Japan’s Midget Submarine Attack on Pearl Harbor Was a Suicide Mission

Unfortunately for officials in Tokyo, the Japanese Navy had struck a powerful blow, but not a crippling one. The bombardment failed to hit the repair facilities and fuel depots, which allowed the U.S. Pacific fleet to get back on its feet relatively quickly. Just as importantly, not a single U.S. aircraft carrier was in Pearl Harbor at the time. The flattops would swiftly prove their dominance over battleships in the coming Pacific War. Despite the debacle, the Japanese Navy continued sending Kō-hyōteki into combat. As at Pearl Harbor, the submariners in their tiny ships had very limited successes in operations from Australia to Alaska to Madagascar.

On Dec. 7, 1941, the aircraft of the Imperial Japanese Navy rained devastation upon the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. But Japanese warplanes didn’t actually fire the first shots that brought America into a massive Pacific War.

An hour before the air attack, a squadron of tiny Japanese midget submarines attempted to slip into the harbor’s defenses, like burglars in the night, to wreak havoc on Battleship Row. Unlike the aerial assault, the sailors failed spectacularly — and the story is often forgotten.

By the 1930s, Imperial Japan and the United States were set on a collision course. Tokyo’s decision to invade China in 1931 and intensify their brutal campaign six years had provoked ultimately irrevocable tensions.

The United States responded to the incursion into China with increasing sanctions, culminating with an embargo on petroleum in July 1941 that crippled the Japan’s economy. Japanese military leaders had wanted to capture the Dutch East Indies to secure its oil wealth, but knew it would trigger war with the Unites States.

While U.S.-Japanese negotiations came within striking distance of a peace agreement, Roosevelt was a hard bargainer, demanding Japan’s leaders order a complete withdrawal from China. They refused.

Thus, Japanese Adm. Yamamoto began planning for a “short victorious war.” The key to this idea was knocking out the battleships of the U.S. Pacific fleet at their home base of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii to buy the Japanese Army time to complete the conquest of the Western Pacific.

Along with a massive air strike from a Japanese carrier task force would constitute the main attack, the Navy coordinated the undersea assault using midget submarines.

During World War II, Japan, England, Italy and Germany all employed midget submarines to stealthily infiltrate shallow,…

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