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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Japanese submarine I-25 blasted its way into Oregon history twice

The big sub was a key part of Oregon history; it fired on Battery Russell in June 1942, tried to light a forest fire with its on-board airplane that September, and sank several merchant ships.

Wartime photo Japanese submarine I-25 at sea seaplane stowed
The Japanese submarine I-26 under way during the war. In this image the reconnaissance
aircraft is stowed away belowdecks, but the long launching ramp used to catapult it into
the air can be seen just ahead of the conning tower. (Photo:
State of Oregon)

In late August 1943, the crew of the destroyer U.S.S. Patterson scrambled to battle stations off the coast of what is now Vanatu, near Australia. The sonar operator had picked up the signature of a big Japanese submarine submerging close by.

The Patterson steamed into battle, depth charges rolling off the deck and lighting up the sea below. Then, on the final depth-charge barrage, a deep undersea explosion could be heard, bigger than any depth charge. The Patterson had found its mark.

Refer link to Ken Duffey scale models of I-25 at Flankers.uk
These scale models of the I-25 and her sister ship are in the collection of
Ken Duffey. To see a larger version of this image, and to admire the rest
of Mr. Duffey's collection, click here.

After that day, the most important submarine in the history of the state of Oregon — the Imperial Japanese Navy’s I-25 — was never heard from again.

About Oregon’s favorite enemy sub:

I-25 was one of the large fleet subs the Japanese navy put out to sea during the war. Built in 1939, the boat was 357 feet long and packed a large collection of torpedoes, a 5.5-inch deck gun and even a disassemblable seaplane.

The reason I-25 is so important to Oregon stems from a visit it paid to the Beaver State the year before it sank. In the course of that visit, the I-25 sank two merchant ships, shelled a coastal battery and sent its airplane ashore to try and start a forest fire. It left Oregon not that much worse for wear, but the psychological effect was considerable as Oregonians wondered if this were just the beginning — and realized that if it was, they'd be right on the front lines.

It wasn’t, of course, the beginning of anything. It was just a single submarine. A single very busy submarine.

First enemy attack in Oregon history

Refer link to John Meeks original oil painting of I-25
Artist John Meeks created this original oil painting of the I-25 launching
its on-board aircraft at sea. At the time of this writing, this painting is
for sale; for details and a larger version of this image, click here.

The I-25 left Yokosuka, Japan, in spring of 1942 and headed east across the Pacific Ocean, headed for Alaska and points south. Two months and one heavily damaged Canadian freighter later [click here for a really interesting first-person account of that attack], on the night of June 21, 1942, the sub was following a fleet of fishing boats toward the mouth of the Columbia River. (It followed the fishing boats so that if it were picked up on radar, the operator would think it was just another fishing boat.)

When it got within range, the boat swung around and gun crews got the deck cannon ready. Sub commander Meiji Tagami had somehow gotten the impression that there was a submarine base at the mouth of the Columbia and, although not willing to risk his crew and mission getting close enough to see for sure, thought a few artillery shells placed in the vicinity would send a valuable message to the Americans.

So under cover of darkness, miles out to sea, the I-25 opened fire. And for the first time ever, the state of Oregon was directly attacked by a wartime enemy.

“We looked like hell. But we were ready to shoot back.”

Refer link to John Meeks painting of Meiji Tagami
Mr. Meeks also painted this portrait of I-25 skipper Meiji Tagami, the
officer who ordered both strikes on Oregon soil . Again, as of the time of
this writing, this painting is still for sale; for details and a larger version
of this image, click here.

As it turned out, the place the I-25 was shelling was not a sub base, but Battery Russell at Fort Stevens. And the hostile shell fire had an immediate effect on the place. Soldiers and officers leaped out of bed and started running around trying to get ready and go help return fire — in the dark, of course; nobody was dumb enough to turn on a light and show the attackers what to shoot at. People tripped over stoves and crashed into trucks and cursed at one another as they scrambled to their battle stations in their underwear.

“We looked like hell,” Capt. Jack R. Wood, commander of the battery, told historian Bert Webber later. “But we were ready to shoot back in a couple of minutes.”

Ordered not to return fire

They may have been ready — but the orders were to hold their fire. This was for several reasons. First, the big 10-inch guns, designed to stop ships from coming into the Columbia, would not tilt up high enough to lob shells to the attacking submarine. The 12-inch mortars couldn’t reach it either.

Refer link to Ken Duffey scale models of I-25 at Flankers.uk
Battery Russell, now part of Fort Stevens State Park, as it appeared
in the mid-1970s, long after the guns were removed.

Shooting back might have made the crews feel better, but it would only have revealed the guns’ position, relative size and range to a submarine that they were pretty sure was on a reconnaissance mission. Perhaps it was shelling the fort in hopes of provoking exactly that response — so that it could then go home and report that a nice big fleet of surface warships sitting 10 miles out to sea could pound Fort Stevens with impunity and then sail right up the Columbia River if it wanted to. Obviously, that couldn’t be allowed to happen.

So Fort Stevens sat there, simmering with collective frustration, and took it — 17 shells in all — without so much as a pistol shot in reply. And eventually, the I-25’s crew got tired of shelling the dark and unresponsive mainland, put the gun away, and left.

Behind, it left the smoking wreckage of a baseball-diamond backstop, some slightly damaged power lines, and a handful of holes in the ground. The total dollar amount of damage done was probably well under $20.

Only wartime airstrike in Oregon history

Wartime photo of the E14Y seaplane, the type launched from I-25 for the bombiung attack at Brookings.
The type of seaplane carried in the attack on Brookings was an E14Y
Type Zero reconnaissance plane (not to be confused with Japan’s
famous Zero fighter).This “erector-set” seaplane was disassembled to
stow on its submarine. (Photo: Imperial
Japanese government, circa 1942)

On its next visit to Oregon, the I-25 did better — if “better” is the right word. It started out on Sept. 9 by launching its on-board seaplane with a couple incendiary bombs and orders to use them to start a forest fire near Brookings. A few years earlier, the town of Bandon had been destroyed when a forest fire got into the gorse thickets and hedges that surrounded the town; hoping to start something similar, Warrant Officer Nobuo Fujita buzzed inland in his tiny fold-up seaplane and gave it a shot — then came back a few days later and tried again. Nothing came of this; the forest was too damp for an out-of-control burn to get going. But again, the I-25 was making history. It was the only wartime airstrike ever delivered on the American mainland, before or since.

Between the airstrikes, Tagami’s intrepid crew actually set the big sub down on the seafloor to make it less easy to detect.

I-25 sinks two freighters, one Russian sub on way home

Somewhere near this little island nation, on the ocean floor, lies what
remains of the I-25 and its crew, including the intrepid Captain Meiji
Tagami . [Bigger map]

Several weeks later, the I-25 spotted a big merchant ship sitting still in the water. It was the S.S. Camden, which was taking a short break while its engineer took care of a couple minor repairs in the engine room. Sixty seconds and two torpedoes later, the ship was on fire. It sank later when its cargo of gasoline exploded while it was being towed to Seattle for salvage; one crew member drowned.

The following day, the submarine sank a second ship off Gold Beach — the S.S. Larry Doheny, an oil tanker. Six people died on this one.

After that, the I-25 returned to Japan, stopping along the way to fire its last remaining torpedo into a surfaced Russian submarine. It never returned to Oregon waters.

(Sources: McCash, Bill. Bombs Over Brookings. Bend, Ore.: Maverick, 2005; Webber, Bert. Retaliation: Japanese attacks and allied countermeasures on the Pacific Coast in World War II. Corvallis: OSU Press, 1975; Marshall, Don. Oregon Shipwrecks. Portland: Binford & Mort, 1984; Cressman, Robert. The Official Chronology of the U.S. Navy in World War II. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2000)