On the night of 23 February 1942, the Japanese submarine I-17 crept along the coast of California; lookouts desperately trying to identify their captain’s very specific target – the Ellwood Oil Fields. Commander Kozo Nishino had an intensely personal reason for the target of the first Japanese attack on the Continental United States: The Americans laughed at him there.
Nishino was a naval reserve officer, and as a civilian he was an oil tanker captain. A few years before the American embargo, he sailed through the Santa Barbara strait destined to pick up a load of oil from Ellwood. On his way to the docking ceremony, he tripped and fell into a cactus, and his crew had to pull needles from his posterior. He never forgave the snickering Americans.
At 7 pm, the I-17 spotted the oil fields, and Nishino ordered his 5.5” deck to fire. On the choppy seas, the Japanese gunner was not very accurate. But each of the 21 rounds fired landed within about a hundred yards of the spot where Nishino had the cactus spines removed from his ass, so his honor was satisfied. I-17 sailed away to look for merchant ships. The bombardment did about $500 worth of damage, and slightly lowered property values.
The psychological effect was much greater. Pearl Harbor was only 80 days or so previously. The US Army had recently established black out and civil defense procedures and drills. But this was No Drill: those were real explosions, made by real Japanese shells, fired by real Japanese guns, from a real Japanese ship, by really real Japanese sailors shouting “Banzai”. After dutifully blacking out his hotel, a local innkeeper near the oil fields called the sheriff to report explosions nearby. More drmatically, the ship was spotted by a reverend in Motecito, who also called the police. From those two initial reports rumors snowballed across southern California: The Japanese were going to invade.
The next night the entire 37th Coast Artillery Brigade, responsible for Los Angeles and the surrounding area, went on alert. A total blackout was ordered and they prepared to repel the invaders. Nothing happened until 3:14 am on the morning of the 25th, when someone thought they heard something above. Search lights pierced the night sky, then someone fired. Soon, everyone began shooting. For the next hour, Angelinos and their defenders in the 37th blazed away into the darkness above. They fired 1400 large caliber anti-aircraft gun rounds, and tens of thousands of small arms ammunition, before order was restored. Seven civilians were killed: three from heart attacks caused by the stress of the situation, and four from descending rounds, because what goes up must come down.
The Japanese later denied any forces in the area besides I-17. The official US Army investigation concluded that the incident was “a case of war nerves”, and the object sighted at 3:14 in the morning was an “errant weather balloon”, which led many conspiracy theorists to believe that the object was actually a UFO.