Enraged at the invasion of their homeland, the Japanese devised a secret plan to ignite the forests of the American mainland with incendiary bombs. And even though few Americans know it today, the failed mission was actually carried out.
Chief Warrant Office and pilot Nubuo Fujita would be called upon to lead the invasion. In fact, it could be said Fujita was the invasion.
In Japan, on an otherwise routine day in 1942, Fujita was called into the office of Prince Takamatsu, Emperor Hirohito's brother and an important military officer. The Prince informed Fujita of a plan to bomb the American mainland. Fujita was elated at the thought. He envisioned something on the magnitude of Pearl Harbor. "Los Angeles or San Francisco?" he asked, eager to learn of his target. "Oregon," answered his superior. Then Fujita was told the details of an operation the Japanese military believed could burn up a large part of the Northwest and destroy the morale of the American people. So began a mission which would propel Fujita into the history books -- a mission so secret that it was a total surprise to American military intelligence. It was so secret, in fact, that it was a half-day after the attack before anyone knew there was an attack at all!
On August 15, 1942, Fujita boarded a 1950-ton Japanese submarine for the trip to the American shore. Stored on-board the small sub was a single-engine airplane which would transport him and his navigator Shoji Okuda on their daring raid. By early September, the ship had reached its planned position off the Oregon coast. Every morning for days thereafter, the periscope would be raised only to reveal weather too foul to fly in. Dejected, Fujita would retreat to his room to wait for the next day. Finally, on the morning of September 9, the weather cleared and the sea was calm. Fujita was told to get ready. Along with his regular gear, he packed a family treasure -- a Samurai sword that had been in his family for 400 years. If he was forced down, he could use it to end his life rather than be captured by the enemy.
His 'geta' float plane was assembled and then readied, and he and Okuda boarded. Moments later, the tiny aircraft and its two-man crew were catapulted into the skies and headed toward the Cape Blanco lighthouse on a southeasterly course into enemy territory. The secret mission to bomb Oregon was underway.
It was peaceful in Brookings, Oregon. Fishermen were slowly sailing out of port, and the citizens were sitting down for breakfast. The sound of a small plane flying overhead didn't alarm anyone. Little did the people of Brookings realize that they were in the midst of an air attack -- the first-ever manned aerial bombing of the American mainland.
Fujita and Okuda proceeded east past Brookings and prepared to drop their load -- two 160-pound incendiary bombs. An hour after leaving the sub, they were nearly in position.
Back in Japan, military leaders anxiously awaited word on the mission. Would the bombs explode and ignite the forest into flames as planned? Would the fire spread to the cities -- burning homes and factories and sending the American people into panic and depression? They could only hope -- and wait.
While they pondered from afar, Fujita was at 8,200 feet over a heavily wooded forest. He ordered Okuda to drop the bombs. Then they watched as they fell to earth. But they didn't wait around to see what happened. Instead they set a course to the ocean and the sanctuary of their sub. They landed the pontoon-equipped plane and it was soon disassembled and stored away on ship. Everything was going perfectly -- that is, until the Americans appeared. They had spotted the enemy sub from their airplane, and minutes later they were directly above and attacking with bombs! But, sadly for the Yanks, they were too late. The Japanese sub slipped below the ocean surface, and even though it was slightly damaged, it successfully hid on the bottom and eventually escaped.
About the same time, a little past noon, Mt. Emily fire lookout Howard Gardner radioed in a fire report. Then, on foot, he set out to find it. So did Keith Johnson from his lookout at Bear Wallow. At 4:20 p.m., they located the blaze -- a few small and easily-extinguished fires that involved only seven trees. But, more importantly, they determined that the fires were not caused by lightning as they had originally suspected, but by bombs from an enemy aircraft! Excited, they radioed in their finding. Within hours, the U.S. military, the FBI, and other government agencies were on the scene -- trying to piece together clues as to how an enemy plane could have invaded and then escaped American airspace without a trace. Fortunately, weather conditions were not favorable for a forest fire on September 9.
Johnson, an 18-year-old forestry student at the University of Nebraska, would be kept on by the Forest Service for three months for questioning, missing his fall semester.
Back on ship, Fujita, Okuda and the rest of the sub crew waited patiently off shore, preparing for another attack. It came 20 days later -- this time in a grassy area east of Port Orford. But unlike the previous attack, when one of the two bombs exploded, this time both fizzled. To this day, neither bomb has been located.
Their mission accomplished, Fujita and company sailed back to Japan. Okuda was later killed in action, but Fujita survived the war to become a successful businessman. In 1962, twenty years after the attack, he returned to Brookings as a guest of its citizens. To make amends for his attack, he presented the city with his cherished Samurai sword. "It is the finest of Samurai traditions to pledge peace and friendship by submitting the sword to a former enemy," he said through a translator. The sword was placed in the mayor's office, where it remains today.
This May, Fujita, 78, returned again to Brookings. He brought along his granddaughter. It would probably be his last chance to show her where he made history as the only flyer ever to bomb the United States mainland.
The Japanese Admiralty clung tenaciously to the desire to attack the continental U.S. Of course the responsibility to execute such a feat of daring fell to the Japanese submarine force. At the start of the war, 11 of the Japanese submarines in commission were outfitted with deck hangers to carry single-engine, catapult-launched, 'geta' float planes that were capable of flying 1.5 hours to target and back or 3 total hours of reconnaissance. These small craft had a top air speed of only about 115 miles per hour (185 km/hour). They were stored for transport in 12 separate pieces and assembled just prior to launch. Recovery took place when the aircraft returned to the mother ship, landed nearby on its floats, was disassembled and re-stowed. These aircraft were called 'geta' because of the resemblance of their floats to a common Japanese clog-like shoe of the same name.
While originally designed to assist the host submarine in long range reconnaissance missions for the fleet, a resourceful submariner eventually concluded that by attaching a few bombs to the aircraft, the 'geta' might be put to a more lethal use. This idea is attributed to Warrant Officer Nubuo Fujita, who was then stationed aboard the Japanese submarine I-25. Fujita’s original idea was to arm the 'geta' for use in assisting attacks upon U.S. surface ships in fleet actions - he believed that by doing this he could not only find the ships but attack them as well. When the Japanese Admiralty got wind of the idea, it had a grander mission in mind.
Briefed by no less a personage than Prince Takamatsu, the Emperor’s brother, Fujita was instructed to test his theory’s effectiveness on the American mainland itself! However daring this mission would be, it quickly became one of strategic convolution -- rather than a direct attack on one of the many targets of significance along the U.S. west coast, the orders given to Fujita were, incredulously, to bomb the forest approximately 75 miles north of the California border, in Oregon!
The reason for the Japanese Admiralty’s decision was recorded as "Rather than inflicting limited damage on industrial targets, since the northwestern U.S. is full of forests, we will start a blaze in the deep woods. The resulting forest fire will be very difficult to stop. Whole towns will be destroyed and it will create panic among the population."
After many months of training and fitting out the 'geta', the I-25 began its slow transit of the Pacific. It arrived off the coast of Oregon in the waning days of August, 1942. Ten days were spent on station by the anxious crew, with seas too high to launch the float plane. Finally, it calmed sufficiently to execute the mission. On September 9, 1942, Warrant Officer Fujita and his observer, Petty Officer Shoji Okuda, boarded their 'geta' and set off on a heading to inland Oregon.
Flying 50 miles inland undetected, Fujita and Okuda did, indeed, become the first and only enemy mission to successfully bomb the continental U.S. during WWII. They returned safely to the I-25 to report that "both bombs exploded perfectly and two large fires are spreading." However, what Japanese intelligence either did not know or failed to account for was that the target area in Oregon had been saturated with several weeks of recent rains. The fires were quickly put out with negligible damage to the forests and none to any population centers or industrial targets. The bombing was a closely kept secret in the U.S. and had virtually no effect on the American population.