Pearl Harbor Survivor Recounts Sinking Of Japanese Sub Before Aerial Attack

Dec 7, 2016
Originally published on December 8, 2016 10:16 am

In the first wave of aerial attacks on Pearl Harbor, 183 Japanese planes dropped bombs on American naval vessels. Other planes bombarded U.S. airfields.

When it was over, the USS Oklahoma had capsized, and another battleship, the USS Arizona, was destroyed. In the end more than 2,400 American service members and civilians were dead.

After 75 years, there are fewer eyewitnesses to the events of Dec. 7, 1941. But one man does have a story from that infamous day — a story that he says no one believed for decades.

Will Lehner is from Stevens Point, Wis. In 1941 he was 20 years old and serving in the Navy, where he was assigned to the USS Ward.

"At the entrance to Pearl Harbor our job was patrolling back and forth for a week at a time," Lehner says.

He was on one of these patrols during the early hours of Dec. 7, 1941. During that time, before the surprise attack, is when Lehner says the Japanese navy sent small surveillance submarines to the harbor.

He says his crew saw one, and fired.

"I saw the shell when it hit the sub, right in the hole," Lehner says. "It was about 75 feet long and about 4 or 5 foot in diameter."

Lehner and his crew engaged the Japanese navy before the aerial attack on Pearl Harbor took place. He says they hit the submarine approximately an hour-and-a-half before the aerial attack began.

"We saw a lot of smoke and planes diving. We didn't know how bad it was until about 1 o'clock in the afternoon, and we had to go in," Lehner says. "That's when we saw all of the destruction. There were bodies floating in the water."

For many years people did not believe Lehner when he said he had sunk a Japanese submarine before the attack occurred. But just over a decade ago, Lehner went back to Hawaii and down into the water on a mission to find the sunken submarine.

"Well, I'll tell you, when I saw that submarine laying there, the hairs on the back of my neck just stood up," he says.

Lehner says no one has apologized for not believing him for so many years, but he's not upset about it.

"No one ever apologized, but I also say, 'Hey, we found it now,' " he says. "So, now there's definite proof."

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(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We interrupt this broadcast to bring you this important development from the United Press.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

December 7, 1941.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Flash - Washington - the White House announces Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Pearl Harbor, a surprise sudden blow to the United States - news of the early morning attack stunned Americans 75 years ago today. Many were at home that Sunday listening to sports or music on the radio when the first reports came in.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, by air, President Roosevelt has just announced. The attack also was made on naval and military activities on the principal island of Oahu.

SHAPIRO: In the first wave of aerial attacks, 183 planes dropped bombs on the American naval vessels. Other Japanese planes bombarded U.S. air fields. When it was over, the USS Oklahoma had capsized. Another battleship, the Arizona, was completely destroyed. More than 2,400 American service members and civilians were dead.

CORNISH: The following day, President Franklin Roosevelt spoke before a joint session of Congress and asked for a formal declaration of war.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy. The United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by the naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

CORNISH: The U.S. officially entered World War II a few hours later.

SHAPIRO: After 75 years, there are fewer eyewitnesses to Pearl Harbor. We're going to hear one man's story right now. For decades, nobody believed his tale.

WILL LEHNER: At the entrance to Pearl Harbor, our job was patrolling back and forth for a week at a time.

SHAPIRO: That's Will Lehner of Stevens Point, Wis. In 1941, he was 20 years old, in the Navy, assigned to a destroyer called the USS Ward. It was early morning December 7, and Lehner says before this surprise attack, the Japanese sent small surveillance submarines to the harbor. He says his crew saw one and fired.

LEHNER: I saw the shell when it hit the sub right in the hole.

SHAPIRO: How big was this submarine?

LEHNER: It was about 75 feet long and 4 or 5 foot in diameter.

SHAPIRO: And so you engaged the Japanese navy on that morning, even before the aerial attack on Pearl Harbor.

LEHNER: Yes, we did.

SHAPIRO: And how long after you engaged that submarine was it until the full attack happened?

LEHNER: It was about quarter to 7 when we hit the sub. And the big force - they didn't come until 8 o'clock in the morning.

SHAPIRO: And what did you see and hear when the full attack happened?

LEHNER: We saw a lot of smoke and planes diving. We didn't know how bad it was until about 1 o'clock in the afternoon. And we had to go in, get more depth charges, so that's when we saw all the destruction. There were bodies in the - floating in the water.

SHAPIRO: Now, for many years, no one believed you that you had sunk this Japanese submarine before the aerial assault on Pearl Harbor.

LEHNER: That's correct.

SHAPIRO: And finally, just over a decade ago, you went back to Pearl Harbor on a mission to find this submarine that had sunk all those years before and prove that it actually existed. What happened?

LEHNER: Well, the University of Hawaii had to diving bells. And I knew Terry Kerby, who operated one of them. And he called me and said, how would you like to come over and go down in a diving bell with me?

SHAPIRO: So you go down in this submersible, and you see this submarine that all the decades earlier you had sunk.

LEHNER: Yeah. I'll tell you - when I saw the submarine laying there, the hairs on the back of my neck just stood up.

SHAPIRO: Did anyone apologize to you for not believing you all those

LEHNER: Oh, no. No, they never apologized. But I also say, hey, we've found it now, so now there's definite proof.

SHAPIRO: Well, Mr. Lehner, thank you for your service and thank you for joining us to remember Pearl Harbor on this anniversary.

LEHNER: You're welcome, and thank you for asking me.

SHAPIRO: That's 95-year-old Will Lehner of Stevens Point, Wis. Seventy-five years ago today, he was a sailor at Pearl Harbor on a vessel that fired the first shot shortly before the Japanese attack began. He's marking this anniversary at a ceremony today in Hawaii. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.