December 7th, 1941 saw the Japanese attack on America’s Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and as President Franklin D. Roosevelt would later opine, it was indeed a day that would live on in infamy.  The events of that day, and the tumultuous war the attack led America to enter, have been the subject of countless books, television series, and movies, but little attention is usually paid to life within the continental United States in those early, and dramatic, days of American involvement in World War II.

Here today in sunny 2017, I sit between not one, but three large computer screens I’ve placed adjacent to an even bigger picture window overlooking the woods that surround my house.  I’m sipping coffee and digging through three notebooks worth of scribbled information about attacks that took place on American soil during the second Great War, and although our nation is currently embroiled in multiple conflicts around the globe (some which are currently stalled in a bloody stalemate) I couldn’t feel safer or more secure.  Despite being at war, we here in the continental United States might never know it – the fighting, the dying, the fear… it’s all a world away.

This level of certainty and comfort has been developed over hundreds of years of American service members taking the fight to our enemies right at their front doors.  American troops fly, boat, and parachute into the worst fighting our globe has to offer, and while combatants from our fifty united territories have become a staple of war fighting around the globe – none of us have ever lived to see a similar invasion, occupation, or even skirmish in the streets of our own cities.  America’s homeland feels safe, secure, and detached from the reality of war… insulated by our powerful military, global allies, and political discourse.  Of course, terrorist attacks do occur, but in a nation so broad, with a population so huge, they’re usually just blips on the radar… still so far away and so uncommon that it’s hard for many of us to perceive them as real threats to our own wellbeing.

This sense of safety isn’t a bad thing – it’s the incredible payoff born of generations of men and women fighting and dying on our behalf.  It’s not a winning lottery ticket, it’s a 401k we’ve been paying into since our nation’s very inception… but things didn’t always feel so safe.  In fact, for a long time there was little separating American defenses from those enjoyed by other world powers – and even less certainty that the first forty-eight states of our Union were out of the reach of our enemies.

We may worry about a terrorist attack, or about the possibility of a far-off conflict effecting the value of the dollar, but when you’re walking your dog and your ears catch the sound of a jet or helicopter up above you, most of us don’t look up in fear of seeing foreign paratroopers or a Russian jet on a bombing run.  We expect 747s and traffic copters – despite our nation actively being at war.  On the evening of February 23rd, 1942, almost a few months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans didn’t have that sense of security… they had just been thrust headlong into the largest war the planet had ever seen, and they were scared.

And then their worst fears were realized.  A Japanese submarine, one of a number of subs that had snuck their way to the American Pacific Coast, surfaced near Santa Barbara, California and proceeded to fire over a dozen artillery shells at an oilfield and refinery.  The attack inflicted little damage and produced no casualties, but it was immediately clear to the Americans living in the area that the war had come to them.  The offending submarine saw no direct interference from the American military, submerged again and disappeared into the murky depths of the sea.

Only a week prior, U.S. Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, had told the media that the American public should be prepared to accept “occasional blows” to our cities as we joined in the fighting that was already underway in Europe, and as far as the people of California were concerned, this first submarine attack was proof positive that Stimson was right – and that they were all in danger.

Less than twenty-four hours later, Naval intelligence units released a message to defense installations up and down the West Coast: there was reason to believe there could be an impending attack.  For hours, radar stations remained on high alert, looking for signs of Japanese bombers, and just after 2:00 a.m. on February 25th, their radar screens began to light up.  Operators notified the command element immediately of what they saw… enemy contacts one hundred and twenty miles out to sea and closing.  The war had not only begun, it was about to be in our backyards.