Nova’s new season premier on PBS the night of 5 January, “Killer Subs in Pearl Harbor,” makes great TV watching for any World War II enthusiast or military historian. The episode is based in part on work, begun in the early 1990s, by three collaborating naval researchers: CAPT John Rodgaard, USN; scientist Peter Hsu; and Dr. Robert Neyland of the Naval History and Heritage Command. Accordingly, DOD held a conference call on 6 January between these experts and several military bloggers; I represented Defense Tech.
I learned quickly during the phone call that Nova only covered the team’s investigations through the year 2000, and the producers of the episode gave the team no chance to react to scripted conclusions. So it’s not surprising that there’s more to the story of Japanese minisub operations inside Pearl Harbor early on December 7, 1941. Rodgaard, Hsu, and Neyland have made a very convincing case that, contrary to most history books and the Nova episode itself, in fact two, not just one, of the five 45-ton, battery powered two-man Japanese minisubs – launched from their full-size mothership diesel subs outside Pearl Harbor between 0100 and 0300 local time that day – succeeded in penetrating the harbor defenses and then fired their two heavyweight Type-97 torpedoes. Using digitized photogrammetry, technical knowledge of the physics of underwater explosions, and an exacting timeline analysis, they demonstrated that one of these minis, the first to be launched that morning (which Nova called “Minisub #5”), was caught in a Japanese aerial photograph a moment after she’d fired one Type-97 at the battleship USS West Virginia and one at the battleship USS Oklahoma – and scored a direct hit on West Virginia. Mini 5 might have also hit Oklahoma. This information has significant implications both for historians, who figure out what actually happened in the past, and for historicists, who draw lessons from history to apply to today and the future.
The traditional take is that only one minisub got inside the harbor and fired its two torpedoes but neither scored a hit. This positions the Japanese minisub ops at Pearl as ineffectual, a mere afterthought to a decisively crushing carrier-borne aerial attack. The work of Rodgaard, Hsu, and Neyland supports a rather different conclusion. If two minis actually got near Battleship Row, and one of them got off two shots that helped destroy one or even two American battleships, then Pearl Harbor was an effectively executed combined arms assault by the Imperial Japanese Navy. But because the IJN was our sworn enemy during the world war that ensued, and because it lost unconditionally, it did not get to write the history books on the attack, at least in the West.
Why does this matter today? Because history provides raw data for historicists, especially in military matters. And what Pearl Harbor demonstrates to me, after the reinterpretation of events by Rodgaard, Hsu, and Neyland, is that undersea warfare power projection is an indispensable force multiplier for naval aviation during littoral combat. There are other important lessons here for today’s budget-strapped Pentagon planners and Members of Congress: Minisubs in modern form to be carried by fast and long-endurance SSNs and SSGNs – such as something that works well in place of the failed ASDS project, and various UUVs and sub-launched UAVs – deserve a priority in development and acquisition funding. Harbor security, which bears on both homeland defense and force protection worldwide, dare not shortchange the undersea dimension. Perhaps most generally and most importantly, ships and planes, no matter how capable and numerous, cannot do all the work that requires a robust, adequately resourced U.S. Submarine Force.
Part of the confusion over the years as to the role of Minisub #5 and the fate of the two courageous men aboard her comes from previously unresolved ambiguities concerning the track they took and their “final” resting place. I won’t reveal any spoilers here, but the research team’s answer ties in with another long-guarded secret of World War II operations at Pearl Harbor – a U.S. Navy secret only recently declassified!
– Joe Buff