by Kevin Coyle
The submarine broke the Atlantic’s choppy surface. First came the bow, sharpened to a katana’s chisel point. Next rose the foredeck with a catapult’s twin rails running eighty-six feet down its spine. These ended at the sealed mouth of a horizontal, 115-foot long, cylindrical hangar.
Straddling the hangar, slightly off center to port, was the conning tower. The first character of the Japanese syllabary — resembling an “I” — and the numerals “401” labeled the tower’s sides. The afterdeck, its antiaircraft guns like porcupine quills, finally parted the waves. In the predawn gloom, black anechoic scales concealed the vessel from sight and sonar alike.
More than four hundred feet long, this monster was the largest in the world, matched only by her sister ship: Sen-Toku I-400. According to plan, I-400 should have been surfacing at that moment less than two hundred miles to the south.
Special Submarine I-401 popped her two forward hatches, exhaling foul breath that had amassed during her months-long voyage. Three maintenance teams of four men in khaki tropical uniforms, which did little to protect them from the bitter cold, scrambled onto the foredeck. They opened the hangar by swinging its twelve-foot-diameter watertight door to starboard.
The first of three Aichi M6A1 “Seiran” aircraft, with wings folded in the fetal position, emerged from the hangar. One team attached the two-man seaplane to the catapult’s dolly while the other teams attended to their assigned aircraft. These planes were painted silver and decorated with American markings. Without their floats, they looked like P-51 Mustangs. The floats would not be needed for this mission.
Captain Ariizumi Tatsunosuke, commander of Submarine Squadron One, stood erect on his flagship’s open bridge near the summit of I-401’s conning tower. A forty-one-year-old Etajima graduate, Ariizumi had earned the nickname “Gangster” for his quick disposal of prisoners of war. He wore his dress blacks with a pistol at his hip. He observed the maintenance teams below as the first Seiran’s wings unfolded like those of a butterfly.
Ariizumi’s decision to repaint these aircraft had been controversial. Some members of the Divine Dragon Special Attack Unit had been so bold as to voice their objections. They felt that such a disguise would be dishonorable. No matter. Ariizumi knew that his handpicked flight crews would do their duty despite any personal misgivings they might have.
Next to Ariizumi, I-401’s skipper — Commander Nambu Shinsei swayed with the rolling surf. A bushy moustache and scraggly beard coated the younger Nambu’s sour face. He had consumed too much sake the night before during the departure ceremony honoring the pilots and their rear gunners. Gripping the bridge’s handrails, he croaked, “It’ll be good to bring the fight home to the enemy again.”
Ariizumi frowned, his neatly trimmed moustache following the downward curve of his lips. As a lieutenant, Nambu had served aboard I-17, the only naval vessel since the War of 1812 to shell the American mainland. Nambu took every opportunity to boast about his role in the relatively insignificant raid upon Santa Barbara, California. In contrast, Ariizumi had commanded the midget submarines at Pearl Harbor, all of which had been lost without scoring a single hit.
“Yes,” Ariizumi replied through clenched teeth. “It will be good to finally hurt the American kichiku where he lives.”
Beyond the stern, the sun goddess Amaterasu commenced her graceful arc across the sky.
The first Seiran was ready. The lead flight crew took its place on the foredeck. Pilot and rear gunner each wore a white hachimaki tied around his head with a Rising Sun painted in his own blood. As one, the airmen bowed to the distant Emperor. Then they boarded their aircraft, the maintenance team making way for these revered comrades.
The plane’s engine rumbled to life. The flight officer watched the water, anticipating the right moment when the bow would rise toward a wave’s crest. He signaled by swinging his red-lensed flashlight in circles. The pilot throttled up to full power and the catapult launched the Seiran into the morning air.
Every man on deck cheered himself hoarse: “Tenno Heika Banzai!”
In minutes, the second Seiran was ready. With its flight crew strapped in place, off the plane went, the pneumatic catapult hissing from the effort of heaving its burden aloft.
Again, the men cheered, some openly weeping with joy.
Sen-Toku I-401’s two avian offspring circled overhead, waiting for the third of their flock to complete the formation. It took longer to prepare the final aircraft for takeoff. The seventeen-hundred-pound genshi bakudan had to be armed and bolted to the plane’s belly.
Finally, the third Seiran was ready. Grinning, the pilot and squadron leader — Lieutenant Asamura Atsushi — flashed the “thumbs up” sign through the cockpit’s transparent canopy. He had been the one to suggest to Ariizumi that this should be a tokko mission.
With a great whoosh, the third Seiran was airborne, climbing slowly under the weight of its payload to join its brothers in their flight westward.
The submariners on deck raised their voices in a slow, mournful song:
If I go away to sea,
I shall become a corpse floating in the water.
If I go away to the mountain,
I shall become a corpse from which grass grows.
If it is for the Emperor,
I will not regret my death.
By the time they finished, the low-flying squadron had disappeared over the horizon.
Ariizumi’s aide, Lieutenant Sato Tsugio, poked his head up through the conning tower’s open hatch. Saluting, he knocked askew his beige cap with its anchor insignia. “Captain, we just received a coded message over the wireless. Our sister ship’s three planes have been launched and are on course to their target.”
“Good.” Ariizumi studied the ocean. Absently, his hand went to his pistol. In a respectful voice, he whispered, “Before this day is out, my twelve samurai, I’ll join you at Yasukuni Shrine, where we’ll dwell forever.”
Sato averted his eyes. “My humble apologies, Captain, but our passenger demands an audience with you.”
Ariizumi sighed. “Send him up.”
Sato saluted again before sliding down the ladder to the control room.
Nambu raised an eyebrow ever so slightly.
“What difference would it make?” Ariizumi said. “There’s nothing he can do now.”
Several minutes later, Sato returned to the bridge, followed by the only civilian aboard. Arakatsu Bunsaku, a 55-year old physics professor at Kyoto University, headed the Navy’s secret “F-Go” project. He wore the same rumpled shirt, tie, and slacks he had been wearing that frantic night in August, when I-401 arrived at his facility at Konan, in occupied Korea, to rescue him and his precious cargo from the advancing Russian Army. Over these Western-style clothes, a leather jacket guarded Arakatsu against the winter chill.
Ariizumi had never trusted Arakatsu. The scientist’s flamboyant manner had offended many in the Imperial Navy. His prewar friendship with Albert Einstein also made him suspect. When Arakatsu strode across the bridge and met Ariizumi’s gaze, rather than averting his eyes as a show of respect, he gave the SubRon One commander further reason to dislike him.
“I must protest...”
Ariizumi interrupted him. “You have no say in military matters. Your only concern should be whether your ‘super weapon’ performs as promised.”
“It’s been tested,” Arakatsu barked out of professional pride. “It will work.”
Ariizumi tried to maintain his aristocratic bearing. “Then why your protest?”
“This attack is uncalled for. The war is over. The rumors...”
Ariizumi exploded in a sudden rage. With the back of his hand, he struck Arakatsu so hard that the scientist fell to the bridge’s metal deck plating. “The Emperor is Divine!” Ariizumi shrieked. “The Divine do not surrender!”
Alone in his flagship’s radio room only days after departing from Konan, Ariizumi had listened to the broadcast. Through the static, a reedy voice declared in formal Japanese the capitulation of his nation. A trick, Ariizumi had concluded. He told no one about the broadcast, though it was impossible to keep a secret for long aboard a submarine.
This Allied subterfuge had cost him I-14 and its two aircraft just as surely as American bombs had sunk I-13 in July. When I-14 failed to arrive at the rendezvous point in the Indian Ocean a week later, its worthless commander having surrendered, Ariizumi vowed that defeatism would reduce his force no more. Despite the loss of two submarines, SubRon One would deliver its two genshi bakudan as planned.
Arakatsu sat up and wiped his bloody mouth. “You have no idea what you’re doing. You didn’t read Doctor Nishina’s report about Hiroshima.”
To the west, Ariizumi directed his reply, a rephrasing of an old Japanese proverb: “What yesterday was another’s fate may be yours today.”
With two bright flashes, Amaterasu rose twice more that day, her divine fire burning the cities of New York and Washington.
Copyright © 2007 by Kevin Coyle