The Shelling of Ft. Stevens

Dale Fehringer

Copyright 2007 by Dale Fehringer 

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Gun enplacement at Ft. Stevens. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

When U.S. Army Captain Jack Wood heard the first shell explode at around 11:30 PM, he jumped off his cot and ran up the steps to his post.  More shells whistled overhead, then landed and blew apart.  It was Sunday June 21, 1942, and it had been a quiet, sunny day at Fort Stevens, one of three forts that guarded the mouth of the Columbia River near Astoria, Oregon.  It was anything but quiet now.  As commander of Fort Stevens’ Battery Russell, Wood’s first responsibilities were to oversee readiness of two 10-inch guns, and to determine who was firing, and from where.    He sat down at the position finder and tried to fix the cross hairs on the gun flashes.  The shells were coming from the sea, most likely from an enemy submarine, at a distance he estimated to be around 10-11 miles – just out of range of the World War I vintage guns under his command.

Still, Captain Wood wanted to fire back.  He and his men had endured months of monotonous training and dreary weather preparing for this situation, and they were ready and eager to defend their country from enemy attack.

But permission to return fire was denied, and Captain Wood and his men were unable to retaliate that night.  Fortunately, the shells, which were fired by a single Japanese submarine, caused little damage and no casualties.  Yet this relatively obscure World War II incident, the first enemy attack on a U.S. mainland military base since the War of 1812, did much to change attitudes about the war.  It increased fear of a Japanese invasion and brought the war home to Americans who had previously thought of it as an overseas event.  It also led to greater awareness and preparation, and ultimately caused changes in the way the U.S. guarded its coasts.

Trained, ready, and trigger happy

By June of 1942, the U.S. was fully engaged in World War II.  Still reeling from the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor six months earlier, most Americans were now involved in the war:  serving in or supplying the military, volunteering for a variety of war-related efforts, or buying war bonds.

The war wasn’t going well for the Allies.  Germany was still making gains in North Africa and the Soviet Union,  and Japanese aggression continued in Asia.   Americans living on the West Coast feared Japanese attacks, and civilian defense groups drilled the public on where to go and what to do in case of an air raid.

Soldiers at Fort Stevens had practiced loading and firing their guns for months.  They were well trained, ready, and possibly a little trigger happy.  Joseph Burdic, a soldier at Fort Stevens, remembered that a ship went aground just off the Oregon coast and lost its load of Christmas trees.  The men at Fort Stevens noticed a light at sea and objects floating toward the beach, assumed an invasion, and went into action.  “I don’t know how many rounds of .30 caliber ammunition were fired at the Christmas trees,” Burdic said.

The Doolittle Raid three months earlier (April, 1942) had further increased concern of a Japanese air raid.  By bombing Japanese cities, that daring U.S. strike boosted Allied morale and showed that the Japanese home islands could be attacked.  Japanese high command was “deeply embarrassed,”  and decided to retaliate by striking the U.S. mainland.  Shortly thereafter, nine Japanese submarines (“I-boats”) were ordered to patrol the U.S. West Coast.  Japanese submarine I-25 arrived off the coast of Oregon on June 14, 1942.

Aboard Japanese submarine I-25

At 11:30 PM on June 21, Commander Tagami of the Imperial Japanese Navy ordered submarine I-25 to stop and prepare to fire.   Earlier that day, the submarine had used a screen of fishing boats to avoid minefields and slip into position nearly eight miles west of Fort Stevens.  The crew positioned the 125-foot submarine so the stern faced the coast and the deck gun was centered over the stern.  All 108 crewmen were at battle stations.  This would be the first time the submarine had fired on enemy shores.

Tagami was well prepared for this moment.  He had been in charge of the submarine since it was commissioned the previous October, and he had led the crew in several encounters with freighters and battle ships at various points throughout the Pacific.

Tagami’s orders were clear:  a week earlier Rear Admiral Yamazaki had directed a group of Japanese submarines (including the I-25) to shell military targets on the American West Coast.  Tagami’s immediate objective was to attack a U.S. Navy submarine and destroyer base, which he believed was located at Tongue Point, near the mouth of the Columbia River.  (In reality, the base had been approved, but not yet developed.)

Tagami wasn’t worried about being seen from the Oregon shore.  His submarine was painted black, the lights had been extinguished, and it would take a powerful search light to spot it.

But he wasn’t sure what would happen afterward.

He didn’t think U.S. defense guns had enough range to hit his submarine this far out, but he didn’t know what, if any, aerial forces were nearby.  His crew was ready to quickly return to sea, just in case.

Tagami ordered his crew to fire.  The muzzle of the deck gun exploded and the first of the 16-inch long, 60-pound shells headed toward the coast.  The crew passed a new shell, reloaded the gun, and after a bright flash and deafening explosion another missile was on its way.  In all, 17 shells were fired.  The gunnery crew didn’t use their gun sight (which they kept free in case they were attacked by air) – they just shot with the deck gun elevated to 30-40 degrees.

At 11:45 PM, the last shell was on its way and Commander Tagami ordered the crew below deck except for two lookouts.  Then the sub headed west, passing unseen by several fishing boats and a blacked out Coast Guard ship, on its way to the open sea.

Tagami would have no way of knowing where the shells landed, or what effect they had.  His job was finished for the day.

At Fort Stevens

Fort Stevens quickly became a madhouse after the first shell hit, with soldiers yelling and scrambling to get dressed and to their posts.     A warning siren was wailing and one man ran into a parked truck and cut his head, which added to the confusion.  Within a few minutes the men had the guns at Battery Russell loaded and ready to fire.

Powerful search lights, capable of exposing the submarine, were in place all along the beach.  Momentarily, one of the lights was turned on, and then quickly extinguished after an officer threatened to shoot it out.

While waiting for the order to return fire, Captain Wood and his men considered their options.  Since they couldn’t tell exactly where the shots were coming from,  they decided to focus on the flashes from the submarine and fire their guns over and under the flashes, like field artillery pieces.  If they weren’t able to hit the sub, that approach should at least scare it away.

Eventually a response was received:  “Do not fire – I repeat do not fire.”

Wood’s men were unhappy.  There was grumbling from soldiers at the guns and in the ammunition rooms below.   Richard Emery, who was a soldier at Fort Stevens that night, said, “We were frustrated.  There was a lot of anger.  We felt that we should have been able to fire back.”

It appears that Major Robert Huston, who was the Senior Duty Officer that night, made the decision.  It was a tough call, and a part of him wished he could have gone along with Captain Wood.  He knew the effect it would have on troop morale and on his fellow officers.   His decision was later supported by his superior, Colonel Doney, who when the attack started was in bed in his quarters.

At Battery Russell, Captain Wood and his crew remained at their positions, ready to fire if the orders changed.  Eventually, when they were sure the submarine was gone, they unloaded the guns and returned the ammunition and powder to the supply rooms.

Because he was a professional officer, Captain Wood took the order in stride.  His job was finished for the day.

Why didn’t the U.S. return fire?

Following the attack, there was a good deal of speculation about the decision to not return fire.  One outlandish rumor was the officers had been drunk and unable to issue the order to fire.  Another was the officers decided not to take action because the U.S. Army would have been required to give combat pay to soldiers who returned fire.

But a more plausible explanation was provided the next day by Major Huston and Colonel Doney.  Based on the best estimates available that night, the submarine appeared to be out of range, so why give away defense positions to a target that couldn’t be hit?

Was the submarine really out of range?  Probably not.  Subsequent interviews with the submarine’s crew indicated it was around eight miles off shore, which, if correct, was within range of Fort Steven’s guns.

Was the submarine really trying to locate U.S. coastal defense positions?  Probably not.  After the war, Commander Tagami told author Bert Webber, “If I had any idea those cannons were right in front of me I would never have been there.”

“Too damned close”

Fortunately, the shells launched by Commander Tagami’s submarine caused negligible damage.  They left man-sized craters in the beach and shell fragments all around Battery Russell.  One shell damaged the backstop of a baseball diamond within 100 yards of Battery Russell,  and another landed near a beach house in which three children trembled together in bed.  Another hit a power line which eventually rusted through and broke.

When asked the next day how close the shells had come to the military post, Colonel Doney told reporters, “Too damned close.”

A more serious war

Despite military readiness and air raid drills, some Americans were skeptical of an enemy invasion, believing the Japanese were too busy fighting in Asia and the U.S. coastal defenses were dauntingly strong.  But the attack on Fort Stevens changed a lot of minds.  It brought the war home to Americans and changed the perception of World War II as an overseas event.  “The next morning my feelings about the war had changed,” recalled Helen Healy, a civilian who lived near Fort Stevens.

For some Americans, the attack also increased their sense of vulnerability.  “(It) made me realize that there really was an enemy lurking off our shores who might attack the mainland of the United States at any time,” recalled Margaret Swindler, a civilian who lived in Oregon during the attack.

And it increased readiness.    Richard Emery, a soldier at Fort Stevens said, “Before the attack we were all just a little bit complacent.  After the attack happened, we realized that we were vulnerable.”

Newspapers throughout the country ran front page accounts of the attack.  The New York Times  reported, “Foe’s Shells Fall on Oregon Coast,” and the San Francisco News  gave an extensive account of the attack headlined, “Oregon Coast Shelled.”  In a bit of war propaganda, Tokyo Radio erroneously reported that residents of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico were “panic stricken and are leaving in huge numbers for the interior.”

Improvements to U.S. coastal defenses

The shelling of Fort Stevens and the fact that an enemy vessel had “outreached” U.S. defenses led to several enhancements in the way the U.S. defended its coasts.

The attack served a larger purpose

History now regards the attack on Fort Stevens as a relatively minor incident, and only a few people alive today are aware that the Japanese attacked the U.S. mainland during World War II.  In the short term, the attack frustrated soldiers at Fort Stevens and agitated U.S. civilians, but it also served a greater long-term purpose.  Knowing that an enemy could attack the U.S. mainland increased awareness and readiness in the U.S., and eventually led to improvements in the way the U.S. defended its coasts.

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