January 13th, 2012
Fort Stevens State Park is located on the North coast of Oregon and has a very interesting history. Fort Stevens was built during the US Civil War in 1864 to protect the mouth of the Columbia River – particularly from potential British (from Canada) and Confederate raider attacks. Two other forts were built on the Washington side of the river – Fort Canby and Fort Columbia. Fort Stevens was originally built with earthwork fortifications and gun batteries.
By the late 1800’s a refortification began at Fort Stevens which resulted in eight concrete gun batteries being constructed (these included new 10 inch rifled “disappearing” cannons, which had carriages that allowed the guns to be hidden behind the walls when not being fired). The fort was in use by the US Army until just after WW2 when the military left in 1947 (such forts were more or less obsolete with the advent of air power and guided missiles). The US Army Engineers then used the area as part of a maintenance headquarters and in 1975 the area became Fort Stevens State Park.
JAPAN ATTACKS OREGON
Fort Stevens was the only mainland American military installation to come under direct fire from the Japanese in WW2 (and the first to be attacked by enemy forces since the War of 1812 between the US and Britain which occurred between 1812 to 1815 and resulted in a peace treaty). On June 21st, 1942 Japanese submarine I-25 shelled the fort 17 times with minimal damage (in February 1942 submarine I-17 shelled an oil field near Santa Barbara in California but this was not a military facility, again minimal damage was inflicted). The guns of the fort did not return fire on the Japanese as the distance was too great to be effective and they did not want to give their position away, or what firepower was available in the fort.
The US Army commanders correctly believed the submarine was on a reconnaissance mission. By firing back the Japanese would know what range the guns had, they could potentially return with a surface fleet and bombard the fort with impunity. The submarine was later attacked by US aircraft but it escaped.
This was not the only attack the I-25 was involved in against the US mainland. The I-25 submarine was one of the largest in the Japanese fleet – it was 357 ft long and carried a stowable Yokosuka E14Y1 “Glen” seaplane (the aircraft could be disassembled and was stored in a special on deck hangar in front of the sub’s conning tower). This aircraft was actually used to attempt to start a forest fire on September 9th, 1942 by dropping incendiary bombs near Brookings in Southern Oregon.
The plan was the fire would get out of control and possibly destroy the town. The bombing was not successful as the forest was too damp for a fire to start and the mission failed. Following this attempt the submarine was attacked by US aircraft but escaped and remained submerged on the ocean floor to avoid further detection. Then on September 29th, 1942 they attempted another mission to start a fire with the incendiary bombs further North near Port Orford, Oregon. Again the mission was unsuccessful.
These bombings became part of history too as they were the only direct strikes by aircraft on the US mainland (all other attacks were on US islands in the Pacific). Regardless of their ineffectiveness such attacks would have spread fear in the US population of what was potentially to come next. The same thing happened in Australia in 1942 when there was a real threat of Japanese invasion until they were stopped by Australian troops in the rugged New Guinea highlands.
The I-25 then returned to Japan sinking 2 cargo ships and a Russian submarine L-16 on the way (some controversy must have arisen from this as at that stage Japan and Russia were not at war. Russia did not declare war on Japan until 1945). In August 1943 the I-25 was detected and destroyed using depth charges by the USS Patterson near Vanuatu in the Pacific Ocean.
The pilot of the Yokosuka E14Y1 “Glen” seaplane, Warrant Officer Nobuo Fujita (1911-1997) also flew reconnaissance missions from the I-25 in February 1942 over Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart in Australia (on a visit to Fort Queenscliff in Victoria, Australia the museum guide described to me Fujita’s flight over Melbourne, it was not intercepted because it was thought to be an Australian plane!). Then in March 1942 further flights were made over Wellington and Auckland in New Zealand; and then Fiji before the submarine headed for the Pacific Northwest.
In 1944 Fujita became a trainer of Kamikaze pilots. After the war he was invited to visit Brookings, Oregon on a number of occasions as a symbol of peace. On his first visit he presented the town with his 400 year old family samurai sword as a gesture of regret (now on display in the town) and just before his death he was actually made an honorary citizen of Brookings in 1997. His daughter placed some of his ashes at the bombing site. It is interesting how over time history’s enemies can forget the past and look to the future.
As WW2 progressed and the Allies gained the upper hand, Japanese sea power and their ability to attack targets with their aircraft carrier fleet waned. The Japanese had no forward bases or long-range bombers to attack they US directly, but they wanted revenge for the US bombing of their homeland, so they commenced a rather bizarre air attack campaign that remains unique in history.
From 1944 to 1945 Japan sent around 9000 special “fire balloons” carrying incendiary and anti-personnel bombs across the Pacific utilising the jet stream towards the US that were intended to start forest fires, burn towns/cities and divert the US war effort to control these fires and create civilian panic. Only about 10% of those launched are believed to have made the distance (they ended up exploding in numerous US states as far East as Detroit, Michigan and parts of Canada) and apart from some minor damage the balloons were largely ineffective (the worst incident they caused was the death of 6 people from one bomb in Oregon). Again the effectiveness of such weapons was also negated by the dampness of the forests they were hoping to burn down (there were also some fears that the Japanese may use the bombs to deliver chemical weapons, but such attacks did not occur).
One balloon was actually forced down by an aircraft so the balloon could be studied by the US military, but normally they travelled too high to be effectively intercepted. Only about 300 balloons were actually ever detected in the air.
They were hydrogen balloons (about 10 metres / 33 foot in diameter), made from a special paper with an altimeter control system that released ballast if flying too low and vented hydrogen if flying too high to maintain a certain altitude. After 3 days it was calculated that the balloon would be over the US. The control system would then drop the incendiary bombs, lighting the bomb fuse at the same time and then a self destruct mechanism would activate to destroy the balloon. They seem to have been a reasonably technically advanced device for a balloon!
Today Fort Stevens is a peaceful place, where you can explore the abandoned gun batteries and remaining buildings. You need to bring a torch if you want to explore some of the old bunkers but some of them are actually locked up (unlike Fort Worden in Port Townsend, Washington where you can spend hours exploring inside the bunkers). During summer tours are operated to take you into the main locked bunker.
In the historic district there is a military museum displaying the history of the fort. Displays cover the periods from the US Civil War (1861-1865), Spanish American War (1898), World War One (1914-1918, US involvement was from 1917-1918) and World War Two (1939-1945, US involvement was from 1941-1945).
Nearby is the Fort Stevens Post Cemetery established in 1868 but relocated to its present site in 1905 (this is one of only two Army cemeteries on the West Coast that still allows veterans to be buried there, the other is in Vancouver , Washington). Unusually the graves lie in a north south direction, instead of the traditional east west direction (so the buried person can “see the sunrise”). This exception to the rule is apparently due to the slope of the land.
The state park also has beaches to visit, one of which has the shipwreck of the Peter Iredale which ran aground in dense fog on October 25th, 1906 (the Captain thought he was 50 miles off shore!). Luckily no-one died in the incident and it became an instant and long-lived tourist attraction. There is not much left of the ship today, just part of the rusted bow and some of the masts jutting out of the sand. Most of it was sold for scrap after the shipwreck, but it was once an impressive 4 mast steel barque sailing ship.