Dawn of Infamy by Stephen Harding

Dawn of Infamy: A Sunken Ship, a Vanished Crew, and the Final Mystery of Pearl Harbor (previously Voyage to Oblivion) by Stephen Harding is a book about a little known sinking of an American freighter at the beginning of World War II.

A bit about the book:

On December 7, 1941, even as Japanese carrier-launched aircraft flew toward Pearl Harbor, a small American cargo ship chartered by the Army reported that it was under attack by a submarine halfway between Seattle and Honolulu. After that one cryptic message, the humble lumber carrier Cynthia Olson and her crew vanished without a trace, their disappearance all but forgotten as the mighty warships of the U.S. Pacific Fleet burned.

The story of the Cynthia Olson‘s mid-ocean encounter with the Japanese submarine I-26 is both a classic high-seas drama and one of the most enduring mysteries of World War II. Did I-26‘s commander, Minoru Yokota, sink the freighter before the attack on Pearl Harbor began? Did the cargo ship’s 35-man crew survive in lifeboats that drifted away into the vast Pacific, or were they machine-gunned to death? Was the Cynthia Olson the first American casualty of the Pacific War, and could her SOS have changed the course of history?

Although journalists have written about this episode and authors have touched on it, most people do not know the tale of the Cynthia Olson. Harding brings his expert skills as a researcher and writer to this little known subject.

The book has many strengths and a few weaknesses. Harding’s narration on the sinking and its aftermath are well done. He engages the reader by including a lot of information about the sinking in a format that is easy to read. Another strength is the fair treatment that Harding gives Minoru Yokota (the Japanese sub commander that sank the Cynthia Olson).  Although Yokota broke international law by not providing for the sunken ship’s crew, he did give the crew time to abandon the ship (unlike other German and Japanese sub commanders).

I think Harding gives rational and believable answers to these questions – whether the ship was sunk before the commencement of hostilities at Pearl Harbor, could the ship’s SOS signals have prevented the damage at Pearl Harbor, and what happened to the Cynthia Olson’s crew. He supports his answers with research based on good primary and secondary sources.

The major weakness is the first part of the book. In it, Harding discusses the histories of the Cynthia Olson and the company that owned it. I think some of it could have been trimmed. For example, I do not think the ship’s history and the company’s history are germane to the story.

Overall, the book is an excellent look at a long-forgotten story that occurred at the beginning of American involvement in World War II in the Pacific.

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