The Sub Commander and the Cactus Myth, Debunked

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The Sub Commander and the Cactus Myth, Debunked
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By Tom Modugno of Goleta History 

Every year on February 23rd, we remember the bombing of Ellwood by a Japanese submarine in 1942. It is an important historical event and deserves the attention, but there is one very popular element to the story that involves an old cactus patch that just isn’t true. If you do a google search, the story pops up everywhere. So let’s start the long process of correcting popular folklore….

The story goes that a fellow named Kozo Nishino was the captain of a Japanese oil tanker and in 1939 he was enjoying a morning stroll along the beach while his ship was being filled at the Ellwood oil fields. On the bluffs he noticed a strange looking cactus surrounded by a fence and he was intrigued. In an effort to take a cutting back to his garden in Japan, he tried to climb the iron fence, but slipped and fell head first into the thorny patch.

A group of rowdy American oil workers watched and laughed heartily as he screamed and struggled to get out of the patch. Nishino was deeply humiliated and vowed revenge.

A few years later World War II comes along and this same guy, Kozo Nishino, has become a Japanese Navy Submarine Commander. Obviously, he gets chosen to lead the daring and historic mainland attack of the United States, because of his prior knowledge of the oil fields at Ellwood.

He cruises right along the coast like he did in his oil tanker, and fires 17 rounds into the piers and hills of Goleta. Finally getting his revenge on that pesky cactus, and those mean oil workers.

A 1982 issue of Parade magazine published a similar version saying-

The first Japanese attack on the U.S. mainland, in 1942, was triggered by cactus spines in the rear end of a Japanese naval captain. In the late 1930s, Kozo Nishino was commander of a Japanese tanker taking on crude oil at the Ellwood oil field. On the way up the path from the beach to a formal ceremony welcoming him and his crew, Nishino slipped and fell into a prickly-pear cactus. Workers on a nearby oil rig broke into guffaws at the sight of the proud commander having cactus spines plucked from his posterior. Then and there, the humiliated Nishino swore to get even.He had to wait for war between the U.S. and Japan, but on Feb. 23, 1942, he got his revenge. From 7:07 to 7:45 p.m., he directed the shelling of the Ellwood oil field from his submarine, the I-17.

While this is a fun and very popular story, it is not true. Why not?

Well, first off, who gets to be a submarine commander? In the United States, you have to be a Naval Academy graduate and spend years working your way up through the ranks. They don’t recruit submarine commanders from commercial shipping operations. Of course, neither does Japan.

The Imperial Japanese Naval Academy was located on a Japanese island called Etajima. This would be where the Japanese Navy would get their Submarine Commanders. And this is where one Kozo Nishino graduated in 1920.

This is part of the list of the graduates from Class Number 48 in 1920.

Scrolling down you’ll find Kozo Nishino from Tokyo. So we can see he was a career Navy man, but maybe he quit the Navy to become an Oil Tanker pilot in the 1930’s?

Not the case. This is the service record for Kozo Nishino, the captain of the submarine that bombed Ellwood. We can see he graduated Class Number 48 in 1920, and under the Notes header, you’ll see he was a crew member in a submarine called RO-16 until 1925, then he worked in sub RO-4 until 1927, and then sub RO-57. In 1930 he was promoted to a torpedo technician until 1931, when he became a commanding officer on RO-29. Keep following his career path down and you’ll see he was a submarine commander through the 1930’s,(when he was reportedly piloting an oil tanker). In 1941 he was put aboard  I-17, when he attacked Ellwood, and he was transferred to another sub until 1943. After that he was given a shore assignment and he survived the war. So he worked in submarines from the early 1920’s until 1943. Definitely didn’t leave him any time to take a side job as an oil tanker pilot…..

This is a list of Sorties, or missions, that Kozo went on. You can see he took a couple of California cruises. But on February 1st, 1942 he set out on the legendary mission to bomb the coast of California and made history.

This document is a Tabular record of Movement. It documents everywhere the Japanese submarine I-17 went. Under Kozo Nishino’s command, it was involved in a lot of action, including the attack on Pearl Harbor and harassing merchant ships off the coast of California. In December of 1941, Kozo sunk an oil tanker off of Cape Mendocino and killed 5 crew members in the I-17.

On February 22, 1942, Kozo received orders to attack a shore target of his choice around sunset of the 23rd, in order to create panic along the coast. Kozo met with his officers in their quarters and they looked over a list of previously approved suggested locations. The San Francisco waterfront and the town of Castroville were considered, and rejected. Lt. Yamazaki Atsuo suggested they bombard the Ellwood oil fields near Santa Barbara. Since that spot afforded easy access and escape, Kozo approved. No revenge for a cactus was involved in this decision…..

So, Kozo Nishino was the Commander of the sub that bombed Ellwood, but he never was an oil tanker pilot, he never set foot on Ellwood soil, and he never fell into a cactus. I apologize for previously spreading a false story on this website, but I have corrected that.

It’s not hard to imagine how this story came to be. Lots of rumors and conspiracy theories were flying around after the attack on Ellwood. Some folks swore that lights in the hills were signaling to the Japanese sub. Others insisted there were actually three submarines attacking and the Government was involved in a big coverup. Paranoia set in, just as the attack was meant to do. Years later, Walker Tompkins picked the memories of these folks, and they told him the rumors and theories that were being spread at the time. In “Goleta, the Good Land”, Tompkins reports another theory that the submarine was not Japanese at all, but American. He writes that a sizable number of responsible eyewitnesses were convinced the whole attack was staged to wake people up and boost war bond sales. Which it did…

Walker Tompkins is my hero. Lots of local historians like to dismiss much of his work as Pop history and remind everyone he was also a fiction writer. I believe without Walker and his great books, most of Goleta history would have been long lost. We owe him a lot of thanks. Much of history is word of mouth, people remembering the distant past and historians documenting those memories. Tomkins attributes the cactus story to the President of the Richfield Oil Company, Charles Jones. At a Channel Club meeting in 1956, Mr. Jones states the “Battle of Ellwood” actually began in the 1930’s when Kozo Nishino fell into the cactus, and he goes on to relate the whole detailed story in the first person, like he was actually there. He may have been there, and a Japanese tanker pilot may have actually fallen into Kate’s cactus. But it was not Kozo Nishino, or any other submarine commander. It is one heck of a great story that generations loved, learned and passed on, but it is false. So, next year, when this story pops up again, do history a favor and correct the storyteller.

To learn more about the Attack on Ellwood CLICK HERE.

To learn more about Kate’s Cactus CLICK HERE.

Special Thanks to George Lehtinen for convincing me this page needed to be made and providing me with the evidence.

Sources: History link 101, Wikipedia, STEVE’S IJN SUBMARINE PAGE, www.combinedfleet.com, Walker Tomkins, www.niehorster.org, www.worldwartwodaily.filminspector.com, Custom Illustration by Jeff McAllister.

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3P14159 Mar 08, 2021 06:05 AM
The Sub Commander and the Cactus Myth, Debunked

Good arguments ! As is said (and errorneously attributed to Churchill), "history is written by the victors". The truth is often buried like gems of the earth. It takes work to uncover them and courage to speak them. Thank you for doing so.

a-1615157726 Mar 07, 2021 02:55 PM
The Sub Commander and the Cactus Myth, Debunked

If you haven't already, you might want to talk to Willy of Willy's Barbershop on Figueroa. He grew up in one of the canyons near Ellwood, and remembers seeing a Japanese person walking on the beach (as he and some friends or relatives were playing) in the week before the Ellwood attack. He told me about it while cutting my hair 5 or 6 years ago, shortly after he retired (but came back to the shop to hang out).

RHS Mar 07, 2021 04:44 PM
The Sub Commander and the Cactus Myth, Debunked

Making every effort to find the facts is so admirable. Would that people would learn from things like this and go about deciding what is happening in real time with such effort.

a-1615222064 Mar 08, 2021 08:47 AM
The Sub Commander and the Cactus Myth, Debunked

After five minutes of real time learning, was totally confused. Is the I-17's Tabular Record of Movement accurate? "
"In December of 1941, Kozo sunk an oil tanker off of Cape Mendocino and killed 5 crew members in the I-17."
According to the wikipedia entry for the SS Samoa, no crew members were killed.

Minibeast Mar 07, 2021 09:03 PM
The Sub Commander and the Cactus Myth, Debunked

What's fun and funny about this myth is that if anyone should fall into Nopal cacti (aka Prickly Pear cactus), that person most definitely would be picking shockingly painful little hairs and spines out of more than just his/her posterior. Nopal cactus is like Poison oak: touch it once and you know never to go anywhere near it again. (Of course, there's a safe way to harvest Nopal cactus fruits and leaves, but best to "leave" that to the experts.) Thank you, Tom, for this educational and entertaining post.

PitMix Mar 08, 2021 07:18 AM
The Sub Commander and the Cactus Myth, Debunked

The more things change, the more they stay the same.....

"He writes that a sizable number of responsible eyewitnesses were convinced the whole attack was staged to wake people up and boost war bond sales. "

CreekMoe Mar 08, 2021 11:27 AM
The Sub Commander and the Cactus Myth, Debunked

Great article. But the photo of the US Sub with American Flag should have been left on cutting board. Or it looks too modern. It is not even a WW2 sub?

But the real surprise is to find out that the Japanese Government used English as a 2nd language when print up their Sub Training Records. So more people could read them?

And it too bad that the Sub did not attack LA or San Pedro or Long Beach - or
there were better targets there: shipyards, oil field rigs, and refineries. Or
Ellwood seems like a backwater target. And too safe for a warrior?

Plus the story shows that the news media has printed BS for a long time without any fact checks. It sells papers.

letmego Mar 08, 2021 01:21 PM
The Sub Commander and the Cactus Myth, Debunked

For the record, you do NOT have to be a Naval Academy graduate to be a submarine commander. (I cannot speak to whether that was true during WWII). You have to be a Naval submarine officer, but you can become that via other means, such as Navy ROTC.

tfourier Mar 09, 2021 11:41 AM
The Sub Commander and the Cactus Myth, Debunked

Now this is the version of the story I heard back in the 1980's. From the daughter-in-law of the commander of civil defense in Santa Barbara County in 1942.

After the War ended a request was put in to the US Occupation Forces in Japan to find out exactly why Ellwood had been chosen as a target to take pot shots at. It had been a real head scratcher at the time given just how many much more important targets of opportunity there had been up and down the SoCal coast. An attack on any of those could have done some very serious damage with only a few shells.

The story that came back from Japan a few months later after the Captain was found and interrogated was that one of the submarine officers, I dont think it was the Captain, had been on a Japanese tanker that had called at Ellwood a few years before and while onshore had stumbled and fell much to the amusement of the oil facility workers. It was this loss of face and humiliation, plus the fact the officer knew his way to Ellwood, that lead to it being chosen as a target in 1942. Based on the documentation shown above I suspect that Lt. Yamazaki Atsuo might be the guy who stumbled and fell during a 1937 or 1938 tanker visit to Ellwood.

The cactus story sounds very much like a later embellishment. If I remember correctly the fall happened while climbing down a ladder or metal stairway. Far less colorful that the cactus story.

tfourier Mar 10, 2021 10:26 AM
The Sub Commander and the Cactus Myth, Debunked

The actual story of the post War inquiry about the reason behind the submarine attack is true. The person I heard it from was not the sort of person who made up these kind of stories. Or repeated other peoples second hand stories. She married into an old Santa Barbara family and given her father-in-laws social and business standing in the 1930's and 1940's was not only the sort of person who would have been selected as head of county civil defense but exactly the sort of straight arrow who would only tell factually correct stories.

I've met some very odd and fanciful people in Santa Barbara over the decades but in this particular case you could not have found two people more firmly anchored to terra firma.

So I would count the Japanese oil tanker connection part of the story as true.

Now I have heard far odder war stories over the years. Like the time back in the 1980's while sitting outside Pierre Lafonds one day my lunch partner (then in his 80's) explained how he once technically "ruled" Denmark for a few days in 1945. Quite true. He had previously been fairly high up in the FDR administration which is how he ended up in the Occupation Government section for newly liberated areas. As Denmark did not have a "Good War" it took a few days to decide how to treat them. And as my friend was the most senior Allied government person on the ground in Copenhagen for the first few days..

A fairly typical Santa Barbara story in my experience.

Harbor_Seal Mar 10, 2021 11:37 PM
The Sub Commander and the Cactus Myth, Debunked

I not to question the authenticity of this report, but I remember learning about this in school very differently... it really occurred in 1941, the submarine commander was Akiro Mitamura and it happened in Santa Monica, NOT Ellwood... seems that Mitamura's target was actually Hollywood! Thankfully only the Ferris wheel in Santa Monica was destroyed, but had it not been for Capt. (Wild) Bill Kelso's heroic actions all of Los Angeles might have been devastated.

pstarSR Mar 11, 2021 03:23 PM
The Sub Commander and the Cactus Myth, Debunked

I did a search with an ambiguous search phrase of "japan shelling santa monica". the only articles I could find were discussing he ellwood shelling listed here. Santa Monica was only mentioned as having gun batteries installed near there. and having some planes "attack" the area. or so they suspect. I have never heard of santa monica being shelled at that time. this is the first im hearing that. interesting how history can get confused, or reworded as the time goes on. big game of Telephone.

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