The Impact of WWII on the California Coast

A Japanese submarine, 2011.  Photo by Yamaguchi Yoshiaki via Wikimedia Commons.
A Japanese submarine, 2011. Photo by Yamaguchi Yoshiaki via Wikimedia Commons.

During World War II the California coastline was dotted with watch towers, stretches of cliffs were barricaded with barbed wire, and entire towns practiced complete blackouts at night to hide from enemy aircraft and ships. The war was brought to our shores just eleven days after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, and for one long week Japanese subs launched attacks on American ships from Mendocino down to San Diego. (There was one attack as far north as Washington but the bulk of the attacks were concentrated off the California coast.) The enemy’s presence on our coastlines brought the war home and spurred action across the country.

Preparing for the Worst: Practice Drills and Lookout Towers Along the Coast

Even before the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, American communities were preparing for the war to reach the United States. In Santa Cruz, police chief Al Huntsman implemented practice blackouts. At night, light-proof curtains were pulled tightly shut so the town melted into the dark, effectively invisible to enemy planes and ships. Lookout stations were set up all along the coast. After most of the young men left to join the war efforts,  young children were trained to identify and report any enemy ships or aircraft and took shifts at the watch towers.

The entire town of Santa Cruz was put to use during the war: the infantry stayed at Grant Elementary School, The Casa Del Rey Hotel was a Navy convalescent hospital, and the 963rd Amphibious Brigade stayed at DeLaveaga Park and trained at the boardwalk’s swimming pool.

The country’s preparations were not for nothing. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, nine Japanese submarines were sent to the United States’ shores with orders to attack nine coastal towns and lighthouses up and down the Pacific coast. This was an effort to scare the Americans into thinking a large attack on the mainland was coming next. The cities were chosen for their locations along commonly used shipping lanes and for the best opportunity to attack. In California the coastal communities that saw the most action were Cape Mendocino, Monterey Bay, Estero Bay, and San Diego. The first two attacks were extremely close calls and the crews were lucky to survive.

The First Attack: The ship Samoa off the Mendocino Coast

On her way to San Diego with a load of lumber, the Samoa was just 15 miles off the coast of Mendocino when the Japanese submarine I-17 spotted it on December 18 and began its pursuit. Luckily for the Samoa the sub was only allotted one torpedo per merchant ship so its captain, Kozo Nishino, decided to open fire with a 5.5-inch deck gun. Once the crewmen of the Samoa spotted the sub they quickly went for the lifeboats. Five shots were fired but with no real damage. Nishino then ordered his crew to launch the torpedo from 70 yards away and the American men watched helplessly as the torpedo’s wake drew ever closer to the ship.

Luck was certainly on the Americans’ side that day because the torpedo miraculously went directly underneath the ship’s hull and exploded on the other side. Fragments of it rained down on the ship, but still no one was harmed. Visibility was poor along the dark, foggy coast and Nishino believed he had hit his target. The submarine backed off, leaving the Americans safely on deck.

An I-10 Japanese submarine used in WWII. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
An I-10 Japanese submarine used in WWII. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Enemy Subs in Monterey Bay: The Agwiworld Attack

Just two days after the attack on the Samoa, another Japanese submarine, the I-23, emerged just 20 miles off Cypress Point in Monterey Bay. An explosion off the stern of an American tanker, the Agwiworld, got the captain’s attention. Soon the 6700-ton tanker was fishtailing and zigzagging along shore in an effort to outmaneuver the sub’s torpedoes.

The bay’s large swells prevented the submarine from closing in on the Agwiworld and the ship’s crew was spared. The I-23 fired eight shots, four of which came so close they splashed water up on the Agwiworld’s deck. Golfers on shore reportedly looked up from their game to see the large tanker sporadically zigzagging along the coast billowing large plumes of dark smoke. (The smoke was from the over-worked engines, not from a direct hit.) Even though the American tanker was in view, the golfers couldn’t see the submarine and didn’t realize until the next day that it the Agwiworld had been under attack.

Japanese submarines launched their planned attacks up and down the coast until December 24. In total, six American sea merchants were killed and two ships were sunk.

The First Attack on the U.S. Mainland Since the War of 1812: Ellwood Oil Field, Santa Barbara

After almost two months of peace and quiet along the California coast, a Japanese submarine surfaced off the coast of Santa Barbara on February 23, 1942. (The plot of the film 1941 is loosely based on this attack.) This time the submarine’s captain, Kozo Nishino, had his sights not on American merchant ships but on the mainland. The sub fired at a pair of oil storage tankers, missing them completely. Even though the most damage done was to a catwalk and some pumping equipment, Nishino radioed back to Japan saying he’d “left Santa Barbara in flames.”

This attack, the first on the U.S. mainland since the War of 1812, was a ploy by the Japanese to fool Americans into thinking a larger attack on the mainland was to come. They had no intention of this but knew the Ellwood attack would push Americans to deploy precious troops up and down the coast. The plan worked, and soon after the 54th Coast Artillery  the first and only all African American regiment  was deployed to protect the California coastline from any future attacks.

The 54th Coast Artillery Arrives in Santa Cruz

200 men from the 54th Coast Artillery quietly set up camp at Lighthouse Point in Santa Cruz under cover of darkness on Easter Sunday in 1942. One day the population of African Americans in town was 18 and the next it had increased more than ten-fold. As you can imagine, it wasn’t an entirely smooth transition. The city fathers tried to make parts of the town off limits to the soldiers, but the local military chaplain threatened to boycott “the whole damn town” and local businesses decided to put their racism aside.

It wasn’t just in Santa Cruz that the regiment faced racist treatment. All African American soldiers in the 54th Coast Artillery were given leftover uniforms from WWI and their army stripes were painted on. They wore work uniforms of blue denim that looked like prison uniforms and hobnail shoes (shoes with nails inserted in the soles to make them more durable).

In his book Lighthouse Point Frank Perry eloquently describes the regiment’s plight: “The soldiers of the 54th had to fight two wars: one against the enemy and one against racism.”

Aerial view of Lighthouse point circa 1941. You can see the beacon and the old lighthouse on the north side of West Cliff Drive. Image is used courtesy of Frank Perry. Ed Webber was the photographer.
Aerial view of Lighthouse point circa 1941. You can see the beacon and the old lighthouse on the north side of West Cliff Drive. Image is used courtesy of Frank Perry. Ed Webber was the photographer.

The Barring of Italians, Germans, and Japanese From Highway 1 to the Coast

The African Americans weren’t the only minorities to suffer at the hands of racism during the war. The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt ordered the arrest of all enemy aliens (primarily those of Italian, Japanese, and German descent) “dangerous to American security.” With fear struck into the hearts of all Americans from the recent attack, almost 4,000 aliens across the U.S. were arrested within 72 hours.

As the war stretched on, the President’s orders became stricter and designated zones along the coast became entirely off limits to Japanese, Germans, and Italians. The Monterey Bay Area, with a large population of farmers and fishermen of Italian and Japanese descent, soon had curfews and travel and residence restrictions. Anyone who did not have citizenship by January 25, 1942 was forced to leave all areas west (oceanside) of Highway 1 in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties.

This meant that Italian fishermen at the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf could no longer practice their livelihoods. One of these Italians was Giacomo Stagnaro, a well known surname in the Santa Cruz community today. Many of these fishermen had sons fighting in the war but that mattered little. Agriculture in the area suffered as well: the field workers were primarily Italian in those days so when Italians were forced to move east of Highway 1, the oceanside farms were hit hard.

Remains of WWII in Santa Cruz Today

The plaque in Santa Cruz at Lighthouse Point in honor of the 54th Coast Artillery who protected our shores.
The plaque in Santa Cruz at Lighthouse Point in honor of the 54th Coast Artillery who protected our shores.

After the end of WWII, remains of a military presence almost entirely disappeared, but a few reminders can still be found. After the war, some of the men of the 54th Coast Artillery returned to Santa Cruz and established the first substantial African American population in what is still a primarily white population. Many of them settled down in the Circles neighborhood, not far from Lighthouse Point. In 2009, a plaque was installed on West Cliff Drive by the lighthouse to commemorate the men of the 54th who defended our shores. (Although it took about 65 years for such a recognition to occur.)

A somewhat odd reminder of submarines off our coast can be found in the mysterious brick structure at 519 Fair Avenue. Here the tall brick obelisks inlaid with abalone are said to be part of a “submarine-stopping” device. It was used, some say successfully, by the owner, Kenneth Kitchen during the war.

Artistic Reminder: Black Eagles

The play Black Eagles was written about the 54th Coast Artillery and is being performed this Friday, March 6 by the UCSC African American Theater Arts Troupe (AATAT) at Cabrillo’s Crocker Theater. For tickets visit: http://www.cadrc.org/live-calendar.html

Do you remember when WWII came to California’s shores or have you heard stories of what it was like in Santa Cruz or any of the other coastal towns during this time? We’d love to hear them! Share your memories in the comments or on our Facebook page.



  1. Sources Used

    • More than Memories: History & Happenings of the Monterey Peninsula. Randall A. Reinstedt. Ghost Town Publications; 2012.
    • Lighthouse Point: Illuminating Santa Cruz. Frank Perry. Frank A. Perry; 2002.
      Pathways to the Past: Adventures in Santa Cruz County History. History Journal Number 6. The Museum of Art & History @ the McPherson Center; 2009.
    • Japanese Submarines Prowl the U.S. Pacific Coastline in 1941. History Net Website. Originally published by WWII magazine. Published online June 12, 2006. http://www.historynet.com/japanese-submarines-prowl-the-us-pacific-coastline-in-1941.htm
    • Male Notte: The Untold Story of Italian Relocation During World War II. Geoffrey Dunn. Santa Cruz Public Libraries Website. http://www.santacruzpl.org/history/articles/258/

About The Author

Molly Lautamo is a content strategist and writer in Santa Cruz, California. She loves exploring and researching her surroundings and then writing about her discoveries to inspire others to get out and explore too. You can check out more of Molly's writing at mollylautamo.com.

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