Dawn of Infamy
A Sunken Ship, a Vanished Crew, and the Final Mystery of Pearl Harbor
Da Capo Press, Boston, 2016, 280 pages
Book Review published on: June 9, 2017
In the early hours of 7 December 1941, the American cargo ship Cynthia Olson was fired upon by the Japanese Imperial Navy submarine I-26. The vessel and its thirty-five man crew vanished 1,120 miles northeast of Honolulu as news of the attack on Pearl Harbor broke, leaving one of the greatest mysteries of World War II. Stephen Harding examines the mystery and offers a compelling explanation in Dawn of Infamy.
Harding takes the reader to Cynthia Olson’s beginnings when the vessel was laid down in the late summer of 1918 as Coquina, one of some 331 oceangoing freighters built for the United States Shipping Board as part of America’s military effort in World War I. Coquina served in several capacities under different owners over the next twenty-two years when it was sold to San Francisco’s Olson Steamship Company in April 1940 and renamed Cynthia Olson. The Army Transport Service contracted Cynthia Olson in November 1941 to carry lumber to locations in the Pacific as part of the military’s buildup program.
Central to Harding’s account is the encounter between Cynthia Olson and Japanese Imperial Navy submarine I-26 in the early morning hours of 7 December. Japanese accounts indicated that the I-26 was serving as advance scout for the Japanese Task Force headed to Pearl Harbor when it encountered Cynthia Olson on the afternoon of 6 December. On the morning of 7 December, I-26 commander, Minoru Yokota, confident that the attack on Pearl Harbor was underway, gave the command to surface. I-26 fired two warning shots to stop the freighter. Confident that the crew had disembarked the freighter, Yokota gave the command to sink the ship. After several attempts, Cynthia Olson vanished beneath the waves. Aware that Cynthia Olson had transmitted a distress call before disembarking, Yokota decide to leave the area before they could be attacked.
The liner Lurline and Royal Canadian Navy Prince Robert both received the freighter’s distress call and were moving toward Cynthia Olson when news of Pearl Harbor came across the airwaves. The Lurline decided to immediately change course for San Francisco. HMCS Prince Robert arrived at Cynthia Olson’s last reported position six hours later, and the Canadian commander ordered a methodical search that covered several hundred square miles. No burning hulk, no floating wreckage, and no drifting lifeboats; Cynthia Olson had vanished without a trace.
Harding describes how the events of Pearl Harbor diverted official attention from the freighter’s sinking and search. Loss of crewmember pay allotments and the classification of missing by the Army delayed payments and other benefits to families of the missing crewmen. The Army’s Adjutant General Office’s presumptive finding of death for the missing crewmembers allowed the family members to receive partial payments in 1943. The Army settled with Olson Company for Cynthia Olson in early 1947 after extensive negotiations.
Harding describes the efforts by Riley Harris Allen and Alf Pratte of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin over a twenty-year period to solve the mystery behind Cynthia Olson’s sinking and its timing to the Pearl Harbor attack. Riley Allen, editor of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, posed three important questions at a conference in 1947: When did the attack on the Cynthia Olson actually occur? Could news of the attack on Cynthia Olson have prevented the carnage of Pearl Harbor? And finally, what happened to the crew? He follows with a compelling answer to Allen’s three questions.
The strength of Dawn of Infamy is Harding’s extensive search of historical records, logs, and interviews in researching the crews of the Cynthia Olson and the I-26, detailing the lives of the ill-fated cargo ship’s captain, Bert Carlsen, and its first mate, Bill Buchtele, and relating accounts of the I-26 commander, Minoru Yokota, and its chief gunner, Saburo Hayaski. Dawn of Infamy is a remarkable story of courage in the face of incredible danger and tells the unknown story of Allied prisoners of war trapped in Eastern Europe in the final days of World War II. It is also a testament of a son’s love for his father and the desire to share his father’s heroic story with others. Dawn of Infamy is highly recommended for anyone interested in a true story of courage, heroism, or World War II.
Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas