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Story
Submitted photo
Artist depiction of Japanese I Class submarine
with Glen ready to launch on catapult.
Looking Back - John Kinnear
In previous columns I have dealt with the topic of Japanese military actions on Canada’s West Coast during World War Two including balloon bombs and the shelling of Estevan Point lighthouse. I’d like to move the story south now and look at some of the actual attacks that took place on the west coast of the United States and some that were contemplated. It is a bit hair raising to consider the “what ifs” of some of these scenarios that war history is so rife with. Suffice to say the Americans had every right to be alarmed.
Let’s start with December 7, 1941, the day Pearl Harbour was bombed almost into oblivion. The first blow struck against America in WW2 happened in fact prior to Pearl but on the same day. At dawn on the seventh the Japanese sub 1-26, the same one that attacked our Estevan Point lighthouse on June 20,1942, attacked and sank the SS Cynthia Olson half way between Tacoma, Washington and Oahu, Hawaii. The unarmed lumber freighter was shelled mercilessly by I-26’s Commander Yokota and eventually sank with all thirty five marine seamen lost. Thus began a campaign of intermittent harassment of the Pacific West Coast that did not subside until the Americans had turned the tide of the war in the Pacific.
The Japanese I series submarines were state of the art at the time and were the Japanese Navy’s largest and most successful class of underwater boats. They were fast, had a 14,000 mile range and even carried a small collapsible float plane known as a “Glen” which could be launched by compressed-air catapult from the foredeck. The Glen had foldable wings and tail and detachable floats and was stored in a sealed tube on the side of the sub. These subs were also equipped with deadly five and a half inch deck guns that were to be used principally in sinking freighter traffic. Orders were that these subs were only allowed to fire one of their seventeen torpedoes per merchant ship and to finish the ships off with the deck gun. The I-26 was one of nine Japanese I class submarines prowling the West Coast from the Aleutian Islands to San Diego during 1941 and 1942.
Three days after sinking the Olson I-26 and other Japanese subs in the area were called back to Pearl Harbour to locate and destroy the US aircraft carrier Lexington which mercifully was not in harbour at the time of the attack. Fortunately they did not locate her and eventually Lexington joined the Enterprise and Saratoga as part of the task force that fought such infamous battles as Midway.
The nine submarines were then ordered to return to the West Coast and park their submarines off shore of San Francisco by December 17. There they were to wait until Christmas Day when they were all to surface and each was to fire no less than thirty rounds into the city. This action was postponed until the December 27 and by then it was realized that if they did not leave they would not have enough fuel to return to Japan. The attack was called off by commander in chief Yamamoto, a man who had studied at Harvard. He had seen America’s industrial capacity, knew a protracted war with them was not winnable and was also hesitant to attack U.S. civilians for fear of serious U.S. retaliation.
It wasn’t until February 23, 1942 that an actual attack on American soil took place.
 
I-17’s Commander Kozo attacked an oil storage facility off California’s Santa Barbara coast. The target was known as the Ellwood Richfield Oil Company refinery and storage facility and as it turns out Kozo was quite familiar with it. It seems that a year before the war started he had paused there to refuel his merchant ship and came ashore, as was the custom, to be greeted by Richfield’s president. Apparently he tripped and fell into a cactus patch suffering a couple of prickly thorns in his posterior. The embarrassment was further magnified by the fact that facility workers laughed at his embarrasment which no doubt helped lead to his choice of where to attack!
Most of his 5.5 inch shells fell into the water or overshot and Kozo beat a hasty retreat but was not pursued that night. The panic this unsuccessful attack caused was incalculable. Mainland America had been bombed. People fled inland and planes and destroyers set out the next day after the 1-17. The attack was just 80 miles from Los Angeles and was perceived as a precursor to a greater assault. Things got dialed up pretty good and resulted in what is referred to as the nonattack known as the Battle of Los Angeles. Rumors flew, false reports were rampant, shore batteries opened up at night on unseen enemy planes and spent antiaircraft shells (over 1400 were fired) and shrapnel rained down on homes and cars. Finally two hours later common sense prevailed and when it was realized that LA was not being bombed or attacked there was plenty of chagrin and embarrassment to go around.
Another B-class sub known as I-25 cornered two different tankers off Oregon’s coast that December. I-25 left the area only to return on June 21, 1942 when it shelled Oregon’s Fort Stevens shore battery but once again the 17 5.5 inch shells fired found no mark except a baseball field! This sub eventually returned to the area in September of 1942 and launched its Glen, loaded with incendiary bombs, towards the Oregon coast with the plan to ignite major forest fires. The bombs fell on very wet foliage which refused to catch fire. It was the Oregon coast after all!
The Japanese did contemplate other plans, one of which involved giant bomber-reconnaissance planes known as Emilys. Six of these flying boats, that could carry 5,000 pounds of bombs and had a range of 4,400 miles, were to fly in to just off California’s coast, be refueled by I-boats and then fly in, bomb Los Angeles and head west to Japanese-held territory. There was also a proposal to fly 30 of these floating bombers to Mexico’s Baja California waterway, refuel and arm them with Japanese and German U-boats and then attack Texas oilfields and beyond. With a 4,400 mile range they could have hit anywhere in the U.S. interior!
But time ran out for these grandiose schemes and by the end of 1942 all I-boats had been recalled to elsewhere in the Pacific. In the end, Japan never had the time, opportunity or resources to launch a major offensive effort against the continental United States. But what if they had................?
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