California and the Second World War
The Attack on the SS Emidio

On 20 December 1941, 25 miles west of Cape Mendocino, the Imperial Japanese Navy's I-17 shells and then fires two torpedoes at the 6, 912-ton Socony-Vacuum oil company tanker EMIDIO returning empty from Seattle to San Francisco. A patrolling PBY "Catalina" flying boat of Patrol Squadron (VP) 44 spots the EMIDIO dead in the water with people going over the sides and getting into lifeboats. The PBY also spots the I-17 on the surface and starts an attack. As depth charges are dropped, Commander Nishino Kozo dives and makes his escape. The EMIDIO, hit in the stern, does not sink. She is finally run aground off Crescent City, California, 85 miles north of where she was torpedoed. The Coast Guard Cutter SHAWNEE rescues 31 survivors.

That same day, Headquarters, Combined Fleet's Intelligence Bureau learns of the pending arrival of the battleships USS MISSISSIPPI, NEW MEXICO and the IDAHO on the West Coast. Vice Admiral Shimizu orders the I-17 along with the I-9 and the I-25 to intercept the battleships that are expected to arrive at Los Angeles on 25 December.

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:

On December 20, two days after his attack on Samoa, Captain Nishino got his second chance at an American merchantman. Around 1:30 that afternoon, the Socony-Vacuum Oil Company's tanker Emidio, returning empty from Seattle to San Francisco, was about 20 miles off Cape Mendocino when a report came down to the captain that a sub had been sighted about a quarter of a mile off the stern and was closing.

Captain Clark Farrow, after first attempting to outrun the enemy raider, ordered "full speed, and dumped ballast, but...had no chance to escape. We were rapidly overtaken. The sub was making 20 knots. I tried to get behind her but [the sub] reversed course and kept after us."

Realizing the situation was hopeless, Farrow ordered his radio operator, W.S. Foote, to send an SOS, which he did, accompanied by the words, "Under attack by enemy sub." No sooner had the message been tapped out over the wireless than I-17 opened up with its deck gun, the first shot carrying away the radio antenna. Two more shots from the sub struck Emidio, one of which destroyed one of the lifeboats hanging in its davits on deck.

Farrow stopped the engines and hoisted a white flag, then ordered the crew to take to the lifeboats. "Three of the crew--R.W. Pennington, Fred Potts and Stuart McGillivray--were attempting to launch one of the boats when a shell struck it, spilling them into the water," said one of the crewmen later. "Other lifeboats were put over the side to search for the three missing men, but we couldn't find them."

With the exception of four men still on board and the three lost over the side, the remaining members of the 36-man crew quickly rowed away from the imperiled ship. About 10 minutes later, after a parting shot in the direction of the lifeboats, I-17 abruptly submerged. A couple of minutes later the reason for its sudden disappearance became apparent. "It may have been 10 or 15 minutes after the SOS when two U.S. bombers came roaring overhead from the coast," said Farrow later. "To us in the lifeboats it was a welcome sight. One of the two planes, circling where the sub had gone down, dropped a depth charge. We couldn't tell if it hit it or not."

The depth charge did not damage the sub. On board I-17, in fact, Captain Nishino had decided to risk attack from the American planes in order to take one torpedo shot at the abandoned tanker.

"We were still looking at where the sub went down," continued Farrow, "when we saw its periscope slowly push up above the surface. While still partially submerged it fired a torpedo from 200 yards. We could see the trail as it sped straight for the ship. It struck with a loud explosion."

On board Emidio, radioman Foote, who had quickly jury-rigged another antenna, was just preparing to send a second SOS when the torpedo hit. Undaunted by the blast, the dutiful wireless operator tapped out his SOS, added the words "Torpedoed in the stern," then calmly made his way to the main deck and jumped overboard.

The other men, oiler B.F. Moler, fireman Kenneth Kimes and 3rd engineer R.A. Winters--who had either ignored the order to abandon ship or were unaware of it--were still at their stations in the engine room when the torpedo struck. Astoundingly, Moler saw it penetrate the engine room bulkhead and pass so close to him that, as he told an examining medical officer the next day at the Eureka naval section base, "I could have reached out and touched it. It exploded on the other side of the engine room and killed Kimes and Winters outright." Despite three broken ribs and a punctured lung, Moler "somehow swam and climbed up to the upper deck and jumped overboard." Both Moler and Foote were picked up by the lifeboats.

"Back came the planes as the sub sank out of sight again," continued Farrow. "One of them dropped another depth charge. There was a big blast and plenty of smoke. That may have hit her, we figured, for we didn't see her again." Once again, however, the sub escaped damage. On February 23, 1942, I-17 would shell the Ellwood Oil Company refinery, 10 miles north of Santa Barbara--the first enemy shells to land on the continental United States in World War II.

Despite the torpedo hit, Emidio did not sink. Several days later, in fact, she ran aground on a pile of rocks off Crescent City, Calif., an amazing 85 miles north of where she had been torpedoed. The 31 survivors of the stricken ship rowed their lifeboats for 16 hours and 20 miles through a driving rainstorm until they were picked up by a Coast Guard lightship a few miles off Humbolt Bay.

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Updated 8 February 2016