For a week in December 1941, Japanese submarines prowled the U.S. Pacific coastline, searching for merchant ships to sink.
By Donald J. Young
Over a seven-day period, from December 18 to 24, 1941, nine Japanese submarines positioned at strategic points along the U.S. west coast attacked eight American merchant ships, of which two were sunk and two damaged. Six seamen were killed. It was the first and only time during the three years and eight months of war to come that more than one Japanese submarine appeared at the same time off the American coast.
Twelve I-type submarines of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s 1st Submarine Squadron had taken up position in Hawaiian waters by the evening of December 6, 1941, anticipating an attack on U.S. Pacific Fleet ships if they broke out of Pearl Harbor the next day. So successful was the December 7 surprise attack that for two days not a single American ship was spotted at sea.
On December 10, the Japanese learned that an American Lexington-class aircraft carrier was heading for the U.S. mainland. Nine of the 12 subs were ordered to pursue and sink the enemy carrier, then take up positions at designated sites off the Pacific coast and begin attacking American merchant ships. As a climax to the operation, around midnight on Christmas Eve all nine subs were to shell selected U.S. coastal cities and lighthouses. After expending all of their 5.5-inch shells, they were to retire to Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands.
The nine submarines sent to shell the U.S. coast were all launched a year or two before the war began. With only slight differences, all had a range of approximately 15,000 miles, a surface speed of 231Ž2 knots, carried as many as 18 torpedoes, mounted a 5.5-inch deck gun, were over 355 feet long and carried a complement of 94 to 100 men.
The nine subs were strategically located–based on prewar intelligence–to give them the best opportunity to attack the shipping lanes most commonly used by American merchantmen. Four subs, I-19, I-15, I-25 and I-26, were ordered to the most important locations: I-19 off Los Angeles Harbor, I-15 off San Francisco Bay, I-25 off the mouth of the Columbia River and I-26 off the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the important waterway leading into and out of the port of Seattle. The remaining five subs, assigned to locations that had been deemed less crucial, would nonetheless see the most action: I-9 off Cape Blanco, Ore.; I-17 off Cape Mendocino, Calif.; I-23 off Monterey Bay, Calif.; I-21 off Estero Bay, Calif.; and I-10 off San Diego.
About an hour before dawn on December 18, I-17 was moving quietly along the surface 15 miles off Cape Mendocino when one of her lookouts spotted a ship approaching. Kozo Nishino, captain of the 2,500-ton sub, ordered an attack on the American freighter Samoa, which was on her way to San Diego with a load of lumber. Since he was allotted only one torpedo per merchant ship, Nishino decided to open the attack with his 5.5-inch deck gun and use a torpedo only if necessary.
Moments before Samoa crossed the bow of I-17, First Mate John Lehtonen, on watch at the time, spotted a dim light from the approaching enemy sub and yelled down to the captain, “A submarine is attacking us!” Captain Nels Sinnes, who had been asleep, sat bolt upright in his bunk, quickly pulled on his pants and shirt, grabbed a life jacket and yelled into the crew’s quarters for everyone to report to their lifeboat stations. As crewmen began tearing the canvas covers from the lifeboats, the Japanese opened up. “Five shots were fired at us,” Captain Sinnes later recalled. “One, apparently aimed at our radio antenna, burst in the air above the stern. Fragments fell to the deck.”
Captain Nishino, unsatisfied with the results of the shelling from his pitching deck, ordered a torpedo fired at 70 yards. Seconds later, as Sinnes recalled, “We saw the telltale wake of a torpedo coming directly at us amidships. It was too late to do more than just wait for our destiny.
“[Then] the miracle happened. The torpedo went directly beneath us, didn’t even touch the hull and continued beyond. A short distance away it exploded. There was a huge shower accompanied by smoke and flames. Fragments from the torpedo also fell on our deck.”
A combination of three things saved the freighter and her crew. Two were the darkness and the torpedo’s explosion away from the ship. Nishino, unable to see whether the torpedo had hit the ship, moved in closer to check it out. In the dim light, with the Japanese sub less than 15 feet away, the third bit of luck came into play. “Shortly after the attack,” said Sinnes, “the sub hove to about 40 feet away. Visibility was extremely poor and I couldn’t make out the flag or anybody on board. There was a shout: ‘Hi ya!’ from the submarine. I replied, ‘What do you want of us?’ There was no answer. Then it disappeared, evidently thinking that we were sinking on account of our heavy port list.
“The list was due to the fact that the engineers had been shifting water in the ballast tanks,” Sinnes explained. “We also lost our No. 1 lifeboat a couple of days before in a storm, part of which was still hanging from its davit. He evidently thought…[we were] sinking on account of this and left us alone.”
Sinnes was right. Captain Nishino did radio the flag submarine, I-15, off San Francisco, that he had sunk an American merchantman. Samoa hove to until daybreak at 7 a.m., then headed at full speed for San Diego, making port two days later.
On December 20, two days after his attack on Samoa, Captain Nishino got his second chance at an American merchantman. Around 1:30 that afternoon, the Socony-Vacuum Oil Company’s tanker Emidio, returning empty from Seattle to San Francisco, was about 20 miles off Cape Mendocino when a report came down to the captain that a sub had been sighted about a quarter of a mile off the stern and was closing.
Captain Clark Farrow, after first attempting to outrun the enemy raider, ordered “full speed, and dumped ballast, but…had no chance to escape. We were rapidly overtaken. The sub was making 20 knots. I tried to get behind her but [the sub] reversed course and kept after us.”
Realizing the situation was hopeless, Farrow ordered his radio operator, W.S. Foote, to send an SOS, which he did, accompanied by the words, “Under attack by enemy sub.” No sooner had the message been tapped out over the wireless than I-17 opened up with its deck gun, the first shot carrying away the radio antenna. Two more shots from the sub struck Emidio, one of which destroyed one of the lifeboats hanging in its davits on deck.
Farrow stopped the engines and hoisted a white flag, then ordered the crew to take to the lifeboats. “Three of the crew–R.W. Pennington, Fred Potts and Stuart McGillivray–were attempting to launch one of the boats when a shell struck it, spilling them into the water,” said one of the crewmen later. “Other lifeboats were put over the side to search for the three missing men, but we couldn’t find them.”
With the exception of four men still on board and the three lost over the side, the remaining members of the 36-man crew quickly rowed away from the imperiled ship. About 10 minutes later, after a parting shot in the direction of the lifeboats, I-17 abruptly submerged. A couple of minutes later the reason for its sudden disappearance became apparent. “It may have been 10 or 15 minutes after the SOS when two U.S. bombers came roaring overhead from the coast,” said Farrow later. “To us in the lifeboats it was a welcome sight. One of the two planes, circling where the sub had gone down, dropped a depth charge. We couldn’t tell if it hit it or not.”
The depth charge did not damage the sub. On board I-17, in fact, Captain Nishino had decided to risk attack from the American planes in order to take one torpedo shot at the abandoned tanker.
“We were still looking at where the sub went down,” continued Farrow, “when we saw its periscope slowly push up above the surface. While still partially submerged it fired a torpedo from 200 yards. We could see the trail as it sped straight for the ship. It struck with a loud explosion.”
On board Emidio, radioman Foote, who had quickly jury-rigged another antenna, was just preparing to send a second SOS when the torpedo hit. Undaunted by the blast, the dutiful wireless operator tapped out his SOS, added the words “Torpedoed in the stern,” then calmly made his way to the main deck and jumped overboard.
The other men, oiler B.F. Moler, fireman Kenneth Kimes and 3rd engineer R.A. Winters–who had either ignored the order to abandon ship or were unaware of it–were still at their stations in the engine room when the torpedo struck. Astoundingly, Moler saw it penetrate the engine room bulkhead and pass so close to him that, as he told an examining medical officer the next day at the Eureka naval section base, “I could have reached out and touched it. It exploded on the other side of the engine room and killed Kimes and Winters outright.” Despite three broken ribs and a punctured lung, Moler “somehow swam and climbed up to the upper deck and jumped overboard.” Both Moler and Foote were picked up by the lifeboats.
“Back came the planes as the sub sank out of sight again,” continued Farrow. “One of them dropped another depth charge. There was a big blast and plenty of smoke. That may have hit her, we figured, for we didn’t see her again.” Once again, however, the sub escaped damage. On February 23, 1942, I-17 would shell the Ellwood Oil Company refinery, 10 miles north of Santa Barbara–the first enemy shells to land on the continental United States in World War II.
Despite the torpedo hit, Emidio did not sink. Several days later, in fact, she ran aground on a pile of rocks off Crescent City, Calif., an amazing 85 miles north of where she had been torpedoed. The 31 survivors of the stricken ship rowed their lifeboats for 16 hours and 20 miles through a driving rainstorm until they were picked up by a Coast Guard lightship a few miles off Humbolt Bay.
About the time Emidio crewmen were beginning their agonizing 16-hour pull to safety, a second Japanese sub, I-23, had begun stalking another American tanker, Agwiworld, some 330 miles to the south, off Santa Cruz. At 2:15 p.m., as the 6,771-ton Richfield Oil Company tanker headed north some 20 miles off Monterey Bay, an explosion off the stern of the ship brought Captain Frederick Goncalves running to the bridge. About 500 yards to the west and directly in line with the sun, Goncalves could make out what appeared to be a submarine.
“I ordered the helm hard to port and headed straight for [it],” said the captain, “but when the second shot came, I put the helm hard over the starboard and presented my stern to the sub.”
Although this sub, under the command of Captain Genichi Shibata, was much faster than Agwiworld, the Japanese faced a dilemma. The swells were heavy at the time, and Shibata knew that an attempt to overtake the fleeing American tanker with I-23’s decks awash would affect his gun’s accuracy and could even result in the loss of some gun crewmen.
Another reason the enemy sub did not close was probably that the Japanese had overheard the tanker’s distress call to the U.S. Navy. Whatever the reasons, I-23 remained at 500 yards while firing at least a half-dozen more times at the now fishtailing American ship.
“The sub didn’t chase us into port exactly,” Captain Goncalves later recalled. “We zigzagged around, maneuvering always to present the smallest target possible. The sub circled and dodged, trying to get broadside of us, but never succeeded. As we neared land and the sub fired the last of its eight shots–four of which splashed water onto the deck–it quickly submerged.”
On shore, several Monterey peninsula residents had unknowingly witnessed the chase. A story in the Monterey Herald that evening said, “Scores of golfers playing seaside courses reported today they had observed the tanker with huge clouds of smoke pouring from her funnel, fleeing toward Santa Cruz and zigzagging wildly, but most of them thought little more about it.”
On the morning of December 22, 1941, the Standard Oil Company tanker H.M. Story was off Point Arguello, some 55 miles north of Santa Barbara. Submerged less than two miles off the treacherous point, Japanese submarine I-21, under the command of Captain Kanji Matsumura, had been lying in wait for two days.
Walking the lonely beach of Point Arguello that morning was a woman–whose name was later withheld by the Navy–who, along with Jack Sudden, a young high-school student from nearby Lompoc, witnessed the encounter between Story and I-21. Both saw a torpedo fired from I-21.
Sudden, who was rabbit hunting along the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks at the time, said that around 8:30 a.m. he “heard a dull explosion and saw smoke arising from the sea. At first I couldn’t tell what it was, but a few minutes later heavy smoke began to settle over [the] water like a smoke screen. To the northwest of the screen and about three miles from shore I could see the tanker speeding up the coast.
“I later saw a long dark object leave the smoke screen heading in the general direction of the ship. Watching the object–that must have been a torpedo–it closed the gap between itself and the ship and at times came to the surface and kicked up a white spray. The last I could see of the torpedo, it passed in front of the ship.”
The explosion that first attracted Sudden’s attention had come from I-21’s deck gun, but the heavy smoke screen put out by the fleeing tanker made it impossible for Matsumura’s gun crew to see the target, forcing him to submerge and use a torpedo.
The other witness, who had binoculars, could see the submarine plainly. “It was between the tanker and the shore when I saw it,” she said, “less than two miles away. I saw what I thought were two torpedoes fired from the submarine at the ship, but they all went behind it. The tanker then went full speed ahead, with heavy black smoke pouring from her funnel.” Not long after that, planes arrived and dropped several bombs. “They were so heavy that when they exploded they shook the ground where I was standing,” the woman continued. “The explosions raised great columns of water.”
On the morning of December 22, the Japanese submarine I-21, after failing to sink H.M. Story off Point Arguello, headed north in search of another target. At 3 a.m. the next day the sub spotted the Richfield Oil Company tanker Larry Doheney, and Captain Kanji Matsumura fired his 5.5-inch deck gun at her.
Some six miles away in the little beach community of Cayucas, Calif., on the northern edge of Estero Bay, Mrs. Roy Genardini, wife of the town’s constable, was awakened by the noise of the shot. Twenty seconds later a second shot was heard.
On board Doheney, no one was asleep after the first shot. Captain Roy Brieland, the skipper of the empty tanker, was already on the bridge directing the maneuvers of his ship when the second shot came. Both missed, and Brieland frantically zigzagged his 20-year-old oiler into the night.
A few minutes later, on board I-21, Captain Matsumura was about to call off the chase, thwarted by the darkness and Doheney’s fishtailing maneuvers, when a lookout picked up the tanker inside 200 yards with its port side exposed. The Japanese commander quickly ordered a torpedo fired.
Still in her bed back in Cayucas, Mrs. Genardini was just about convinced the shooting was over when she was suddenly jarred by an explosion that, in her own words, “nearly threw me on the floor.” The explosion was the concussion from a Japanese Long Lance torpedo that had exploded after missing Larry Doheney. With that, Matsumura broke off the chase and submerged. His frustration at being outrun by two American tankers in two days, however, would be more than made up for in less than two hours.
About the time I-21 disappeared below the surface, another American tanker, the Union Oil Company’s Montebello, was pulling away from the company wharf some 20 miles away at Avila, on its way north with a cargo of oil and gasoline. An hour and a half later she found herself in a life-or-death race with a frustrated Japanese submarine commander with vengeance on his mind.
At 5:30 a.m. William Srez, on watch aboard Montebello, alerted Captain Olaf Eckstrom that they were being stalked by what looked like a sub. Five-and-a-half hours earlier, Eckstrom had been the ship’s first mate. At midnight, her captain had abruptly resigned, giving the command to Eckstrom.
“I saw a dark outline on the water, close astern of us,” said the new captain later. “Srez was right. It was the silhouette of a Jap submarine, a big fellow, possibly 300 feet long. I ordered the quartermaster at the wheel, John McIsaac, to zigzag. For 10 minutes we tried desperately to cheat the sub, but it was no use. She was too close…[and] let a torpedo go when we were broadside to her.”
“The torpedo smashed us square amidships,” said Srez, “and there was a big blast and the ship shuddered and trembled and we knew she was done for.”
Fortunately for Montebello, the torpedo hit the only compartment not loaded with gasoline. “The men wouldn’t have had a chance if any other hold was hit,” said Eckstrom. But it did knock out the radio.
“The skipper was as cool as a snowdrift,” remembered Srez. “He yelled an order to stand by the lifeboats and then an order to abandon ship, and there was something in the way he gave those orders that made us proud to be serving under him.”
As the crew responded by lowering the lifeboats, the Japanese opened fire with their deck gun at nearly point-blank range. “The sub began shelling us,” continued Captain Eckstrom. “There was from eight to 10 flashes. One hit the foremast, snapping it. Another whistled by my head so close I could have reached out and touched it. But there was no panic, no hysteria. We got all four lifeboats into the water. Splinters from one of the shells struck some of the boats, but by some kind of miracle, none of us was wounded.”
Despite the torpedoing, Eckstrom was not sure Montebello was going to sink, and he ordered his lifeboats “to lie a short distance from the ship. But 45 minutes later, just as dawn was breaking, she went down.”
As the 36 men in four lifeboats began rowing for shore, I-21 opened fire with machine guns on the helpless American sailors until poor visibility forced the Japanese to retire. Although no one was wounded, the boat carrying Eckstrom, Srez and four other crewmen was hit.
“Machine-gun bullets hit our boat,” said Srez, “and she began leaking like a sieve. We began rowing shoreward, with some of us leaning on the oars for all we were worth and the others bailing.”
Fighting fatigue, rough water and a leaking boat, it was not until noon–some six hours after the sinking–that the six men literally hit the beach below the town of Cambria. “We were caught in the surf,” Srez recalled, “and the lifeboat capsized….Some of the boys were scratched up, and the captain nearly drowned.”
As the lumber schooner Barbara Olson was quietly steaming toward San Diego on the morning of December 24, she was rocked by a violent blast 100 feet off its seaward side. Although no one on board saw what caused it, the explosion was from a torpedo fired by I-19, which had gone under Olson and blown up on the other side.
About four miles away, aboard the Navy subchaser USS Amethyst, on patrol off the Los Angeles Harbor entrance, lookouts were attracted by the blast, and the captain sounded general quarters one minute later. The note in the ship’s log read: “At 0625 sighted an explosion that threw smoke and spray approximately 300 feet into the air. At 0626 sounded general quarters. At 0730 secured from general quarters and set condition Baker.”
Amethyst went down for a “look-see” but did not locate the enemy sub. Although
I-19 had missed Barbara Olson, four hours later she would have another chance at an American ship. By 10 a.m., I-19 had moved to new hunting grounds a few miles north off Point Fermin. Entering the Catalina Channel some five miles north of the waiting enemy sub was the McCormick Steamship Company’s 5,700-ton freighter Absaroka, also on her way south with a load of lumber.
By 10:30, the freighter was off Point Fermin, whose famous 77-year-old lighthouse was clearly visible less than a mile away. Manning a coast artillery gun position on the point just below the lighthouse, Army Sergeant James Hedwood and his crew watched the ship as it passed. “We were looking at the lumber schooner when suddenly we saw a fountain of water spout 100 feet into the air at the stern,” Hedwood recalled. The boat spun around some 220 degrees from the force of the blow, “ending up with its stern to sea and its bow facing toward land.”
On board, Seaman Joseph Scott was the first to see the sub that got Absaroka. “It was midmorning and all hands were up, when I looked off to starboard and saw a whale,” he recalled. “At least I was about to say ‘look over yonder, a whale,’ when I changed my mind and yelled, ‘There’s a Jap submarine!’
“She was coming head-on. Then her periscope went up and she shot a torpedo. I’ve seen torpedoes coming at me before. ‘They’ve wasted that one,’ says I. Sure enough it went wide, but right on its heels came another. ‘Oh, oh, that’s bad,’ says I, because I could see this one was going to get us.”
Scott’s reference to previous experience with torpedoes was no exaggeration. At sea since his early 20s, the 48-year-old veteran had had four merchant ships torpedoed out from under him on four consecutive voyages during World War I.
“In those other torpedoings, as I recall ’em, there was always a bang or blast and a bump,” Scott continued. “But this one was a sort of slow jar, with nothing but a rumble because she hit well below the waterline.”
Four men–Harry Greenwald, Marshall Mansfield, Herbert Stevens and Joseph Ryan–were working on the starboard side of Absaroka, routinely checking the lashings on the particularly heavy deckload of lumber she was carrying, moments before the torpedo struck. One of them glanced up in time to see the wake. “Torpedo!” he yelled, pointing toward the stern of the ship. “I knew [it] was going to miss us and broke into a grin,” said Greenwald. “But my grin froze, because the second fish followed the first one quicker than it takes to tell it.”
The second torpedo struck with tremendous impact about 50 feet aft of the beam, knocking three of the four men into the sea. The fourth, Ryan, was able to ride out the blast, which, according to one observer, threw tons of lumber into the air “as if a man were throwing matchsticks around.”
Amazingly, within a matter of seconds, Greenwald was back on deck after being thrown overboard. As he struggled to the surface after his sudden dunking, the rail over which he had just been hurled came close enough for him to grab. “The ship [rolled] over so far from the explosion that her deck went underwater,” said Greenwald. “I grabbed the rail as the ship shuddered and righted herself [and] was carried up as she swung back.” Mansfield pulled himself back on board by a rope.
The third man, Stevens, whose leg had been injured in the blast and his subsequent fall into the sea, began yelling for his shipmates to help. Ryan located him and dashed to the deck rail, picked up a coil of heavy mooring line and tossed it toward Stevens’ bobbing head. Ryan had begun pulling Stevens toward the ship when the next disaster struck. The explosion had snapped the lashings anchoring the deckload of lumber behind Ryan. As he was leaning over the rail drawing his injured comrade toward the side of the ship, a 10-foot wall of lumber teetered and then fell, instantly killing Ryan and tumbling his body overboard along with hundreds of board feet of lumber.
Another man, oiler James O’Brien, who had been positioned a little farther forward when the torpedo hit, said that the blast “knocked me off my feet and made me goofy for a minute. Because the sub had the glare behind her, we couldn’t have had a chance to escape. She had a perfect target.”
Radio operator Walt Williams, in the communications shack on the aft end of the boat when the torpedo exploded, was thrown out of his chair onto the floor by the blast. Seconds later, Williams recalled, “Captain Louie Pringle notified me to send out the SOS signal and the message that we’d been torpedoed. Two messages I didn’t have to be told to send.”
Out on deck, crewmen had already lowered the lifeboats. There was no need to wait for the order to abandon ship. Within minutes, Absaroka had already settled up to her main deck.
Not long after Williams’ distress call, planes showed up and dropped bombs near where the sub was last seen. On the heels of the bombing, Amethyst arrived on the scene and began dropping depth charges. Despite the effors to retaliate against I-19, neither bombs nor the pattern of 32 depth charges showed results.
As the day wore on, seven of the 33-man crew rescued from Absaroka, including Captain Pringle, had come back on board. Seeing that the old lumber ship was not in any immediate danger of sinking, Lt. Cmdr. Hans B. Olson tied on his U.S. Navy tug, and Absaroka was gingerly towed in and beached on a strip of sand below Fort MacArthur.
One month later, in the January 26, 1942, issue of LIFE magazine, movie actress Jane Russell was featured in the full-page “Picture of the Week,” standing in the tremendous hole in Absaroka’s hull created by the Japanese torpedo. In the picture she is holding a poster that warns: “A slip of the lip may sink a ship,” with the words “may sink a ship” crossed out and the words “may have sunk this ship” written in.
As a finale to the seven days of attacks on west coast shipping, early on Christmas Day all eight Japanese subs (I-9 had been ordered to Panama on December 20) were to select a choice mainland target and fire all of their 5.5-inch deck gun ammunition at it, then withdraw to the Marshall Islands. That did not happen. According to a postwar Japanese monograph, orders from Combined Fleet headquarters in Tokyo canceled the operation for fear of retaliation by U.S. anti-submarine forces, which they announced had become “very severe” within the past few days. Only I-17 carried out such an attack, shelling the oil refinery near Santa Barbara late in February.
Donald J. Young is the founder and director of the Fort MacArthur Military Museum in San Pedro, Calif. For further reading, try his book, December 1941–America’s First 25 Days at War, and I-Boat Captain, by Zenji Orita and Joseph Harrington. [ TOP ] [ Cover ]