An Oregon town’s special friendship with the man who once tried to destroy it
The year was 1961. Nearly 20 years had come and gone since a tiny seaplane, 6,000 miles from home, buzzed over Brookings, Oregon, to bomb the American homeland for the first time in history. The event was still relatively recent, but it was well on its way to being forgotten.
Three members of the Brookings Junior Chamber of Commerce, on their way home from a planning meeting for the upcoming Brookings Azalea Festival, stopped by a tavern to have a beer. Over glasses of suds, one of them, Doyle Rausch, mentioned that as a youngster during the war he’d heard that airplane flying over the town on its way to drop its bombs. The other two — Doug Peterson and Bill McChesney — were floored. A Japanese plane? Dropped a bomb near Brookings? Why hadn’t they ever heard about this?
Rausch quickly filled them in on the story, and Peterson hatched an idea on the spot: Why not try to track down the pilot and invite him to Brookings as part of the Azalea Festival?
A few months later, the Jaycees were swapping letters with Fujita, and they’d agreed to try to bring him to town. They figured it would cost about $3,000 to do it.
Three grand was a lot of money to raise, but the plan faced bigger obstacles than that. Remember, to be in the Jaycees you had to be a fairly young businessman — at age 41, you were out. That meant most of the Jaycees had been too young to serve in the war, or had served in the last few years of the war when Japan’s forces were mostly beaten and somewhat pathetic — the “Marianas turkey shoot” phase of the war.
But older residents of Brookings remembered a different Japan, one that had moved from strength to strength and shown scant mercy to its defeated enemies. Some of them thought bringing Fujita to town as a publicity play was outrageous. And they were not shy about expressing those views.
“Fujita’s only claim to fame is that he is the only (Japanese) pilot who has bombed the mainland of the United States by airplane,” noted a full-page ad in the Brookings-Harbor Pilot, signed by 141 people. “We the undersigned residents of the Brookings-Harbor area are absolutely opposed to such kind of publicity.”
Two things happened to change this sentiment. First, recognizing that promoting tourism was a somewhat crass motivation for such a somber and serious visit, the Jaycees reevaluated their reasons for inviting Fujita. They still felt he should be invited to visit, but they agreed that it should be for purposes of fostering international peace and goodwill. A defeated enemy coming with hand extended in friendship and mutual forgiveness — that’s a powerful story, and one that’s badly cheapened if it’s used to promote tourism.
Secondly, in a gesture reminiscent of Chief Joseph, Fujita announced he would be giving his family’s sword — a priceless original katana, 400 years old, forged in the age of the Samurai and carried into battle by a dozen generations of Fujita’s ancestors as well as by Fujita himself — to the city of Brookings.
All of which was good enough for some of the town’s most influential combat veterans to reverse their positions on Fujita’s visit, fueled by respect for a defeated enemy who had performed an act of remarkable audacity and made easier by the fact that no one had gotten hurt. Opposition to the visit started melting away.
Fujita was still a little worried about how he might be received, though. After all, he had tried his hardest to burn this town to the ground and kill everybody in it, and now here he was riding into town in a car with its mayor. He knew there had been some initial resistance, and he’d even reportedly gotten a couple threatening letters from Bandon residents.
“I was quite sure that once in Brookings I would be beaten up, people would throw eggs at me and shout insults at me,” he later admitted.
When he arrived with his family, though, Fujita found himself treated like a celebrity. His motorcade was stopped in Coos Bay so that a large crowd could welcome him, and again in Bandon so that the local Jaycees there could celebrate his arrival with a special reception that they’d prepared. When he finally got to Brookings, he was given the Key to the City and the family was treated like a visiting delegation of dignitaries.
The Fujitas participated in the Azalea festival, watched the parade, and were taken up in a small aircraft to fly over Mount Emily, where Fujita had dropped his bombs. The following Monday, Fujita ceremoniously presented his 400-year-old sword to the city, and the Jaycees presented him with a plaque engraved with the words, “To Nobuo Fujita, Ambassador of Good Will and Peace.”
It was to be the first of many visits by Fujita and his family to Brookings, and of a sort of international exchange program that included some visits by high school students. It also developed into something like a sister-cities relationship between Brookings and Fujita’s city, Mitsukaido.
In 1990, Fujita and his family came out again for the Azalea Festival — just a visit this time, nothing official. But Mayor Fred Hummel declared May 25 “Nobuo Fujita Day,” and the city welcomed its former foe again with open arms, treating him to a lunch of submarine sandwiches — garnished, in Fujita’s case, with a small airplane made of pickles. Everyone got a good chuckle.
He came back again two years later, more quietly this time, to plant a redwood tree on the bomb site as a memorial and a symbol of international peace and goodwill on the 50-year anniversary of the raid.
Throughout the early 1990s, Fujita and his family came to Brookings several more times, despite the aviator’s declining health. The nephew of his observer, Shoji Okuda, killed in a Kamikaze operation in 1944, also visited.
In late 1997, Brookings learned Fujita was in bad health and not expected to recover. The City Council voted to make him an honorary citizen, and word was passed to him in time for him to hear the news and smile. A few days later, on Sept. 30, he died.
Nobuo Fujita had requested that a portion of the ashes from his cremation be buried at the bomb site. In October 1998, his daughter returned to Brookings to fulfill this request.
(Sources: McCash, Bill. Bombs Over Brookings. Bend: Maverick, 2005; Angelucci, Enzo & al. World War II Airplanes, Vol. 2. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1977); ww2db.com)
Finn J.D. John is an instructor at Oregon State University and the author of “Wicked Portland,” a book about the dark side of Oregon’s metropolis in the 1890s. He produces a daily podcast, reading archives from this column, at offbeatoregon.com/itunes. To contact him or suggest a topic: firstname.lastname@example.org, @OffbeatOregon (on Twitter), or 541-357-2222.