Illustration depicting the Japanese landing at Three Hills Beach on night of February 28, 1942.

ON FEBRUARY 23, 1942, around 7:15 PM, just as President Franklin Roosevelt was delivering one of his fireside chats to a nation newly at war, a Japanese I-17 Sensuikan class submarine lobbed a number of shells onto the beach just north of Santa Barbara. It is calculated that thirteen shells in all were sent into the oil fields at Ellwood Beach, although reports vary. One shell did not explode and simply dug straight into the dirt (and continues to be in possession of a local family). Although damage was minimal—about five hundred dollars was spent to repair an oil rig—nerves were nevertheless frayed and wartime jitters increased.
A visit to the area nowadays will show only open coast and few reminders of the days when Ellwood was a larger part of the petroleum industry. While the location still supports off-shore drilling interests, with two large tanks set back just off of the beach head and platforms visible off the coast, the remainder of the area today is a wildlife and research refuge.
 Legend has it that the commander of the submarine, Nishino Kozo, had visited the area in the late 1930s as the skipper of an oil tanker. Taking time to refuel there, he was invited on land to view the facilities. A small ceremony took place upon his arrival. As he came up the path to meet his hosts, Mr. Kozo allegedly slipped and fell into a patch of prickly pear cactus. Rather than demonstrate the sort of formality and respect for a dignitary that Mr. Kozo expected, it is said that some in the crowd snickered at his mishap.
 Mr. Kozo never forgot.
 The shelling of the beach—utilizing the sub’s five-and-a-half inch deck guns—lasted only a short while. Americans on shore reported the incident quickly but not in enough time to militarily respond to the Japanese provocation (although pitch forks were handed out to some in the area). The night passed into early morning and it seemed that the sub was gone. Some reports suggest the vessel disappearing towards the south end of the Santa Barbara Channel.
The next day, before sunrise, Jess Ueda rose at the usual hour to look over the coastal strawberry fields he managed on land he had inherited from his father. The fields, approximately six acres located ten miles south of downtown El Fornio, along the beach below Three White Hills, were in the early stages of the strawberry season.
  “I remember being angry that morning,” Mr. Ueda says some sixty years later, “Because we had been given orders the previous week that we were going to have to leave, on orders of the government . . . I knew that we would not be there for the harvest because we were to report to Pomona by May 7.”
Just before the light, Mr. Ueda wandered towards the beach which he did every morning to look over the property. The dogs followed.
 “The began to get excited,” Ueda recalls to this day. “Not really barking, but looking out at the water, panting, yelping here and there.”
They ran towards the surf. “My eyes had adjusted by then and I could see people and a small boat landing. They were speaking Japanese! My parents, who had come from Japan, had taught me Japanese, but I wasn’t really fluent. I had never been to Japan by that time and as a family, we spoke our own kind of Japanese,” he laughs. “Like the way people speak Spanglish. But I could hear these sailors talking to each other and also to the dogs. They were all mutts—Jack Russell mixed with Lab, a little Aussie Shepard—these guys had never seen those kind of dogs and the animals didn’t seem to mind them. I figured that they were some fisherman who had gotten into trouble.”
 By that time others from the house had come down to the beach, including Ueda’s wife, Jane. Dawn moved in, the sun coming up.
 “You could see their rifles and uniforms. There was five, one of them staying with that puny landing boat. In the distance was the submarine’s conning tower. It took a minute for me to realize what was happening. It was the Imperial Navy!”
Mr. Ueda describes the encounter as congenial but tense.
 “The sailors had not anticipated encountering other Japanese,” Ueda continues, “And they were tired—plus the dogs, which seemed on the verge of being shot at one point. Yet the idea was completely formalized and daring,” Ueda nodded and laughed. “I think they simply wanted to set foot on American soil and then make a clean getaway.
 Ueda adds, “One of my workers, Hiro, was born in Japan. He spoke with the most with the sailors. Two of the boys were from Hokkaido. They had come all the way across the Pacific in that submarine. In all of my astonishment, I started thinking—and I could see my wife, who was born here like me, felt the same way—here we are trying to explain to authorities that we are loyal Americans, with no political connection to Japan, and suddenly here I am talking to the Japanese military!
 “I politely asked them to go. And they obliged. I put a finger to my mouth, `Hush, hush.’ One of my colleagues brought them strawberries, which they took on board the boat, although I strictly forbade them from taking any pictures. Can you imagine? We were fortunate the light was bad because one of them had a camera . . . The whole encounter lasted about five minutes, really. A long five minutes!” Ueda concludes wryly.
 The sailors headed back to their vessel. The Ueda family, workers and dogs watched as the ship submersed itself and disappeared.
The next morning papers were full of the news about the shelling at Ellwood. Immediately, Ueda and the others made a pact to say nothing. “We were already loosing everything,” he observes. “This, I felt at the time and still do, would completely jeopardize our situation.”
 On May 7, the Ueda family left their farm along the coast and headed for Pomona, California to report to authorities for relocation. They spent the remainder of the war effort at Manzanar. Their second son, John, was born there, as was their first daughter, Sarah. After the war they returned to the area, although their farm by this time was now owned by a Texas family. In 1962, son John graduated from Stanford Law school. He established a private practice that began doing pro bono work for Japanese dispossessed during the war. By 1982, John Ueda was able to win back the family land. He currently works for the State’s Attorney-General in Sacramento.
 As for Ellwood Beach, you can still see a stand of prickly pear cactus holding strong next to one of the big tanks.



Copyright © 2007, The El Fornio Historical Society

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