Mass WWII hysteria panics U.S. West Coast.


Soon after the start of World War II, a Japanese submarine attacked a refinery and oilfield near Los Angeles. The shelling caused little damage – but led to the largest mass sighting of UFOs in American history. It also was the first attack of the war on the continental United States.

sub attacks oilfield

A February 1942 Imperial Japanese Navy submarine’s shelling of a California refinery caused little damage but created invasion (and UFO) hysteria in Los Angeles. Photo courtesy Goleta Valley Historical Society.

sub attacks oilfield

Japanese submarine I-17 bombarded an Ellwood, California, oilfield refinery visited by its commander before the war.

At sunset on February 23, 1942, Commander Kozo Nishino of the Imperial Japanese Navy and his I-17 submarine lurked 1,000 yards off the California coast. It was less than three months since the attack on Pearl Harbor. Los Angeles residents were tense.

Soon after dark, the I-17 surfaced and began firing armor-piercing shells at the Bankline Oil Company refinery in Ellwood, a small oilfield community 12 miles north of Santa Barbara.

The Ellwood oilfield, about five miles long and up to a mile wide, was discovered in 1928. Commander Nishino targeted oil storage tanks, piers and other facilities he had toured before the start of World War II. Several of shells struck while others passed over Wheeler’s Inn, whose owner reported the attack.

“We heard a whistling noise and a thump as a projectile hit near the house,” recalled another witness. “I thought something was going wrong with the refiners.”

A Japanese postcard from World War II commemorates the I-17’s shelling the Ellwood refinery and storage facilities north of Santa Barbara. Image courtesy John Geoghegan.

The shelling continued for 20 minutes before I-17 escaped into the darkness. It was the first Axis attack on the continental United States of the war. “Shell California! Enemy U-boat sends many shots into oilfields near Santa Barbara, entire area is blacked out,” declared the February 24 front page of the Chicago Tribune.

Although there were no injuries and minimal damage (a wrecked derrick and pump house), the barrage led to a public panic that soon intensified. Witnesses claimed seeing offshore enemy “signal lights.”

Many newspapers began referring to the attack as the “Bombardment of Ellwood.”

Long after the war, Parade magazine speculated that Commander Nishino targeted the Bankline Oil Company refinery because of a prewar affront.

According to a 1982 Parade article, while serving on an oil tanker docked near the refinery and being given a courtesy tour of the facilities, the Japanese officer slipped and fell. He apparently tumbled into a cactus – prompting laughter from his hosts. The article claimed the commander got his revenge by shelling the same refinery.

sub attacks oilfield

Discovered in 1928 by Barnsdall-Rio Grande Company, Ellwood oilfield extended beyond the shore of Ellwood Beach. Photo courtesy Goleta Valley Historical Society.

Commander Nishino sailed on to new combat assignments in the Aleutians – unaware of the strange result of his attack on Ellwood’s oil refinery.

Despite missing their targets, dropping into the sea, on the beach, and into nearby cliffs, the Japanese artillery shells brought dramatic results. They not only fueled West Coast invasion fears, but also soon led to the largest mass UFO sightings in U.S. history.

sub attacks oilfield

The Ellwood oilfield terminals and tanks along the coastline have long since disappeared – today occupied by the Sandpiper Golf Club, one of the top 25 courses in the country, according to Golf Digest.

Aliens Attack Los Angeles

As the “Bombardment of Ellwood” ended, the self-inflicted bombardment of the “Battle of Los Angeles” began.

As Commander Nishino’s I-17 made its way to Alaskan waters after firing about two dozen rounds, on February 25 thousands of war-jittery California residents were awakened at 3 a.m. by sirens and anti-aircraft fire.

“Scores of searchlights built a wigwam of light beaming over Los Angles,” noted the Los Angeles Times as the U.S. Army’s 37th Anti-Aircraft Brigade fired at elusive “unidentified airplanes.” The brigade fired 1,340 rounds.

Expecting the worst after the refinery attack, residents watched the illuminated nighttime sky. Soon there were sightings of “unidentified flying objects” in addition to enemy aircraft.

“It was huge! It was just enormous! And it was practically right over my house,” reported one UFO observer about the attack. “I had never seen anything like it in my life. It was just hovering there in the sky and hardly moving at all.”

sub attacks oilfield

“Scores of searchlights built a wigwam of light beaming over Los Angles,” noted one reporter about the 1942 panic from a Japanese submarine shelling a refinery. U.S. Army anti-aircraft firing caused more damage than the enemy attack.

Anti-aircraft fire fell within the city, damaging homes and cars and fraying nerves. Many Los Angelenos imagined enemy aircraft. Others became fearful of extraterrestrial attackers. Fast moving “red or silver objects” were seen high in the sky accompanied by “a large object that hung motionless” in midair. Anti-aircraft shells burst around it. Rumors of a government cover-up began.

Historians later offered several explanations and detailed photo analysis of the “Battle of Los Angeles” – and noted that it was the largest mass sighting of “UFO events” in American history. Also known as the “Great Los Angeles Air Raid,” the 1942 war drama began with a Japanese submarine commander who perhaps had a grudge against a California oil refinery. An “Avenge Ellwood” fund-raising campaign was created in early 1943 for a war bond drive. In 2012, the Goleta Valley Historical Society hosted a special exhibition commemorating the 70th anniversary of the shelling, which sadly increased support for Japanese-American internment camps.


The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Support this energy education website with a donation today. For membership information, contact © 2019 Bruce A. Wells.

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