Soldiers from Fort Stevens, Oregon, inspect a five-foot crater created by a shell fired from a Japanese submarine. (Photo courtesy of Fort Stevens State Park)

THE WHISTLE OF INCOMING SHELLS startled gunners of the 249th Coast Artillery Corps Regiment from their bunks at Fort Stevens, Oregon, in the closing minutes of Sunday, June 21, 1942. A Japanese submarine, the I-25, had surfaced about six miles out to sea and was firing on the fort that had guarded the mouth of the Columbia River since the Civil War.

On a chilly February night 75 years later, I pad up a grassy slope in what is now Fort Stevens State Park, retracing the steps of the soldiers who manned Battery Russell, the sole ocean-facing gun fortification located a lonely two miles southwest of the fort’s other batteries. The constellation of Orion and his night-sky companions illuminate the sharp edges of the concrete fortress before me while a chorus of tree frogs croaks to the rhythmic accompaniment of the Pacific, just half a mile away at the northwestern tip of Oregon.

On the night Fort Stevens became the first mainland U.S. military base to be attacked by a foreign power since the War of 1812, the half-dressed soldiers of the 249th’s F Battery streamed out of “Squirrelville,” a temporary tent city in the nearby swamp erected in February 1942 and named for its constant turnover of soldiers. The men filed up the thick steps of the battery honoring slain Civil War major general David A. Russell, took up battle stations, and awaited orders to load and fire the last pair of M 1900 10-inch breech-loading disappearing guns then in action in the United States.

Today those gun pits are empty, but plenty of corroded clues still point to the complexity of firing the guns’ 600-lb. shells. After a cozy night camping in Squirrelville’s modern descendent—the park’s village of rental yurts—I roam Russell’s rust-tinged corridors by the light of day. Amid a maze of sun-bleached graffiti, I spy the shaft where the men had hoisted shells and silk powder bags from ground level, and notice the narrow speaking tubes used to relay coordinates to the 35-man crews arming and aiming each of the school bus-length barrels. 

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The historic significance of this sandy stretch of the Oregon coast began long before the misfortunes of World War II lapped ashore. The United States acquired the land that is now Fort Stevens from the Clatsop Indians by treaty in 1851, 46 years after Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery staked its winter camp just a few miles south of here. In 1863 the army broke ground on a fort, named for the first governor of Washington Territory, Isaac I. Stevens, to deny unwelcome ships passage up the great Columbia River dividing Oregon and Washington. To deter would-be infiltrators, a half-dozen gun batteries were erected, including Russell in 1904. Early in the twentieth century, the Harbor Defenses of the Columbia, which comprised Fort Stevens and two sister bases across the river in Washington, added another layer of defense with a system of underwater mines; battery crews trained to target fast-moving enemy ships that might be sent to snag the mines from their moorings. By the time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the 249th had won multiple awards for marksmanship.

A faux shell amid overgrown brush now marks the much-diminished site of the crater. (Photo by Jessica Wambach Brown)

But the I-25 was not interested in making a run up the Columbia. After supporting the Japanese occupation of two of the Aleutian Islands in early June 1942, the sub was sent down the Pacific Coast to watch for Alaska-bound American ships and target coastal direction-finder stations that could use radio signals to triangulate the location of Japanese vessels. One such station was located about 1,500 yards north of Battery Russell.

The I-25’s first five-and-a-half-inch shell landed in a swamp about four miles south of Russell, blasting a five-foot crater a few marshy steps away from the park’s southern boundary. As the submarine’s line of fire crept steadily northward, awestruck onlookers in the nearby towns of Astoria and Seaside caught glimpses of sailors moving about the gun deck each time the guns flashed.

The men looking out from Battery Russell’s command station that night could see the muzzle flashes as well. As I stand in the same dank room three-quarters of a century later, my view of the ocean is obscured by dense patches of scrub pine and shrubbery planted shortly before the war to stabilize the ever-changing sandscape. Although the battery is silent now, it is not hard to imagine F Battery’s trepidation as the I-25’s shells drew close enough for shrapnel to pierce the red alder trees of Squirrelville. Peering down a chute in the command station’s dusty floor, I picture men huddled around maps in the plotting room below, eagerly waiting for Harbor Defenses’ commander to order the fort’s searchlights to illuminate the target and help pinpoint its range.

BUT THE ORDER NEVER CAME. At the Harbor Defense Command Post two miles north, the duty officer was juggling conflicting reports as to whether the I-25 was in range of any of the seven batteries spread between Fort Stevens and the two Washington forts. Despite fervent pleas from the battery crews, Colonel Carl Doney, a 1916 West Point graduate who had been transferred from San Francisco just four weeks prior, opted not to risk further exposure of his batteries’ locations. The searchlights remained off and the guns unloaded.

David Lindstrom, a local historian and longtime volunteer for Friends of Old Fort Stevens, has corresponded with veterans on both sides of the I-25 attack. As we survey sun-glazed whitecaps from Fort Stevens’s south jetty, he details evidence that indicates the sub was indeed within range of Fort Stevens’s guns and describes the soldiers’ outrage at Doney’s decision. “There was great agitation to return fire. They were so close to insubordination,” he says. “They could see the target. They knew they could hit it.”

Interior view of Battery Russell. (Photo by Jessica Wambach Brown)

The attack lasted less than 20 minutes and left both Battery Russell and the direction-finder station unscathed. Of the at least nine shells the I-25’s crew fired, only one claimed a casualty—the backstop of Squirrelville’s treasured baseball diamond. The submarine quietly motored away the next morning, but returned to the Oregon coast three months later to launch near the town of Brookings a floatplane that conducted the first—largely harmless—bombing of the continental United States by an enemy aircraft. The state’s wartime troubles culminated in tragedy in May 1945, when a woman and five children on a picnic near Bly stumbled upon one of the 9,000 transpacific fire balloons launched from Japan and became the only combat casualties in the lower 48 states during World War II.

Battery Russell’s 10-inch guns fired their last practice shots in December 1944 and the entire fort was decommissioned three years later. Fort Stevens became a state park in 1955 and today attracts more than 1.2 million annual visitors who are encouraged to explore the concrete mysteries of Russell and its base end stations, along with the many moss-covered treasures in a designated historic area near the old Harbor Defense Command Post. There, amid remnants of the mine program and more permanent wartime dwellings that put Squirrelville’s tents to shame, Friends of Old Fort Stevens sponsors reenactments and staffs a small museum that chronicles the fort’s 84-year tenure as guardian of the Columbia—including the fateful night that put this tiny coastal stretch of Oregon in the history books. ✯

This column was originally published in the October 2017 issue of World War II magazine. Subscribe here