Target California II

Japanese B1-type I-15 submarine on initial sea trials 15 September 1940 with integral aircraft hangar visible.

Following the unsuccessful operation to intercept and sink the Enterprise and her escorts, on 14 December Matsumura and the I-21 were assigned a new patrol area off Point Arguello in California, a promontory of land fifty-five miles north of Santa Barbara. Motoring just below the surface close to the shore on the morning of 22 December, Commander Matsumura spotted the H. M. Story, a Standard Oil Company tanker, as he scanned the horizon at periscope depth. For two days the I-21 had waited in this position, only coming to the surface at night to recharge the submarine’s batteries and air the boat. Lookouts aboard the H. M. Story never spied the periscope mast cutting through the waves, as the instrument’s blank gaze determined the American ship’s speed and course. Matsumura now seized his opportunity and ordered the I-21 to surface. The bulky submarine rose majestically to the surface, ballast tanks blowing noisily and hatches clanking metallically as officers and men manned the conning tower bridge and the deck-gun, the air thick with bellowed commands. As Matsumura and his officers fixed the H. M. Story in their binoculars the submarine’s deck-gun blazed into life.

Witnesses ashore said they saw a torpedo running in the sea, as the I-21 was between the H. M. Story and the quiet beach at Point Arguello. The tanker was approximately three miles from the shoreline. What had first attracted the witnesses’ attention was the report of the submarine’s deck-gun, but the gunners view of the target was quickly obscured by thick black smoke emitted from the H. M. Story as the vessel attempted to avoid destruction. What was believed to have been a torpedo was observed rapidly exiting the smoke screen as the H. M. Story went full ahead. The Japanese Long Lance torpedo shot through the water towards the tanker, occasionally coming to the surface, slapping white spray off the tops of the waves as it did so. Matsumura was once more unsuccessful as the torpedo passed in front of the tanker. This indicates again the limiting effect of the order issued to submarine commanders to only expend one torpedo per merchant ship. If the German method of firing a spread of two or three torpedoes had been employed the H. M. Story, and probably many other merchant ships throughout the region, would have almost certainly been struck. The use of the deck-gun to attempt to wreck a merchant ship’s communications equipment, as well as hasten the ship’s sinking, was also proving to be a suspect attack method. The H. M. Story was able to radio for assistance, and shore-based US Army Air Corps bombers quickly arrived on the scene. These aircraft dropped several bombs in an attempt to destroy the now submerged I-21, but without effect. More importantly, however, was the fact that Matsumura had intercepted and failed to sink two American tankers, on each occasion being forced to give up the hunt and slink off frustrated to attempt to locate some other target.

North of Point Arguello along the coast is the little town of Cayucas, and by the early morning of 23 December the I-21 was sitting quietly on the surface off the settlement, all eyes scanning the horizon. At 3 a.m. lookouts spotted the Larry Doheny, a twenty-year old empty Richmond Oil Company tanker skippered by Captain Roy Brieland. The Larry Doheny was six miles off Cayucas when Matsumura attempted once again to disable a ship with his deck-gun. The first shot roused the crew aboard the Larry Doheny, Captain Brieland frantically ordering the helmsman to deviate from his course and begin zigzagging in a desperate attempt to throw the Japanese gunners off target. In fact, Brieland’s evasive manoeuvres had almost succeeded in stalling Matsumura’s attack, for the Japanese skipper, after two shots had missed from his deck-gun, was about to issue the order to curtail the attack. The I-21 was hampered by both darkness and by Brieland’s violent evasive manoeuvring of his ship. However, at the last moment a lookout reported the enemy ship to be less than 200 yards from the submarine, and, importantly, exposing her port side. Matsumura ordered an immediate torpedo attack, the Long Lance quickly crossing the water between the two vessels. However, luck was on Brieland’s side, for as the Larry Doheny made another turn the Japanese torpedo sailed past the tanker and exploded some way off, the massive detonation clearly audible to the citizens of Cayucas already woken by the firing of the submarine’s deck-gun. With the expending of a torpedo Matsumura followed his standing orders and broke off the attack. The Larry Doheny had survived, but was, ironically, to come to grief at the hands of another Japanese submarine the following year, also off the west coast.

At 3 a.m. that same morning the 8,272-ton Union Oil Company tanker Montebello pulled away from the dockside at Port San Luis, California. She was bound for the Canadian port of Vancouver in British Columbia with a mixed cargo of oil and petrol. The bulk of her cargo, however, consisted of 4.1 million gallons of heavy crude oil loaded into ten separate storage tanks. Her captain, Olaf Eckstrom, placed her on course, not realizing that his route would bring his ship into the sights of the I-21 less than two hours later. He, and other merchant skippers, had received no warnings from the US Navy or the Coast Guard regarding prowling Japanese submarines that had already made several attacks on coastal shipping.

Commander Matsumura must have felt a dull rage at his failure to sink two defenceless American ships, both of which should have been easy kills for the big I-21. As the I-21 motored further north the search resumed once more for targets of opportunity, and that elusive first successful kill of the mission. At 5.30 a.m. Captain Eckstrom aboard the Montebello was informed that what appeared to be a submarine was stalking his vessel. Eckstrom went immediately to investigate and there was no mistaking the size and outline of a big submarine closing on the ship’s stern. Eckstrom followed the only anti-submarine direction at his disposal and ordered the helmsman to begin zigzagging in the hope of throwing the submarine’s aim off target, the same manoeuvre that had saved the Larry Doheny from destruction. After ten minutes Eckstrom realized that the manoeuvre was a futile gesture. The I-21 was closer than ever, and a Long Lance exited the submarine when the Montebello was broadside to her. With a blinding flash and a tremendous explosion the torpedo impacted amidships, the Montebello shuddering perceptively as the tanker slowed. It seemed clear to the crew aboard that the Montebello had been struck a fatal blow from which the only recourse was to abandon ship in the four wooden lifeboats available. Incredibly, through sheer good luck, the Japanese torpedo had struck the only compartment that was empty of oil or petrol. Had it struck elsewhere it is doubtful if more than a handful of the thirty-six men aboard would have survived the resultant inferno. What many crewmen remembered most was the courage under fire displayed by their Scandinavian skipper. And Eckstrom had only been promoted to captain one hour before the Montebello had departed port, when he was serving as first mate and the original captain had suddenly resigned. Eckstrom was ‘as cool as a snowdrift’ recalled the new first mate as he stood on the deck and ordered his crew to their lifeboats, and then gave the order to abandon ship. For his part, Eckstrom was not entirely convinced the Montebello was done for, and ordered the lifeboats to be rowed a distance from the vessel, and told the crew to sit on their oars and wait. Hopefully the Japanese submarine would depart, and perhaps the Montebello could be re-boarded if she was not discovered to be foundering. Commander Matsumura, however, had darker ideas concerning the fate of the American crew.

Even as the crew was taking to the lifeboats the Japanese opened fire on the Montebello with their deck-gun, firing approximately ten rounds at the listing vessel as the crew began to lower themselves over the side in their boats. Clearly, to Matsumura’s mind, the crew was expendable as the object of the attack was to make sure the Montebello went to the bottom. This kind of coldblooded assault was characteristic of Japanese naval operations throughout the Second World War, and was repeated on countless occasions. It is in direct contrast to the behaviour of German U-boat crews, who very often gave merchant seamen time to abandon their ship before finishing off a vessel with a torpedo or the deck-gun. Eckstrom and his crew rowed a distance from the Montebello, by another stroke of good fortune suffering no injuries from flying shrapnel as round after round hammered into the stricken tanker, and within forty-five minutes the Montebello had slid beneath the waves. Eckstrom now ordered his crew to begin pulling for the shore. They were some four miles from the Piedras Biancas lighthouse.

Matsumura had achieved the first kill of his mission to the United States west coast, but what followed was an attempt to murder the American sailors in their lifeboats. Machine guns were brought up into the conning tower of the submarine and fire was poured forth on the helpless lifeboats pulling hard for the coast. It was only poor visibility that saved the crew of the Montebello from murder at the hands of the Japanese, and Matsumura eventually ordered the submarine to leave the vicinity of the attack. Machine-gun bullets had struck lifeboats, though fortunately the crewmen sheltering inside them had not been injured. Although the malevolent Japanese submarine had departed, the hapless crew of the Montebello faced a new battle for survival in attempting to row lifeboats holed by machine-gun rounds to the shore through a heavy sea. Men took turns pulling on the oars or bailing water from their boats until, utterly exhausted, around noon they washed up on the beach opposite the town of Cambria.

Why the Japanese were intent on murdering the civilian crewmen of a vessel they had successfully sunk has an explanation. It was official policy even though it violated laws to which the Japanese were themselves signatories. According to Lord Russell of Liverpool’s seminal work The Knights of Bushido: A Short History of Japanese War Crimes when Japan had signed the 1922 London Naval Treaty, Article 22 of that agreement provided that submarine actions must conform to International Law, and that ‘except in the case of persistent refusal to stop on being duly summoned, or of active resistance to visit and search, warships, whether surface vessel or submarine may not sink or render incapable of navigation a merchant vessel without having first placed passengers, crew and ship’s papers in a place of safety’. A ‘place of safety’ in the case of the Montebello was the ship’s lifeboats. The Japanese had allowed the 1922 Treaty to expire on 31 December 1936, but Article 22 remained binding on all signatories, ‘by virtue of Article 23, which laid down in Part IV of the expiring Treaty relating to submarines should remain in force without time limit’. So even though Japan considered the treaty expired, the section concerning submarine action remained in force forever, because it accorded with basic International Law. Further to this, Lord Russell also points out that Japan had signed a further Protocol in London on 6 November 1936 with the United States, Great Britain (including the Dominions and Empire), France and Italy, which incorporated verbatim the very provisions of Part IV of the 1922 Treaty relating to the conduct of submarines in war. Interestingly, Commander Matsumura’s actions regarding the crew of the Montebello actually predated the accepted change in Japanese government and naval policy towards merchant ship crews. His actions, however, certainly conform to the de facto attitude of the Imperial Navy to non-combatants. It was only following talks between Lieutenant-General Hiroshi Oshima, Japanese Ambassador to Germany, and Adolf Hitler in Berlin on 3 January 1942, a little under a month after the entry of the United States into the war, that Hitler suggested murdering surviving merchant ship crewmen. Although the German Navy flatly refused to entertain such a notion, Oshima was apparently sufficiently impressed by Hitler’s argument that depriving the Americans of trained crewmen would undermine their massive shipbuilding capacity that he reported to the Japanese government that such a measure should be adopted. It duly was, in flagrant violation of the laws outlined above, on 20 March 1943, when submarine skippers were ordered to exterminate all survivors from sunken ships, and Imperial forces faithfully carried out this order. Matsumura’s actions certainly predate the official order, but it is clear that either he was unaware of International Law and the agreements his country had signed regarding the correct behaviour of submarine skippers (which seems unlikely owing to his rank and experience), or that Matsumura and his contemporaries had been given tacit approval for such measures to be taken against helpless survivors. Subordinate Japanese military officers were not generally known for thinking for themselves, and following orders to the letter regardless of cost was very much the rule (one torpedo per merchant ship for example). It appears unlikely that Matsumura decided to murder some three dozen unarmed and defenceless sailors on a whim, or out of revenge for his earlier humiliation at failing to sink the H. M. Story and the Larry Doheny. There was a certain cold, calculated method in Matsumura’s actions that could only have been sanctioned by a higher authority than he.

The consequences of Matsumura’s sinking of the Montebello are still felt today. In 1996 the wreck of the tanker was located in 900 feet of water, sitting upright on the seabed adjacent to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. A preliminary investigation of the wreck by a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) revealed that the Japanese torpedo had ruptured only two out of the Montebello’s ten oil storage tanks. The remaining eight tanks were still watertight, and full of millions of gallons of crude oil. As the wreck naturally deteriorates over time eventually that oil will be released into the surrounding ocean, which poses an alarming ecological issue for the nearby marine sanctuary. Salvaging the wreck has not been seriously considered due to the costs involved, so scientists can only regularly inspect the wreck for signs of degradation. Inevitably, this ghost of the Second World War sits rusting away, a potential ecological time bomb waiting to go off.

Commander Matsumura decided to remain in the vicinity of his successful sinking of the Montebello. He was rewarded later that day, 23 December, by the appearance of the 6,418-ton American tanker Idaho, which he shelled and damaged with his deck-gun before breaking off his attack. However, the following day Matsumura and the I-21 came close to running foul of American anti-submarine forces in the region. The I-21 was patrolling at periscope depth when a small, depth charge armed patrol vessel surprised her. Two depth charges were released which exploded close to the submarine’s hull. The I-21’s vertical rudder was wrecked, and the explosions also knocked out all of her lights. Matsumura decided that instead of staying down and being bombarded to pieces by depth charges, the I-21 would surface, enabling the gunners to fight it out with the patrol boat and any reinforcements that showed up. Matsumura’s banzai tactic was forestalled just as the boat was rising to the surface as the lights suddenly came back on and the engineering department reported that they had repaired the submarine’s steering. This meant that the I-21 could be saved, and more importantly returned to Kwajalein for repairs. Matsumura immediately left the area and set a course for home. On 11 January 1942 the I-21 arrived back at base, and Commander Matsumura was incorrectly credited with sinking two enemy tankers.

On 14 December 1941, in common with the other Japanese submarines the I-25 was reassigned to the United States west coast. The I-25 was given a patrol area off the cities of Astoria and Portland in Oregon, specifically targeting merchant shipping using the important Columbia River estuary. The I-25 struck early on in the Japanese attempt to plague American coastal commerce, locating the Union Oil tanker L. P. St. Clair. Following standard operational orders issued to all submarine skippers before the commencement of the west coast campaign, the captain of the I-25, Lieutenant-Commander Meiji Tagami, assigned the job of sinking the tanker to his deck-gun crew. No torpedoes were used during the night time attack. As the gunners attempted to hit the L. P. St. Clair with gunfire, the captain put her hard to port and managed to evade ten armour-piercing rounds before disappearing into the dark Columbia River Channel.

On 22 December Commander Tagami was offered something enticing in a radio message from 6th Fleet Headquarters at Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands. The Combined Fleet Intelligence Bureau had received information that the battleships USS Mississippi, New Mexico and Idaho were in the process of transferring into the Pacific from the Atlantic via the Panama Canal to reinforce the shattered US Pacific Fleet. Although this information would prove to be false, Vice-Admiral Shimizu immediately radioed the submarines I-25, I-17 and I-9. Japanese naval intelligence estimated that the battleships were due to arrive at Los Angeles on or about Christmas Day 1941. The I-25 was ordered to patrol the area between Los Angeles and San Francisco in the hope of intercepting the capital ships as they made their way to port. After the intelligence concerning the three American battleships had turned out to be false the I-25 was ordered to patrol off the Oregon coast, to continue her original mission of commerce interdiction.

On 27 December the submarine’s lookouts located the 8,684-ton American tanker Connecticut during the night off the aptly named Cape Disappointment. The lookouts saw the tanker’s white masthead running light in the distance, and discerned her engine noise on the clear night air. Tagami gave immediate chase, spending twenty minutes manoeuvring into a suitable attack position before launching a single torpedo at the Connecticut’s stern. The Long Lance struck the tanker squarely in the stern, submarine and prey both brilliantly illuminated for a second by the flash of the explosion that immediately ignited a large fire. Tagami assumed that he had dealt the Connecticut a killer blow from which the tanker would not recover. Satisfied that the tanker would eventually sink, Tagami ordered the I-25 to motor away from the scene some ten miles off the American coast. The Connecticut, however, although settling by the stern, was not ready to disappear just yet. She escaped the scene of the attack and eventually went aground in the mouth of the Columbia River where she was salvaged for repairs. Once again, the single torpedo mantra being adhered to by Japanese submarine skippers was costing them their kills, though most commanders left the scene of their attacks believing that they had successfully sunk the ships they had struck.

Following the attack on the Connecticut, Tagami took the I-25 back to base to refuel, rearm and revictual. On 11 January 1942 the I-25 arrived at the 6th Fleet’s anchorage at Kwajalein. On 8 February the submarine set sail again, this time bound not for America, but for the coasts of Australia and New Zealand.

Japanese submarine I-19

The I-19 first struck at commercial traffic off the west coast early on Christmas Eve 1941. Completed at Kobe by Mitsubishi Shipbuilding in April 1941, the I-19 under Lieutenant-Commander Shogo Narahara had already untaken duties during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent failed pursuit of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. For the move to the coast of the United States the I-19 had been assigned a patrol area off the great metropolis of Los Angeles. On 22 December the I-19 had chased the American oil tanker H.M. Storey for an hour before Narahara had been satisfied that his firing position was good. Disregarding orders concerning the use of torpedoes, Narahara ordered a spread of three released from the bow tubes, all of which missed the tanker. The H.M. Storey made good her escape and a frustrated Narahara continued his patrol, itching for another opportunity to prove his usefulness.

On the morning of Christmas Eve Commander Narahara sighted the Barbara Olsen, a freighter loaded down with lumber that was on her way to San Diego. The Long Lance torpedo released by the I-19 passed clean beneath the Barbara Olsen, and detonated approximately 100 feet from the ship’s hull. The booming detonation of the torpedo, and the massive column of black smoke which rose to 300 feet, was spied by lookouts aboard the US Navy sub chaser USS Amethyst that was patrolling the entrance to Los Angeles harbour four miles away from the aborted Japanese attack. The Amethyst immediately went to ‘Action Stations’ and raced to the assistance of the Barbara Olsen. On this occasion, although the Amethyst conducted a thorough search of the area, no trace was found of the offending submarine. In fact, Narahara had taken his boat several miles north to an area close to the lighthouse at Point Fermin. By 10 a.m. that Christmas Eve the I-19 was settled down at periscope depth awaiting a target of opportunity to emerge from the nearby Catalina Channel. By 10.30 a.m. a 5,700-ton lumber freighter named Absaroka was observed by the I-19 off Point Fermin.

Commanded by Captain Louie Pringle, the McCormick Steamship Company vessel would pass within one mile of a US Army coastal defence gun position located in front of the Point Fermin lighthouse, the soldiers having a grandstand view of the events that followed. The I-19 pressed home its attack on the Absaroka with determination. The first torpedo passed wide of the freighter, but a second torpedo was launched almost immediately, Commander Narahara continuing to disregard the ‘one torpedo per enemy ship’ order previously issued to the Japanese submarines operating off America. This second torpedo slammed into the Absaroka’s Number 5 Hold, the blast throwing three crewmen, busily engaged in checking that the lumber carried on deck was securely fastened down, overboard. Massive quantities of lumber were blown into the air by the force of the explosion, one crewman recalling that it appeared ‘as if a man were throwing matchsticks around’. One of the three crewmen flung into the water by the torpedo strike was able to get back aboard the Absaroka almost immediately. The ship heeled over in the blast, her main deck railing touching the surface of the sea. The seaman took a firm hold of the railing, and as the ship righted herself he was lifted clear of the water and scrambled back aboard. Another of the men who had gone overboard managed to climb back onto the deck with the aid of a rope. The third man had been injured during the explosion and would require assistance from his shipmates to get safely back aboard the ship. Standing on deck, Seaman Ryan picked up a rope mooring line and flung it at the man struggling in the water. However, in the midst of this rescue attempt a tragedy struck. The force of the torpedo’s explosion had upset the tons of lumber stored on the freighter’s deck, and the lashings holding everything securely in place had parted or were no longer tight. As Ryan concentrated on trying to save his comrade a massive pile of lumber suddenly broke free with a roar and fell upon him. Ryan was crushed to death and his body swept over the ship’s side as tons of lumber splashed into the sea.

In the Absaroka’s radio shack the operator had picked himself up off the floor where he had been flung by the force of the Japanese torpedo impact and had sent an SOS distress call and details of the submarine attack to the shore. On deck, the remaining crew had already begun to make the ship’s lifeboats ready as the Absaroka settled lower and lower in the water. Responding to the Absaroka’s distress call, US Army Air Corps planes soon arrived at the scene, dropping bombs into the sea close to the I-19’s last reported position. The USS Amethyst steamed defiantly up to the Absaroka, taking off the crew, and then spent several hours’ depth charging the area in the vain hope of destroying the elusive Japanese submarine. It was all to no avail, as none of the thirty-two depth charges found their target. As time passed it became apparent to Captain Pringle that his ship, although with her main deck awash, was not in any immediate danger of foundering. Perhaps the Absaroka could be salvaged, and with this in mind a US Navy tug tied up to the freighter ready to haul her to land. Pringle and seven volunteers re-boarded the Absaroka to assist with the salvage operation. With great care the freighter was taken into shore and beached below Fort MacArthur. The great hole in the Absaroka’s hull made by the Japanese torpedo became a useful propaganda tool for the American home front. In a similar tone to the British slogan ‘Careless talk costs lives’, movie actress Jane Russell was photographed standing in the gaping hole holding a poster emblazoned with the slogan ‘A slip of the lip may sink a ship.’ The photograph appeared in LIFE magazine in January 1942. The press speculated on the possible involvement of Japanese-Americans in assisting enemy submarines in finding their targets, all of which was completely unfounded and further demonstrated the fear and paranoia gripping the west coast.

By Christmas Day 1941 the Japanese submarines assigned to interdict American coastal shipping had begun to break off their attacks and plot a course for their home bases. Originally, all of the submarines were to have moved even closer inshore, and were supposed to have expended their deck-gun ammunition against shore installations along the west coast before heading home. Admiral Osami Nagano, Chief of the Naval General Staff in Tokyo, had countermanded Vice-Admiral Shimizu’s original shore bombardment order. It has been surmised that Nagano feared that American submarines would retaliate by bombarding Japanese coastal installations and towns. Only Commander Nishino and the I-17 would go against his wishes and conduct a coastal bombardment sortie against the United States before departing across the Pacific.

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