The Bombardment of Ellwood: The First Japanese Attack on Mainland Amer

By: Terrance Lloyd
Posted on Feb 19, 2023

Depiction of the Shelling of Ellwood

February 23, 1942, Japanese Submarine I-17 Attacks Petroleum Facilities Near Santa Barbara, California. 

While most are familiar with the devasting Japanese aerial attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in December 1941, few people are aware that there were several Imperial Japanese Navy attacks on the Pacific coast of the continental United States, all occurring in 1942.

On the evening of February 23rd, 1942, barely two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, an Imperial Japanese Navy submarine, the I-17, surfaced off the coast of Santa Barbara, California.  The I-17 was a long-range Type B1 submarine and had sailed from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The I-17 had surfaced earlier on the night of Feb. 17th off of Point Loma, near San Diego, California to ascertain its exact location after the long voyage.

Japanese I-26 Submarine
The I-26, a Japanese B1 Submarine, much like the one which shelled Ellwood.

Stopping opposite the Ellwood Oil Field, the Japanese submarine crew prepared their 14 cm/140mm deck gun to begin firing on a storage tank visible in the dark. The tank held highly volatile aviation fuel, however, after a twenty-minute barrage from the submarine, only minor damage to some oil field equipment resulted. A small crew on duty heard the explosions and contacted the local police, and at least one worker spotted what he believed to be a surface warship close to shore. Although the crew had been exposed to the sub’s shellfire, no one was injured.

The shelling constituted the first Axis military attack on the U.S. mainland in World War Two. Although the damage was minor and there were no casualties, the attack caused significant impacts elsewhere. First, the attack set off an “Invasion panic” across the U.S. West coast. Just weeks prior, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had signed an executive order to intern over 120,000 Japanese Americans, including American citizens born on U.S. soil, into camps away from the west coast. The submarine attack reinforced the paranoia that perpetuated the order. In addition, the very next night, the “Battle of Los Angles” began.

Over the evening of February 24th and into the early morning of the 25th, what was also known as the “Great Los Angles Air Raid”, broke out over southern California. A 1949 investigation postulated that a rapidly rising internally illuminated weather balloon released over Los Angeles on the night of Feb. 24th was caught in a searchlight beam, and nervous, inexperienced antiaircraft gunners, undoubtedly aware of the real submarine attack the night before, cut loose. Air raid sirens were sounded in Los Angeles County, and in all, over 1,400 shells were expended, damaging some buildings and homes. Unfortunately, 5 deaths were indirectly attributed to the episode, three by auto accident and two fatal heart attacks.

A 1979 Steven Spielberg comedy movie, titled “1941”, with an all-star cast, farcically portrayed both the “air raid” and the submarine attack on California. Iconic Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune played the sub commander, fanatically waving his samurai sword in the moonlight while ordering his gun crew to fire on a pier side Ferris Wheel serving as the evening’s perch for two hapless Ground Observer Corps volunteers.   

Not to be outdone by the I-17, the submarine I-25 has the distinction of attacking the U.S. mainland, specifically the State of Oregon, twice. On June 20th, 1942 the submarine I-26 shelled the lighthouse at Estevan Point on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. The next night the I-25 managed to sail up the Columbia River in Oregon and shell coastal artillery at Fort Stevens, with no effect. An Army Air Force A-29 Hudson bomber later attacked the I-25, also without effect. Fort Stevens was the only Axis military attack on a continental military base in World War II. 

In September 1942 I-25 was back on the Oregon coast again, looking to cause trouble. The submarine was fitted with a small aircraft shelter and catapult, and on Sept. 9, 1942, Japanese pilot Nobuo Fujita launched his Yokosuka E14Y "Glen" seaplane from the I-25 near the coast of southern Oregon headed east toward Mt. Emily, near the town of Brookings. His mission was to drop an incendiary (fire) bomb on the thick forest to cause a massive forest fire, however, the weather failed to cooperate, and no fire began. While recovering the aircraft, the I-25 was again attacked by a Hudson bomber, but only received minor damage. Fujita took off again on September 29th, and the aircraft was heard by several people near Point Orford, Oregon, but no fires were spotted.

The I-25 also torpedoed three ships and even a Soviet-Russian submarine during this time, with two ships and the sub lost. Technically, the Soviet Union and Japan were not at war at the time, but the sinking was not made public. The I-25 itself was sunk just a year later near the island of Espiritu Santo in the southwest Pacific.

About the author Terrance Lloyd:
Terry Lloyd has been a freelance journalist and writer since 2019 after 40 + year aviation career. He has had articles published in the areas of aviation, military history, and firearms. He is an Air Force veteran and has lived and worked across the U.S. as well as Asia, Europe, and Central America. Twitter handle: @TLWriteStuff01