At 7:00 p.m. Pacific Time on Monday, Feb. 23, 1942, Washington’s Birthday, Americans living in and around the Ellwood oil fields of Southern California settled themselves down to listen to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chat that would update them on the war. About fifteen minutes into the president’s speech, the residents in the Ellwood area got their own “breaking news” about the conflict when they found themselves under artillery attack. The artillery fire was coming from the Japanese submarine I-17, located about a mile off the coast. It was the first foreign attack on American mainland soil since the War of 1812.
“Another shell whined over my head and landed in the canyon on the Staniff place which is across the road from us.”
– Lawrence Wheeler, proprietor of Wheeler’s Inn
Directing the attack was Imperial Japanese Navy Cmdr. Kozo Nishino, captain of the I-17, a Type B1 submarine, distinguished for its speed (23.5 knots surface, 8 knots submerged), long range (14,000 nautical miles), size (356.5 feet long, 30.5 feet beam), and ability to carry a seaplane in a special hangar as well as torpedoes and a 140mm cannon.
Following Pearl Harbor, the I-17 was one of seven Japanese submarines ordered to continue on to the United States West Coast and sink shipping. The I-17 sank the tanker SS Emidio off Cape Mendocino. Nishino’s plans were to use the submarine’s cannon to shell coastal cities on the evening of Dec. 24. That mission was aborted due to a high level of air and sea patrols.
When rounds from the I-17’s cannon began landing in the Richfield Oil Field Facility on the evening of Feb. 23, workers initially thought the explosions were the result of an accident. Then one of them spotted the submarine.
The I-17 returned to its base at Kwajalein for resupply, where Nishino got new orders. Before the war he had been a tanker captain regularly ferrying oil from the Ellwood fields to Japan. His mission now was to bombard the oil complex.
When rounds from the I-17’s cannon began landing in the Richfield Oil Field Facility on the evening of Feb. 23, workers initially thought the explosions were the result of an accident. Then one of them spotted the submarine. Others in the area also saw the I-17, and soon the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office began receiving phone calls. The Sheriff’s office notified the office of Air District Command Maj. Gen. Jacob E. Fickel. Fickel’s office ordered all radio stations in the area to cease broadcasting. Air raid sirens began screaming. Nearby Santa Barbara was blacked out. Promised intercept squadrons, however, never appeared.
Lawrence Wheeler, proprietor of Wheeler’s Inn, located in the heart of the oil fields, later said the nearby impact of one shell “shook our building.” He dashed outside in time to see another shell explode against a nearby cliff and a third, a dud, land on the neighboring Staniff Ranch.
About 20 minutes after the shelling began, the I-17 ceased firing. As the submarine departed, Nishino radioed Tokyo that he had left the area in flames. In reality, physical damage to the field and facilities was slight, but the panic the shelling inspired was enormous. It added impetus to the demand to relocate and confine Japanese-Americans, and it caused a reorganization of military defenses along the West Coast.
Nishino’s attack, the Lookout Air Raids, and the panicked reactions they inspired later served as the basis for Steven Spielberg’s movie 1941.
Nishino’s action was not the last Japanese attack on American soil. In September 1942, in what came to be known as the Lookout Air Raids, Warrant Flight Officer Nobuo Fujita, flying a floatplane launched from the I-25, on two separate occasions dropped incendiary bombs near Brookings, Ore., making this the first time American soil came under air attack. Nishino’s attack, the Lookout Air Raids, and the panicked reactions they inspired later served as the basis for Steven Spielberg’s movie 1941.
Far more serious and dangerous was the Japanese balloon bomb offensive. Starting in November 1944 and continuing to the end of the war, Japan released about 9,000 30-foot diameter balloons, each carrying a 30-pound time-release incendiary bomb. The bombs were carried east on the jet stream, where they were released over American soil. Most landed in the West, but one traveled as far as Maryland. The government was so concerned about the attacks that it imposed total censorship on news about them. It was not until well after the war that stories of the balloon bombs became official. An account of the balloon bomb offensive can be seen on YouTube at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=F01Ps6jhhv0.
In 1982, Parade magazine ran an article about Nishino’s attack, suggesting that it was motivated by a desire to get revenge over a humiliating incident that occurred to him in the area during the 1930s. The story, droll in its details involving Noshino’s posterior and prickly pear cactus spines, is regarded as apocryphal.