MIDGET SUBMARINE ATTACK ON SYDNEY HARBOUR
SYDNEY, NSW 

ON 31 MAY 1942

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The Japanese mother submarines I-22, I-24 and I-27 left Truk Lagoon on 18 May 1942 and headed south between Rabaul and Solomon Islands. Each had a 46 ton midget submarine clamped to its afterdeck. Aubrey Brown told me that the three mother submarines had been detected by No. 23 Radar Station RAAF at Fort Lytton, in Brisbane as they travelled down the east coast. This provided some warning that an attack would most probably occur somewhere along the coast.

At 3.45 am on 30 May 1942, a Japanese floatplane, piloted by 27 year old Flying Warrant Officer Susumu Ito, was launched from  submarine I-21. By 4:20 a.m. the floatplane, burning navigation lights, circled twice over Sydney Harbour near where the USS Chicago was anchored. It was initially thought to be an American plane but eventually some fighters were sent up to intercept the plane. Another plane was also reported at Newcastle. Neither could be found.

At sunset on Sunday 31 May 1942, there were five Japanese submarines positioned off the New South Wales coast near Sydney. Japanese mother submarines I-22, I-24, and I-27 launched midget submarines about 12 kms east of Sydney. I-21 and I-29 were the other two submarines supporting the attack on Sydney Harbour. 

Submarine I-21 later took part in an attack of a different kind when it shelled Newcastle on 8 June 1942. On the same night Submarine 1-24 also shelled the eastern suburbs of Sydney.

Home damaged in Sydney's eastern
suburbs by shelling from Japanese submarine

At 8 p.m. midget submarine No. A14 was detected by an electronic indicator loop but was ignored due to other small boat traffic. The submarine became caught in the western sector of the anti-submarine net. The Japanese crew detonated a demolition charge killing themselves.

At 9:48 p.m. another inward crossing was reported but again ignored. It was midget submarine A from I-24 (M24). At 10:27 all vessels in the harbour were alerted of the submarines presence. USS Chicago spotted the submarine and fired on it with tracers from its pom pom guns. At the same time midget No. A21 was entering the harbour. The auxiliary naval patrol boat Lauriana, a peace-time motor cruiser and another patrol vessel, the Yandra tried to ram the midget and attacked it with depth charges.

Sydney ferry Kuttabul

At 11:10 p.m. HMAS Geelong fired at midget submarine A (M24), just before it fired 2 torpedoes at USS Chicago. One exploded under an old ferry, HMAS Kuttabul, killing 19 sailors and wounding 10. The other torpedo ran up on to the shore and failed to explode.

At 3:00 a.m., USS Chicago spotted midget No. A21 which had been battered by depth charges as it entered the harbour. Several craft attacked it with depth charges. It was later found disabled on the harbour floor with its motor still running. The 2 crew had shot themselves. Nine areas in Sydney were damaged by shells fired from the submarines.

Japanese Midget Submarine sunk in Sydney Harbour on 31 May 1942

 

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Japanese Miniature submarine on display in the Domain after being dragged from Sydney Harbour

Photos from Frank Ellis

 

The 4 Japanese submariners killed in this incident were cremated at the Eastern Suburbs Crematorium on 9th June 1942. 

The bodies of the 4 Japanese sailors was prepared for cremation by Charles Kinsela and Son Funeral Director, Charles Kinsela, who ran the business for many years up until just before his death. Edward Hill who worked for Charles Kinsela, who went in and retrieved the bodies and took them back to the funeral parlour.

Midget Submarine A14 
Comander Kenshi CHUMA
Ensign Takeshi OOMORI 

Midget Submarine A21 
Commander Keiu MATSUO
Chief Petty Officer Masao TSUZUKU

Prime Minister John Curtin allowed the Japanese Ambassador, Tatsuo Kawai, to take the ashes of the 4 submariners back to Japan after their cremation. Tatsuo Kawai arrived at Yokohama pier in October 1942 aboard the Kamakura Maru with the ashes of the four sailors in four white boxes. These four boxes had been placed on a large altar in front of a flag of the Rising Sun on board the Kamakura Maru during the journey to Japan.

Commander MATSUO's mother, Mrs Matsue MATSUO, came to Australia in 1968 and placed a wreath on the Sydney Cenotaph. She also visited Garden Island and the place where her son was killed in his midget submarine.

Midget Submarine A (M24) from I-24 was never found and the crew were presumed dead as follows:-

Midget Submarine A from I-24 (M24)
Lieutenant Katsuhisa BAN
Ensign Mamoru ASHIBE (navigator)

In 1943 Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the Japanese Naval Commander-in-chief, advised that Emperor Hirohito had granted a citation to the submariners in the attack on Sydney Harbour. The submariners had been elevated to "Hero God" status. They were all also all posthumously promoted by two levels of rank which meant a larger payout to the families of the Japanese heroes.

 

Japanese midget submarine recovered after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour

 

UPDATE
On 28 February 2005, Foxtel ran a Documentary called "M24: The Last Sunrise", in which documentary maker Damien Lay and historian Jim Macken revealed what they believe to be the location of the missing midget submarine which had fired the torpedo at HMAS Kuttabul killing 19 sailors. The documentary indicated that side scan radar plots had placed the midget submarine near Lion Island near the mouth of the Hawkesbury River north of Sydney.

FURTHER UPDATE
On Sunday 12 November 2006 at about 9am, seven scuba divers met at Long Reef Beach north of Sydney for another fun day of scuba diving. They decided to head for a spot they had marked four months earlier. Their fish finder had noted something interesting on the sea floor. The seas had been too rough that earlier day to investigate, so they had decided to leave it to a calmer day. So on the morning of the 12 November 2006, they used their GPS to revisit the spot as that day was very calm.

The object was in 70 metres of water, so after doing all their calculations they determined that they could only stay at the sea floor for about 12 minutes. They would require two decompression stops on the way back to the surface. The went down to the bottom and saw a large object covered in fishing net. They maneuvered to one end of the object and saw propellers sticking out of the sand. They started to realise what the object was. Paul Baggott swam back to the middle of the object and saw what looked like a conning tower. With much excitement, he then moved towards what he now believed to be the front of a submarine, to confirm his assumption by looking for torpedo tubes. His assumption was confirmed!!

The divers were able to peer into a window on the conning tower and saw that the inside was full of sand and mud. The divers were all very excited and did their best to talk to each other under water, saying that it was a submarine. Their two decompression breaks on the way up seemed like an eternity. They just wanted to get to the surface and talk to each other about what they had just found.

Back on the deck of their 5 metre dive boat, they shouted and jumped for joy and patted themselves on the back for finding the missing midget submarine, M24, which went missing approximately 64 years ago.

The seven recreational scuba divers are as follows:-

Alan Simon, 59 yrs, retired Company Director
Paul Baggott, 33 yrs, builder
Phillip Hendrie, 65 yrs, retired printer
Anthony Hay, 49 yrs, bus driver
David Muir, 35 yrs, electrician
David Arnold, 44 yrs, plumber and gas fitter
Greg Kearns, 32 yrs, mortgage broker

They all took "sickies" the next day and did another dive on the midget submarine, just to make sure it was not all a dream and it was still there!!

The approximate location of the M24 is several kilometres off the coast and somewhere between Long Reef and Barrenjoey Headland. The Google Earth link below is only a rough indication of the general area.

 

Approximate Google Earth Location

 

The divers all met with the Director of the Naval Heritage Collection, Commander Shane Moore who has since confirmed that they had indeed located the missing M24  Japanese Midget Submarine. Commander Moore shared his knowledge of M24 and its submariners with the divers. He told them that Japanese tourists have often arrived at Garden Island to lay a wreath at the Conning Tower memorial near Woolloomooloo in Sydney.

60 Minutes produced a segment on the diver's discovery which went to air on 26 November 2006.

The divers all share a concern for the ongoing conservation of the wreck of the submarine. They are keeping the exact location a secret to avoid scavengers desecrating the wreck. It is likely that it still contains the remains of the two Japanese sailors:-

Lieutenant Katsuhisa Ban
Ensign Mamoru Ashibe 

Ban and Ashibe were not initially selected for the attack on Sydney Harbour. They were on the standby list. Following an accidental explosion on the mother submarine I-24 about two weeks before the attack, they were placed on the mission.

Kazutomo Ban, the 74 year old brother of Lieutenant Katsuhisa Ban, has always wanted to know where his brother lost his life. He has also wanted to have a small piece of the submarine to commemorate his brother. He remembers the day he went to the train station with his mother to say goodbye to his brother who was on his way to fight in the coming war. Retired doctor Kazutomo Ban lives in Hekinan about 40 kms from Nagoya.

The divers first thoughts regarding the ongoing fate of the wreck was that perhaps the Japanese Government, with the permission of the Australian Government, would raise the wreck of the midget submarine, recover the remains of the two Japanese sailors and bury them with due ceremony.

Kazutomo Ban's initial thoughts are that there is little point in raising the wreckage and that his brother should lay in peace in his wartime grave. Meanwhile, Itsuo Ashibe, the 84 year old brother of the other submariner, hopes that the midget submarine will be recovered. Itsuo lives in Wakayama city which is located on the Seto Island sea. He lost four brothers during the war. He hopes he may be able to recover any remains that may exist or even something that belonged to his brother such as a shoe or something. He has no desire for a military burial for his brother.

Discussion between the Australian and Japanese governments will no doubt continue for some time before a decision is made on the fate of the wreckage of Japanese midget submarine M24.

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I'd like to thank Kay Radford, the Editor and Research Centre Coordinator of the Central Coast Family History Society Inc at East Gosford for her assistance with the names of the Japanese sailors killed in the midget submarines. 

I'd also like to thank Rex Turner for his assistance with this web page. Rex lived in Sydney at the time and can remember the second incident clearly when I-24 shelled the eastern suburbs of Sydney. He slept through the first attack by the midget submarines.

I'd like to thank Carol Garvey for her assistance with this web page. Carol's husbands' Grandfather was Edward Hill, the person who recovered the bodies of the four Japanese sailors.

 

REFERENCE BOOKS

"The Coffin Boats - Japanese Midget Submarine Operations in the Second World War"
by Peggy Warner & Sadoa Seno.

"Battle Surface - Japan's Submarine War against Australia 1942-44"
by David Jenkins

"We found the missing JAPANESE SUB"
"World War II Mystery Solved at Last"
New Idea magazine

"Midget sub discovery stirs ghosts of the past"
Sydney Morning Herald web site
By Bob Wurth

 

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 Peter Dunn 2003

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This page first produced 23 June 2001

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