Is there a sunken Japanese sub from WWII off the coast? One veteran is sure of it 

Carl Nolte, Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, September 26, 2002 


It was a great morning for sea stories Wednesday, and Bill Anderson, a World War II veteran with an eye toward history and an obsession with sunken submarines, had a good one. 

"We think we found a Japanese submarine," he said, standing on the deck of his weathered sub hunting boat, the Echo Hunter, at the Pillar Point Marina in Half Moon Bay. 

As he spoke, the fog was just lifting, and one could almost imagine an enemy submarine prowling off the coast a lifetime ago. Anderson can see it in his mind's eye: It is just off the coast of San Mateo County, he said, 10 miles out to sea and 235 feet under the Pacific. 

Anderson was there the day the sub was depth charged by an American destroyer, back in the spring of 1945, and he never forgot it. 

What he has for now is a mystery wrapped up in a secret -- what could be the hulk of a big, powerful Japanese sub sent on a desperate mission to destroy San Francisco in the last days of World War II. 

Or, he might have nothing at all -- an old shipwreck, a sunken barge, or some undersea rock. 

Anderson has had this idea that a sunken sub rested not far from the Golden Gate for years. He got it from hints and clues, and, he says, from a mole deep in Navy intelligence who told him things. 

For nine years now, he's been searching for the sub in the waters off Half Moon Bay, looking, and this is his last, best chance. He's 76 years old, thin as a rail and a little weathered himself, with a bad hip and a bad knee. 


This time, he said, he has a VideoRay remote-control vehicle at his disposal, and maybe this week, maybe next, he'll be sure of what he's found. 

As he spoke, the underwater vehicle moved around the harbor like a baby seal, diving, twisting and turning. It is only a foot long and weighs 8 pounds, 

but it has two bright lights and a video camera and can dive deep. If a sub is out there, it will find it. 

The hunt goes back to a March day in 1945, when Anderson was 18 and a sailor aboard the destroyer Willard Keith. Not far from the Farallon Islands, the general alarm went off, the loudspeaker barked, "Condition Able! Condition Able!" and the ship made a fast turn back and forth over a targeted area and dropped maybe a dozen depth charges. 

"Our skipper had been sunk twice," Anderson said. "He wanted to shoot first and ask questions later." 

Anderson saw an oil slick, but nobody said anything about the target. Instead they headed for San Francisco Bay and tied up at Treasure Island. Next thing anybody knew, the crew was mustered on deck and sworn to secrecy. 

"We were told never to say a word," he said, "not to anybody." 

Years went by, and Anderson, who used to buy and sell military surplus, started hearing stories about a sunken sub off the Golden Gate. 

Official inquiries got him nowhere, but unofficial inquiries led him to believe in the submarine. He turned to intelligence sources. 


"We had a helper, let's say, who told me there definitely is a sub out there," Anderson said. 

At first he thought it was a German U-boat, then maybe a sunken American sub. Now he thinks it is the Japanese submarine I-12, which was never accounted for. 

The I-12 was a large submarine, over 300 feet long, designed for long-range operations. Anderson thinks it was on what he calls "a special mission" to somehow set fire to San Francisco as a last desperate attempt to hit at the American homeland. 

So far on his searches, Anderson and his crew on the Echo Hunter have found sunken barges. Now his depth finder and sonar tell him that 20 miles west by northwest of Pillar Point, 10 miles off the coast, "we found what looks like a submarine to our equipment." Sport divers, he said, had found it, too, but none of them was on deck Wednesday to tell the tale. 

Burl Burlingame, a Honolulu author whose book on Japanese submarine operations, "Advance Force Pearl Harbor," has just been published by the U.S. Naval Institute, said the I-12 did operate between Hawaii and California toward the end of the war. It sank the Liberty Ship John A. Johnson, in October 1944 but was last seen in the Central Pacific, thousands of miles away. 

That it could be Anderson's sub is "not impossible, but unlikely," Burlingame said. "It would have to be way off its usual operations." 


Burlingame pointed out that large Japanese submarines had operated just off the California coast early in World War II. 

A couple of them, he said, were so close to the Golden Gate that crew members were allowed to look through the periscope at the lights of San Francisco blazing just over the horizon. 

Burlingame noted that the wreck of a Japanese midget submarine that participated in the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor was found earlier this month. "There is a whole lot of stuff about World War II that we still don't know," he said. 

At the end of the war, however, he said, Japan was in such bad shape that it was hard to believe the Imperial Navy would risk sending one of its few remaining subs as far as the West Coast of the United States. 

Anderson, though, is betting on it. He financed some of his expeditions by selling a forklift and a big water truck one year. This year, he's taken a cash advance on his credit card. 

"I don't know how many years I have left," he said, "but the good Lord gave me this job, and we need to finish it." 

©2005 San Francisco Chronicle 

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