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Clatsop County Historical Society/AP
U.S. troops at the site of a Japanese submarine shell hole after an attack on Fort Stevens.

On This Day: Japanese Submarine Attacks Oregon

June 21, 2010 09:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On June 21, 1942, a Japanese submarine fired on Fort Stevens, Ore., in the first attack on a mainland U.S. military base in 130 years.

The Shelling of Fort Stevens

The Japanese were retaliating against America for the Doolittle Raid, a surprise attack by U.S. B-25 bombers on the Japanese mainland only months earlier. The American air raid caused minimal damage but humiliated Japan and bolstered U.S. confidence after Pearl Harbor and a string of U.S. defeats.

The Japanese high command sent submarines to the Pacific Northwest, ordering them to attack naval vessels headed to Alaska and the Aleutians. On June 21, one of the subs navigated through a fishing fleet near the Oregon coast, avoiding U.S. minefields off the Columbia River, and then moved in to fire its 5.5-inch deck gun at Fort Stevens, one of three bases defending the Columbia.

Despite initial confusion, the U.S. guns were soon manned—but no order to fire back at the Japanese was ever given. The enemy ship was mistakenly thought to be out of range, and the fort’s commander, Maj. Robert Huston, also claimed he didn’t want to give away the location of U.S. defenses.

The Japanese shells damaged the fort’s baseball diamond, and missed a nearby battery of 10-inch guns, according to the Oregon State Archives. By midnight, the Japanese stopped the shelling, departing after firing an estimated 17 rounds.

No one was injured, but the attack shattered any belief that the American mainland was impenetrable. Washington state historian David Wilma explains, “The attack on Fort Stevens illustrated a flaw in U.S. coastal defense strategy. Despite the efforts of military engineers, enemies could always develop weapons with longer ranges than coastal guns. The I-25’s small deck gun could outshoot the big rifles and mortars in the fort.”

The attack was reported in newspapers across the country, including The New York Times. The U.S. boosted security along the West Coast, and introduced warning systems to alert civilians of attacks.

Japan would launch several more small and largely ineffective bombing attacks on the U.S. West Coast, but it never again attacked a military base. The Fort Stevens attack “went into the history books as the only hostile shelling of a military base on the U.S. mainland during World War II and the first since the War of 1812,” the Oregon State Archives states.

Other Mainland Attacks During World War II

In September 1942, the Japanese Imperial Navy carried out two bombing attacks over Oregon using seaplanes launched from submarines. Both times incendiary bombs were dropped into forests; the first attack “could have caused serious fires had not the forest been wet with unreasonable rain and fog,” writes William H. Langenberg in Aviation History magazine.

In 1944, the Japanese launched balloons loaded with bombs across the Pacific to the American Northwest, hoping to cause forest fires and create chaos. An estimated 9,000 of these balloon bombs made it across the Pacific, and one killed six people in Oregon in May 1945.

Background: Fort Stevens

The official Web site for Fort Stevens State Park details the history of the fort from its creation in 1863 to its dismantling in 1947. Originally, the fort was built to protect the region from an invasion via Canada if the British had sided with the Confederates during the Civil War. “In its long history, Fort Stevens never fired its guns in anger,” the site explains.

Historical Context: World War II

The findingDulcinea Web Guide to World War II links to the most comprehensive and reliable sources on the war.

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