Claim to Fame: First Japanese P.O.W
Poor Kazuo Sakamaki. All he wanted to do was fight for the glory of Japan. Instead he became a symbol of derision and humiliation. Reviled in his homeland, he nevertheless would become a hero of pacifists. Life took him on quite a journey.
As an ensign in the Imperial Navy, Sakamaki and crewman Kyoshi Inagaki were aboard one of 5 tiny "midget" submarines. It was in the early morning of Dec. 7, 1941, and they were about to enter one of the biggest military attacks in history, just outside of Pearl Harbour.
However Sakamaki had a small problem. His submarine, known as HA-19 wasn’t working. Its gyrocompass, a critical navigational aid, was out of order. Sakamaki tried to fix it, but as the time approached for departure, he decided he would just have to wing it.
The two crewmen launched at 3:33 a.m. And almost immediately HA-19 started to sink. They managed to correct the problem, but the mechanical misadventures continued. The sub ran in circles, and got snagged in reefs. Finally it ran aground just as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour began.
It soon became clear the submarine was never going to function properly. Sakamaki ordered it to be abandoned and lit the self-destruct charges, but that too failed. His crewmate drowned. Amazingly, Sakamaki made it ashore, thus earning him the dubious honor of being the first Japanese prisoner of war.
Humiliated to be taken alive, Sakamaki burned himself with cigarettes in prison on Sand Island and demanded to be allowed to commit suicide. Instead P.O.W Number 1 spent the rest of the war moving from camp to camp. His time alone allowed Sakamaki to reflect on the nature of war and it changed his life. The young ensign who only dreamt of military glory was now a committed pacifist.
Returning home, Sakamaki discovered he had been airbrushed out of history. The other crewmen of the 5 midget submarines were the heroes. He wrote about his experience, and thereafter refused to speak about the war. As a fellow veteran once put it, "I think he had a lot of feelings he could not put in words about becoming the first prisoner of war at a time when falling into the hands of the enemy was the biggest shame." Sakamaki eventually moved to Brazil, as the head of Toyota operations.
As for HA-19, it was salvaged during the war, scoured for military intelligence, then put on public display to galvanize public support and promote war bonds. HA-19 ended the war lying at the Navy Pier in Chicago.
More than 50 years later, the little sub that couldn’t was sitting in Texas, as part of the Admiral Nimitz Museum. And it was there, in 1991, that Sakamaki was reunited with the soldier who first caught him as well as the wayward submarine. He wept.
Sakamaki died on Nov. 29, 1999. He was 81.