[John Fairfax Pty Ltd]
[Portrait from Kawai, T. The goal of Japanese expansion. Tokyo, The Hokuseido Press, 1938. John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the Curtin Family. JCPML00453/328]
In May and June 1942 the war was brought home to Australians on the east coast when the Japanese attacked Sydney Harbour from the sea.
In the late afternoon of 31 May 1942 three Japanese submarines, I-22, I-24 and I-27, sitting about seven nautical miles (13 kilometres) out from Sydney Harbour, each launched a Type A midget submarine for an attack on shipping in Sydney Harbour. The night before, I-24 had launched a small floatplane that flew over the harbour, its crew spotting a prize target – an American heavy cruiser, the USS Chicago. The Japanese hoped to sink this warship and perhaps others anchored in the harbour.
After launching the three two-man midget submarines, the three mother submarines moved to a new position off Port Hacking to await the return of the six submariners sent into the harbour. They would wait there until 3 June.
All three midget submarines made it into the harbour. Electronic detection equipment picked up the signature of the first (from I-24) late that evening but it was thought to be either a ferry or another vessel on the surface passing by. Later, a Maritime Services Board watchman spotted an object caught in an anti-submarine net. After investigation, naval patrol boats reported it was a submarine and the general alarm was raised just before 10.30 pm. Soon afterwards, the midget submarine’s crew, Lieutenant Kenshi Chuma and Petty Officer Takeshi Ohmori, realising they were trapped, blew up their craft and themselves.
Before midnight, alert sailors on the deck of USS Chicago spotted another midget submarine. They turned a searchlight on it and opened fire but it escaped. Later, gunners on the corvette HMAS Geelong also fired on a suspicious object believed to be the submarine.
The response to the attack was marred by confusion. Vision was limited and ferries continued to run as the midget submarines were hunted. At about 12.30 am there was an explosion on the naval depot ship HMAS Kuttabul, a converted harbour ferry, which was moored at Garden Island as an accommodation vessel. The crew of the midget submarine from I-24 had fired at the USS Chicago but missed, the torpedo striking the Kuttabul instead. Nineteen Australian and two British sailors on the Kuttabul died, the only Allied deaths resulting from the attack, and survivors were pulled from the sinking vessel.
A second torpedo fired by the same midget submarine ran aground on rocks on the eastern side of Garden Island, failing to explode. Having fired both their torpedoes, the crew made for the harbour entrance but they disappeared, their midget submarine perhaps running out of fuel before reaching the submarines’ rendezvous point.
The third midget submarine from I-22 failed to make it far into the harbour. Spotted in Taylors Bay and attacked with depth charges by naval harbour patrol vessels, Lieutenant Keiu Matsuo and Petty Officer Masao Tsuzuku, shot themselves.
The mother submarines departed the area after it became obvious that their midget submarines would not be returning. The submarine I-24 is believed to have been responsible for a number of attacks on merchant ships as well as shelling Sydney Harbour a week later.
The bodies of the four Japanese crewmen from the midget submarines launched by I-22 and I-27 were recovered when these two midget submarines were raised. They were cremated at Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs Crematorium with full naval honours. Rear Admiral Muirhead-Gould, in charge of Sydney Harbour defences, along with the Swiss Consul-General and members of the press, attended the service. The admiral’s decision to accord the enemy a military funeral was criticised by many Australians but he defended his decision to honour the submariners’ bravery. He also hoped that showing respect for the dead men might help to improve the conditions of the many Australians in Japanese prisoner of war camps.
[Reproduced with permission of
The Sydney Morning Herald, 10
and 11 June 1942]
After the recovery of the two midget submarines a composite was constructed using the bow section of one and the stern of the other. It was decided to use this composite midget submarine to raise money for the Royal Australian Navy Relief Fund and the King George Fund for Merchant Sailors. The composite submarine was first put on display at Bennelong Point, now the site of the Sydney Opera House, and people paid a small fee to see it. It was then transported by truck on a 4000-kilometre journey through south-eastern Australia raising further funds. Eleven months after the submarine raid, the composite submarine was installed at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
In 1968, Lieutenant Matsuo’s mother travelled to Australia to visit the spot where her son had died. During her visit she scattered cherry blossoms in the water where her son’s midget submarine had been located and later she presented a number of gifts to the Australian War Memorial.
In November 2006, part of the mystery of the midget submarine from I-24 was solved when divers discovered the wreck of the submarine off Sydney's northern beaches. We will probably never know if Lieutenant Ban and his navigator, Petty Officer Ashibe Mamoru intended to rejoin their 'mother' submarine or whether they had no intention of returning and simply scuttled their vessel.