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Bombs Over the Beaver State 8/19/20

Updated: Dec 21, 2020

The Ednold family has had more time on their hands this summer than ever before. It’s a shame that we haven’t been able to take better advantage of it. I’ve lost track of what stage of social and economic recovery we’re in, but even if the authorities weren’t asking us to stay home, so many events have been cancelled and so many places have closed up shop for the duration of this virus that it’s been difficult to spend any meaningful time away from the house. But sooner or later the inclination to stay healthy is temporarily overtaken by the need to escape the doldrums of domesticity. So, in a year that has pretty much gone to the dogs, Mrs. Ednold and I decided a dog days road trip was in order and we took a quick tour of a few historical sites in southern Oregon.

For the most part, the continental United States escaped the devastation of war that ravaged other parts of the world during WWII. But there were exceptions, and Oregon bore the brunt of those attacks out of all proportion to her size and military strength. If the Japanese war machine was convinced that these places within easy driving distance were important enough to bomb, I didn’t want to go an entire lifetime without ever checking them out to see why. And it got us out of the house for a few days so we would be killing two birds with one stone. Except that we met 4 birds on the trip, that we didn’t kill, so… I’ll let you do the math.

Since we were headed south, Fort Stevens wasn’t part of this trip, but to put things in proper context that’s where this little story will begin. Fort Stevens, constructed on the south shore of the mouth of the Columbia River, was constructed in 1863 and named for a Union general who had been killed at the Battle of Chantilly the year before. It was put there to protect us from all of those violent, blood-thirsty Canadians to the north in the event that Britain chose to support the confederates in the Civil War. As it turned out, the Brits didn’t choose a side but the fort remained active until 1947, when it was decommissioned without ever having fired on an enemy.

Fort Stevens became the only military installation in the 48 States to come under enemy attack when, on the night of June 21, 1942, the Japanese submarine I-25 surfaced off the coast and fired 17 shells at the fort. Fortunately, the only real damage done was to the backstop on the fort’s baseball diamond. About five years later the U.S. retaliated by popularizing baseball during the postwar occupation of Japan. The Japanese are still crazy about baseball, proving the old adage that revenge is a dish best served cold.

The remainder of the war was pretty quiet for the fort, but the action continued for I-25, and that’s why we headed south. In September of that same year, 1942, the sub was back on the Oregon coast hoping to damage more than just a baseball field. In an effort to maintain a supremacy that was already slipping away, Japan had decided that a good way to divert American manpower and resources from the war and create panic among the civilian population would be to ignite forest fires throughout the huge evergreen forests in the mountains up and down the American west coast. The most direct way to accomplish this would be by dropping incendiary bombs from airplanes onto remote areas of the forests.

Believe it or not, sub I-25 carried its own airplane in its own little aircraft hangar. The plane could be assembled when needed and taken back apart and stowed at the end of the mission. The “some assembly required” sticker on the airplane would have given me pause, but pilot Nobuo Fujita apparently didn’t mind. So, on September 9th the crew put the floatplane together and catapulted the plane, and Fujita, toward the southern Oregon coast on a mission that would become the first time the States were bombed by an enemy aircraft. The bombs were successfully dropped just south of Mt. Emily, about 10 miles east of Brookings. I’m guessing Mt. Emily was named for someone named Emily, but the offices of anyone who could tell me who she was were all closed so I’m going to say it’s named after my new niece. (Welcome to the family!)

Mt. Emily

Had the bombs been dropped a month or two earlier the mission would have had more chance of success, but recent rains meant that a couple of lookouts in the area were able to contain the small fire until a crew was able to make it to the site and put it out the following day. A second mission by Fujita three weeks later was equally unsuccessful. It was a rare public relations coup for Rain: Oregon’s Secret Weapon, but it was not to last. Its unpopularity soon returned to prewar levels and it has done little over the past 78 years to build upon that one moment of glory.

Not again!

The first stop on our trip would be the site where Fujita’s bombs landed. There still exists a small crater where the thermite bomb was hot enough to melt solid rock. In fact, that’s how authorities originally determined they weren’t just dealing with a lightning strike. You can view the site from a trail and I was looking forward to it, but for the second time this summer my destination was rendered unattainable by an impassable road. The gravel forest road leading to the site hasn’t been repaired since being damaged during a storm last year. But we didn’t go all that way to be put off by a little road damage, so we started up the hill, determined to get as far as we could.

At least the trail is well-marked

What I expected to be a gravel road soon turned out to be a long, winding pile of jagged rocks with an abyss on one side, the bottom of which I was never able to see. Occasionally large ruts crossed the road where the roadbed had been washed away during the rainy season, and much of the dirt and small gravel had been lost, leaving the larger, pointier rocks behind to make the trip extremely uncomfortable. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to be in one of those paint-shaking machines, this is the road for you. At one point someone had taken the trouble to saw through the trees that had fallen across the road, but it had obviously been a while since any other maintenance had been done and the bushes and blackberries are beginning to reclaim the empty space. If you had driven the Baja highway 50 years ago you may have some idea of the state of this road and the toll on your nerves of trying to make any headway at all.

Once again, for emphasis, let me state clearly that nobody should attempt to drive this road, no matter what you might hear. Shockingly, some of the information I found on the internet proved to be simply untrue. Without a 4 wheel drive I wouldn’t have even attempted it, but in the end that wasn’t much help. After about 90 minutes and 5 miles or so, I took advantage of a “wide” spot in the road and, with Mrs. Ednold standing to the side giving me hand signals as she counted the millimeters between me and a fiery death at the bottom of the cliff, I executed a rare 26-point turn to get us headed back downhill. Driving back I could only think how inconsiderate it had been of Fujita to drop the bombs so far from a major highway, but I’m sure the people in the surrounding towns at the time were happy he did. Despite his wartime thoughtlessness, Fujita visited Brookings several times from the 1960s through the 1990s on goodwill trips. He presented the town with his family’s samurai sword and shortly before his death in 1997 he was made an honorary citizen. Some of his ashes were even spread at the bombsite. I guess war makes otherwise decent people do things they shoudn't.

We had our picnic lunch and walked the trails at the spectacular Chetco Point Park in Brookings accompanied by the honks from a lone sea lion basking in the sun on a rock, then it was back on the road to gawk at the redwoods as we made our way to Grants Pass. We had the obligatory In-N-Out burger and then a very nice pint of Weekend IPA at the Weekend Beer Co. in Grants Pass, where the guy at the next table had four huge birds with him. Cockatoos and parrots I think. They did little tricks and made funny noises and flouted social distancing guidance and everyone on the patio (except, presumably, the health department), were on a first name basis with the birds by the time we left.

We stopped for the night at a place along the Rogue River not too far from the community of Starvation Heights. I wasn’t sure what to think of that name. I don’t associate the word “starvation” with anything remotely positive, and I understand that the word “heights” can refer to a location’s elevation but is usually tagged onto a name to denote a certain level of affluence. The incongruous juxtaposition of the two words piqued my curiosity. That, and the fact that in David Brin’s dystopian classic, The Postman, the Rogue River area was the bastion of barbarism. (Of course, the capital of good-guy territory was… Corvallis!). While Mrs. Ednold attended a Zoom meeting for work, I, being free of such things, took the opportunity to find out for myself what that place is really like. I found that The Heights are, in fact, an elevated area of infertile land between two small flourishing valleys. Early settlers couldn’t get anything to grow there and generally ended up moving on to one of the valleys sooner or later. But there are still many homes there, most on an acre or two of land, and I didn’t see any evidence that starvation was more of a problem there than anywhere else these days. And eventually the residents found a crop that did flourish in that soil: Trump/Pence signs and banners, some surprisingly large and of which there is at least one on just about every property, seem to do very well there.

After that short detour it was time to saddle up and see some more history. Amazingly, not only was Oregon the only place where the enemy attacked the States from the air, it was also the only place in the States where anyone was killed by the enemy. So, we were off to Bly to spend the 75th anniversary of VJ Day at that site.

Early in 1945 Reverend Archie Mitchell began his career as a missionary by moving with his young wife, Elsie, from Washington state to Bly, Oregon. With the end of the Battle of the Bulge that January the Allies were swiftly retaking Europe, and on April 30, with the collapse of Germany imminent, Hitler kicked his oxygen habit cold turkey and by May 8 the US was celebrating VE Day. Between those two dates, on May 5, Archie drove his five-months-pregnant wife and 5 Sunday school students from his church for a Saturday picnic on the south slope of Gearhart Mountain, 10 miles east of town. When they got to a likely spot Archie dropped the others off before proceeding to turn the car around, park it, and grab the lunch.

Moments later Elsie called out for Archie to come see what they had found. After she had called a couple of times Archie finally replied “Wait a minute and I’ll come and look at it”. As soon as the words were out of his mouth a huge explosion rocked the forest. Mitchell and a road maintenance worker who coincidentally happened to be working in the area both ran to the site of the explosion to find Elsie and all five children either dead or dying.

The entire group had been the victims of a balloon bomb, or Fu-Go, launched from Japan. Again in an effort to start forest fires, the Japanese had started launching the balloons in late 1944. The balloons were ingeniously engineered to float with the jet stream to North America, maintaining the proper altitude by dropping sandbags along the way. Over 9000 of the balloons were launched and nearly 350 of them are known to have made it to North America and were spotted as far east as Michigan. Several were intercepted or shot down by the military. They are still occasionally found by hunters and other outdoorspeople in the North American wilderness, so be careful out there.

The balloons were armed with bombs that were designed to detonate upon landing but often they didn’t, and Archie’s group had happened upon one of those unexploded bombs, still attached to its giant balloon. The youthful curiosity that caused the detonation was understandable given that federal authorities, who knew about the balloons, kept that information to themselves in an effort to avoid public panic or provide any encouraging news to the Japanese. That strategy actually worked: The Japanese, hearing nothing about any sightings of their balloons, deemed the program a failure and ended it in April 1945. Judging from the state of the balloon, authorities later guessed that it had probably landed a month or two prior to its discovery, waiting for some small disturbance to set it off. Unfortunately, that disturbance was a group of children.

The town of Bly looks like it has probably seen better days. At least I hope it has. Surrounded by hundreds of square miles of farms, ranches, sagebrush, and not much else, it’s a pleasant-but-lonely outpost in a pleasant-but-lonely part of southern Oregon between Klamath Falls and Lakeview. But Archie’s old church is still alive and well, and if you don’t want to go exploring on an empty stomach the Antler Grill is a nice place to fill it up. It’s hard to imagine the little town being able to support the Star Theater, but apparently it did back in the day. It’s definitely the highlight of the town and I hope someone steps up and keeps it from further decay.

Cinco de Mayo was almost unheard of back in the 1940s outside of California. When I saw the date standing out conspicuously on one of Bly’s old abandoned buildings it made me wonder whether there has ever been a Cinco de Mayo celebration anywhere in the town or if they maybe have their own, different type of ceremonies on that day.

Before our attempt to reach Mt. Emily I would have said that Road 348 east of Bly was awful, but my standards have changed a little since then. It’s 4 or 5 miles of tedious serpentine driving to avoid potholes that could swallow a small car. I wonder how many people give up and turn around after seeing the first stretch of that road, but I was not going to be one of them. Miraculously, once past a short stretch of gravel washboard halfway to our destination, we were rewarded for our perseverance by finding that the final 5 or 6 miles were well-maintained, smooth blacktop. It’s a shame that whoever is responsible for the first part of that road doesn’t put a little more effort into it because even in its present condition the trip is well worth it. The monument erected to those killed on the mountainside is in a beautiful setting among ponderosa pines. It’s easy to see why Archie and Elsie had chosen that spot to stop. There are now picnic tables, a restroom, and some informational signs telling the history of the balloon bombs and the story of the church group from Bly. To look around you and think that, of all of the people in all of the places in the whole country, this is the one spot that the enemy had managed to kill American citizens - a group of church kids on a day trip to the woods - is just crazy. And really sad.

It's even sadder when you consider that two of the children killed that day, siblings Joan and Dick Patzke, had just learned a day or two earlier that their older brother Jack was missing and presumed dead in Germany. A gunner on a B17 Flying Fortress, Jack’s plane had been shot down and the crew managed to parachute out, only to be captured and placed in a POW camp. It was later learned that Jack had been killed trying to escape on April 8th, just three weeks before General Patton’s troops liberated the rest of Jack’s crew, and he was officially declared dead the following year. His body was eventually recovered and buried in Klamath Falls next to his brother and sister. All three Patzkes could easily have lived to see the end of the war, but died within a span of four weeks. Even with seven of their 10 children still alive, Mr. and Mrs. Patzke must have wondered what they had done to deserve that. I would love to be able to read what Dorothy Anne Hobson might have written about those events at the time if she’d still been writing for the Valsetz Star. Something more poignant than I seem to be able to come up with, for sure.

To pile irony upon irony, two years later Archie married Joan and Dick’s older sister Betty and the two headed to Vietnam as missionaries at a leprosarium. They were still in Vietnam with their four children 15 years later as the war raged on around them and Archie was kidnapped by the Viet Cong. He was never seen again. Betty stayed in Vietnam, herself being captured in 1975 and released ten months later. She then continued her work in Thailand and Malaysia before finally returning to the US in 1986.

One of the Japanese scientists responsible for developing the balloon bombs, Sakyo Adachi, visited the site in 1976 and laid a wreath at the monument, and in 1995 Japanese students gifted six cherry trees to the town of Bly and they are now growing at the monument site. They also sent along 1,000 paper cranes, a Japanese symbol of peace and healing, to the families of the victims. This year a 75th anniversary gathering was scheduled for May, but the virus caused it to be postponed until late September. I hope they find a way to make that happen.

After a long day of seeing the sights, the vanilla porter at Klamath Basin Brewing in Klamath Falls was just what the doctor ordered. Well, OK. Nobody ordered me to drink it. I took the initiative. I’m a self-starter like that. And the next day, with some time to kill, we made a short stop by Legend Cider Co. in La Pine to check out their new outdoor seating area. Two thumbs up. After leaving La Pine my mind returned to The Postman and his journey over the same terrain we would be covering. I hope I don’t hurt anyone’s feelings if I say that I’m glad we didn’t have to stay a few days in Oakridge (or get shot at while we were there) like he did. And I’m glad we didn’t have to fight our way across the Willamette in Eugene. Our trip back to the capital of good-guy territory was much less exciting than The Postman’s.

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What a great bit of history.

I knew a bit about the Ft Stevens attack, but don't remember hearing about the Southern Oregon fire bombs. So thanks for these interesting takes on WWII attacks few of us ever knew about.

And hopefully Mrs. Ednold will remind you to pay attention to road signs.......most of us know they close roads for a reason. Getting dead-ended on a dangerous road is not a good idea......especially when no one knows where you are. Seems like you adventurers ought to realize that.......especially when you're out of cell phone range.

Thanks again for a fun and informative travelogue.



I had heard about the fire bombs before. In fact, I thought we had visited there when we were in Winston Dillard. Dad says we didn't. I really enjoyed your trip. If you would have

told me you were going to be in Grants Pass I would have had you visit the school I taught

at. I still say you have missed your calling. You are such a good writer and story teller you're

wasting your time doing anything else! Mom

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