There is no place like a museum for history buffs, and here at the Cannon Beach History Center and Museum, we get our share. We absolutely love talking to people about the history of the area, reliving memories, or helping individuals find old photos. I had a recent encounter that seems particularly relevant with the anniversary of Pearl Harbor upon us.
A few weeks back an older gentleman came into the museum. We were chatting about local history and life on the coast when he told me something, that as a midwesterner, I had never heard in my life — that the coast of Oregon was attacked by the Japanese during World War II. He said that a Japanese submarine had shelled Fort Stevens. He told me that bombs were even sent through the skies on balloons all the way from the coast and one got as far as Michigan!
The fellow seemed genuine enough, but given my skeptical nature, and that fact that school text books had assured my young mind that the only attack the Japanese ever made on America was at Pearl Harbor, I had to find out the truth. To the internet I went, and I found all of his claims to be true. I was shocked. I was flabbergasted!
I told this amazing finding to my colleague Elaine, who grew up on the North Oregon coast, and instead of sharing my surprise, she nonchalantly said, “Oh yeah, and we have some photos of it.” Moments later she handed me a file with several photocopies of a boy in a halloween mask standing in front of a Japanese bomb on the shore of Cannon Beach, a photo of a blimp floating over a house in Tolovana in 1944 (donated by Dorothea and Les Banks), and several photos of Coast Guard guys in uniform playing music at Ecola Park, not sure exactly what that has to do with the Japanese bombing Oregon, but Andre Vauthier and Ted Hass sure do look like they were cranking out the tunes in the pictures.
But I digress, back to the bombs, apparently two Japanese Submarines made it to American waters, one shelled a lighthouse on Vancouver Island in Canada. The other, called I-25, shelled the freight ship SS Fort Camosun before heading to the waters near Astoria and shooting some 14 shells at Fort Stevens, damaging their baseball diamond and coming within 70 yards of hitting the fort’s large guns. The Japanese Commander Meiji Tagami, was quoted saying, “In shooting at the land I did not use any gunsight at all–just shot.” It was the first attack actually on US soil since the War of 1812.
More amazing was a few months later, when that same submarine launched a small plane. The pilot planned to drop a bomb on the dense forests of Southern Oregon in order to start a forest fire so large that the U.S. would have to stop their involvement with the war and save their trees. Fortunately for the United States, Forest Service workers caught the fire and stopped it at a 75 foot circle, in the center of the circle they found a crater with metal fragments, some with Japanese markings on them.
This changed everything for the people on the Northwest Coast, citizens became fearful of future attacks, and military in the area was stepped up. The civilian defense workers monitoring the coast now had a renewed vigor in protecting the people. State Defense Coordinator Jerrold Owen was quoted as saying, “Morale among civilian defense workers was getting low because many of them believed ‘it can’t happen here.’ Well, it did happen last Wednesday, so the workers can see now just what they are working for. We have been praying for just such an attack to shake people out of their lethargy.”
As far as the bombs attached to balloons, some 9,300 balloon bombs were launched by Japan, 342 were reported to authorities, and a few went off. In total they caused six deaths – all from one tragic incident in which a pregnant women and five children found the bomb hanging from a tree. Balloon bombs were found as far as Texas, North Dakota, and as the gentleman in the museum had told me Michigan. The Japanese hoped to cause forest fires and mass devastation with their balloons, and news of their very existence was censored for a long time because the United States did not want Japan to know they had been even moderately successful in their balloon bomb raids.
It is amazing how one small mention of some little known historical event could spur my own curious research, and now I am sharing it here with all of you. If you have a story to tell, or want to learn more about Cannon Beach history stop on in the museum. We are open everyday except Tuesdays, and we are open 1 – 5 pm.
Originally published in the Cannon Beach Gazette.