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Local Physician Recounts Friendship With Japanese POW#1

Sakamaki's HA-19 Mini Sub Grounded On A Reef In Pearl Harbor
Naval History and Heritage Command
Sakamaki's HA-19 Mini Sub Grounded On A Reef In Pearl Harbor

Eighty years ago, Ensign Kazuo Sakamaki, a Japanese naval officer, was operating an electric mini-submarine in the moments before the attack on Pearl Harbor.. The secret mission involved 5 of the mini-subs, which were to enter Pearl Harbor, wait for the air attack to begin, then launch their torpedoes at American ships. But the mission was a disaster. None of the subs completed their mission. Sakamaki’s sub suffered a malfunction and ran aground. Then, a U.S. warship fired at the sub and blasted it free of the reef. But then it got stuck on another reef. He ordered his fellow crewmember to abandon the vessel, and then tried to ignite the self-destruct fuse on the sub. It failed. The other crew member drowned, and Sakamaki eventually washed up on a beach, unconscious, and was captured. He was the sole survivor from the five mini subs sent to attack Pearl Harbor, and he was also the first Japanese POW in the war between the United States and the Empire.

Sakamaki After His Capture At Pearl Harbor
U.S. War Department
Sakamaki After His Capture At Pearl Harbor

Years later, Dr. Jerry Kelley, a retired Navy rear admiral living in San Antonio, became a board member at the Nimitz Museum in Fredericksburg. He and others decided that Sakamaki's mini sub, which had been displayed across the country and was sitting in crates in Florida, should come to the museum. The crates were originally headed to Honolulu. Kelly was involved in diverting the sub to Fredericksburg, but he's still tight-lipped about the details, even after all these years.

"Well, some of it I can't talk about," said Kelley. 

Instead of continuing on to Hawaii, the sub remained at the Nimitz Museum.

At the time, plans at the Nimitz Museum for the 50th Anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor were coming together. It was announced that Sakamaki himself would even make an appearance at the Nimitz symposium in 1991. That’s when Kelley and Sakamaki became close friends.

Up until that time, Sakamaki had not talked about the war. When he saw his old submarine for the first time in 50 years, he wept.

During his first visit to Texas, Kelley asked Sakamaki if he wanted to go anywhere in particular.

"Yes, I would like to go to my POW camp if we can find it," Sakamaki told him.  

Sakamaki, for a time, was held in a POW camp in Kenedy, just southeast of San Antonio

Kelley drove him to the small town where the camp had stood, but it was now gone. But Sakamaki saw something that he remembered

"The pump,"said Sakamaki.

"The water pump in the central part of the camp, which is now the backyard of the mayor of Kennedy," Kelley said.  

Kelley asked Sakamaki why he didn’t try to escape the camp.

" In the evening, they would remove everybody's shoes. And give them ice cream….he said there was no reason to leave because we couldn't get out because of the sticker burrs," Sakamaki told Kelley.

Kelley asked Sakamaki if there was anywhere else he wanted to go. Sakamaki requested to see the Alamo. So, with a camera crew in trail, they headed to downtown San Antonio.. Their unannounced appearance with the camera crew at the Alamo Shrine alarmed law enforcement officers.

"But they came running at us with hands on their pistols," Kelley recounted.  

Kelley says they barely avoided an international incident that day.

Dr. Jerry Kelley With A Piece Of Wood From His Dojo Bearing The Signature Or Sakamaki
Jerry Clayton
Dr. Jerry Kelley With A Piece Of Wood From His Dojo Bearing The Signature Or Sakamaki

Sakamaki made several trips back to Texas over the years. He always stayed at Kelley’s house. Kelley had a dojo, a traditional place for meditation, in his backyard, where they would sit, drink and talk for hours. Sakamaki after all the years, still had regrets. He felt as if he had failed his home country. When he was first captured, he asked permission to kill himself. His guards wouldn't allow it. He then asked the guards if they would kill him. They refused.

Kelley recounts his conversation with Sakamaki about his regrets. "He and I talked about this many times, and he always felt that he cheated his country by not completing the sacrifice. And I told him, look at what you did. You are a great leader for the Japanese. You became very successful in business. You married and you had great kids. And I said, no, no, you succeeded. But he always felt there was a little bit of a cheat on, I guess the Japanese that he didn't die and then we wouldn't kill him," Kelley said.  

Kelley looks back fondly at their friendship.

"I feel so honored to have been a friend of his...it was a true honor for me, and I miss him," he said.

Sakamaki wrote a memoir about his experiences, entitled “I attacked Pearl Harbor”. After the war, he went to work for Toyota, and rose to become president of the Toyota subsidiary in Brazil. He retired in 1987. Sakamaki passed away in 1999

Jerry Clayton can be reached at jerry@tpr.org or on Twitter at @jerryclayton.