Japan’s torpedo-like submarine rusts into an Alaska island
By NED ROZELL
October 27, 2015
Debra Corbett, an archaeologist who spent five weeks on Kiska last year, has imagined the plight of elite Japanese seamen assigned to operate the subs. Two men squeezed into the ship, which historians compared to torpedoes that could fire smaller torpedoes at ships from point-blank range.
“I don’t know if you’re claustrophobic, but I couldn’t imagine a worse job,” Corbett said.
Biologist Jeff Williams near a midget submarine on Kiska Island in the far western Aleutians in 2004.
While looking for prehistoric sites on Kiska, of which there are many, archaeologists bump into reminders of the Japanese presence on Kiska during World War II. The 78-foot submarine lies in the long grass off Kiska Harbor. It rests at the site of a base complete with rails to move the subs into and out of the ocean and a few sheds to shelter them.
The sub is like an unprotected museum piece into which infrequent visitors can wedge themselves amid the shards of rusted metal. They can imagine what it must have been like to be the pilot or navigator, only one of whom was able to stand in the sub at any moment.
“This was not the suicide sub, but it was not known for a high survivability for the occupants, either,” Galloway said. “The Japanese were more willing to give their life for the sake of the emperor than most U.S. troops were. This tiny sub is a good symbol of that.”
Kiska seems an odd place to deploy the subs, which ran on battery power. Their range was 90 miles at six knots, and the subs could dive to 100 feet. The crew could not recharge the batteries at sea and depended on being recovered by another ship. The Japanese used several of the midget subs during the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Japanese leaders wanted to deploy six of them at Midway Atoll, but after defeat there they diverted the subs to Kiska in July 1942.
Though the Japanese were only at Kiska 14 months before evacuating under cover of fog, the presence of the sub base, an underground hospital and big hillside guns show their long-term plans.
One of six Shinto shrines on Kiska Island, a remnant of 14 months of Japanese occupation of the island in World War II.
The World War II Japanese attacks and occupations in Alaska involved three places. The Japanese bombed Dutch Harbor on June 4, 1942. They landed and set up bases on Attu and Kiska two days later. American troops recaptured Attu in a bloody battle in May 1943.
American and Canadian forces then landed on Kiska in August 1943. Expecting heavy resistance, they found the Japanese had escaped the island before the invasion. Before they left under cover of thick Aleutian weather, Japanese troops disabled the midget submarines with explosives.
Americans who then occupied Kiska cut up one of the subs for scrap metal. A few are perhaps at the bottom of Kiska harbor. Part of another lies belly-up on a Kiska beach.
The recognizable one remains in the grass of the old sub base on the unoccupied island, as far from northern Japan as it is from Anchorage. Few people have seen the brown-orange reminder of when war came to Alaska. A deadline for that experience is approaching.
“Although the metal items on Kiska are surviving far better than the same items in the South Pacific, (the sub) will likely rust into oblivion,” Galloway wrote.