Torpedo Attack on the USS St. Louis
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Torpedoes in the water

If there were torpedoes in the water and they could not have come from a midget submarine, then from where could they have come? The Japanese torpedo planes had already departed with the first attack wave and at any rate, they saved all their torpedoes for the inner harbour. The only other source for torpedoes were the Japanese fleet submarines...the I-boats that are known to have been in the area. A close spread of two torpedoes would be a conceiveable shooting doctrine for one of the fleet submarines. However, some historians have dismissed this notion for two reasons: 1) they claim that reports show that none of the I-boats fired their torpedoes that day, and 2) none of the I-boats were close enough to the harbour entrance to be within range to fire a torpedo.

We know from the successful launching of the five midget submarines that there were five carrier (or, "mother") submarines loitering in the area. According to Kichiji Dewa aboard the I-16, once the mother sub released her midget sub from the after deck cradle, the big sub withdrew to a loitering area approximately 10 nautical miles from the harbour entrance. It is assumed that the other 4 mother subs did likewise, waiting for the battle to end before proceeding to the pre-arranged rendezvous off Lainai island, where they expected to recover any Ko-hyoteki crews that survived the attack. After returning to their base at Kwajalein, the five mother-sub commanders were called together by Captain Hankyu Sasaki, commander of the Advance Force, for a debriefing. There is specific mention in that report to the effect that none of the five mother submarines fired their torpedoes during the attack.

The crew of the USS St. Louis weren't the only ones to report torpedoes that day:

[During the engagement with the midget submarine, USS] Helm's controls froze...while frantically changing to hand steering, men on Helm's stern observed a torpedo pass close underneath the fantail and disappear to the northwest.

- Burl Burlingame, Advance Force Pearl Harbor

Just as St. Louis turned past Diamond Head, another torpedo rushed toward the cruiser. Rood pulled the ship parallel to the track and the fish sped by.

- Burl Burlingame, Advance Force Pearl Harbor

At 1300 the Aylwin, steaming on the Detroit's starboard beam at some 600 yards, "reported sighting two torpedo wakes passing toward and astern of Detroit." Soon the Detroit spotted two explosions on the horizon, which the observers assumed had been caused by these torpedoes' end-of-run detonation.

- Gordon Prange, Dec. 7 1941: The Day The Japanese Attacked Pearl Harbor

Aboard the destroyer-minelayer Breese, in open waters near Oahu, her skipper, Commander Stout, had a hunch that Japanese submarines might be lurking in the area, although so far he had not seen one. "It was as black as the inside of a hat," he said, "and we were running on dead reckoning. The whole area was blacked out. We would look ashore and not see a damn thing except the waves washing in." He stood near the bridge rail on the Breese's starboard side, idly watching porpoises play around the ship. When he saw the breakers glistening against the night, he slowed Breese to 5 knots.

There, about 50 to 75 feet away, he saw a streak of phosphorescence in the water. "Well, here comes another porpoise," he thought. Then he saw that there were two, the second being about 150 feet ahead. They kept coming toward the Breese instead of turning away. Moreover, Stout saw bubbles coming from the first "porpoise," and he knew what he had to deal with: "It was a fish, all right, but not the type of fish I thought it was."

He believe that slowing the ship down saved her. "If I had continued on my normal speed, the torpedo would have hit me amidships. Whoever had done the shooting was pretty good, because he had a good solution on [the] Breese."

Turning the ship seaward, he avoided the torpedoes, but the Breese's instruments did not pick up the submarine that had launched them. Although the Breese carried about seventy-two depth charges, he decided against loosing any of them at random. "There was no use dropping depth charges just for the hell of it, because people were jittery enough as it was. And they — our own people — might have started shooting at me."

- Gordon Prange, Dec. 7 1941: The Day The Japanese Attacked Pearl Harbor

Where were the I-boats?

If these reported torpedoes are added to the two reported fired at St. Louis, then there is a total of 8 torpedoes being fired outside the harbour during the day and night after the aerial attack. They could not all have come from a single midget sub. What about the seven I-boats stationed in sectors off the southern coast of O'ahu for the specific purpose of sinking any ship that tried to escape the harbour? Most historians will state authoritatively that none of those submarines fired their torpedoes that day. I challenge this statement for these reasons:

Without supporting proof, then, the assumption that none of the fleet submarines could have fired any torpedoes that day is a dubious one at best.

This allows us to speculate, then, that even if only one of the torpedo reports above is correct, then either St. Louis's first report of torpedoes is wrong (is Rood to be correct on the first but mistaken on the second?) or at least one I-boat did fire her torpedoes, or both. These additional accounts are as credible as the St. Louis's, but for some reason, some historians dismiss each and every one of these other torpedo sightings as mistaken (dolphins are offered up as the most likely suspects, even though the Commanding Officer of the USS Breese, Lieutenant Commander Herald Stout, was adamant that the two "fish" he avoided were not of the biological kind). As for the claim that the fleet submarines did not fire any torpedoes, I have yet to see any documentation or other proof that supports this claim. I suspect that those who insist that there is proof are misinterpreting the Sasaki report, which speaks only to the actions of the five mother subs.

In addition, if the reports of torpedo avoidance by the USS Aylwin, Detroit and/or Breese are true, then their observation that the torpedoes they avoided were fired in a close spread of two is notable. Some historians claim that Japanese torpedo firing doctrine required a spread of four torpedoes, never just two. The accounts above, including the report on the initial attack on St. Louis, would seem to argue against that assumption.

It has also been claimed that none of the I-boats approached close enough to the harbour entrance to fire their torpedoes. However, how close is close enough? The I-boats carried the Type 95 torpedo, which had about a 13,000-yard (7.5-mile) maximum range. We know that the I-69 was under orders to close within 8 miles of the entrance at sunset on the 7th and became entangled in some obstruction about 4 miles southeast of Barbers Point the next morning. The USS Blue prosecuted (and claimed to have sunk) a high-confidence sound contact just 4 miles south of Diamond Head that her acting Commanding Officer believed was tracking toward St. Louis as the latter was exiting the harbour. Throughout the day, the USS Breese, Cummings, Ward, Wasmuth and Chew all prosecuted sound contacts close off the coastline; plotting their reports, a picture emerges of significant submarine activity within torpedo range of the channel entrance. Could an I-boat — the I-70 that did not survive to tell her tale, perhaps? — have positioned close enough to fire two torpedoes at St. Louis? Or at one of the other ships mentioned above? Based upon these reports alone, the answer is: yes, it is possible. Whether or not an I-boat actually did fire on the cruiser is difficult to say without direct evidence but then again, the same can also be said for statements to the contrary that are today widely accepted as proven fact.

Plot of subsurface contact prosecutions reported by (1) USS Blue, (2) USS Cummings, (3) USS Wasmuth, (4) USS Breese and (5) USS Chew. The red arch marks the max range of the Type 95 torpedo, measured from the harbour entrance. The orange dot represents the approximate position of I-69 when she became entangled in an unidentified obstruction.

These prosecutions cannot be on the Japanese mother subs, as they had already withdrawn farther out to sea (I-16 loitered approximately 10NM from the coast) after launching their midgets. If the contacts were real, then they had to be I-boats.

For the reasons mentioned above, the commonly-accepted claim that St. Louis was attacked by a midget submarine can be drawn into doubt. At this point in my research, though, we had yet to find real proof to rebut the popularly-held contention, other than the fact that the Ko-hyoteki could not physically have fired two torpedoes in the close spread reported by the St. Louis eyewitnesses. How could this be resolved beyond all doubt?


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