On December 7, 1941, citizens across the nation who were listening to their radios heard through the static the shocking announcement. The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. World War II had begun. Fear of an attack on American soil was prevalent across the U.S., but especially along the West coast. As Les Ordway and George Shields remembered during oral history interviews taken by the Cannon Beach Historical Society, locals in Cannon Beach immediately took action, forming a beach patrol called “the Guerrillas,” guards were also placed at the Arch Cape Tunnel. After dark black outs were enforced across the West Coast. Car headlights were wired down, windows covered, and some families even used
candlelight rather than risk electricity.

Members of the Coast Guard's mounted beach patrol cross an inlet during their patrol on the west Coast.  The use of horses allowed the Coast Guard personnel to cover wide stretches of beach more quickly than on foot. Image courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Members of the Coast Guard’s mounted beach patrol cross an inlet during their patrol on the west Coast. The use of horses allowed the Coast Guard personnel to cover wide stretches of beach more quickly than on foot. Image courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Cannon Beach wasn’t alone in their fears. Tillamook had the Tillamook Rangers that patrolled the beaches with shotguns and .22s. In addition to the coast guard, civilian and National Guard patrols blimps were a regular sight along the Oregon coastline.
The blimp patrols were based out of a Naval Air Station located in Tillamook Oregon. The hangars that housed the
blimps were and still are considered the largest wooden structures ever built in the world. Visit the Tillamook Air Museum to see just how large these hangars really are! Rumors often ignited fear among Oregon Coast citizens.

Locally, a rumor spread that Japanese paratroopers were hiding out atop Marys Peak. Some tried to leave the coast and head for the inland. Local families had “grub boxes” with provisions packed and ready to disappear into the hills
in the event of an attack.

Soldiers at Fort Stevens inspecting a shell crater in a patch of skunk cabbage just outside of the Fort.

Soldiers at Fort Stevens inspecting a shell crater in a patch of skunk cabbage just outside of the Fort.

The shelling of Fort Stevens didn’t help the feelings of fear and doubt. In June 1942, an offshore Japanese submarine shelled Fort Stevens. Many argue that this was nothing more than an exploratory shelling or just a show of force against the U.S. What the attack succeeded in doing was showing local coastal families what Japan was capable of. To make matters worse there was the more serious attacks of Japanese collapsible-wing airplanes that dropped incendiary bombs on coastal forests. These incendiary bombs were dropped mainly in Southern Oregon and their goal was believed to be to ignite uncontrollable forest fires. The first one was dropped just outside of Brookings in the Siskiyou National Forest. Initially, these findings weren’t released publicly. According to the Oregon State Defense Council the reason for this was to keep the knowledge of the bombings from reaching Japan.

Towards the end of the war Japan made what is considered by many historians to be a last ditch effort. In November 1944, Japan began launching balloons carrying explosive and incendiary bombs. These balloon bombs drifted east along the jet stream to the west coast of the United States. Of 9,000 balloon bombs that Japan admitted to sending to the U.S. there were only 342 incidents. Of these, forty-five occurred in Oregon. Of all of these incidents only one resulted in casualties. On May 5, 1945, a pastor’s wife and several children accidentally triggered one of these balloon bombs.  This is considered the only casualty to have occurred on the continental United States during the war.

A Japanese balloon bomb.

A Japanese balloon bomb.

While they varied in size and design, many of the balloons measured about 100 feet in circumference and about 33 feet in diameter. The ingenious design helped them drift along the newly discovered fast moving jet stream at an average elevation of 30,000 feet.

In January 2015, NPR released a historic piece about these balloon bombs. The article indicated that many remain unaccounted for. While seemingly innocuous these bombs can still present a serious danger as many of the explosives could have degraded and become more volatile than before.
Thankfully, the Second World War ended on September 2, 1945. This year the Cannon Beach History Center & Museum will mark the seventieth anniversary of the end of the war with an exhibit on WWII on the Oregon coast. The exhibit will feature stories, memories and history relating to the war and to the experiences of those who lived here.  The exhibit will open on Friday and Saturday, May 22 and 23 with presentations from Alisha Hamel of the Oregon National Guard’s historic outreach program and Willamette University Professor Ellen Eisenberg.  Both presentations will begin at 7:00 p.m.  See the Museum’s website or Facebook page for more information on these events.

This program was made possible in part by a grant from Oregon Humanities (OH), a statewide nonprofit organization and an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which funds OH’s grant program.

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