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Last Saturday marked the 71st anniversary of the Japanese attack on Ellwood Oil Field in Goleta — the first and only attack on U.S. mainland soil by a foreign nation since the War of 1812.
The attack occurred at roughly 7 p.m. on February 23, 1942 when the Japanese submarine I-17, commanded by Captain Kozo Nishino, surfaced and began bombarding the coast. Nashino ordered his men to target two Richfield Oil Tanks with their five-and-a-half-inch deck guns for about 30 minutes before submerging back underwater and departing.
Kenneth Hough, a Doctoral Candidate in the UCSB History Department who is studying Japanese War Scares in the early 20th century, said while the attack caused only minor damage, it had a significant impact on public fears.
“This attack came weeks after Pearl Harbor — the worst military defeat in this country’s history,” Hough said. “It was a tense time — we were losing. There was no indication that the Allies would win or even survive this war, and then Ellwood happens. People were afraid that what happened in Hawaii would happen to Los Angeles or New York.”
Hough said Goleta boasted one of the largest oil fields in California and, unlike San Francisco or Los Angeles, did not have a major military presence, making it an attractive target for the Japanese Navy.
“The war in the Pacific was very much a war for oil,” Hough said. “We were selling the vast majority of the oil produced on the West Coast to Japan from the mid-1930s on. Probably something like 80 percent of the oil for the Japanese Navy was coming from U.S. suppliers. So the Japanese wanted to eliminate any oil production that would go to its enemies.”
However, according to Hough, the main objective of the attack was more than just the destruction of oil production. The mission was part of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s strategy to prove to his superiors that Japanese submarines could successfully survive raids on the west coast.
“The Japanese had this really great weapon, the submarine, but they didn’t really know how to use it,” Ken said. “The Germans at the same time, in the Atlantic, are sinking millions of tons of raw materials and oil in the Gulf of Mexico and on the east coast. There is some suggestion that if they had kept it up, they would have delayed the war.”
After receiving acclaim for his part in orchestrating the attack on Pearl Harbor, Yamamoto hoped to escalate the war in the Pacific. The attacks Yamamoto sent were successful, and Yamamoto hoped to direct a new batch of long-range submarines to American shipping and possibly delay the war, Hough said.
Instead, the Imperial Japanese Navy chose to conserve their forces and focus on the total destruction of the Allied Fleet. Only a few months later, the Imperial Japanese navy was defeated at the Battle of Midway when Yamamoto and Nashino’s forces were overpowered, and the same I-17 submarine that shelled Goleta was sunk by the Royal New Zealand Navy, according to Hough.
“The Ellwood Oil Field shelling is pretty well known locally,” Hough said. “And it’s been wrapped up in a lot of local lore, but it’s not very well known nationally simply because of the fact that World War II was such a massive event with such massive violence and loss of life.”
Local legends, according to Hough, maintain that Nashino targeted Goleta because oil workers mocked him after he allegedly tripped and fell into a patch of cactuses in front of an off-duty working crew. After this humiliation and mockery, Nashino, an oil tanker captain at the time, swore revenge.
Hough said he disputes this legend entirely.
“He was a career naval officer and, thus, had never worked as a farmhand in Goleta,” Ken said. “The story of him being a captain of an oil tanker that stopped at Ellwood where he came ashore and fell into a cactus patch is not true. It’s a long told Santa Barbara legend, which may have happened to someone, but not to Captain Nishino.”
A version of this article appeared on page 1 of February 28th, 2013’s print edition of the Nexus.
Photo Courtesy of Kevin Hough.