Reading Pearl Harbor: I Attacked Pearl Harbor

November 09, 2018

Published in 1949, four years after the end of World War II, I Attacked Pearl Harbor is a first-hand account of the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor, told from an unexpected perspective. There were more than just Japanese warplanes closing in on the unsuspecting battleships of the US Pacific Fleet. From the southwest, approaching the entrance to Pearl Harbor, was a Japanese midget submarine manned by Kiyoshi Inagaki and Kazuo Sakamaki, submarine officers of the Imperial Japanese Navy.

On the morning of the attack, Sakamaki and Inagaki had a string of bad luck with their submarine, issues with the gyroscope caused them to run aground more than once. Eventually, the vessel became stuck and was unmovable, forcing Sakamaki and Inagaki to abandon the ship. Only Sakamaki survived, waking up in an Oahu hospital under military guard.

Documenting the War as the First Japanese POW

I Attacked Pearl Harbor coverWhen the Japanese attack was over, Kazuo Sakamaki was the first Japanese POW of World War II. It’s a story he recounted in his memoir, I Attacked Pearl Harbor, which he wrote in Japanese. The book was later translated into English by Toru Matsumoto.

In I Attacked Pearl Harbor, Sakamaki discusses his personal feelings during his imprisonment and mentions his desire to commit suicide, unable to deal with the shame of being captured. As he moved across POW camps in Wisconsin, Louisiana, and Texas, he found a way to cope with his shame and his disposition started to change. His account is honest and open, but also reads like a history lesson. He doesn’t attempt to justify his actions or that of his nation.

According to his memory of the camps he lived in, Sakamaki didn’t have much to complain about. In his book, he notes the humane treatment he received as a prisoner of the United States and speaks of the educational opportunities that were offered in the camps. In the “Internment University,” one could learn English and a number of other subjects. As more Japanese prisoners arrived, he tried to guide them to a better life in the camps, encouraging those who didn’t know it to learn English.

Having known what it was like to want to kill himself, Sakamaki helped those who were in the same position he had initially been. He served as a counselor of sorts, guiding them through the feelings that threatened to be their undoing.

Nobody’s Hero

When he’s not providing us with a unique history lesson told through the experiences of a prisoner of war, Sakamaki discusses what life was like after he returned to Japan. In some ways, the POW camp was better. Back in his home country, he recalled receiving a letter chiding him for returning alive. “The souls of the brave comrades who fought with you and died must be crying now over what you have done. If you are not ashamed of yourself, please explain how come. And if you are ashamed of yourself now, you should commit suicide at once and apologize to the spirits of the heroes who died honorably,” one letter he received read.

Sakamaki writes that he was part of a Special Attack Force that wasn’t intended to return home from the battle. The midget submarine operators knew they were being sent on a suicide mission and that their main goal was to cause as much damage as possible, even at the cost of their own lives. In the same breath, however, he notes in I Attacked Pearl Harbor that the submarine pilots weren’t volunteers, but rather were forced into the position under threat of something “very severe.” According to Sakamaki, “We were supposed to feel highly honored.”

Life After the War

Kazuo Sakamaki in 1991

Kazuo Sakamaki in 1991

I Attacked Pearl Harbor is a look into Sakamaki’s entire life, framed around the attack on Pearl Harbor, World War II, and the time he spent in a prisoner of war camp. Readers will see the progression made from a young sailor of the Imperial Japanese Navy into an executive at Toyota, a leap that ironically might not have been possible had he not been captured.

When the midget submarine he and Inagaki piloted was moved to the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, TX, Sakamaki made the journey to visit it in 1991. It was the first time he had seen the vessel since having to leave it behind at the onset of the attack on Pearl Harbor fifty years prior.

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