The Japanese Attack
on the Central Coast, 23 February 1942
Justin M. Ruhge
The opening months of World War II had a number of important
impacts on California's history. Besides becoming the initial
western front in the early days of the war with the home guard
on hand, millions of newcomers came to the state to train and
build ships and airplanes. Two hundred thirty five bases, camps
and fields were established for training of all aspects of the
military buildup to fight the war.
The state was the location of the first attack by a foreign
power on the continental United States since the War of 1812
with England. It was also a prison to thousands of German and
Italian prisoners-of-war during the five years of combat. And,
as in the Great War, many foreign nationals in the United States
were again interred in prisons for the duration of the war.
During World War II Japanese-Americans in California were also
On February 23, 1942, 69 days after the attack at Pearl Harbor,
the Japanese submarine I-17 appeared off the coast of California
north of Santa Barbara at the Barnsdall-Rio Grande Oil Field
at Ellwood (today's Sandpiper Golf Course) and began shelling
the oil and gasoline tanks located there. The submarine captain,
who was interviewed in Japan after the war, had been a Japanese
tanker captain and knew the location well from his many earlier
visits there to obtain gasoline refined at that location from
crude oil pumped out of the Ellwood field.
The I-17 was one of many long-range submarines developed
by the Japanese so they could operate across the Pacific Ocean.
A number, perhaps six in all, of this class of submarine, some
with aircraft on board, were dispatched to the west coast after
the Pearl Harbor attack to harass the American shipping and shore
installations. They sunk or damaged oil freighters encountered
along the coast, notably the Montebello and the Emidio;and shelled
shore installations in California, Oregon and Washington; and
launched aircraft to start forest fires with incendiary bombs
in Oregon forests.
The attack at Ellwood began at 7 pm as the I-17 slowly moved
along parallel to the oil piers. It was still light then due
to the double daylight savings time invoked during the war.
In all, 26 rounds were fired from the 5.5-inch deck gun. Some
shells landed below the extensive oil installation, some exploded
and blew holes in the machinery, some landed dangerously close
to the high-octane gasoline tanks and some shells flew over the
oil field and landed in the hills behind the oil fields. One
of the shells landed on ranch property but did not explode.
It was recovered the next day and turned over to the Army for
defusing and evaluation and is now a trophy owned by a local
The I-17 moved out of sight and into the darkness after
its 20-minute bombardment. Had a shell hit the gasoline tanks
or exploded when oil workers were present, the damage could have
been more catastrophic. As it turned out, this was a nuisance
raid and only a footnote to the history unfolding in the World's
Greatest War during the next five years.
Many persons still living today along the coast saw the attack
and the submarine firing the shells. Several of these witnesses
were at the Wheeler Inn Restaurant on western Hollister Road
next to the Barnsdall-Rio Grande filling station and came out
to see the submarine and heard the shells flying overhead.
According to Walker Tompkins in Goleta the Good Land, Captain
Kozo Nishino, a tanker captain and captain of the I-17, often
dined at the restaurant as a guest of the oil company when his
ship was anchored offshore to take on gasoline for Japan.
Americans became very indignant that the Japanese would
dare to attack the American homeland. National Savings Bond
drives were started to collect funds for airplanes and ships
with which to "AVENGE ELLWOOD!"
The Japanese, on the other hand, considered it a great victory
to have reached the American mainland for an attack. The Japanese
Government and Navy celebrated the event in the home island newspapers.
The Japanese Navy printed special commemorative post cards so
that the event could be circulated to all parts of the world
and to raise the morale of the citizens. Richard Arent of Carmel,
California has provided one of the postcards to the author for
The one recovered shell owned by ranchers Godwin and Deborah
Pelissaro, the oil well housings peppered with shrapnel holes
and pieces of the shrapnel owned by Peter Langlo were on display
at the Goleta Valley Historical Society Museum for a number of
Twenty-five year and fifty-year commemorative ceremonies
were held at the Timber's Restaurant and the Sandpiper Golf Course,
respectively, with news media coverage, at which a number of
the eyewitnesses gave testimony. The Native Sons of the Golden
West placed a bronze plaque at the golf course in 1982. The
Goleta Historical Society placed a historic marker sign describing
the attack at the beach below the Bacara Resort west of the golf
course in 2002. Souvenir hunters had removed an earlier sign.
On February 2, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Order 9066,
which required the internment of German, Italian and Japanese
enemy aliens. Due in part to the attack on the west coast by
the Japanese submarines, the government moved all Japanese-Americans
to the interior where they were placed in rough camps for the
duration of the war. Many German and Italian Nationals were
also interred but with much less fanfare than the Japanese-Americans.
To counter the propaganda effect of the Japanese submarine
attacks, General Jimmy Doolittle was placed in charge of a plan
to fly B-25 bombers off the aircraft carrier Hornet from which
to bomb Tokyo, Japan. This attack took place on April 23, 1942.
The attack was a success and a great boost to American morale.
Many of the American planes landed in China where the citizens
helped some of the American pilots escape. In retribution for
their aid to the American airmen, the Japanese murdered 250,000
innocent Chinese men, women and children.
What happened to the I-17 after the attack on Ellwood? She
spent the next month preying on coastal shipping between Cape
Mendocino and San Francisco. She then cruised back to her home
base at Yokosuka, arriving there at the end of March 1942. Later
the I-17 went on a tour of the Aleutian Islands, after which
Captain Nishino left her to accept another post. On the I-17's
next tour to the
Solomon Islands she was destroyed off Noumea, New Caledonia on
August 19, 1943. Six crewmen were rescued. From them Naval
Intelligence was able to piece together the details of the Ellwood
The Samurai sword carried by one of the pilots in the aircraft
that flew from the submarine in Oregon to start forest fires
was donated by the pilot at a historic reconciliation ceremony
in Oregon and is on display at the North Lincoln County Historical
Museum, Lincoln City, Oregon.
References: This famous attack account
is excerpted from The Military History of California by Justin
M. Ruhge and is also based on research from the following sources:
50th Anniversary of the Shelling of the Ellwood Oil Fields
by Justin M. Ruhge, Goleta Historical Notes, Vol. 7, No.
1, Fall 1992, pg. 10; Goleta the Good Land by Walker A.
Tompkins, 1966, Chapter 29; The Western Front by Justin
M. Ruhge, 1988; Silent Siege by Bert Webber, 1984;
I-Boat Captain by Zenji Orita and Joseph D. Harrington, 1976;
and a video documentary of The Japanese Attacks Along the
West Coast by Donald D. McArthur of Aberdeen, WA. 2001.