Santa Barbara, California February 23, 1942

Japanese submarines initiated the first shore bom­bard­ments of the war with an attack on the U.S. Navy base at John­ston Island in the Paci­fic in mid-Decem­ber 1941, just days after Japa­nese carrier-based planes had destroyed, in their sur­prise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, one-half of the United States’ naval power. Japa­nese sub­marines briefly shelled the Amer­i­can Paci­fic outpost on Mid­way Island in Janu­ary 1942. The following month, on this date, Febru­ary 23, 1942, Japa­nese sub­marine I‑17 made the first enemy attack on the U.S. main­land since the War of 1812. Shortly after 7 p.m., the I‑17 sur­faced several hun­dred yards off a beach west of Santa Bar­bara, Califor­nia, and for the next 20 minutes fired 17 rounds from her 140mm (5.5‑inch) deck gun at the Rich­field (now ARCO) avia­tion fuel stor­age tanks on a bluff behind the beach. The shots badly missed the tanks but destroyed an oil derrick and damaged a pier and a pump house. News of the Ell­wood oil field shelling trig­gered an inva­sion scare up and down the West Coast, as the Japanese had hoped.

The following night trigger-happy U.S. Army anti-aircraft bat­teries ex­ploded into action over the blacked-out city of Los Angeles. During a 30‑minute fusil­lade, guns hurled 1,440 rounds of 3‑inch and 37mm am­mu­ni­tion into the search­light-swept night sky. About 10 tons of shrap­nel and dud shells fell back on the city of 1.5 mil­lion people, damaging resi­dences, ship­yards, and air­craft plants where late-night shifts were at work. Eight people died that night, three of heart attacks, the others in acci­dents related to the black­out. At a press con­fer­ence shortly after­ward, Sec­re­tary of the Navy Frank Knox called the in­ci­dent, known in con­tem­porary media as “The Battle of Los Angeles” or “The Great Los Angeles Air Raid,” a “false alarm” stemming from “war nerves.” Actually, the false alarm was touched off by a weather balloon.

Not everyone bought the government’s assur­ances. The California Long Beach Inde­pen­dent edi­tori­alized: “There is a mys­terious reti­cence about the whole affair and it appears that some form of cen­sor­ship is trying to halt dis­cus­sion on the matter.” Others spec­u­lated that the in­ci­dent was either staged or exag­gerated to give defense in­dus­tries like Douglas (now Boeing) Air­craft then in Long Beach and in Santa Monica an excuse to move further in­land. (Secretary Knox encouraged their moving.)

The Great Los Angeles Air Raid was front-page news and fodder for news­paper edi­tors around the nation. Ameri­cans were living through scary times, so people believed. Many West Coast resi­dents imagined the worst—that after the surprise Japa­nese air and naval attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, 2‑1/2 months before, enemy planes might suddenly show up in the middle of the night and unload their bombs on their own com­mu­ni­ties, or that a Japa­nese inva­sion force might appear off their undefended beaches, hook up with tens of thou­sands of Ameri­can-born Japa­nese and Japa­nese nationals living among them, and jointly unleash may­hem and destruc­tion. Truth was, as it turned out, during 1941 and 1942 I‑17 was one of 10 Japa­nese “cruiser” (I‑class) sub­marines that rou­tinely patrolled off the Pacific West Coast, Alaska, and Baja Cali­for­nia, never to bag a high-value target like a battle­ship or an air­craft carrier. And, with the excep­tion of sinking a hand­ful of oil tankers, a single cargo steamer, and one Soviet mine-laying sub­marine, followed in 1944 and 1945 by hun­dreds of explosive-laden hydro­gen-filled balloons (fūsen bakudan) Japan sent aloft on the jet stream to drop, hit or (mostly) miss, on the North Amer­i­can con­ti­nent, . . . well, that was about as scary as it really ever got.

The Japanese Sub I-17 Brought War and Pandemonium to the U.S. Mainland. More Japanese Subs Were on Their Way to the West Coast

L.A. Times article on Battle of Los Angeles

Above: The February 26, 1942, Los Angeles Times edition covered the “Battle of Los Angeles” and its after­math. Times headlines screamed: “ARMY SAYS ALARM REAL.” In a front-page edi­torial the news­paper stated that “con­sider­able public con­fu­sion and excite­ment” had been caused by the air raid alert. In some of the most imag­i­na­tive reporting of the war, articles described shrap­nel-strewn areas of the city, pro­perty damage, and people finding unex­ploded ordi­nance. The rival Los Angeles Exam­iner described “shrap­nel-strewn” neigh­bor­hoods that “took on the appear­ance of a huge Easter-egg hunt [as] young­sters and grown­ups alike scrambled through streets and vacant lots, picking up and proudly com­paring chunks of shrap­nel frag­ments.” The Army roped off entire streets, placing large signs at both ends warning “DANGER UNEX­PLODED BOMB.” There were no unex­ploded bombs—at least from Japa­nese air­craft—not­with­standing Sec­re­tary of War Henry L. Stim­son’s public asser­tion that 15 enemy planes had over­flown the city the pre­vious night, possi­bly launched from secret Japa­nese air­fields or sub­marines, and the Examiner’s spurious claim that three planes had been shot down over the ocean. After the war Japa­nese officials denied sending planes over Los Angeles on the night of the “Great Los Angeles Air Raid.”

I-400-class Japanese subAichi M6A1 Seiran seaplane

Left: The mammoth Sentoku, or I‑400-class submarine. Difficult though it is, note the long water-tight, tube-like plane hangar on the sub’s aft deck and the forward deck’s com­pressed-air air­plane cata­pult and collaps­ible crane for retrieving returning planes. Japa­nese plans called for building a fleet of 18 I‑400-class sub­marines, at 400 ft in length and displacing 6,670 tons, by far the largest and among the most deadly subs ever built until the 1960s. Though they could fire tor­pe­does (eight on board) like other sub­marines, the super-subs were designed as under­water air­craft carriers, each equipped with three Aichi M6A1 sea­plane bombers. Their mis­sion was to travel more than half­way around the world (the I‑400 had a range of over 30,000 nau­ti­cal miles and carried a crew of close to 200 men), sur­face off the North Amer­i­can coasts or the Panama Canal, and launch their deadly air attack. A gener­a­tion ahead of their time, con­struc­tion began on the first I‑400 at the Kure dock­yard (near Hiro­shima) on Janu­ary 18, 1943. Only three Sentokus were com­pleted; two entered ser­vice without seeing com­bat. An attack scheduled for August 17, 1945, on the U.S. Navy’s Ulithi Atoll staging area in the Caro­line Islands of the western Pacific was scrubbed owing to Japan’s surrender three days earlier.

Right: A two-man Aichi M6A1 Seiran seaplane, the type carried aboard I‑400-class subs. The brain­child of Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet Adm. Isoroku Yama­moto, the archi­tect of the Japa­nese naval attack on Pearl Harbor, the I‑400-class sub­marine was designed to carry two or three Seirans (which trans­lates as “mist on a clear day”), each cap­able of carrying one 1,800‑lb bomb or torpedo for up to 739 miles/­642 nau­tical miles. The late-war I‑400-class “wonder weapon” was unknown to U.S. intel­ligence, despite having broken the Japanese naval code.

Japan Sends Subs to Strike California, Oregon. Builds Aircraft-Carrying Super Submarines (Skip first 40 seconds)