The Phantom Menace, 1942

Japanese World War II postcard commemorating I-17 shelling of Ellwood oilfields. (


The War Arrives on the Mainland

In the early twilight hours of Feb. 23, 1942, the Imperial Japanese Navy submarine I-17 emerged from the sea off the California coast, just north of what is now the UC Santa Barbara campus. Crew members rushed onto the narrow deck and loaded the 140mm cannon as Commander Kozo Nishino gave the order to commence the attack.

By World War II standards, the I-17 was an enormous submarine. With a length of over 350 feet, it was longer than a football field, and even carried a small seaplane that could be quickly removed from a waterproof compartment and assembled for launch from a catapult on the deck. I-17 was one of a fleet of Japanese submarines patrolling the West Coast, attacking shipping following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

That evening, for nearly 20 minutes, the I-17 fired numerous high-explosive shells at the rambling Ellwood oil facility before finally turning back towards the open sea and disappearing once again into the vast, dark Pacific. Though the erratic shelling caused little physical damage, it marked the first attack of the war on the U.S. mainland. The raid raised widespread alarm throughout the country and set the stage for an even larger event the following night in nearby Los Angeles.

A Gathering Storm

Jhiichi Kudo came to the U.S. in 1906 from Kumamoto. He initially found employment doing odd jobs and gardening, and then began working in the nursery business. His spouse Tomiye joined him in 1916, and together they ran a successful cactus nursery in West Los Angeles as they also raised their family.

One of the Kudo children, Sumiko Nakasone, now lives in a retirement community in the San Fernando Valley. When World War II broke out in December 1941, Sumiko was a student attending University High in Los Angeles. She recalls her shock when a popular local Japanese language teacher who lived in her neighborhood was among over 1,200 Japanese Americans seized in raids by authorities immediately after the Pearl Harbor attack. Those arrested included community leaders, teachers, and even fishermen, and many were held for the duration of the war.

After Pearl Harbor, increasing numbers of restrictions were imposed on the Japanese American community. In December, Japanese assets were frozen or seized, and an order was issued to surrender all cameras and radios. In January, travel restrictions were imposed, weapons were confiscated, and “strategic zones” excluding Japanese Americans were defined along the Pacific coast and in other parts of California. In February, curfews were announced, and on Feb. 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, setting the stage for mass internments.

The Early War in the Pacific

Tensions were already high following the attack on Pearl Harbor. In addition to bombing the Pacific Fleet in Hawaii, the Japanese military had also simultaneously attacked numerous targets in Asia and Southeast Asia. Japanese troops dealt Allied forces a series of shocking defeats as they captured Guam and Wake Island, invaded Burma and Thailand, forced British surrenders at Hong Kong and Singapore and the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Philippines. Japanese aircraft sank two large British warships, the battleship Prince of Wales and battle cruiser Repulse, and then conducted the first of many air assaults on Australia, striking the port city of Darwin with a massive air raid. In the early months of the war, Japanese forces had momentum and seemed nearly unstoppable.

Near the U.S. mainland, Japanese submarines had attacked numerous ships off the West Coast, and in mid-February, German submarines attacked oil refineries and sank several oil tankers in the Caribbean. The New York Times published a dire warning from President Roosevelt that major U.S. cities could become targets of attacks. The war was not going well, and it seemed to be getting closer to home.

Tomiye Kudo with four of her six children. From left: Mieko, Tomiye, Frances, Koji, Sumiko. (Photo courtesy Ross Kobayashi)

The Phantom Attack on Los Angeles

In the early days of the war, jumpy coastal residents were expecting the worst. There was an alert and blackout in San Francisco, reports of unidentified planes and Japanese warships off the Southern California coast, and an air raid alert on the East Coast, all triggered by mistaken reports of enemy forces.

The actual Feb. 23 submarine attack on Ellwood heightened tensions even more, and the following day Naval Intelligence issued a warning that another attack “could be expected within the next ten hours.”

On the evening of Feb. 24, an alert was raised in Southern California but was cancelled within a few hours. Then, during the early morning hours of the 25th, several radar installations detected an unidentified object approaching Los Angeles from 120 miles off the coast. Coastal defenses were put on highest alert and a blackout was ordered from Los Angeles to the Mexican border. At around 3 a.m., the skies over Los Angeles were suddenly filled with searchlights and bursting anti-aircraft fire as air defense personnel began firing into the night sky.

A Night to Remember

Sumiko still remembers the air raid alert that evening as she huddled with her family in the darkened house behind heavy blackout curtains. Occasionally they would risk a peek through the curtains when they thought they heard planes overhead, though they did not see any planes or anti-aircraft fire in their area. Meanwhile, over other parts of the city, searchlights frantically swept the darkness as gunfire erupted in bursts while authorities continued to receive chaotic reports of various things in the sky — including planes, balloons, and flares.

Before the wild shooting tapered off after 4 a.m., over 1,400 anti-aircraft shells had been fired as shrapnel and unexploded ordinance rained down on hapless residents. The alert was finally lifted at 7:21 a.m., and the morning light soon revealed that the only casualties were residents or military personnel who had succumbed to heart attacks or accidents on the darkened streets. Despite claims that several enemy planes had been hit, no downed planes were recovered, and no bombs had been dropped.

Official Confusion

The official explanation was as confused as the previous night’s events. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson issued a statement based on Army reports that as many as 15 planes had been involved in the raid. Navy Secretary Frank Knox dismissed those claims, calling the entire event a “false alarm.” There was an outcry from the public and the press demanding an explanation, and congressional hearings were launched.

But whatever may have been in the sky that night, it was not Japanese planes. After the war, The L.A. Times confirmed that Japanese authorities denied having any aircraft in the area that evening. And although the U.S. military also claimed that no U.S. planes were involved, many witnesses reported seeing or hearing aircraft that night — including Sumiko and even one of her current neighbors, who at that time was a teenager living with his family in San Pedro. He recently mentioned to Sumiko that he recalled seeing many aircraft that night, flying at a very high altitude towards the north, above the reach of the anti-aircraft fire.

Various explanations of what triggered and fueled this event have been proposed over the years, including weather balloons, an ad hoc radar test, commercial planes piloted by “enemy agents,” some other type of unknown flying object, and just plain “war jitters.” No single explanation seems to account for all of the witness testimony and evidence, and what may be most remarkable is that such a widespread event could remain unresolved to this day.

The Internments Begin

The Ellwood shelling and the mysterious Los Angeles air raid only increased pressure to remove Japanese Americans from the region. There were numerous arrests that night, many of them Japanese Americans accused of suspicious activity.

On Feb. 25, the day after the L.A. event, the Navy abruptly moved up the eviction date for the Japanese American fishing community on Terminal Island, near San Pedro. Instead of a mid- March deadline, all remaining residents were given only 48 hours to vacate their homes. Many were already in custody after authorities detained all Issei commercial fishermen earlier in the month.

In March 1942, authorities moved ahead with preparations to remove Japanese Americans from the West Coast. Washington, Oregon, California, and parts of Arizona were designated “military areas,” with stipulations that all persons of Japanese descent were to be removed. Numerous “temporary detention centers” were established, initially at Manzanar in the Owens Valley and Santa Anita Racetrack in Southern California, followed by 14 more located from Washington to Arizona.

On March 24, Lt. Gen. John DeWitt issued the first of over 100 Exclusion orders, directing the removal of Japanese Americans from Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound to the temporary Puyallup Army detention center near Seattle. The internment process was officially under way, and by August more than 120,000 Japanese Americans had been forcibly removed from their homes.

Following their release from the camps, Tomiye and