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Ensign Kazuo Sakamaki

I Attacked Pearl Harbor
by Kazuo Sakamaki
translated by Toru Matsumoto
introduction by Tsutae Nara
Association Press, 1949, 133 pages

Ensign Kazuo Sakamaki became America's first prisoner of war in WWII when his midget submarine ran aground after his attempted attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Although initially wanting to commit suicide in shame for being captured, he gradually developed a more positive outlook as he spent the entire war in various POW camps in Wisconsin, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Texas. After the war's end, Sakamaki returned to his home in Japan, soon married, and started a job in the Nagoya area at Toyota Motor Corporation.

Soon after Sakamaki's return to Japan, he wrote his memoirs in Japanese entitled Four Years as Prisoner of War Number One. Tsutae Nara presented Sakamaki's story many times when visiting the US to speak at YMCAs, churches, and schools. Persuaded by American friends to publish an English translation of Sakamaki's memoir, Nara contacted Sakamaki to get his agreement. Nara arranged for a translator and also obtained additional information for the English book from Sakamaki regarding his naval training and his opinions about present-day Japan. The Association Press, publisher for the International Committee of Young Men's Christian Associations (YMCAs), released the English book entitled I Attacked Pearl Harbor in 1949. The book was not reprinted for many years, but in 2017 it was reprinted in a new edition.

The eight chapters in Sakamaki's memoirs cover three main periods of his life. The first two chapters describe his training as a midget submarine pilot and his attempt to make an attack at Pearl Harbor with his midget submarine armed with two torpedoes. Chapters 3 to 5 deal with his time in captivity. The last three chapters present what happened when he returned to Japan and his thoughts about postwar Japanese society.

In I Attacked Pearl Harbor, Kazuo Sakamaki comes across as very honest and open with his feelings, motivations, and opinions. He does not attempt to justify his actions but rather relate what happened along with what he believed at different stages in his life such as during the attack and soon after being captured when he wanted to end his life. He became someone who did not really fit in either the Japanese society in which he grew up or the American society in which he lived for about four years. He faced extreme mental anguish and continuing pressure even after the war's end. He shares a letter that he received several times when he returned to Japan (p. 109):

I cannot understand how you could return alive. The souls of the brave comrades who fought with you and died must be crying now over what you have done. If you are not ashamed of yourself, please explain how come. And if you are ashamed of yourself now, you should commit suicide at once and apologize to the spirits of the heroes who died honorably.

The first sentence of the book makes mention that Sakamaki was a member of the Special Attack Forces, which meant that he planned to carry out suicide attacks against the enemy with no expectation of coming back alive. Sakamaki describes how the midget submarine crewmen were selected for this suicide squadron (p. 30):

That the personnel of the midget submarine group was selected with utmost care was obvious. The twenty-four, picked from the entire Japanese navy, had in common: bodily strength and physical energy; determination and fighting spirit; freedom from family care. They were unmarried and from large families.

None of us was a volunteer. We had all been ordered to our assignment. That none of us objected goes without saying: we knew that punishment was very severe if we objected; we were supposed to feel highly honored.

Ten men, including Sakamaki, from this elite group were selected for the five two-man midget submarines that would attack Pearl Harbor. Nine men died in the attack, but Sakamaki ended up being captured alive. When the mother submarine carrying his midget sub arrived near Hawaii, he discovered that his midget sub's gyrocompass did not function properly, which made it almost impossible to move underwater in the correct direction. After the midget sub was released about 11 p.m. on December 6, 1941, Sakamaki struggled for over 24 hours to get the submarine in the correct direction, but American destroyers dropped depth charges causing damage, and the midget sub got stuck temporarily on a coral reef. With the air becoming foul due to the battery smoking and leaking gas, the midget sub hit a coral reef again. Sakamaki decided to abandon the submarine after setting explosives so it would not fall into enemy hands. He and fellow crewman Kiyoshi Inagaki went into the waves to try to reach shore, but the submarine's explosive charge did not ignite. Inagaki was never found, and Sakamaki lost consciousness as he washed up on the beach. He and his submarine soon after were taken into captivity.

After Sakamaki's capture, he wanted to commit suicide, but he writes in his memoirs that he has little memory of those days in Hawaii. Based on his descriptions of several mainland camps in which he was held, he seemed generally pleased with his treatment. He eventually sometime in the spring of 1942 started to feel again like a human being and recognized the humanness of the Americans who he met. He mentions several times the educational opportunities at the camps with an "Internment University" that had lectures on English, geography, commerce, agriculture, music, Japanese poetry, Buddhist scriptures, and other subjects. He became the leader of other Japanese POWs who came to his camp as he encouraged them to learn English. He also tried to address the problem of other Japanese POWs' wanting to commit suicide after their capture, since he previously had gone through the same feelings.

Chapter 7 describes how he met his wife Sadako. When he returned from America, he received many letters from single women due to his fame in the Pearl Harbor attack. Despite these, he saw a woman working in a neighbor's field with whom he fell in love at first sight, although he reviewed her papers ("a health certificate, academic records, a brief biography, a certificate of her family background, all certified as to their accuracy") prior to making the commitment to marriage. Her father and brother had died in the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, so her mother and she had moved back to their ancestral home next to Sakamaki's home. They married on August 15, 1946, the first anniversary of the end of WWII. The book ends with the following description of his family (p. 133):

In September, 1947 our first child was born. We named her Yoshiko. She is growing rapidly. I cannot say that she is very healthy. As I write these concluding lines, she is sound asleep. I look at her and feel sorry that she is so skinny because I cannot provide for her adequately.

My wife Sadako is sitting between me and the baby. She is mending my trousers. She is also skinny and pale, but she is as beautiful as ever. Se we are all skinny, like most of the hard-working people in Japan, but we are optimistic. Above all, we are very happy.

In the last chapter, Sakamaki summarizes the stages he experienced to reach the point where he wanted to work for the birth of a new Japan: "My steps were these: all-out attack, failure, capture, a sense of dilemma, mental struggle, attempts at suicide, failure again, self-contempt, deep disillusionment, despair and melancholy, reflections, desire to learn and yearning for truth, meditation, rediscovering myself, self-encouragement, discovery of a new duty, freedom through love, a desire for reconstruction" (p. 129).

Sakamaki had a successful career as an executive at Toyota, including serving as president of its subsidiary in Brazil, and retired in 1987. After the publication of I Attacked Pearl Harbor in 1949, he did not speak or write publicly about his wartime experiences. His captured midget submarine became a traveling exhibit during the war in order to help raise money for war bonds. In 1990, his midget submarine was moved to the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas, where it is still on display. In 1991, Sakamaki visited the museum and saw the midget submarine that had been captured 50 years before. He passed away in 1999 at the age of 81.