During World War II, Americans on the West Coast lived in fear of Japanese pilots arriving to level their neighborhoods with bombs. In the town of Brookings, Oregon, one actually did.
Nobuo Fujita holds the rare distinction of being the only foreign pilot to ever have dropped bombs on the continental United States. He arrived on Sept. 9, 1942, just after the Doolittle Raid left Tokyo a shambles.
According to Oregon Public Broadcasting, Fujita was hoping to avenge his countrymen, taking the fight to San Francisco or Los Angeles. The 30-year-old warrant officer was a bit disappointed when his superiors directed him to Oregon.
Fujita’s seaplane carried a payload of thermite bombs, which the Japanese assumed would set the West Coast forests ablaze, stifling the U.S. war effort.
They didn’t take take the weather into consideration.
“It was too wet and it just stopped raining. He dropped these thermite bombs and they just fizzled. They created enough smoke so the forest service saw them,” Brenda Jacques, a retired reference librarian in Brookings, told OPB.
Over the next few days, Fujita would drop four bombs around Brookings before heading back to his submarine, which later sank two naval tankers on its way home. By his side throughout each mission was a samurai sword that had been in Fujita’s family for 400 years.
Today, that sword is displayed in Brookings’ Chetco Public Library. It was given to the town years after the war, an act of peacemaking that would wrinkle the attitudes of the Oregonians for decades to come.
Twenty years after the failed bombing, Fujita’s gift prompted Bill McChesney, then president of the local junior chamber of commerce, and his organization to invite the veteran to Brookings for the town’s annual Azalea Festival.
For McChesney, it soon became what seemed like a suicide mission.
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Soon after the invitation was issued, more than 100 citizens of Brookings lent their signatures to an op ed published in The Brookings-Harbor Pilot.
“[Fujita’s] sole claim to fame is that he’s the only [derogatory] pilot who bombed the mainland of the United States by airplane,” the piece read. “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 … .”
Close to half of Brookings residents were WWII veterans at the time. The other half were their friends and family, and few were quiet about their thoughts on the matter.
“I got a death threat it in the middle of the night,” McChesney said. “This guy said, ‘If you walk with that Nip down the street we’re going to have rifles pointed at you, and your family.’”
Yet, Fujita was not sent away.
When the former fighter pilot arrived in Oregon for the second time, he brought his wife, Akayo; and their son, Yasuyoshi. They spent the night at the McChesneys’ place.
Fujita was Brookings’ guest of honor for a full week, a move which President John F. Kennedy praised for its demonstration of goodwill. He was given a key to the city, and even flew a plane over the same bomb site he crossed in WWII.
McChesney and Fujita would remain in contact for the years that followed. Despite his company going bankrupt, Fujita and his employers, donated enough to buy to buy the Chetco Community Public Library a collection of multicultural children’s books.
Before Fujita’s death, the Japanese veteran would receive two more recognitions from the twon of Brookings. He was made an honorary citizen, and a coastal redwood was planted near Mount Emily.
Learn more about this unlikely friendship in the video below.
Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.