Torpedo Attack on the USS St. Louis
by Parks Stephenson

Copyright © 2010 Parks Stephenson

Early in my investigation into the Japanese midget subs, I took special note of the evidence that Burl Burlingame offered up in his comprehensive book, Advance Force Pearl Harbor, about the encounter between the cruiser USS St. Louis and an alleged midget sub. There, he offered evidence from other ships that told quite a different story. Using AFPH as a guide, I dove into the archives to see if I could either validate or refute — using only primary source material — Burl's interpretation of the evidence. This article is the result.


"When just inside entrance buoy No. 1 two torpedoes were fired at this ship from a distance of approximately 2,000 yards on the starboard beam. The torpedoes, although running shallow, struck the shoal inside buoy No. 1 and exploded, no damage to this vessel resulting. An object near the origin of the torpedo tracks was taken under fire by the 5" battery but no hits were observed. This object was not positively identified as a submarine periscope."

- Commanding Officer, USS St. Louis (CL-49), report to Commander Cruisers, Battle Force, dated 10 December 1941

"At 1004 when just inside the channel entrance buoys (Buoys #1 and 2) two torpedoes were seen approaching the ship from starboard from a range of between 1,000 to 2,000 yards. Just before striking the ship, they hit the reef to westward of the dredged channel and exploded doing no damage to the ship. At the source of the torpedo tracks a dark gray object about 18" long was seen projecting above the water about 8". At the time, it was not positively known that this was part of a "baby" submarine but the Commanding Officer has since seen the one on display at the Submarine Base and is positive that the object sighted was the top of the periscope fairwater of a "baby" submarine. The object was taken under fire by the starboard 5" battery from 1004 till 1007 but the ship is uncertain as to whether or not any hits were scored, although it was reported that hits were made on the first two salvos. The submarine very shortly (30 seconds approximately) disappeared from view. The ship was proceeding at about 20 knots at this time and experienced difficulty in dodging the submarine, keeping off the reef, and in avoiding two mine sweepers and their sweep."

- Commanding Officer, USS St. Louis (CL-49), report to Commander-in-Chief, US Pacific Fleet, dated 25 December 1941

"Incidentally, as I remember the speed in the dredged channel at Pearl was restricted to something like eight knots. But I knew that, if any Jap submarines were present, they would be lying off the entrance ready to torpedo outgoing vessels and so we buckled on speed so as to shorten the length of time that we would be a target and so as to be able to maneuver better. And before we left the dredged part of the channel we were making twenty knots.

"And sure enough, before we left the dredged part of the channel two torpedoes were fired at us by a midget submarine and were seen approaching on a perfect collision course. We could not maneuver in the narrow channel and a change of speed could not take effect in time to avoid a hit.

"But our first bit of luck then happened. The Jap got over-anxious and fired before we had cleared the dredged part of the channel and his torpedoes had to run over the coral reef. The torpedoes hit the reef and both of them exploded."

- Captain G. Arthur Rood, Commanding Officer

As we cleared the harbor that morning, I saw a torpedo wake, we ran over it, and then I spotted a sub conning tower...I did get in two shots at the midget submarine that was challenging our right to exit. If I did not hit it I sure came was just like short range battle practice."

- John L DuBosque, Pointer, 5"/38 Gun Mount #3

Accounts like these, from both official Navy records and personal recollections, have led historians to conclude that the USS St. Louis was attacked by a Japanese midget submarine as the cruiser sortied out of the harbour. In a letter published in the April 2005 issue of Naval History magazine, a team of naval historians followed a process of elimination to identify the midget submarine that must have fired upon the "Lucky Lou," as the USS St. Louis would come to be known:

"We would like to point out, however, that the ten torpedoes carried by the five midget submarines all are conclusively documented: Midget A's wreck (sunk by the Ward DD-139 before the air attack), recently found, had both torpedoes on board; Midget B (sunk by the Monaghan DD-354 on the west side of Ford Island) launched both torpedoes, with the wakes observed by independent eyewitnesses; Midget C (washed up on Oahu outside Pearl Harbor) was captured with its torpedoes on board; Midget D wreck (found off Pearl Harbor in 1960) had both torpedoes on board; and Midget E launched both torpedoes against the cruiser St. Louis CL-49 near the harbor mouth."

When I began my Pearl Harbor research with co-worker and fellow historian Tom Taylor, "Midget E" immediately became the focus of our curiosity. Of the five Japanese Ko-hyoteki-class special (or colloquially, "midget") submarines known to have participated in the Pearl Harbor attack, the ultimate fate of the one named "Midget E" was a complete mystery. Even though most historians believed that "Midget E" fired upon the USS St. Louis, none could explain with any certainty what happened to the sub afterward. It wasn't until we became aware of the wreck found by Terry Kerby, Operations Manager at the Hawai'i Undersea Research Laboratory, that we felt that we were closing in on a solution to the mystery. For reasons stated in other articles published on this website, I came to know "Midget E" as the I-16tou, piloted by Sub-Lieutenant Masaharu Yokoyama, and will therefore refer to it as such throughout the remainder of this monograph.

As the story is generally accepted, the I-16tou never managed to penetrate the harbour but instead was still outside the entrance when the USS St. Louis came racing out of the harbour entrance at around 1000 that morning. With such a lucrative target, the I-16tou fired both torpedoes in a close spread at the starboard side of the cruiser. Unfortunately for the midget sub, the leading torpedo hit the coral reef that creates a physical boundary on the western side of the entrance channel and exploded, well away from the speeding St. Louis. The second torpedo, in close trail, seemed to disappear, leaving most to assume that it had been caught up in the explosion of the leading torpedo. Regardless, the USS St. Louis suffered no damage and her #3 5" mount took the broached conning tower of the midget sub under fire, quite possibly sinking it. At some point later in the day, US destroyers found, depth-bombed and sank this midget sub somewhere off the south coast of O'ahu, most likely in the general vicinity of the southern end of Tripod Reef, where it was last seen by the St. Louis gunners.

Is this story "conclusively documented," as many historians claim?

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