San Diego in WWII, Part VI: Enemy activities and responses

This piece is from SD HistCon founder Harold Buchanan. This is the final piece in a six-part series looking at the history of San Diego in World War II. (The first, second, third, fourth, and fifth parts can be read here, here, here, here, and here. If you’re interested in registering for SDHistCon Summit 2023 from Nov. 3-5 and exploring some local history along the way, limited tickets are still available here.)

In part six of the discussion of the impact of World War II on San Diego, we discuss the manifestation of the combatants of the Pacific War. 

Harold is an award-winning designer whose designs include Liberty or Death (2016), Campaigns of 1777 (2019), and Flashpoint: South China Sea (2022). He has been a historical gamer since 1979. Harold is an Adjunct Professor of Finance at The University of California San Diego. You can follow him on Twitter here.

San Diego and World War II: Assessing Enemy Activities Off the Californian Shore

In the annals of World War II’s vast global theater, the U.S. West Coast’s involvement, especially areas like San Diego, stands out. It stands out not for the scale of direct confrontations, but for the psychological warfare, heightened paranoia, and the strategic significance it held due to its proximity to the Pacific theater. This piece delves into the various facets of enemy activities and their impact on San Diego during the war.

Japanese Naval Activities Off the West Coast

The days succeeding the attack on Pearl Harbor were rife with anxiety, and soon reports emerged of Japanese submarines lurking off the California coast. Notably, on February 23, 1942, the Ellwood Oil Field, situated roughly 200 miles north of San Diego near Santa Barbara, endured a shelling by a Japanese submarine, the I-17.

While the damage was not catastrophic, the reverberations of fear and the tangible presence of an enemy at America’s doorstep were profound. The specter of these submarine incursions, though infrequent, kept the West Coast in a state of heightened alertness.

The submarine reached the Santa Barbara Channel with orders to bombard the Ellwood oil installations near Goleta, one of the largest oil fields in California. Ironically, all coastal defenses, though limited, were relocated just days before the attack. That left only civilian volunteers at aircraft spotting stations.

The commander of the 365-foot-long Japanese I-17 sub, Kozo Nishino, ordered his men to fire at 7:15 pm. Their first rounds landed close to one of the storage facilities. The few workers still on site suspected an internal explosion, but then a worker spotted the I-17 in the dark. 

A Japanese postcard commemorating the I-17 shelling of the Ellwood refinery and storage facilities north of Santa Barbara. Image courtesy John Geoghegan.

A Japanese postcard commemorating the I-17 shelling of the Ellwood refinery and storage facilities north of Santa Barbara. Image courtesy John Geoghegan.

Records from the Japanese Imperial Navy said: “left Santa Barbara in flames.”

In 1967, this memorial of the 1942 Ellwood attack was placed at Sandpiper Golf Course.

In 1967, this memorial of the 1942 Ellwood attack was placed at Sandpiper Golf Course.

Total damage from the attack was assessed at $500. While the attack caused only minor actual damage, it had a significant impact on public fears.

The Espionage Specter

San Diego’s prominence as a military nexus heightened the specter of espionage. Protective measures became palpable; military establishments, harbors, and defense-oriented industries found themselves under rigorous security protocols.

This era also bore witness to one of the most contentious decisions in American history: the internment of over 120,000 Japanese-Americans. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942 which, while not specifically mentioning people of Japanese descent, was used to discriminate against U.S. citizens of Japanese descent.  

While the primary focus is often on the internment camps themselves, it’s essential to recognize the broader context of lost rights, properties, and freedoms, as well as the emotional and psychological trauma experienced by these individuals and their communities. The rationale was steeped in fears of espionage and sabotage. History would later vindicate these citizens, with none found guilty of wartime subversion.

Civil Preparations: Air Raids and Coastal Blackouts

San Diego, like its sister cities on the West Coast, initiated civic procedures to safeguard its citizens and infrastructure. Frequent air raid drills were conducted, acclimatizing residents to potential aerial threats. Furthermore, the city was often draped in darkness, a blackout measure to render it less visible and hence less vulnerable to potential enemy bombings.

Fortifying the Coastline

A palpable testament to the heightened state of alert was the robust fortification of San Diego’s coastline. An increase in patrols, anti-aircraft placements, strategic observation points, and fortified harbors and bays rendered the city a fortress, prepared for potential enemy incursions.

Rumors, Panic, and the War Psyche

The wartime psyche is often as much a battleground as the frontlines. San Diego was no stranger to this phenomenon. The Ellwood incident near Santa Barbara, for instance, catalyzed a slew of rumors of enemy presence. While most of them were baseless, that led occasionally to sporadic artillery fire into the Pacific.

In retrospect, San Diego’s experience during World War II, framed by limited direct enemy engagements, encapsulates the broader narrative of the U.S. West Coast during the conflict. It was less a story of battle and more one of anticipation, preparation, and the profound psychological ramifications of a world at war.

Thanks for reading our San Diego in WWII series! The first, second, third, fourth, and fifth parts of this series can be read here, here, here, here, and here. Contact Harold on Twitter here.