California and World War II
The Japanese Attack on the Central Coast, 23 February 1942

Justin M. Ruhge

The opening months of World War II had a number of important impacts on California's history. Besides becoming the initial western front in the early days of the war with the home guard on hand, millions of newcomers came to the state to train and build ships and airplanes. Two hundred thirty five bases, camps and fields were established for training of all aspects of the military buildup to fight the war.

The state was the location of the first attack by a foreign power on the continental United States since the War of 1812 with England. It was also a prison to thousands of German and Italian prisoners-of-war during the five years of combat. And, as in the Great War, many foreign nationals in the United States were again interred in prisons for the duration of the war. During World War II Japanese-Americans in California were also interred.

On February 23, 1942, 69 days after the attack at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese submarine I-17 appeared off the coast of California north of Santa Barbara at the Barnsdall-Rio Grande Oil Field at Ellwood (today's Sandpiper Golf Course) and began shelling the oil and gasoline tanks located there. The submarine captain, who was interviewed in Japan after the war, had been a Japanese tanker captain and knew the location well from his many earlier visits there to obtain gasoline refined at that location from crude oil pumped out of the Ellwood field.

The I-17 was one of many long-range submarines developed by the Japanese so they could operate across the Pacific Ocean. A number, perhaps six in all, of this class of submarine, some with aircraft on board, were dispatched to the west coast after the Pearl Harbor attack to harass the American shipping and shore installations. They sunk or damaged oil freighters encountered along the coast, notably the Montebello and the Emidio;and shelled shore installations in California, Oregon and Washington; and launched aircraft to start forest fires with incendiary bombs in Oregon forests.

The attack at Ellwood began at 7 pm as the I-17 slowly moved along parallel to the oil piers. It was still light then due to the double daylight savings time invoked during the war. In all, 26 rounds were fired from the 5.5-inch deck gun. Some shells landed below the extensive oil installation, some exploded and blew holes in the machinery, some landed dangerously close to the high-octane gasoline tanks and some shells flew over the oil field and landed in the hills behind the oil fields. One of the shells landed on ranch property but did not explode. It was recovered the next day and turned over to the Army for defusing and evaluation and is now a trophy owned by a local rancher.

The I-17 moved out of sight and into the darkness after its 20-minute bombardment. Had a shell hit the gasoline tanks or exploded when oil workers were present, the damage could have been more catastrophic. As it turned out, this was a nuisance raid and only a footnote to the history unfolding in the World's Greatest War during the next five years.

Many persons still living today along the coast saw the attack and the submarine firing the shells. Several of these witnesses were at the Wheeler Inn Restaurant on western Hollister Road next to the Barnsdall-Rio Grande filling station and came out to see the submarine and heard the shells flying overhead. According to Walker Tompkins in Goleta the Good Land, Captain Kozo Nishino, a tanker captain and captain of the I-17, often dined at the restaurant as a guest of the oil company when his ship was anchored offshore to take on gasoline for Japan.

Americans became very indignant that the Japanese would dare to attack the American homeland. National Savings Bond drives were started to collect funds for airplanes and ships with which to "AVENGE ELLWOOD!"

The Japanese, on the other hand, considered it a great victory to have reached the American mainland for an attack. The Japanese Government and Navy celebrated the event in the home island newspapers. The Japanese Navy printed special commemorative post cards so that the event could be circulated to all parts of the world and to raise the morale of the citizens. Richard Arent of Carmel, California has provided one of the postcards to the author for publication herein.

The one recovered shell owned by ranchers Godwin and Deborah Pelissaro, the oil well housings peppered with shrapnel holes and pieces of the shrapnel owned by Peter Langlo were on display at the Goleta Valley Historical Society Museum for a number of years.

Twenty-five year and fifty-year commemorative ceremonies were held at the Timber's Restaurant and the Sandpiper Golf Course, respectively, with news media coverage, at which a number of the eyewitnesses gave testimony. The Native Sons of the Golden West placed a bronze plaque at the golf course in 1982. The Goleta Historical Society placed a historic marker sign describing the attack at the beach below the Bacara Resort west of the golf course in 2002. Souvenir hunters had removed an earlier sign.

On February 2, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Order 9066, which required the internment of German, Italian and Japanese enemy aliens. Due in part to the attack on the west coast by the Japanese submarines, the government moved all Japanese-Americans to the interior where they were placed in rough camps for the duration of the war. Many German and Italian Nationals were also interred but with much less fanfare than the Japanese-Americans.

To counter the propaganda effect of the Japanese submarine attacks, General Jimmy Doolittle was placed in charge of a plan to fly B-25 bombers off the aircraft carrier Hornet from which to bomb Tokyo, Japan. This attack took place on April 23, 1942. The attack was a success and a great boost to American morale. Many of the American planes landed in China where the citizens helped some of the American pilots escape. In retribution for their aid to the American airmen, the Japanese murdered 250,000 innocent Chinese men, women and children.

What happened to the I-17 after the attack on Ellwood? She spent the next month preying on coastal shipping between Cape Mendocino and San Francisco. She then cruised back to her home base at Yokosuka, arriving there at the end of March 1942. Later the I-17 went on a tour of the Aleutian Islands, after which Captain Nishino left her to accept another post. On the I-17's next tour to the

Solomon Islands she was destroyed off Noumea, New Caledonia on August 19, 1943. Six crewmen were rescued. From them Naval Intelligence was able to piece together the details of the Ellwood attack.

The Samurai sword carried by one of the pilots in the aircraft that flew from the submarine in Oregon to start forest fires was donated by the pilot at a historic reconciliation ceremony in Oregon and is on display at the North Lincoln County Historical Museum, Lincoln City, Oregon.
References: This famous attack account is excerpted from The Military History of California by Justin M. Ruhge and is also based on research from the following sources:


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Updated 8 February 2016