Attacks on North America during World War II
Attacks on North America during World War II by the Axis Powers were rare, mainly due to the continent’s geographical separation from the central theaters of conflict in Europe and Asia. This article includes attacks on continental territory (extending 200 miles [370 km] into the ocean) which is today under the sovereignty of the United States, Canada, Mexico and several other smaller states but excludes military action involving the Danish territory of Greenland, the Hawaiian Islands and the Aleutian Islands.
Japanese submarine operations
Several ships were torpedoed within sight of West Coast cities such as Los Angeles and Santa Monica. During 1941 and 1942, more than 10 Japanese submarines operated in the West Coast. They attacked American, Canadian and Mexican ships, successfully sinking 10 vessels.
Bombardment of Ellwood
Main article: Bombardment of Ellwood
The United States mainland was first shelled by the Axis on February 23, 1942 when the Japanese submarine I-17 attacked the Ellwood Oil Field west of Goleta, nearSanta Barbara, California. Although only a pumphouse and catwalk at one oil well were damaged, I-17 captain Nishino Kozo radioed Tokyo that he had left Santa Barbara in flames. No casualties were reported and the total cost of the damage was officially estimated at approximately $500–1,000. News of the shelling triggered aninvasion scare along the West Coast.
Bombardment of Estevan Point lighthouse
On June 20, 1942, the Japanese submarine I-26, under the command of Yokota Minoru, fired 25-30 rounds of 5.5″ shells at the Estevan Point lighthouse onVancouver Island in British Columbia, but failed to hit its target. This marked the first enemy shelling of Canadian soil since the War of 1812. Though no casualties were reported, the subsequent decision to turn off the lights of outer stations was disastrous for shipping activity.
Bombardment of Fort Stevens
See also: Bombardment of Fort Stevens
In what became the only attack on a mainland American military installation during World War II, the Japanese submarine I-25, under the command of Tagami Meiji, surfaced near the mouth of the Columbia River, Oregon on the night of June 21 and June 22, 1942, and fired shells toward Fort Stevens. The only damage officially recorded was to a baseball field‘s backstop. Probably the most significant damage was a shell that damaged some large phone cables. The Fort Stevens gunners were refused permission to return fire, since it would have helped the Japanese locate their target more accurately. American aircraft on training flights spotted the submarine, which was subsequently attacked by a US bomber, but it escaped.
Lookout Air Raids
Main article: Lookout Air Raids
The Lookout Air Raids occurred on September 9, 1942. The first and only aerial bombing of mainland America by a foreign power occurred when an attempt to start a forest fire was made by a Japanese Yokosuka E14Y1 “Glen” seaplanedropping two 80 kg (180 lb) incendiary bombs over Mount Emily, near Brookings, Oregon. The seaplane, piloted by Nobuo Fujita, had been launched from the Japanese submarine aircraft carrier I-25. No significant damage was officially reported following the attack, nor after a repeat attempt on September 29.
Fire balloon attacks
Between November 1944 and April 1945, The Japanese Navy launched over 9,000 fire balloons toward North America. Carried by the recently-discovered Pacific jet stream, they were to sail over the Pacific Ocean and land in North America, where the Japanese hoped they would start forest fires and cause other damage. About three hundred were reported as reaching North America, but little damage was caused. Six people (five children and a woman) became the only deaths due to enemy action to occur on mainland America during World War II when one of the children tampered with a bomb from a balloon near Bly, Oregon and it exploded. The site is marked by a stone monument at the Mitchell Recreation Area in the Fremont-Winema National Forest. Recently released reports by theRoyal Canadian Mounted Police and the Canadian military indicate that fire balloons reached as far inland as Saskatchewan. A fire balloon is also considered to be a possible cause of the third fire in the Tillamook Burn. One member of the555th Parachute Infantry Battalion died while responding to a fire in the Northwest August 6, 1945; other casualties of the 555th were two fractures and 20 other injuries.
German landings in the United States
Duquesne Spy Ring
Even before the war, a large Nazi spy ring was found operating in the United States. The Duquesne Spy Ring is still the largest espionage case in United States history that ended in convictions. The 33 German agents that formed the Duquesne spy ring were placed in key jobs in the United States to get information that could be used in the event of war and to carry out acts of sabotage: one person opened a restaurant and used his position to get information from his customers; another person worked on an airline so that he could report allied ships that were crossing the Atlantic Ocean; others in the ring worked as delivery persons so that they could deliver secret messages alongside normal messages. The ring was led by Captain Fritz Joubert Duquesne, a South African Boer who spied for Germany in both World Wars and is best known as “The man who killed Kitchener” after he was awarded the Iron Cross for his key role in the sabotage and sinking of HMS Hampshire in 1916. William G. Sebold, a double agent for the United States, was a major factor in the FBI’s successful resolution of this case. For nearly two years, Sebold ran a radio station in New York for the ring, giving the FBI valuable information on what Germany was sending to its spies in the United States while also controlling the information that was being transmitted to Germany. On June 29, 1941, the FBI closed in. All 33 spies were arrested, found guilty, and sentenced to serve a total of over 300 years in prison.
When the United States entered World War II, Adolf Hitler ordered the remaining German saboteurs to wreak havoc on the country. The responsibility for carrying this out was given to German Intelligence (Abwehr). In June 1942, eight agents were recruited and divided into two teams: the first, commanded by George John Dasch, with Ernst Peter Burger, Heinrich Heinck and Richard Quirin; the second, under the command of Edward Kerling, with Hermann Neubauer, Werner Thiel and Herbert Haupt.
On June 12, 1942, the U-boat U-202 landed Dasch’s team with explosives and plans at East Hampton, Long Island, New York. Their mission was to destroy power plants at Niagara Falls and three Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) factories in Illinois, Tennessee and New York. Dasch instead turned himself in to the FBI, providing them with a complete account of the planned mission, which led to the arrest of the entire team.
Kerling’s team landed from U-584 at Ponte Vedra Beach (25 miles [40 km] south-east of Jacksonville, Florida), on June 17. They were tasked with laying mines in four areas: the Pennsylvania Railroad in Newark, New Jersey, canal sluices in both St. Louis and Cincinnati, and New York City’s water supply pipes. The team made their way to Cincinnati, Ohio and split up, with two going to Chicago, Illinois and the others to New York. The Dasch confession led to the arrest of all of the men by July 10.
All eight German agents were tried, convicted by the Military Commission, with six men sentenced to death. President Roosevelt approved the sentences. The constitutionality of the military commissions was upheld by the Supreme Court in Ex parte Quirin and the six men were executed by electrocution on August 8. Dasch and Burger were given thirty-year prison sentences. Both were released in 1948 and deported to Germany. Dasch (aka George Davis), who had been a longtime American resident before the war, suffered a difficult life in Germany after his return from U.S. custody because of his cooperation with U.S. authorities. As a condition of his deportation, he was not permitted to return to the United States, even though he spent many years writing letters to prominent American authorities (J. Edgar Hoover, President Eisenhower, etc.) seeking permission to return. He eventually moved to Switzerland and wrote a book, titled Eight Spies Against America.
In 1944 there was another attempt at infiltration, codenamed Operation Elster (“Magpie”). Elster involved Erich Gimpel and German American defector William Colepaugh. Their mission objective was to gather intelligence on the Manhattan Project and attempt sabotage if possible. The pair sailed from Kiel on U-1230 and landed at Hancock Point, Maine on November 30, 1944. Both made their way to New York, but the operation degenerated into total failure. Colepaugh turned himself in to the FBI on December 26, confessing the whole plan; Gimpel was arrested four days later in New York. Both men were sentenced to death but eventually had their sentences commuted. Gimpel spent 10 years in prison; Colepaugh was released in 1960 and operated a business in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania before retiring to Florida.
German landings in Canada
St. Martins, New Brunswick
At about the same time as the Dasch operation (on April 25, 1944), a solitary Abwehr agent (Marius A Langbein) was landed by U-boat (possibly U-217) near St. Martins, New Brunswick, Canada. His mission was to observe and report shipping movements at Halifax, Nova Scotia (the main departure port for North Atlantic convoys). Langbein changed his mind, however, and moved to Ottawa where he lived off his Abwehr funds, before surrendering to the Canadian authorities in December 1944.
New Carlisle, Quebec
In November, the U-518 sank two iron ore freighters and damaged another off Bell Island in Conception Bay, Newfoundland, en route to theGaspé Peninsula where, despite an attack by a Royal Canadian Air Force aircraft, it successfully landed a spy, Werner von Janowski, atNew Carlisle, Quebec on November 9, 1942. He was soon apprehended after Earl Annett Jr., manager of the New Carlisle Hotel, at which Janowski was staying, became suspicious and alerted authorities to a stranger using obsolete currency at the hotel bar. The R.C.M.P.arrested Janowski on a CNR passenger train headed for Montreal. Inspection of Janowski’s personal effects upon his arrest revealed that he was carrying a powerful radio transmitter, among other things. Janowski later spent some time as a double agent, sending false messages to the Abwehr in Germany. The effectiveness and honesty of his “turn” is a matter of some dispute.
German landings in Newfoundland
Weather Station Kurt, Martin Bay
Accurate weather reporting was important to the sea war and on September 18, 1943, U-537 sailed from Kiel, via Bergen, Norway, with a meteorological team led by Professor Kurt Sommermeyer. They landed at Martin Bay near the northern tip of Labrador on October 22, 1943 and successfully set up an automatic weather station (“Weather Station Kurt” or “Wetter-Funkgerät Land-26”), despite the constant risk of Allied air patrols. The station was powered by batteries that were expected to last about three months. At the beginning of July 1944,U-867 left Bergen to replace the equipment, but was sunk en route. The weather station remained undisturbed by the locals until the 1980s and is now at the Canadian War Museum.
German U-Boat operations
Main article: Seacoast defense in the United States
The Atlantic Ocean was a major strategic battle zone (Second Battle of the Atlantic) and when Germany declared war on the U.S., theEast Coast of the United States offered easy pickings for German U-Boats (referred to as the Second Happy Time). After a highly successful foray by five Type IX long-range U-boats, the offensive was maximized by the use of short-range Type VII U-boats, with increased fuel stores, replenished from supply U-boats called Milchkühe (milk cows). From February to May 1942, 348 ships were sunk, for the loss of 2 U-boats during April and May. U.S. naval commanders were reluctant to introduce the convoy system that had protected trans-Atlantic shipping and, without coastal blackouts, shipping was silhouetted against the bright lights of American towns and cities such as Atlantic City until a dim-out was ordered in May.
The cumulative effect of this campaign was severe; a quarter of all wartime sinkings – 3.1 million tons. There were several reasons for this. The naval commander, Admiral Ernest King, was averse to taking British recommendations to introduce convoys, U.S. Coast Guard and Navy patrols were predictable and could be avoided by U-boats, poor inter-service co-operation, and the U.S. Navy did not possess enough suitable escort vessels (British and Canadian warships were transferred to the U.S. east coast).
Several ships were torpedoed within sight of East Coast cities such as New York and Boston; indeed, some civilians sat on beaches and watched battles between U.S. and German ships. The only documented World War II sinking of a U-boat close to New England shores occurred on May 5, 1945, when the U-853 torpedoed and sank the collier Black Point off Newport, Rhode Island. When theBlack Point was hit, the U.S. Navy immediately chased down the sub and began dropping depth charges. The next day, when an oil slick and floating debris appeared, they confirmed that the U-853 and its entire crew had been destroyed. In recent years, the U-853 has become a popular dive site. Its intact hull, with open hatches, is located in 130 feet of water off Block Island, Rhode Island. A wreck discovered in 1991 off the New Jersey coast was concluded in 1997 to be that of U-869. Previously, U-869 had been thought to have been sunk off Rabat,Morocco.
Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean
Once convoys and air cover were introduced in the Atlantic, sinking numbers were reduced and the U-boats shifted to attack shipping in theGulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. During 1942 and 1943, more than 20 U-boats operated in the Gulf of Mexico. They attacked tankers transporting oil from ports in Texas and Louisiana, successfully sinking 56 vessels. By the end of 1943, the U-boat attacks diminished as the merchant ships began to travel in armed convoys.
In one instance, the tanker Virginia was torpedoed in the mouth of the Mississippi River by the German U-Boat U-507 on May 12, 1942, killing 26 crewmen. There were 14 survivors. Again, when defensive measures were introduced, ship sinkings decreased and U-boat sinkings increased.
U-166 was the only U-boat sunk in the Gulf of Mexico during the war. Once thought to have been sunk by a torpedo dropped from a U.S. Coast Guard Utility Amphibian J4F aircraft on August 1, 1942, U-166 is now believed to have been sunk two days earlier by depth charges from the Robert E. Lee’s naval escort, the U.S. Navy sub-chaser, PC-566. It is thought that the J4F aircraft may have spotted and attacked another German submarine, U-171, which was operating in the area at the same time. U-166 lies in 5,000 feet of water within a mile of her last victim, the passenger ship SS Robert E. Lee.
From the start of the war in 1939 until VE Day, several of Canada’s Atlantic coast ports became important to the resupply effort for the United Kingdom and later for the Allied land offensive on the Western Front. Halifax and Sydney, Nova Scotia became the primary convoy assembly ports, with Halifax being assigned the fast or priority convoys (largely troops and essential material) with the more modern merchant ships, while Sydney was given slow convoys which conveyed bulkier material on older and more vulnerable merchant ships. Both ports were heavily fortified with shore radar emplacements, search light batteries, and extensive coastal artillery stations all manned by RCN and Canadian Army regular and reserve personnel. Military intelligence agents enforced strict blackouts throughout the areas and anti-torpedo nets were in place at the harbor entrances. Despite the fact that no landings of German personnel took place near these ports, there were frequent attacks by U-boats on convoys departing for Europe. Less extensively used, but no less important, was the port ofSaint John which also saw matériel funneled through the port, largely after the United States entered the war in December 1941. TheCanadian Pacific Railway mainline from central Canada (which crossed the state of Maine) could be used to transport in aid of the war effort.
Although not crippling to the Canadian war effort, given the country’s rail network to the east coast ports, but possibly more destructive to the morale of the Canadian public, was the Battle of the St. Lawrence, when U-boats began to attack domestic coastal shipping along Canada’s east coast in the St. Lawrence River and Gulf of St. Lawrence from early 1942 through to the end of the shipping season in late 1944.
Three significant attacks took place in 1942 when German U-boats attacked four iron ore carriers serving the DOSCO iron mine at Wabanaon Bell Island in Newfoundland‘s Conception Bay. The ships S.S. Saganaga and the S.S. Lord Strathcona were sunk by U-513 on September 5, 1942, while the S.S. Rosecastle and P.L.M 27 were sunk by U-518 on November 2 with the loss of 69 lives. After the sinkings the submarine fired a torpedo that missed its target, the 3,000-ton collier Anna T, and struck the DOSCO loading pier and exploded. As a result of the torpedo missing its target, Bell Island became the only location in North America to be subject to direct attack by German forces during World War II. On October 14, 1942, the Newfoundland Railway ferry SS Caribou was torpedoed by the German U-boat U-69 and sunk in the Cabot Strait south of Port aux Basques. Caribou was carrying 45 crew and 206 civilian and military passengers. 137 lost their lives, many of them Newfoundlanders.
Main article: Attack on Aruba
A German submarine shelled a Standard Oil refinery Dutch-owned Aruba and ships that were near the entrance to Lake Maracaibo on February 16, 1942. Three tankers, including the Venezuelan Monagas, were sunk. A Venezuelan gunboat, General Urbaneta, assisted in rescuing the crews.
A German submarine shelled the island of Mona, some 40 miles from Puerto Rico, on March 2. No damage or casualties resulted.
An oil refinery on Curaçao was shelled on April 19.
Canceled Axis operations
Just after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a force of seven Japanese submarines patrolled the United States West Coast. The wolf pack made plans to bombard targets in California on Christmas Eve of 1941. However, the attack was postponed to December 27 and finally canceled due to fears of American reprisal.
The Japanese constructed a plan early in the Pacific War to attack the Panama Canal, a vital water passage in Panama, used duringWorld War II primarily for the Allied supply effort. The Japanese attack was never launched due to crippling naval losses at the beginning of conflict with the United States and United Kingdom (See: Aichi M6A).
Imperial Japanese Army launched Project Z (also called the Z Bombers Project) in 1942, similar to the Nazi German Amerika Bomberproject, to design an intercontinental bomber capable of reaching North America. The Project Z plane was to have six engines of 5,000 horsepower each; the Nakajima Aircraft Company quickly began developing engines for the plane, and proposed doubling HA-44 engines (the most powerful engine available in Japan) into a 36-cylinder engine. Designs were presented to the Imperial Japanese Army, including the Nakajima G10N, Kawasaki Ki-91, and Nakajima G5N. None developed beyond prototypes or wind tunnel models, save for the G5N. In 1945, the Z project and other heavy bomber projects were cancelled.
A plan was devised by the Kingdom of Italy to attack New York harbor with submarines. However, as the tides of war changed against Italy, the plan was postponed and later scrapped.
In 1940, the German Air Ministry requested designs of the major German aircraft companies for its Amerika Bomber program, in which a long-range strategic bomber would strike the continental United States from the Azores. Planning was complete in 1942, but the project was abandoned as too expensive.
These false alarms and have generally been attributed to military and civilian inexperience with war and poor radars of that era. Critics have theorized they were a deliberate attempt by the Army to frighten the public in order to stimulate interest in war preparations.
Alerts in the days following Pearl Harbor
On December 8, 1941 rumors of an enemy carrier off the coast led to the closing of schools in Oakland, California, a blackout enforced by local wardens and radio silence followed that evening. The reports reaching Washington of an attack, on San Francisco were regarded as credible. The affair was described as a test but Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt of the Western Defense Command said “Last night there were planes over this community. They were enemy planes! I mean Japanese planes! And they were tracked out to sea. You think it was a hoax? It is damned nonsense for sensible people to assume that the Army and Navy would practice such a hoax on San Francisco.”Rumors continued on the west coast in the following days. An alert of a similar nature occurred in the Northeast on December 9. At noon advices were received that hostile planes were only two hours’ distance away. Although there was no general hysteria, fighter aircraft from Mitchel Field on Long Island took the air to intercept the “raiders”. Wall Street had it worst sell off since the fall of France, school children in New York City were sent home and several radio stations left the air. In Boston police shifted heavy stores of guns and ammunition from storage vaults to stations throughout the city, and industrial establishments were advised to prepare for a raid.
Battle of Los Angeles
The Battle of Los Angeles also known as “The Great Los Angeles Air Raid” is the name given by contemporary sources to the imaginary enemy attack and subsequent anti-aircraft artillery barrage which took place from February 24 and early on February 25 over Los Angeles,California. Initially, the target of the aerial barrage was thought to be an attacking force from Japan, but Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox speaking at a press conference shortly afterward called the incident a “false alarm.” Newspapers of the time published a number of sensational reports and speculations of a cover-up. When documenting the incident in 1983, the U.S. Office of Air Force History attributed the event to a case of “war nerves” likely triggered by a lost weather balloon and exacerbated by stray flares and shell bursts from adjoining batteries.
In May and June the San Francisco Bay Area underwent a series of alerts:
On June 2 a nine-minute air-raid alert, including at 9:22 pm a radio silence order applied to all radio stations from Mexico to Canada.
Continents with North America marked (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
- Attacks on North America during World War I
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