The POW of Pearl Harbor

June 23, 2017

Kazuo Sakamaki isn’t a name many Americans are likely know. Born in Awa, Tokushima, Japan in 1918, he certainly wasn’t any sort of American hero. In fact, quite the opposite. Sakamaki served in the Imperial Japanese Navy from 1940 to 1941, putting him squarely in the window of time to have taken part in a devastating day in American history.

On December 7th, 1941, Sakamaki co-piloted a Ko-hyoteki class midget submarine, one of five that were deployed to assist in the devastating attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor. The two-man submersible was intended to play an integral part of mounting the assault, but before they could fulfill their duty of sneaking into the harbor, the Americans spotted them and quickly reacted.

Of the ten Japanese sailors aboard the midget submarines, nine were killed. The sole survivor, Sakamaki, attempted to scuttle his ship, which was stuck on Waimanalo Beach in eastern Oahu. When the explosives failed and his attempt at fixing them left him unconscious within the partially sunken sub, Sakamaki was left vulnerable to his enemies. When he came to, he was under guard and being held within a hospital. Though war hadn’t formally been declared yet, the sailor became the first Japanese prisoner of war held by the United States.

In Enemy Hands

Kazuo Sagamaki in US detention

To be a Japanese military man and be captured was a great dishonor, one that Sakamaki wasn’t willing to face. After his capture, the sailor requested the means to commit suicide; his request was denied. For four years, Sakamaki was imprisoned by the Americans, held in a POW camp in the mainland United States. When the war ended, Sakamaki was repatriated to Japan, where he became a pacifist and refused to talk about the war and his part in the Pearl Harbor assault.

Sakamaki survived his time in the POW camp and immediately left his career in the military. After writing a memoir, Sakamaki opened up about his time in the camps in 1991 during a Texas historical conference. With the war behind him, Sakamaki went on to work with the Toyota Motor Company, where he worked his way up to president of the Brazilian subsidiary. In 1987, the former sailor retired and lived in Japan until the age of 81.


What Became of the Submarine?

President Roosevelt and HA. 19 at Mare Island Navy Yard

President Roosevelt and HA. 19 at Mare Island Navy Yard

As for the miniature sub that Sakamaki failed to sink entirely, it was paraded throughout the United States, used as a means of promoting the sale of war bonds to assist in the fight against Japan.

During Sakamaki’s conference in Texas in 1991, he was shocked to see the vessel was still in one piece and was reunited with it for the first time since the failed plan of using submarines to head the Pearl Harbor attack.

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