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Japan's Top Secret Submarines and Its Plan to Change the Course of World War II

Written by John GeogheganAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by John Geoghegan


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: March 19, 2013
Pages: 496 | ISBN: 978-0-307-46481-1
Published by : Crown Crown/Archetype
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The riveting true story of Japan's top secret plan to change the course of World War II using a squadron of mammoth submarines a generation ahead of their time
In 1941, the architects of Japan's sneak attack on Pearl Harbor planned a bold follow-up: a potentially devastating air raid—this time against New York City and Washington, DC. The classified Japanese program required developing a squadron of top secret submarines—the Sen-toku or I-400 class—designed as underwater aircraft carriers, each equipped with three Aichi M6A1 attack bombers painted to look like U.S. aircraft. The bombers, called Seiran (which translates as “storm from a clear sky”), were tucked in a huge, water-tight hanger on the sub’s deck. The subs' mission was to travel more than halfway around the world, surface on the U.S. coast, and launch their deadly air attack. This entire operation was unknown to U.S. intelligence. And the amazing thing is how close the Japanese came to pulling it off.

John Geoghegan’s meticulous research, including first-person accounts from the I-401 crew and the U.S. capturing party, creates a fascinating portrait of the Sen-toku's desperate push into Allied waters and the U.S. Navy's dramatic pursuit, masterfully illuminating a previously forgotten story of the Pacific war.


Chapter 1


The USS Segundo (SS 398) was five days out of Midway heading toward Japan when her crew received news that the Japanese government had accepted peace terms. As the submarine’s executive officer, Lt. John E. Balson, noted in the boat’s Fifth War Patrol Report:

heard the good word of the surrender—and in eleven lanChapter 1


The USS Segundo (SS 398) was five days out of Midway heading toward Japan when her crew received news that the Japanese government had accepted peace terms. As the submarine’s executive officer, Lt. John E. Balson, noted in the boat’s Fifth War Patrol Report:

heard the good word of the surrender—and in eleven languages, too!1

Balson was second in command of the Balao-class sub, one of the newest U.S. fleet boats. Nicknamed “Silent Joe” for his reticent manner, Balson was responsible for ensuring that the captain’s orders were carried out in a correct and timely manner. He’d been with the Segundo since before her commissioning and had served on all five of her war patrols. Twenty-eight years old and already balding, Balson was a man of sly wit if few words. His all-cap entry was an uncharacteristic display of emotion for the normally phlegmatic officer. Then again, the war with Japan was finally over.

The Segundo had been patrolling the Kuril Islands when the cease-fire was announced. She hadn’t seen much activity except for a few Russian vessels.2 Nevertheless, the Sea of Okhotsk could be dangerous. Sometimes when fog blanketed the ocean’s surface, the Segundo’s sail protruded as much as 10 or 15 feet above the cloud bank, making the sub perilously visible. Other times the water was so calm, you could hear a bird take off, which meant the Segundo’s engines could be heard as well. And it was cold even in August—so cold, in fact, that you had to recycle the boat’s vents, or the valves froze, preventing the sub from diving.3

These weren’t the only ways the Kurils could kill you. The Russians had been threatening to invade Hokkaido, and Japan was close enough that a stray mine or determined patriot could still sink the sub. But now that the war was over, there was no point remaining in the area.

On August 24, 1945, the Segundo was ordered to Tokyo Bay to represent the U.S. submarine force at the upcoming surrender ceremony. The invitation was an honor for the Segundo’s crew, but they weren’t ready to relax just yet. They were still in enemy territory, and though the cease-fire agreement specified that the Japanese military were to lay down arms, some units hadn’t got the message.

It was two weeks since the Japanese emperor had asked his subjects to “endure the unendurable,” and the Segundo was heading to Tokyo with orders to mop up remnants of the once-formidable Japanese fleet.4 Not much was left of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN), and what was, wasn’t expected this far north. There was isolated resistance though so the Segundo continued on a wartime footing.

So far the patrol had proven uneventful.5 There’d been one encounter with a Japanese fishing boat, but as Balson noted: “there wasn’t much fight coming from him and none from us . . . [so we] called it a draw and retired from the scene.”6

The Segundo had been an aggressive boat despite the diminishing number of enemy targets. Her first skipper, Cdr. James Douglas Fulp, Jr., had been assigned to the sub while she was still under construction at the Portsmouth Navy Yard in New Hampshire. Fulp had put an indelible stamp on the boat’s crew while commanding her first four war patrols. During that time, he’d sunk two Japanese warships, eight merchants, and seven sampans and earned the Segundo a total of four battle stars. These results weren’t surprising given the fact that Fulp was an experienced sub captain. Tall, athletic, and matinee-idol handsome, he radiated the kind of confidence his men had come to respect. He was 34 (old for a sub captain) and quiet by nature. But that only contributed to his command presence.

Fulp prosecuted the war with just the right balance of aggressiveness and caution. His crew knew he was somebody they could count on to sink a combatant ship and get them home safely. They also appreciated his fairness. Some commanding officers (CO) were despots, but Fulp was even-handed when dealing with his men. He never dressed them down in front of one another, and he listened more than he spoke. Though he could be remote, that wasn’t unusual for a CO. It was better for Fulp to be distant than overly familiar, since the crew’s lives depended on his objectivity. In other words, the Segundo’s first skipper had everything a crew liked in a sub captain: he was mature, steady, and reliable. They happily served under him.

All this had changed, however, before the Segundo departed on her fifth and final war patrol. The sub was still in Midway undergoing refit when Fulp received orders transferring him to Pearl Harbor. He had eight war patrols under his belt and was due for rotation. But Fulp had built the Segundo into a formidable fighting machine. And if it’s true that a combat submarine operates like a family, then Fulp’s departure was like depriving the crew of their father. The men were sorry to see him go.

Unfortunately, the boat’s new skipper, Lt. Cdr. Stephen Lobdell Johnson, was a different breed of captain. He was younger than Fulp and brash with a cockiness that put his crew on edge. The first time S1c (seaman first class) Richard “Fox” Binkley saw Captain Johnson at Midway, his new skipper was shooting dice with the men. To Binkley, Johnson didn’t make a good impression. He acted more like a crew member than an officer, not the kind of captain he was used to serving under.7

Lt. (jg) Victor Horgan also had concerns about his new CO. Horgan had overheard the tall, lanky Johnson tell his officers, “When we get off this patrol, they’ll be throwing medals down our hatch.” Was this the kind of guy you could respect? Horgan wasn’t sure.8 He too had seen Johnson play dice with the men. It wasn’t how the CO of a combat submarine, not to mention an Annapolis graduate, was supposed to act.9

In fact, the more the crew saw of Johnson, the more they worried he was a “Hollywood skipper.” He may have had other capabilities, but he was noticeably lacking in Fulp’s gravitas. It almost seemed as if the Segundo was the 29-year-old Johnson’s first command. It wasn’t, it was his third. If his officers had known this, it would have worried them all the more.10

Horgan wasn’t the only one who sensed a problem. One night before the Segundo left on her fifth war patrol, he went drinking with his fellow officers at a Midway bar. While his friends drank beer and gossiped about their new CO, Horgan played a slot machine. Frustration had been building ever since Johnson’s arrival, and the beer loosened their tongues. As the night wore on, a consensus grew that it might be time to ask off the boat.

While Horgan played the slots, Lt. (jg) Lewis Rodney Johnson (no relation to Captain Johnson) called over:

“You going to stay with the boat, Vic?”11

Horgan was tired of losing to the aptly named one-armed bandit and moved to a new machine. Pulling the lever, he stood motionless as a jackpot fell into place. Not believing his luck, he switched to another machine, and the same thing happened. Trying a third machine, he again hit the jackpot. Horgan was feeling lucky.

“Yeah, I’ll stay,” he said.

“We will too, then.”

And that was the end of that.12

Lieutenant Balson remained as the Segundo’s executive officer (XO) after Fulp left. He recognized that their new captain was different. Johnson was a smooth talker, highly polished and well dressed. Even his nickname was “Slick,” which wasn’t always a compliment.

Balson knew a change in command was nothing to worry about. He’d seen his share of sub captains, and no two were alike. Given time, most crews adjusted to a new skipper’s foibles.13 If not, the U.S. sub force was 100 percent volunteer—you could always ask off the boat.

The biggest issue Captain Johnson faced was the Segundo’s tight-knit crew. Most of the men had been aboard since the boat’s commissioning 15 months earlier, and they’d been shaped by Fulp’s command style. Importantly, Fulp had gotten them out of some pretty tight spots. Would their new skipper be as talented? A change in command was not to be taken lightly, but Balson expected the crew would come around. Time had a habit of sorting out problems.

Of course, Captain Johnson’s presumed impetuosity was less of an issue now that the war was over. The one thing the men didn’t want though was for something stupid to happen. Sailors are a superstitious lot, and now that a cease-fire was in place, they didn’t want any last-minute screwups sending them to the bottom. Home was the preferred direction.

There were still plenty of mines in Japanese waters, and tales of suicide attacks continued to circulate. The recent communiqué from Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, stressed the uncertainty of their situation:

maintain defensive and internal secruity measures at highest level and beware of treachery or last moment attacks by enemy forces or individuals.14

It was another way of saying, anything could still happen.

It was 15 minutes before midnight on August 28, 1945, when Lieutenant Johnson relieved Lt. “Mac” McLaughlin as officer of the deck. Watch officers customarily appeared early when relieving each other. Extra time was needed to conduct the handover since important information had to be exchanged. The two men huddled on the bridge as McLaughlin passed along the sub’s course, her speed, and the captain’s latest orders. When they finished, Lieutenant Johnson went to the sub’s fantail to begin his watch.15

The Segundo was on the surface about 100 miles off Honshu, heading south toward Tokyo.16 It was the fourteenth day of the cease-fire, and not one enemy warship had been sighted since her patrol had begun. It was a cold night and visibility was poor,17 but the ocean was calm,18 and Lieutenant Johnson decided to take advantage of what little moonlight there was to scan the horizon.

When he first spotted an object south of the sub, Johnson thought his eyes were playing tricks on him. But the more he looked the more certain he became that something was out there. Meanwhile Alex “Snoopy” Leitch was sipping coffee in the conning tower when a blip appeared on his radar screen. Leitch was surprised at how large the object was. Something that size should have been picked up at 15,000 yards, yet it hadn’t appeared until it was within a third of that distance.19

Leaping the few steps to get under the bridge hatch, Leitch shouted, “Radar contact; 5,500 yards!”

At first nobody was sure what they were dealing with.20 No U.S. ships were reported in the area, and it was unlikely to be an enemy vessel this far north.21 There was no mistaking the blip, though, which was sizable and doing 15 knots.22 If it was American, fine. But if it was Japanese, they had a problem.

Captain Johnson flew up into the conning tower demanding the target’s range and bearing. Determined to take a closer look, he called for “Tracking Stations.”23 When the Segundo closed to within 3,000 yards,24 the dark silhouette materialized into the shape of a gigantic submarine.25 The sub was so big, it looked like a surface ship. It easily dwarfed the Segundo. Since the Allies had nothing remotely close in size, the sub had to be Japanese.

Before Johnson could declare battle stations sparks began flying out of the mysterious sub’s diesel exhaust.26 Clearly, they’d been spotted. As Johnson scrambled his men, the Japanese sub rabbited into the night at flank speed.27

Lieutenant Horgan was in the control room plotting the enemy’s course as the chase ensued. Horgan knew fighting was still going on in the Pacific, but he couldn’t understand why a Jap sub would run away. After all, the war had been over for 14 days. Nevertheless, the situation seemed dangerous as hell.28 Here they were chasing an enemy sub without knowing what they were dealing with. Any way you looked at it, they had a tiger by the tail.29

As the chase extended into the early morning hours, Johnson pushed the Segundo to 20 knots.30 Every time he tried drawing near the Japanese sub pulled away. Johnson didn’t trust the enemy not to fire on them, so he settled off their stern quarter at a distance of 4,000 yards.31 He also made sure his torpedo tubes were loaded and ready. If the Jap sub tried anything funny, he’d sink her first.

The Segundo’s new captain found himself in an uncomfortable position. Had it not been for the cease-fire, he’d have let go with a spread and sent her to the bottom. But Johnson’s orders prevented him from sinking the sub unless fired upon even though fleeing could be considered a hostile action.32 Not surprisingly, he didn’t want to give the enemy that chance.33

To complicate matters, he was having trouble reaching his superiors at ComSubPac (Commander, Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet).34 At the very least, he wanted to inform them of the situation and request permission to torpedo the sub. The Segundo’s captain wasn’t going to play cat and mouse forever, but he was unsuccessful in reaching his command.35 For the time being, he was on his own.36

First one hour passed, then another. As the pursuit dragged on, the crew began speculating. No one had expected an unescorted Japanese sub this close to Tokyo, least of all one heading in the opposite direction of the main sub base at Yokosuka. The fact she’d turned tail and run only added to their curiosity.

But as dawn approached, something unusual happened. The enemy sub began slowing. Johnson wasn’t sure what she was up to. Maybe she was ready to surrender, or maybe she was getting into firing position. Fortunately, he’d reached ComSubPac, which advised him to capture the enemy if possible. If they resisted, he was free to sink them.37

Shortly after four o’clock the morning of August 29, Johnson called QM3c Carlo Carlucci to the bridge. It was Carlucci’s first war patrol. A tough kid from the Bronx whose accent was like a punch in the face, he’d been sleeping when the Segundo first spotted the Japanese sub. He was wide awake now though, as he “horsed” the cast iron signal lamp to the Segundo’s bridge.38 Rapidly flicking its shutters, Carlucci pounded out the international code for “stop.”

The enemy sub failed to acknowledge the message even though it was impossible to misunderstand its meaning. The sub may have slowed, but she showed no signs of stopping. Finally, after a few minutes, Carlucci received an affirmative reply.39 Two minutes later the enemy sub lay dead in the water.40
John Geoghegan

About John Geoghegan

John Geoghegan - Operation Storm

Photo © Emil Petrinic

JOHN J. GEOGHEGAN has written extensively about aviation history, underwater exploration and marine engineering for the New York Times Science Section, Smithsonian Air & Space, WIRED, Popular Science, Aviation History, Military Heritage, Flight Journal, and the San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Magazine.



“John Geoghegan's 'Operation Storm' is a fascinating, meticulously researched and deft account of this bizarre chapter.” The Wall Street Journal

“An exciting narrative of a naval showdown revealing hubris and humility on both sides...Geoghegan has scoured the archives to present a little-touted facet of Japanese naval history that offers a fascinating glimpse into the workings of the Japanese mindset at the endgame of the war.” Kirkus 
“Operation Storm is an exciting page turner comparable to the best of Tom Clancy's techno-thrillers--except this tale happens to be true...Geoghegan has delved deeply into...(the) records to tell a fascinating story.” Aviation History 

“Aviation historian Geoghegan’s virtuoso research turns up surviving witnesses and obscure documents to corroborate this engrossing story of politics, logistics, and the technological leaps and bounds made during wartime, and the resulting tale is a thrilling take on a little-known aspect of the conflict in the Pacific theater.” 
Publishers Weekly 

“A magnificent page-turner that reveals the inside story of a remarkable top secret program, Operation Storm is a powerful, towering achievement.” —David King, bestselling author of Death in the City of Light

“A great historical read, scrupulously researched and brilliantly written. Geoghegan has produced a marvelous insight into the men on both sides who fought a brutal underwater war beneath the waters of the Pacific in WWII.” —Clive Cussler, bestselling author of the Dirk Pitt and NUMA Series

“The Imperial Navy’s submarine force in WWII is still barely understood in the West. Geoghegan has given us one of the first detailed glimpses into the workings of Japan’s undersea fleet. His detailed coverage of the Imperial Navy’s I-400 program is uniquely interesting.” —Jonathan Parshall, author of Shattered Sword
“Anyone who believes there are no more hidden secrets to World War II will feel differently on seeing this book. I’ve been reading about the war all my life, but knew nothing of the extraordinary weapon whose story John Geoghegan tells here. And tells, I might add, in a riveting, vivid, suspenseful way that makes it hard to stop reading once you’ve begun…it's a remarkable tale.” —Adam Hochschild, bestselling historian and author of, To End All Wars and King Leopold’s Ghost

“Just when we were beginning to think that every conceivable World War Two topic worthy of study has already had a shelf’s worth of books devoted to it…John Geoghegan’s Operation Storm combines painstaking research and crisp writing to bring to life, for the first time in English, the fascinating story of Japan’s late war I-400 experimental submarine program.” —M.G. Sheftall, author of Blossoms in the Wind: Human Legacies of the Kamikaze
Operation Storm does for Japanese submarines what Das Boot did for U-boats showing the human side of a remarkable story no less extraordinary for being true. Geoghegan's splendid research combined with his writing skill makes Storm a genuine page turner.” —Col. (ret.) Walter J. Boyne, former head of the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum

“Impressively documented and lucidly written, here is a lively, well-balanced account of
the Imperial Japanese Navy's huge I-400 class submarines and their eleventh hour ‘game-changer’ mission.” —Carl Boyd, co-author of The Japanese Submarine Force and World War II; Professor Emeritus, Old Dominion University; and U.S. Navy submariner 1954-58

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