Japan’s 1941 Christmas Eve Surprise
The Fear on the West Coast following the attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7-20, 1941
The December 7 attack on Pearl Harbor created a wave of shock and fear that swept across the United States. But the fear was strongest on the West Coast because the residents here realized that there was nothing standing between the Japanese military and the California coast but water.
The combination of ever tightening restrictions on regular activities, patrols of militia and military, frequent blackouts and the public service articles in the newspapers about how to build bomb shelters or how to defuse incendiary bombs heightened the fear. Local newspaper fell under a strict censorship causing rumors to spread even more quickly.
From 1940 to 1942 my family lived on Pacheco Ave in East Santa Cruz. I was two years old when Pearl Harbor was attacked, and I do not have any personal memory of the evacuations that were ordered in the early weeks and months. My Mom always told the family story of piling me into our sedan and driving to Felton because a sea lion had been mistaken for a Japanese submarine.
In those early weeks whales and sea lions were all that was out there, but by December 18 there WERE Japanese submarines off the coast.
The Japanese B1 submarine
The B1 submarine was a remarkable war machine, not only because of its top surface speed of 23.5 knots but because it had a range of 14,000 miles on a tankful of diesel fuel. As submarines went at the outset of World War II, the B1 was very large. The most common American Gato-class submarines were 312 feet long, while the B1s were 365 feet in length with the ability to carry an observation airplane in a water-tight hangar in front of the conning tower. If you look carefully at the accompanying drawing of a B1 you can see the elevated ramp on the foredeck that contained a catapult what would assist in the floatplane in taking off. When fully loaded the submarine carried 17 torpedoes.
The B1 type submarine had on 5.5 inch gun mounted on the afterdeck. Because they were limited by orders to use only 1 torpedo on each merchant ship, the commanders tended to do a lot of their attacks on the surface using this gun.
The tanker Agiworld, Frederick Goncalves, captain. At 10.5 knots, the tanker had a top speed of half that of the I-23. Captain Goncalves exhibited robust seamanship in engaging with the I-23 in full view of everyone around the bay that afternoon.
The 5.5 inch deck gun
The B1s also had a 5.5 inch gun located on the deck to the rear of the conning tower. The location of the gun made firing directly forward impossible, so most often the submarine turned broadside to its intended targets on the surface. The gun could fire an 83 pound armor-piercing explosive projectile up to a distance of 10 miles, though when the seas were rough, it was not very accurate at distances beyond a thousand yards.
Fake Bamboo Periscopes
But lest you think that the B1 submarine was all modern technology, some of them carried a supply of bamboo poles with rocks tied to one end and mirrors the other. The poles were painted black, and they were balanced in such a way that when tossed overboard the rock end sank and the pole righted itself in the water and at most any distance resembled a submarine’s periscope. The logs of coastal spotters contain many more submarine “sightings” than actually involved real live submarines. Everything was intended to inflate the idea of many Japanese submarines off the coast.
Nine B1s aligned off the west coast of North America
Most of the B1s did defensive and observational duty on December 7, but they then spent several days looking for the aircraft carriers that were not present at Pearl Harbor that Sunday. Finally, nine of them were loaded with fuel and torpedoes and sent to positions along the North American Coast posting from San Diego to Seattle. Their orders were two-fold – to harass any merchant or military shipping that they would encounter, and secondly to prepare for a coordinated coastal bombardment that the Japanese Naval Command planned for Christmas Eve. The objective was to cause the American military to commit as much resources in coastal defenses as possible and to accentuate the already-present “invasion fever” in the coastal population.
The submarines began arriving at their appointed locations around December 18.
The Battle of Monterey – Dec. 20, 1941 I-23, Lt. Commander Genichi Shibata versus the Agiworld, Captain Frederick Goncalves.
Following his duty off Pearl Harbor, Shibata eventually arrived off the coast at his appointed station near Monterey Bay. At 2:00 PM on December 20, with a heavy ground swell causing a very bumpy sea, Shibata saw the unarmed tanker Agiworld steaming north close to Cypress Point and decided to attack on the surface using his deck gun. The first round fell short just behind the tanker, and when Captain Goncalves looked back he realized that his ship was under attack from a large submarine. Rather than abandon ship (submarine commanders often fired a warning shot to allow the crew of merchant ships an opportunity to abandon ship before they began attempting to sink it), Gonsalves turned the ship and headed directly toward the submarine, offering a very narrow target for the deck gun. The tanker captain also intended to ram the submarine if he could.
So there, in full view of God and Everyone, the Pacific War had arrived in the Monterey Bay Region. The two vessels began a slow-motion dance punctuated by a huge column of black smoke pouring out of the stacks of the tanker as Goncalves pushed his diesel engine to their limit, and the sound of the 5.5 inch submarine deck gun cracking off rounds attempting to hit the tanker. Finally, realizing that he would not be able to ram the submarine and with shells splashing on both sides of his ship, Goncalves sought safety in the confines of the bay and headed, zigging and zagging toward Santa Cruz. About 30 minutes after the initial contact, Commander Shibata broke off the pursuit and the submarine slid beneath the surface and disappeared. Goncalves and his crew later credited Shibata’s calling off the fight to the rough water that made it difficult for the submarine to fire the deck gun with any accuracy. Also, each passing minute increased the likelihood that support aircraft would arrive.
Most historians have dismissed the importance of the encounter between the Agiworld and I-23 because in military terms not much happened. However, the psychological impact of the tussle out on the bay was huge. All those sightings – whether real or imagined – were vindicated retroactively. There WERE submarines out there! And a well-placed fake periscope or two multiplied their numbers.
The Planned Christmas Eve Surprise – Blow up the Lighthouses!
Historians who have done a lot of work on this story (both in Japan and the US) suggest that Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto knew of and approved the plan scheduled for the evening of December 24. Yamamoto had spent several years living in the US and he knew how the American calendar worked. He knew what an impact an attack on that special day would have on American morale. The plan was simple enough. The nine submarines patrolling the North American coastline would simultaneously surface at an appointed time on Christmas Eve evening, and using their formidable deck guns, fire at and destroy the most prominent lighthouse in their area. The Japanese Naval Command also knew that President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill were planning a joint Christmas Eve radio address designed to bolster the courage and resolve of their respective peoples. From the Japanese perspective, the timing couldn’t be better.
The Point Pinos light would have been an ideal target for the Christmas Eve attack as it was visible on both sides of the bay.
We can only imagine the impact of the nine submarines coming up from the depths to destroy those lighthouses. After his December 20 disappointment caused by the escape of the Agiworld, Commander Shibata was no doubt looking forward to his chance to extract a little revenge by blowing up a lighthouse. We don’t know which regional lighthouse he planned as his Christmas Eve target. To get the greatest public relations impact, he probably would have selected the Point Pinos light as the Santa Cruz lighthouse had been replaced earlier that year with a light on a pole. All the coastal lighthouses were under strict blackout regulations, so hitting them in the dark would not be easy.
Christmas Eve Attack Canceled, December 22, 1941
On December 22, the nine Japanese submarines received notice that the planned attack had been canceled. No official reason for the cancelation has ever been unearthed, but historians who have pondered the change in plans have concluded that the plan was just too risky. They also credit the rag-tag assemblage of civilian observers, coastal patrols and hastily assembled fighter and bomber units for convincing the Japanese Naval command to call it off. Yamamoto was planning a second attack on Pearl Harbor in early 1942, and he would need all of his resources for that engagement.
So, each of the nine boats received new orders, and most of them left the coast. Except for stray fake periscopes bobbing here and there, Christmas Eve passed quietly in the Monterey Bay Region.
The Roosevelt-Churchill Joint Radio Address, December 24, 1941
Churchill and Roosevelt delivered their joint radio addresses the evening of December 24. Fully aware of the fear and despair that gripped their respective countries, they encouraged people not to treat this Christmas any differently. As American gathered around their radios they heard Roosevelt encourage them to help to arm their country and their hearts: “And when we make ready our hearts for the labor and the suffering and the ultimate victory which lie(s) ahead, then we observe Christmas Day—with all of its memories and all of its meanings—as we should.”
Churchill followed with an eloquent but shorter address, also trying to touch the hearts of the listeners, urging them to celebrate Christmas as they always had: “…we may cast aside for this night at least the cares and dangers which beset us, and make for the children an evening of happiness in a world of storm.”
Speeches as appropriate on this Christmas Eve as they were in 1941.
Here in 2016 many Americans feel that they are standing on the brink of an unknown world. And, just as Admiral Yamamoto knew the power of Christmas Eve, terrorists in Europe and the Middle East are carrying out their own Christmas Eve surprises. If you want a little dash of hope, I recommend that you use the following links and read the words of those two thoughtful leaders, powerful and uplifting speeches. Where are such leaders when we need them so?
Roosevelt’s Christmas Eve Message to America, December 24, 1941: click here: www.presidency.ucsb.edu
Churchill’s Christmas Message, December 24, 1941 click here: www.winstonchurchill.org
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was the architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor and subsequent plans to disrupt American shipping along the California coastline. He was killed when the aircraft he was riding in was attacked by US officials.
What happened after Christmas 1941? We will revisit these 75th anniversary benchmarks and develop them in future newsletters:
• The increasing restrictions on German, Italian and Japanese aliens leading to the removal of the entire Japanese community in the spring of 1942.
• The continuing efforts by the Japanese Navy to attack the United States mainland, including the balloons.
• The wartime impacts on the Monterey Bay Region
What happened to our principal 1941 participants?
• Frederick Goncalves – He continued to command tankers for Richfield Oil, and after the war returned several times to his native Brazil where he eventually died at age 91 in 1984.
• Genichi Shibata – After refueling at the Japanese submarine base at Kwajalein in the Marshal Islands, in Feburary 1942 he and the I-23 were last heard from as they reached their appointed station north of Oahu in preparation for the second attack on Pearl Harbor. Historians believe that the submarine and its crew were lost in a diving accident. The exact cause remains a mystery.
• Isoroku Yamamoto – Admiral Yamamoto, the architect of much of the strategy and planning that included the aborted 1941 Christmas Eve attack was hunted down and killed by attacking P-38 fighter planes, April 18, 1943.
An Upcoming Event – December 26-27, 2016
President Barak Obama and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe scheduled to meet at Pearl Harbor
In a first-ever visit by a Japanese Prime Minister to Pearl Harbor, Obama and Abe will join together to bring yet another symbolic closure to the events 75 years ago. President Obama did not apologize for the United States when he visited Hiroshima last spring, nor do we expect Abe to apologize for the December 7 attack at Pearl Harbor. However this meeting reflects just how strongly the currents of World War II continue to flow throughout the World. Symbolically, the meeting is huge.
Suggested Sources for the coastal Japanese submarine story
• Bert Webber, Silent Siege III, published by the Webb Research Group, 1992. Bert Webber compiled the most impressive research on the Japanese attacks on the West Coast, including many research visits to Japan after the war and arranging reunions between affected communities in the Pacific Northwest and surviving Japanese naval personnel. The resulting self-published books are sometimes maddeningly disorganized, but Bert Webber is The Man and demonstrates what committed and obsessed local historians can accomplish.
• Bob Hackett & Sander Kingsepp – http://www.combinedfleet.com Bert Webber is the expert on the American side of the story, while Hackett and Kingsepp have mined the Japanese side of the story, preparing detailed records of the movements of each of the twenty B1 submarines. This is where all of us working in this field go to check details of submarine movements, etc.
• Mark Felton, The Fujita Plan, Pen and Sword Military, 2006. The author takes all the threads and weaves them together, focusing on the incendiary bomb attack in Oregon by Nobuo Fujita. Good over-all perspective using most recent sources.
• Sandy Lydon, The Japanese in the Monterey Bay Region, Capitola Book, 1997. The primary focus of the World War II sections is the impact that the submarines – real and imagined – had on the public opinion that eventually led to the entire Japanese community being rounded up and taken to concentration camps in the interior. There are errors of fact about the Agiworld and I-23 event that we I now know much about.
• The Santa Cruz Sentinel – December 7, 1941 and following. Can be accessed in hard copy at the Santa Cruz Main Library, also on microfilm at McHenry Library, UCSC; Swenson Library at Cabrillo College. And now digitized and accessible through the Internet at www.newspapers.com. Reading the newspaper page by page, day by day is really the only way to get the texture and feel of the times.