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80 Years Ago Today, A Japanese Submarine Shelled Hilo, Hawaii

5:04 AM · Dec 31, 2021

While often forgotten, 80 years ago today a Japanese submarine shelled Hilo on Hawaii Island as WWII was getting into full swing in the Pacific following the surprise attack on Oahu, December 7, 1941. After the attack on Pearl Harbor weeks prior, the Japanese retained a group of nine submarines to gather reconnaissance in the Hawaiian waters. On land, Hawaii was rapidly transforming into a war footing. In Hilo, December 1941, the airport was taken over by Army Engineers and work began to install a mobile field battery of 155-mm guns to protect against seacraft. Stress in the wake of the Pearl Harbor in the islands was palpable. Nobody knew how strong the Japanese forces were, especially civilians who not privy to military intelligence. On the night of December 30, 1941 the Japanese submarines launched a coordinated strike on Hilo, Hawaii, on Kahului, Maui, and Nawiliwili on Kauaʻi. The Japanese operation can best be described as ‘morale bombings’, as the attack was not significant enough take or destroy a military objective. In Hilo, the submarine I-1 surfaced and fired ten high explosive shells into Hilo piers before submerging once again. The shells landed primarily around Pier 1, damaging a "fenders and a concrete haunch and pile”. Overall, damage done was insignificant, however the aim of the operation was not to inflict high casualties or damage, but to inflict phycological damage and to jar the homefront. The Tribune Herald, one of only two newspapers allowed to operate during the war, made scant mention of the attack the next day. The Associated Press acknowledged that the attack happened, stating “Subs Ineffective In Light Attacks on Three Islands”, but not much detail was provided by the military. Meanwhile in Japan, Radio Tokyo was spinning the shelling into the sinking of multiple ships, damaging the ports, and even sinking a warship. While the shelling of Hilo on December 30, 1941 would be the only such attack on Hawaii Island during the war, the story does not end there. The submarine I-1 returned to Japan after the operation before being redeployed to Guadalcanal. In 1943, the I-1 would be sunk by two small New Zealand mining boats in a dramatic maritime encounter battle where the Kiwis rammed the I-1, detonated mines danger close, and a Japanese officer wielding a sword gave out a mighty war cry and leaped from the top of the submarine towards the deck of the engaged boats. Missing the jump he fell into the ocean, his only option then being to make the short swim back to shore in Kamimbo Bay. The I-1 would be run aground at the end of the battle, onboard allied intelligence would find highly sensitive documents in the following days. Thousands and thousands of pages of them, the sub that two years prior shelled Hilo was now an allied treasure trove of information. That information would lead to the whereabouts and itinerary of the Japanese Admiral Yamamoto, the great strategist and leader of the Japanese would be killed by allied pilots when the bomber aircraft he was on was intercepted and shot down on Bougainville Island in 1943. Hawaii changed dramatically over the course of the pacific war and in its aftermath. Wartime Hawaii was not for the faint of heart, and the people that endured those years leave us more and more each year. While all my generation sees of the second world war is poor quality images and stories, there are people still among us that lived through that war in all of its detail. IMAGE: Shows HMNZS Kiwi ramming Japanese submarine I-1 in Guadalcanal on January 29, 1943. CREDIT: Watertight Productions

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