Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Bombing Oregon

Warrant Officer Fujita is shown with his Yokosuka E14Y float plane prior to his flight.

Poor Oregon.  The Pacific Northwest state had the dubious distinction of becoming a theater of operations for the Japanese during World War II.  The state suffered three attacks, more than any other including the only attack on as stateside military instillation, and the only attack resulting in deaths.  And it included the only attack on the mainland by a Japanese air craft on September 9, 1942.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1942 the entire West Coast was thrown into a panic for fear that the Empire of the Rising Sun would follow up with air attack on Navy bases like San Diego or even population centers like Los Angeles.  There were even wild rumors of an actual invasion supported by fifth column activity by the large immigrant and Nisei populations.
Those fears seemed justified when on February 23, 1942 the Japanese long-range submarine I-17 surfaced in a channel near Ellwood Oil Field, a large oil well and storage depot outside of Santa Barbara and lobbed 16 poorly aimed shells at Ellwood Beach from its deck gun before submerging and fleeing to the open ocean.  The ineffectual firing mostly threw a lot of sand into the air, damaged one small building, and toppled one oil derrick without setting off the hoped for inferno of burning fuel and crude oil. 
But it freaked out the locals.  The next evening was the famous Battle of Los Angeles in which American anti-aircraft guns blasted the empty night sky for more than five hours in the belief that the city was under attack.  All damage was limited to the falling of spent ammunition.  
All of this, of course spurred the disgraceful round-up of Japanese and Nisei civilians up and down the coast and their internment in virtual concentration camps for the duration now widely recognized as one of the most disgraceful abuses of human rights in American history.
As for the Japanese, they were eager to keep panic—and civilian demoralization high while taking few risks and not diverting military and naval capabilities from the main theaters of operation in China, South East Asia, and the South Pacific. 
The Japanese never had what the Americans did—and were rapidly developing with new models and heavy production—long range heavy bombers.  They relied almost exclusively on single engine carrier based attack aircraft and two engine light and medium bombers for land based operations.  Long before Pearl Harbor the High Command had decided to keep its dominant carriers well out of range of west coast land based bombers.  In fact, having knocked out most of the Pacific Fleet in Hawaii, they moved their carriers far west of even there and captured the possible bomber base at Wake Island to avoid the danger our big planes posed.
The Imperial Navy settled on a campaign of submarine based terror and harassment, especially after the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo showed that even the Home Islands could be vulnerable to American bombers.  The Japanese could not match that kind of power.  They could only hope to exploit public fear and, as an afterthought do minor damage to military or strategic assets. 
On June 21, 1942 the sub I-25 which had been harassing shipping off the coasts of Alaska and British Columbia, dropped down the coast and shadowed American fishing trawlers through defensive mine fields into the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon.  That evening she surfaced and began lobbing shells from her deck gun at Fort Stevens, the old Civil War Era Coastal Artillery fortress.   Sub commander Meiji Tagami thought he was attacking an American submarine base, but reported that he did not aim or sight his salvos, just lobbed 140-millimeter shells in the general direction of the shore.
The American commander believed that the sub was firing at his heavy guns at Battery Russell but seeing that the enemy’s shells were falling harmlessly, ordered his men not to return fire lest the muzzle flashes of the his guns reveal their positions.  After firing 17 rounds, only 9 of which exploded on land, the sub slipped away.  They had pounded the hell out of a baseball diamond smashing a back stop, and some surrounding marsh.
But the I-25 was not done with its personal campaign against Oregon.
On September 9 the sub surfaced off the coast of the southern part of the state.  She launched her float scout plane from a deck catapult armed with a single incendiary bomb.  Pilot Nobuo Fujitas mission was to drop his bomb in the heavily timbered area near Mt. Emily and hopefully ignite a massive forest fire. 
Forrest Service Fire Lookout Howard “Razz” Gardner  observed a small unidentified plane circling in the pre-dawn haze from his watchtower and heard what sounded like “a Model T backfiring.”  He radioed his Ranger Station but the operator there assumed it was just a routine domestic flight. 
When the sun rose and the haze lifted Garner spotted a plume of smoke which he assumed was ignited by a lighting strike.   He gathered some equipment and began to make his way to the smoke over the rugged terrain.  On the way he was joined by another Forest Service ranger.  When they got to the site, they found a smoky, smoldering fire that had scorched a circular area about 50 to 75 feet across.  After quickly extinguishing it, the found a crater at the center where the heat had been intense enough to fuse rock.  Metal fragments were recovered which were soon identified as bomb fragments but they were thought to have been accidently dropped by an American plane.  The next day the nose cone of the bomb was found and identified as Japanese.
Pilot Fujita was able to fly back to his ship unmolested, land in the water, and had his small plane winched aboard, wings folded and stored below deck.  He became the only enemy pilot to successfully deliver a bomb on American home soil.
Many years after the war Fujita visited the near-by Oregon town of Brookings during the 1960s, and was even proclaimed an honorary citizen of the town upon his death in 1997.
That was the last of the naval attacks.  But the Japanese had not given up on the idea of bringing the war to the States, and seemed particularly obsessed with the notion of using incendiaries to set off forest fires.
Things were not going nearly as well in 1944 for the Japanese.  The American Island Hopping Campaign was closing in on the Home Islands and the once invincible Imperial Navy had suffered major losses.  They were becoming cut-off from critical oil sources and the Home Islands were coming under more regular American air attacks. 
In November of that year the Japanese began launching thousands of balloon bomb, many of them built by school children.  Ultimately more than 9,000 were launched to be carried by the Jet Stream at 30,000 feet all the way to North America.  After three days timers were supposed to release an incendiary bomb to fall where it may—hopefully over timbered areas, ideally over a populated area.  The first bomb exploded over Wyoming on December 6.  During the course of the next several months, 342 incidents were registered throughout western United States and Canada. Oregon alone counted for 45 of them.

Most of the balloons never reached American shores.  A great many were shot down by air defenses either over the Pacific or over the mainland.  A great many of the bombs failed to ignite and almost all did little or no damage.  They did keep Forest Rangers and the air defense command hopping for a few months.
One bomb did land with tragic consequences.  On May 5, 1945 Reverend Archie Mitchell, his pregnant wife Elsye, and five Sunday School children went for a pleasant picnic east of Bly, Oregon.  Mrs. Mitchell and the children set off exploring while the minister parked the car and collected the picnic supplies.  Shortly she pointed out an odd object dangling from a tree.  “Look what I found!” she called to her husband.  One of the children climbed the tree to try and retrieve the object when it exploded.  The mangled bodies of Elsye and the children were strewn around a crater that was three feet wide and one foot deep. She lingered briefly but most of the children died instantly.
Most American never heard about the balloon bombing campaign until well after the war.  Censorship had kept it out of the press both to reduce the possibility of panic and to deny the Japanese intelligence about how well—or as it turned out miserably poorly—the campaign was turning out.
Today a small monument with a bronze plaque memorializes Elsye Mitchell and the children near the site of the doomed picnic.  I’m told that on fine spring days other children make the trip to lay flowers there.

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