“At first they thought it might be target practice, but after the first explosion we saw great geysers of mud shooting up in the air from the cliffs where the shells had struck.”
Hilda Wheeler recalled that a small group of friends had gathered in her Wheeler’s Inn café along the Coast Highway to listen to President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chat” on Feb. 23, 1942. It was just after 7 in the evening. The president had said:
“The broad oceans which have been heralded in the past as our protection from attack have become endless battlefields on which we are constantly being challenged by our enemies.”
Shortly after, the Japanese Navy’s I-17 submarine commenced firing its five-inch deck gun on the Ellwood Petroleum Pier and the adjacent Barnsdall-Rio Grande oil installations. Hilda and the diners quickly pulled down the blackout drapes.
Hilda said, “The shelling lasted for about 20 minutes. The Japanese gunners soon realized that they were missing their marks [and] raised their guns and now shells went whizzing over the cliffs and … almost over our heads.”
A night watchman from the Barnsdall facility ran to a pay phone to notify the authorities. America was on “double daylight-saving time” during the war and there was more than enough light to see the Japanese gunners on the deck.
The I-17 then submerged. The president’s speech was over and all radio signals along the Coast went silent and dark.
Hilda remembered that “We all felt sort of tired … we went inside where the only light came from the flame under the coffee urn. We sat and talked about what had happened …”
The pier and some equipment were damaged. The attack had only a slight effect on America’s capacity to wage war. But the ensuing panic contributed to the next evening’s “Battle of Los Angeles,” often called “The Great Los Angeles Air Raid.” Rumors of enemy planes over the Los Angeles basin led to a complete blackout and the newly installed anti-aircraft batteries firing more than 1,400 rounds into the air.
No evidence of enemy aircraft was ever found. The event was later cited as proof of the existence of UFOs during and after the UFO craze of 1947.
Only two structures remain from that attack where Hollister Avenue exits from Highway 101 north of Goleta. The now shuttered Timbers Restaurant at Winchester Canyon was constructed from wood salvaged from the Ellwood Pier. Along Hollister Avenue stands a lonely sentinel whose continued existence was recently assured when hotelier Ty Warner donated the beautiful Barnsdall-Rio Grande gas station to the city of Goleta.
The station was adjacent to Wheeler’s Inn. Built in 1929 as the flagship station for the Barnsdall and Rio Grande Oil Co., it reflected the sophisticated architectural tastes of heiress Aline Barnsdall and Santa Barbara’s Mission Revival theme. It was designed by Los Angeles architects Morgan, Walls & Clements (creators of the wondrous Mayan Theater and the much missed Art Deco Richfield Tower).
The gas station consists of only 450 square feet, but is 40 feet high. The tower’s 3rd floor once held 2,000 gallons of water. The six-inch blue and white ceramic tiles make the structure unique. As a child, I always hoped that my father would pull in for gas.
The station closed during the early 1950s and in recent years has appeared as an almost desolate monument behind chain-link fencing.
It was resurrected for the 1981 remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange. Film fans will recall that the plot thickens when Nicholson has a meal at a roadside restaurant and meets Lange. How appropriate a commemoration for the once nearby Wheeler’s Inn!
Now it’s in the city of Goleta’s court to see that this elegant structure and the story it tells can be preserved for future generations.