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The Technology of War

The remains of the I-14For more than 60 years, they sat deep in the waters off Hawaii. Their existence wasn’t a mystery – just their exact location. Now, research submersibles from the University of Hawaii have found the last resting place of two of Japan’s most advanced submarines from World War II.

At the end of the war, at Pearl Harbor, the United States studied five sample vessels from three classes of Japanese subs. Then, after whatever technological secrets they held were revealed, the Americans torpedoed them. Partly because the vessels were not seaworthy, but perhaps mostly to make sure the Russkies didn’t get a hold of the technology. After all, with one war over, another was already under way: the Cold War, which shaped American politics and culture for more than 40 years.

[A parenthetical query, from someone who has written many books about the Cold War for kids: Do students today really get the tensions, fears, of that era? Can the threat of random terrorist acts match the concerns over a military miscalculation or plain, dumb human error leading to global annihilation? Just wondering…]

A Japanese illustration of part of the I-400

A Japanese illustration showing part of the I-400 and one of its planes

The Japanese subs were ahead of their time. The I-201 was faster than any US sub of the era and had rubber covering its outer shell, to hide it from enemy sonar and radar. The I-14, its companion under the Hawaiian waters, was an undersea aircraft carrier; it held two small, foldable bomber planes that could be launched on the surface. The I-401, discovered four years earlier not too far away, was the largest sub of the day. The two members of the 1-400 class carried three planes and enough fuel to circle the world 1.5 times without refueling. The subs arrived too late in the war to help Japan. And U.S. intelligence was so precise, experts say, it’s doubtful the subs could have gotten close to U.S. mainland targets, as the Japanese hoped.

Thomas Paine, who rode on the I-401’s sister ship on its postwar trip to Hawaii, later wrote, “To anyone who would listen I argued the case for refitting the I-400 for submerged operation and evaluation. I was convinced that we should find out how such a huge submarine handled submerged, how her automatic trim system worked, what lessons her Japanese naval constructors had incorporated into her design from their long experience with big submarines, and all of the other things I felt she could teach us.” (Read more of Paine’s account here.)

Despite Paine’s pleas, the ships were scuttled, and the articles I’ve seen on the discovery didn’t mention what, if anything, the Americans learned from the Japanese subs. But the reports of the find off Hawaii did get me thinking about a very useful poaching of an enemy’s advanced technology: Operation Paperclip.

Built in America, designed in Germany

As World War II in Europe drew to a close, the Americans (and British) and the Russians raced through Germany from opposite ends. The Russians were interested in securing factories and other material goods that would serve as reparations; they and the Americans also wanted to scoop up German technology and the scientists who created it. In Operation Paperclip, U.S. intelligence officials covered up the Nazi past of several key scientists – most notably, Wernher Von Braun – and whisked them to America. Once again, the goal was twofold: use their knowledge for ourselves and keep it out of the hand of our new enemies. Nazi German know-how led to the first U.S. rockets and the space program. It also helped us build stealth planes. Other German military projects under way as the war drew to close: hardened armor, guided missiles, and nerve gas.

(Some fringe folks also claim the Nazi technology was at the bottom of the “flying saucer” sightings of the 1940s and 1950s, as the Americans developed designs of experimental German aircraft. No real evidence of this, but it keeps the UFO websites buzzing, especially after Nick Cook’s 2002 book on the subject.)

The Russians, in their technology grab, nabbed the Germans’ atomic research labs. Of course, they scored an even bigger coup when they received info from  spies in the labs of Los Alamos, where the first atomic bombs were built. Klaus Fuchs and Theodore Hall were two of the most helpful spies, though today the Rosenbergs receive the most attention. The espionage let the Soviet Union develop its atomic weapons sooner than it otherwise would have. But make no mistake, spies or no spies, it would have. The science was known, the process was unstoppable. Perhaps like the development of nuclear weapons in “rogue” nations today, unless somebody wants to start a major war to stop them.

Science and technology have always been part of war, from better arrowheads and swords to the efficacy of today’s remote-controlled drones in the Middle East and Central Asia. Learning from the enemy is always crucial too. The Japanese subs may seem like relics, but they are reminders that knowledge is a powerful and sometimes deadly weapon in human conflict.

  1. Robin
    November 17, 2009 at 3:41 pm

    Interesting. I knew absolutely nothing about these subs, so thanks for the “something new” of the day!

  2. mburgan
    November 17, 2009 at 5:23 pm

    Actually, neither did I until I saw the reports on the discovery of the wrecks. Thanks, as always, for reading.

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