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75th Anniversary Of Attack On Ellwood Remembered; First Attack On U.S. Mainland During World War II

It was the dark, early days of World War II for America. It was less than three months since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor plunged the U.S. into the global conflict. The war effort was going badly, with the American forces being overrun on Wake Island, and being overwhelmed in the Philippines.

On February 23rd, 1942 the war came to the U.S. mainland for the first time, and it happened in a now almost forgotten incident in Santa Barbara County.  It's the 75th anniversary of that attack.

President Franklin Roosevelt was making one of his famous radio speeches known as “Fireside Chats” to the country, saying something which would be more true than even he could image at the time, noting that World War II had come to every continent. As the president was speaking, a Japanese submarine, the I-17, surfaced in the ocean just northwest of Goleta, and started shelling an oil facility at Ellwood with its deck gun.

Santa Barbara historian Neal Graffy says several parts of the facility suffered minor damage, but no one was hurt. The 1-17’s crew reported a much different version of the attack, saying it left Santa Barbara in flames. While eyewitnesses to the attack have all since died, Graffy had the chance to talk to some while they were still living. He says Ted DeWeber, and a co-worker were on duty at the time, and when they heard the initial rumble of gunfire, they thought it was a problem with the facility’s machinery. After realizing it wasn’t the issue, they went outside, and spotted the sub firing at them. The two ran into the nearby hills, so they wouldn’t be near the area the sub was targeting.

Rumors floated that the submarine was being signaled by someone in the mountains above Ellwood, because some people reported seeing a flashing light in the hills. But, the historian says it appears it was a case of mistaken identification. The late rancher J.J. Hollister says he and his father hear the gunfire, and saw the sub from their mountaintop priority. They got in a car, and drove down to the oil facility. Hollister believes that people in the area saw glimpses of the car’s headlights as they drove down the curvy road, and it was those flashes which eyewitnesses mistook for someone signaling the sub.

Minutes after it began, the attack was over, and the sub disappeared up the coast. No one was hurt, the damage was minor, but it certainly got people worried about the possibility of more attacks, or perhaps even an invasion. The military quickly deployed some artillery batteries in on the South Coast, vowing to be ready for another attack. Graffy says a number of batteries were deployed in the Santa Barbara and Goleta areas.

While some ships were torpedoed off the California coast, it was the only attack on the state’s mainland. Japanese subs would later shell some installations in Oregon, and Washington, but again failed to cause any serious damage.

But, the incidents further incited some people fearful of those of Japanese descent on the West Coast, a hysteria which would lead to the interment of more than 100,000 men, women, and children.

Despite the lack of damage, the slogan “Avenge Ellwood” was used later in the war to sell war bonds. There’s a plaque celebrating the shelling near Haskell’s Beach. The general area of the shelling is now home to the Sandpiper Golf Course.