California and the Second World War
The Japanese Attack on the SS Agwiworld

On 20 December 1941, 20 miles off Monterey Bay, the Imperial Japanese Navy's Submarine I-23 fires eight or nine shells at the 6,771-ton Richfield Oil Company tanker AGWIWORLD but misses the zigzagging AGWIWORLD and she escapes to safety.

The July 1998 issue of World War II Magazine printed a story titled, West Coast War Zone by Donald J. Young. The following is an extract of that article dealing with this attack:

About the time Emidio crewmen were beginning their agonizing 16-hour pull to safety, a second Japanese sub, I-23, had begun stalking another American tanker, Agwiworld, some 330 miles to the south, off Santa Cruz. At 2:15 p.m., as the 6,771-ton Richfield Oil Company tanker headed north some 20 miles off Monterey Bay, an explosion off the stern of the ship brought Captain Frederick Goncalves running to the bridge. About 500 yards to the west and directly in line with the sun, Goncalves could make out what appeared to be a submarine.

"I ordered the helm hard to port and headed straight for [it]," said the captain, "but when the second shot came, I put the helm hard over the starboard and presented my stern to the sub."

Although this sub, under the command of Captain Genichi Shibata, was much faster than Agwiworld, the Japanese faced a dilemma. The swells were heavy at the time, and Shibata knew that an attempt to overtake the fleeing American tanker with I-23's decks awash would affect his gun's accuracy and could even result in the loss of some gun crewmen.

Another reason the enemy sub did not close was probably that the Japanese had overheard the tanker's distress call to the U.S. Navy. Whatever the reasons, I-23 remained at 500 yards while firing at least a half-dozen more times at the now fishtailing American ship.

"The sub didn't chase us into port exactly," Captain Goncalves later recalled. "We zigzagged around, maneuvering always to present the smallest target possible. The sub circled and dodged, trying to get broadside of us, but never succeeded. As we neared land and the sub fired the last of its eight shots--four of which splashed water onto the deck--it quickly submerged."

On shore, several Monterey peninsula residents had unknowingly witnessed the chase. A story in the Monterey Herald that evening said, "Scores of golfers playing seaside courses reported today they had observed the tanker with huge clouds of smoke pouring from her funnel, fleeing toward Santa Cruz and zigzagging wildly, but most of them thought little more about it."

The following article is tajen from the Santa Cruz Sentinel-News, December 21,1941:


Futile Naval Action Off Cypress Point Early Saturday Afternoon; Eight Shots - No Hits

Enemy Craft Operating Off the Coast Of California Believed Suicide Effort To Hit Shipping

The Japanese war came close to Santa Cruz yesterday when a submarine rose to the surface 20 miles off the southern tip of Monterey Bay, took eight shots with a deck gun at the 6700-ton tanker Agwiworld, and missed every shot.

The tanker, a huge target, turned its stern to the enemy craft and fled into harbor here, anchoring three-quarters of a mile off the Santa Cruz wharf about 4 o'clock yesterday afternoon.

That a minor naval action had taken place near Santa Cruz was not denied by the Twelfth District Naval Headquarters in San Francisco last night. Rear Admiral John W. Greenslade, commandant, said, "The navy does not deny, but it cannot confirm, these reports."

The action is said to have taken place about 2 o'clock Saturday afternoon.

That such a submarine, plying along the California coast, is a suicide craft, here to terrorize shipping and never hoping to return to its home base, was the opinion declared by former naval men last night who learned of the occurrence.

The same submarine, or another, shelled another tanker off Blunt's Reef, near Eureka, yesterday.

The tanker attacked off Cypress Point was the Agwiworld. That which was the object of the attack near Eureka was the 6900-ton Emidio.

When Admiral Greenslade was first queried by the Sentinel-News for official confirmation of the report that a minor and resultless naval action had taken place near here he retorted with a firm "Not a word must be said about it."

Later the commandant of the Twelfth Naval District revised his orders and gave to the Associated Press, for the Sentinel-News, the remark that "the navy does not deny, but it cannot confirm these reports."

Navy's Story

The story from the Associated Press, based on what it could obtain from Admiral Greenslade and his aides, said:

"The navy had unconfirmed reports tonight that enemy submarines fired on two oil tankers near the California coast today, apparently scoring a hit on one, and chasing the other tanker into port.

"Naval sources declining to confirm the reports, said they were as follows:

A submarine attacked the 6912-ton tanker Emidio this afternoon near Blunt's Reef, 199 miles north of San Francisco. The Emidio was said to have sent out an S.O.S.

"The Agwiworld, a 6711-ton vessel, was surprised by a submarine 20 mile off Cypress Point, 100 miles south of San Francisco. The submarine fired eight or nine shells from a deck gun, but the tanker reached a nearby coastal anchorage.

"The Agwiworld tonight was anchored near shore. No one was allowed to leave her, and the only visitor was an official of the port town where she halted.

"There was little detail in the unconfirmed reports to the navy that the Emidio had been struck in a submarine attack.

"It was some 15 miles or more off shore when the alleged incident occurred, and near the Blunt's Reef lightship.

"At the naval district headquarters attaches said they had been told without confirmation that the lightship had picked up distress signals from the Emidio."

No One Comes Ashore

No one from the Agwiworld came to the wharf in Santa Cruz. It was said that a motor craft carried a representative of the local civilian defense committee out to the tanker at the request of the Twelfth Naval District Headquarters in San Francisco.

No member of the Santa Cruz civilian defense council would admit that he had made such a visit.

Reports of the action, from sources which no one could run down, said that the sailors on the tanker were ordered to don life belts and stand by when the submarine appeared above the surface of the sea.

The same undisclosed and anonymous source declared that the submarine was within half a mile of the tanker, appeared to be 300 feet long, and was believed to have had a five-inch deck gun.

Observation planes were sent out from the Salinas Air Base in response to reports of the submarine's action but reported visibility so poor they could see nothing.

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