Beyond the Emidio


For the most part, Japanese submarines operated off the west coast of the U.S. freely in the early months of World War II. As plans were made for the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Imperial Japanese Navy’s 6th Fleet submarines were directed to “make reconnaissance of American Fleet in Hawaii and West Coast area, and, by surprise attacks on shipping, destroy lines of communication.”

After participating in the operations directed against Pearl Harbor, the 6th Fleet dispatched nine submarines to attack shipping along the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington. These submarines began arriving off the coast about December 17th.

The submarine flotilla had orders to engage in simultaneous shelling of coastal cities Christmas Eve. However at the last moment, Japanese naval command directed the submarines to abandon the attack and to return to their base at Kwajalein.

Only four of the nine attacked any shipping. The tanker Agwi-World was shelled by a submarine off Santa Cruz, California, December 19th, but escaped. Four other vessels, the Emidio, Samoa, Larry Doheny, and Montebello were also attacked off the California coast before Christmas.

One of the vessels attacked was the General Petroleum Tanker S.S. Emidio. The attacking submarine was the I-17 and would become the first enemy to shell the continental United States in World War II by attacking the Ellwood Oil Company refinery, near Santa Barbara, in February 1942.

Saturday, December 20th, Emidio was running down the coast, when at one in the afternoon, the lookout sighted a submarine bearing down. Captain A. C. Farrow, in an effort to escape started a standard zigzagging maneuver, which took the 7,000-ton tanker near to the coast.

Realizing he’d be unable to outrun the submarine, Farrow ordered, “full speed, and dump ballast, but we had no chance to escape. We were rapidly overtaken. The sub was making 20 knots. I tried to get behind her but she reversed course and kept after us.”

The submarine soon drew within range. Her gunners then opened fire with their 5-1/2-inch gun.

A salvo of six shells was fired, five of them striking their target. Several of the lifeboats were damaged, the tankers radio put out of action, and three sailors, R.W. Pennington, Fred Potts and Stuart McGillivray were knocked over board.

The radioman W.S. Foote, however, was able to get off an S.O.S. before his set went dead.

Then Farrow and most of the crew abandoned the Emidio. While they were searching for the men blown overboard, a U.S. Navy patrol bomber appeared, forcing the submarine to cut short its attack and submerge.

With only a skeleton crew aboard, the Emidio was beginning to list to the starboard or right side, while Farrow and his crew in the lifeboats looked, unsuccessfully for the men hurled overboard. Then as soon as the bomber disappeared, the submarine resurfaced, closed to within a quarter-mile, sending a torpedo slamming into the already stricken tanker.

The torpedo exploded in the after engine room, killing Kenneth Kimes and R.A. Winters, who were two of the eleven men remaining aboard. After the submarine had disappeared, the two lifeboats took on the nine survivors of the skeleton crew and headed for the coast.

Twelve hours later, they reached Blunts Reef Lightship.

When interviewed, Farrow called the attack, “shameful and ruthless,” and charged the Japanese with deliberately shelling their lifeboats before they could be lowered.

“If we had been armed,” he added, “we’d have had a good chance against the submarine, as she was within easy range.”

I-17 was eventually sunk August 19th, 1943, by an aircraft from the armed New Zealand trawler HMNZ Tui. Only six survivors from a compliment of 100 were pulled from the water.

As for the Emidio, it refused to sink.

It drifted north with the current, and came ashore on Steamboat Rock, near the entrance of Crescent City harbor, on the evening of December 25th. Hundreds of people crowded Battery Point the next day to view the dying ship.

The tanker’s bow was out of the water, with the after portion submerged. One person reported, “The bridge and forward deck are out of the water, the ship’s stack with the letter, G, rising out of the water at the stern, which appears to be riding on the rocky bottom. The bow moves with the rise and fall of the waves.”

Emidio drifted free Wednesday, January 14th, and wallowed in the entrance to Fish Harbor. To prevent the derelict from damaging other craft or blocking the harbor’s entrance altogether, Leo Ward was taken out to the hulk and released its anchor.

Although the vessel was in custody of the United States Coast Guard, Ward was interested in the possibility of salvaging the vessel, and he had contacted officials of General Petroleum in San Pedro. He believed the bow of Emidio was sound, and if the after portion could be raised with pontoons or cut away, the craft could be salvaged.

However, R. C. Porter of San Francisco made a better offer for the hulk than Ward, and he acquired salvage rights to Emidio.  He hired a crew of local fishermen and boats to carry out the project.

But Porter failed to notify the Coast Guard of his plan, and he and his men were fired on by the guard as they sought to board the wreck. After identifying themselves, they were allowed to proceed.

In the meantime, Ward cut the anchor chain and the sea carried the hulk toward Fauntleroy Rock. Nine years later the rusty bow was finally broken up for scrap, with a set of forward bollards and a section of the hull placed at the foot of H Street as a memorial.

The final Japanese submarine patrol off the coast of Del Norte was undertaken in reprisal for the Doolittle raid and also involved the same submarine. The submarine with its reconnaissance plane equipped for bombing, reached the coast jus’ north of the Oregon border at the end of August 1942.

September 9th the plane dropped an incendiary bomb into a heavily wooded area on a mountain slope, near Brookings, Oregon. The bomb started a forest fire, which was quickly brought under control by fire-fighters.

After evading American forces, the submarine torpedoed and sank two tankers on October 4th and 6th off the coast of southern Oregon. These attacks marked an end to Japanese submarine activity off the west coast.

I-25 was sunk less than a year later by the destroyer U.S.S. Patterson, August 25th, 1943. All 100 sailors and officers aboard the vessel perished.

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