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 in 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 gun at the Rich­field (now ARCO) avia­tion fuel stor­age tanks on the bluff top behind the beach. The shots 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. The following night U.S. Army anti-aircraft bat­teries ex­ploded into action over the blacked-out city of Los Angeles, California. 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.” Not every­one bought the govern­ment’s assur­ances. The Long Beach [California] 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 in Long Beach and nearby 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. Truth was, as it turned out, during 1941 and 1942 the I‑17 was one of 10 Japa­nese sub­marines that routinely patrolled off the Paci­fic West Coast, Alaska, and Baja California.

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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 the en­tire streets, placing large signs at both ends warning “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 Sen-toku, or I-400-class submarine. Difficult though it is, note the long tube-like plane hangar on the sub’s aft deck and the forward catapult. Japanese plans called for building a fleet of 18 I-400-class submarines, at 400 ft long and displacing 6,670 tons, by far the largest and among the most deadly subs ever built until the 1960s. The 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), sur­face off the North Amer­i­can or Panamanian coast, and launch their deadly air attack. Only three Sen-tokus were com­pleted; two entered service without seeing combat.

Right: An Aichi M6A1 Seiran seaplane, the type carried aboard I-400-class subs. The brain­child of Adm. Isoroku Yama­moto, the archi­tect of the Japa­nese naval attack on Pearl Harbor, the I-400-class sub­marine was designed to carry three Seirans (which trans­lates as “storm from a clear sky”), each cap­able of carrying one 1,800‑lb bomb for up to 620 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