Attacks on North America during World War II

Attacks on North America during World War II

Attacks on North America during World War II by the Axis Powers were rare, mainly due to the continent's geographical separation from the central theaters of conflict in Europe and Asia. This article includes attacks on continental territory (extending 200 miles [370 km] into the ocean) which is today under the sovereignty of the United States and Canada but excludes military action involving the Danish territory of Greenland and the Caribbean.

Although not an attack on North America, the December 7, 1941 Japanese preemptive attack on Pearl Harbor which drew the United States into World War II was the precursor to a number of Japanese assaults on the North American mainland. At the time, Hawaii was a United States territory and not a state; the Territory of Hawaii did not obtain statehood until 1959.

Japanese assaults

Ellwood shelling

The United States mainland was first shelled by the Axis on February 23, 1942 when the Japanese submarine "I-17" attacked the Ellwood Oil Field west of Goleta, near Santa Barbara, California. Although only a pumphouse and catwalk at one oil well were damaged, "I-17" captain Nishino Kozo radioed Tokyo that he had left Santa Barbara in flames. No casualties were reported and the total cost of the damage was officially estimated at approximately $500-1000.Citation
title=The Shelling of Ellwood
publisher=The California State Military Museum
] However news of the shelling triggered an invasion scare along the West Coast. [Young, Donald J. [ Phantom Japanese Raid on Los Angeles] Word War II Magazine, September issue 2003]

Battle of the Aleutian Islands

On June 3, 1942 the Aleutian Islands, running southwest from mainland Alaska, were invaded by Japanese forces. Having broken the Japanese military codes, however, the United States military knew the invasion was forthcoming, but chose not expend large amounts of effort defending the islands. Although most of the civilian population had been moved to camps on the Alaska Panhandle, some Americans were captured and taken to Japan as prisoners of war. [Citation
title=The Battle of Attu—60 Years Later
publisher=U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service

In what became known as the Battle of the Aleutian Islands, American forces engaged the Japanese on Attu Island and regained control by the end of May 1943, after taking significant casualties in difficult terrain in which hundreds died. A large invasion force, mainly US, but including some Canadian troops, assaulted Kiska Island on August 7, 1943, but the Japanese had already withdrawn, undetected, ten days earlier.

Although Alaska was a U.S. territory and not yet a state (statehood was not granted until 1959) it was part of the North American continent. This battle also marks the only time since the War of 1812 that U.S. territory in North America has been occupied by a foreign power.

In response to the United States' success at the Battle of Midway, the invasion alert for San Francisco was cancelled on June 8, 1942.

Estevan Point lighthouse attack

On June 20, 1942, the Japanese submarine "I-26", under the command of Yokota MinoruCitation
title=SENSUIKAN! — HIJMS Submarine I-26: Tabular Record of Movement
] , fired 25-30 rounds of 5.5" shells at the Estevan Point lighthouse on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, but failed to hit its target. [Citation
title=Guarding the United States and its Outposts
first=Rose C.
publisher=Center of Military History, United States Army
chapter=The Continental Defense Commands After Pearl Harbor
] This marked the first enemy shelling of Canadian soil since the War of 1812. Though no casualties were reported, the subsequent decision to turn off the lights of outer stations was disastrous for shipping activity. [Citation
title=Japanese Submarines on the West Coast of Canada

Fort Stevens attack

In what became the only attack on a mainland American military installation during World War II, the Japanese submarine "I-25", under the command of Tagami Meiji,, surfaced near the mouth of the Columbia River, Oregon on the night of June 21 and June 22, 1942, and fired shells toward Fort Stevens. The only damage officially recorded was to a baseball field's backstop. Probably the most significant damage was a shell that damaged some large phone cables. The Fort Stevens gunners were refused permission to return fire, since it would have helped the Japanese locate their target more accurately. American aircraft on training flights spotted the submarine, which was subsequently attacked by a US bomber, but it escaped.

Lookout Air Raid

The Lookout Air Raid occurred on September 9 1942. The first aerial bombing of mainland America by a foreign power occurred when an attempt to start a forest fire was made by a Japanese Yokosuka E14Y1 seaplane dropping two convert|80|kg|abbr=on incendiary bombs over Mount Emily, near Brookings, Oregon. The seaplane, piloted by Nobuo Fujita, had been launched from the Japanese submarine aircraft carrier "I-25". No significant damage was officially reported following the attack, nor after a repeat attempt on September 29.

Fire balloons

Between November 1944 and April 1945, Japan launched over 9,000 fire balloons toward North America. Carried by the recently-discovered Pacific jet stream, they were to sail over the Pacific Ocean and land in North America, where the Japanese hoped they would start forest fires and cause other damage. About three hundred were reported as reaching North America, but little damage was caused. Six people (five children and a woman) became the only deaths due to enemy action to occur on mainland America during World War II when one of the children tampered with a bomb from the balloon near Bly, Oregon in the United States and it exploded. Recently released reports by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Canadian military indicate that fire balloons reached as far inland as Saskatchewan. A fire balloon is also considered to be a possible cause of the final fire in the Tillamook Burn. One member of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion (United States) died while responding to a fire in the Northwest 6 August 1945; other casualites of the 555th were 2 fractures and 20 other injuries.

German assaults

"German landings in the United States"

Duquesne Spy Ring

Even before the war, a large Nazi spy ring was found operating in the United States. The "Duquesne Spy Ring" is still the largest espionage case in United States history that ended in convictions. The 33 German agents that formed the Duquesne spy ring were placed in key jobs in the United States to get information that could be used in the event of war and to carry out acts of sabotage: one person opened a restaurant and used his position to get information from his customers; another person worked on an airline so that he could report allied ships that were crossing the Atlantic Ocean; others in the ring worked as delivery people so that they could deliver secret messages alongside normal messages. The ring was led by Captain Fritz Joubert Duquesne, a colorful South African Boer who spied for Germany in both World Wars and is best known as "The man who killed Kitchener" after he was awarded the Iron Cross for his key role in the sabotage and sinking of "HMS Hampshire" in 1916.cite book |last=Wood |first=Clement |authorlink= |coauthors= |title=The man who killed Kitchener; the life of Fritz Joubert Duquesne |year=1932 |publisher=William Faro, inc |location=New York |isbn= ] William G. Sebold, a double agent for the United States, was a major factor in the FBI's successful resolution of this case. For nearly two years, Sebold ran a radio station in New York for the ring, giving the FBI valuable information on what Germany was sending to its spies in the United States while also controlling the information that was being transmitted to Germany. On June 29, 1941, the FBI closed in. All 33 spies were arrested, found guilty, and sentenced to serve a total of over 300 years in prison.

Operation Pastorius

When the United States entered World War II, Adolf Hitler ordered the remaining German saboteurs to wreak havoc on the country. The responsibility for carrying this out was given to German Intelligence (Abwehr). In June 1942, eight agents were recruited and divided into two teams: the first, commanded by George John Dasch, with Ernest Burger, Heinrich Heinck and Richard Quirin. The second, under the command of Edward Kerling, with Hermann Neubauer, Werner Thiel and Herbert Haupt.

On June 12, 1942, U-Boat "U-202" landed Dasch's team with explosives and plans at East Hampton, Long Island, New York. [Citation
title=Military Tribunals
author=Jonathan Wallace
] Their mission was to destroy power plants at Niagara Falls and three Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) factories in Illinois, Tennessee and New York. However, the team was observed following landing by a Coast Guardsman who immediately raised the alarm. After being captured, Dasch and Burger gave a full confession to the FBI and obtained more lenient treatment.

Kerling's team landed from "U-584" at Ponte Vedra Beach (25 miles [40 km] south-east of Jacksonville, Florida), on June 17. They were tasked with laying mines in four areas: the Pennsylvania Railroad in Newark NJ., canal sluices in both St. Louis and Cincinnati, and New York City's water supply pipes. The team made their way to Cincinnati, Ohio and split up, with two going to Chicago, Illinois and the others to New York. However, the Dasch confession led to the arrest of all of the men by July 10.

All eight were tried, convicted by the Military Commission with six men sentenced to death. President Roosevelt approved the sentences. The constitutionality of the military commissions was upheld by the Supreme Court in Ex parte Quirin and six of the eight men were executed by electrocution on August 8. Dasch and Burger were given thirty-year prison sentences. Both were released in 1948 and deported to Germany. [Citation
title=Agents delivered by U-boat
(from internet archive)
] Dasch (aka George Davis), who had been a longtime American resident prior to the war, suffered a difficult life in Germany after his return from U.S. custody due to his cooperation with U.S. authorities. As a condition of his deportation, he was not permitted to return to the United States, even though he spent many years writing letters to prominent American authorities (J. Edgar Hoover, President Eisenhower, etc.) requesting permission to return. He eventually fled to Switzerland and wrote a book, titled "Eight Spies Against America". [Citation
title=The spies who came in from the sea
author=W. A. Swanberg
publisher=American Heritage Magazine

Operation Elster

In 1944 there was another attempt at infiltration, codenamed "Operation Elster" ("Magpie"). Elster involved Erich Gimpel and German American defector William Colepaugh. Their mission objective was to gather intelligence on the Manhattan Project and attempt sabotage if possible. The pair sailed from Kiel on "U-1230" and landed at Hancock Point, Maine on November 30, 1944. Both made their way to New York, but the operation degenerated into total failure. Colepaugh turned himself in to the FBI on December 26, confessing the whole plan; Gimpel was arrested four days later in New York. Both men were sentenced to death but eventually had their sentences commuted. Gimpel spent 10 years in prison; Colepaugh was released in 1960 and operated a business in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania before retiring to Florida.

"German landings in Canada"

t. Martins, New Brunswick

At about the same time as the Dasch operation (on April 25), a solitary Abwehr agent (Marius A Langbein) was landed by U-boat (possibly "U-217") near St. Martins, New Brunswick, Canada. His mission was to observe and report shipping movements at Halifax, Nova Scotia (a busy departure port for North Atlantic convoys). Langbein changed his mind, however, and moved to Ottawa where he lived off his Abwehr funds, before surrendering to the Canadian authorities in December 1944.

New Carlisle, Quebec

In November, the U-518 sank two iron ore freighters and damaged another off Bell Island in Conception Bay, Newfoundland, en route to the Gaspé Peninsula where, despite an attack by a Royal Canadian Air Force aircraft, it successfully landed a spy, Werner von Janowski, at New Carlisle, Quebec on November 9, 1942. He was soon apprehended after Earl Annett Jr., manager of the New Carlisle Hotel, at which Janowski was staying, became suspicious and alerted authorities to a stranger using obsolete currency at the hotel bar. [Essex, James W. 2004. "Victory in the St. Lawrence: the unknown u-boat war." Erin, Ontario: Boston Mills Press] The R.C.M.P. arrested Janowski on a CNR passenger train headed for Montreal. Inspection of Janowski's personal effects upon his arrest revealed that he was carrying a powerful radio transmitter, among other things. Janowski later spent some time as a double agent, sending false messages to the Abwehr in Germany, while gathering valuable intelligence for the Allies.

"German landings in Newfoundland"

Martin Bay

Accurate weather reporting was important to the sea war and on 18 September 1943, "U-537" sailed from Kiel, via Bergen (Norway), with a meteorological team lead by Professor Kurt Sommermeyer. They landed at Martin Bay near the northern tip of Labrador on 22 October 1943 and successfully set up an automatic weather station ("Weather Station Kurt" or "Wetter-Funkgerät Land-26"), despite the constant risk of Allied air patrols; this only worked for a short time, however. At the beginning of July 1944, "U-867" left Bergen to replace the failed equipment, but was sunk en route. The weather station was recovered in the 1980s and is now at the Canadian War Museum.

U-Boat operations

"United States"

The Atlantic Ocean was a major strategic battle zone ("Second Battle of the Atlantic") and when Germany declared war on the U.S., the East Coast of the United States offered easy pickings for German U-Boats (referred to as the "Second happy time"). After a highly successful foray by five Type IX long-range U-boats, the offensive was maximised by the use of short-range Type VII U-boats, with increased fuel stores, replenished from supply U-boats or "Milchkühe". From February to May, 1942, 348 ships were sunk, for the loss of 2 U-boats during April and May. U.S. naval commanders were reluctant to introduce the convoy system that had protected trans-Atlantic shipping and, without coastal blackouts, shipping was silhouetted against the bright lights of American towns and cities.

Several ships were torpedoed within sight of East Coast cities such as New York and Boston; indeed, some civilians sat on beaches and watched battles between U.S. and German ships. The only documented World War II sinking of a U-boat close to New England shores occurred on May 5, 1945, when the U-853 torpedoed and sank the collier ship Black Point off Newport, Rhode Island. When the Black Point was hit, the U.S. Navy immediately chased down the sub and began dropping depth charges. The next day, when an oil slick and floating debris appeared, they confirmed that the U-853 and its entire crew had been destroyed. In recent years, the U-853 has become a popular dive site. Its intact hull, with open hatches, is located in 130 feet of water off Block Island, Rhode Island. [Citation
title= On Final Attack, The Story of the U853
author=Michael Salvarezza
author2=Christopher Weaver

Once convoys and air cover were introduced, sinking numbers were reduced and the U-boats shifted to attack shipping in the Gulf of Mexico, with 121 losses in June. In one instance, the tanker "Virginia" was torpedoed in the mouth of the Mississippi River by the German U-Boat U-507 on May 12, 1942, killing 26 crewmen. There were 14 survivors. Again, when defensive measures were introduced, ship sinkings decreased and U-boat sinkings increased.

The cumulative effect of this campaign was severe; a quarter of all wartime sinkings—3.1 million tons. There were several reasons for this. The naval commander, Admiral Ernest King, was averse to taking British recommendations to introduce convoys, U.S. Coast Guard and Navy patrols were predictable and could be avoided by U-boats, poor inter-service co-operation, and the U.S. Navy did not possess enough suitable escort vessels (British and Canadian warships were transferred to the U.S. east coast).


From the start of the war in 1939 until VE Day, several of Canada's Atlantic coast ports became important to the resupply effort for the United Kingdom and later for the Allied land offensive on the Western Front. Halifax and Sydney, Nova Scotia became the primary convoy assembly ports, with Halifax being assigned the fast or priority convoys (largely troops and essential materiel) with the more modern merchant ships, while Sydney was given slow convoys which conveyed bulkier materiel on older and more vulnerable merchant ships. Both ports were heavily fortified with shore radar emplacements, search light batteries, and extensive coastal artillery stations all manned by RCN and Canadian Army regular and reserve personnel. Military intelligence agents enforced strict blackouts throughout the areas and anti-torpedo nets were in place at the harbour entrances. Despite the fact that no landings of German personnel took place near these ports, there were frequent attacks by U-boats on convoys departing for Europe. Less extensively used, but no less important, was the port of Saint John which also saw war matériel funnelled through the port, largely after the United States entered the war in December 1941 and the Canadian Pacific Railway mainline from central Canada (which crossed the state of Maine) could be used to transport in aid of the war effort.

Although not crippling to the Canadian war effort, given the country's rail network to the east coast ports, but possibly more destructive to the morale of the Canadian public, was the Battle of the St. Lawrence, when U-boats began to attack domestic coastal shipping along Canada's east coast in the St. Lawrence River and Gulf of St. Lawrence from spring 1942 through to the end of the shipping season in late fall 1944.


Three significant attacks took place in 1942 when German U-boats attacked four iron ore carriers serving the DOSCO iron mine at Wabana on Bell Island in Newfoundland's Conception Bay. The ships S.S. "Saganaga" and the S.S. "Lord Strathcona" were sunk by "U-513" on September 5, 1942, while the S.S. "Rosecastle" and "P.L.M 27" were sunk by "U-518" on November 2 with the loss of 69 lives. However, one of the most dramatic incidents of the attack occurred after the sinkings when the submarine fired a torpedo that missed its target, the 3000 ton collier "Anna T", and struck the DOSCO loading pier and exploded. As a result of the torpedo missing its target, Bell Island became the only location in North America to be subject to direct attack by German forces during World War II. On October 14, 1942, the Newfoundland Railway ferry SS "Caribou" was torpedoed by the German U-boat U-"69" and sunk in the Cabot Strait south of Port aux Basques. "Caribou" was carrying 45 crew and 206 civilian and military passengers. 137 lost their lives, many of them Newfoundlanders.


German submarines shelled a Standard Oil refinery on Dutch-owned Aruba on February 16, 1942, causing no damage. [Citation
title=Shells at Aruba
date=February 23, 1942
publisher=Time Magazine
] [Citation
title=Defense of the Western Hemisphere
publisher=The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco

A German sub shelled the island of Mona, some 40 miles from Puerto Rico, on March 2. No damage or casualties resulted.

An oil refinery on Curaçao was shelled on April 19.


Although not an attack on Mexican territory, the sinking of the Mexican tanker "Faja de Oro" and "El Potrero de Llano" by the German U-boat, U-160, on May 21, 1942 off Key West, prompted the entry of Mexico against Germany, Japan and Italy into World War II. Mexico and Brazil were the only Latin American countries to send troops to fight overseas against Germany and Japan.

False alarms

The Battle of Los Angeles

In an incident now known as "The Battle of Los Angeles", the U.S. Army fired several thousand anti-aircraft shells into the air over Los Angeles, California during the night of February 24-February 25, 1942 at two stationary Unidentified Flying Objects, in which none of the targets were intercepted or damaged at all. The target was later officially determined to be a lost weather balloon. [Citation
publisher=The California State Military Museum
title=California and the Second World War; The Battle of Los Angeles
] [Citation
title=The Battle of Los Angeles
publisher=Virtual Museum of the City of San francisco
] {According to article "Battle of Los Angeles" "In addition to several buildings damaged by friendly fire, three civilians were killed by the anti-aircraft fire, and another three died of heart attacks attributed to the stress of the hour-long bombardment.")

The San Francisco Bay Area on alert

In May and June 1942, the San Francisco Bay Area underwent a series of alerts:
* May 12: A twenty-five minute air-raid alert.
* May 27: West Coast defenses put on alert after Army codebreakers learned that the Japanese intended a series of hit-and-run attacks in reprisal for the Doolittle Raid.
* May 31: The battleships USS "Colorado" and USS "Maryland" set sail from the Golden Gate to form a line of defense against any Japanese attack mounted on San Francisco.

Radio silence orders

On June 2, 1942 , a nine-minute air-raid alert, including at 9:22 pm a radio silence order applied to all radio stations from Mexico to Canada.


ee also

*Black Tom Explosion – Possible German sabotage in World War I
*Bell Island, the only location in North America to be subject to direct attack by German forces in World War II
*List of Japanese spies, 1930–45
*Weather Station Kurt

Further reading

*Dobbs, Michael. "Saboteurs: The Nazi Raid on America" ISBN 0-375-41470-3 (2004)
*Duffy, J.P. [ TARGET: AMERICA, Hitler's Plan to Attack the United States] , Praeger Publishers; PB: The Lyons Press (A Booklist [ review] )
*Gimpel, Erich. "Agent 146: The True Story of a Nazi Spy in America" ISBN 0-312-30797-7 (2003)
*Griehl, Manfred. "Luftwaffe over America: The Secret Plans to Bomb the United States in World War II" ISBN 1-85367-608-X (2004)
*cite book
last = Horn
first = Steve
authorlink =
coauthors =
year = 2005
chapter =
title = The Second Attack on Pearl Harbor: Operation K And Other Japanese Attempts to Bomb America in World War II
publisher = Naval Institute Press
location =
id = ISBN 1-59114-388-8

*Mikesh, Robert C. "Japan's World War II Balloon Bomb Attacks on North America", Smithsonian Institution Press, (1973)
first=Gregory D.
title=1944: When spies came to Maine
publisher=Portland Press Herald
date=April 13, 2003

*Webber, Bert. "Silent Siege: Japanese Attacks Against North America in World War II", Ye Galleon Press, Fairfield, Washington (1984). ISBN 0-87770-315-9 (hardcover). ISBN 0-87770-318-3 (paperbound).

External links

* [,13319,77031,00.html American targets]
* [ Japanese submarine attacks]
* [ German Sabotage operations]
* [ the bay area at war]
* [ army responses]
* [ Details of German secret agents landed in North America]
* [ Red White Black & Blue - feature documentary about The Battle of Attu in the Aleutians during World War II]
* [ Defense of Americas]
* [ The Battle of the St. Lawrence]

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