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

On 18 December 1941, 15 miles off Cape Mendocino, the Imperial Japanese Navy's submarine I-17, under the command of Commander Nishino Kozo, shells and torpedoes the American freighter SAMOA, enroute to San Diego with a load of lumber, but her shells and a torpedo miss. The SAMOA makes San Diego safely.

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 an hour before dawn on December 18, I-17 was moving quietly along the surface 15 miles off Cape Mendocino when one of her lookouts spotted a ship approaching. Kozo Nishino, captain of the 2,500-ton sub, ordered an attack on the American freighter Samoa, which was on her way to San Diego with a load of lumber. Since he was allotted only one torpedo per merchant ship, Nishino decided to open the attack with his 5.5-inch deck gun and use a torpedo only if necessary.

Moments before Samoa crossed the bow of I-17, First Mate John Lehtonen, on watch at the time, spotted a dim light from the approaching enemy sub and yelled down to the captain, "A submarine is attacking us!" Captain Nels Sinnes, who had been asleep, sat bolt upright in his bunk, quickly pulled on his pants and shirt, grabbed a life jacket and yelled into the crew's quarters for everyone to report to their lifeboat stations. As crewmen began tearing the canvas covers from the lifeboats, the Japanese opened up. "Five shots were fired at us," Captain Sinnes later recalled. "One, apparently aimed at our radio antenna, burst in the air above the stern. Fragments fell to the deck."

Captain Nishino, unsatisfied with the results of the shelling from his pitching deck, ordered a torpedo fired at 70 yards. Seconds later, as Sinnes recalled, "We saw the telltale wake of a torpedo coming directly at us amidships. It was too late to do more than just wait for our destiny.

"[Then] the miracle happened. The torpedo went directly beneath us, didn't even touch the hull and continued beyond. A short distance away it exploded. There was a huge shower accompanied by smoke and flames. Fragments from the torpedo also fell on our deck."

A combination of three things saved the freighter and her crew. Two were the darkness and the torpedo's explosion away from the ship. Nishino, unable to see whether the torpedo had hit the ship, moved in closer to check it out. In the dim light, with the Japanese sub less than 15 feet away, the third bit of luck came into play. "Shortly after the attack," said Sinnes, "the sub hove to about 40 feet away. Visibility was extremely poor and I couldn't make out the flag or anybody on board. There was a shout: 'Hi ya!' from the submarine. I replied, 'What do you want of us?' There was no answer. Then it disappeared, evidently thinking that we were sinking on account of our heavy port list.

"The list was due to the fact that the engineers had been shifting water in the ballast tanks," Sinnes explained. "We also lost our No. 1 lifeboat a couple of days before in a storm, part of which was still hanging from its davit. He evidently thought...[we were] sinking on account of this and left us alone."

Sinnes was right. Captain Nishino did radio the flag submarine, I-15, off San Francisco, that he had sunk an American merchantman. Samoa hove to until daybreak at 7 a.m., then headed at full speed for San Diego, making port two days later.



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Updated 8 February 2016