The Unlikely Bond Between An Oregon Town And The Man Who Bombed It
Bill McChesney lightly picks through the contents of an elegant black box. Aged photos, press clippings and a few holiday cards catch the morning sun in his Eugene living room. The black container sitting on his orange sofa was a gift from Nobuo Fujita, the only foreign pilot to drop bombs on the continental United States.
In 1962, Bill McChesney was in the crosshairs of an argument ripping through Brookings, the small Oregon coastal community near the California border: Should the town host Fujita, the fighter pilot who tried to wipe it off the face of the earth only 20 years prior?
As president of the local junior chamber of commerce, McChesney — and the rest of the "Jaycees" — was responsible for inviting the pilot to be an honored guest in the town’s Azalea Festival. A few members came up with the idea over beers, and the Jaycees quickly rallied behind it as a wonderful goodwill gesture.
But not everyone in town was thrilled.
A full-page op-ed was printed in the local paper, The Brookings-Harbor Pilot, in 1962. Part of it read, “ sole claim to fame is that he’s the only Nip pilot who bombed the mainland of the United States by airplane … 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 … .” ("Nip" is a derogatory abbreviation of "Nippon," the Japanese name for Japan.)
More than 100 residents signed it.
Brookings resident Greg Jacques remembers the heated exchanges between neighbors in coffee shops and bars across the sleepy town. He was a senior in high school when Fujita was invited.
“There was a lot of turmoil," he said. "You gotta remember it was only like 16 years after the war. There were 30 to 40 to 50 percent of the men in the community at that time were in World War II."
Some veterans living in Brookings fought in the horrendous Pacific theater during the war. They stormed the beaches of Iwo Jima and watched kamikaze pilots fall from the sky.
McChesney says the controversy of the visit snowballed out of control.
“I got a death threat it in the middle of the night," he remembers. "This guy said, 'If you walk with that Nip down the street we’re going to have rifles pointed at you, and your family.'”
On Sept. 9, 1942, 20 miles offshore from Crescent City, hours before sunrise, there was movement on a submarine. It was nine months after the attack on Pearl Harbor and a team of Japanese sailors quickly assembled a seaplane on the deck. Next to them was a catapult for takeoff and a crane to pick the wheel-less plane from the sea after the mission.
The airstrike was an attempt to avenge the Doolittle Raid — the first air raid on the home islands that rocked Tokyo and the Japanese psyche. Nobuo Fujita, then a 30-year-old warrant officer, fantasized about dropping bombs over San Francisco or Los Angeles in revenge. When the higher-ups told him the target was Oregon, according to historians, he was a bit disappointed.
Cruising at a speed of 90 mph, the seaplane was too slow to fly over a heavily guarded location. The remote Oregon coast provided a unique opportunity.
The two thermite bombs loaded on the seaplane would ignite the forest, engulfing a chain of towns, drawing valuable resources away from battle and inciting fear throughout the West Coast.
But, it's Oregon.
"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," says Brenda Jacques, a retired reference librarian in Brookings. She's assembled one of the largest public collections on the story of Nobuo Fujita.
Fujita dropped a total of four bombs around Brookings over the course of a few days. After the second mission, the crew packed away the plane and headed back West. On its way home, the submarine sank two naval tankers off the coast of Oregon, one near Coos Bay and another near Gold Beach.
The Jaycees held an emergency meeting inside the McChesneys' home in 1962. The young businessmen, none more than 35 years old, agreed they were in over their heads and took a vote of how to proceed. It was unanimous. They would bring Fujita to town.
" was the right thing to do. To heck with the consequences," says McChesney.
President John F. Kennedy congratulated them on their efforts to promote international friendship.
Traveling from the Ibaraki Prefecture ,the Fujita family — Nobuo; his wife, Akayo; and their son, Yasuyoshi — stayed at McChesneys' home for their first day in Brookings. That morning, Nobuo told Bill about his family's samurai sword.
The sword had been handed through the family for 400 years. Nobuo took it on every flight, including his bombing missions in Brookings. Instead of passing it on to his son, he presented his family's most prized possession to the city of Brookings.
"I don’t know if I know the significance of it. Would I be able to give something that had been that important to my family away?" Brenda Jacques says. "It was a tremendous act of contrition." The sword is on permanent display at the .
The Fujita family's visit was a remarkable moment of symbolic unity between two nations that were at bitter war only two decades before.
The Fujitas were the center of activity for the week of their visit. Nobuo was presented a key to the city, he took controls of a plane that flew over the bomb site and he even tried his hand at playing a bagpipe during the parade.
Yet controversy still boiled below the surface. A few men, including the Forest Service employee who first spotted the smoke from the bombs, were jailed in a preemptive move by authorities to avoid any altercation. A couple of teenagers flew a Japanese flag from the high school flagpole. It was allegedly pulled down moments before the Fujitas would have seen it.
Years after the 1962 Azalea Festival, Fujita revealed he didn't know what would happen during his visit in Brookings. Part of him feared he would be pelted with rotten eggs or even tried for war crimes. If so, he would have used the centuries old family sword for “seppuku” — ritual suicide.
A Coastal Redwood
An hour outside of town, twisting up forest roads and hiking past towering old growth, visitors can find the site where Fujita dropped the first bombs. It’s a small marker on the side of Mount Emily.
There isn’t charred forest, or even a crater, just a single coastal redwood symbolically planted near the end of Nobuo Fujita’s life.
As a lifelong resident, Greg Jacques, who is married to Brenda, remembers how Nobuo Fujita continued to foster his bond with the town. "I just can’t admire the man enough," he says. "Just to keep this friendship between the town and himself. He was so good about that."
Fujita fulfilled a promise to bring a small group of high school students to Japan for a cultural exchange — even though his company had gone bankrupt, and it took years to make it a reality.
Fujita, with his employers, donated thousands of dollars for a collection of multicultural children’s books in the Chetco Community Public Library. And in 1997, a few days before he died, the town of Brookings made him an honorary citizen. His daughter would later spread some of his ashes at the bomb site. According to Brenda Jacques, the daughter said part of his soul would forever be flying over Mount Emily.
Miles and years away from Brookings, Marsha McChesney sits with her husband Bill in their Eugene home. She thinks about the lasting legacy of the Japanese fighter pilot who dedicated his life to making peace with Brookings.
She remembers walking into her living room the morning the Fujita family came to town in 1962. The debate rumbled outside. But in her home, she found her oldest son sitting in Ayako Fujita’s lap reading a picture book.
"He was telling her the names of the animals and she was telling him the Japanese names for the animals," Marsha said. "She was a mother and our son Tom was accepting her just as a person, as another mother."
That morning they were just two people separated by an ocean. And after all these years, that’s the memory, and message, Marsha McChesney carries with her.
Copyright 2016 Oregon Public Broadcasting