Unfolding the Map
William Least Heat-Moon mentions Fort Stevens in this chapter even before he gets to Haystack Rock and Seaside, Oregon, but I wanted to put it in correct trip chronological order. I'm not really sure he visited Fort Stevens rather than just mention it, so I am including it as a blue marker on the map. It's an interesting story, however, and it shows that the United States wasn't as invulnerable to attack as we may have thought we were. To see where Fort Stevens lies on the trip, explore the map.
"...Fort Stevens to the north of Tillamook Bay earned the distinction of being the last place in the forty-eight states attacked by a foreign power when the Japanese shelled it in June of 1942."
Blue Highways: Part 6, Chapter 5
Fort Stevens, Oregon
I'm pretty good at World War II history. I'm not an expert, but I can name several engagements in both theaters of war, and I have a good timeline of events. I understand what the motivations of each side were, and how they planned to accomplish them. I knew that the Japanese had made some attacks on a US state. The most notable that I knew of was the Japanese takeover of the islands of Kiska and Attu in the Aleutian Islands, some say as a feint to draw US forces away from the Battle of Midway while others say it was to protect Japan's northern flank and possibly serve as a staging ground for attacks on the US mainland. I also knew that there were some sporadic attacks on Oregon, but I didn't know how or where. LHM's quote gave me the impetus to look up some of this information, which I'll share with you.
In June of 1942, the US was on its heels in the Pacific. The Japanese seemed to be taking over island after island. The US fleet had been pounded at Pearl Harbor but luckily, its aircraft carriers had survived. The Japanese goal, as I understand it, was to create a "Co-Prosperity Sphere" in the western Pacific and, knowing that the US was a rival, Japan's aim was to significantly weaken the US so that it would present little threat to Japanese ambitions. Japan, having little in the way of natural resources, wanted a way in which they could wield regional power and preserve it. The Japanese hope was that their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor would so weaken the US that it would have little recourse than to watch the Japanese build their empire. However, the US was not as weakened as Japan hoped after Pearl Harbor, and the onset of war kickedstarted the massive US economy, which fired up to defeat the Japanese menace.
However, none of the outcome of the war was guaranteed in June, 1942. Everything seemed to be going Japan's way, and the takeover of the two Aleutian Islands continued its string of successes. Japanese leaders wanted to send a message to the United States that its isolation due to vast oceans could not protect it. Accordingly, they dispatched two long-range submarines to the West coast of the United States to engage US warships heading for the Aleutians and to engage US forces on land if possible.
One of the subs, the I-25, in order to avoid minefields, shadowed fishing boats heading back into harbor and surfaced near the mouth of the Columbia River opposite Fort Stevens. The sub fired 17 rounds from it's 5.5 inch deck cannon at the fort, which did not fire back in order to not give away its defenses. The only real damage was to a set of power poles and the baseball field. A B-17 was dispatched to look for and bomb the submarine, but the sub avoided the bombs and got away by diving.
The good news was that nobody was killed. However, it was the first attack on the US mainland by a foreign power since the War of 1812. In reality, the US had little to fear from a Japanese invasion, because at the time the logistics and costs needed to mount a successful invasion of the US mainland would have been prohibitive. The only reason the US was invaded during the War of 1812 was due to British troops being stationed in Canada, and therefore Britain had a staging ground from which they could send out ships and troops. In reality, had we been at war with Spain or France at that time, they might have been able to mount an invasion of the US as well given their territories in the New World. As US expansionism occurred, however, and Canada became a friendly neighbor, these risks grew more remote. The US used aggression to remove the threat of Mexican invasion, though Pancho Villa raided across the border in the early 1900s, though not sponsored by the Mexican government, necessitating an unsuccessful return incursion of US troops into Northern Mexico to find and catch him. However, the fact that it might be prohibitive to launch an invasion against the US did not stop the public from experiencing a West coast invasion scare at the time.
By the 1940s, the US had built itself into a fortress that was, in effect, protected by two large oceans serving as vast moats. The Japanese hoped to stoke fear and panic by making the US doubt its safety. Later that year, in August, the I-25, which was one of eleven Japanese subs equipped with a seaplane, sent the plane on a mission over Oregon. Loaded with incendiary bombs, the mission was to start forest fires in Oregon which would divert US manpower toward fighting them. The bombs were dropped, the first of only two bombings of mainland America in the war, but factors including weather and two fire lookout personnel kept the fires from doing much damage. In September, the I-25 launched the seaplane again which unloaded some incendiary bombs on another part of Oregon, but it seems as if the bombs either never exploded or the intended fires never caught.
Later, as the US military muscle exert itself and the Japanese gains were halted and then slowly reversed, Japanese leaders embarked on another program to strike terror into the US. A Japanese scientist some years before had, through observations of balloons launched near Mount Fuji, discovered the existence of the jet stream. With this knowledge, throughout 1944 and 1945 Japan launched over 9000 balloons into the jet stream carrying bombs that they hoped would hit forests and cities in the US. Each carried either incendiary or antipersonnel bombs, and the Japanese hoped that 10 percent of the bombs would reach American targets. In reality, about 300 of these balloon bombs were observed in North America, but they caused a few deaths. One tragic set of deaths occurred in Oregon, when a minister and his family were on a forest outing. One of the children found a bomb lodged in a tree and not knowing what it was, tried to get it down. The resulting explosion killed the minister's wife and all of his children.
The facts of the attacks on the United States by the Japanese were kept from the American public until after the war was over, which is partly why even today so few people know that the Japanese carried out such attacks. In reality, the best the Japanese could have hoped for was to be able to shell some American cities like San Francisco or Los Angeles...the West coast, however, was highly patrolled by the Coast Guard and the Japanese called off such a planned exercise. But, it is an interesting facet of the Pacific War that the mainland US came under attack from Japanese forces, and escaped with very little damage.
I'm sure that that all the men at Fort Stevens were singing this song as they cheerfully went to their stations under the shelling of Japanese sub I-25 in the middle of the night. Okay, probably not, because the song didn't come out until 1943. But I'm sure that they were thinking in this vein. Okay, they probably weren't thinking anything like this, either. But we'd like to think they did. Enjoy Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition by Kay Kyser and his Orchestra!
If you want to know more about Fort Stevens
Next up: Fort Clatsop, Oregon