By Curator, Stewart Bailey
While it is well known that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, and occupied the islands of Kiska and Attu in the Aleutians Islands of Alaska, few people know that Japan made one more air raid on US soil, attacking of all places: Brookings, Oregon! This raid took place on September 9th, 1942 and while few remember it today, it was a major undertaking that risked many lives on both sides.
Despite early success in the first six months of their war against the US in World War II, the Japanese were frustrated by set-backs that they suffered in the summer of 1942. The Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in April had been a major surprise and the defeats at the Battle of Coral Sea in May and Midway in June left the Imperial Japanese Navy in chaos. They needed to strike back at America, and needed to come up with something quick. Their plan? Attack America’s vast natural resources using aircraft launched from submarines.
When the submarine I-25 left Japan in August 1942 on its fourth war patrol, it headed for the west coast of the US carrying a small observation plane in a tubular hangar on its deck. The single engine aircraft was a Yokosuka E14Y floatplane, which the Allies had codenamed “Glen.” It was built with the I-series submarines in mind and was broken down into 12 sub-assemblies that could be put together very quickly. Normally only used to find targets distant for the submarine to attack, on this mission the E14Y would carry bombs.
The pilot selected for the mission was Warrant Officer Nobuo Fujita, an Imperial Navy pilot with nine years of experience including combat in China, and service as a test pilot under Lt. Minoru Genda; the man that planned the Pearl Harbor attack. Fujita, having flown a number of reconnaissance missions from submarines early in the war, made the suggestion that if the float plane could be equipped with bombs, perhaps they could add to the havoc created by a submarine’s attack on surface ships, or perhaps even attack the Panama Canal. His suggestion made it up the chain of command until it reached the desk of an admiral who saw the brilliance of the idea, and knew just the target; the forests of the Pacific Northwest.
Patrolling off the Oregon coast in the pre-dawn hours of September, 9, Commander Meiji Tagami, the captain of submarine I-25, spotted the light from the lighthouse at Cape Blanco, Oregon. Amazed that in a time of war, the Americans would leave a light on that could aid enemy ships; he smiled at his good luck. He quickly ordered the boat to the surface, and sent the crew out to extract the E14Y. Working in silence, they pulled the aircraft from the hangar with ropes until its moving dolly rested on the catapult rails built into the deck. They quickly attached the wings, tail, rudder and pontoons while Fujita tested the engine. With everything working properly, he and his observer Shoji Okuda launched eastward into the rising sun.
Because the little airplane was burdened with two 154 pound bombs, it could only make a speed of 100 mph and Fujita feared that they would be discovered by the American defenses. Not wanting to risk detection, he flew approximately 50 miles to a point a few miles outside of Brookings, and ordered Okuda to release a bomb. As he watched, Fujita saw the bomb hit. As he said in a postwar interview, “Our bomb hit and burst, splashing a brilliant white light over the earthscape. Good! I thought. I had been moored near Chitose [a seaplane tender] at Yokosuka when one of Doolittle’s bombers hit her, killing some men. Now I was returning the enemy’s attack.” Ten minutes later, he ordered the second bomb dropped then headed back to the I-25.
The bombs that Fujita had dropped were each equipped with 512 incendiary “bomblets” that were to scatter on impact to start a circle of fire, 200 feet across. Each bomblet burned at a temperature of 2000 degrees F. Fujita had been instructed to drop them far from inhabited areas so that it would take fire fighters a while to arrive, thus allowing the blazes to develop into large scale forest fires and spread panic. But the actual results were far less spectacular.
Fire lookout Howard Gardner, stationed on Mt. Emily in the Siskiyou National Forest, heard Fujita’s plane fly over, saw the plume of smoke from the fire and quickly called it in to the dispatch office. Along with Keith Johnson, a spotter from another station, Gardner went to the site and worked to contain the fire. Fortunately for them, not all the bomblets had exploded and recent rains had kept the ground damp, blocking the fire’s spread. The two were able to keep the fire under control until a fire crew arrived the next morning. As for the second bomb, no trace was found.
Upon return to the I-25, Fujita reported on his mission and also reported the sighting of two merchant ships north of the sub’s position. The aircraft was quickly disassembled as the submarine started north. However, just after the plane was stowed, an American A-29 Hudson arrived to make an attack on the sub. The Hudson dropped two bombs which missed, but the sub dove and remained submerged for the rest of the day. Later in the patrol, on September 29, the I-25 found itself back off of Cape Blanco and Cdr. Tagami decided to launch another raid. Once more, Fujita flew off to deliver two bombs near Port Orford, but neither succeeded in starting a fire.
In 1962, Nobuo Fujita returned to Brookings, Oregon; this time as a guest, to be the Grand Marshall of the Azalea Festival Parade. He presented his Samurai sword to the city, where it remains today on display in the Brookings Library. He also returned several more times, including a 1992 visit to plant a tree at the bombing site as a gesture of peace on the 50th anniversary of the attack. Nobuo Fujita died in 1997, and some of his ashes were buried at the site of the bombing. His two air raids were the last time the mainland US was attacked until the terror strikes of September 11, 2001.