Where a Japanese Sub Fired on Oregon: Battery Russell and Fort Stevens
(Astoria, Oregon) – A tad before midnight on June 21, 1942, the quiet of the north Oregon coast was torn apart by the thunderous cacophony of shells being fired onto the beach, a few miles south of the former British outpost of Astoria and a little more than ten miles north of the resort town of Seaside. Something in the dark started shooting at Battery Russell, a concrete battlement that had been recently revived to help guard the northwest coast after the United States' entry into World War II.
It turned out to be a Japanese submarine that had fired at Fort Stevens in the dead of night. That incident turned out to be of mammoth historical significance, ending up almost the only time the continental U.S. was fired upon by a foreign power since the War of 1812. Aside from the terror attacks of 9/11, it still holds that distinction (except for a small set of bombs dropped near Brookings, Oregon a few months later).
This landmark historical event will be commemorated at Fort Stevens on Thursday, as veterans from both sides – allied forces and Japanese forces – mark its 70-year anniversary. Ceremonies begin at 11 a.m. at Fort Stevens State Park, at Battery Russell. 503-861-1470.
At the time, newspapers didn't know much and presumably neither did officials. The next day, The Ellensburg Daily Record in Washington state reported that at least “nine projectiles from a submarine peppered the Fort Stevens area...for approximately 16 minutes, beginning at 11:30.”
The June 22 issue of the paper said they struck and exploded on a deserted beach, “containing but a few houses and did no damage to military establishments, installations or private property.”
No casualties occurred, no one was injured – just a handful of scared residents in what was then a much less populated area than it is now. There were a few close calls, however.
“One shell fell near the road leading from Delaura beach to the fort and made a five-foot crater in a swamp,” the newspaper reported. “Fragments were found in the area. One struck a tree and lopped it off.”
The paper said the Heffling family had shells fly about 100 yards over their house, which then struck 500 yards away.
The shells came in from a west to southwest direction.
Later, after the war, much more was revealed. The Japanese submarine was of the I-class long-range subs which briefly attacked a few targets around the west coast of the U.S. and Canada – most of them near-shore. I-25 and I-26 were dispatched to the Pacific Northwest to find and attack military installations and vessels. It was I-25, commanded by Meiji Tagami, that sneaked into these waters beneath a small fleet of fishing boats in order to avoid mines. Tagami and his crew fired at what they thought might be a submarine base using a 5.5 inch deck gun. Later, Tagami said he really didn't know for certain what he was firing at and even admitted he wouldn't have fired towards Fort Stevens had he known the true firepower that Battery Russell had. He also didn't aim carefully at the shoreline, simply shooting in a general direction and not using the gunsights.
Confusion at Battery Russell quickly reigned, and troops scrambled out of their beds to the big guns of the base, some still in their shorts. Searchlights were powered up and the men could see the submarine firing some ten miles offshore.
Commanders never gave permission to fire back, however. Battery Russell simply sat there and took it because the military did not wish to give away the base's true position. It turns out such a move might've given Japanese the opportunity to return and blast the installation out of existence and thus open up the Columbia River to all kinds of invasion forces.
Also, commanders worried the fort's guns would not reach the submarine, although it was later discovered I-25 was within range.
In all, only a power line suffered damage and some objects in a baseball field were blown up; also a few craters were blasted into the beach and a swamp. Historians note that 17 shells were fired from I-25 yet witnesses only reported 9 to 14 rounds, leading experts to believe some were duds.
One crater was found precariously close to the Wreck of the Peter Iredale, however.
The event did change America's approach to guarding the west coast. Barbed wire was strung along much of the beach around Warrenton near Battery Russell, including weaving it through the wreck of the Iredale. Civilian guard squads began patrolling the entire Oregon coast after that.
Battery Russell is about a 15-minute drive from Seaside and 20 minutes from Cannon Beach.
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