John Bridges is a published author of history, and politics. His doctorate is in criminal justice.
Japanese Spies on the Border
Understanding why Japan attacked Pearl Harbor is important to understanding the paranoia on the West Coast of the United States which lead to the Battle of Los Angeles and well as the internment of Japanese American’s during the war.
The Japanese had few natural resources of their own. When they began incursions into China and other Asian areas in 1937, the United States responded through embargoes on steel, iron, and aviation fuel sales to Japan. The hope was to stop Japanese aggression. It had the opposite effect since Japan realized it could obtain these resources from the areas it conquered. The United States together with the Dutch and the British chose to cut off oil to Japan. Japan imported 90% of its oil and this embargo, it was hoped, would have a crippling effect on its ability to wage war.
Another irritation to the Japanese was the American presence in Philippines. Japan wanted total dominance over Asia and since the Spanish American War, the United
States had authority over the Philippines. The Japanese saw American patrol boats in the region as a threat to their dominance.
Japanese Submarine Aircraft Carrier
America was isolationist. It did not want to get involved in World War 2. While it was strong, it was in no way the super power it is today. Japan took both facts into consideration when planning its attack on Pearl Harbor. They believed one crippling blow would be enough to prevent the U.S. ability to fight in the Pacific. They knew America would respond but given its isolationist position they expected it would not have the resolve to participate in a sustained war. They did not expect their prized target, the American aircraft carriers to be out to sea. Their goal was to sink or trap the aircraft carriers in Pearl Harbor. The Americans had a false sense of security in Pearl Harbor due to its shallow waters which were not deep enough for torpedo attacks. The Japanese knew this and developed new torpedoes that would work in the shallower waters.
The Japanese Ambassador to the United States, Nomura, was responsible for the diplomatic negotiations to, amongst other things, remove sanctions. By all accounts he was sincere in his efforts to seek peace. He was not aware that Japan had chosen November 29, 1941 as the cut off day for negotiations to end and military options to begin. He did not know of the pending attack. After the attack, he remained in the United States until August, still hopeful of brokering peace. Mr. Nomura was treated respectfully during this time. His counterpart, Ambassador Grey in Tokyo was not afforded the same respect. He was arrested in interred for nine months before he could return to the United States.
The Japanese never had the ability for a large-scale attack on the American west coast. Having been taken by surprise at Pearl Harbor, the United States may have overestimated the threat. Japan seized upon this uncertainty to create paranoia though psychological warfare. They would produce false radio transmissions, in collaboration with Japanese descendants living on the west coast, that suggested a large invasion was preparing off shore. This perceived threat is one of the reasons for the Japanese internment camps on the west coast.
Japan did, however, have a military presence on the American west coast. Japanese subs patrolled from Alaska to Baja Mexico. They sunk at least 10 Canadian, American, and Mexican ships.
While many Americans believe that the continental United States has never been bombed by a foreign power, it simply isn’t true. The Japanese were quite intent on wreaking havoc on the West Coast and were quite inventive in their methods, however their efforts did not cause the damage hoped-for, and the US Government, for morale and strategic reasons kept it out of the news.
The Japanese Attack of California
The subs attacked a refinery at Ellwood California. On February 23, 1942, a Japanese submarine surfaced off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, and hurled over a dozen artillery shells at an oil field and refinery. While the attack inflicted no casualties, and caused only minor damage, it marked the first time that the mainland United States had been bombed during World War II.
This attack was followed another at Fort Stevens, Oregon. The subs fired small guns resulting in no deaths and limited damage to the fort.
Two attacks came from the air. Some of the submarines were designed to carry aircraft. The first attack occurred in Wheeler Ridge Oregon where a Japanese plane dropped thermite bombs into the forest. This attack was closely followed by an attack on the forests near Cape Blanco, Oregon. Neither attack resulted in much damage since the region was wet at the time of the attacks preventing the fires from growing. These attacks were kept secret.
Psychological Warfare: Firebomb Balloons
The goal of the Japanese was to create panic and tie up American troops to put out forest fires, protecting the west coast from an invasion force that did not exist. The Japanese also engaged in fire-balloon campaigns. These balloons carried explosives and were meant to cause panic in the United States. The story of the balloon attacks was also kept quiet during the war. The Japanese had no way of knowing if the fire-balloons were successful and discontinued the program. Overall, the attacks had very little impact on Americans save for one unfortunate family in Oregon who were killed investigating a downed balloon.
Despite the American citizens being kept in the dark, the military stayed on high alert. Inexperienced pilots and radar men routinely mistook fishing boats, whales and even logs as a Japanese invasion force building off the U.S. west coast. Troops were hyper-alert, and somewhat paranoid. This led to the famed Battle of Los Angeles, in which the U.S. military, thinking they were under attack ended up firing weapons at enemies that were not actually there.