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Anniversary Of Attack By Japanese Sub In Santa Barbara County; First Attack On Mainland During WW II

(Imperial Japanese Navy photo)
Japanese submarine 1-17, which was responsible for the February 23rd, 1942 attack on the Ellwood Oil Fields in Santa Barbara County

It was the early days of U.S. involvement in World War II.  In the weeks following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese subs prowled the West Coast.  They attacked some freighters and takers off the Central and South Coasts.  There was fear that the coast might be attacked, or invaded.  It was on February 23rd, 1942 that enemy gunfire fell for the first time on the U.S. mainland, and it happened in Santa Barbara County. 

Shortly after 7 p.m., the Japanese submarine 1-17 surfaced off the coast of Goleta.  It used a deck gun to shell the Ellwood Oil Field.

Graffy says people throughout the region heard the gunfire, but amazingly, no one was hurt, and there was only minor damage.

The years have claimed the eyewitnesses to the attack.  But, years ago Graffy interviewed one of the oil workers who had a front row seat to the shelling.  He says they originally thought the noise was coming from some backfiring machinery.  They relaized it was coming from outside, and spotted the sub loobbing shots towards them.  They were able to safely flee.

While the shelling didn’t cause injuries, or damage, it did create panic.

Some people reported seeing lights in the mountains above Goleta, and there were claims there were spies signaling the sub.  Those reports were false.  A well known Santa Barbara County resident, J.J. Hollister, says the light actually came from a car he, and his father were driving down through the hills to investigate the shelling.

While there were no spies, the shelling added to the post-Pearl Harbor hysteria which victimized loyal Japanese-Americans.  It led to the infamous roundup of more than 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry, who were interred for much of the war at what the government called “relocation camps”.

The Supreme Court later ruled the actions illegal, and decades later, the federal government formally apologized, and offered compensation to some of its victims.

The onshore oil fields are long gone, but Graffy says there’s a plaque on the site, which is now a gold course,  to commemorate the day World War II came to Santa Barbara County.  

Some of the logs from the oil facilities were used to build the “Timbers” restaurant in the Winchester Canyon area.  Some of the logs are said to have shrapnel from the attack.

Later in the war, Japanese submarines shelled the Oregon coast, and planes launched from subs dropped a few bombs, but there was only minor damage and no injuries.

You can find out more about some slices of the region’s history on historian Neal Graffy’s website.  The link is

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral. 
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