J.J. Hollister III was a 10-year-old boy listening to President Franklin D. Roosevelt begin a radio “fireside chat” when he was startled by the thunder of a distant cannon.
“In a moment or two we heard a whistling noise and a thump as a projectile hit near the house,” Hollister recalled.
The family scrambled outside their home in coastal Winchester Canyon and peered out at the dusk-shrouded Pacific of Feb. 23, 1942. Bright flashes could be seen near an oil field on the shore. A few were followed by “an eerie whistling and caterwauling,” Hollister said. “It was a sickening sound.”
In an adjacent canyon on this rural stretch of coastline about 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles, Ruth Pratt was tending to her garden. Her husband, John, was on Home Guard duty 10 miles away in Santa Barbara. She, too, heard the explosions.
“I thought something was going wrong at the refinery. Then there was something like a whizzing sound coming right at me,” Mrs. Pratt said.
It wasn’t until early the next morning that the Pratt and Hollister families heard the radio bulletin: A Japanese submarine had shelled the Ellwood oil field, the first enemy attack on the U.S. mainland since the War of 1812.
Other minor mainland attacks were to follow: A Japanese submarine fired at the Oregon coast; a Japanese pilot bombed Oregon forests without effect and Japanese balloon bombs exploded in the Northwest.
On its face, the shelling of Ellwood beach 50 years ago by the sub I-17 was not one of World War II’s major events. It caused no injuries and only $500 damage to a shed and catwalk at the seaside Barnsdall-Rio Grande Oil Co. field.
Yet to a nation still reeling from the Dec. 7 Pearl Harbor bombing, the 20 or so five-inch shells fired by the I-17’s deck gun confirmed public fears that Japan was capable of bringing its war to America’s doorstep.
It also hastened the roundup of 120,000 West Coast Japanese-Americans into 10 internment camps for the duration of the war, a move that had been authorized just four days earlier by Roosevelt.
“We knew we were at war before then. And after that we definitely knew it,” said Mrs. Pratt.
“My God, all the sirens went off and the blackout happened and there were searchlights all over the skies,” said Santa Barbara resident Joan Martin, who was 22 at the time. “Everybody was saying the Japanese are getting us.”
Acting Secretary of State Sumner Wells called the attack an unsuccessful challenge to Roosevelt as he discussed the war effort on radio. The Tokyo newspaper Kokumin said the attack showed that “occupation of the United States mainland no longer is in the realm of dreams.”
Spy scares throughout Southern California were rampant, and fear of impending attack may have contributed to the “Battle of Los Angeles” in the wee hours of Feb. 25.
On that morning, antiaircraft batteries fired blindly at an unknown object reported heading south over Santa Monica Bay. No enemy aircraft were sighted, let alone downed.
The Ellwood attack also fostered its share of local legends, including one that the U.S. Navy staged the event to whip up war fever. Some skeptical residents point to the fact that dud shells bore all-too-obvious Japanese markings and that a Marine detachment had pulled out of nearby Goleta just days before. Indeed, a subsequent “Avenge Ellwood” campaign produced brisk sales of war bonds.
“It’s like ‘JFK.’ The deeper you dig the more wild rumors you’re going to find,” said Barney Brantingham, a columnist with the Santa Barbara News-Press who has written about the attack. “The question that came up was: ‘Why here?’ ”
Quite by accident, according to a 1963 interview with Nobukiyo Nambu, a lieutenant on the I-17 that Sunday evening.
Nambu said the 384-foot sub and her crew of 70 pursued a U.S. task force from the Marshall Islands eastward across the Pacific and arrived off San Diego on Feb. 20.
With orders to attack a coastal target and divert U.S. warships northward, the sub headed to San Francisco. But shooting into the city wasn’t feasible, so the I-17 swung south, surfacing 1,500 yards off Ellwood at about 7 p.m. on the 23rd. Five sailors scrambled onto the deck and manned the gun.
A few projectiles exploded harmlessly on the beach; others sailed a couple of miles inland, including the one that frightened Mrs. Pratt in Tecolote Canyon. Several duds that dropped into the dense chaparral, scrub oak and sagebrush of the scenic area were retrieved by intrepid residents or Army officials.
Some witnesses reported that during the Ellwood attack, someone had signaled the submarine from the high western ridge of Winchester Canyon, perhaps directing its fire.
Hollister, however, believes the winking lights may have been his father’s auto headlights as he plied a bumpy dirt road to the ridge to get a better look at what was happening.
But the then-district attorney for Santa Barbara County, Percy Heckendorf, declared that there was enough “convincing proof” of shore signals to justify the immediate deportation of Japanese-Americans.