A floatplane launched from an Imperial Japanese Navy submarine dropped its bombs in September 1942–the first time the continental United States was bombed from the air.
By William H. Langenberg
Most Americans probably believe that continental United States has never been bombed. The relative isolation of America, plus the defensive strengths of its Air Force and Navy, have supposedly eliminated such a threat. But is that really true? The answer is no–America has been bombed from the air, not once but twice. These little-publicized events took place in September 1942, and the attacker was an aircraft launched from a submarine of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN).
The IJN began experimenting with aircraft-carrying submarines in 1925. By the time of Pearl Harbor, 11 of its submarines were equipped to carry, launch, and recover one specially configured floatplane. Most of those early boats were classified as scouting submarines, B1 Type, of the I-15 class. They displaced 2,584 tons submerged and had a length of 356 feet. Powered by twin diesel engines and electric motors driving two propeller shafts, the B1 type boats had a cruising range of more than 14,000 miles. The crews were comprised of 97 officers and enlisted men, including the pilot and crewman for the single floatplane. Although the B1 type submarines carried an aircraft for reconnaissance purposes, they were also formidable attack boats, armed with 17 torpedoes and a 5.5.-inch thick deck gun.
Aboard a B1 type submarine, the floatplane was housed in a streamlined, water-tight, hangar installed forward of the conning tower. Its wings, fins and floats were removed, and the horizontal tailplane folded upward in order for it to fit inside. Two launching rails extended forward from the hangar to the bow, from which the reassembled floatplane was catapulted aloft by compressed air. In order to recover the aircraft, the pilot had to make an open-ocean landing and taxi to the starboard side, where a retractable crane hoisted it back on board the submarine. It took a well-trained crew 20 to 30 minutes to launch or recover the aircraft, depending on sea conditions. These were risky and dangerous minutes for the surfaced parent submarine, which lay virtually defenseless against air attack during that period.
The aircraft universally used for this purpose was the Uokosuka E14Y1, called “Glen” by the Allies. It was powered by a 9-cylinder, 340-hp Haitachi Tempu 12 radial engine that provided a maximum speed of about 150 mph, and a normal cruising speed of 85 mph. Constructed of a metal and wood airframe, with fabric-covered wing and tail surfaces, the aircraft weighed just 3,500 pounds, including the twin floats. With a wingspan of 36 feet, the Glen could remain airborne nearly five hours, giving it approximately a 200-mile operating radius. Normally, the aircraft carried a crew of two, plus a load of 340 pounds in small bombs. As defensive armament, it possessed only one rear-mounted 7.7mm machine gun.
The idea of bombing America using a submarine float plane apparently originated in December 1941 with Warrant Flying Officer Nobuo Fujita, who was then stationed aboard IJN submarine I-25, the sixth boat of the I-15 class. I-25 had been built by Mitsubishi at Kobe and was completed only two months previously. Fujita’s floatplane-equipped submarine had been stationed off Pearl Harbor during the surprise attack on December 7, 1941, but he was frustrated by his inability to survey battle conditions there because of damage to his aircraft. Fujita had been conscripted into the IJN in 1932 at the age of 21, and he began flight training the following year. In 1935, he served as a test pilot.
Because Fujita was recognized as an experienced pilot, his idea of using submarine floatplanes as bomber against shipping or shore bases was not dismissed. when Fujita’s executive officer, Lieutenant Tasuo Tsukudo, was approached with the idea in December 1941, he advised, “You ought to put your ideas in writing, Fujita, and forward the to the High Command.” Fujita did so, and his subsequent letter was endorsed favorably and forwarded by the commanding officer of I-25, Lt. Cmdr. Meiji Tagami. Fujita proposed that a B1 type submarine’s floatplane could attack the Panama Canal, plus U.S. West Coast naval bases, aircraft industries and shipping. In the meantime, Fujita continued to fly. During February and March of 1942, he made reconnaissance flights over Sydney and Melbourne, Australia; Hobar, Tasmania; and Wellington and Auckland, New Zealand. I-25 later proceeded to a station off the American West Coast where, on the night of June 21, 1942, it shelled Fort Stevens, a coastal defense base in northwest Oregon. During this bombardment, I-25 fired 17 rounds, most of which exploded harmlessly on the shore. But the attack did alarm the American public when it was later reported on the front page of the June 23 issue of The New York Times.
Upon returning to Yokosuka the next month, I-25 received a message, “Warrant Officer Fujita is instructed to report to Imperial Naval Headquarters at once.” Fujita proceeded as directed and was surprised to meet there Prince Takamatsu, the emperor’s younger brother, who was also a commander in the IJN. In the presence of the prince, whom Fujita had met previously, the warrant officer was told by a submarine staff commander, “Fujita, me are going to have you bomb the American mainland.” Another naval officer, a former Japanese vice consul in Seattle, who also had suggested that the American mainland might be bombed, gave further instructions: “You will bomb forests for us, right about here.”
Glancing at the chart spread out before him, Fujita saw the “here” meant about 75 miles north of the California border, far from any large city. An explanation was soon forthcoming: “The northwestern United States is full of forests. Once a blaze gets started in the deep woods, it is difficult to stop. Sometimes whole towns are destroyed. If we were to bomb some of these forests, it would put the enemy to much trouble. It might even cause large-scale panic, once residents knew Japan could reach out and bomb their families and homes from 5,000 miles away.” Sworn to secrecy, Fujita left the meeting stunned but eager to do his duty.
I-25 soon departed on its mission. Leaving Yokosuka on August 15, 1942, the submarine arrived off Cape Blanco in Oregon early in September. For several days, bad weather precluded launching the floatplane, but early on September 9, 1942, conditions improved. Captain Tagami summoned Fujita to the conning tower, where he nodded to the periscope and ordered, “Take a look, Fujita, and tell me what you think.” Fujita did so and responded quickly, “Captain, it looks good. I think we can do it today.” Captain tagami smiled and remarked: “Fine. in just a few more minutes you’ll make history. You will be the first person ever to bomb the United States of America! If all goes well, Fujita, you will not be the last!”
Fujita donned his flight clothes while I-25 surfaced just before dawn. The pilot and his crewman,Petty Officer Shoji Okuda, seated themselves in the Glen floatplane, which had been assembled on deck. Mounted beneath each wing was a 170-pound thermite incendiary bomb intended to set huge fires in the Oregon coniferous forest. These specially designed bombs each contained 520 firing elements that would spread over an area more than 100 yards in diameter when the bomb exploded, and start to burn at 2,700 degrees.
The seaplane was catapulted into the air and headed northeast toward the Cape Blanco lighthouse on the Oregon coast just as the sun broke over he horizon. Fujita ordered Okuda to release the first bomb after flying southeast about 50 miles inland. After it burst with a brilliant white light, both Fujita and Okuda observed a scattering of flickering fires through the trees. The second bomb was released after Fujita flew about five of six more miles east, and it, too, explode with a blinding white flash. Fujita then took his plane down very low, skimming the treetops and water en route to a successful rendezvous and a recovery with I-25.
Fire warden Howard Gardner was stationed in his lookout tower on Mount Emily in the southwest corner of Oregon on the morning of September 9, 1942, when he heard a strange sound, like a Model A Ford backfiring. Scanning the sky, he observed a small airplane circling above the thin fog but could not identify it. At 6:24 a.m., Gardner reported the unidentified aircraft by radio to the Gold Beach ranger headquarters station 35 miles north of Brookings. Also working as a fire lookout in the rugged coastal mountain range of southwestern Oregon that morning was an 18-year-old University of Nebraska forestry student named Keith V. Johnson. He was clearing trails near the lookout tower at Bear Wallow, about seven miles east of Mount Emily, when he heard a plane through the usual low-lying fog. But he thought little of it. About noon that day, Gardner spotted a wisp of smoke to the southeast, and at 12:24 p.m. he radioed his headquarters at Gold Beach, which ordered him to proceed to the suspected fire. Headquarters then ordered Johnson to scan the southwest for smoke.
After a careful search, Johnson detected a wisp of smoke near Wheeler Ridge, which ran east and west between the Mount Emily and Bear Wallow lookouts. Johnson was also ordered to proceed to the suspected fire, where he joined Gardner. They discovered a broad circle of smoldering fire scattered over an area about 60 feet across, with a small crater near the center. Johnson notified his headquarters at 4:20 p.m. By 5:40 p.m., Johnson and Gardener had gathered fragments of a metal casing and thermite pellets were scattered in the vicinity of the fire.
Johnson remained at the scene overnight, where he was joined the next day by other forest rangers. Together they collected more than 65 pounds of bomb fragments, now identified by markings on the casing as Japanese. These were delivered that night to the U.S. Army detachment at Brookings, where Army officers and an FBI agent eagerly awaited them for examination. The Army had previously been alerted to a possible bombing attack when a soldier coming off duty at an observation post on September 9 reported seeing an unidentified plane come in from seaward at 6 a.m. and heard one going out to sea about 6:30 a.m. Together the Army and the FBI concluded that Fujita’s bomb could have caused serious fires had not the forest been wet with unreasonable rain and fog. Fortunately, a strict U.S. ban on the broadcast of weather information along the Pacific coast may have averted a more serious fire by preventing this intelligence from reaching I-25 offshore. American government officials attempted to keep Fujita’s September 9 bombing attack secret, but so many people knew or had heard about it that the effort proved futile. Newspaper and radio accounts of of the attempted fire bombing caused considerable public consternation and demands for more protection for the American Western states. As a result, four additional fighter aircraft were temporarily stationed near the Washington coast. In addition, the FBI conducted a fruitless search for Japanese floatplanes hidden on one or more of the numerous remote Northwest lakes. Finally, blackouts became more rigidly enforced all along the West Coast.
After returning to I-25, Fujita was more determined than ever to drop the four remaining incendiary bombs carried aboard the submarine. Captain Tagami shared his enthusiasm. He advised his pilot, “We’ll make the next one a night attack, Fujita, for the Americans will be expecting another sunrise one.” True to his word, Tagami surfaced I-25 after midnight on September 29,1942, about 50 miles west of Cape Blanco. This time the entire west coast of Oregon, except for the Cape Blanco lighthouse, was blacked out. Fujita’s floatplane was catapulted into the darkness, and the pilot flew east beyond the Cape Blanco lighthouse for about half an hour before dropping the two incendiary bombs. Again Fujita was satisfied with the attack, as he observed two explosions of red fire in the forest below. In order to avoid detection, Fujita cut the Glen’s engine after passing the coastline and glided down to 1,000 feet before starting it again well out at sea, west of Cape Blanco. After some difficulty, Fujita located I-25 by an oil slick caused by a leak, and his plane was hoisted aboard.
Meanwhile, below in Oregon, a work crew of forest rangers was remodeling for winter occupation the Grassy Knob lookout station about seven miles east of Port Orford. At 5:22 a.m. they reported to ranger headquarters at Gold Beach the presence of an unidentified aircraft. Noise from the aircraft was described as like a “Model T with a rod out.” A fire-fighting patrol was sent out from Grassy Knob after daylight on September 29, but it found neither smoke nor any bomb debris during a fruitless two-day search. Neither of the incendiary bombs dropped by Fujita on his second attack has ever been found.
Bad weather and heavy seas precluded a final bombing attack with the remaining two bombs. Captain Tagami canceled the third mission, having decided to spend the rest of his patrol time in attacks on shipping. On October 11, I-25 fired her last torpedo and returned to Yokosuka, where Fujita discovered he was something of a national hero.
How significant were these two bombing attacks on Oregon, the only times in history that America has been bombed from the air? For the Japanese, they were clearly a major propaganda victory, one that made banner headlines on the home front and to some extent evened the score for the April 18, 1942, Jimmy Doolittle raid on Tokyo, itself a retaliatory raid in return for the Pearl Harbor attack. From a military standpoint, however, the bombing raids were virtually meaningless, because no serious fires were started or significant collateral damage inflicted. Likewise, although some public apprehension was caused by the attacks, no widespread panic developed on the U.S. West Coast, at least partially due to heavy press censorship. The raids were not repeated, because aircraft-carrying submarines gradually disappeared into the increasing category of obsolete weapons. Only one more Japanese submarine, I-12, operated off the West Coast during the remainder of the war. I-25 was sunk less than a year later by USS Patterson (DD-392) off the New Hebrides Islands on September 3, 1943.
Warrant Flying Officer Fujita continued reconnaissance flying until 1944, when he returned to Japan to train kamikaze pilots. His crewman, Petty Officer Okuda, was later killed in the South Pacific. After the war, Fujita opened a successful metal products sales business in Japan. Forestry student Johnson later became a U.S. Navy Captain and on January 24, 1974, held a luncheon reunion with Fujita in Tokyo. Executive officer Tatsuo Tsukudo of I-25 retired from the IJN as a vice admiral.