PANIC: When Japan’s Submarine War Against America Came to California

Warfare History Network

Key point: Japan lacked the resources and time to launch a major offensive operation on the continental United States.

It seemed like just another ordinary day at sea. Early on December 7, 1941, a U.S. Army-chartered cargo vessel, the 250-foot SS Cynthia Olson, under the command of a civilian skipper, Berthel Carlsen, was plying the Pacific waters about 1,200 miles northeast of Diamond Head, Oahu, Hawaii, and over 1,000 miles west of the Tacoma, Washington, port from which she had sailed on December 1.

On board the unarmed Cynthia Olson, formerly the Coquina and renamed for the daughter of the owner, Oliver J. Olson Company of San Francisco, California, were several tons of supplies destined for the U.S. Army in Hawaii. Thirty-three Merchant Marine crewmen and two soldiers were accompanying the cargo

Unknown to the crew of the Cynthia Olson, the Japanese submarine I-26, under Commander Minoru Yokota, was running alongside the slow, fat target, waiting for the moment to attack. The I-26 was about to strike the first blow of World War II against America.

“Tora, Tora, Tora”

Five days earlier, Yokota had received the coded message, Niitakayama nobore 1208 (“Climb Mount Niitaka, December 8”). The signal meant that war with the United States would commence on December 8, Japan time, or December 7 in Hawaii. Among the nine Japanese submarines assigned to patrol the waters between Hawaii and America’s West Coast, the I-26 had been at sea for a month. Its initial sea service took it to Alaska’s Aleutian Islands; it was then ordered south to look for American ships.

At dawn on December 7, 1941, Yokota and his 90 submariners went to battle stations and surfaced. A warning shot from I-26’s deck gun raced across the Cynthia Olson’s bow. While skipper Carlson attempted some evasive maneuvers, the Olson’s radio operator sent out a distress call, but the ship had nothing with which to fight back.

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