squadrons were referred to by the same term, the midget submarine crewmembers were encouraged to return alive, although very few did so, whereas kamikaze pilots were ordered to die while crashing their aircraft into enemy ships. However, it was not uncommon for kamikaze pilots to return alive due to bad weather or engine problems.

On November 28, 1941, five mother submarines carrying one midget submarine each departed Japan for Pearl Harbor. The five two-man midget submarines were successfully launched in the early morning hours of December 7, 1941, but problems with the gyro compass on the one piloted by Kazuo Sakamaki made the midget submarine very difficult to navigate. The other four midgets were lost without causing any confirmed damage to American ships, while Sakamaki's midget drifted aground. He and his midget submarine were captured, so the midget no longer was a secret weapon.

The most interesting chapter in the book describes how the nine midget submarine crewmen who died in the Pearl Harbor attack became a legend generated by the Japanese propaganda machine. One midget submarine was credited by the Navy with the sinking of the battleship USS Arizona, much to the chagrin of Mitsuo Fuchida who led the aerial attack on Pearl Harbor and knew that the Arizona had been sunk by his horizontal bomber group. The nine men were acclaimed as war gods and posthumously promoted two ranks, which also irked the commanders of the airmen who had died in the attack but were posthumously promoted only one rank. The story of Masaharu Yokohama, who was credited with sinking the Arizona, was made into a popular wartime film. On April 8, 1942, a formal naval funeral service was held for the nine war gods. In contrast to the praise for the nine crewmen who died, censors prohibited any mention of Kazuo Sakamaki and his capture.

Three two-man midget submarines tried to enter Sydney Harbor on May 31, 1942. The six men's last letters or poems made clear that they considered the mission to be one in which they would lose their lives. One midget got caught up in the boom net protecting the harbor, and the two crewmen set the self-demolition charge to destroy themselves and the midget rather than suffer the ignominy of capture as did Kazuo Sakamaki. Another midget fired its two torpedoes, and one sank the depot ship Kuttabul and caused the deaths of 19 men. Depth charges later destroyed this midget. The final midget did not have the opportunity to fire its torpedoes after depth charges and possible glancing blows from two ships. The two crewmen tried and failed to set the self-demolition mechanism, and they both died with shots to the head. The midget was recovered about a week later.

On June 9, 1942, the four Japanese midget submarine crewmen who had been found in Sydney Harbor were cremated with full naval honors. The brief ceremony with no words spoken was attended by only a small number of people, but Rear Admiral Muirhead-Gould came under criticism for his actions. He defended his actions a few days later with the following words (pp. 128-9):

I have been criticized for having accorded these men military honours at their cremation, such honours as we hope may be accorded to our own comrades who have died in enemy hands; but, I ask you, should we not accord full honours to such brave men as these? It must take courage of the very highest order to go out in a thing like that steel coffin. . . . Theirs was a courage which is not the property or the tradition or the heritage of any one nation. It is the courage shared by the brave men of our own countries as well as of the enemy and, however horrible war and its results may be, it is courage which is recognized and universally admired. These men were patriots of the highest order. How many of us are really prepared to make one thousandth of the sacrifices that these men made?

Japan honored the six men who died in the Sydney attack as new war gods. When the ashes of the four midget submarine crewmen found were returned by Australia to Yokohama later in the year, thousands of people came in remembrance of the brave heroes. When the Australian High Command learned how the cremation ceremony was being used for propaganda purposes in Japan, they ordered that this type of funeral not take place again.

The May 30, 1942, night attack of two midget submarines on the harbor at Diego Suarez, Madagascar, had some success but had no effect on the overall course of the war. One torpedo hit and seriously damaged the old battleship Ramillies, but there were no casualties. A second torpedo sank the motor tanker British Loyalty and killed six men from the engine room where the torpedo hit. Neither midget was salvaged, but two midget submarine crewmen died on June 2 when British soldiers found and overpowered them in the hills within sight of the place where the midget had planned to rendezvous with the mother submarine. A third midget was going to be launched at Diego Suarez, but this one had to be ditched in the sea due to damage sustained during heavy swells on the way to Madagascar.

The Japanese Navy also lost midget submarines in Guadalcanal, Kiska, the Philippines, and Okinawa with very limited success. By the last year of the war the Japanese Navy had almost no mother ships with which to launch midget submarines. The photo of dozens of midget submarines lined up like giant cigars at Kure dry dock became an enduring image of Japan's defeat in World War II.