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Unknown History: Two Ships That Were Torpedoed by Japanese Off South Oregon Coast

Updated 10/31/20 at 7:44 PM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Unknown History: Two Ships That Were Torpedoed by Japanese Off South Oregon Coast

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(Coos Bay, Oregon) – I-25 is not a name that lives in infamy when it comes to World War II, but it should, at least on the Oregon coast. The Japanese submarine left a few indelible marks along these shores, rather evenly between Warrenton and various parts of the south coast. It was responsible for the shelling of Fort Stevens in the middle of the night in 1942 and a small series of incendiary bombs near Brookings. (Above: the USS Camden nearly sinking)

However, there’s more to the story. During World War II, there were numerous sinkings of U.S. supply ships off the mainland on the both the east coast and the west coast, none of which were made public sometimes well beyond the Cold War.

Among these are two remarkable and fairly unknown stories: two U.S. tankers that were torpedoed off the south Oregon coast by the infamous I-25. The first was the USS Camden on October 4, 1942, which was hit hard and nearly sunk near Coos Bay. The second was on October 6, 1942, where it torpedoed and sank the USS Larry Doheny off Gold Beach.

I-25 and I-26 were dispatched to the Pacific Northwest coast in the spring of ‘42, and along the Washington coast the two damaged (but did not sink) two ships. In June, I-25 was the one that fired upon Fort Stevens at the mouth of the Columbia River, which commander Meiji Tagami thought was a submarine base. Where a Japanese Sub Fired on Oregon: Battery Russell and Fort Stevens

In September, I-25 launches a collapsable plane off the south coast and twice attempts to start major forest fires. The first attempt completely fails, but the second manages to start a small blaze, which dwindles out on its own because of wet conditions. Three Oregon Coast History Oddities: 'Secret' Base, Bombing, Pixie Kitchen

The USS Camden

On October 4, the sub spots a 3,000-ton tanker, the USS Camden, which was operated by Shell Oil Company. On its way from California to Puget Sound, it’s sitting idle in the sea making repairs – a tempting target. According to the Coos Bay History Museum, it's 50 miles offshore from Coos Bay. I-25 makes a dive and fires off two torpedoes. The first misses but the second hits dead on and starts an oil tank fire. The Camden is laden with 76,000 barrels of crude oil, which spells trouble.

According to sources like NOAA, the Coos Bay History Museum, and the navel history site, the ship’s steward jumps overboard and becomes the only fatality of the incident. The ship soon starts tipping towards the bow and the deck becomes awash, creating an abandon ship order and a rescue signal. Four hours later all are picked up by the Swedish vessel Kookaburra.

The Camden does not sink, but instead a day later begins getting towed by the tug Kenai, heading towards Astoria for repairs. At one point, crews realize she’s taking on much more water than expected and the ship won’t be able to cross the bar. So the tug starts heading for Seattle, Washington, but on October 10 the Camden suddenly bursts into flames. It sinks somewhere off the Washington coast, where its bones still lie undiscovered today.

NOAA released a pollution threat assessment of the vessel and categorized it as rather low. Its estimation of where the shipwreck lies in the briny deep off the Washington coast covers an enormous swath of territory – just about the entire length and quite a range offshore. It could literally be almost anywhere.

Right after the Camden attack, I-25 sets its sights on the Victor H. Kelly, but it has an erratic course and the commander decides to abandon the attack.

USS Larry Doheny

On October 6, I-25 encounters the USS Larry Doheny off Cape Sebastian and attacks. According to the Coos Bay History Museum, the Doheny had encountered another sub several months earlier. This time, the first volley doesn’t make its mark on the Richfield Oil Company’s 7,000-ton tanker, which was en route from Long Beach, California to Portland. It’s dark so the sub has trouble finding it again, but at one point resurfaces and begins a chase, only to lose it again. Abruptly, the ship shows up right in I-25’s view and another torpedo rips into the Doheny and opens up a 14-foot hole.

The explosion actually rocks the submarine and debris from the ship hits the sub, while the Doheny is unable to send a rescue signal. The ship is quickly ablaze. Two men are killed in the initial blast, and according to OSU six men end up were missing or dead. Though armed the Doheny was not able to counter attack in any way.

At this point, the Doheny was about eight miles off Gold Beach, and the blast was heard miles away – including a ship called the Coos Bay. I-25 left the scene shortly after, and the 40 survivors were picked up by the Coos Bay the following morning.

USS Larry Doheny

On October 7, I-25 spots another tempting target in what is believed to be the USS Anacapa, which was heading towards the Doheny. However, the Japanese sub also spots two destroyers and veers away. The destroyers catch up to the Doheny and drop a handful of depth charges, which apparently do not damage the sub.

On October 10, the Japanese sub leaves the Oregon coast.

Meanwhile, the Doheny still lies below the waves somewhere off Gold Beach. It burned for 13 hours before finally completely sinking.

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