This week marks the anniversary of when war came home to Sydney as Japanese submarines began their campaign against targets in Sydney (and Newcastle), causing death, damage and wide spread panic and reminding Sydney that the war wasn’t that far away after all.

On the night of 31 May three midget submarines made their way from mother ships off of the coast into the inner harbour.

Keiu Matsuo on the right, Kinshi Chuma at rear-Captains of the raiding midget submarines
Keiu Matsuo on the right, Kinshi Chuma at rear-Captains of the raiding midget submarines

In a dramatic couple of hours, 21 Australian and British sailors were killed on the HMAS Kuttabul, two Japanese submarines were sunk in the harbour and a third was damaged enough for it to sink soon after near North Head, where it lay undiscovered until 2006.

All this we have looked at before and you can read that here.

But there are a few other aspects worth noting.

Each of the subs was manned by a two man crew, equipped with enough food to last a few weeks, charts of the harbour and of Newcastle harbour and target photos of Garden Island, Cockatoo Island, Hawkesbury Rail Bridge, Newcastle Steelworks, its floating dock and the Walsh Island Shipyards.  They were serious in their mission to attack and disrupt the naval installations and war industry of both cities.

When recovered, it was discovered that the crews, realising there was no chance of escape, had committed suicide.  Handling enemy combatants’ remains while at war could be a delicate matter.  Emotions were running high and things were not going particularly well for the allies in the Pacific.

In a move some saw as controversial but others praised, the Officer-in-Charge of Sydney Harbour, Rear-Admiral Michael-Gould ordered that the four men would be given a full naval burial with honours.

The funeral was organised with advice from the interned Japanese consul and went ahead at Eastern Suburbs Crematorium.  A full guard of honour was in place, a gun salute fired and the bodies draped in the Japanese ensign.  The funeral was broadcast by the ABC.

The ashes were later shipped back to Japan with the consul in October 1942.  In Japan they were given a hero’s welcome and the gesture was never forgotten; in 1968 the mother of one of the sailors came to Sydney and then Canberra to honour her son Matsuo Keiu, thank Australia for its respect and retrieve the thousand stitch body belt given to Matsuo to protect him.

Rear of house damaged in Japanese attacks on Sydney, June 1942
Rear of house damaged in Japanese attacks on Sydney, June 1942

Meanwhile off of the coast, the mother subs were still lurking.  On the night of 7 and 8 June, two subs surfaced, one 6 miles off Malabar.  Sub I-24 fired 10 shells into Sydney’s Eastern suburbs, three exploding and seven duds.  Six shells were later recovered, but one remains somewhere around the Royal Sydney Golf Club.  Luckily no-one was seriously injured in these attacks.

However in attacks on shipping it was a different story.  Between June 1942 and May 1943 eleven ships were attacked off Sydney Harbour, five sunk, four damaged with a total 54 sailors killed.

Just a little reminder that war could get quite close in the modern world.