Sunday, December 31, 2017

Dawn of Infamy: A Sunken Ship, a Vanished Crew, and the Final Mystery of Pearl Harbor


I received this ARC for free via NetGalley from Da Capo Press in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 3.5 Stars

I have a slight obsession with reading anything I can get my hands on about Pearl Harbor. I think part of the reason is because I have been there, been out to the USS Arizona, and seen the memorials. It is a humbling experience and one not to be taken lightly. My grandma and I went to Hawaii a few years ago and we incredibly lucky to have two great tour guides from Home of the Brave Tours (one of whom was the owners' son) who took us to Pearl Harbor, Wheeler Airfield and Schofield Barracks, the Punchbowl, Fort Shafter, and a few other sites before the tour concluded at the museum run by the company. Just an aside, the tour was amazing and I highly recommend this tour company. Lots of high-interest sites and very informative - plus the museum had tons of great artifacts; Grandma and I had such a great experience. All photos belong to me and were taken in June, 2010.

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Arriving at the USS Arizona

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At Wheeler

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At the Home of the Brave Tours museum

Now I suppose I should get on to the book, eh?

On December 7th, 1941 as the attack was getting underway by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor, one of the enduring mysteries of that day was unfolding. An American cargo ship, the Cynthia Olson, was hauling lumber from the Seattle to Honolulu for the Army. Somewhere in between, the ship was fired on by a Japanese sub. After sending off one wireless message about an attack, the radio on board went silent. No one knows for sure what happened to the ship, how long she took to sink, if multiple subs were involved, or the fate of her 35 crew members. While the captain of I-26, the sub who fired on the Cynthia Olsen, has passed away, along with everyone else who was involved (either American or Japanese), we will never know for sure the true story.

"The humble Cynthia Olson - old, slow, and of virtually no military value in the greater scheme of things - was destined to die simply because she was in the wrong place at the very worst of times" (36%).

We can, however, make our best educated guesses based on the information we do have - though unfortunately certain ship logs that might shed light on the mystery have long-since disappeared, reported as destroyed.

Sounds like something we should have learned about in history class right? And we would have, had the full-scale attack on Pearl Harbor not also been happening at roughly the same time. And that is actually part of the mystery. There is kind of a muddle of information that does not make it clear when the warning shot was first fired at the ship. The sub's commander insisted he did not fire the warning shot until 8:00 AM Hawaiian time, when the first wave was to descend on Oahu. However, that may not have been true, and he may have ordered the first shot up to half an hour earlier.

I wavered between three and four stars on this one for a while, and really only because the beginning started off very slow. Truthfully, I even skimmed a lot of that because I wanted to get to the real point of the book. Prior to that though, we are given the entire history of the Cynthia Olson which, while important, made for heavy reading very early on. Given the fact that we really don't have answers, perhaps the back story was included to give some meat to the text, as I honestly do not think there was enough information to really flesh out the story. I think overall this is an important event though. These men deserve to have their stories told, at least as much as we can tell of them, given the information still available. Unfortunately for the men who hailed from the Philippines, with lack of contact information for their next-of-kin or descendants, this story will never really have an ending.

As mentioned above, the beginning of the book, perhaps about 1/4, is devoted to the history of the Cynthia Olson. We learned about her construction, the company that owned her, and the crew who were aboard the ship on December 7th. The problem again is that there was so little known about most of the crew, that they never really seem real. The crew was comprised primarily of Scandinavian-born naturalized US citizens and Filipino merchant marines who retained their citizenship in the Philippines. There was a bit more information known about the captain, Carl Carlson, and his officers, but other than that many times even the ages of the crew were unknown. These men mattered, their story matters, but we never really get to know them and there is no chance of that happening.

So, we are left to focus on what we do know and the story does pick up its pace as the ship and sub cross paths. I-26 is commanded by Minoru Yokota, and we get his background and resume as well. We are told that the Cynthia Olson sent a distress call after being stopped with a warning shot. Japanese accounts then state that Commander Yokota gave the crew time to abandon the vessel, it being an unarmed ship, and both lifeboats were swung away, the davits empty in ensuing photos taken from the sub. Then, after the men were off the ship, the Cynthia Olson was slowly but surely sunk to the bottom of the Pacific. There is not clarity about how long the sinking actually took, and accounts contradict one another. At one point in later interviews, Commander Yokota says it took several hours to sink, yet this would not have been possible when the search vessels arrived to assist the Cynthia Olson crew. Unsurprisingly, they find nothing, no debris, no crew, no bodies, nothing. Other accounts state that a second sub, I-19 (later to actually be identified as I-15), came upon the crew in their lifeboats and gave them some additional provisions. The current and winds would have carried the lifeboats away from the location of the sinking, making any hope of rescue impossible. We are privy to this fact based on the coordinates of the rescue ships and the vast area they covered in their box search.

The final section relates to what the author considers the three essential questions revolving around the mystery of the lost ship. First is a question of timing and whether or not the Cynthia Olson was sunk before shots were ever fired on Pearl Harbor. Secondly, whether news of the attack have been enough of a warning that more was coming. And last, the most important, what happened to the 35 men who woke up to a new day on an uneventful routine sea voyage that would ultimately be their last?

In the end, we will never have concrete answers to these questions, except perhaps question number two. Even if Commander Yokota had ordered his crew to fire that warning shot, it could not have been more than 30-45 minutes before the rest of the force attacked. And really, would he have jeopardized the bigger mission, for surely he would have thought that rescue ships and/or planes would have come to the Cynthia Olson's aid. As for the fate of the crew, the author presents us with four options:

1. There was no warning shot and the ship was sunk with the crew on board, violating international treaties in regards to unarmed ships

2. The crew was able to get off the ship in the life boats, and then were killed by I-26

3. The crew was killed by the second sub, I-15

4. The crew perished in the lifeboats, either from starvation, dehydration, exposure, etc.

The author does point out, logically, that scenario one and two don't make a lot of sense. This primarily rests on the fact that the wireless operator, Sam Ziskind, had time after the sub's appearance to send both the auto alarm and the follow-up message with the ship's coordinates. As such, one would have to wonder what the point would have been for the commander to allow the crew to board the boats, only to kill them in the water. It would have seemed to be a waste of precious time, especially as the rest of the country was finding out what was happening on Oahu.

Further digging into the possibility of scenario #3 indicates that neither I-15 nor I-19 could have come into contact with the Cynthia Olson lifeboats. This is according to records and the author's research into those records.

The final scenario then seems the most likely, though we will never be certain. It is most likely that the men drifted on the open water, exhausting the provision each boat was equipped with, eventually succumbing to the conditions. This is the conclusion the author states can only be the true, logical conclusion to this tragic story. While I do not share his conviction 100%, it does make sense.

Though I mentioned before that there truly was not enough material here to make this a full book, I do have to admire the research the author put into this text. It appears he searched through every archive, spoke to every person he could, to glean any scrap of info possible about the ship, her crew, and her final hours. The Notes section runs from 79% to 92%, noting several contacts around the US, as well as a few other countries. Primary and Secondary Sources then run from 92% to 96%.

Overall, I can recommend it for those who truly have an interest in WWII and Pearl Harbor in particular. For those who may have only a passing interest in the subject, the massive information dump in the beginning may be off-putting. Still, I do see the value in this story being told. It is the least we can do for the crew of the Cynthia Olson.


  1. I would love to visit Hawaii and see all the sites and memorials as this is a subject that fascinates me but it's too expensive for me sadly! Love your photos though! The book content sounds interesting and I've never heard of these events. I'm a bit unsure about how I'd take to the info dumps but it does sound interesting.

    1. Thank you! It was my grandma's dream vacation so I wanted to make it special. We went to a real luau, I swam with a dolphin, got into the ocean with some sharks (I was in a cage, no worries), saw Mauna Loa and Kilauea on the Big Island, walked through lava tubes, and so much more. It is definitely a trip to save up for - though I ended up finding a lot of good deals on Expedia that helped keep costs under control. We stayed at The Lotus Hotel at Diamond Head and it was breathtaking to wake up with that view every morning.

      I'd never heard of this either and the mystery surrounding it is definitely worth the read. You truthfully could skim the first section about the history of the ship, because it has nothing to do with the actual purpose of the book. I get why it was included - but you'll miss out on nothing if you jump ahead to the part about her crew and that leads into the heart of it all.


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