In the months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the B-1 type submarine I-25 quietly slipped from her dock, departing Yokusuka on November 21 and joining three other Japanese subs on patrol, in the waters north of Oahu.
The B-1 type was a fast cruiser submarine, built for long range and carrying on her bows a small aircraft hanger and deck catapult, designed to store and launch a single two-seater Yokosuka E14Y reconnaissance floatplane, known to the allies as a “Glen”.
With twenty of them built, the B-1 series was the most numerous of some thirty nine distinct submarine types, employed by the Japanese in WW2. The type was fairly successful, particularly in the beginning of the war. I-26 crippled the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga in August of 1942, and I-19 sank the aircraft carrier USS Wasp that September, at the same time damaging the battleship USS North Carolina and the destroyer USS O’Brien, which later sank.
I-25 launched the only piloted aircraft during World War II, to successfully attack the American mainland.
Lieutenant Commander Meiji Tagami turned the I-25 into the winds off the Oregon coast on the morning of September 9, 1942, and launched the Yokosuka E14Y floatplane, piloted by Warrant Officer Nobuo Fujita and armed with two 168-lb thermite bombs.
Fujita had hoped the target would be Los Angeles or San Francisco, payback for the Doolittle raid that April but, no chance of that. Lumbering along at 90MPH, such an aircraft is way too slow to attack such a heavily defended target.
Fujita’s target this day, was the vast forested region along the Oregon coast, near the California border. With a little luck, the incendiary bombs would burn down a large section of the forest and a string of coastal towns along with it, diverting American resources from the war effort.
That day, the luck was on the American side. A recent rain in the Siskiyou National Forest had left the place wet, at low risk for fire. Howard “Razz” Gardner watched the aircraft come in, from the fire lookout tower on Mount Emily. He never saw the bombing itself but the plume of smoke, was easy enough to follow. Razz was able to hike to the scene while the Forest Service dispatched lookout Keith Johnson, from a nearby tower. The pair was able to keep the blaze contained overnight, and the crew arriving the next morning, put it out.
The following day, area commander Lieutenant General John DeWitt announced “The Western Defense Command is investigating the circumstances surrounding the discovery on Sept. 9 of fragments of what appears to have been an incendiary bomb. These fragments were found by personnel of the United States Forestry Service near Mt. Emily nine miles northeast of Brookings, Or. Markings of the bomb fragments indicated that the missile was of Japanese origin”.
Fujita and his observer made a second attack on September 29, but the damage was negligible. Not at all the regional conflagration he had hoped for. Late in the war, Japanese authorities released hundreds of balloon bombs into the gulf stream, in a sustained attack on the continental United States. One managed to kill a Sunday School class and its teacher but, the earlier attacks flown by Nobuo Fujita remained the only piloted attack on the US mainland, of WW2.
Years later, the junior chamber of commerce in Brookings Oregon, the “Jaycees”, got a bright idea over a few beers. Why not invite the only foreign pilot to successfully attack the American Mainland, as an honored guest.
It was a gesture of friendship, but the idea set off a firestorm in the coastal community. A full-page op-ed signed by 100 locals ran in the Brookings-Harbor Pilot, in 1962. Part of it read:
“[Fujita’s] sole claim to fame is that he’s the only Nip pilot who bombed the mainland of the United States by airplane … Why stop with Fujita? Why not assemble the ashes of Judas Iscariot, the corpse of Atilla the Hun, a shovel full of dirt from the spot where Hitler died … .”
Brookings resident Greg Jacques remembers, “There was a lot of turmoil. You gotta remember it was only like 16 years after the war. There were 30 to 40 to 50 percent of the men in the community at that time were in World War II.” There were heated arguments in coffee shops and bars, all over town. Then-Jaycees President Bill McChesney recalled, “I got a death threat it in the middle of the night. This guy said, ‘If you walk with that Nip down the street we’re going to have rifles pointed at you, and your family.’”
In the end, the group of young businessmen, none over the age of 35, voted unanimously to extend the invitation. To hell with the consequences. President John F. Kennedy congratulated the group, on their efforts to promote international friendship.
With assurances to the Japanese government that the former pilot would not be tried as a war criminal, the Fujita family left the Ibaraki Prefecture for the City of Brookings Oregon, in 1962. Nobuo, his wife Akayo, and their young son Yasuyoshi. Nobuo carried with him a prized family heirloom, a 400-year old Katana, the Samurai Sword with which he intended to perform Seppuku, ritual suicide by disembowelment, should this visit go wrong.
Despite the bitterness left in the wake of that terrible war, the visit did not go wrong.
Fujita was made honorary chairman of that year’s azalea festival. The man was presented with a ceremonial key to the city, and allowed to take the controls of an aircraft, flying over the bomb site. He even tried his hand at playing a bagpipe, during a parade.
All things were not “Kumbaya” – several men were jailed during the visit, in a preemptive effort to keep the lid on.
In the end, Nobuo Fujita did not open his abdomen with that sword, nor did he pass the treasured heirloom to his son, as once intended. The sword which had accompanied him on his every mission of the late war, including the one over Brookings itself, that prized object did he give to the city of Brookings, as a symbol of friendship. The sword may be seen at the Chetco Public Library, to this day.
Back in Japan, the economy was tough after the war. Fujita passed the family hardware store down to his son, but the business failed. The old pilot never forgot a promise made to the place he had once tried to burn down. Fujita worked for years to earn the money, to buy a few books every month. In 1985 he kept his promise, inviting three Brookings-Harbor High School students on a cultural exchange visit to Japan, with the money he had saved. An aide to President Ronald Reagan sent him a letter, “with admiration for your kindness and generosity.”
Fujita returned to Brookings in 1990, and again in 1992, and 1995. During the 1992 visit, he planted a Pacific Redwood, at the site where his bombs fell.
Nobuo Fujita died in 1997 at the age of eighty-five, only days after being made an honorary citizen of the city of Brookings. In October of the following year, Fujita’s daughter Yoriko Asakura returned to the bomb site, where she buried some of her father’s ashes. Now, his spirit would fly over that place, forever.
At some point, the only foreign pilot to successfully attack the American mainland, confided to his diary: “If we knew each other. If we understood each other as a friend. This foolish war would never have happened. I sincerely hope that a day would come where everyone could overcome their differences through talking and not fighting”.
Yeah…What he said.