Forces Engaged: Empire of Japan - B1-type (Otsu-gata) fleet submarine I-25; 17 x Type 95 "Long Lance" torpedoes, 1 x 5.5"/50cal deck gun, 94 officers and enlisted crewmen under Commander Tagami Meiji
United States of America - Units of the Coast Artillery, U.S. Army., manning the harbor defense guns emplaced at Fort Stevens, Oregon.
So far as I can tell the batteries at Fort Stevens were heavily manned on the night of 21 JUN. The garrison consisted of most of the 1st Battalion, 18th Coast Artillery (U.S. Army) and the 249th Coast Artillery battalion, Oregon Army National Guard in federal service.
C Battery, 1/18th CA appears to have been detached with 4 x 12" railway mortars to Brown's Point further up the mouth of the Columbia River in January, 1942, but the remaining batteries; HHSB, A, and B, 1/18th CA and HHSB, A, B, and C 249th CA (ORARNG) were on duty at Ft. Stevens that night. In addition the cadre of a new Coast Artillery unit, the 267th CA, had arrived on 12 JUN to prepare for the arrival of the remainder of the unit in August.
The strength report for 30 JUN 1942 lists 129 officers, 5 warrant officers, and 2,194 enlisted men. Of these, the most closely involved were the artillerymen manning Battery Russell under one CPT Woods; which unit was crewing the guns I have not been able to determine.
Battery Russell, which faced the Pacific, mounted two M1900 10" rifled cannon on what was known as a "disappearing" carriage. This contraption was basically a set of folding legs that could be lowered to load the cannon and then raised above the emplacement parapet to fire, making the gun difficult to hit with the low-angle, flat-trajectory naval guns typical of the turn-of-the-19th-century when the cannon were manufactured.
The total armament of Ft. Stevens that night consisted of:
Battery Russell's two 10" cannon;
A total of eight 12" mortars: 4 x M1918 mortars mounted on railway cars and another 4 M1890 type emplaced in Battery Clark, and
Battery Pratt's two 6" M1897MI cannon.
The commander of the Harbor Defenses of the Columbia River was one COL Doney, CA...
...and all of this military might was part of the U.S. Army's Ninth Coast Artillery District commanded by MG Wilson far away and safe in his bed on the night of 21 JUN...
The Campaign: It's frankly hard to call the events of 21 JUN 1942 much of a "battle", much less as part of a "campaign". I wanted to tell the story as a curiosity and as a favorite part of Oregon history that is usually forgotten. It was an oddity in an odd moment in the Great Pacific War, but one that was serious enough to the people who lived through it, and so perhaps I should give the moment a bit of historical context.
But here's the problem.
The events of 21 JUN 42 make absolutely no frigging sense to me from a military standpoint.
Let's walk back the spring of 1942 a bit, shall we?
The two enemies had very different strategic objectives, and their military plans reflected that.
The Japanese needed the U.S. Navy off their ass so they could complete the subjugation of the Philippines and the seizure of the "Southern Resource Area" otherwise known as the Dutch East Indies colonies and the lovely petroleum hidden thereunder.
The United States needed to hold off the Japanese in the central Pacific until the Pacific Fleet could recover from the beating the received at Pearl Harbor, keep their lines of supply to Australia open (and that country un-invaded, although the Japanese had no real plans to do so the U.S. couldn't be sure of that), and then figure out how to pry open the Japanese defensive network that the Empire had flung out across the southwestern and western Pacific beginning after the First World War.
The wild card was the U.S. strategic intelligence gathered through various codebreaking schemes, which enabled the U.S. to anticipate the Japanese plan to stage a decisive engagement with the U.S. carriers in the central Pacific. This engagement went off as planned, but as we all know the decision was against the Kido Butai, which lost four fleet carrier decks and hundreds of talented fliers in the course of several days in June.
You would think that a Japanese fleet submarine would have been gawdamn busy in the month of June; scouting for the Combined Fleet, harrying the U.S. convoys supplying it's Midway task forces, sinking American carriers or some damn thing that supported Yamamoto's Operation Mai tactical plan for Midway.
But you'd be wrong, neh?
Instead of hunting Yankee sailors, in June '42 the I-25 and her crew were farkling about off the Northwest coast, because...
Would you believe - the Dolittle Raid?
The most common explanation I've read for the overall mission of the I-25's Third War Patrol was to commit mayhem along the U.S. Left Coast in retaliation for the audacity of the gringos bombing the Imperial homeland.
I'm not sure if I believe it. Except for one thing; the overall strategic fucktardry of the 大日本帝国海軍 (Dai-Nippon Teikoku Kaigun)'s submarine forces.
And that was with a hell of a submersible force at the beginning of the war; the IJN had a total of 63 fleet subs on 8 DEC 41, including some of the most powerful in the world at the time.
Even a web page about Japanese imperial submarines has to admit that "(g)iven their (advantages in) size, range, speed, and torpedoes, Japanese submarines achieved surprisingly little."
The common explanation is that the Japanese had no real idea what to do with their subs other than throw them at enemy warships. And they did a fairly decent job of this in 1942.
But pitting slow submerged submarines (and remember that WW2 subs were really "submersibles" - they were actually pretty damn poor at doing anything submerged outside of running slow and silent for a damn short time until their batteries ran down and fumes and lack of oxygen overcame their crews, not to mention the incredible stench from the bilges where who-the-hell knew what awful swill floated - at least by 1942 most navy subs had actual heads, unlike the WW1 varieties where the crewmen used the bilges for a shitter) against sonar-equipped escorts is a mug's game.
And - remember, the WW2 subs had to spend a LOT of time on the surface - the U.S. naval air arm and long-distance reconnaissance aircraft got real good real fast at pickling off a depth charge or eight on whatever hapless Japanese sub they could find, and they found a lot of 'em.
But for the rest of it, the Japanese widdled their submarine force away in all sorts of pointless missions; resupply, snoop-and-pooping, lurking outside U.S. naval bases hoping to sneak a torpedo up the skirt of some careless Yankee...and, I suspect, this mission.
And the Third War Patrol really was pretty pointless. Listen, here's the itinerary for the I-25's 1942 West Coast Tour;
11 MAY 42: Departs Yokosuka.
27-30 MAY 42: Recons Kodiak, Dutch Harbor and USN units in Alaska in support of the Operation AL, the Aleutian diversion for the Battle of Midway. But the submarine is nowhere near the Aleutians during the actual operation - she's en-route to Oregon
14 JUN 42: On station off the coast of Oregon. I-25 is reported to "have launched a number of false bamboo periscopes to confuse the ASW vessels in the vicinity". Frankly, the bamboo-periscope thing sounds like a piece of slap-a-Jap racism except it's almost too bizarre for that so it may well be true.
Okay, pay attention, here's the odd bit, now:
18 JUN 1942: The web page listing I-25's movements during this time says: "ComSubRon 1 (RADM Yamazaki) orders the I-25 and the I-26 to shell military targets on the American west coast."
Frankly, that doesn't make sense to me if the point of this patrol was Revenge! for the Dolittle Raid. This seems like the kind of brilliant fucking idea some staff pogue comes up with for the combat types to try out. I wonder how the phrase "Trust me! This'll go slicker'n water of a cat's ass!" translates into Japanese? I think this entire operation was some REMF's idea of a killer career move. But that's just me; your mileage may vary. What do you think?
20-21 JUN 1942: torpedoes a British freighter northwest of the mouth of the Columbia, and attacks two other vessels, sinking none.
21 JUN 1942: fires 17 rounds of 5.5" at Fort Stevens on the N coast of Oregon, but inflicts no significant damage. (One dud shell landed near the golf course on Delaura Beach Road and is now a memorial) The Japanese actually intended to shell the "American submarine base at Astoria."
11 July 1942: Returns Yokosuka.
And that was that.
So I'm not sure if there really was much of a "plan" involved here. I think some staff puke attached to Submarine Squadron One got a wild hair up his ass after hearing about the fiasco that was Yamamoto's brilliant Midway operation and wanted one of his guys to kill some Yankees, ANY Yankees, goddamnit.
So Commander Meiji got his orders and the boys at Battery Russell got a rude awakening on a Sunday night.
The Sources: The usual; official records, war diaries, personal accounts, letters, newspapers, all the literary appurtenances of living in a literate society.
Of the written sources in particular I'd like to recommend Panic! at Fort Stevens by Bert Webber; a nice little illustrated account of the night, and probably the single volume specific to the event. Available from the Columbia River Maritime Museum (a pretty terrific place, as well...) here.
There's several good on-line places to read about the night of 21 JUN. The Wiki entry is perhaps the worst place to begin. It's a great example of "bad" Wiki; sparse, missing the Webber primary source, and contains a reference to a supposed B-17 attack that I frankly consider unlikely.
Somebody named Dale Fehrenger has a nice account of the evening featuring quotes from CPT Wood, the Battery Russell commander, and other participants. There are a handful of what look like factual inaccuracies (the B1 submarines are listed at 94 crew, not 108...but, then, wartime units tend to find places for people and equipment they're not "supposed" to have, so, there...)
An outfit called the "Coast Defense Study Group" has a great site for information on Fort Stevens here. Well worth a look, especially the terrific pictures.
The Engagement: The round tale of the night of Sunday, 21 JUN, is quickly told. But indulge me; I want to set the table a little bit.
First, the defenses.
The coastal guns at Ft. Stevens in 1942 - in fact, all around the mouth of the Columbia - were still largely sited and their fields of fire planned with the Spanish-American War parameters of naval architecture in mind.
The forts around the river mouth; Ft. Stevens on Clatsop Spit to the south, Ft. Canby on the south end of the Long Beach peninsula to the north, and the smaller Ft. Columbia just southeast of Chinook, Washington (also on the north bank) were designed engage an enemy force actually entering the harbor. Look at the fields of fire for the active Ft. Stevens batteries. Here's Battery Pratt's 2 x 6" guns;
And here's another pair of 6-inchers, these mounted on Battery Murphy at Ft. Columbia:
The real smashing was expected to have been done by the high-angle fire of the 12" mortars crashing down through wooden decks; as you can see, these weapons had considerably better arc of fire, although their range was not much longer than the much smaller 6-inchers:
(These diagrams are all from an archived 1937 document titled Annexes to Harbor Defense Project, Harbor Defenses of the Columbia viewable at the Coast Defense Study Group website) There is nothing listed in this annex for Battery Russell - since in '37 the battery was officially out of service - but the maximum range for a 10" M1900 is listed as 14,000 yards. So the arc of fire of Russell would have probably looked something like this:
You'll notice the red circle?
That's I-25's 5.5"/50 deck gun. Designed twenty years after the M1900, with half the size it has almost half again the range; 21,600 yards.
We'll get back to that in a moment.
So it must have been a pretty lazy Sunday night for the boys at Fort Stevens. Astoria, Hammond, and Warrenton - the closest towns - were still pretty rural places in '42, lots of fishing, clamming, and crabbing. Some saltgrass sorts of agriculture and dairying. The waterfront bars were known to be tough, and you were likely to get into a fight if you used the wrong look at some Finn pissed off from a long day and no fish. Or a different sort of look at his daughter.
But the lucky few were back from pass, probably telling the usual lies GIs have always told about the drinking and fucking heroics, while the post settled into the early lights-out routines. Sentries shook their heads and squinted into the dark of a June night. The busy day noises died away and the nighttime sounds took over; the distant surf booming and hissing, the sound of crickets and the whine of mosquitoes, occasional sounds of cars or trucks on the Coast Highway out in the eastern darkness.
Out in the greater darkness of the Pacific Ocean I-25 had surfaced some time before 2330. I could find no record of her course or speed, but I suspect that she was probably cruising slowly southwards, for reasons I'll explain later.
It must have been a nerve-wracking moment. The enemy's landmass, presumably loaded with pantsloads of scary dangerous aircraft, soldiers, and sailors lay less than 4 miles to port. The sub had used the local fishing fleet to slip through the sea mines and past the guardships, but there was no disguising the danger. The gun crew presumably had their helmets strapped on tight and their kapok vests over their summer whites as they cranked the cannon around and elevated the muzzle.
The number one man jammed the first round into the breech and the assistant gunner slammed the breech closed. The gun captain probably looked up at the bridge, and someone, possibly even the captain himself, barked 暖炉!
The crewmen said later that they didn't bother to use the 5.5" gunsight; their target was blacked out, anyway, and, besides, it's hard to miss the ground with a shell.
A long tongue of flame strobed the night, the first round spiraled out of the gun muzzle and then the crew waited impatiently until the bloom of fire announced the first enemy cannon round to land on a continental United States fortification since 1865.
Let's let CPT Woods take up the story.
Things went pretty crazy in the first moments under fire. Troops ran to their guns half-dressed or undressed, sirens screamed, one of the searchlight flicked on and raked the water only to snap off after an officer threatened to shoot it out for giving away the emplacement's position. Battery Russell was loaded and ready to fire within several minutes and CPT Woods requested permission to open fire from the central fire direction center at Main Post.
"While waiting for the order to return fire,"the Fehrenger article runs,
"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.Apparently the combination of darkness and a target that consisted of a moving series of flashes had resulted in a poor plot in the FDC; I-25 was plotted as out of range of Russell's 10-inchers, and if Battery Russell couldn't hit her none of the Stevens batteries could.
Eventually a response was received: Do not fire. I say again; do not fire.
Woods 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."
But given the reported elevation of I-25's deck gun and the strike of the rounds it's likely that the submarine was no more than 13,000 to 15,000 yards away; possibly out of range, but possibly not. The lack of radar guidance for the older cannons was shown to be a critical flaw. The U.S. batteries remained silent.
At 2345 I-25 fired the last of 17 rounds. Her gun crew secured the cannon for dive, and the deck crew went below save for lookouts and the conning party. The submarine turned west, heading out to sea, and back to Japan. She slipped past several small boats, presumably fishermen, and, diesels thumming, began to pick up speed as she headed for home.
The cannonade of Clatsop Plains was over.
The Outcome: Utterly trivial; a minor Japanese tactical and propaganda "victory", if you will, but meaningless outside of an exciting evening for the participants and a black eye for the Coast Artillery Corps.
The Impact: Physical? Well...some craters on the beach, shell fragments all around Battery Russell, including damage to the backstop of a baseball diamond about 100 yards away.
A near-miss on a beach house where three kids peed themselves for the first time since toddlerhood.
A power line was scored, eventually rusted through, and broke.
That powerline, by the way, was on Delaura Beach Road, some considerable distance south of the initial impacts around Russell. See?
Which is why I suspect that I-25 was cruising slowly south as she fired; a random MPI like that doesn't make sense unless she was drifting south, in my opinion. No matter, really, except the site is monumented today:
For all that the actual military damage that I-25 did that night, the real impact of her attack (and the September aerial bombing by her E14Y1 "Glen" floatplane) was in the minds of Americans, who saw one more damn Jap attack after another (given the shelling of oil facilities in southern California in February, and now this...) The shelling probably contributed to the fear that imprisoned thousands of Japanese-Americans all over the West Coast, and helped fan the overall ruthlessness that characterized the Pacific War.
Mind you, the Japanese could do ruthless. And did.
For all that this was just a ridiculous and silly scrap, overall it was a pretty goddamn awful war.
Oh, and interesting - note that in the World's Probably Even Then Worst Newspaper the number of shells is listed as nine. Other U.S. eyewitnesses said eleven; almost no one said 17. Chances are that over a third of the Japanese shells landed in the water, or the soft ground typical of Clatsop Plains and didn't explode.
But perhaps the most significant fatality of that night was the Coast Artillery itself.
The inability of the coastal forts to keep off their insignificant attacker was a painful remainder that the era of naval gunnery was all but over. Aircraft would patrol the coasts from now on, and by 1944 almost all of the old batteries at Ft. Stevens were abandoned.
A pair of newer 5-inch guns were installed and quietly decommissioned within a year.
Ft. Stevens, Ft. Canby, and Ft. Columbia were all leased or sold within the next several decades; there are no active coastal defense installations in the United States.
The Coast Artillery Corps itself, which had been split off from the Field Artillery only in 1907, lived only another eight years and was merged back with the redlegs of the FA. Ironically, several old Coast Artillery posts were used in the Fifties as sites for CIM-10 Bomarc launchers, perhaps the last true heir to the fortified cannon defenses.
In a moment of panic fear of yellow hordes swarming ashore a renewed energy was applied to coastal defenses along the West Coast, however, including another layer of barbed wire entanglements along the beach.
The wire is said to have been buried under sand or washed away within a year and was never repaired or replace as it became starkly clear that the Japanese weren't going to visit.
What did remain tangled in the wreck of the Peter Iredale, however, and is said to have remained a hell of a nuisance for several years.
Ft. Stevens has been turned into a state park, where on nice summer days you can drive around the old concrete batteries and hear about the excitement of the night of 21 JUL. Oddly, the popular attraction of late has become the restoration of the older earthwork, built during the Civil War, and the swarms of black powder reenactors who show up to fight impossible blue-gray battles over weekends in July.
Battery Russell stands empty amid the riot of salal and Oregon grape that has grown up and through the silent flash doors to the magazines.
A plastic and wooden replica of the old M1900 cannon sits in simulated ferocity in the slowly decaying concrete of one of the revetments,
While timber grows from the old formation area, and in defiance of first sergeants long gone the walls are stained and scribbled with names and declarations of love, foolishness, and ferocity.
CPT Woods command post still looks out on the restless Pacific, the only Japanese vessels within its gunsights now the immense slab-sided car carriers bringing Mitsubishis whose intent is purely harmless. In the cool woodlands outside the zeeee of the hermit thrush echoes the whisper of the nightfire of seventy years ago.