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West Coast Shelled!

February 24, 2009, 2:56 pm

On that day in history, the Japanese submarine I-17 surfaced off the West Coast of the United States and fired a brace of shells at the Elwood Oil Refinery complex in southern California. The attack came after dusk on February 23rd, just as the nation was settling into their couches to listen to a fireside chat by FDR. Despite claims otherwise, this was the first foreign attack on the continental United States since the war of 1812.*

c.jpeg The shelling had no appreciable military effect, with none of the shells getting terribly near the refinery itself but instead blowing holes in nearby farm land. What it did provoke, however, was an intensive hunt for the submarine by American forces and a continuing wave of scares on the West Coast over the next few years, including one three days later, when reports of Japanese aircraft over Los Angeles sparked several barrages of anti-aircraft fire and a five hour blackout during which two Angelenos were killed in traffic accidents.

This was not the only Japanese submarine to attack the west coast. In a particularly impressive effort in September 1942, the Japanese submarine I-25 launched a floatplane which flew inland and dropped two bombs on a section of deserted forest in southwestern Oregon.

But what these attacks reveal in retrospect was the ineptitude of the Japanese submarine effort. The Imperial Japanese Navy started the war with a fair number of ocean-going submarines with the range to reach the West Coast. In a similar situation in the Atlantic, the Germany Navy moved substantial submarine assets off the American coast and inflicted massive casualties on U.S. shipping during 1942-43. The “second happy time” was what the German U-boat commanders called that period (the first “happy time” had been off Britain in 1940). By contrast, the Japanese submarines managed a few inconsequential attacks on coastal installations and almost nothing against American shipping. For the entire war, the Germans sank 14.9 million tons of Allied shipping while the Japanese managed a paltry 907,000 tons. This was a terrible result, given the utter dependence of the Allied effort in the Pacific on shipping of all sorts.

Why? In essence, the Japanese aimed their submarines at the Allied fleet rather than at Allied shipping. The submarines were supposed to kill warships not freighters, as part of a overall war plan that would whittle down American forces as they crossed the Pacific. Sometimes that worked, as in what was possibly the single most successful torpedo shot of World War II, the I-19′s spread of six on September 15, 1942, which sank the aircraft carrier Wasp, the destroyer O’Brien, and wounded the battleship North Carolina. But mostly it ended in failure. Warships were hard targets, faster than submarines, more alert to their surroundings than merchant ships, and able to strike back in a number of ways.

The result was the frittering away of the Japanese submarine force in largely ineffective attacks and the uninterrupted ability of the United States to supply her forces in the Pacific. There was no “Battle of the Pacific,” as there had been a “Battle of the Atlantic,” to the great detriment of Japan’s war effort. The United States did not make the same mistake, and the greater number of its submarines were sent against the Japanese merchant marine, with catastrophic results for the Japanese war economy. The shelling of the west coast, while inciting panic on land, was ultimately a dead end for the IJN’s submarine force.

*At least as far as I know. Any other nominations?

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