How did you become involved in the discovery of the M24?
The 60 Minutes program rang me late on a Friday afternoon and asked to come and see me. They said they wanted an opinion on something. I had done some work with them in the past. They arrived with two No Frills Divers and a DVD. They put the DVD on and from the footage it was fairly evident that they had found an ‘A’ type Japanese midget submarine. I didn’t say that at the time. I asked the divers to go back and dive again and to take some measurements, which would confirm that it was an ‘A’ type Japanese midget submarine.
They returned on the following Monday and it was obvious from the footage and the measurements that it was the M24. Only one of the three Japanese midget submarines which had invaded Sydney Harbour had fired its torpedoes and this submarine had no torpedoes. It must have been the M24.
The Chief of Navy was advised and so was the Japanese Government through the Japanese Embassy.
At the request of the Japanese Government and the Australian Chief of Navy I went back to the site with Tim Smith, Deputy Director and State maritime archaeologist of the Heritage Branch, on board HMAS Yarra to survey the site. That provided final confirmation it was the M24 wreck.
What does the discovery of the M24 mean to the Australian Navy?
As an historian I was very pleased that it had been found, but also relieved. There had been so many so called discoveries in the past and so many theories about what might have happened to it.
We lost 21 sailors that night and the Japanese lost six. For the navy and the Japanese it represents some closure to the events of 31 May and 1 June, 1942.
What do you think might have happened to the submarine?
I think it went out of the harbour, perhaps with battle damage, which caused it to be unmanoeuvrable, or it ran out of battery power. We know that the Chicago, Canberra and Kanimbla fired a lot of shells on the night, but we don’t know if they did any damage. We also know the scuttling charges were unusable because of Lieutenant Matsuo’s inability to use them in Taylor’s Bay with Ha-21.
Lieutenant Ban might have tried to fire them and they didn’t work. He was considered the most dedicated of the submariners, so I think he may have just opened the hatches and flooded the submarine and taken it down to the bottom. I think the remains of the crew are probably in the control room.
We would all like to know the outcome of the story. We would like to know if there are human remains on board. Although these submariners were the enemy they were extraordinarily brave and the navy has always respected that.
I think the final chapter of the story would be the return of the remains to Japan.
Why do you think Rear Admiral Muirhead-Gould gave the submariners a funeral with full military honours?
It could be construed that Rear Admiral Muirhead-Gould provided full military honours to the submariners to try and take the pressure off prisoners of war in Singapore in February. There were stories at the time of ill treatment by the Japanese.
I think he did it because he was a naval officer and these were naval personnel and they had done their duty with courage and determination.
The Navy is a bit different to Army. In the Army the individual is the target in a battle. In the Navy our war is with the vessel, not the crew, so the philosophy is different.
When the remains of the submariners were returned to Japan a funeral was held in Tokyo. Admiral Yamamoto, Commander in Chief of the Imperial Japanese fleet was the chief mourner. Every Japanese newspaper ran a front page story of the funeral, and a photo of the party of Australian navy sailors who fired a salute at the funeral service for the submariners in Australia. The headline read ‘Honourable Australian enemy pay honour to War Gods’. The Japanese have never forgotten it and it is still taught in Japanese schools.
Will the Navy have an ongoing interest in the M24?
It’s important to realise that the wreck site is not, and will not become naval property. The wreck is protected by both the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 and the NSW Heritage Act 1977. We do not have any ongoing responsibilities for it.
The Navy has provided ongoing assistance with the survey of the wreck. The Navy Clearance Diving Team has been providing this assistance to the Heritage Branch.
We will maintain interest in what the archaeological work reveals, but our relationship has really always been with the families of the submariners. We have a number of items that the family have donated which are inside part of Lieutenant Matsuo’s submarine, which is located at Garden Island, such as memory beads, encased cherry blossom and stones from the beaches where the sailors came from.
Lieutenant Matsuo’s mother came to Australia in the late 1960s and presented a poem to the Navy to express her gratitude for the way her son’s death had been treated.