On this day, December 7, we remember the men of the US armed forces but mainly the men of the US Navy who gave their lives during the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

We now know that the Japanese government intended to declare war on the United States and attack Pearl Harbor an hour later. But a snafu inside the Japanese Embassy on the weekend and an issue with the decoding and typing of the message delayed the message until after the attack was over.

The US fleet was caught unaware and unprepared and most of the ship’s fleet were asleep on a Sunday morning. By the time the Japanese warplanes withdrew, eight battleships, the pride of the Pacific fleet lay sunk or damaged, 18 ships in all were sunk or damaged. Over 200 planes were destroyed on the ground. And 2407 sailors, Marines and soldiers were killed on that day with 1247 others wounded.

But what many people don’t realize is that the Japanese didn’t fire the first shot in the war when they commenced bombing. The first shot was fired by the destroyer USS Ward, who fired on and sunk a Japanese midget submarine that was trying to sneak into the harbor. Unfortunately, the reports from the Ward were discounted and disbelieved by Navy brass. Something, they’d pay dearly for. The ship’s crew didn’t get confirmation that they’d sunk the submarine for over 60 years.

The only silver lining in the catastrophe at Pearl was the fact that the three American aircraft carriers, the primary target for the Japanese aircraft were at sea and untouched. That fact saved Pearl from the third wave of air attacks from the Japanese which may have severely damaged the infrastructure and oil facilities at Pearl Harbor. Six months later, those same American aircraft carriers would slam the Japanese on the attack at Midway. This time the Americans were ready and intercepted the Japanese coded messages and sunk four of Japan’s top of the line aircraft carriers. It would turn the war in the Pacific.

But during the early morning hours of that fateful December 7th, Intelligence reports were coming in as Navy and Army brass knew the Japanese were going to attack us, but no knew where.

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If you’ve seen the excellent war film Tora, Tora, Tora, it breaks down the events as they unfolded with very good detail. The filmmakers touched on an incident that, had the US brass reacted to, may have radically changed how the battle unfolded.

The USS Ward was a destroyer, a mothballed and resurrected relic from World War I. She was a Wickes class destroyer, displacing 1250 tons. Ward was armed with four 4” 50 caliber and two 3” guns. She was launched and commissioned in 1918 and was decommissioned and placed in reserve in 1921. Recommissioned in January 1941 she was assigned to the 14th Naval District in Oahu. Therefore, she would just steam back and forth, east and west, within sight of the shore.

The Ward was commanded Lieutenant William Outerbridge, who had been in the Navy for only 14 years and had taken command of her less than 24 hours before. He was thrilled to be off of his previous ship and finally get a command of his own for the first time. She was part of an older squadron of destroyers assigned to Inshore Patrol Command along with USS Schley, USS Chew, and the USS Allen. Their mission was to protect the outer edges of the harbor against an enemy ships or submarines trying to sneak into Pearl Harbor.

The Ward’s crew, 84 men, were mainly Navy Reservists from St. Paul, Minnesota. Early in the morning of Dec. 7,  the Ward was on patrol outside the channel entrance to Pearl Harbor. At 0400, a minesweeper signaled the Ward that it had sighted a submerged submarine in the area. A search was initiated but failed to detect anything.

At 0458 Pearl Harbor’s anti-torpedo net gate was opened to allow passage of a number of small ships including the Stores Ship USS Antares (AKS 14). Antares was towing a target back to base when at about 0635 a lookout on Ward noticed a wake following the auxiliary between her and her the raft.

Alerted, the crew called Outerbridge from his sleeping cot to the bridge. Outerbridge came to the bridge dressed in a kimono and took a look for himself. He spied the object and confirmed that it was a conning tower of a submarine. And it was a different one than on American subs. It was trying to draft in the wake between the Antares and her towed target.
Outerbridge didn’t hesitate at all, he called the crew to general quarters and ordered the ship to increase speed to 25 knots. He was approaching the oblivious sub and near ramming speed and then gave the order to “commence firing!” Less than 200 yards away the Ward opened up the shooting war for the Americans. A shell from the ship’s No. 1 gun missed, but now only 50 yards away, the nine-man crew of the No. 3 gun four-inch gun next fired a shot that hit the base of the conning tower. The sub shuddered, slowed and slowly disappeared beneath the waves. The Ward rolled four depth charges off the stern set for 100 feet and they exploded. Outerbridge reversed his course and found an oil slick, but sonar picked up nothing. World War II had begun for the United States, however, no one knew it yet.

The Ward immediately notified Naval Command at Pearl Harbor that it had attacked and fired upon a submarine operating in the restricted area. To emphasize that this was a real emergency, Outerbridge sent another message at 0653 “Attacked, fired upon, depth bombed, and sunk submarine operating in the defensive sea area.”

If the Americans react, they have more than an hour to scramble aircraft and get their ships moving off their moorings. His report was met with skepticism and disbelief. The 14th Naval District’s Chief of Staff, Captain John B. Earle, had the impression “it was just another one of these false reports which had been coming in, off and on.” His boss, Admiral Claude Bloch dismissed it as well, asking if it was just another false report.

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The message finally got to Admiral Kimmel, the Commander of Pearl Harbor at 0740. Kimmel too was unconvinced that the threat was real and issued no orders. Just a few minutes later, an orderly burst into the room to tell Kimmel, “There’s a message from the signal tower saying the Japanese are attacking Pearl Harbor, and this is no drill.”

The time was 0755 and the Japanese had commenced their attack. Had Ward’s message been taken seriously at once, would the situation have turned out differently? It is difficult to say, battleships take time to get their steam up and get moving. At a minimum, the sky could have been full of American fighters and the antiaircraft guns would have been active. They at least would have made the Japanese victory much costlier than the 29 planes that they lost.

Outerbridge would leave the Ward in 1942. She would be converted to a fast transport and three years to the day of Pearl Harbor. The Ward was struck by a Betty bomber that was a kamikaze at Ormoc Bay in the Philippines. Struck at the starboard waterline, with fires blazing and no water pressure to fight the fires, the Ward abandoned ship. The destroyer O’Brien was tasked to move in and scuttle and sink the Ward with gunfire. The O’Brien sent the Ward to the bottom on December 7, 1944, three years to the day from Pearl Harbor. In a strange twist of fate, the Commander of the O’Brien was William Outerbridge.

For years, no one believed the crew of the Ward had actually fired upon and sunk a Japanese midget submarine. Finally, in 2002, a team of deep-sea researchers found a perfectly preserved Japanese midget sub, exactly where the Ward reported the contact. And sure enough, the conning tower had a hole where the #3 gun punched a hole in it. She still carried her two torpedoes which had never been fired. The Ward had indeed fired the first shots of World War II for the United States and had sunk an enemy vessel.

The conning tower of the Japanese midget submarine found at Pearl Harbor that was sunk by the USS Ward

After the war, the Ward’s crew members formed the “First Shot Naval Vets,” which held annual reunions on Dec. 7. The group arranged to have the No. 3 gun — which had been removed as part of the ship’s conversion and preserved by the Navy — moved to Minnesota for the state’s centennial in 1958.

Photos Courtesy: US Archives