In the movie “Tora! Tora! Tora!” the ship is portrayed by a World War II-built destroyer. In truth, the USS Ward was a relic of the Great War, one of 80 “four-piper” destroyers pulled out of mothballs after 20 years and recommissioned in 1941 to meet the threat of hostilities from Japan in the Pacific and the European war in the Atlantic.
In the early morning hours of Dec. 7, 1941, the Ward was on patrol outside the channel entrance to Pearl Harbor with a crew filled out mostly by 84 naval reservists from St. Paul. Their seamanship had been acquired training on the Mississippi and Lake Superior. At 4 a.m., a minesweeper signaled the Ward that it had sighted a submerged submarine in the area.
The crew conducted a search, but nothing was found until, at 6.30 a.m., several of them spotted what appeared to be a conning tower or buoy moving in the water. Alerted, the Ward’s captain spied the object and confirmed to his satisfaction that it was a submarine preparing to enter the harbor channel behind another Navy ship. The fact was alarming because all U.S. submarines in the area were under orders to operate on the surface with a destroyer escort.
If there was any hesitation about what to do next, it was short-lived. At 6:45, the captain ordered to “commence firing!” A shell from the ship’s No. 1 gun missed, but the nine-man crew of the No. 3 gun next fired a shot that was seen to hit the base of the conning tower. The sub disappeared beneath the waves. The crew had sunk a Japanese two-man midget submarine (the wreckage, with a shell hole in the conning tower, was discovered in 2002).
The Ward immediately notified Naval Command at Pearl Harbor that it had attacked and fired upon a submarine operating in the restricted area. But in a frustrating counterpoint to the swiftness of her captain’s and crew’s reactions, the message was essentially ignored.
The first of 353 Japanese Zeros, dive bombers and torpedo planes arrived in the skies over Pearl Harbor at 7:55, an hour after the Ward had made its report. By the time their work was done, 2,403 Americans were dead, eight battleships lay sunk or damaged, and more than 300 aircraft on the ground had been bombed.
The failure of the command at Pearl Harbor to react immediately to the Ward’s message was just the last of a series. Ten days before the attack, the War Department had cabled a “war warning” and advised of “unpredictable but hostile action possible at any moment.”
The warnings were based on information obtained through the breaking of the Japanese diplomatic code. While not specific about an attack on Pearl Harbor, they were foreboding enough to have warranted an alert level more serious than the one the local command declared, for preparedness against internal sabotage.
How a force of such size (six aircraft carriers accompanied by battleships, cruisers, destroyers and submarines) could travel so far (more than 3,000 miles) and achieve surprise has been endlessly debated. An explanation as likely as any is that Pearl Harbor was neither the first nor the last time a determined enemy’s intentions and capabilities had been underestimated, with terrible consequences.
Six months later, the same mistakes would not be repeated. By then, codebreakers had cracked the Japanese naval code and learned that Midway Atoll was the next target. When the Japanese Fleet arrived for the attack, they were surprised to discover two task forces from Admiral Nimitz’s Pacific Fleet waiting for them. In the ensuing battle, all four Japanese carriers were sunk. It was a turning point in the Pacific War.
As for the Ward, converted to a transport destroyer in 1943, she participated in 16 amphibious landing operations. During the last of those, at Ormoc Bay in the Philippines, three years to the day after firing the first shots of the war in the Pacific, the ship was struck by a kamikaze and had to be abandoned and sunk. Remarkably, on that day and in her entire history, the Ward’s crew sustained not a single combat fatality.
After the war, her 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. Nearly all the “First Shot” veterans have since passed away. But thanks to their efforts, the gun with which they made history can still be seen standing guard on the grounds of the State Capitol.
Kirk O. Kolbo is a Minneapolis attorney.