Like other submarine officers, Harry Arvidson never spoke about his year working in one of America's most effective and most secretive World War II machines. "They called it the silent service," Arvidson said. "For years, we didn't talk about how they worked or what they did." Six decades later, the 85-year-old Lincoln man is finally getting a chance to tell his story in a PBS documentary, "Secrets of the Dead: Japanese SuperSub," which premieres Wednesday. Arvidson was one of just 44 Americans who boarded the Japanese I-400 submarine after the country surrendered in August 1945. Along with interviewing sailors such as Arvidson and pilots who saw the sub from the sky, the documentary features engineering logistics and battle plans. Military historians describe the submarine's innovations and just how important it was to the Japanese war effort. Three times as large as American submarines, the I-400 was designed to rise and sink quickly, allowing just enough time to catapult into the air one of three specially-designed aircraft stored inside. As the Cold War escalated, the United States military feared what could happen if the machine landed in Russia's hands. By agreement, the two countries were to share any military technology after the war. Less than 10 months after World War II ended, the United States military sunk the sub off the coast of Hawaii, making Arvidson one of a scattered few to see it. For years, the submarine was shrouded in secrecy — some components are still considered classified. Only now is the powerful supersub being recognized as a precursor to modern attack submarines. "This little-known sub had potential to be a true game changer," executive producer Jared Lipworth said. "If the Japanese had managed to build a fleet of them and get them into action early in the war, the outcome in the Pacific might have been very different." Realizing that the Japanese Navy couldn't compete with the United States' manpower and military might, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto searched for a weapon that would strike quickly, terrorizing American citizens and sap America's willpower for an all-out war in the Pacific. The Harvard-educated admiral came up with the idea of a fleet of aircraft-carrying submarines that could launch attacks on the American mainland. Too top heavy for standard marine layout, Japanese engineers used a twin-hull design that could support the hangar and airplane launch ramp. Special bombers with wings that rotated and folded up and a tailfin that folded down also were built to store in the sub. The engine oil required special heaters to prevent it from solidifying in the cold ocean depths. The I-400 was heavily armed with four anti-aircraft guns and eight torpedo tubes and had a special rubber and asphalt coating to prevent it from being spotted by enemy radar. The Japanese plotted to use the submarine to launch biological attacks in the U.S. or even blow up Panama Canal. But before that happened, the U.S. developed a game changer of its own — the Atom bomb. Most of the Americans that boarded the supersub were machinists and torpedo men. By the nature of their jobs they were years older than Arvidson, who was just 20 at the t ime. Cons e q u ent l y, Arvidson is one of few that steered the sub to shore who are still alive today. Just 17 when he enlisted, Arvidson had just finished his sophomore year in high school. Because submarines were so new and dangerous, officers volunteered for the duty. During the war, 52 American submarines were lost, killing more than 3,600 personnel aboard — a 25 percent mortality rate. "Every man on the submarine had to know how to operate all the different things," he said. "Me being a cook, I still needed to know how to start the engines and I needed to know how to fire up the torpedo. I knew how to pump water from any room on the ship." Submarines were used to spy, supply and rescue ground forces and save downed airmen and sailors. Their most important and dangerous job was to lurk in the waters between Japan and China and sink military and merchant ships. Though just 1.6 percent of the Navy's personnel were stationed in submarines, the small force sank more than 55 percent of Japanese naval warship losses and more then 1,150 merchant ships. At the start of war, there were far more submarine sailors than subs. Arvidson spent most of his four years in the Navy in Pearl Harbor and Guam, working on ships that serviced submarines. Up until the 1960s, the Japanese supersub was the largest in the world — the American submarine Arvidson served on was 1,500 tons compared with the 6,500 tons of the I-400. The submarine was more than 400 feet long and carried enough fuel to go around the world one-and-a-half times. The sub was so large, the USS Prodeus, on which Arvids on was s tat i oned, couldn't get near it. After riding in boats overnight, Arvidson got his first glimpse of the massive submarine from the deck of a destroyer. White flag of surrender waving, Japanese helped the American naval men climb out of whale boats onto the sub. The American crew rode the supersub 200 miles into Tokyo Bay and stayed aboard with the 220 Japanese officers for two months while the American military decided what to do with the I-400. With little more than four rice steamers in the kitchen, Arvidson did little cooking on the sub. The American and Japanese sailors instead relied on the Prodeus crew, crossing onto the ship daily for meals. Happy that the war was over, the Japanese were very friendly, Arvidson said. The men did their best to communicate with each other, mostly using hand signals. The Japanese helped keep the sub clean and in good working order until it finally left Japan's coast for Hawaii. After the war, Arvidson initially returned to his home in Minnesota. He eventual ly moved west to Montana, where he ran the Home Cafe in Conrad for years. His son runs the restaurant now. In 1982, he and his wife Lola retired, traveling and spending winters in Arizona before settling in Lincoln in 1986. It was around that time that University of Hawaii researchers discovered the I-400 at the bottom of the Pacific. Seeing p i c t u r e s i n N a t i o n a l Geographic, Arvidson said he finally realized how important his job was for those two months. "I didn't think much of it at the time," he said. "It was just something else I was ordered to do." Author Gary Nila contacted Arvidson, asking for information for a book he was writing with Henry Sakaida and Koki Takaki about the I-400. Along wi th inc l u d ing s ome o f Arvidson's memories, the book also listed the sailors who saw the sub. The book brought Arvidson to the documentary producers' at tent ion. He f lew out to Washington, D.C. in January to be interviewed, along with two other American sailors who boarded the I-400 and I-401. He hopes the documentary finally will shine a light on the important role submarines played in the war. "Submarines took the war right back to Japan," he said. "I think this documentary is going to bring out a little more about the submarines. People should know that if it hadn't been for submarine duty, the war wouldn't have ended when it did."
Lincoln man tells Japanese SuperSub stories
Published: Friday, May 7th, 2010
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