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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, Canada and Mexico, but excludes military action involving the Danish territory of Greenland (see History of Greenland during World War II) and Pearl Harbor.


Japanese operations

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 $500–1,000.[1] News of the shelling triggered an invasion scare along the West Coast.[2]

Dutch Harbor air raid

Japanese carrier-based aircraft launched two raids on the US military base of Dutch Harbor, Alaska, on the night of June 3-4, 1942, killing 78 US servicemen, with a loss of 10 Japanese. The US forces were able to salvage a crashed Japanese Zero fighter plane, giving the Americans valuable technical intelligence.

Battle of the Aleutian Islands

US troops negotiate snow and ice during the Battle of Attu in May 1943.

On June 3, 1942 the Aleutian Islands, running southwest from mainland Alaska, were invaded by Japanese forces. Having broken the Japanese military codes, the United States military knew the invasion was forthcoming, but chose not to 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.[3]

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mainly US, but including many Canadian troops, assaulted Kiska Island on August 7, 1943, but the Japanese had already withdrawn, undetected, ten days earlier.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 canceled on June 8, 1942.

Estevan Point lighthouse attack

On June 20, 1942, the Japanese submarine I-26, under the command of Yokota Minoru[4], 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.[5] 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.[6]

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,[4] 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

Nobuo Fujita standing by his Yokosuka E14Y "Glen" seaplane.

The Lookout Air Raid occurred on September 9, 1942. The first and only 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 80 kg (180 lb) 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 a balloon near Bly, Oregon 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 August 6, 1945; other casualties of the 555th were two fractures and 20 other injuries.

German operations

German landings in the United States

Fritz Joubert Duquesne, FBI file photo.

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 persons so that they could deliver secret messages alongside normal messages. The ring was led by Captain Fritz Joubert Duquesne, a 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.[7] 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 Ernst Peter 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, the U-boat U-202 landed Dasch's team with explosives and plans at East Hampton, Long Island, New York.[8] Their mission was to destroy power plants at Niagara Falls and three Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) factories in Illinois, Tennessee and New York. Dasch instead turned himself in to the FBI, providing them with a complete account of the planned mission, which led to the arrest of the entire team.

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, New Jersey, 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. The Dasch confession led to the arrest of all of the men by July 10.

All eight German agents 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 the six 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.[9] Dasch (aka George Davis), who had been a longtime American resident before the war, suffered a difficult life in Germany after his return from U.S. custody because of 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.) seeking permission to return. He eventually moved to Switzerland and wrote a book, titled Eight Spies Against America. [10]

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

St. Martins, New Brunswick

At about the same time as the Dasch operation (on April 25, 1944), 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 (the main 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.[11] 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. The effectiveness and honesty of his "turn" is a matter of some dispute.

German Landings in Newfoundland

Weather Station Kurt, Martin Bay

Accurate weather reporting was important to the sea war and on September 18, 1943, U-537 sailed from Kiel, via Bergen, Norway, with a meteorological team led by Professor Kurt Sommermeyer. They landed at Martin Bay near the northern tip of Labrador on October 22, 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.[12] The station was powered by batteries that were expected to last about three months.[13] At the beginning of July 1944, U-867 left Bergen to replace the equipment, but was sunk en route.[12] The weather station remained undisturbed by the locals until the 1980s and is now at the Canadian War Museum.

Canceled Axis operations

The Japanese constructed a plan early in the Pacific War to attack the Panama Canal, a vital water passage in Panama, used during World War Two primarily for the allied supply effort. The Japanese attack was never launched due to crippling naval losses at the beginning of conflict with the United States.

A plan was devised by the Kingdom of Italy to attack New York harbor with submarines. However, as the the tides of war changed against Italy, the plan was postponed and later scrapped.[14]

German 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 maximized by the use of short-range Type VII U-boats, with increased fuel stores, replenished from supply U-boats called Milchkühe (milk cows). 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 such as Atlantic City until a dim-out was ordered in May.[15]

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).

East Coast

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.[citation needed] 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 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.[16] A wreck discovered in 1991 off the New Jersey coast was concluded in 1997 to be that of U-869. Previously, U-869 had been thought to have been sunk off Rabat, Morocco.[17]

Gulf of Mexico

Once convoys and air cover were introduced in the Atlantic, sinking numbers were reduced and the U-boats shifted to attack shipping in the Gulf of Mexico. During 1942 and 1943, more than 20 U-boats operated in the Gulf of Mexico. They attacked tankers transporting oil from ports in Texas and Louisiana, successfully sinking 56 vessels. By the end of 1943, the U-boat attacks diminished as the merchant ships began to travel in armed convoys.[18]

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.

U-166 was the only U-boat sunk in the Gulf of Mexico during the war. Once thought to have been sunk by a torpedo dropped from a U.S. Coast Guard Utility Amphibian J4F aircraft on August 1, 1942, U-166 is now believed to have been sunk two days earlier by depth charges from the Robert E. Lee’s naval escort, the U.S. Navy sub-chaser, PC-566. It is thought that the J4F aircraft may have spotted and attacked another German submarine, U-171, which was operating in the area at the same time. U-166 lies in 5,000 feet of water within a mile of her last victim, the passenger ship SS Robert E. Lee.[18]


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 harbor 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 funneled through the port, largely after the United States entered the war in December 1941. 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 early 1942 through to the end of the shipping season in late 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. After the sinkings the submarine fired a torpedo that missed its target, the 3,000-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.[19][20]

A German submarine 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.

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 24-25, 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. [21][22]

The San Francisco Bay Area on alert

In May and June 1942, the San Francisco Bay Area underwent a series of alerts:

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.


  1. ^ The Shelling of Ellwood, The California State Military Museum,, retrieved 2007-12-09 
  2. ^ Young, Donald J. Phantom Japanese Raid on Los Angeles Word War II Magazine, September 2003
  3. ^ The Battle of Attu—60 Years Later, U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service,, retrieved 2008-02-09 
  4. ^ a b SENSUIKAN! — HIJMS Submarine I-26: Tabular Record of Movement,,, retrieved 2007-12-09 
  5. ^ Conn, Stetson; Engelman; Fairchild, Byron, "The Continental Defense Commands After Pearl Harbor", Guarding the United States and its Outposts, Center of Military History, United States Army,, retrieved 2007-12-09 
  6. ^ Japanese Submarines on the West Coast of Canada,,, retrieved 2007-12-09 
  7. ^ Wood, Clement (1932). The man who killed Kitchener; the life of Fritz Joubert Duquesne. New York: William Faro, inc. 
  8. ^ Jonathan Wallace, Military Tribunals,,, retrieved 2007-12-09 
  9. ^ Agents delivered by U-boat,,, retrieved 2007-12-09  (from internet archive)
  10. ^ W. A. Swanberg (April 1970), The spies who came in from the sea, 21, American Heritage Magazine,, retrieved 2007-12-09 
  11. ^ Essex, James W. 2004. Victory in the St. Lawrence: the unknown u-boat war. Erin, Ontario: Boston Mills Press
  12. ^ a b Michael L. Hadley (1990), "Chapter five, The Intelligenc Gatherers: Langbein, Janow and Kurt", U-Boats Against Canada: German Submarines in Canadian Waters, McGill-Queen's Press - MQUP, pp. 144-167, ISBN 9780773508019, 
  13. ^ Weather Station Kurt,, March 27, 2005, 
  14. ^ Christiano D'Adamo. "Operations". Regia Marina Italiana. 
  15. ^ Leckie, Robert (1964). The Story of World War II. New York: Random House. p. 100. 
  16. ^ Michael Salvarezza; Christopher Weaver, On Final Attack, The Story of the U853,,, retrieved 2007-12-09 
  17. ^ "Transcript: "Hitler's Lost Sub"", NOVA, PBS, November 14, 2000,, retrieved 2008-12-01 .
  18. ^ a b U.S. Department of the Interior, Minerals Management Service, Gulf of Mexico Region, World War II Shipwrecks,, retrieved 2008-11-02 
  19. ^ Shells at Aruba, Time Magazine, February 23, 1942,,9171,884455,00.html, retrieved 2007-12-09 
  20. ^ Defense of the Western Hemisphere, The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco,, retrieved 2007-12-09 
  21. ^ California and the Second World War; The Battle of Los Angeles, The California State Military Museum,, retrieved 2007-12-09 
  22. ^ The Battle of Los Angeles, Virtual Museum of the City of San francisco,, retrieved 2007-12-09 

See also

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)
  • Horn, Steve (2005). The Second Attack on Pearl Harbor: Operation K And Other Japanese Attempts to Bomb America in World War II. Naval Institute Press. ISBN 1-59114-388-8. 
  • Mikesh, Robert C. Japan's World War II Balloon Bomb Attacks on North America, Smithsonian Institution Press, (1973)
  • Kesich, Gregory D. (April 13, 2003), 1944: When spies came to Maine, Portland Press Herald,, retrieved 2007-12-09 
  • 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

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