Warship Wednesday, June 22, 2022: The Emperor’s Wrath

Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger

Warship Wednesday, June 22, 2022: The Emperor’s Wrath

Above we see a WWII-era propaganda image portraying a 1942 bombardment of the U.S. West Coast by a surfaced submarine of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Unlike Italy’s claim of sinking the battleships USS Maryland and Mississippi via the same Atlantic-cruising submarine at around the same period, this actually happened, 80 years ago this week in fact.

Without getting too much into the weeds, in mid-December 1941, just after the attack on Pearl Harbor, VADM Mitsumi Shimizu, commander of the Dai-roku Kantai, the fleet containing the Japanese fleet submarine force, ordered nine boats involved in the Hawaii episode– I-9 (flag of Capt. Torajiro Sato, embarked), I-10, I-15, I-17, I-19, I-21, I-23, I-25, and I-26— to proceed to the U.S. mainland and surface on Christmas night to fire 30 shells apiece at selected shore targets in what would have surely been a special gift to America.

Apart from Sato’s ride and I-10 which were specifically built to have headquarters accommodations, all were Type B cruiser submarines. Large boats for the era, the assorted Type Bs went some 2,200 tons and as long as 356 feet overall, capable of hitting as much as 23 knots while carrying up to eight torpedo tubes into battle, thus making them a good match for the American fleet boats of the Gato-class (2,400t; 311 feet; 21 knots, 10 tubes). They had an unrefueled range of over 14,000 nm.

Here we see a World War II U.S. Navy schematic of a Japanese I-15, a Type B1 cruiser submarine. NH 111756

However, unlike the Gatos, the Type Bs could carry a stowed Navy Type 96 Watanabe E9W1 (Allied reporting name Slim) or, more typically, a Yokosuka E14Y2 (Glen) reconnaissance seaplane in a sealed dry dock. They could be made ready for surface launches over the bow and recovered via a desktop-mounted crane.

Yokosuka E14Y Glenn floatplane I-19 a Japanese Type B1 submarine. Nicimo box art

E14Y Type 0 Reconnaissance Seaplane Glen floatplane Japanese ONI221

The stern of the submarines carried a 14 cm/40 (5.5″) 11th Year (1922) Type deck gun, a piece superior to most American submarine guns.

14 cm/40 (5.5″) gun postwar. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

The Japanese completed no less than 29 Type B cruiser submarines in three different generations between 1938 and 1944 and canceled at least 20 others due to a lack of materials and shipyards not on fire.

In the end, Yamamoto put the Christmas raid on hold and the force was recalled home on 27 December. The units were needed as supporting assets for “Operation K” a flying boat attack on Hawaii to bomb Pearl Harbor’s “Ten-Ten Dock” and disrupt ship repair activities. Despite the lofty goal, Op K only resulted in the loss of I-23 with all hands somewhere off the Oahu coast in late February 1942.

Nonetheless, the new year would see several of these boats return on their own to conduct raids via deck gun on the mainland.

I-17

As detailed by RADM Sam Cox’s H-Gram H-010-6 on the matter: 

On 23 February 1942, the Japanese submarine I-17 shelled the Ellwood Oil Field west of Santa Barbara, California, inflicting minor damage (but triggering an invasion scare on the U.S. West Coast, which served as additional pretext for interning Japanese-American U.S. citizens). 

Japanese propaganda postcard depicting the submarine I-17 shelling Ellwood. Japanese captions “Our Submarine bombarding the coast of California” Artwork by Chuichi Mikuriya, Navy Battlefield Artist. Card via the California military museum.

Feb 1942: Japanese Submarine I-17 bombarded Santa Barbara California. photos by LIFE photographer Eliot Elisofon

Feb 1942: Japanese Submarine I-17 bombarded Santa Barbara California. photos by LIFE photographer Eliot Elisofon

Feb 1942: Japanese Submarine I-17 bombarded Santa Barbara California. photos by LIFE photographer Eliot Elisofon

Feb 1942: Japanese Submarine I-17 bombarded Santa Barbara California. photos by LIFE photographer Eliot Elisofon

Feb 1942: Japanese Submarine I-17 bombarded Santa Barbara California. photos by LIFE photographer Eliot Elisofon

Feb 1942: Japanese Submarine I-17 bombarded Santa Barbara California. photos by LIFE photographer Eliot Elisofon

Feb 1942: Japanese Submarine I-17 bombarded Santa Barbara California. photos by LIFE photographer Eliot Elisofon

Feb 1942: Japanese Submarine I-17 bombarded Santa Barbara California. photos by LIFE photographer Eliot Elisofon

Feb 1942: Japanese Submarine I-17 bombarded Santa Barbara California. photos by LIFE photographer Eliot Elisofon

Feb 1942: Japanese Submarine I-17 bombarded Santa Barbara California. photos by LIFE photographer Eliot Elisofon

Feb 1942: Japanese Submarine I-17 bombarded Santa Barbara California. photos by LIFE photographer Eliot Elisofon

Feb 1942: Japanese Submarine I-17 bombarded Santa Barbara California. photos by LIFE photographer Eliot Elisofon

Feb 1942: Japanese Submarine I-17 bombarded Santa Barbara California. photos by LIFE photographer Eliot Elisofon

Feb 1942: Japanese Submarine I-17 bombarded Santa Barbara California. photos by LIFE photographer Eliot Elisofon

Feb 1942: Japanese Submarine I-17 bombarded Santa Barbara California. photos by LIFE photographer Eliot Elisofon

Battle of LA

Cox:

It was followed on the night of 24–25 February by the “Battle of Los Angeles,” in which jittery American anti-aircraft gunners unleashed an intense barrage over the city at non-existent Japanese aircraft, an action “extremely” loosely depicted in the Steven Spielberg/John Belushi movie 1941. In the movie, the submarine that provoked the movie hysteria was the “I-19” which in reality was the floatplane-equipped Japanese submarine that sank the USS Wasp (CV-7) on 15 September 1942.

I-26

On 20 June, I-26 surfaced off Canada’s Pacific Coast and made her gun ready, the first enemy attack on Canadian soil since the Fenian Raids of 1866 and 1871.

As noted by Combined Fleet: 

West coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Around 2217 (local), I-26 surfaces five miles off the coast and fires 17 shells (including two exercise rounds filled with sand) from her deck gun at the Hesquiat radio direction finding station. As a result of limited visibility and rough sea, none of the targets is hit. Most 5.5-in shells fall short of the Estevan Point lighthouse or explode nearby; one unexploded round is recovered after the attack and another in June 1973.

“Wireless station and light at Estevan Point shelled by enemy aircraft for 40 minutes commencing at 1025 PM June 20 [1942]. No damage was done except two windows cracked or broken. Station unscathed.”– reported the station’s keeper.

One of the recovered shells from I-26, via LAC

Canadian Naval staff inspects a Japanese shell from Estevan Point, B.C. Photo: Gerald Thomas Richardson.

Estevan Point Lighthouse & Wireless Station on Vancouver Island Photo via BC Archives. Today the Canadian Rangers hold a yearly commemoration on this spot to reinforce their current mission

This brings us to I-25

During the night of 21-22 June 1942, I-25 surfaced near the mouth of the Columbia River and opened fire on what her navigator took from outdated 1920s charts to be an American submarine base that, in fact, was never built. Instead, the rounds by coincidence hit within the campus of Fort Stevens, a U.S. Army Coast Artillery Corps installation on the Oregon coast whose grounds dated back to the Civil War.

Fort Steven’s most modern emplacements in WWII were the two shielded 6-inch guns of Battery 245, supported by SCR 296 radar. However, it wasn’t begun until after the raid and was not completed until October 1944. 

Although obsolete– its main guns were 10-inch mortars and 10-inch disappearing guns from the late 19th century, the batteries at Fort Stevens were manned by elements of the 18th Coast Artillery Regiment (Harbor Defense) of the Regular Army and the 249th Coast Artillery Regiment of the Oregon National Guard, the only American Coast Artillery units to ever see combat in CONUS.

As described by the Oregon State Archives: 

Despite the confusion, soldiers at the fort soon manned their guns and searchlights, and lookouts could see the submarine firing in the distance. But the enemy ship was inaccurately determined to be out of range, and the artillerymen never received permission to return fire. The fort’s commander later claimed he didn’t want to give away the precise location of the defenses to the enemy.

The I-25’s shells left craters in the beach and marshland around Battery Russell at the fort, damaging only the backstop of the baseball diamond about 70 to 80 yards from the facility’s big guns. A shell fragment also nicked a power line, causing it to fail later. Casualties amounted to one soldier who cut his head rushing to his battle station. By about midnight the attack ended and the enemy vessel sailed off to the west and north.

While the submarine fired 17 shells, witnesses on land only heard between 9 and 14 rounds. Experts surmised that some shells might have been duds or fallen into the sea. Despite causing no significant damage, the attack certainly raised awareness of the threat of future strikes and went into the history books as the only hostile shelling of a military base on the U.S. mainland during World War II and the first since the War of 1812.

RADM Cox points out, “U.S. shore gunners requested permission to open fire on the submarine, but were denied out of concern that doing so would give away number, position, and capability of U.S. defenses before an actual invasion, thus depriving U.S. coastal artillery of their only opportunity to shoot at a real Japanese ship during the war.”

Crater, Fort Stevens, from I-25. NARA 299678

I-25 bombardment of Fort Stevens, by Richard L. Stark

Within days, the beaches near Fort Stevens were swathed in barbed wire and a defiant sign hung from its camouflaged emplacements.

“To Hell With Hirohito” sign refers to nine misses from I-25. NARA 299671

As I-25 sailed away to end her third war patrol, it would be the last Japanese submarine bombardment of the West Coast.

Epilogue

In a swan song of the Empire’s manned strikes on mainland America, I-25 would return to Oregon on her fourth patrol would launch Warrant Officer Nubuo Fujita and Petty Officer Okuda Shoji in their little Glen floatplane to drop a pair of 170-pound incendiary bombs in the dense forests over the Oregon Mountains near Brookings across two sorties on 9 and 29 September.

Painting of the I-25 launching her E14Y floatplane on a scouting mission, via Combined Fleet

From Combined Fleet:

9 September 1942: The First Bombing of the Continental United States:
25 miles W of the Oregon coast. The sea condition calms. I-25 surfaces just before dawn and the Glen is assembled and readied for the attack. Fujita catapults off at 0535 and drops two incendiary bombs near Mount Emily, but the rain has saturated the woods and renders the bombs ineffective. [7] Fujita heads for I-25. On his way back he spots two merchants steaming N at 12 knots. To avoid detection, I-25 moves NNE.

29 September 1942:
Cdr Tagami makes another attempt to start a forest fire in the Oregon woods. I-25 surfaces after midnight about 50 miles west of Cape Blanco. Fujita’s plane is launched by catapult at 2107 (I). Although the entire western coast of Oregon is blacked out, the Cape Blanco lighthouse is still operating. Using that light to navigate, Fujita flies east over the coast and drops his bombs. At least one starts a fire; however, it goes out before US Forest Service foresters can reach it. The bombing is unsuccessful. On his way back, Fujita manages to find his sub by following an oil slick. During the following days, the rough sea and heavy mist permitted no further attacks.

In the end, of the boats that had been detailed by VADM Shimizu to shell America on Christmas 1941, all were sent to the bottom long before VJ Day.

The war was not kind when it came to Japanese submariners:

  • I-9 was sunk in June 1943 northwest of Kiska– killed in American waters– by the destroyer USS Frazier (DD-607).
  • I-10 was lost in 1944 during her seventh war patrol, sunk on Independence Day by the greyhounds USS Riddle (DE-185) and USS David W. Taylor (DD-551).
  • I-15 was sunk off San Cristobol on 2 November 1942 by the destroyer USS McCalla (DD-488).
  • I-17, the Santa Barbara raider, was sunk by the New Zealand trawler Tui and two U.S. Navy aircraft off Noumea on 19 August 1943.
  • I-19 sank the carrier Wasp but was later sent to the bottom west of Makin Island by the destroyer USS Radford (DD-446) on 25 November 1943.
  • I-21 disappeared in November 1943, off the Gilbert Islands.
  • I-23 likewise vanished, as mentioned above, while on Operation K.
  • I-25, the main subject of our tale, was sunk by American destroyers (with four possibly getting licks in) on 25 August 1943 off the New Hebrides.
  • I-26, who had bombarded Canada, created a five-Gold-Star mother with the sinking of the cruiser USS Juneau, and holed the carrier Saratoga, was herself Deep Sixed in the Philippines in late October 1944, her final grave unknown.

Even Capt. Torajiro Sato, “the pride of the submarine units,” who had been detailed to command the Christmas 1941 mass bombardment, was killed while commanding the Sendai-class light cruiser Jintsu during the Battle of Kolombangara in July 1943. In death, he was promoted to rear admiral.

The Dai-roku Kantai’s 1941-42 commander, submarine big boss VADM Mitsumi Shimizu, was reassigned after his units’ lackluster performance during that period to head the Home Islands-bound 1st Fleet, which largely consisted of battleships that drank too much oil to be risked in combat until the final Mahanan fleet action that never really came. Even from this caretaker task, he was soon cashiered in late 1943 when the Nagato-class battlewagon Mutsu spectacularly detonated her No. 3 turret magazine while swaying in the Hashirajima fleet anchorage with a loss of over 1,100 irreplaceable men. Shimizu was in civilian attire months before the end of the war and would pass away quietly in 1971, aged 83.

About the only survivor of note to retain any honor from the whole endeavor was Warrant Officer Nubuo Fujita, the pilot of I-25’s Glen. Saved from going down on the sub’s seventh and final patrol as he had been detailed to shore duty as a flight instructor, Fujita survived the war just days before he was scheduled to fly out on a one-way kamikaze strike in a decrepit biplane filled with explosives. His crewman from his days on the I-25, Petty Officer Okuda, was not so lucky and never returned home.

The only Japanese pilot to bomb the U.S. mainland became a successful businessman but Fujita’s role in the conflict ate at him and, in agreement with the town of Brookings, Oregon, he returned there in mufti for the city’s 1962 Azalea Festival.

At the event, he formally handed over his family’s 400-year-old samurai sword— one of the few allowed to be retained by the post-WWII Japanese government. Brookings hailed Mr. Fujita an ”ambassador of goodwill” and proclaimed him an ”honorary citizen” of the town.

Fujita would ultimately return to Brookings three times and was a good sport about it, eating a submarine sandwich (complete with a floatplane pickle garnish) prepared for him in 1990, planting redwood seedlings two years later in the forests he firebombed during the war, and briefly taking the stick of a Cessna while flying over the coastline he first crossed back in September 1942.

He would pass in 1997 of lung cancer, aged 85. In compliance with his wishes, some of his ashes were spread on the crater outside of Brookings on Mount Emily in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest that he created.

The Fujita sword is on display at the Chetco Public Library located at 405 Alder Street in Brookings. 

Nobuo Fujita’s family sword, the only weapon still in existence that flew over the mainland USA during WWII in the hands of an enemy pilot. (Photo: Oregon Pubic Broadcasting)

A good children’s book on Fujita is Thirty Minutes Over Oregon by Marc Nobleman.

As for other relics of I-25’s actions in Oregon, local markers abound.

Japanese Bombardment Marker

For more on the Japanese submarine campaign of 1942, read Bert Webber’s excellent Retaliation: Japanese Attacks and Allied Countermeasures on the Pacific coast in World War II

 


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