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WWII 'Samurai subs' found
Japanese vessels with advanced technology were sunk off Oahu after war
By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer
Japanese submarine technology was so advanced at the end of World War II that Russian scientists wanted to get their hands on five seized boats, but a squadron of clandestine American submariners secretly sailed them out of Japan and brought them to Pearl Harbor.
The subs would eventually be scuttled five miles off O'ahu and all but forgotten. But yesterday's announcement that two of them had been discovered in waters 3,000 feet deep pulled 91-year-old, retired Navy Cmdr. Allen Burdett "Buck" Catlin back to a time of global gamesmanship when Japan's wartime innovations in submarine warfare were discovered only after its defeat.
Three of the roughly 400-foot, "Sen-Toku" class Japanese submarines could carry at least two fighter bombers each. Even submerged, they could sail 1 1/2 times around the planet without refueling.
Two other Japanese subs were among the fastest attack submarines in the water at the time.
The size of the Sen-Toku class subs — around the size of a football field — impressed the U.S. sailors who occupied Japan after the war.
"We were amazed," Catlin said yesterday from his home in Fullerton, Calif., in Orange County. "It was quite something." And the fast attack boats "were highly streamlined and faster than anything we had," he said.
Russian scientists were en route to Japan to study the subs and "the force commander told the squadron commander, 'Get those boats out of there and get them to the United States,' " Catlin said. "The Russians were coming so we sneaked them out. It was not particularly difficult, except we couldn't read the name plates on the instruments."
In Pearl Harbor, the Americans pored over the Japanese technology and adopted the hangar and launch idea into a Cold War submarine platform based on the same concept, which launched cruise missiles instead of airplanes.
U.S. military leaders didn't want the Russians to study the seized Japanese boats, despite an agreement between the former allies that they would share Japan's war technology.
It was 1946 and World War II was over. But the Cold War between the former Soviet and American allies was just heating up.
Then-Lt. Cmdr. Catlin was put in charge of a new unit called the "Ex-Japanese Submarine Division 101."
"We had to call it something," Catlin said.
Catlin and his crew learned Japanese so they could read the instrument panels on their seized submarines and sail them across the Pacific Ocean.
The crews did not dare submerge the boats out of fear that they might not be able to resurface them, Catlin said.
Once the engineers finished studying the subs at Pearl Harbor, Catlin was put in charge of coordinating five U.S. sub crews that sunk the five Japanese boats one by one in June 1946 using prototype torpedos that replaced the inferior weapons that had failed so many American submarine captains in combat.
Yesterday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Hawai'i Undersea Research Lab at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa and the National Geographic Channel announced that the remains of two of the fast attack submarines — the I-14 and the I-201 — had been discovered in February.
One of the much larger Sen-Toku class submarines capable of launching three fighter bombers — the I-401 — already had been found in the area in 2005.
Footage of the newly discovered subs that was shot from the Hawai'i Undersea Research Lab's manned submersibles Pisces IV and Pisces V will be seen in a National Geographic special, "Hunt for the Samurai Subs," which will air Tuesday on the NGC.
National Geographic paid the Hawai'i Undersea Research Lab about $200,000 for the project, which is part of the approximately $4 million that HURL generates in research money annually, said John Wiltshire, HURL's director.
Terry Kerby, HURL's operations director and chief pilot, and a National Geographic film crew found the two latest subs while searching for them in an undisclosed, undersea graveyard of World War II-era hardware that's 20 miles long and 10 miles wide, Wiltshire said.
"We've been working out there for 20 years and we have thousands of sonar targets of all the junk that's out there," Wiltshire. "We're just slowly checking them all out over the years, mowing the lawn, working through all of the targets."
Jon Davidann, a Hawai'i Pacific University professor of U.S.-Japanese relations, was a consultant on an upcoming 2010 PBS Nova special about Japan's mini-sub operations in Hawaiian waters. Yesterday, Davidann called Japan's submarine technology "extraordinary, unbelievable for that time."
"Their submarine speed was better and they had better batteries so they could spend considerably more time underwater," Davidann said.
Launching fighter bomb-ers from submarines "sounds like another crazy Japanese idea when they were desperate at the end of the war," he said.
But with modern-day knowledge of the Japanese use of mini subs, ultra-fast fast attack subs and submarines capable of launching air strikes, Davidann said, "it confirms that the Japanese were very creative thinkers in ways that we weren't thinking about technology."
National Geographic said yesterday that the Sen-Toku class submarines were designed to attack Mainland cities, including New York and Washington, D.C.
The boats came into service in late 1944 and HURL's Wiltshire thinks they never saw combat.
But he believes the plans to attack the Mainland were modified for a defensive strategy to slow the allies' naval assault on Japan after their victory in Europe.
The idea, Wiltshire said, was to surface, launch the fighter bombers and destroy the Panama Canal so allied warships could not be easily relocated from the European theater.
"But the war ended," he said.
Dr. Hans Van Tilburg, maritime heritage coordinator for NOAA's National Marine Sanctuaries in the Pacific Islands, said the two different types of seized submarines incorporated design and warfare concepts in use today.
"If you look at a sub like the I-201 (fast attack sub), it was nothing like anybody had in World War II," he said. "It had a streamlined body and conning tower and retractable guns. It looks more like a Cold War sub. And the (Sen-Toku) predates the cruise missile concept."
Similar to a modern-day "boomer," the Sen-Toku carried enough fuel to travel around the globe, Van Tillburg said. That meant it could pop up off the East Coast, assemble and launch its folded-wing planes within 10 minutes and then submerge again.
Kerby said the search for the I-14 and I-201 was aided by veterans after the discovery of the I-401 became public in 2005.
Joe Gould, who was assigned to be the executive officer of the I-14 while it was at Pearl Harbor, shot 16mm film of the sinking of the sub off of Pearl Harbor.
HURL used Gould's WWII-era film to help pinpoint the search area.
"As the (camera) panned from Ka'ena Point to Diamond Head, we were able to pick out landmarks and triangulate a rough position," Kerby said.
Van Tilburg said Japan began working on the new fleet of submarines too late in the war and was only able to produce a small number of them.
"If they had been able to produce them earlier, it might have turned the tide in some battles,' he said.
Instead, then-Lt. Cmdr. Catlin ended up escorting the boats from Japan to Hawai'i, where every two days a new U.S. sub crew sunk one of the Japanese subs using improved torpedo technology at distances that ranged from 400 yards to 1,000 yards.
"One shot, one kill," Catlin said.
For his part, Catlin received a letter of commendation and a souvenir of that period of his naval career that he'll always remember.
On the day that he set sail for Pearl Harbor, the skipper of the Japanese sub I-201 "came up and gave me his sword," Catlin said. "It's quite a treasure."