A Beach the Japanese Shelled Japanese in 1942


Around 7 in the evening on Feb. 23, 1942, while most Southern Californians were listening to President Roosevelt’s fireside chat on the radio, strange explosions were heard near Goleta.

In the first (and only) attack on U.S. soil since the War of 1812, a Japanese submarine surfaced off the rich oil field on Ellwood Beach, 12 miles west of Santa Barbara, and lobbed 16 shells into the tidewater field.

“Their marksmanship was poor,” said Lawrence Wheeler, proprietor of a roadside inn near the oil fields. Most observers agreed with Wheeler, who added there was no panic among his dinner patrons. “We immediately blacked out the place,” he said. “One shell landed about a quarter-mile from here and the concussion shook the building, but nobody was scared much.”


Poor Marksmanship

The unmolested, unhurried Japanese gunners were presumably aiming at the oil installations and the coast highway bridge over the Southern Pacific railroad tracks. Tokyo claimed the raid “a great military success,” though the incredibly bad marksmen managed to inflict only $500 worth of damage. The submarine disappeared into the night, leaving behind air raid sirens, a jumpy population and lower real estate values.

The walk along Goleta Beach to Ellwood Oil Field is interesting for more than historical reasons. On the way to the Oil Field/Battlefield, you’ll pass tide pools, shifting sand dunes and the Devereaux Slough. The slough is a unique intertidal ecosystem and is protected for teaching and research purposes by Coal Oil Point Reserve.

Directions to trailhead: From U.S. 101 in Goleta, drive south on Clarence Ward Memorial Boulevard (California 217) for two miles to Goleta Beach County Park. Park in the large beach lot. The walk: Proceed up the coast (going west--remember, you’re in confusing Santa Barbara County, where the coast stretches east to west). In a quarter mile you’ll reach a stretch of coast called the Main Campus Reserve Area, where you’ll find the Goleta Slough.

The same month the Japanese bombed Ellwood Beach, Santa Barbara voters approved a bond issue to buy land around the Goleta Slough, and a modern airport was constructed on the site of the old cow pasture/airfield. The slough, host to native and migratory waterfowl, is a remnant of a wetland that was once much more extensive.

Handsome Cliffs

Continue up the beach past the handsome sandstone cliffs. Occasionally a high tide may force you to detour atop the bluffs through the UC Santa Barbara campus to avoid getting wet. A mile and a half from the county park, you’ll round Goleta Point and head due west. You pass a nice tide pool area; judging from the number of college students, it is well studied.

Two more miles of beachcombing bring you to Coal Oil Point. You’ll want to explore the nature reserve here. (Please observe all posted warnings; this is a very fragile area.)


The dunes are the first component of the reserve encountered on the seaward side. Sandy hillocks are stabilized with grasses and rushes. Salty sand provides little nourishment, yet the hardy seaside flora manages to survive, settling as close to the water as the restless Pacific will permit. The dunes keep the plants from blowing away, and the plants return the favor for the dunes.

Footprints of lizards and mice and minuscule tracks of beetles can be seen tacking this way and that over the sand. The dune’s surface records the lightest pressure of the smallest feet.

Pick up the trail over the dunes on the east side of the reserve. The fennel-lined trail passes under cypress trees and climbs a bluff above the slough to a road on the reserve’s perimeter. It’s a good place to get “the big picture” of the slough, a unique ecosystem. Something like an estuary, a slough has a mixture of fresh and salt water, but an estuary has a more stable mixture. The water gets quite salty at Devereaux Slough, with little fresh water flushing.

For Bird Watchers

At the slough, bird watchers rhapsodize over snowy egrets and great blue herons, black-bellied plovers and Western sandpipers. Avid bird watchers flock to the slough for birdathons--marathon bird-sighting competitions.

In addition to the scores of native and migratory species, birds affectionately known by their watchers as “vagrants”--lost birds who have no business in the area--often visit the slough. If you’re the type who carries a copy of “Petersen’s Guide” in your day pack, you’ll spend the rest of the day here, and there’s no point in urging you to hike on. For the rest of you, it’s on to Ellwood.

Option: to Ellwood Oil Field. Return to the beach and continue walking up the coast. Sometimes horses gallop over the dunes, suggesting Peter O’Toole’s and Omar Sharif’s meeting in “Lawrence of Arabia”--except there’s oil on the beach, as you’ll readily notice when you look at your feet. In two miles you’ll pass near an old barnacle-covered, oil-drilling platform and enter Ellwood Oil Field. Here the Japanese fired shots heard round the world . . . and missed.


Goleta Beach Trail

Goleta Beach County Park to Coal Oil Point Reserve, seven miles round trip.

Goleta Beach County Park to Ellwood Oil Field , 12 miles round trip.