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PANIC: When Japan’s Submarine War Against America Came to California

October 18, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Imperial Japanese NavyWorld War IISubmarinesWest CoastU.S. Navy

PANIC: When Japan’s Submarine War Against America Came to California

Was a Japanese attack on Los Angeles imminent? What can history teach us? 

Key point: Japan lacked the resources and time to launch a major offensive operation on the continental United States.

It seemed like just another ordinary day at sea. Early on December 7, 1941, a U.S. Army-chartered cargo vessel, the 250-foot SS Cynthia Olson, under the command of a civilian skipper, Berthel Carlsen, was plying the Pacific waters about 1,200 miles northeast of Diamond Head, Oahu, Hawaii, and over 1,000 miles west of the Tacoma, Washington, port from which she had sailed on December 1.

On board the unarmed Cynthia Olson, formerly the Coquina and renamed for the daughter of the owner, Oliver J. Olson Company of San Francisco, California, were several tons of supplies destined for the U.S. Army in Hawaii. Thirty-three Merchant Marine crewmen and two soldiers were accompanying the cargo

Unknown to the crew of the Cynthia Olson, the Japanese submarine I-26, under Commander Minoru Yokota, was running alongside the slow, fat target, waiting for the moment to attack. The I-26 was about to strike the first blow of World War II against America.

“Tora, Tora, Tora”

Five days earlier, Yokota had received the coded message, Niitakayama nobore 1208 (“Climb Mount Niitaka, December 8”). The signal meant that war with the United States would commence on December 8, Japan time, or December 7 in Hawaii. Among the nine Japanese submarines assigned to patrol the waters between Hawaii and America’s West Coast, the I-26 had been at sea for a month. Its initial sea service took it to Alaska’s Aleutian Islands; it was then ordered south to look for American ships.

At dawn on December 7, 1941, Yokota and his 90 submariners went to battle stations and surfaced. A warning shot from I-26’s deck gun raced across the Cynthia Olson’s bow. While skipper Carlson attempted some evasive maneuvers, the Olson’s radio operator sent out a distress call, but the ship had nothing with which to fight back.

Now the 5.5-inch shells from the sub’s deck gun began to find their mark, and flying shards of steel sent the crew rushing for the lifeboats. The I-26’s gunners kept up the one-sided battle until 18 rounds had been expended and the badly damaged cargo ship appeared to be riding low in the water. She refused to sink, however, so Yokota submerged and fired a torpedo at her, but it missed. Resurfacing, Yokota ordered the deck gun to resume firing. Only after another 30 shots were fired did the Cynthia Olson go under.

During the shelling, a coded message was received aboard the I-26: “Tora, Tora, Tora,” indicating that the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor had commenced and everything seemed to be going well for the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN). As the Cynthia Olson slipped beneath the waves, the I-26 turned and sailed away, leaving the men on the transport ship and in the lifeboats to their fates; none survived.

Thus began Japan’s submarine war against the United States.

The B-1 Class Submarine

Truth be told, the Imperial Japanese Navy had been preparing for submarine warfare long before Pearl Harbor. In time they honed a design to do just that. It became their B-1 class submarine. The B-1 class was designated the “I” Series, and 20 of them would sail the Pacific Ocean during the war.

The typical B-1, with a crew of 95 men, was 356 feet long and 30 feet at the beam with a hull 17 feet high. Its standard weight was 2,200 tons, and it could carry 800 tons of diesel fuel that enabled it to cruise 14,000 miles at 16 knots (17.6 mph) per hour. Its top speeds surfaced were 23.5 knots (25.3 mph) and eight knots (8.8 mph), respectively. It carried 17 torpedoes and had a deadly 5.5-inch deck gun. To ward off encroaching enemy aircraft, it employed two 25mm machine guns. Its safest maximum depth was 330 feet.

What made the B-1s unique was that each submarine housed one Yokosuka E14Y1 scout plane (code named “Glen” by the Allies) inside a watertight, on-deck hangar forward of the conning tower. A double-track launch rail catapulted the plane to get it airborne. Its normal cruising speed was 85 mph, with a maximum speed of 150 mph. Although the plane’s primary role was scouting and it could do so with a 200-mile radius in a five-hour flight time, it could also carry a maximum bomb load of 340 pounds. The Glen’s second crew member, a gunner, sat facing rearward behind a single 7.7mm machine gun.

To fit a Glen into the onboard hangar, its wings, floats, and tail assembly were either removed or folded. With a crew of four it could be made air ready in less than 40 minutes. Upon returning, it landed next to the sub where a crane lifted it back on board. Crew members then disassembled it to fit it into the hangar.

Before the war, America’s military had no idea the Japanese had such capabilities. These weapons, the “I” subs and warplanes, were state of the art.

Japan’s antagonistic attitude against America rose between 1922 and 1930. Japan keenly felt snubbed by the Western Allies following their World War I victory. During the negotiations of naval limitations in Washington, D.C., in the 1920s, restrictions were placed on the naval power of the United States, Great Britain, and Japan in a ratio of 5:3:3. In other words, for every five warships America and England built, Japan could only produce three. The Japanese considered this a blow to national prestige and their expansionist aims.

From that point on a grudge match evolved between Japan and America, and the militarists in Japan began scheming for retribution as early as 1931. At that time Japan was considering stationing four mine-laying submarines off the West Coast should hostilities with the United States erupt. A major emphasis was placed on developing state-of-the-art submarines that could carry their own reconnaissance planes stored in on-deck hangars. (See WWII Quarterly, Winter 2012.)

Submarines Off San Francisco

Three days after the sinking of the Cynthia Olson, December 10, 1941, the I-26, along with other subs, was called back toward Pearl Harbor. It was imperative that the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier Lexington be located and removed from action, but a four-day search proved fruitless. A new role was then established for the submarines. Vice Admiral Mitsumi Shimizu, commander of Japanese submarine forces, directed Rear Admiral Tsutomu Sato in his flagship I-9 to park his nine submarines off San Francisco by December 17 and commence bombarding the city on Christmas Day. Each submarine was ordered to surface, then fire no fewer than 30 5.5-inch rounds into the city.

Beyond the Golden Gate Bridge the nine subs loitered undetected and waited for December 25. During  the week before Christmas they cruised out of sight and resurfaced at night to recharge batteries as needed. On the 22nd an unexpected order was received postponing the attack until December 27. That order came directly from Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander in chief of the Combined Fleet.

Five days later, Sato had a message to share with headquarters. His subs were drastically short of fuel. In all probability the attack could still commence on the 27th, but the complication would come in returning to Japan. Literally speaking, some subs might run out of fuel. Yamamoto called off the attack for that—and for another reason.

During the 1920s, Yamamoto had studied at Harvard University. He observed  America’s industrial capacity and realized that Japan could not hope to win a protracted war with the United States. Yamamoto was further hesitant to attack the U.S. civilian population, particularly during a holiday, and was concerned about U.S. retailiation sometime in the future.

Four and a half months later, Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle’s carrier-launched North American B-25 Mitchell bombers, seeking revenge for Pearl Harbor, struck Tokyo. Had Yamamoto known that Tokyo would be bombed, he may well have authorized the shelling of San Francisco.

Christmas Eve Attack on the Absaroka

At 10:30 am on Christmas Eve, one of the Japanese submarines nevertheless went into action near Los Angeles. The submarine I-19, captained by an officer named Nahara, was cruising off Point Fermin in the Catalina Channel when the 5,700-ton freighter Absaroka, which had sailed from Oregon with a load of lumber, was spotted heading south for Los Angeles harbor.

The I-19 launched a torpedo that struck the freighter at the No. 5 hold, causing extensive damage and blowing the cargo from the hold into the air. A crewman was killed by flying debris. The radio operator sent an SOS signal, but within minutes the Absaroka had settled to her main deck. As the crew abandoned ship, one of their two lifeboats capsized, but the surviving 33 men managed to escape in a single lifeboat.

Shortly after the SOS went out, American war planes arrived and dropped bombs near where the sub was last seen. Following the aircraft attack, the patrol yacht USS Amethyst (PYc-3), assigned to the Inshore Patrol, 11th Naval District, and patrolling the entrance to Los Angeles harbor, dropped 32 depth charges.