The little-known WWII bombing of Brookings, Oregon

Credit: Wikipedia Public Domain

Thoughts of aerial bombings during the Second World War generally conjure images of Nazi missiles raining down on London or the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Few associate World War II bombing with the Pacific Northwest, but there was one instance when Japan tried to bring the war to the U.S. mainland by bombing a forest near Brookings, Oregon. The reason we probably never think about the September 9, 1942 attack because it failed so spectacularly

Japan Attacks

On December 7, 1941, Japanese soldiers launched a surprise attack on American forces in Pearl Harbor with such success that it forced the United States to enter the war. That winter morning there were Japanese aircraft carriers off the coast of Hawaii as well I-class submarines that had sailed from Yokosuka past the Marshall Islands to take up positions near the island. Five of these submarines carried midget two-man submarines, and 11 carried aircraft. All of them were ready to attack.

There was a similar scene was brewing off the coast of southern Oregon the morning of September 9, 1942. Sunlight glinted off the periscopes of Japanese I-25 submarines that peeked above the waves to survey the scene. Below decks, pilot Nobuo Fujita and his observer Shoji Okuda began to prepare. Their mission that morning was to attack America’s west coast with incendiary bombs to start what would hopefully turn into a devastating forest fire. The mission was also a test run for a planned submarine-based attack on the eastern end of the Panama Canal that was designed to disrupt shipping between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Keith V. Johnson didn’t see the periscope, though he was in a good position to spot something. A forestry student from Nebraska, Johnson was working at a forest fire lookout tower between Gold's Beach and Brookings Oregon that morning. And since the country was at war, he’d made sure to memorize the outlines of both American and Japanese airplanes. He felt confident he would be able to spot an enemy aircraft from his land-based lookout and warn the right people. But that morning he saw nothing, just the slight breeze blowing the trees and a calm sea in the distance.

Johnson didn’t see the submarine as it surfaced. The boat creaked as its bow broke through the waves to the surface of the Pacific Ocean. A loud bell gave the "all clear" for the men to spring into action. On board that I-25 submarine was a single engine Yokosuki E14Y aircraft. This small, two passenger float plane was compact enough to store in a submarine but had enough power in its nine cylinder 340 hp radial engine to carry bombs on light attack missions. A team of men rolled the plane out its hangar that stood next to the conning tower, unfolded its wings and tail, then loaded two 176 pound incendiary bombs underneath its wings.

The Bombing of Brookings

Pilot Nobuo Fujita

The Sun had fully risen when the submarine’s captain ordered the small aircraft be placed on the catapult. Fujita let the engine warm up as he checked the magnetos and oil pressure. Then, when everything was flight-ready, he and Okuda climbed on board and were catapulted into the sky. The small plane climbed a few thousand feet to get above the coastal fog, then turned towards land. A few minutes later and right on schedule, Fujita passed over the Oregon coast.

At the moment Johnson was scanning the forest for signs of fire, and he saw something glint as it caught the sunlight. He saw the plane but didn’t think much of it, but its direction was worrying. He was used to seeing air traffic flying the length of the coast. This plane was heading straight towards the coast, and him. But it didn’t make sense. The aircraft was clearly too small to have flown, armed, across the Pacific. How had it managed to sneak up on this quiet corner of the United States? As soon as he saw the bombs under its wings he called the Forest Fire Headquarters on his radio and and described the scene unfolding before him. Johnson didn’t know it, but his fire tower was in fact Fujita’s target.

In his small airplane, Fujita had only enough fuel to fly over the target, drop his bombs, circle once to check that he’d hit something worth hitting, then return right back out to sea to land next to the submarine. Passing over Johnson’s tower, the pilot flew down to 500 feet and triggered release of his two bombs into the dense forest. Satisfied with a visual confirmation of the impact point, Fujita circled back towards the ocean to land near his submarine. A boom arm swung out to grapple the small plane and its crew, who got out, folded the plane, and then took their submarine back below the waves.

Another man in the forest that day also saw Fujita. On the ground, forest service lookout Howard Gardner heard what sounded to be a Model A Ford backfiring when the bomb hit. He scanned the foggy skies and caught a glimpse of the retreating airplane. When he called the ranger station to report it, the operator who received the call assumed it was just a patrol plane that had spooked the lookout. But when the fog lifted Gardner saw smoke. He called for help then set off towards the fire, which he assumed was a remnant from a lightning strike fire that had sparked the previous day. What he and his men found was a smoldering fire covering a circular area 50 to 75 feet across. They quickly got the fire under control and found a crater about three feet in diameter and about one foot deep at the centre of the site. Inside was evidence of intense heat, hot enough to fuse earth and rocks.

Fujita's Airplane

Further investigation determined that a bomb had struck a fir tree. The bomb’s fin had sheared an oak tree. Fragments were scattered over an are 100 feet in diameter. It was clearly a bomb, though the men at the scene assumed it had been dropped accidentally by an American crew. Not until the bomb’s nose cone as well as a casing fragment was found the next day with Japanese markings did it become clear that this had actually been an enemy strike.

The Underwhelming Aftermath

Fujita’s bomb had far from the desired effect, prompting the Japanese to return for another try at the end of September. It also failed. Luckily for Oregonians, the Japanese hadn’t counted on Oregon’s forest being quite so damp and unable to support a forest fire in the fall. So instead of being a major battle widely remembered as the only time as enemy nation brought the war to U.S. soil, it’s hardly known at all.

Fujita returned to Brookings in 1962 after being assured he would not be treated or tried as a war criminal. He presented the town with a 400-year-old samurai sword that had been handed down through generations of his family, a symbol of his regret and deep shame for having participating in bombing U.S. soil. The sword now hangs in the town’s library. Fujita’s gesture was the beginning of a deep friendship the Japanese pilot eventually formed with the town. In the last week of his life, the town council of Brookings hailed Mr. Fujita an ''ambassador of good will'' and proclaimed him an ''honorary citizen'' of the town. Fujita died of lung cancer at 85 on September 30, 1997.

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