HONOLULU -- Researchers said Wednesday they found a Japanese midget submarine sunk more than an hour before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Discovery of the 78-foot vessel could provide the first physical evidence to back U.S. military assertions that it fired first against Japan in World War II and inflicted the first casualties.
The sub was sunk by a Navy destroyer on Dec. 7, 1941. Two Japanese crewmen are believed still inside the submarine.
''It's the shot that started World War II between the Americans and the Japanese,'' said John Wiltshire, associate director of the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory, which found the sub.
The two-man submarine was discovered at a depth of 1,200 feet and a few miles from Pearl Harbor by research craft making test dives, he said.
The sub led four other Japanese midget submarines to Pearl Harbor to take part in the attack. The newly discovered sub was believed to be the one sunk by the destroyer USS Ward before the attack began.
Wiltshire said the crew is certain that this sub was sunk by the Ward because of a bullet hole in the conning tower and because it still has both torpedoes. Three of the subs have been previously accounted for; the remaining sub had fired both of its weapons.
Until the submarine was found, historian Daniel Martinez said eyewitness accounts were unconfirmed. Martinez, a historian for the USS Arizona Memorial, has interviewed the crew who fired the first shot, and a pilot who saw the submarine sink.
''What they saw and what they felt was their recollection, now the proof has been found,'' he said.
The submarines' entry into the harbor was followed by the Sunday morning attack by Japanese planes that lasted two hours and left 21 U.S. ships heavily damaged, 323 aircraft damaged or destroyed, 2,390 people dead and 1,178 other wounded.
Terry Kerby, chief pilot of the deep-diving submersible that found the submarine, said it was covered in growth but was in excellent condition.
''To actually come across it was a sobering moment, realizing that was the shot that started the Pacific war,'' he said.
Kerby and other researchers have been conducting dives in the area since the 1980s, and have always known the sub was somewhere out there.
Wiltshire described the area as an underwater military junkyard.
''The thing is quite difficult to find because of all the massive amounts of junk out in the area, and we were simply fortunate because we've run our test and training dives through here and know where a lot of the junk is,'' Wiltshire said.
The submarine was the focus of a National Geographic expedition in 2000. A team of deep-water researchers led by undersea explorer Robert Ballard spent 10 days searching for the Japanese sub, using remotely operated imaging vehicles.
Ballard is best known for finding the remains of the Titanic, Bismarck and Yorktown, along with the recent discovery of PT-109, the torpedo boat commanded by John F. Kennedy during World War II and sunk near the Solomon Islands.
Peninsula Clarion ©2013. All Rights Reserved.