The unintended journey of a Japanese midget submarine

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By Sherry Robinson

In war-time New Mexico, what were crowds so eager to see that they spent $700,000 for a glimpse?

The story begins in Japan in 1938 with the launch of that nation’s first midget submarines. They were 81 feet long, 6 feet in diameter, and armed with two torpedoes. Powered by a 600-horsepower electric motor, they had a speed of 19 to 23 knots , but at full power the sub’s battery was only good for 55 minutes.

On Dec. 7, 1941, five of the diminutive subs joined the attack on Pearl Harbor. After riding piggyback on large subs, they launched near the harbor entrance the night before the attack. Their mission was to attack war ships and then rendezvous with the mother ships or blow themselves up next to a war ship. They began prowling before the air attack, but none of them would do any damage that day.

One of the five, Ha-19, had a malfunctioning gyrocompass. It hit a coral reef several times and ran aground. When a U. S. ship spotted the little sub, it fired, knocking it off the reef. The sub dived, and its crew tried again to complete their mission but damage prevented them from firing one torpedo. More attacks from the now-alerted fleet caused more damage that kept Ha-19 from firing its second torpedo, and fumes overcame the crew members. The little sub drifted.

On the east coast of Oahu, a Hawaiian-born, Japanese-American national guardsman captured the sub and the surviving crewman. Ensign Kazuo Sakamaki became the first Japanese prisoner of war taken by the United States in the Pacific conflict. The second man drowned. Chagrined at being captured alive, Sakamaki demanded to be executed or allowed to kill himself. Authorities refused.

Instead of destroying the craft, the government repaired and modified it so the public could look through windows and see its steering and power mechanisms, as well as the small crew’s cramped quarters. It became the star attraction in parades and tours promoting U. S. war bonds.

During a 1943 tour, Ha-19 visited 12 New Mexico communities in 12 days, between Jan. 7 and 18. The admission price was a $1 bond purchase for adults and a 25-cent war stamp for children. Advance publicity warned would-be souvenir hunters that the sub was well protected. Gov. Jack Dempsey assigned the State Police to escort the sub.

Carried on a flatbed truck, the sub entered New Mexico at Lordsburg and visited Deming, Las Cruces, El Paso, Hatch, T or C, Socorro, Belen, Albuquerque, Moriarty, Roswell, Artesia, and Carlsbad.

In each town, crowds reached deep into their pockets. Las Cruces raised $100,000. Hatch raised $4,300 – in an hour. In Belen, 2,000 people turned out to see the sub.

In Albuquerque, Ha-19 drew 20,000. The City of Albuquerque bought a $10,000 bond, and the total raised was $175,000. Roswell outdid Albuquerque with $213,000. Artesia raised $93,000, and Carlsbad, $77,000.

All told, New Mexicans contributed $700,000; in today’s dollars, that’s $6 million. On that tour Ha-19 visited 2,000 cities and raised enough money to finish repairing all the ships that were damaged at Pearl Harbor.

After the war, Sakamaki returned to Japan, where he was received with hostility. He became a pacifist, published a memoir and rose to become a Toyota executive from 1969 to 1983. In 1991, he attended a conference for the 50th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack and visited the Ha-19, which had just become a permanent exhibit at the

National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas. Seeing Ha-19 brought him to tears. He died in 1999.

During our official remembrances, the unintended journey of Ha-19 is also worth remembering.