75 years ago today, during World War Two, a Japanese plane dropped two incendiary bombs near Brookings, Oregon. It is the only time that a foreign adversary bombed the mainland of the United States during wartime. The plane had taken off from a submarine parked off the coast of southern Oregon that no American even knew was there. Less than a year after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese goal was to ignite raging fires in the massive forests of the northwest. They hoped that the fires would divert resources away from fighting the war, and send Americans into a state of panic. Because the woods were damp, they had little success. The fires were both small, and put out fairly easily. They would try it again a few weeks later. After the second attempt was also a failure, they gave up on the idea. They did use it as part of a major propaganda campaign. Newspapers all over Japan proclaimed the successful bombing of Oregon, and that American citizens were in a panic. Later in the war, they tried to use bombs packed in hot air balloons to ignite fires in the northwest. This too was not successful. Unfortunately, a family of six was killed in southern Oregon in 1945 when they stumbled upon one of the balloon bombs that had previously failed to detonate.
Both bombing missions of 1942 were carried out by a young pilot by the name of Nobuo Fujita. He is where the good part of this story begins.
When the war was over, Mr. Fujita came back to Japan and opened a hardware store. Like so many World War Two veterans, he never talked about the war. His own family did not know that he was the only person in history to drop bombs on the American mainland. They only learned of this in 1962, when he told them he had been invited to visit America.
The Jaycees are a group of young business leaders between the ages of 18-40. In 1962 the Jaycees of Brookings got the idea to raise money and invite Fujita back to visit Brookings as a gesture of peace, goodwill, and reconciliation. They tracked him down and told him they would pay for the trip. They wanted him to come during the town’s Azalae festival, held on Memorial day weekend. Not everyone was thrilled about the idea. The town had veterans who had fought, and some who had died at the hands of the Japanese. Some families still grieving two decades later did not want to welcome the man who had once bombed their land and fought against their loved ones and country. There was a full page ad taken in the local newspaper against the visit. 141 angry local residents signed it.
Former University of Oregon track star Bill McChesney with newspaper advertisement against the visit (photo credit Jon Rosman)
Fujita was nervous about how he would be received in Brookings. He brought with him a samurai sword that had been in his family for 400 years in case he needed to defend himself. He told his family he was worried that the people of Brookings, a town of 5000 at the time, would throw eggs at him. Instead, they were warm, kind, and gracious. Fujita apologized, and said he was deeply ashamed of his actions. He presented the sword as a gift to the city, which can still be seen in the local library. A pilot flew him on a tour of southern Oregon, including the spot which he bombed. He was mesmerized by the beauty he saw, and told the pilot he was glad he was unsuccessful. Fujita then donated one thousand dollars to the Brookings library to buy children’s books about Japan. He wanted kids to learn about the good of his home country, so they would never again want to go to war with it.
The 1962 visit started a friendship between Brookings and the man who once bombed it. Fujita came back three times. He also covered the expenses of three high school students from Brookings to visit Japan in 1985. The students brought with them a letter from President Ronald Reagan, thanking him for his kindness and generosity. On one of his visits, he and residents of Brookings planted a tree of Friendship in the spot where that he bombed. In 1997, Brookings made Nobuo Fujita and honorary citizen. Fujita was very ill at the time, but smiled when he heard the news. He died just a few days later of lung cancer. His ashes were then spread over the forest he was once set to destroy.
The anger of many Americans towards the Japanese is understandable. World War Two was a brutal event that significantly damaged the lives of millions of Americans. Thank you to the wise people of Brookings and Nobuo Fajito for teaching us the power of forgiveness and redemption. After all, just about everyone that participates in a war shares something in common: they are victims.