On Sunday, June 7, 1942, the American merchant vessel SS Coast Trader is torpedoed and sunk by the Japanese submarine I-26, 35 miles southwest of Cape Flattery near the Straits of Juan de Fuca. Fifty-six survivors from the 3,286-ton freighter are eventually rescued by the fishing vessel Virginia I and the Canadian corvette HMCS Edmunston (K-106). The SS Coast Trader is the first American vessel the Imperial Japanese Navy sinks off the coast of Washington State during World War II.
The Japanese vessel I-26 was a 356-foot Junsen Type-B Class submarine built in Kobe, Japan, in 1941. With a crew of 101 officers and men, they were the Japanese Navy’s largest and most successful class of underwater boats. The submarines, called “I-boats,” were fast, had long range and even carried a small collapsible float plane (a Yokosuka E14Y1 “Glen”) which could be launched by compressed-air catapult from the foredeck. The I-26 was one of nine Japanese B-class submarines prowling the West Coast from the Aleutian Islands to San Diego during 1941 and 1942.
The I-26 was responsible for sinking the SS Cynthia Olson, the first American merchant vessel to be sunk by a Japanese submarine in World War II. The SS Cynthia Olson, en route from Tacoma, Washington, to Honolulu, Hawaii, was torpedoed on December 7, 1941, some 1,000 miles northeast of Honolulu; all 35 crewmembers were lost.
The SS Coast Trader (formerly the SS Point Reyes) was a 324-foot freighter built by the Submarine Boat Company, Edison, New Jersey, for the U. S. Shipping Board in 1920. The Coastwise Line Steamship Company purchased her from the government in 1936 and home-ported her in Portland, Oregon. The SS Coast Trader had been under charter to the U.S. Army since the beginning of World War II (1941-1945).
Since the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Japanese submarines had been sighted off the coasts of British Columbia and Oregon and at least 15 American merchant vessels had been attacked in the eastern Pacific and along the West Coast.
On Sunday, June 7, 1942, the SS Coast Trader was en route from Port Angeles to San Francisco carrying 1,250 tons of newsprint. After leaving the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the ship, steering a non-evasive course, turned south. Lookouts were posted fore and aft to watch for enemy submarines but they didn’t spot the I-26, which had been shadowing them at periscope depth since Neah Bay.
At about 2:10 p.m. there was a violent explosion inside the ship, which blew off hatch covers, sent 2000-pound rolls of newsprint 50 feet into the air, and toppled the main mast and radio antenna. The torpedo hit the ship on the starboard side in the stern, beneath the No. 4 hatch. The engines immediately stopped and holds filled with steam. The radio operator was unsuccessful in his attempt to repair the radio antenna but continued sending SOS distress messages.
Captain Lyle G. Havens knew the Coast Trader had suffered catastrophic damage and gave the order to abandon ship. Ammonia fumes leaking from the ship’s refrigeration system overcame some of the crew as they attempted to lower the lifeboats. The starboard lifeboat was badly damaged during launching and was unusable. The crew successfully launched the port-side lifeboat and two large cork rafts. Some of the men had been injured in the explosion and needed help getting off the ship. Fortunately, the sea was calm and the crew evacuated the ship without difficulty. First Officer E. W. Nystrom and other crewmen in the lifeboat reported sighting the conning tower of a submarine 200 yards from were the ship was sinking, but it did not surface. At 2:50 p.m. the SS Coast Trader sunk slowly, stern first, in 93 fathoms of water, as the crew watched. Then it started to rain.
Captain Havens had the lifeboat and rafts made fast to each other with lines. He then had all the injured men transferred to the lifeboat. As evening approached, Captain Havens decided their distress call must not have been received so he ordered the lifeboat crew to start rowing toward the coast with the rafts in tow. The weather continued to deteriorate and towards midnight, 60-knot winds and heavy seas caused the rafts and lifeboat to become separated. The lifeboat, unable to reach the rafts, continued to head toward the shore in search of help. The storm abated toward morning, and Captain Havens had a sail rigged on the lifeboat to hasten their journey.
At about 4:00 p.m. on Monday, June 8, 1942, the lifeboat crew spotted a fishing vessel on the horizon and rowed toward it. They were eventually rescued by the Virginia I, a halibut schooner out of San Francisco, and taken to the Naval Section Base at Neah Bay. Captain Havens and First Officer Nystrom were then able to supply the Naval authorities with the approximate position of the two rafts.
The U. S. Coast Guard immediately dispatched several aircraft to search for the Coast Trader’s survivors. Just before dawn on Tuesday, June 9, 1942, crewmen saw Coast Guard Aircraft V-206 circling overhead and fired an orange signal flare into the air. The pilot spotted the signal and directed the Canadian corvette HMCS Edmunston (K-106) to the rescue site. By that time, the survivors, cold and wet, had been on the rafts for 40 hours.
Out of the Coast Trader’s crew of 56, which included nine officers, 28 men and 19 U.S. Army armed guards (deck gunners), there was one fatality, Steven Chance, a 56-year-old cook, who died in the lifeboat from exposure. The crewmen suffering from injuries and exposure were hospitalized at Port Angeles.
West Coast residents had been swept by a post-Pearl Harbor hysteria and feared that an invasion by the Japanese was imminent. On February 28, 1942, the Japanese submarine I-17 bombarded an oil pumping station near Santa Barbara, California. On June 3, 1942, carrier-based Japanese aircraft attacked Dutch Harbor, Alaska, followed by the invasion of the islands of Attu and Kiska in the Aleutian Islands on June 7, 1942. The I-26, patrolling north along the coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, shelled the lighthouse and radio-direction-finding (RDF) installation at Estevan Point near Tofino on June 20, 1942. The following day, the I-25 shelled the U.S. Army base at Fort Stevens at the mouth of the Columbia River, just five miles west of Astoria, Oregon, and on September 9, 1942, fire-bombed the Siskiyou National Forest near Brookings, Oregon, using their “Glen” aircraft.
These had been the first attacks on North American soil since the War of 1812 and the government, trying desperately to pacify the public, was tightly controlling the media. Reports of enemy submarine actions along the West Coast were generally suppressed and “cause of explosion unknown” was often given as the reason some of the ships sank.
So it was no surprise that, despite evidence to the contrary, a U. S. Navy Board of Inquiry found that the SS Coast Trader “was sunk by an internal explosion and not by torpedo or mine.” The Navy’s public-information officer in Seattle was told to downplay the incident in the press. According to the Coast Trader’s officers, “The thought that a submarine could be that close to the coast was more than they could imagine” (The Seattle Times). The official explanation of an “internal explosion” sinking the Coast Trader remains in the Navy’s official record.
When the I-26 returned to Yokosuka, Japan on July 7, 1942, Commander Minoru Yokota reported torpedoing a merchant vessel on the date and at the location where the Coast Trader sank and also reported shelling Estavan Point. The I-26 was sunk on October 25, 1944, by the destroyer escort USS Richard M. Rowell (DE-403) during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.