61ST ANNIVERSARY OF PEARL HARBOR ATTACK: On this Dec. 7, sailors' feat not doubted
Discovery of Japanese sub proved St. Paul crew of the USS Ward hit target
BY BILL GARDNER
On this morning 61 years ago, a group of Navy reservists from St. Paul fired the first American shots of World War II, sinking a Japanese two-man submarine trying to sneak into Pearl Harbor a little more than an hour before the attack.
Yes, the men on the USS Ward not only fired the shots. They sank the sub.
They've been saying that for 61 years, but not everyone believed the Ward actually sank the sub. There was no proof. No one could find the sub on the floor of the Pacific Ocean.
Even Robert Ballard, who found the Titanic in 1985 and John F. Kennedy's PT-109 earlier this year, couldn't find the sub.
Decades passed, and the men from the Ward got older and older. Most have died. Only about 20 of the 82 men are alive. About a half-dozen live in St. Paul.
A little more than three months ago, on Aug. 28, researchers from the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory sent two exploratory subs down 1,200 feet to look at an object that showed up on sonar. They hoped it was the missing Japanese submarine.
"All of a sudden it appeared out of the murky depths just sitting on the sand," said John Wiltshire, associate director of the University of Hawaii laboratory.
News accounts quickly flashed around the world, and the men from the Ward excitedly called one another.
Willett Lehner, who lives in Stevens Point, Wis., recalls getting a call from a former shipmate now living in Florida.
"They found it! They found it! See, we knew we sank it," Lehner recalled hearing over the phone.
Lehner, 82, never had any doubts. The Ward was patrolling the entrance to Pearl Harbor the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, when the destroyer's crew spotted the sub, one of five headed toward the harbor shortly before the attack by Japanese planes that left 2,390 people dead and 1,178 wounded.
The Japanese sub was at the surface when the Ward fired two shots, the first missing but the second striking the sub's conning tower. "I saw it when it got hit, and I saw it when it was going down, and I was sure we had sunk it," Lehner said.
After the war ended, the men from the reserve unit formed the First Shot Naval Vets club in St. Paul in 1947 and have met regularly over the years. They helped get the gun from the Ward brought to St. Paul in 1958, where it now sits on the state Capitol grounds next to the Veterans Service Building.
Every year, the men gather at the gun on Dec. 7, and they'll do so again at a ceremony this morning.
Proud of firing the first shots, the men also wanted credit for sinking the sub. They were delighted when it was found. The sub has shell damage in its conning tower and still has both of its torpedoes.
"We'd been telling them that for 60 years, and now they know it," said Orville Ethier of St. Paul, president of the First Shot Naval Vets.
Lehner traveled to Hawaii two years ago to help Ballard find the sub. Ballard searched for two weeks, and Lehner was on the ship every day.
"The thing is, he didn't want to take anyone else's advice," Lehner said of the legendary shipwreck finder. "I thought we were out too far. I kept telling him we need to move over toward the entrance to the channel. And he'd say, 'Oh, no, I know where it is.' "
Over the years, Lehner had encountered many doubters. "Yeah, yeah, yeah, you think you sunk it,'' Lehner said people would say. "I said, 'I know we sunk it.' "
It didn't help that Ballard couldn't find it. "I think Ballard thought that when he didn't find it that we didn't sink it," Lehner said.
Wiltshire said the Japanese sub is the most important modern marine archaeological treasure ever found in the Pacific Ocean and, overall, second only to the Titanic in the Atlantic Ocean.
The precise location of the sub has not been released, and there are no plans to raise it, Wiltshire said. The U.S. government has indicated it would like to have the site become a marine sanctuary.
"The federal government wants to protect it where it is," Wiltshire said.
Inside the sub are likely the first casualties of Pearl Harbor.
The Discovery Channel is working on a documentary about the sub and took Lehner down to look at it in October in one of the research laboratory subs.
"I think this is very, very significant for the crew of the Ward because this validates the very accurate information they transmitted to headquarters an hour before the attack began," Wiltshire said. "It's unfortunate that the Ward's report was not heeded.''
More than one hour before the 8 a.m. attack on Pearl Harbor, the commander of the Ward sent this message to headquarters in Honolulu:
"We have attacked, fired upon and dropped depth charges upon submarine operating in defensive sea area."
It was a warning that could have changed history.
"They were absolutely right," Wiltshire said. "They sounded the warning and no one listened."
Bill Gardner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
or (651) 228-5461.
I was unfamiliar with that story.
It gave me a chill where I read about when Mr. Lehner learned of the discovery.
Great article, thank you.
Wow, Valin, thanks for a story that I had not heard before yesterday. Thanks for filling in a lot of details about the aftermath, or lack thereof, of the USS Ward and the sinking of the Japanese sub.