Pearl Harbor CSI: NOVA Discovers the Mini-Sub That Fired on the Arizona

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I received this press release before Christmas, and spent a good chunk of my holiday dinner talking it out with my dad – a self-appointed World War II expert. I think PBS is sitting on a pretty remarkable story here.

On Tuesday night’s NOVA, we will see a rather remarkable bit of underwater video that shines a light on a distant chapter of American history. Back during the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, five midget Japanese submarines were unleashed against U.S. forces. These two-man Type-A subs were six feet wide and 80 feet long, each carrying two torpedoes and capable of speeding along at 19 knots – which was twice the top speed of American subs during that era.

These things sound like rather ingenious devices geared at delivering a pre-emptive strike. Bigger subs pull up to a conflict zone, these miniatures then push in quickly to deliver a first blow. Over the last six decades, four of these five miniature Japanese subs have been discovered. All of them fell short of attacking the harbor. But PBS claims that during a “routine test dive,” the wreckage of the fifth miniature sub was discovered – in the middle of the harbor debris zone. This suggests that the miniature sub did indeed fire on U.S. ships.

Tuesday’s NOVA, titled “Killer Subs in Pearl Harbor,” treats Pearl Harbor like a fresh crime scene, and – according to the PBS announcement – comes up with some amazing evidence. Soldiers offer first-hand testimony about torpedos hitting the U.S.S. Arizona. A declassified photo from an airplane allegedly shows a midget submarine in the midst of firing on the American fleet. Crazier still: There is evidence that the Japanese may have scuttled their own ship, to keep the midgets out of the hands of the American military.

There is then an even bigger discovery: In the midst of investigating this attack, investigators stumble upon a shocking slice of history that occurred in the Pacific three years later. In 1944, as the Navy prepared to invade Saipan, an ammunition accident sank six crowded LSTs, killing nearly 200 sailors in an incident that was immediately covered up, to protect the secrecy of the mission. 65 years after the fact, investigators unravel it all.

Tuesday’s NOVA takes us under the surface with high-def cameras, and shows us just how investigators are able to reconstruct that day’s details, down to the inner workings of a 6-foot-wide mini-sub. For anyone obsessed with gadgets, this seems to have it all: The cutting-edge technology of World War II meets the state-of-the-art forensic tools used today by crime scene investigators. This is one of the most gripping hours of PBS programming I’ve ever seen.