Dawn of Infamy: A Sunken Ship, a Vanished Crew, and the Final Mystery of Pearl Harbor

Image of Dawn of Infamy: A Sunken Ship, a Vanished Crew, and the Final Mystery of Pearl Harbor
Release Date: 
November 21, 2016
Da Capo Press
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The advent of the 75th anniversary of Japan’s attack at Pearl Harbor has had at least something to do with the publication of this book. It delivers an account of a little known incident that might have seen the opening shots of the Japanese war against the United States. Therein lies part of the controversy in the text, discussed below.

The ship in question was the Army Transport Ship (ATS) Cynthia Olson in the process of moving lumber to Hawaii from the West Coast, part of the buildup by the United States military as events began to spiral out of control in the Pacific. It was intercepted by a Japanese submarine, the I-26, which surfaced and fired a shot across its bow, forcing it to heave to. Once the crew had safely abandoned the ship in its lifeboats, it was shelled by the submarine and sunk.

The controversy previously mentioned surrounds the answers to three questions. Did the attack against the Cynthia Olson occur prior to the initial Japanese attack against Pearl Harbor thus becoming the opening salvo of the war in the Pacific? Could more timely information on the attack have mitigated the losses in Hawaii? Finally, what was the final fate of the crew?

By consulting previous accounts, extrapolating times from the various Japanese and American communications, logs and reports of the incident and interviews with the Japanese submarine captain who survived the war, it would appear that the answer to the first question is no, as the time gap between the attack at Pearl Harbor and the incident in question was a matter of minutes.

As a result, even with timely communication of the attack by the submarine to American authorities in Hawaii, there would have been insufficient time to alert army and navy forces to respond to adequately defend Pearl Harbor. Therefore, the answer to the second question is also no.

Unfortunately, there is no definitive way to answer the third question. Author Stephen Harding posits multiple possibilities with the crew’s deaths resulting from exposure, hunger, thirst, and exhaustion at sea as opposed to scenarios that they died aboard their vessel or were killed by another Japanese submarine that may have arrived on the scene post-sinking.

The first scenario would seem to be the most reasonable as a search by a Canadian warship some six hours after the distress call broadcast from the Cynthia Olson revealed no trace of wreckage, bodies, or other indications that a sinking had taken place, currents in that part of the Pacific being what they are.

As it is, this is also a personal account as the author identified the ship’s crew and told their stories as well as that of the Japanese submarine captain, who played such an integral part in the mystery, before proceeding to the heart of the book.

Covered as well are the references to the sinking among the first media reports and government communications following the Pearl Harbor attack. It was largely forgotten by most of the American public as the nation moved on to the bigger picture of war with Japan.

Postwar, numerous attempts were made by journalists to solve the mystery in spite of the disappearance of a key ship’s log, numerous conflicting stories, and even incorrect information. Harding has made his best effort to sort out all of the conflicts, surmises, and speculation and mostly succeeds through use of logic, reasoning, and the available information from the sources.

With no map included, one is left to visualize for oneself the location amid the vast Pacific Ocean where this happened, relative to Hawaii or the West Coast, or look on a map and determine said location from the position given or distance provided from each.

The photographic section shows, among other things, the Cynthia Olson, portraits of some of the crew, as well as the relevant Japanese personages, their submarine, other ships involved and prominent figures mentioned in the text.

The use of official files, archival sources and interviews are the heart of the story, with secondary sources employed for additional context and background.

With the loss of the crew, including two soldiers aboard, and under charter to the Army, the United States government currently classifies them as Missing in Action (MIA) and unrecoverable. Their story needed to be told. They made just as much of a sacrifice for their country as anyone else during World War II.