Engines of Our Ingenuity


by John H. Lienhard

Today, a war comes to an end. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Historian Jakob Bronowski defined war as "organized theft." Well, it certainly is; but who are the thieves? A war crimes tribunal struggled with that question after we'd beaten Japan in 1945. They put seven ranking Japanese to death; but that hardly settled the issue. Most combatants, on both sides, had done their duty and hoped they could return to normal lives - despite some who'd done bad things in the name of their county.

Take Japanese naval flying officer, Nobuo Fujita. He flew an E14Y - a reconnaissance seaplane based on a submarine. They stored it in a pod by the conning tower. Sailors assembled it on the deck when it needed to fly, and packed it up again when it returned.

Fujita and his Seaplane
Fujita and his Yokosuka E14Y seaplane, nicknamed Glen. (Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)

Then Jimmy Doolittle caught everyone off guard by bombing Tokyo; and the Japanese felt they must reply. So they sent Fujita off to bomb the west coast of America. His little plane could never have penetrated the heavy defenses around our major cities. Instead, they fitted it with two incendiary bombs, so he could set fire to our southern Oregon forests.

One bomb started a small fire near the coastal town of Brookings; but rangers soon put it out. Fujita made a second run three weeks later. No one noticed it having any effect at all. Our wet coastal forests thwarted the only airplane bombings of our Lower 48.

Fujita served out the rest of the war, then went home to work in a hardware store and for a company making wire. That would've been that; but a rare thing occured in 1962:

Three young Brookings Chamber of Commerce members learned of Fujita, and decided to invite him to their Azalea Festival that year. What a wonderful gesture! But they failed to account for older members who still simmered over well-documented Japanese atrocities. A terrible ruckus followed in Brookings. Shouting matches. Even a death threat. A few people had to be jailed.

Fujita heard about the backlash, but took his chances anyway. After all, he'd lost a brother in that same war. So he brought a gift - his family's most prized possession - a 400 year old Samurai sword. Now it's on permanent display in the in the Brookings Library. The angry voices faded as they saw the greater meaning in all this. Fujita was amazed at the good treatment he got in that little Oregon town. A real bond formed.

Later, he returned to Brookings, and they declared a Nobuo Fujita Day. They served the family submarine sandwiches decorated with small airplanes. Two years later he went to the spot where his bomb had fallen, and planted a redwood Tree of Friendship.

A high-school exchange program arose between Brookings and Fujita's town of Mitsukaido. Fujita raised money for a collection of children's books in the Library. Finally, Brookings made Fujita an honorary citizen in 1997, as he lay dying. His daughter brought some of his ashes to scatter near his Tree of Friendship. And, at least in one place, a terrible war really was over.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we’re interested in the way inventive minds work.

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See the Wikipedia article on Nobuo Fujita. Oregon Public Broadcasting posts this fine article on Fujita. It includes a very nice short video with many images. See also, the Wikipedia article on the rather remarkable Yokosuka E14Y seaplane whose only purpose was to do reconnaissance from submarines.

Fujita's bombing should not be confused with the unmanned Japanese Balloon Bombs, which were also ineffective, but which claimed their only casualties in Oregon. See Episode 1091.

The other American lands that suffered bombing were all islands. Beside Pearl Harbor (Oahu), they were, Guam, Wake, Kiska, Attu, Dutch Harbor, and we should include the Philippines since they were an American Commonwealth Nation at the time. The Japanese conquered and occupied all of those except Oahu and Dutch Harbor.

Typical coastal Oregon Forest
Typical wet forest of the south Oregon coast. Photo by J H. Lienhard, taken around 50 miles north of the Brookings site.

This episode was first aired on July 14, 2017

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2017 by John H. Lienhard.