US had A-bomb, Japan had I-400 submarine — and this veteran helped nab it
ST. PAUL, Minn. (Tribune News Service) — During the final days of World War II, Gordon Neslund played a role in capturing one of Japan's most top-secret weapons.
While serving aboard the USS Proteus in the South Pacific, his ship was called from its regular duty of supporting and supplying U.S. submarines to help capture a Japanese vessel.
The Japanese had surrendered unofficially four days earlier, on Aug. 15, 1945, but some onboard the Proteus worried the Japanese sub's sailors would continue to fight.
The vessel raised a black flag — the naval sign of surrender — after U.S. destroyers followed the sub for hours.
As U.S sailors approached the submarine and began boarding, its size became more apparent.
"It was a monster," said Neslund, a retiree living in Roseville. "Most of us didn't even know what it was when we first saw it."
Without knowing it, they had captured Japan's super-weapon project.
The submarine, called the I-400, was longer than a football field at about 400 feet. It was armed with guns and torpedoes.
Unlike normal subs, the I-400 also carried three fighter planes to be launched from a catapult on its deck.
"Nothing like this exists today — nothing that big," said Gary Nila, a retired FBI agent and author of the book "I-400: Japan's Secret Aircraft-Carrying Strike Submarine: Objective Panama Canal."
In an upcoming documentary, Japanese television network Nippon TV interviewed Neslund about the I-400.
The documentary is set to air in January.
Just as the Germans worked on long-range missiles while the United States, with more success, developed the atomic bomb, Japan had the I-400-class submarine, Nila said.
The I-400 was one of only three of its kind completed during the war.
Japan had planned to use the subs to attack U.S. coastal cities and had set its sights on destroying the Panama Canal, which would have disrupted U.S. shipping from Europe to the Pacific after the Nazis surrendered.
"All through the war, we knew nothing about them," Nila said.
Had the war continued, he said, the aircraft bombers on the subs might have caused more casualties than did the Pearl Harbor attack.
Neslund, now 92, had been working on a farm in Balsam Lake, Wis., during the war.
He was deferred from serving due to farm labor shortages. But at 21, he decided to enlist in the Navy anyway.
"All my buddies were going," he said. "It just didn't feel right by staying home."
He became a third-class motor machinist mate aboard the USS Proteus and spent three years in Guam, where he worked on American subs.
After the tense moments during the I-400's capture, Neslund said worries about Japanese hostilities vanished as sailors from both countries exchanged photos of their homes and families and attempted to communicate with each other.
The Japanese soldiers were just as happy to be done with the war as the Americans were, he said.
"It's terrible shooting at each other, and killing each other," Neslund said. "War is terrible."
When American sailors boarded the I-400 to speak with the commanding officer during its capture, they quickly turned back because of the smell inside.
The submarine had a rat infestation and only one toilet for its 200-man crew.
"It was hard to breathe," Neslund said, adding that the sailors looked healthy despite the foul conditions.
The I-400 agreed to follow the Proteus into Tokyo Bay. When they arrived, both ships tied up next to the USS Missouri, where Japan signed its official surrender a few weeks later.
With the war over, Neslund volunteered to bring the I-400 to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, so it could be inspected.
The 27-day trip from Tokyo was a pleasant one, he recalled. The crew was happy to be sailing without fear of attack.
On a moonlit night, Neslund said he recalled standing on the sub's tower when he heard someone shout that a torpedo was coming.
A porpoise swam up to the side of the ship, creating a white wake behind it. It was the only scare Neslund recalled.
After reaching Hawaii, the crew members went their separate ways.
Neslund returned home to Wisconsin, where he met his future wife and eventually moved to the Twin Cities to work as a mechanic.
The Cold War began shortly thereafter, and the U.S.
sunk the I-400 in 1946, fearing the Soviet Union would want to inspect it.
"It was quite a piece of machinery. Why put something like that on the bottom (of the ocean)?" Neslund asked. "I thought it was not only a waste, it was history."
Of the handful of men who brought the sub back to U.S. shores, only Neslund and the ship's cook are still alive.
Neslund said he lost contact with the other crew members after the Navy discharged him.
He took a few trinkets from the sub, including a Japanese war flag and a clock from the engine room.
"They're souvenirs from the time I was in the war," he said. "Now I've got something to talk about, to show my family and friends and children."
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