They Mean To Have A War:
The SS Commando Raids on North America, 1940-41
By Chris Oakley
(inspired by the novel "A Clash of Eagles" by Leo Rutman)
Summary: In the first three chapters of this series we looked at Adolf Hitler’s decision to authorize commando raids on the United States and Canada in 1940; the consequences of some of those raids; and the U.S. declaration of war against Germany after the bombing of Penn Station. In this chapter we’ll look at the Japanese incendiary raids on San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Honolulu at the start of the Pacific war.
To say that the Japanese were taking a huge gamble with their planned firebombing raids against the US West Coast would be quite an understatement. In the aftermath of her declaration of war on Nazi Germany, the United States had placed herself on a full war footing, and while a great deal of work remained to be done as far as bolstering her home air defenses was considered, any enemy that wanted to bomb an American city would find himself confronting all manner of obstacles simply trying to get to his intended target-- and that was assuming he could cross the ocean to reach America in the first place.
Just the same, Tokyo was willing to roll the dice. Even if only a handful of planes penetrated the American air defenses, the proponents of the firebombing plan argued, the psychological blow to American morale would be tremendous. A successful strike on Los Angeles in particular, they said, would trigger panic up and down the West Coast and keep Washington distracted while the Imperial Navy neutralized the US Pacific Fleet. Indeed one of the scheduled firebombing raids-- targeted at Honolulu --was meant to coincide with a planned Imperial Navy carrier strike on the Pacific Fleet’s headquarters at Pearl Harbor.
The firebombing plan’s chief advocate was an admiral named Isoroku Yamamoto; Yamamoto, a onetime naval attaché who back in his younger days had studied at both Harvard and the U.S. Naval Academy, felt the proposed firebombing attacks offered Japan’s best(if not only) hope for gaining the upper hand over the United States at the start of any future Pacific conflict. In fact it was partly on Yamamoto’s recommendation that Midway Island, home to a sizable U.S. Navy outpost since 1903, was included in the list of primary targets.
Because the seaplanes assigned to carry out the attack would use substantial amounts of fuel both on the way to their targets and on the flight home, the Imperial Navy made provisions in the firebombing plan for specially equipped tanker submarines (modeled on the so-called "milkcow" U-boats then coming into service with the German Kriegsmarine) to be deployed along certain parts of the bombers’ flight path for refueling purposes. With typical Japanese efficiency, the officers responsible for devising and carrying out the attacks arranged the firebombing plan’s timetables so that the refueling stops could be completed as quickly as possible. While they might have differed on other aspects of the plan, Yamamoto and his fellow admirals agreed unanimously that they did not want to run the risk of having their seaplanes grounded too long and having American fighters tear them to pieces while they were still taking on gas.
The seaplane crews chosen to carry out these attacks trained for their mission by flying mock bombing runs out of an airfield on Honshu against simulated targets at a bomb range in Japanese-occupied Korea. They had to fly these training runs at least twice a day, and sometimes as often as five times a day, before their instructors were satisfied that they were ready to proceed with the firebomb attacks. One pilot would confide to his diary in late March of 1941: "Our instructor drives us like galley slaves....if this keeps up much longer we will have died from exhaustion long before it is time for us to face the enemy."1 The vast majority of the seaplane crews, however, welcomed these rigors as a chance to put themselves in the right frame of mind for the actual mission.
It wasn’t until the second week of June, 1941 that the IJN seaplane crews assigned to carry out the West Coast firebomb raids were finally cleared for action. And even then said crews had to endure a series of last-minute lectures from their instructors on the mistakes they’d made in previous training runs. Nonetheless, their morale was high as they climbed into their planes to begin their risky mission; many of the pilots could be heard singing as they boarded. Some of the airmen even took the time to compose a song or poem to commemorate what they were convinced would be one of the glorious moments in Japanese history.
But as the attack force was en route to its second refueling point, they encountered an unexpected complication: one of the IJN tanker submarines that was supposed to be waiting for them had developed serious engine problems and been forced to turn back for repairs. It meant that the remaining "milkcows" would have to do twice as much work as originally planned in order to be sure that the seaplanes reached their assigned targets on the American west coast. Now the attack force commanders were faced with a dilemma: cancel one of the scheduled raids and risk losing face, or proceed with all the attacks as planned and take a chance on sending one of their seaplane crews on what amounted to a suicide mission?
For the seaplane crews themselves it was an easy choice to make; the flyers involved with the Pearl Harbor strike were the ones most eager to get on with the job, given that they would be taking part in striking a severe-- possibly even fatal --blow on what was regarded as the nerve center of the U.S. Pacific fleet. The prevailing sentiment among those assigned to the Pearl Harbor attack was summed by a comment made by a surviving officer in 1960 who told a Los Angeles Times correspondent: "We would have defied the gods themselves if it meant dealing a blow to the might of the American navy in Hawaii."
So the decision was made to go forward with the strikes as originally scheduled. The "milkcows" would simply have to work harder to keep the attack force supplied with adequate fuel to get to and from their assigned targets. But material strength was of little concern to the Japanese, who believed that superior will would enable them to carry the day against their larger and more prosperous adversary across the Pacific.
It was just before 5:30 AM U.S. West Coast time on the morning of June 14th, 1941 when the seaplanes assigned to support the IJN carrier strike on Pearl Harbor reached the shores of Hawaii; about this same time the group assigned to the Seattle raid turned north towards Puget Sound. Twenty minutes later, the planes designated as the strike force for the firebombing attacks on Los Angeles and San Francisco crossed the California coastline.
All hell was about to break loose.
The U.S. Pacific Fleet headquarters at Pearl Harbor was the first to feel the wrath of the Japanese firebombs. At about 5:40 AM, a half-dozen of these bombs hit the offices of the fleet’s command staff and the hangars at Pearl’s main airfield, touching off a three-alarm fire; while the base’s firefighting personnel were trying to put out the blaze and armor-piercing bombs rained down on Battleship Row, another group of firebombs rained on the barracks where the enlisted men were housed. Within minutes four massive fires were burning simultaneously, most of the Pacific Fleet’s battleships were either sunk or crippled, and Pearl was in utter chaos.
By 6:58 AM, when the aircraft assigned to the firebomb raid on Honolulu and the carrier strike against Pearl had been recalled to start their journey home, not only were large sections of Honolulu and Pearl in flames but the Japanese had also succeeded in causing massive collateral damage in Seattle and San Francisco. From most outward appearances the firebomb raids looked to be a success, and a brilliant one at that.
In Los Angeles, however, the seaplanes sent to firebomb that city were running into trouble. In spite of the L.A. contingent’s best efforts to maintain the element of surprise, air defenses in the southern California region had been tipped off that something was amiss; the lead plane in the attack force took some punishing hits from ground-based flak guns and fighter planes of the US Army Air Corps base at Long Beach. Other fighter aircraft, dispatched out of the Navy/Marine Corps airfield at El Toro, went after the rest of the attack force like a group of hungry lions descending on an injured antelope.
While U.S. fighter defenses were confronting the Japanese in the air, on the ground employees at Hollywood’s movie studios were rushing to save whatever film prints and studio props they could from the fury of the Japanese bombs. Disregarding the danger posed by the firebombs (and repeated orders from the LAPD to go straight to the nearest air raid shelter), these people ran from one studio backlot to the next to rescue whatever they could carry before the next load of firebombs hit. But there was one thing they couldn’t save: the life of MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer, who was fatally wounded by shrapnel from an exploding Japanese bomb while trying to get his secretaries to an air raid shelter. Mayer succumbed to his injuries en route to Cedars of Lebanon hospital.
By the time Mayer passed away, most of the Japanese seaplanes assigned to the firebomb raid on Los Angeles had either been shot down or so severely damaged that their crews would be compelled to ditch them in the Pacific. Not surprisingly, those crews unable to reach open water chose to commit suicide rather than face what the traditional Japanese samurai code had long ago taught them was the "disgrace" of being captured. Only a few of the aviators tasked to fly the L.A. bombing run would make it home to Japan alive.
The Japanese civilian population knew nothing of the failure of the Los Angeles raid, nor were they told that in the attack on Seattle at least a third of the bombs dropped by IJN seaplanes had missed their intended targets. As far as the government in Tokyo was concerned, all its people needed to know was that the Imperial Navy had given the United States a wound from which she would not recover for years-- if at all.
Naturally, Adolf Hitler was overjoyed when the Japanese ambassador in Berlin informed him of the firebomb attacks against southern California and Hawaii. "That Japan took this step," the Führer later told Hermann Goering, "must fill every decent person with great satisfaction." Hitler was convinced that the Americans had been so badly hurt by the bombing raids they would now have to quit the war in Europe. But on this point-- as he had been on many occasions since the Second World War began and would be many more times before the war ended --he was sorely mistaken. If anything, the attacks had only given Washington added incentive to finish off the Third Reich...
To Be Continued
 Quoted from The Combat Diares of Saburo Sakai, copyright 1978 University of Tokyo Press, English translation copyright 1980 Melbourne University Press.