The Bombardment of Ellwood

A detailed map of the Ellwood Oil Fields, which were shelled by a Japanese sub.

A detailed map of the Ellwood Oil Fields, which were shelled by a Japanese sub.

One of the main reasons for America’s rise from power to superpower in the wake of World War II was the fact that, while Europe and broad swaths of the world were in shambles from six years of ferocious fighting, the American homeland remained largely untouched. This, however, does not mean that the United States never suffered attacks. The history of attacks on the American homefront is both fascinating and little known, mostly due to war time censorship meant to maintain morale. Several such attacks occurred in the wake of Pearl Harbor, when German U-boats attacked American shipping off the East Coast.

On West Coast, the fear of attack by Japanese forces was palpable, understandably so since the logical next step after Pearl Harbor was an attack on California. If the Japanese launched an invasion of the West Coast, many believed that the onslaught could not be stopped until their forces thrust deep into the heart of America. In reality, the Japanese lacked the capability for such an assault, and instead settled for pinprick attacks, some using the rather ingenious methods. The first such attack occurred on February 23, 1942, when a Japanese sub shelled an oil refinery near Santa Barbara, eventually provoking one of the strangest events in American history.


The Shelling of Ellwood

The Ellwood oil fields lay 12 miles north of Santa Barbara, California. At 7:10pm the night of February 23, the Imperial Japanese Navy submarine I-17 surfaced off the coast. It was sighted a mile off shore by Mrs. George Heaney, who caught a glimpse of the sub through binoculars and called the police. Five minutes later, the sub opened fire with its deck gun. The reports about the number of shells fired that night vary wildly, but the consensus is about 16. Most of the shots fell short, dropping into the ocean. One shell overshot the refinery, exploding at a nearby ranch. Another landed at a separate ranch near the refinery, digging a five foot crater but failing to explode. Three shells struck the Bankline Co. oil refinery, damaging a derrick and a pump house. Within twenty minutes of the first shot, the sub slipped beneath the waves.

A bit of a bizarre story behind the motivations of the commander of I-17 has attached itself to the event. It goes that Kozo Nishino, the commander of the I-17, was a commander of a Japanese oil tanker in the 1930s. The tanker visited Ellwood oil field to take on crude. While walking up the beach to a ceremony welcoming Nishino and his crew, he tripped and fell on a prickly-pear cactus. The sight of the dignified commander dressed in his best plucking cactus spines from his rump made the American oil men break into riotous laughter. A humiliated Nishino vowed to get revenge.

The reality is far more mundane. Nishino was ordered to execute panic inducing attacks on West Coast population centers. San Francisco and San Diego were too well defended, so the oil fields were the next best choice.


Rumor, fear, and the Battle of Los Angeles

The impact of the attack on Ellwood far exceeded its scale. The shelling only partially damaged some buildings, and while one service man was injured trying to defuse a dud, no one was killed. The attack struck a nerve nevertheless. People reported having seen “signal lights” on land that night, supposedly directing the attack. The enemy seemed to be active all around, and the fear that another, larger attack might come was very real.

Rumor and fear had two effects in the wake of the shelling at Ellwood. One such effect was the event now known as the Battle of Los Angeles, when American anti-aircraft crews in Los Angeles opened fire on a mysterious object (or objects) in the skies above the city.  The so-called battle has become known as among the largest UFO events in American history, and many still speculate as to what the object was that caused the ruckus. More likely than not, the scare was caused by a combination of an errant weather balloon and fears of Japanese attack, stoked by Ellwood. So, it had more to do with mass panic than alien intervention.