Who Fired First in the Pacific War?

An hour before Japanese planes started their attack on Pearl Harbor, the Commandant of the 14th Naval District in Hawaii got this message:

“We have attacked, fired upon, and dropped depth charges on a submarine operating in defensive sea areas.”

It was 0645 hrs on Sunday, December 7, 1941.

The sender was Lt. Commander William Outerbridge of the USS Ward (DD_139).

And he had no idea his actions would be recorded as the first shots fired in the Pacific War.

His target; a Japanese midget submarine, trying to follow the USS Antares into Pearl Harbor.

Sink the Submarine

The incident was logged at 0637 when Ward’s  Officer-of-the-Deck spotted the conning tower of a midget submarine. It was trailing in the wake of the USS Antares  who was towing a target back to the harbor.

The three vessels were near the island of Oahu, Hawaii.

The submarine had positioned itself between the floating raft and the Antares and seemed to be trying to sneak into Pearl Harbor using the ship as cover.

USS Antares


Strangely, it seemed unaware that the USS Ward  was close by,  and had spotted it.

On board Ward, the order was given to fire on the submarine and drop depth charges.

Several of Ward’s  crew who were on deck, witnessed the submarine being hit.  It was seen to slow down then heel over to starboard.

As she slowed, she was caught by one of the depth charges.

The submarine sank in over 1000 feet of water, leaving only an oily film floating on the surface.

But with no wreckage appearing on the sea, the crew were unable to confirm the type of submarine they’d just destroyed.

The Advance Group

Unknown to LCDR Outerbridge, or the Pacific Fleet based in Pearl, this and several other midget submarines were the advance attack group.

He’d taken command of this elderly ship only 24 hours earlier,  on December 6th, and had just started his patrol.  He was in the open water outside Pearl Harbor when the submarine was spotted.

Having reported the contact and its destruction, USS Ward  returned to duty.

But this information didn’t get transferred up the reporting chain quickly enough to alert the fleet, or for any action to be taken.

A short time later, at 0748 hrs, the full Pearl Harbor attack exploded with deadly consequences.

The USS Ward  was one of the luckier ships.  She was strafed by a Japanese aircraft flying towards Pearl Harbor, but survived.

The USS Ward

The USS Ward (DD-139) was a Wickes-class Destroyer, launched in June 1918 and commissioned in July of that year.

For a time she was the flagship of Destroyer Division 18, but was decommissioned in July 1921.

She was given her name, in honor of Commander James Harmon Ward, USN. During the American Civil War, he was the first U.S. Navy officer killed.

The USS Ward  returned to active duty in January 1941, when she was sent to Pearl Harbor as part of the 14th Naval District’s defense force.


USS Ward

War in the Pacific

Throughout the Pacific War, USS Ward  continued anti-submarine patrols and escort missions.  And in 1943 she was converted to a Fast Transport vessel and saw action across the Philippines and Soloman Islands.

She was part of the force that stopped the Japanese offensive – Operation I.  This failed operation was Japanese retaliation for the loss of Guadalcanal.

However, in an ironic twist of fate, three years to the day when she fired the first shot of the Pacific War, USS Ward  was again attacked by several Kamikaze aircraft.

LCDR Outerbridge had left Ward  in July 1942.    And on the morning of December 7th, 1944,  she was on anti-submarine patrol in the Philippines under the command of Lt. Richard Farwell.

One of the attacking aircraft hit her midships leaving Ward  floundering in the water.  Her crew struggled to fight the fires taking hold in the ship and the USS O’Brien  came to her aid.

However, with fires raging out of control inside her and sections rapidly flooding, the order was given to abandon ship.  After rescuing her crew, the USS O’Brien  was ordered to fire on the Ward and scuttle her.


The USS Ward burning at sea

In a second twist of fate, the USS O’Brien was under the command of LCDR William Outerbridge.

The USS Ward  went down in deep water off the island of Leyte in Ormoc Bay, and lay there undiscovered for decades.

Finding the USS Ward

In November 2017, Research Vessel Petrel discovered the wreckage of the Ward in almost 700 ft of water, in the Philippines.

R/V Petrel is a high-tech, 250-ft exploration vessel owned by the late philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.  It has submersible ROVs and is one of the few research ships with the technology to explore to 6,000 ft (3.5 miles) under water.

Watch the video from the R/V Petrel here on YouTube


After examining the wreckage using a remote submersible, the USS Ward was left undisturbed in the watery darkness.

But her unique place in history is not forgotten – the ship that fired the first shot in the Pearl Harbor attack.

Japanese Two-Man Midget Submarines

The submarine that Ward attacked and sank, was found in August 2002 by a group of scientists from the University of Hawaii.

It was lying on the sea bed about 3 miles from the entrance to Pearl Harbor.

They identified it as a Japanese Ko-Hyoteki-class two-man midget submarine. Although it had no signs of explosive damage, its conning tower had shell holes, created by Ward’s guns.

During the Pearl harbor attack, Japanese sailor, Kazuo Sakamaki, was captured when his midget submarine sank.

He made it to a beach but became the first Japanese POW of WW2.

After four years as a POW in the United States, Sakamaki was allowed to return home when the Japanese finally surrendered.

He later wrote a book on his experiences entitled, “I attacked Pearl Harbor.

And in it he explained the five midget submarines were part of a Special Attack Force suicide squad.

Crews didn’t volunteer – they had no choice.

The mini-subs had launched from a mother submarine lying 10 miles outside Pearl Harbor.

They were 78 ft in length and carried two 1,000 lb torpedoes. And the crew were instructed to set a self-destruct timer as they reached their target.

This was a suicide mission. But as happened with Kazuo Sakamaki, the submarine sank and didn’t blow apart.

The photograph below shows one of the Japanese midget-submarines being salvaged by the crew of  U.S. Coast Guard buoy tender USCGC Ironwood (WAGL-297), in January 1945.  Others were also found.



Salvaging a Japanese midget submarine

American sailors salvaging a Japanese midget submarine near Guadalcanal.


One of these recovered enemy submarines was sent to the U.S.    And after completing a moral-boosting tour around the States, to sell war bonds, it was displayed in a museum in Florida.

In 1990 it was moved to its present location in the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas.

Kazuo Sakamaki died in November 1999, aged 81.





United States Navy Naval History and Heritage Command
Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print

© Navigea Ltd R/V Petrel



Need Help? Want to chat to us? Get in touch

Thanks for getting in touch. We'll get back to you very soon.

Not readable? Change text. captcha txt

Start typing and press Enter to search

error: Content is protected !!
Recovery of USS O-5B17 Mi Amigo Memorial