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When the Japanese Attacked Santa Barbara (1940s)

by Ron Kurtus (revised 16 March 2015)

Most people studying history are aware of the fact that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on 7 December 1941, resulting in the United States entering World War II. A little known fact is that the Japanese also made another attack on the mainland of the United States, shelling an area near Santa Barbara, California.

Questions you may have include:

This lesson will answer those questions.

Events leading to attack

The events leading to the attack actually started out in the late 1930s when a Japanese ship docked in the small city of Santa Barbara, California, 60 miles up the coast from Los Angeles. It is uncertain if the ship stopped in Santa Barbara to get crude oil that had been drilled from one of the off-shore wells on either side of the city or to load or unload cargo.

While in port, the captain of the ship was given a tour of the sights in Santa Barbara. As the captain was admiring some scenery on a hillside, he backed up and lost his footing. He fell backwards into a bed of cactus!

His guests burst into laughter at his misfortune. The captain did not understand the American sense of humor and felt that he was being ridiculed by these people. He had lost face because of his accident, and he vowed to get revenge on Americans and on Santa Barbara.

Sub shells coast

After war was declared between Japan and the United States, the freighter captain entered the Japanese navy as a submarine commander. On 23 February 1942, he brought his submarine close to the California coast. He knew of the oil fields near Santa Barbara, which had strategic importance in the war. But he also felt that his was his opportunity to get revenge on the rude Americans who had humiliated him so.

The captain surfaced his submarine near an oil field pier just north of the Santa Barbara suburb of Goleta. The submarine shelled the pier, damaging it. He also ordered shelling of the area around, but no damage was done, since it was primarily farmland there.

Since very few people lived in the area of the pier, no one was injured. But the captain gained his revenge.

Results of shelling

The shelling of the pier had minimal—if any—impact on the American war effort. On 1 March 1942, the headlines of the Santa Barbara newspaper and the San Francisco Chronicle announced the attack.

San Francisco wary of attacks

San Francisco was wary of an attack by the Japanese. In fact, they were in process of building gun emplacements on the hills by Fort Baker, just on the other side of the Golden Gate bridge, near Sausalito.

(I believe the turrets are still up there among the bush. I accidentally found them while hiking in that area some years ago.)

Little mention of shelling

Since there has be little or no mention of this bombing in history books, it can be assumed that the news was suppressed. It certainly was a significant event, even if the damage was slight. News suppression was not uncommon during the war.

Later that year on 9 and 10 September 1942 a Japanese float-plane flew two missions over Oregon, dropping incendiary bombs in the U.S. forests. It was the only bombing of the continental U.S. during the war and was also suppressed in the newspapers.

It is also possible that with all the major fighting going on, such events were not deemed that newsworthy, especially since no lives were lost.

Rich moved to New York

The shelling put most people living around Santa Barbara on alert and made them realize the war was closer to home than they would like. A number of rich part-time residents in the wealthy community of Montecito, southwest of Santa Barbara, sold their estates and retreated back East.

Restaurant built

Afterwards, an entrepreneur bought the timbers from the damaged pier and used them to construct a restaurant called The Timbers on U.S. Highway 101 near Goleta, just north of Santa Barbara.

Captain was happy

We don't know what ever happened to the Japanese captain, but I am sure he was happy with his revenge.

Lessons learned

In conclusion, some lessons that we can learn from this historical story are:

Be considerate of others

Resources and references

Ron Kurtus' Credentials


Santa Barbara News-Press, 1 March 1942

San Francisco Chronicle, 1 March 1942

Timeline of World War II in the Pacific

History Resources


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