80th Anniversary of the Japanese Attacks on Oregon
By John Hughel
Oregon National Guard Public Affairs
Following the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans living along the West Coast of the United States lived in guarded fear of further Japanese attacks and panic over a potential invasion. Within hours, scout aircraft and lookout posts were staffed along the entire western coastline from the Canadian border to California as the nation was propelled into high alert.
Ramping up for a possible attack, military members were quickly put into action. The Oregon National Guard’s 123rd Observation Squadron began flying anti-submarine patrols by the following day on December 8. Historical records indicate that 123rd combat crews (28 members) received credit for anti-submarine missions flown from December 8, 1941, through November 10, 1942.
Three B-25B’s assigned to the 17th Bomb Group at McChord Field were conducting a slated coastal patrol mission on December 24, 1941. The aircraft was flown by the federalized 123rd Observation Squadron members when they reported spotting a Japanese submarine off the mouth of the Columbia River. Lt. Everett W. Holstrom promptly engaged the enemy submarine.
“There never was confirmation of a lost submarine by either the U.S. or later accounts from the Japanese,” said Lt. Col. (ret.) Terrence G. Popravak, 142nd Wing Historian, who has researched multiple prominent stories and operations of the 123rd during World War II. “One account of the attack, later written by then Brigadier General Holstrom, said that on the second engagement, their “top turret gunner reported a hit,” and they reported oil and debris on the water.”
In April of 1942, the Halsey-Doolittle raid on Tokyo only heightened the tension along the west coast, making an attack more plausible. Secretary of War Harry L. Stimson, was concerned that a Japanese attack on the west coast was a foremost concern, writing in his diary after a meeting with General George Marshall on April 21, “very much impressed with the danger that the Japanese, having terribly lost face by this recent attack on them.”
On June 20, 1942, the Imperial Japanese Navy I-25 torpedoed a Canadian lumber schooner, the S.S. Camosun near Cape Flattery, followed by the shelling of the Estevan Point lighthouse and Canadian radio station on Vancouver Island by the I-26 submarine. In the late night and early morning of June 21-22, the I-25 submarine fired multiple 14-cm [5.5-inch] shells at Battery Russell on Fort Stevens, which defended the Oregon side of the Columbia River. It was later assessed that 17 rounds had been fired, yet no loss of life occurred during the attack. Most of the damage was done to the baseball field and telephone cables, but the bombardment only heightened the tension of more attacks. The shelling of Fort Stevens was historic, marking the first foreign attack on a military installation on U.S. soil since the War of 1812.
The Battery Russell was equipped with a 10-inch gun and manned by the 249th Coastal Artillery regiment of the Oregon National Guard. In his book, “Panic! At Fort Stevens,” Bert Webber documented that soldiers operating a forward position with a .30-Caliber Browning weapon on the beach could actually see the surfaced submarine offshore. “The Yank had one finger on the trigger and one trying the crack radio.”
With the telephone wire damaged in the shelling, no order was given to return fire even as Soldiers had hurried to their action station and manned positions, which also included a 6-inch gun, searchlight batteries, and machine guns to rebuff an enemy landing. U.S. Army Air Forces planes, on a training mission spotted the I-25, calling in an A-29 Hudson bomber to attack the submarine. The I-25 successfully dodged the falling bombs and submerged undamaged.
As the U.S. mobilized troops to fight overseas in Europe and Asia during the summer of 1942, citizens across the Pacific Northwest were filled with a guarded readiness. On September 9, 1942, once again the I-25 was back in action, surfacing twenty-five miles off Cape Blanco near Port Orford, in southern Oregon. The submarine was fitted with a modified Zero seaplane, that catapulted off the deck of the sub. It was fitted with two 170-pound incendiary bombs and flew toward Mt. Emily in the Siskiyou National Forest. Piloted by Nobuo Fujita, the plane dropped both bombs on the heavily forested mount slope starting a small forest fire that was easy to control due to the wet conditions.
This attack by the Japanese submarine was to start a large enough forest fire that large numbers of resources in men and money would be allocated to suppress a massive wildfire. It was also a reprisal for the American bombardment of Tokyo in April. Howard “Razz” Gardner, a forest service lookout witnessed the attack and described the sound of the seaplane as “a Model A Ford backfiring.”
In total, Fujita in his modified Zero dropped four incendiary bombs around Brookings in subsequent days in September without achieving the desired effect on the forest of southern Oregon. Once again, attempts to locate and destroy the I-25 failed. By early October the submarine had given up the aerial efforts, but on 4 and 6 October, the I-25 sank two tankers off the coast of southern Oregon near Coos Bay and Gold Beach.
These attacks quickly triggered a new level of panic in the local population, most of which had become somewhat weary of an attack or invasion. The fire-bombs in the Brookings area were the first ever foreign air attack on the continental U.S.
In his novel “Sometimes a Great Notion” (published 1965), writer Ken Kesey described the significance still lingering with locals nearly twenty years later. “This sort of distinction is bound to provoke a certain amount of community feeling; the bombing and the [labor] strike, while they exhibited very little in common outwardly, were in a way quite similar in that both had the effect of making the citizen feel, well, feel just a bit special? No; more than special; let’s admit it: it made them feel downright different!”
Yet the war, was far from over.
From November 1944 to April 1945, Japan launched over 9,000 balloon bombs, which carried four incendiaries and one anti-personnel high explosive, and began drifting over the western U.S. and Canada, resulting in nearly 350 documented instances. By design, they could travel along the airstream and reach up to 30,000 feet in elevation. A number of balloons were reported around the state on January 10, 1945, both by local residents and military authorities. Many were reported in the Harrisburg and Coburn area, and one report from a fighter pilot at the Marine Base in Klamath Falls, who had taken photographs while flying alongside the balloon.
Sadly, the state found its place in history once again, in Bly, Oregon on May 5, 1945 as the only place during WWII where American deaths resulted from direct enemy action in the continental United States. While Reverend Archie Mitchell was parking his car during a warm spring afternoon picnic, his wife Elise, along with five other children had discovered a balloon in a nearby tree. When one of the children attempted to free the balloon, it exploded — instantly killing Elise and all the children. In 1950, the Mitchell Monument was erected in their honor in the Fremont-Winema National Forest. Ironically the monument survived the Bootleg Fire in 2021 when fire crews wrapped the stone historical marker with fire-resistant material as the fire passed through the forest.
On September 9, 1962, the 20th anniversary of the historic Mt. Emily bombing attack, Nobuo Fujita was invited to Brookings, where he presented to the town his family’s 400-year-old Samurai sword “in the interest of peace and friendship.” The sword is displayed in the Brooking’s Public Library and he has made additional return visits to plant trees.
As the war ended on September 2, 1945, many of the legacy markers, memorials, and memories are still present in Oregon. Oregon National Guard units that were part of the defense of the continental U.S., and 80 years later, still play an important role today. The 249th Coastal Artillery Regiment was deactivated on Sept. 15, 1945. In 2016, the lineage was carried forward by the 249th Regiment Regional Training Institute, which is now located further ‘upstream’ along the Columbia River, at the Rees Training Center in Umatilla.
The Oregon Air National Guard pilots in Klamath Falls and Portland still supports active roles, both in homeland defense with the Airspace Alert Mission, pilot training, and in recent years supporting Operation Atlantic Resolve in Europe.
“The uniformed professionals here in the Oregon Air Guard stand at the ready, ever vigilant, to meet the needs of our Nation, our State, and our communities,” said Col. Aaron Mathena, 142nd Wing Operation Group commander. “Defense is in our DNA and we’re darn good at it.”
Lt. Col. (ret.) Terrence G. Popravak, 142nd Wing Historian, interview and stories:
-“A Portland connection to the Doolittle Raid of 18 April 1942”
-“Head West!! Oregon National Guard’s initial response to the Pearl Harbor attack”
-“A Cyclone-Roaring December 7: The 123rd Observation Squadron goes to war”
-“Panic! At Fort Stevens: Japanese Navy Shells Fort Stevens, Oregon in World War II,” by Bert Webber
-U.S. Army History, “The Continental Defense Commands After Pearl Harbor,” Chapter 4
-“Combat Squadrons of the Air Force World War II,” Albert F. Simpson Historical Research Center, 1982
– National Archives and Records Administration
-“The Jungleer” newsletter, Vol. LXXIII
-The Army Center for Military History
-“Sometimes a Great Notion,” by Ken Kesey
-“The unlikely bond between an Oregon town and the man who bomb it,” by John Rosman, for Oregon Public Broadcasting
-Oregon Secretary of State, World War II webpage, https://sos.oregon.gov/archives/exhibits/ww2/Pages/threats-home.aspx
-Brookings Harbor Oregon, Mt. Emily bomb site, website. https://www.brookingsharbororegon.com/mt-emily-bombsite/
-The Atlas Oscura website, https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/nobuo-fujitas-sword