I didn’t really begin to understand the events of Pearl Harbor until the end of the war when I accepted the surrender of the Japanese submarine
The fact is, I would have never imagined they would be like they were. Prior to actually seeing them, I pictured them in my mind as being beaten and broken, more like animals than men. Or more accurately, that is what I
There were plenty of pictures and films of them, the few of them who surrendered, on Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and other such places during the course of the war. They were dirty, half-starved, and terrified-looking—beaten and defeated. Just the way you would want to see an enemy. That’s the price you pay when you have the arrogant audacity to screw with the United States of America. You get screwed right back, and we win. And it served them right as far as I was concerned.
But these weren’t those men. They were clean, shaved, and in their best dress uniforms. And with the exception of one officer and several crewmen to handle the ropes between our two vessels, they were standing at attention on the deck of the Imperial Japanese naval submarine, which was now tied up to the side of my very own ship.
And I hated them for it—even more than I did before. Especially after looking around at my own crew and seeing them in dungarees and khakis, dressed for battle.
“They damn well better be ready for battle,” I said to myself. “The Japs just cannot, under any circumstances, be trusted.” I had already paid too much by not being ready for them.
Now there are times as the commanding officer of a naval vessel that what the admirals and presidents order you to do is distinctly different than what you really want to do. There was no greater example of a time like this in my life than on this occasion.
It was a few days after the dropping of the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki when I received the orders to proceed to a latitude and longitude that was somewhere to the southeast of Okinawa, to “find, rescue, and accept surrender from” a Japanese submarine.
My instincts utterly revolted. “Rescue them! What the bloody hell happened to killing them?” I thought.
They had their supply lines cut in the days that preceded the atom bombs and the agreement of the Japanese to surrender. A torpedo from one of our submarines sank an enemy sub tender, and as a result, they didn’t have enough fuel to make landfall anywhere, let alone get to the formal surrender point. So we were supposed to find them and tow them back to Okinawa.
Remembering my training at the academy, and not yet willing to set aside my career as an officer, I had to struggle against myself to put in my own discipline and follow the orders.
All of the possible scenarios passed through my mind, including what happened the last time I tried to rescue some of them after the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
I was tempted to not find them and leave them to drift endlessly at sea until they all died of starvation and thirst. That would not have bothered me a bit. How many American sailors did these Nips cause to die, drifting helplessly in the sea after torpedoing their ships?
That’s what happened to several crews of American ships like the
The light cruiser I was in command of, the USS
With extreme caution (to make sure that this wasn’t some kind of ambush by a renegade sub captain), we approached them without incident. No sign of ships other than ours, no sonar contacts, and even better, no torpedo wakes. I wasn’t going to take any chances with my ship that I didn’t have to because there had already been a number of incidents of Japs refusing to surrender and choosing to die rather than follow their emperor’s order to stand down.
As we came around to tie up next to them, I turned to Major Johnson and addressed him. He was a very professional man even among marines; always in order and always to the point. He was in command of the marine detachment on board, and I knew he would feel about the same with this situation as I did. In addition, he was one of the few men on board who could speak Japanese. Right at this time, most of his unit was placed at strategic points all over the port side of the
“Yes, sir,” he said.
“You know the Nip customs?” I asked. (This, incidentally, was part of the reason he was on my ship.)
“I want this to be perfectly clear. If just one of those Nip bastards even blinks the wrong way I want you to cut that ship to ribbons. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir,” he said, without hesitation or emotion. A simple man, the major, always followed orders without question.
He and his crew had the unfortunate duty of being the first to board the Japanese submarine and secure it, after which the sub commander would be brought on board to surrender to me. At least that’s the way the plan was supposed to work. And when Japs were around, things, more often than not, didn’t work according to plan. I was taking no avoidable chances.
Inside of myself, I was struggling with the hope that one of them would make a false move, daring me to act. What game was it they were playing? Or were they really surrendering?
Deciding to never trust a Jap, I looked over my shoulder for the destroyer that was escorting us. It was right where it belonged, but what good would it do against another submarine already positioned and silent?
I could see them so clearly in my mind, just below the surface, waiting patiently for the right time to strike. In less than a minute, they could surface to periscope depth, already lined up on the targets, periscope up, and five seconds later start shooting their torpedoes. Six of them in one salvo, in a straight line, would leave us with little chance of escape.
If he was good, he could hit the destroyer twice, sinking it. The destroyer’s momentum would carry it out of the way of the last four “fish,” which would slam, one after another—boom, boom, boom, boom—into the side of my ship. Repeatedly striking the exact same part of my ship, it would certainly break my ship in half and sink it. With six Jap torpedoes against a stationary target and a slow-moving target, it would all be over before we could respond. This ship had been hit by enough torpedoes to last me the rest of my command, and I had already been on enough additional torpedoed ships to last an entire lifetime.
I’ve got to hand it to the Japanese. They sure knew how to make a bad-ass torpedo. Especially the sub-launched ones. The USS
At least the sea was calm that day, not that it would do us any good, but maybe we could see any torpedo wakes in time to take
The worst thought weighed still heavier on my mind. Maybe this sub itself was rigged to explode right alongside of us, taking us both out. I wouldn’t put it past them for even a second. Kamikazes, “The Divine Wind,” as the major would tell me, were a god-damned bunch of freak-show fanatics, if you asked me. What kind of a moral reprobate would load up a plane with explosives and deliberately crash it along with them into a ship?
Either way, we were screwed. Another cruiser sent to Davy Jones’s Locker in the name of “The Divine Wind and the glorious Name of The Emperor Hirohito for the Empire of Japan.” What a bunch of crap.
It would be better, as far as I was concerned, to break the lines to that ship and simply put a few shells in it and go home rather than risk spending the next few hours or days floating on the water, hoping for rescue. “One thing is for sure,” I thought to myself. “I do not want to repeat the last time I was in the water on account of these sons-of-bitches.” I remembered all too well the feeling of watching the USS
But there was still the matter of my duty. The inescapable truth of the situation called my attention back to the order to lower the liberty ladder to the deck of the Japanese submarine. Her crew was still immobile and resolute on her deck for some nefarious reason, which I still hadn’t been able to fathom. I could see the expressions on their faces from my place on the bridge and could take some small amount of comfort in the fact that they obviously were not taking the circumstances lightly.
“Good, the more misery for them, the better,” I thought. Major Johnson told me that for them to have to surrender is an extreme dishonor. Personally, I didn’t see how they would have had any honor to lose.
Still, their faces were not unlike the faces of the pilots of the planes that attacked Pearl or the one that flew down so close to the
“Yellow bastards,” is all I could say for them. I very easily could have towed them to shallow water, welded the hatches shut with all of them inside, and sunk them well above crush depth so they would die slowly in darkness, with no hope of rescue. “No survivors,” my report would say. It’s too good a fate for the kind of scum who would shoot at helpless people in the water and laugh about it.
The major’s crew were crossing the liberty ladder to the Japanese sub. As expected, they executed their task with the brave professionalism and due diligence I had come to expect from the corps. I didn’t envy him for his job that day. He would be among the first men to die if the Japs decided to play any tricks.
From my vantage point, I could see the major take several marines below, providing each other cover while numerous other marines stayed above deck guarding the sub’s crew. It would take awhile for the major to secure the sub and make sure it wasn’t somehow rigged.
We had discussed beforehand that one of the first things I wanted verified, if the situation on the sub was reasonably safe, was the fuel level in the sub’s tanks. I reasoned that would give me the earliest possible clue of the crew’s true intentions. I fully expected the major to signal a trap, but no such signal ever came. Meanwhile, most of the sub’s crew was still in place, at attention, on the deck of the ship. Several Japanese officers had been asked by the major to go below decks with him.
I tried to avoid tapping nervously on the grip of my Colt forty-five as I rested my hand on it and waited for the signal from the major that either all was well, or it was time to fight. As the captain in a potential combat situation, you don’t have the luxury of letting the crew know how nervous you really are. They will follow your lead if they catch on, and I half-wanted them to not get trigger-happy.
As the seconds turned to minutes, I again found myself thinking about the war. All of the countless intelligence reports I had been briefed on flooded my mind. The gruesome violence the Japs had committed on enemy soldiers they had captured was not anything anybody should be exposed to—ever. Some victims could only be identified as soldiers of ours by the dog tags left behind. Let alone what these bastards were capable of doing to the civilian populations they had overrun. “Murder, rape, and torture were all in a Nip’s day of work,” I was thinking. Just then, the Major’s head appeared above the conning tower of the sub. He gave a hand signal that everything was well. “It’s a good thing the major’s head is still attached,” I thought, as I watched another marine come out of the hatch on the conning tower behind the major and climb down the ladder, cross the deck, and head for the liberty ladder back to my ship. A few seconds later, I was facing a slightly out-of-breath marine sergeant who handed me a hand-written note.
Thanking the sergeant and dismissing him, I read:
Have secured enemy sub. Fuel supply extremely low. Batteries the same. No detectable hidden purpose yet but still involved in searching the sub. Japanese captain and officers cooperating in every way. Captain speaks English well, attended University of Chicago. Expect ten more minutes to finish.
University of Chicago? I couldn’t believe it. Apparently
“Sir?” the officer of the deck replied.
“Major Johnson tells me the Jap bastard captain of that sub went to the University of Chicago.”
“Really?” replied the lieutenant.
“Yes, apparently so. We should have just shot him when we had him the first time, don’t you think lieutenant?
“Would have been a good idea, sir,” he said with a grin. “We could have saved all of those American war bond holders a lot of money on perfectly good ammunition.”
“No doubt,” I replied, ending the conversation, both out of not wanting to invite levity onto the bridge of my ship under such serious circumstances and another flood of hatred for these animals we called Nips welling up inside of me.
“There was nothing more we could do,” I thought as I remembered a time on this very ship not long ago. “We did everything we could to get those men out of there.” The horror, the sheer horror of it, but there was nothing that could be done; the bulkhead gave way and drowned them all like rats. All we could do was listen to them in their panic and pleas to God for a few more precious moments of life as the water flooded into the compartment. And no matter how many times I go over it in my mind, the helplessness still never goes away. There was just nothing more we could do. My promise to those men, that they would see their families again, was broken, and some of our own boys would never make it home as a result. Halsey’s plan of “Kill Japs, kill Japs, and kill more Japs” was still looking mighty good to me.
And as the seconds turned into minutes I gently tapped the grip of my holstered Colt forty-five. Since Pearl, I almost always kept my sidearm on me. Even when I didn’t think it was a likely time to find myself in combat. Not that it would do much good for a sailor most of the time. But on the other hand, I was a champion shooter, and it made me feel better that at least I could always shoot back with
It was loaded by my own hands just before the Japanese sub had been spotted. One round in the chamber, full magazine with four spares, cocked locked, and ready for trouble. I was ready for a fight. With all of those yellow bastards in close formation on the deck like that, I’d be sure to get at least several of them.
A recurring nightmare since the
Then I thought of my wife and children. What would they gain from it?
After a short time the marine sergeant interrupted my reverie by returning to the bridge bearing another note from the Major. I took it from him and told him to stand by while I read it.
Enemy sub secured. All weapons disabled and inert. The Japanese captain respectfully requests to come aboard and formally surrender.
“Sergeant,” I said, “run ahead and inform the major that I will be on the quarter deck at the top of the liberty ladder in two minutes.”
“Yes, sir,” replied the marine; then he departed the bridge.
I picked up the sound-powered phones, which connected the bridge to the executive officer’s battle station, put them on, and keyed the microphone. “XO,” I said.
“Yes, sir,” came the usual acknowledgement of Commander Thompson’s voice.
“I’m leaving the bridge to go accept the sub captain’s surrender. You have the conn. Look sharp and keep your eyes peeled; I don’t trust these bastards.” Normally, in a potential combat area, the captain is not allowed to leave the bridge area. It’s very restrictive and almost like being in the brig to be confined to just the area of the pilot house, the navigation bridge, and my very small sea quarters. Even my meals were brought to me in my chair in the pilot house. I normally looked forward to any chance to leave the bridge, but this was an exception.
“Understood,” the executive officer said.
I would have rather told him, “I’m going down to the quarter deck to put a forty-five caliber hole right in the middle of that slant eyed bastard’s head. Send somebody down to clean his filthy bloodstain off the deck of my ship in five minutes.”
“Officer of the deck, XO has the conn. I’ll be back in ten minutes,” I said.
“Yes, sir. The captain’s off the bridge.”
I turned, stepped through the hatch, then down the ladder, and for the first time in weeks, left the bridge area of my ship.
“For all I know, this could be the same submarine and the same captain that torpedoed the
I arrived at the top of the ladder down to the sub just before the major and a Japanese officer with a samurai sword stepped onto it and began to climb up the steps.
As he was climbing the ladder my thoughts once again strayed to my forty-five waiting in its holster. “I still could get him,” I thought, “I’m a good enough shot that I could hit him with no risk to the major. It’s an easy shot.”
Then they were at the top of the ladder. The Colt in its holster was feeling very heavy on my chest. They were ten feet in front of me, five, and then three.
The Japanese officer reached for his sword. I shot a quick glance at Major Johnson as I felt the snap on the strap of the holster which held my Colt pop loose against my index finger. “This is it,” I thought; “he is going to try to lop off my head with that thing. Well, if it’s him or me that is going to die, I choose him.”
Ever so slightly the major shook his head at me, his eyes widening, as if reading my mind.
The Japanese captain unhooked the sword from his belt, still sheathed, bowed, and holding it horizontally, offered it to me.
This was the only time in almost four years of war I had seen a Jap surrender without shooting at him first.
So as my sworn enemy stood in front of me, defeated and offering his sword, and me with my hand still on my forty-five, I began to feel I was missing something, something vague yet very important. I had planned and hoped for this day for some time now, and yet when the moment finally arrived, it seemed hollow.
A nebulous idea began to form in my thoughts, small at first, but growing, and very rapidly gaining energy like an avalanche, until it totally wiped out any concept of the things I had previously assumed were true. I found my mind suddenly racing backwards through time, looking at all of the events of the war that had led me to this point…