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Posted on Feb 23, 2011 in Books and Movies

Voyage to Oblivion – Book Review

By Jerry D. Morelock

Voyage to Oblivion: A Sunken Ship, a Vanished Crew and the Final Mystery of Pearl Harbor. Stephen Harding. Amberley Publishing, 2010. Hardcover. $27.95.

Did the timing of the Japanese submarine’s attack precede the larger Pearl Harbor air strike?

Everyone knows that Japan’s first shot of the Pacific War against the United States was fired at Pearl Harbor, 7:55 a.m. Honolulu time the morning of December 7, 1941, when the first wave of aircraft making the surprise attack descended on the unsuspecting U. S. Pacific Fleet. But is what “everyone knows” wrong? Stephen Harding’s fascinating new book, Voyage to Oblivion: A Sunken Ship, a Vanished Crew and the Final Mystery of Pearl Harbor, examines an intriguing incident that took place on the same morning as the Pearl Harbor attack and that raised the possibility that perhaps the history books on the Pacific War might need to be re-written.


Mid-ocean between Seattle and Honolulu that fateful December 7 morning, Japanese fleet submarine I-26, skippered by Commander Minoru Yokota (Hasegawa), intercepted, opened fire with its 5.5-inch deck gun and eventually sank the American steamer, Cynthia Olson, sailing to Hawaii under U. S. Army contract with a load of lumber. Although we know with relative certainty that the first American shots of the Pacific war were those fired at 6:37 a.m. (over an hour before the first Japanese planes arrived over Pearl Harbor) by the destroyer USS Ward when it engaged a Japanese midget submarine attempting to enter the anchorage, was the first Japanese round fired in anger the I-26’s opening 5.5-inch shell (fired across the Cynthia Olson’s bow forcing the unarmed merchant ship to stop dead in the water)? Harding expertly sifts through all the available evidence regarding the Cynthia Olson, the I-26 and the two vessels’ fatal encounter, then applies his reasoned judgment – honed by his years as a defense journalist, author and senior editor of Military History magazine – to solve, as the book’s subtitle notes, this “final mystery of Pearl Harbor.” And, no, I’m not going to reveal Harding’s solidly-argued conclusion in this review. Buy the book and find out – you’ll certainly want to add it to your military history bookshelf in any event.

Actually, Harding’s engagingly-written account examines – among other fascinating items – the two principal mysteries surrounding the sinking of Cynthia Olson: Did the timing of the Japanese submarine’s attack precede the larger Pearl Harbor air strike? And, what ultimate fate befell the merchant steamer’s 35-man crew? The latter mystery is especially poignant, as Harding introduces readers to the Cynthia Olson’s captain, ship’s officers and crew, as well as several of their wives, forced to endure years of not knowing their husbands’ fates while wrestling with the suffocating and frustrating military bureaucracy. Interestingly, 23 of the Cynthia Olson’s 35-man crew were Filipinos, and their disappearance when the ship sank made them among America’s first casualties of the Pacific War – two weeks before the Japanese invaded their home country and launched attacks against General Douglas MacArthur’s forces defending the Commonwealth. The families of Cynthia Olson’s Filipino sailors living in the Philippines, therefore, faced double tragedies: the disappearance of the sailors and the invasion of their country and subsequent brutal Japanese occupation.

Since Cynthia Olson’s crew – to a man – all simply vanished in the wake of the ship’s sinking by I-26, leaving no trace (beyond a photograph of the ship going down taken by an I-26 officer, revealing that Cynthia Olson’s lifeboats had been launched), determining exactly what happened to the merchant sailors is problematic and, of necessity, speculative. Yet, Harding’s thorough investigation and logical conclusion of the sailors’ fate seems unquestionably to be what happened to them. Again, we encourage readers to buy this “must read” book to find out what Harding concludes must have happened to Cynthia Olson’s “vanished crew.”

This reviewer was first introduced to the Cynthia Olson’s story in a short reference to the ill-fated ship in Racing the Sunrise: The Reinforcement of America’s Pacific Outposts, 1941-1942 (USNI Press, 2010), Glen Williford’s ground-breaking and authoritative account of the efforts to build up the United States’ military bases in the Pacific as war with Japan loomed and during the war’s first few weeks. But that necessarily brief account only whetted one’s appetite to learn more about the ship, its crew, and the maritime mystery surrounding Cynthia Olson’s fate. Harding’s exhaustive, book-length investigation, therefore, comes as a welcome feast of information about the merchant steamer, its “vanished crew” and the December 7, 1941, submarine attack that sent it to the bottom.

ACG rates this "MUST READ" book 5 Stars, our highest rating.

About Voyage to Oblivion‘s Author: As a defense journalist, Stephen Harding covered the conflicts in Northern Ireland, the Middle East and, most recently, Iraq. Having decided that it’s far safer to write about other peoples’ military adventures, he became an author specializing in military, aviation and maritime topics. He is the author of seven books, including U.S. Army Aircraft Since 1947: An Illustrated History (Schiffer, 2000) and Great Liners at War (Tempus, 2008) and some 300 magazine articles. Since 2009 he has been senior editor of the Weider History Group magazine Military History, a publication that was a 2010 nominee by the American Society of Magazine Editors for a National Magazine Award for general excellence. His forthcoming World War II history Alamo in the Alps has been optioned as a major motion picture.

About the Reviewer: Colonel, ret. Jerry D. Morelock, PhD is Armchair General editor in chief. His books include Generals of the Ardennes: American Leadership in the Battle of the Bulge (University Press of the Pacific, 2002) and The Army Times Book of Great Land Battles (Berkley Trade, 1999). For more on the early phase of the Pacific War, he recommends War Stories. The Pacific: Volume I, Pearl Harbor to Guadalcanal by Jay Wertz (Weider History Group, 2010) for which Morelock served as editor.