Editor’s note: This story is part of a 12-month series called Kitsap Goes to War, which explores how World War II affected Kitsap County and its residents. For earlier stories in the series, go to KitsapDailyNews.com and type “Kitsap Goes to War” in Search.
A Hollywood story
It’s the kind of story Hollywood loves.
A small group of rebels/cowboys/neighbors led by a courageous Jedi/rancher/veteran, are threatened by a big empire/cattle baron/gang determined to steal their galaxy/ranch/neighborhood. Denied help from the clones/cavalry/police they are forced to take matters into their own hands — and win.
Now, turn the group into cod fishermen. Pit them against the might of the Empire of Japan that is threatening to take over the fishing grounds off the coast of Alaska just before World War II.
And you have a true story.
Our hero is Capt. J.E. Shields, president and manager of the Pacific Coast Codfish Company out of Poulsbo.
The first invasion of the Aleutians
Our story begins on June 8, 1934, off Cape Senavena in the Bering Sea when two Japanese naval officers demand to inspect his ship, the four-masted sailing schooner, Sophie Christenson.
“I told them to get the hell off my vessel,” Capt. Shields said, according to an article that appeared in the April 1, 1937 Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “The next day an American [Coast Guard] cutter came to us for a full statement of just what happened, Shields recalled. “I was reprimanded for having used such strong language … [and] told to see to it that nothing about what happened got into any newspaper.”
Not wanting trouble with the Coast Guard, Capt. Shields said he complied.
In his book about the Pacific Cod fishery, “Salt of the Sea,” Capt. Shields’ son, Capt. Ed Shields, writes that his father thought the Coast Guard was not taking the matter seriously.
By 1937, the “Japanese invasion” had gotten so bad that Shields canceled his annual voyage, and went to the newspapers, saying the Japanese “drove” him out, according to an April 1 Seattle Post-Intelligencer article. (He later changed his mind, according to a note in the Shields family scrapbook, and had a profitable 1937 season.)
His concern for the health of the Bristol Bay fishery grew, arguing that the Japanese over-fishing was decimating the cod and crab population and impacting salmon catches inland as well.
U.S. canneries did not support his efforts, wrote Capt. Ed Shields. On Aug. 8, 1937, he implored Congress to establish a fact-finding committee to investigate where or not American canning interests were funding the Japanese and what impact that was having “to employment of American labor and capital.”
There was little support for his cause until Japan declared war on the Republic of China on July 7, 1937.
On Nov. 3, 1937, Capt. Shields was cited in the Post-Intelligencer arguing that the Japanese were not only invading the American fisheries but were also gathering information which would be to their advantage should Japan and the United States go to war,
“There is not the slightest question the Japanese … are making a complete survey of the coast of the Bering Sea,” he is quoted as having said.
In the story, he also expanded on the June 8, 1934 boarding incident, saying that when he ordered the Japanese naval officers off his ship that day, he he feared they were going to attack his unarmed ship just as he said they were massacring Chinese fishermen.
“I got away with it, instead of getting shot up like the Chinese. I feel sure today this was merely because the Japanese were not yet ready to start anything,” he said in the 1937 article.
By 1938, when there was no government action, Capt. Shields decided to take matters into his own hands. On May 24, 1938, he sent this message: “BERING SEA COVERED BY JAPANESE BOATS AND NETS … NO CUTTERS AROUND. WE HAVE A GOD-GIVEN INSTINCT TO SHOOT STRAIGHT. PLEASE SHIP DOZEN HIGH POWERED RIFLES AND PLENTY OF AMMUNITION …”
The message was radioed to the shore cannery in Bristol Bay “and no one knows how many were listening in,” his son later wrote. From there, it went to the Alaska communication network and then to the company office in Seattle where George Shields, Capt. J. E. Shield’s brother was holding down the fort and quickly spread to ports along the West Coast.
The declaration of a “One Man War” made the front page of the Seattle papers and the national news services.
According to his son’s book, Capt. J. E. Shields wanted action.
He got it.
The very next morning, a Coast Guard plane was circling the Sophie Christenson.
In Seattle, “Capt. Dempwolf, the district commander for the 13th Coast Guard District in Seattle, was red with fury,” Ed Shields wrote. “This was a declaration of war and no small two-bit fisherman could do that … [But] George Shields knew very well what was desired — namely the most publicity possible — and there was never any thought of shipping any rifles.”
Soon, the Coast Guard was checking every supply ship bound for Alaska, looking for the rifles and ammunition. George Shields had only to mention that such-and-such a ship was leaving for Alaska with supplies for the Sophie Christensen to provoke a Coast Guard and press frenzy, Ed Shields wrote.
The story even appeared in the May 25, 1938 issue of the New York Tribune.
The timing of all this publicity couldn’t had been better for Capt. Shields — or worse for the Japanese government.
American public opinion and the media were turning against Japan for its brutal treatment of Chinese and Koreans. This was especially true after Dec. 12, 1937 when Japanese planes strafed, bombed and ultimately sank the USS Panay, an American gunboat that was evacuating U.S. civilians from Nanking. Unfortunately for Japan, onboard the gunboat were reporters and cameramen from Universal News, Movietone News, the New York Times, Collier’s Weekly, La Stampa and Corriere della Sera. Their film footage and stories went viral.
The negative publicity surrounding all of these events affected the sale of Japanese products in America, Ed Shields wrote.
The Japanese withdrew from the Bering Sea, not to return until World War II.
Capt. J. E. Shield’s “One Man War” was over.
Epilogue for a tall ship
During World War II, the Sophie Christenson returned to the Bering Sea one last time — but, without Capt. J.E. Shields.
Lacking barges and transports needed for the Aleutians campaign, the U.S. Army commandeered Capt. Shields’ favorite ship. Her masts were pulled out and, towed by tugs, she was used to carry supplies and troops.
After the war, she operated as a lumber and log barge until she drifted onto the rocks on Vancouver Island and broke up, according to “Salt of the Sea.”
For more information, or to purchase a copy of “Salt of the Sea,”visit the Poulsbo Maritime Museum, 19010 Front St. NE, Poulsbo, poulsbohistory.com/poulsbo-maritime-museum.