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On 20 January 1942, US Destroyers "Edsall" and "Alden" located Japanese submarine I-124 about 60 miles west of Darwin. They attacked I-124 with an intensive depth charge pattern but had no conclusive proof of any damage. The 3 Australian corvettes "Deloraine", "Katoomba" and "Lithgow" were ordered to assist with destroying the Japanese submarine. "Deloraine" arrived in the area on 20 January 1942 and at 1.35pm her starboard lookout reported "Torpedo approaching green 100". Commander Desmond Menlove immediately ordered the helm to starboard and full speed on the engines. The tactic worked and the torpedo missed its mark.

3 minutes later, using asdic,   "Deloraine" located I-124 about 2,500 yards ahead. Another 5 minutes later she laid down a diamond pattern of 6 depth charges. Bubbles of air and some oil bubbled to the surface. At 1.48pm following 2 more depth charge attacks, Japanese submarine I-124 blew to the surface but almost immediately dived below the surface, never to be seen again on the surface.

"Lithgow" and "Katoomba" arrived later in the afternoon while "Deloraine" headed for Darwin for more depth charges. It rejoined the others again by 3.05am the next morning. Another asdic contact was made and after more depth charge attacks, "Deloraine" claimed it had destroyed 2 Japanese submarines, while "Katoomba" had also claimed another Japanese submarine.

Later that day a diver from the Fleet Repair Ship "USS Black Hawk"  located the wreck of Japanes submarine I-124. He could hear survivors tapping on the hull. No evidence was ever found of the two other reported submarine "kills".

Lieutenant Bruce Johnston Harvey (RANVR) of HMAS Deloraine, was awarded a DSC for his "skill and resources in HMAS Deloraine when the Japanese submarine I-124 was destroyed off Darwin on 21 January 1942."

Able Seaman Carson Jefferson Taite (RANR) of HMAS Deloraine, was awarded a DSM for his "skill and resources in HMAS Deloraine when the Japanese submarine I-124 was destroyed off Darwin on 21 January 1942."

Japanese submarine I-124 had laid 27 mines in the waters near Darwin earlier in January 1942.



"Darwin’s Submarine - The Imperial Japanese Navy’s I-124"

By Dr Tom Lewis OAM

Outside Darwin’s harbour, an enormous Japanese submarine still lies with her 80-man crew on board. She is part of the secret history of the assaults on northern Australia. The aircraft carriers of the famous February 1942 strike were not the first major attack on the Australian landmass. They were the second strike – the first attempt to close down the northern port was made a month earlier with a submarine squadron.

In January 1942 four giant vessels of the Sixth Submarine Squadron’s Imperial Japanese Navy were deployed to northern Australian waters. Darwin was a harbour of considerable strategic importance. Sweeping south after the assault on Pearl Harbor, and carrying all before them, the Japanese knew the deployment of any Allied warships or aircraft from the northern port would be a dangerous attack on their right flank as they drove east to secure New Guinea.

Built by Kawasaki Heavy Industries, the four submarines of the Sixth Submarine Squadron were armed with twelve torpedoes in four 21-inch bow tubes and a foredeck 5.5-inch gun. They carried 42 mines, launched through torpedo doors in the stern. Under the leadership of Commander Endo, they made their way south, and deployed quietly around Bathurst and Melville Island.

On the morning of 20 January one of the submarines attacked the US Navy fleet oiler USS Trinity with three torpedoes. The tanker was escorted by two destroyers. As the torpedoes were seen the USS Alden turned and launched depth charges. The response was unsuccessful, and the destroyer lost the contact and broke off the attack. But the alarm was given in Darwin.

Later the Australian corvette Deloraine was searching near the scene with sonar. The Bathurst-class vessel, commanded by Lieutenant-Commander Desmond Menlove, was a newly launched ship, and her first action was nearly her last. Deloraine was ambushed by the I-124. Frank Marsh, a stoker on the vessel, remembered seeing: "...the trail of the torpedo which missed our stern so closely that the wake thrown up by the propellers actually caused the torpedo to come out of the raised sea surface.”


Graphic by Peter Ingman

Surface profile of Japanese submarine I-124


Photo:- Tom Lewis OAM collection courtesy of Atsuko Kishigami

I-124 loading stores


Photo:- Tom Lewis OAM collection courtesy of Atsuko Kishigami

I-124 on the surface with her aerials up and men
clustered on the conning tower for the photograph


The torpedo streaked towards the corvette. Deloraine turned right inside the torpedo’s course. It missed the ship’s stern by metres. Then she charged straight down the weapon’s track. An attack commenced with patterns of depth charges exploding astern of the warship as she wheeled and swooped as directed by her sonar. Then a Deloraine bridge lookout reported the submarine was breaking the surface, and abruptly the conning tower was seen ahead.

Deloraine powered towards her enemy, and this time the depth charge explosion caught the submarine as it dived. Soon sonar confirmed it as motionless on the seabed. The boat's captain, Lieutenant Commander Koichi Kishigami, his division commander Endo, and 78 others were dead or trapped on board.


Photo:- Tom Lewis OAM collection courtesy of Atsuko Kishigami

Captain of the I-124 Lieutenant Commander Koichi Kishigami


Later the boom defence vessel HMAS Kookaburra was deployed to the site, and Australian divers attempted to find I-124. They were unsuccessful, and engaged the help of divers from the American submarine repair ship USS Holland.

The divers found the submarine, several nautical miles south of Bathurst Island, with hatch gaskets blown out, suggesting the stern sections were flooded. Some reports claim that divers from the American ship Blackhawk descended and heard the Japanese crew, still inside, tapping on the hull. The Allies were interested in recovery: taking the submarine's codebooks would be a great intelligence coup. Secretly the Navy began to make arrangements for recovery, moving personnel and equipment to Darwin in preparation. But three weeks later Darwin was struck a shattering blow by the same carrier task force that had devastated Pearl Harbor. It was now too dangerous to attempt recovery.

However, the submarine was not to quietly lie in her grave. Controversy was the I-124 companion for the next 50 years. Strange stories and theories surround the wreck. One sought to connect the I-124 with a supposed Japanese submarine working with the German armed raider Kormoran which sank HMAS Sydney in November 1941. Michael Montgomery, in Who Sank The Sydney? suggested a submarine was refueling or re-arming Kormoran when the Sydney was sighted, dived to escape detection, and torpedoed the Australian cruiser, winning the battle for the raider. Other stories say that a seaplane was sighted in the vicinity of the battle: many Japanese boats did carry folding planes in hangars on the foredeck. Suggestions have been made that a second submarine wreck – which some claim lies nearby – could be that alleged helper of the Kormoran; other stories have the I-124 itself involved as the Japanese submarine. Other fanciful theories suggest inside the wrecked boat the captain's safe contained an answer.

More than one source suggests codebooks were indeed recovered from the I-124, helping to win the Pacific war. Ed Drea in MacArthur’s Ultra wrote:

Shortly after the outbreak of the Pacific War, US Navy divers had salvaged the Japanese Navy’s Water Transport “S” codebooks from a submarine that had been sunk off Darwin Australia in January 1942. With these documents in hand, navy cryptanalysts were able to read Japanese naval shipping messages…

In the 1950s the daughter of the sub’s commander, Atsuko Kishigami, began a campaign to have the submarine raised and its entombed bodies returned to Japan. The Japanese Fujita Salvage Company, then in Darwin salvaging the wrecks of ships still lying in the harbour, made a brief investigation into the proposal, before it was decided the costs were prohibitive.

In 1972 local salvage operators Sid Hawks, Harry Baxter, George Tyers and John Chadderton began preliminary salvage work on the submarine with three vessels. But ownership disputes arose between Baxter and the remaining three, including shots fired, and after a split the potential salvors were denied rights by the Federal Government and warned off the site.

In 1976 Harry Baxter tried new recovery attempts, claiming his salvage attempts had penetrated the hull. By this time he had probably removed items from the exterior. He was warned off again and in a fit of pique went out with explosives to destroy the submarine. In November 1984 Navy divers from HMAS Curlew carried out descents to the boat to verify its condition: they reported the conning tower had been damaged, but the casing appeared undamaged and sealed.

In 1989 the research vessel Flamingo Bay, captained by David Tomlinson, sent down a Remote Operated Vehicle: an unmanned mini-submarine equipped with a TV camera. The ROV sent back pictures of the I-124's conning tower, still upright but with a list to one side. With personnel from NT and WA museums involved, the Flamingo Bay operation hoped to dive the submarine for research purposes, but the project was eventually cancelled due to political considerations.


Photo:- West Australian Maritime Museum via Dr. Tom Lewis OAM

An open hatch on the I-124 wreck the war grave of 80 men


Stories about I-124 continued to re-appear. Claims that a valuable cargo of mercury was present on board appeared in the media. Baxter continued to make claims about the submarine, saying he had “been arrested by ASIO.” His stories appeared in the popular magazine Australasian Post, stating that he had been visited by a Japanese ambassador from Washington, who was worried about the “ship’s safe.” Baxter died a little while later, taking any secrets to the grave.

In February 2017 the 80 men entombed in the submarine were commemorated in Darwin’s Parliament House.

The unveiling of a plaque, to be later installed on Casuarina Cliffs, was undertaken by the Japanese Ambassador to Australia; federal Senator Nigel Scullion, and the Chief Minister of the NT, together with the President of the Australian-Japanese Association (NT).

Mr Takashi Ootaki, grandson of crew member Petty Officer Second Class Ryohei Ootaki, made a short speech. WWII RAAF veteran, Mr Brian Winspear AO, who experienced the first Darwin air raid, was present in his uniform to reconcile with the Japanese Ambassador.

Those attending were gifted with a paper crane to take away, which carried the name of a submariner. At 7pm, at the end of the event, 80 balloons were released outside to free the souls of the dead.

I-124 still lies outside Darwin today. Strangely, she is less known to Australians than the three midget submarines which attacked Sydney Harbour also in 1942. But I-124 remains one of the country’s most interesting stories of the country at war: a tale of bravery on both sides, loss, and an insight into the secret war fought in Australia’s north.


Dr Tom Lewis OAM is a military historian. One of his 18 books is Darwin’s Submarine I-124, published by Avonmore. He served in the Royal Australian Navy, retiring as a lieutenant-commander. He has been awarded the Commodore Sam Bateman National Book Prize for his recent work Teddy Sheean VC (Big Sky).



Firkins, Peter, "Of Nautilus and Eagles - History of the Royal Australian Navy", Cassel Australia,1975

Worledge, G.R., "Contact! - HMAS Rushcutter and Australia's Submarine Hunters 1939-1946", The Anti-submarine Officer's Association, 1994

"Darwin's Submarine I-124 - The Story of a covert Japanese squadron waging a secret underwater war against northern Australia" by Dr. Tom Lewis OAM


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This page first produced 22 November 2000

This page last updated 15 July 2022