World War Two Attacks on America’s West Coast

Japanese Submarines

There is very little written about the three separate incidents during World War Two in which attacks were carried out along the west coast of the United States. The action in the Pacific War was taking place far from America’s shores and, while these incidents were reported on, the big news was happening in the Solomon Islands, Iwo Jima and the Philippines.

japanese float plane in world war two
World War Two Japanese floatplane

Since the beginning of the war, the West Coast had a case of anxiety which had it’s impact on the thousands of Japanese living mostly in California. Some of the Japanese immigrants were older and had been born on the Home Islands. Many more were younger and were born here in the United States and were naturalized citizens. There were many situations where the children were citizens yet the parents were not.

Fears on the West Coast

California’s anxiety finally manifested itself with the internment of all Japanese residing on the coast. This occurred after much debate and was not something decided on overnight. The California state government put quite a lot of pressure on the federal government to begin the internment program. Native Californians and to a degree the federal government were concerned about security. Speculation at the very beginning of the war was that a Japanese invasion of the West Coast was not out of the question. Although in hindsight it would probably have been a very difficult if not impossible thing to pull off successfully.


anti submarine mine
Size 48 Anti-Submarine mine on display at Oregon’s Fort Stevens

The primary security concerns were the possible signaling by clandestine radio to enemy submarines off the coast as to U.S. ship departures including troop departures.

The West Coast was also home to nearly all of the military installations engaged in the Pacific therefore sabotage was also not out of the question. Sabotage was carried out during both World War’s but mostly in the east by German agents. While researching I found nothing regarding sabotage carried out by Japanese immigrants in the west. The internment of Japanese Americans during the war involved many western states and was a very controversial program which remains controversial even today.

Attacks on the American Mainland

Regarding the attacks on the American mainland, the first occurred off Santa Barbara California on February 23, 1942. News reports at the time reported that 16 shells were fired on the Ellwood Oil Fields about 12 miles north of the city. Some property was destroyed as well as pumping equipment about 1200 yards inland.

japanese attack on santa barbara california
Map of the Ellwood Oil Fields off Santa Barbara California

The first reports were from a woman who actually observed the submarine through her binoculars. She reported the submarine about one mile offshore. There’s actually an interesting story that was reported about the incident. The story goes that a Japanese tanker captain during peacetime was having his ship loaded at the Ellwood fields and that during a welcoming ceremony he fell upon some cacti at which time the American attendees let out laughs. It’s thought that he was the commander of the submarine involved with the attack therefore attaining some degree of revenge. The attack also happened just minutes after one of president Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chats” on the radio. Most specific information regarding Japanese attacks became known after the surrender. If the story is true, it’s quite a tale.

world war two searchlight
World War Two era searchlight on display at Fort Stevens on the Oregon coast

The second Japanese submarine attack on the American mainland occurred on June 21, 1942 when an attack occurred on Fort Stevens at the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon. The only damage that was reported in this attack was the baseball field’s backstop. The batteries at Fort Stevens did not return fire because it would have enabled the sub to better pinpoint it’s target. Military planes set out and located the submarine but it eventually submerged and escaped.

There was also an attack with the goal of setting our forests on fire in the northwest.on September 9, 1942. A special seaplane was launched from a Japanese submarine aircraft carrier. The plane shown at the top of this post dropped two incendiary bombs near Brookings Oregon but the goal was not achieved. There were no forest fires as a result. There was another attempt on September 29th with similar results.

There was actually another prolonged attack not involving submarines. This was the Japanese balloon bomb campaign whose goal was also to start forest fires in the American west.

japanese balloon bomb monument near bly oregon
Monument at the site of the Japanese balloon bomb explosion near Bly Oregon

During 1944 and 1945 the Japanese launched about 9,000 fire balloons toward the U.S. Carried by the jet stream about 300 reached the U.S. mainland but caused little damage. One tragic exception were six deaths (one adult and five children) when a child while on a family picnic started tampering with one of the balloons on the ground and it exploded. This occurred near Bly Oregon and today there’s a monument at the site as a memorial.

Links to two photo articles on our Western Trips site you’ll find interesting include:

San Francisco’s World War Two Defenses

Visit to Fort Point in San Francisco California.


Visit the World War Two Submarine USS Pampanito

Interesting Venues to Explore

To see World War Two artifacts from the World War Two West Coast defense effort there are several interesting places to visit.

Fort Stevens State Park on the Pacific coast just west of Astoria Oregon features many interesting exhibits both indoors and outdoors.

Another interesting stop is Fort Point National Historic Site in San Francisco located directly under the far south portion of the Golden Gate Bridge. The fort was originally constructed by the Spanish, taken over by the U.S. in 1848 and was the home to 6th U.S. Coast Artillery during World War Two. Plenty of great exhibits there.

Another excellent venue in southern California is the Fort MacArthur Military Museum in San Pedro.The museum exhibits photos, drawings,and memorabilia from 1920 through World War Two. Fort MacArthur housed giant 14 inch guns behind walls up to thirty feet thick capable of firing shells at a distance of fourteen miles.

(Photos of Fort Stevens cannon and anti-submarine mine are from the author’s collection. Remaining photos are from the public domain)