Eighty years ago, most Oregonians spent the summer living in fear. This was especially true along the coast in the months following the devastating Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Similar air attacks or even mass beach landings did not seem out of the question in the fevered opening months of WWII as the U.S. military and civilians mobilized to prevent them.
Enforced blackouts followed. Oregon National Guard and volunteers patrolled the beaches, sometimes on horseback armed with shotguns and .22 rifles. Much of the coastline was wrapped in barbed wire for years. Many local families had "grub boxes" with provisions packed and ready to disappear into the hills. Rumors of attacks were frequent.
Oregon was actually shelled and bombed by the Japanese military, to little effect. But — like in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington DC — anything seemed possible at the time.
Only a few remnants of the frantic preparations remain now. Perhaps the most remarkable can be found at the Tillamook Air Museum, where huge blimps were stationed to watch for incoming Japanese strikes. They were housed in two giant wooden hangers that were commissioned in the summer of 1942.
Over 3.2 billion board feet of lumber from Pacific Northwest forests were used in their construction, which started the next year. One still stands as an imposing testament to the state's frontline status. It is considered the largest wooden structure in the world. The museum's many exhibits document how residents prepared to defend beaches — including Portlanders deployed to the coast for duty.
This story is part of an ongoing series on the 80th Anniversary of the start of WWII by historian Don Bourgeois. They include stories on the roles Oregonians played in the attack on Pearl Harbor, the internment of Japanese-Americans, and the Battle of Midway.
They included Leland "Bud" Lewis, who had joined the army five years before at age 17. He was among the 41st Infantry Division troops deployed to defend the Oregon and Washington shorelines just after Pearl Harbor. Finding himself at the wheel of a truck, patrolling the beaches southward from the mouth of the Columbia River, he remembered the mood at the time — an enemy invasion was considered to be "imminent."
Lewis, who served in the Portland Police Bureau after the war and passed away in 2021, also recalled that in those tense early days, an American freighter that was bound for Hawaii ran aground along the Oregon coast, near the wreck of the Peter Iredale. The ship's cargo was declared "open salvage" so anyone who was able to reach the wreck could help themselves. Bud sent many pounds of butter, hams and Almond Roca candy to his parents.
Within the month, Lewis and the rest of the 41st were on their way to Australia to help defend that nation against further Japanese aggression.
War was coming, but where?
From the late 1930s into 1941, Americans, though nominally "neutral," were aware that war was probably coming. The production of war materiel was increasing albeit largely for the use of Great Britain against German aggression. In 1940, Congress instituted conscription. Some young men joined the military in order to "satisfy their obligation" before hostilities commenced.
Tensions between the United States and Japan had been building for some time. In fact, as Japan was seen as America's greatest Pacific rival, war between the two nations had been discussed as far back as the 1920s. In his 1925 book "The Great Pacific War" British author Hector Charles Bywater told of such a conflict and even predicted a pre-emptive Japanese strike against US military interests.
Because of Japan's incursions into Manchuria, China, atrocities committed upon Chinese civilians as well as threats to American interests, the US began to react. By the end of 1941, FDR's embargoes on shipments of raw materials and oil to Japan were having a profound effect. Anti-American sentiment ran high in the Japanese government. There was a stated goal to "return Asia to the Asians" by kicking Western nations out of the region. Standing in Japan's way were Britain, France, The Netherlands and the United States.
In short, by the end of 1941 it was pretty well known that an attack was coming — and war along with it — but it was thought that Japan's strike would be somewhere in the Western Pacific. The Philippines was the target that made the most sense; no one dreamed that Japan would or even could attack as far east as Hawaii. On Dec. 7, 1941 Japanese forces struck not only Pearl Harbor but also within days Wake Island, Guam, Southeast Asia, Hong Kong and, of course, the Philippines.
The brazenness and success of the far-reaching Japanese onslaught created a near-panic in Hawaii and along the West Coast of the US. It was reasonably thought that if the enemy could reach Hawaii and the rest of the Pacific areas, the United States mainland would probably be next. And why would it not? Pearl Harbor had been a disaster — it had been just too easy a target for the Japanese. The enemy's reach was fearfully unknown.
On the Japanese side, there was actually no serious thought of invading the United States, however. Planners well knew that they had neither the manpower nor the resources to pull it off and to "dictate peace terms in the White House" as Admiral Yamamoto had once mused.
However, Japanese naval and air forces could still disrupt American shipping as well as attack and destroy selected shore targets. Their purpose in doing this was to make Americans nervous enough that a great number of forces had to be dedicated to the defense of the western states of California, Oregon, Washington, and the (then) territory of Alaska. These were defensive forces that could not be deployed elsewhere to confront the swift Japanese expansion into Southeast Asia.
Of course the Hawaiian Islands had already been established as a fortress and was the major US base in the Pacific.
Keeping the pressure on
The Japanese felt that by "keeping up the pressure" they could instill fear, dread and panic into the citizens of a nation that they considered to be lacking the stomach for a good fight. Surely, it was thought, if Americans realized how serious and dangerous their enemy was, they would force their government to press for peace.
In March 1942, two Japanese long-range "Emily" H8K flying boats performed a second surprise bombing/reconnaissance attack on Hawaii. Amazingly, this mission, coded as Operation K, was to be part of a series of air strikes on American soil. Other planned targets were in California and even Texas, but they were never launched.
Even a casual reading of a map shows the strategic importance of the Panama Canal. All of America's naval forces coming from shipyards on the East Coast must travel through it to reach the Pacific. Accordingly, American analysts were aware that Japanese planners contemplated an attack that would destroy the locks of the canal. Therefore, significant forces were deployed to the Canal Zone in order to guard against such an attack.
As a result of the desperate but successful American air raid on Tokyo on April 18, 1942, the Japanese attempted to capture Midway Atoll on June 4. As part of their plan, they launched a feint invasion of the Aleutian Islands of Attu and Kiska. Their aim was twofold: to lure the US fleet out of Pearl Harbor in an American attempt to defend the Alaska island chain (and thus be destroyed in the process) and also to establish a base to defend the northern sea routes to Japan itself. The American navy did not take the bait.
Although Midway was a solid victory for the US, the Japanese seizure of American territory in the Aleutians (though far from the mainland) caused great concern. It was thought that Japan might launch an island-hopping campaign down the Aleutian chain to Alaska itself, thus placing their forces within striking distance of Canada and the lower 48 states. Immediately, American plans were laid to recapture the Aleutian Islands and within a year, a re-invasion was launched. Also, in a move intended to supply the armed forces that would be defending Alaska, near-emergency measures were undertaken to construct a route across Canada. The ALCAN highway was completed in record time; a true engineering feat. Such was the fear of outright invasion and the resolve of American and Canadian defenders.
Air Patrols: Tillamook Naval Air Station
The need for effective air patrols along the coast and over the Pacific Ocean was immediately recognized after Pearl Harbor. Military airfields were activated, and some constructed to meet the dire need. Along the Oregon coast, aircraft from McChord Field near Tacoma, Washington were called upon. Until they were assigned to fly on the Doolittle Raid in April 1942, the twin-engine B-25 Mitchell bombers of the 34th Bomb Squadron flew from Pendleton Field on 'anti-submarine' patrols.
But another type of technology was thought to be of even greater value in the anti-sub effort: the blimp. As opposed to a "dirigible" that is a rigid frame covered by flexible material and filled with a lighter-than-air gas, a blimp is essentially a huge bag of helium with a gondola (control car) and engines attached beneath. Its ability to move slowly over a given area and to even hover if needed made this airship type perfect for long-range patrolling. A typical craft could cruise at about 60 mph, travel more than 2,000 miles and stay aloft for more than a day. A K-Class blimp of LTA Squadron ZP-33 which was typical of the eight stationed at Tillamook Naval Air station (NAS), carried four anti-submarine depth charges as well as a radar set capable of detecting vessels on the surface below.
The need for such patrol capacity was so acute that NAS Tillamook was ordered built as early as 1942 and construction began the next year. When completed the base covered over seven acres. Each hangar was 1,072 feet long, 192 feet high and 296 feet wide. Each door weighed 30 tons. One was destroyed by fire in 1992 but the other still stands as the Tillamook Air Museum, owned and operated by the Port of Tillamook.
Four such bases were built along the West Coast. They were positioned so that the arcs of their patrolling airships overlapped, thus covering the entire coastline and far out to sea.
NAS Tillamook's territory stretched south from Canada to where the craft from the NAS at Sunnyvale, California patrolled. Sunnyvale, in turn, covered the area south to the NAS at Santa Ana. Other similar blimp facilities were constructed along America's east and gulf coasts.
Because no invasion ever took place, the combat activities of the airships were limited. Certainly, they presented a significant deterrence to enemy vessels. Legend has it that one blimp crew cruising home toward a "landing"' i.e., mooring, at the NAS mistakenly dropped a heavy sandbag over dry land, striking and killing a farmer's cow.
Oregon in the crosshairs; Fort Stevens and Submarine I-25
In the 19th Century, three forts were built at the mouth of the great Columbia River. Their purpose was to protect the waterway against seaborne invaders. Similar forts were built at the entrances to Puget Sound and San Francisco Bay. The Columbia installations were Fort Canby and Fort Columbia on the Washington side and Fort Stevens in Oregon. Gun batteries were placed in each fort that aimed out to sea and across the Columbia. The effective ranges of these guns overlapped one another, thus covering every square yard of water between them; no vessel could get through their combined firepower.
To keep the pressure on, the Japanese sent several I-class long-range submarines to patrol the US west coast and to attack shipping and land targets. On the night of June 21, 1942 (the fact of it being the summer solstice was a coincidence) submarine I-25 commanded by Lt. Commander Akiji Tagami, followed a small fishing fleet through a minefield and took up a position just off the mouth of the Columbia. Tagami's orders were to destroy or damage the several gun batteries at Fort Stevens, a tall order considering the I-25 had only one 14cm deck gun.
Wary of just such an attack, the Oregon coast was under a blackout; no lights showed, or such was the intent, anyway. When the I-25 opened fire, aiming the deck gun was essentially a guess. Fired one at a time, 17 explosive rounds thundered toward the Oregon coast. When the first shells struck, the surprised defenders at Fort Stevens knew that the enemy had arrived in force. The Fort's commanding officer quickly assessed the situation and ordered his batteries to stand down, to not return fire lest the guns' actual positions be revealed in the pitch darkness.
It worked. Tagami could see nothing. In fact, he thought that he might be shelling a submarine base, which did not exist. Basically, by just spraying gunfire around, the Japanese gunners struck nothing of importance, though a baseball field backstop was damaged. Shell craters were later discovered on the beach, in a marsh and a few on the Fort compound itself.
One old crater was preserved and marked. Today a permanent monument still stands at the only spot where enemy shells fell on an American mainland military base in World War II. It was the first since the War of 1812.
In nearby Seaside, a group of young boys were staying up late, finding as much mischief as they could. When the firing began, the bright arc of the submarine's incoming shells could be seen clearly. The lads stood along the promenade and watched in awe. At first they assumed it was a fireworks display, perhaps intended to mark the first day of summer, but coming from so far out to sea and only one 'rocket' at a time? They learned very soon that they witnessed history in the making.
Though there were already beach patrols, the Japanese attack on Fort Stevens raised more concern and fear amongst Oregonians. How could the enemy come so close to shore? If this happened, why not enemy landing craft, too? Just what was the military doing to defend the coastline? These were great questions that were tough to answer; at the time, America just did not have adequate forces to cover all the gaps. Oregonians would just have to endure.
Air attack on Brookings: The "lookout" raids
By the time of its shelling of Fort Stevens on the night of June 21, 1942, the submarine I-25 had already had considerable luck patrolling along the West Coast. It had torpedoed and damaged the tanker SS Connecticut. It also had launched its internally-stored Yokosuka floatplane over Kodiak Island and later managed to attack the SS Fort Camosun off of the Washington coast. Working out of its home base on Kwajalein, in the few months since the beginning of the war, the I-25 had already been on three war patrols; one in the far southwest Pacific and two along the American west coast. Its next mission would be another air attack.
Oregonians were fortunate in that the Japanese's understanding of our state and its people was both limited and naïve in nature. First, it was assumed that Oregonians could be cowed and panicked by a showing of military force. Also, the nature of the Oregon terrain was entirely misunderstood. Perhaps from news reports of the massive fires of the Tillamook Burns of 1933 and 1939 and the destructive Bandon fire of 1936, the Japanese assumed that Oregon's forests were a tinderbox, needing only a spark to set off a conflagration. Based upon such false assumptions, an incendiary air attack was planned.
On its fourth war patrol, the I-25 was missioned with the task of igniting such a forest fire near Brookings by delivering two 168 pound incendiary bombs on forested areas near Brookings.
The aircraft utilized was a Yokosuka E14Y Seaplane, code named "Glen" by American spotters. It was a low-wing monoplane that operated off of three floats. After launching from the deck of the sub, it was able to remain in the air for several hours while performing its reconnaissance or bombing missions. Carried in sections in a watertight "hangar" that was situated on the deck of the specially-designed submarine, it could be quickly removed, assembled and launched by a catapult. Once its flight was completed, the aircraft landed on the water near the vessel (presumably in calm seas) and was winched aboard and disassembled. Such aircraft types were widely used by the Japanese and later in the war were slated to attack the locks of the Panama Canal. That mission never took place.
Just before dawn on September 9, 1942, the I-25's seaplane, piloted by Warrant Officer Nubuo Fujita with a second crewman aboard, headed east in the direction of Mt. Emily to a wooded location near Brookings. Surely, they thought, two incendiaries would ignite another massive Tillamook Burn-like fire that would terrorize Oregonians and cause them to commit thousands of personnel in the prevention and fighting of such blazes. Once over the target area, a patch of deserted forest, Fujita dropped his ordnance. The explosion created a moderately-sized crater in the ground with some searing and scorching in the area, but no massive fire. Foggy, wet conditions had their usual effect. Upon examination of the strike zone, pieces of the bomb's casing were found.
Fujita's aircraft had been spotted on his way to the target by Forest Service worker Howard Gardner. First hearing the Glen's engine, he saw it incoming just before the attack. The Glen safely returned to the I-25 in time to be disassembled and stored just before the sub was sighted and bombed by an army air corps Hudson bomber out of McChord Field, Washington. No hits were scored, and the sub escaped undamaged.
Not to be deterred in its quest, on Sept. 29, the I-25 used two more of its stockpile of six incendiary bombs in an attempt to again ignite a conflagration. This time the attack was in a wooded area near Port Orford. As in the previous attempt, no fires were started and no evidence of the bombs themselves was ever found. The I-25 submerged and spent that night resting on the bottom of Port Orford Bay.
The Japanese attacks of the summer of 1942 illustrate how vulnerable were the citizens of Oregon. The fears and concerns of Oregonians and other residents of West Coast over such attacks were entirely reasonable. It is to their great credit that no panic ensued. Nor were there calls to end the war by suing for peace. Such would not be the nature of the stout-hearted Oregonians of the time.
Later Years and Legacy
Oregon has the distinction of being the only state since the war of 1812 to have been come under bombardment by an enemy. Also, it is the only state to have endured an enemy air attack (Hawaii was a territory at the time as were Guam, Wake Island and the Philippines)
But "The Summer Of '42" would not see the end of the Japanese attacks on Oregonians. Later in the war the Japanese, in a desperate attempt to again instill fear and panic into citizens and to ignite those forest blazes, would launch from Japan some 9,000 lethal balloon bombs that carried ordnance designed to explode on contact. Several Oregonians would suffer greatly in the spring of 1945 from this unique attack. But that is a story reserved for the 80th anniversary of that event.
In 1962, 17 years after the end of WWII, Japanese pilot Nubuo Fujita was invited to return to his wartime target, Brookings, by the Jaycees, the city's junior chamber of commerce. Although some opposition surfaced, the Jaycees reaffirmed their invitation as "the right things to do." President John F. Kennedy congratulated them on their efforts to promote international friendship; he had done his duty and fortunately no one had been injured.
During his visit, Fujita was honored and served as the Marshall of that year's Azalea Festival. As a gesture of enduring peace and goodwill, Fujita presented his family's ancient Samurai sword to the community. He made repeated trips back to Brookings before his death in 1997 at age 85. His sword can be viewed today along with other memorabilia in a display in the Brookings public library.
Learn more about the Tillamook Air Museum
What: A museum located in Hangar B dedicated to the history of the Tillamook Naval Air Station during WWII and all aspects of military and civilian aviation
Exhibits: Military aircraft, vehicles, uniforms and artifacts from multiple eras
6030 Hangar Rd., Tillamook, OR 97141
Summer hours: Daily 10 a.m. - 6 p.m.
Admission: General $11, Senior (65+) 9.50, Youth (7-17) $7.50, Child (2-6) $3.50, Discounts: (Active duty, retired military) $8.50
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