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The Sub Commander and the Cactus Myth, Debunked

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, the vast majority of sub pilots are Naval Academy graduates and all have spent years working their 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 attacked the oil tanker Emidio off of Cape Mendocino and killed 5 of its crew members. The Emidio went adrift and later washed up on rocks.

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.

Categories: Goleta History

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Tom Modugno

1 reply

  1. The summer of 1963 I had a summer job playing piano in the bar of a restaurant next to Hwy. 101 North near Ellwood. It was called The Timbers, and was said to have been built using rumored from the destroyed oil docks from that Japanese sub attack.
    I don’t recall anything special about the acoustics of the place however 😎.

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