This Day in History: A Japanese submarine attacks mainland America
On this day in 1942, a Japanese submarine launches an attack on a fort in Oregon.
Wait. What? A fort in Oregon, far away from so many World War II battlefields? Yes, you read that correctly. The attack on Fort Stevens was one of a handful of times that the Japanese attacked the American mainland.
The Japanese sub had secretly followed an American fishing fleet past minefields, enabling the sub to get close to shore. Late at night, when the submarine was about 10 miles from the coast, it began firing with a 5.5-inch deck gun.
A United States military installation on the mainland hadn’t been attacked since the War of 1812. After nearly 130 years of never being attacked, do you think the soldiers at Fort Stevens were a bit shocked when the shelling started just before midnight?
Undoubtedly! Chaos ensued.
“I opened the door of my room and stood there in my drawers cussing at the guys to shut up,” one officer later reported. “Some nut yells back that the Japs are shooting at us and then tore out of the barracks. It was a real madhouse. The men were going in and out like a herd of elephants.”
Nevertheless, the American soldiers were ready to return fire in relatively short order. But then . . . nothing. The soldiers were ordered not to fire. According to some accounts, the order was given because the Fort’s commander didn’t want to give away the location of the Fort. Others claim that the submarine was out of reach of the American guns. Some even speculate that a conflict between two officers might have delayed an order to fire until it was too late.
The Japanese fire lasted for less than 30 minutes. Seventeen rounds were shot, but the damage at the Fort was minimal. Instead, a nearby baseball field took most of the damage—and a family at a nearby farm was left shaken up by the noise.
“I was scared to death,” Mrs. Jean Heffling told a reporter. Her 3-year-old daughter had bolted awake and fallen out of bed because she’d been so scared. Meanwhile, her 10-year-old son slept through the whole thing. What a family tale that must have turned into over the years?!
The Japanese submarine headed back out to sea, where an American plane intercepted it and dropped a few bombs. Those fell harmlessly, too, as the submarine submerged out of sight.
It wasn’t the first (or the last) time that the Japanese would attempt an attack on Oregon. Naturally, those are stories for another day.
Primary Sources & Further Reading:
Bert Webber, Retaliation: Japanese attacks and Allied countermeasures on the Pacific coast in World War II (1975)
Bombs Fall on Oregon: Japanese Attacks on the State (Oregon Secretary of State website)
Fort Stevens State Park brochure (reprinted on an Oregon State Park website)
History of Fort Stevens (1863-1947) (Oregon State Park website)
Japanese Attack Oregon! (Discerning History educational video)
Shells Fired From Sub Miss Fort Stevens (Albany Democrat-Herald; June 22, 1942)
60-Pounders Explode Near Fort Stevens: Late Sunday Attack Does Not Damage, Says Harbor Chief (Oregon Statesman; June 23, 1942)