Dale Says

May 18, 2021

Ina Coolbrith: The Saving Power of Poetry

Filed under: Colorful Characters, Historical Article — Mr. D @ 5:46 pm

On top of San Francisco’s Russian Hill, on Vallejo Street between Mason and Taylor, is a small park with wonderful views of the Pyramid Building and Bay Bridge. It’s a quiet and secluded spot where tourists and locals can rest, reflect, and read about the San Francisco poet the park is named for.

Ina Donna Coolbrith struggled throughout her life with personal loss, family obligation, and illness. But through dogged persistence she became one of the best-known and most loved poets of her time.

Born in Navoo, Illinois March 10, 1841, her mother named her Josephina after her uncle, Joseph Smith (founder of the Morman faith). Her father died of malaria when she was five months old, followed by her sister. Her mother re-married, moved the family (including 11-year-old “Ina,” as the family called her) by wagon train to California, and supported the family while her new husband invested in failed gold mines. The family relocated to San Francisco, and then Los Angeles.

Ina fell in love with poetry on the way west, reading Shakespeare and Byron, and making up poems during the long, dreary days on the trail. She published her first poem in a Los Angeles newspaper at age 15. Two years later she married Robert Carsely, an ironworker, who abused her, and she lost a baby boy. She divorced, moved to San Francisco, and changed her name to Ina Coolbrith (her mother’s maiden name).

San Francisco and poetry became her refuge. She taught school, wrote poems, and developed friendships with writers and poets of the day – including Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Charles Stoddard, Joaquin Miller, and Ambrose Bierce. When the all-male Bohemian Club formed in 1872, Ina was made an honorary member.

Ina’s responsibilities grew when her sister died and left two children in her care, followed by her ill mother, and Joaquin Miller’s daughter. Suddenly, Ina had a lot of mouths to feed. She became head librarian of Oakland’s library, where she worked for 18 years. When she was abruptly fired (without cause) she became the Bohemian Club librarian. From her house on Russian Hill, she hosted writing salons and composed poems. Over time, she became a leading West Coast poet, and her work was familiar to a generation of Californians.

Ina never re-married. Men called on her and friends (including John Muir) tried to play matchmaker, and while she was admired by many men and may have had a tryst or two, in the end, her true loves were San Francisco and poetry.

The 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed Ina’s house and burned much of her writing. Friends took her in and collected donations to help rebuild her home on Russian Hill. She continued to write poetry and remained a vital part of the San Francisco literary scene for decades. She outlived most of her contemporaries and (despite severe rheumatoid arthritis) continued to write until her death at age 86, February 29, 1928.

There have been many tributes to San Francisco’s “Queen of the Meuses.” Books have been written about her, a mountain in the Sierras is named for her, and a park on Russian Hill is dedicated to her. But perhaps the utmost recognition was when she was named California’s poet laureate (the first in the U.S.) during the 1915 Pan-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco.

On the second day of the exhibition a standing-room-only crowd assembled to see Ina crowned. Poet Edwin Markham described her accomplishments. Senator Phelan introduced her. When the president of the University of California presented her with a laurel crown the audience cheered, waved white handkerchiefs, and threw flowers at her feet.

Ina was typically modest: “For those who are passed away and for my sister women,” she told the crowd, “I accept this laurel with deep gratitude and deeper humility.”

To San Francisco
By: Ina Coolbrith (1841-1928)

Fair on your hills, my City,
Fair as the Queen of old,
Supreme in her seven-hilled splendor-
You, from your Gate of Gold,

Facing the orient sunburst,
Swathed in the sunset gleams,
Throned in an ultimate glory,
City of mists and of dreams!

April 13, 2015

Little Round Top

Filed under: Colorful Characters, Historical Article, Profile — Dale @ 10:57 am

It had already been quite a trip! Paul and I had flown across country from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. on our way to tour Civil War battlefields. Paul is a Civil War expert and he had done this trip many times, but not recently. His Parkinson’s was getting pretty bad, and he wanted to make one more journey to view the battlefields and re-live the history that was made there.
It was not an easy trip for Paul. The Parkinson’s was causing a fair amount of uncontrolled movement, and Paul was no longer steady on his feet. He now travelled with a cane, which he called that “Stupid Cane,” and he had to take a series of medicines every four hours to kept the involuntary movement to a minimum. Walking distances was a problem, and we used wheelchairs to get through the airports.
But Paul perked up once we hit the battlefields at Gettysburg, and he related the history of each area as though reading from a textbook. I was a student travelling with the professor, and I enjoyed the lessons.
We followed the three-day battles in sequence, and Paul pointed out where each division of Union and Confederate troops was positioned, told me who commanded each brigade, and pointed out the strategy each side used in positioning and moving artillery and troops. The scenes developed for me as he related what happened and when.
When we reached the third (and last) day of fighting, he got visually agitated; this was the climax of the battle, and as it turned out, the peak of the war. We drove through the fields and he had me pause next to the monuments of his favorite brigades. I could tell we were nearing the pinnacle. We rounded a corner and he pointed out that we could now see Little Round Top, the mid-sized hill where so much of the action took place, and where the battle was decided. We drove up the hill, paused near the top, and got out. He used his arms to show me where the Union and Confederate troops were positioned, and he explained the importance of taking the hill to eliminate the deadly cannon fire that was being rained down on the Confederate troops. He paused and I thought he was finished, so I headed to the car. He wasn’t with me, so I turned back to see what had happened to him. He was walking up the hill. I chased him down and asked where he was going.
“I didn’t come all the way here to not go to the top of Little Round Top,” was his answer.
So Paul used his stupid cane, his one good knee, and a whole lot of determination to walk the path to the top of Little Round Top. I followed.
Once he reached the peak a new look came over Paul’s face. It was a mix of pain, exhaustion, and joy. This was his nirvana; this was the ground he knew so well. He showed me where the troops from Texas had charged up the hill, and where they were met by round-after-round of deadly rifle fire by the northern troops. He pointed out where bodies had been found the next day, in piles, lying where they were shot. He pointed out where the Northern Iron Brigade defending the hill had run out of ammunition and been ordered to fix bayonets and charge down the hill, into the waves of approaching Confederate troops.
He made it all come alive.
It was a while before Paul could bring himself to leave. When he did, I looked at his face. He had a look that told me he was satisfied. He had come to the spot that meant so much to the U.S., and to him. He had one more look at it, and that was what he needed.
We will all face our end sometime; some sooner than others. Paul is facing his now. I hope when my turn comes I can follow his example – do what you love, do it with passion, and do it with courage.

March 27, 2012

Remembering Sioux Army Depot

Filed under: Historical Article — Dale @ 2:51 pm

They stand like lonely outposts, vestiges of a bygone era, and from a distance on a clear day they look like an enormous prairie dog town. The 801 ammunition storage igloos at the former Sioux Army Depot are nearly forgotten now, lined up in the wheat fields outside Sidney, Nebraska as far as the eye can see. Once used to store weapons needed to fight wars, they are now filled with grain, farm equipment, and junk.

This vast and largely-deserted former Army depot once served a vital service, and it was home for many area residents. In the war-torn years of the 1940s, it was a vibrant and thriving community. People worked at the depot and some lived nearby in a community called Ordville. The jobs weren’t glamorous and life in Ordville wasn’t luxurious, but workers were happy to have work and their families were happy to have homes.

The Depot’s Mission

In March of 1942, a few months after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Army picked a site near Sidney to provide additional storage for ammunition being used to fight World War II. The decision was based on Sidney’s dry climate and its location: near a major rail line and central enough to allow easy shipping to both coasts. In all, there were four munitions plants in Nebraska during World War II at Hastings, Mead, Grand Island, and Sidney which collectively employed as many as 17,000 employees. Construction of the 36-square mile depot 12 miles northwest of Sidney began in the summer of 1942.

The mission of the Sidney Ordnance Depot (the name was later changed to Sioux Army Depot) was to receive, store, and issue all types of ammunition and military supplies.

Construction of the depot was completed in less than a year, and the first shipment of ammunition was received in December of 1942. It operated continuously for the next 25 years, serving the U.S. during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.

The depot occupied 19,771 acres and included 801 ammunition storage igloos, 22 general supply warehouses, 392 support buildings, 225 family living quarters, 51 miles of railroad tracks, and 203 miles of roads. It employed between 625 and 2,161 civilian employees, who worked alongside a small number of Army personnel.

Displaced Farmers

To build the depot, the U.S. government purchased farmland north and west of Sidney, in the process displacing thirty-five families. The farmers received fair value for their land, but they were given very short notice and asked to immediately move off their farms. Many were naturally reluctant to give up the land and buildings that were their homes.

Pete and Carrie Beyer were typical of the families forced off their land.

“The first we knew anything was up was when we saw the surveyors out taking their sightings,” their son Leonard told the Sidney Telegraph. “My dad went out to talk to them and 30 days later we were gone.”

(Note: Leonard lived and worked on that farm from a very early age. He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II and returned to the farm after the war, purchased his family home from the government, and moved it out of the depot. He and his wife lived in that house until his death in September, 2011).

Sidney Transformed

Construction of the depot transformed Sidney from a quiet farming community into a 24-hour boomtown. During 1942, construction workers and depot employees more than tripled Sidney’s population, from 3,300 to over 10,000. Workers poured into Sidney and every available spare room was converted to housing. But it was not enough. A trailer camp was set up at the county fair grounds on the west side of Sidney to provide temporary housing, and a second encampment was established on the east side of town.

The influx of people overwhelmed Sidney. Every vacant living quarter was occupied, and in some cases rooms were rented on an eight-hour basis. Cafes ran out of food and closed their doors, and all types of businesses were swamped with demands for essentials that were in short supply because of wartime restrictions and shortages.

During the summer and fall of 1942 depot payrolls exceeded $200,000 a week. On paydays, workers lined up outside Sidney banks to cash their payroll checks. The hourly wage was $0.89, which was not exactly a fortune, but worth a lot more than it is today, and high enough to attract workers.

Additional Housing

More housing was needed in Sidney, and the Federal Public Housing Administration provided assistance by contracting with local developers to build an additional 150 homes. A contract for the first 44 houses was acquired by a construction company in Omaha, and by late summer of 1942 plans were announced for three additional housing projects, including duplexes in the Trognitz Addition, and houses in two locations near city park.

In addition, an apartment complex called Sioux Villa was developed to accommodate depot workers. Those apartments still stand in the northwest section of Sidney.

Ordville

Near the depot, the Federal Public Housing Agency laid out streets and constructed rows of apartments for workers. This housing, called Ordville, started in February of 1943 and by the end of 1943, eighty-five apartment buildings had been completed, containing 215 bachelor units, 99 one bedroom units, 111 two bedroom units, and 17 three bedroom units. Total capacity was 1,360 people. These one-story apartments were arranged on a diagonal and constructed of concrete block. They originally had flat roofs that were changed to gables in 1957.

The Ordville complex was not part of the depot itself, but was self-contained housing outside the depot. Life at Ordville wasn’t luxurious. The streets were dirt, the apartments were small, and heating and cooking was from coal, stored in bins outside the apartments. Lila Dearing lived there as a 7th-grade student, and she remembers that although the apartments were small and rather plain, people in those days were happy to have them, and they made their apartments into homes and took good care of them. She also remembers that Ordville became a community and there were “jillions” of other kids to play with and lots to do. There were a few services for the housing itself, including a gas station, grocery store, barber shop, post office, and a housing office. Residents could also go into the depot and use their facilities as needed, which included a base exchange, a doctor (and later a hospital), cafeteria, soda fountain, dispensary, bowling alley, and movie theater.

Initially, grade school students were bused to Brownson, but later an elementary school was operated at the depot. Older children were bused to school in Sidney.

Because of its location, Ordville and the depot were subject to wind and snow storms, and they were greatly impacted by the Blizzard of ’49. Carl Farmer told The Scottsbluff Star-Herald that his family of eight was in Ordville when the blizzard hit. Temperatures reached 17 below zero with two feet of snow and winds as high as 70 miles per hour. Ordville lost electrical power during the storm and Carl’s father had to work around the clock to keep depot roads open. An airplane from Lowry Field in Denver dropped a load of food supplies and other necessities, and Carl used sleds to help transport the supplies to the grocery store, where they could be distributed to depot residents.

Depot Workers

Depot employees came from the local area, nearby towns such as Dalton, Gurley, and Lodgepole, and from across the U.S. Many Sidney residents took jobs at the depot, filling a variety of roles.

Kay Fehringer was one of the Sidney residents who worked at the depot during World War II. She stayed at an apartment in Sidney, and each morning she walked to the corner of highway 30 and 15th street and waited along with other depot workers for a bus to take her to the depot. Kay worked in the Mail Department, which was in the basement of the Administration building. Colonel Preble, depot commander, and other high-ranking staff had offices on other floors of the building. Along with around seven others, Kay took care of mail, messages and made copies. Other depot workers did bookkeeping, recording, filing, and operated a teletype machine to send and receive messages from all over the country. They were instructed to immediately deliver messages that came in for Col. Preble.

With the war in full stride and many local men and women in the military, it was difficult to find enough local people to fill the available depot jobs. At one point, buses were sent to Denver to recruit labor among the unemployed, but by the time the busses arrived at Sidney many of the men had usually disappeared. Those still remaining would typically work for a week or so and then leave without notice (and sometimes without even picking up their checks).

At one point, the Army recruited Nisei (Japanese-Americans) who had been relocated to internment camps during World War II to help fill the labor shortages at the depot.

And the Army also used prisoners of war (POWs) to help with the work. When overseas POW camps reached capacity, the government moved some prisoners to ammunition depots in the U.S. where they could be kept under guard by personnel at the depot – and help with the work. At one point in the spring of 1944, Sioux Army Depot had as many as 600 POWs, roughly half Italians and half Germans.

Prisoners were not forced to work, but most were eager to do something, and those willing to work served as laborers, engineers, carpenters, automobile mechanics, typists, cooks, etc. They were sent to various sections of the Depot where they labored alongside civilians and Army personnel.

When not working, the prisoners still had plenty to do. For recreation, an athletic field was built inside the stockade and the POWs enjoyed sporting events there – especially soccer. They were also allowed to go to the movie house, and they played cards, and sang. Most of their songs were from their native land, but they also learned and sang American songs.

Although prisoners were not allowed to touch civilians at the depot, it did not keep one homesick Italian POW from writing notes to a young American girl who worked at the Depot. Nor did it keep young Italian prisoners from establishing relationships with American girls which, in one case led later to marriage.

Layout of the Depot

The magazine area covered the largest area of the depot. To the east were the ammunition packing, receiving, and shipping buildings. Located approximately one mile east were two rows of magazine buildings, constructed of clay tile with full length loading platforms. Roads connected those buildings to the rest of the depot and ran along the north.

Igloos

The remaining magazine areas contained 801 earth covered ammunition igloos – domed structures of concrete and steel designed to store ammunition. A small grouping of twenty igloos that housed more volatile ammunition was isolated from the others, located to the southeast of the main area.

Today, there are 801 storage igloos at Sioux Army Depot. Local farmer, Ray Franzen, said there were originally 802, but there was an explosion in one as ammunition was being handled. According to Ray, two workers were preparing to move bombs from the igloos and the bombs “didn’t look right.” As the workers were trying to decide what to do about it, one of the bombs blew up, killing one of the workers and throwing the other onto a conveyer belt. That worker survived, but the igloo was never re-built.

The igloos were designed in a rounded shape so the force of an explosion would be directed upward rather than outward. They were made of reinforced concrete with thick front walls and floors and heavy latched metal doors. Each was around twenty feet high and fifty feet in diameter (about the size of a small house). The roofs include air vents and are covered by earth, to camouflage the igloos from the air. Between igloos, earthen bunkers were built to help deflect material in case of an explosion.

East-west roads connected individual igloos separated in groupings of approximately 100. North-south roads at the edges of each of these groupings connected them to each other and to the receiving and shipping areas. The railroad tracks that ran along the eastern edge of this area are gone, but some of the buildings that served as a transition from rail to road transportation remain.

After World War II

Work continued at the depot after World War II. In 1946 the mission of the depot was modified to include identification, classification, and sorting of bombs and supplies returned from overseas.

A property disposal unit was established at the depot, and returning ammunition and supplies were accepted, processed, and stored. A year later, much of the post-war processing had been accomplished and the number of personnel at the depot was reduced.

When the Korean War ended in 1953, a second demolition area was set up at the depot to handle returning ammunition, and during 1954 the depot operated at full strength. The depot also took on additional life as two oil companies began drilling nearby for oil.
In 1964, it was announced that a federal manpower retraining program would be housed at the depot under the supervision of the Sidney Public Schools. The Sidney Occupational Training Center officially began classes on December 14, 1964 with an enrollment of over 120 students. . Occupational training was provided in auto mechanics, auto body, tractor mechanics, office clerk, porter, pastry baker, and assistant restaurant manager.

Deactivation

After 25 years of continuous operation, Sioux Army Depot was deactivated June 30. 1967. It was a sad day for the remaining depot workers, and a sad day for Sidney. Jimmy Phelps told The Sidney Telegraph he was the last employee to leave and when he clocked out at 3:30 PM he took the time clock off the wall, packed it, and shipped it to the government.

Since the depot closed, the Army and the town of Sidney have tried several options of using former depot facilities. The Western Nebraska Vocational Technical School (later renamed the Western Nebraska Technical College) occupied part of the depot, and some of the property has been leased to industrial and retail organizations. Today, Adams Industries has several buildings at the former depot, and other buildings are operated by Cabela’s and Glover Industries.

After the depot was deactivated, a group of local farmers banded together, formed a non-profit company, and bought igloos and land from the government. One of them, Pete Beyer, was among the 35 farm families that were originally displaced when the depot was first developed. Today, some of the igloos are used to store grain and farm equipment, while others are rented out for storage.

Ghosts of a Bygone Era

These days things are pretty quiet at the Sioux Army Depot. The railroad tracks are gone and the administration buildings are time-worn. There are some signs of life – a couple of industrial concerns, a store, and a few restored apartments. But most of the former depot is deserted and deteriorating. Some of the igloos store grain, which is the lifeblood of this part of the country, but many of the others sit empty. The depot served a gallant purpose and helped Sidney flourish in another time. Now most of the buildings, like the igloos, are ghosts of a bygone era.

October 1, 2010

Buchenwald

Filed under: Historical Article — Dale @ 3:40 pm

April 11, 1945 turned out to be a very different day than any other in the young life of Private First Class Jim Struthers. World War II was nearing an end and for months Struthers had been part of a platoon of U.S. Army medics whose job was to haul wounded soldiers to aid stations and then to evacuation hospitals. He had seen his share of wounded and dead men, and he had also seen a lot of gore. He was attached to the Third Army, an armored division, and his job had ranged from identifying dead soldiers to treating injured soldiers in the field and transporting them to care units. But today was different — today they entered the notorious concentration camp of Buchenwald.

The first thing Private Struthers remembers were stacks and stacks of skeletons — bodies waiting to be cremated. They were piled up 4-5 feet high around this “forced labor” camp. The survivors were gaunt and desparate, weakly watching the U.S. soldiers file past. He saw two prisoners fighting over a blanket, ready to kill each other over something so seemingly trivial.

Prisoners were sent to Buchenwald from all over Europe and Russia — Jews, Poles, religious and political prisioners, gypsies, homosexuals — anyone the Germans disliked. Once there, they were worked to death or executed by bullet, hanging, or medical experimentation. Estimates place the number who died at Buchenwald at around 56,000.

Freeing the survivors at Buchenwald should have been a gratifying day in Private Struther’s life; instead, it turned out to be a turning point. That day, as he stared at the piles of bodies and saw the hopeless looks from the survivors he gave up his plans to be a physician and decided instead to become a minister. Others could heal bodies, he decided, he would spend the rest of his life trying to heal minds and hearts.

June 12, 2007

The Shelling of Fort Stevens

Filed under: Historical Article — Dale @ 11:39 am

When U.S. Army Captain Jack Wood heard the first shell explode at around 11:30 PM, he jumped off his cot and ran up the steps to his post. More shells whistled overhead, then landed and blew apart. It was Sunday June 21, 1942, and it had been a quiet, sunny day at Fort Stevens, one of three forts that guarded the mouth of the Columbia River near Astoria, Oregon. It was anything but quiet now. As commander of Fort Stevens’ Battery Russell, Wood’s first responsibilities were to oversee readiness of two 10-inch guns, and to determine who was firing, and from where. He sat down at the position finder and tried to fix the cross hairs on the gun flashes. The shells were coming from the sea, most likely from an enemy submarine, at a distance he estimated to be around 10-11 miles – just out of range of the World War I vintage guns under his command.

Still, Captain Wood wanted to fire back. He and his men had endured months of monotonous training and dreary weather preparing for this situation, and they were ready and eager to defend their country from enemy attack.

But permission to return fire was denied, and Captain Wood and his men were unable to retaliate that night. Fortunately, the shells, which were fired by a single Japanese submarine, caused little damage and no casualties. Yet this relatively obscure World War II incident, the first enemy attack on a U.S. mainland military base since the War of 1812, did much to change attitudes about the war. It increased fear of a Japanese invasion and brought the war home to Americans who had previously thought of it as an overseas event. It also led to greater awareness and preparation, and ultimately caused changes in the way the U.S. guarded its coasts.

Trained, ready, and trigger happy
By June of 1942, the U.S. was fully engaged in World War II. Still reeling from the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor six months earlier, most Americans were now involved in the war: serving in or supplying the military, volunteering for a variety of war-related efforts, or buying war bonds.

The war wasn’t going well for the Allies. Germany was still making gains in North Africa and the Soviet Union, and Japanese aggression continued in Asia. Americans living on the West Coast feared Japanese attacks, and civilian defense groups drilled the public on where to go and what to do in case of an air raid.

Soldiers at Fort Stevens had practiced loading and firing their guns for months. They were well trained, ready, and possibly a little trigger happy. Joseph Burdic, a soldier at Fort Stevens, remembered that a ship went aground just off the Oregon coast and lost its load of Christmas trees. The men at Fort Stevens noticed a light at sea and objects floating toward the beach, assumed an invasion, and went into action. “I don’t know how many rounds of .30 caliber ammunition were fired at the Christmas trees,” Burdic said.

The Doolittle Raid three months earlier (April, 1942) had further increased concern of a Japanese air raid. By bombing Japanese cities, that daring U.S. strike boosted Allied morale and showed that the Japanese home islands could be attacked. Japanese high command was “deeply embarrassed,” and decided to retaliate by striking the U.S. mainland. Shortly thereafter, nine Japanese submarines (“I-boats”) were ordered to patrol the U.S. West Coast. Japanese submarine I-25 arrived off the coast of Oregon on June 14, 1942.

Aboard Japanese submarine I-25
At 11:30 PM on June 21, Commander Tagami of the Imperial Japanese Navy ordered submarine I-25 to stop and prepare to fire. Earlier that day, the submarine had used a screen of fishing boats to avoid minefields and slip into position nearly eight miles west of Fort Stevens. The crew positioned the 125-foot submarine so the stern faced the coast and the deck gun was centered over the stern. All 108 crewmen were at battle stations. This would be the first time the submarine had fired on enemy shores.

Tagami was well prepared for this moment. He had been in charge of the submarine since it was commissioned the previous October, and he had led the crew in several encounters with freighters and battle ships at various points throughout the Pacific.

Tagami’s orders were clear: a week earlier Rear Admiral Yamazaki had directed a group of Japanese submarines (including the I-25) to shell military targets on the American West Coast. Tagami’s immediate objective was to attack a U.S. Navy submarine and destroyer base, which he believed was located at Tongue Point, near the mouth of the Columbia River. (In reality, the base had been approved, but not yet developed.)

Tagami wasn’t worried about being seen from the Oregon shore. His submarine was painted black, the lights had been extinguished, and it would take a powerful search light to spot it.

But he wasn’t sure what would happen afterward.

He didn’t think U.S. defense guns had enough range to hit his submarine this far out, but he didn’t know what, if any, aerial forces were nearby. His crew was ready to quickly return to sea, just in case.

Tagami ordered his crew to fire. The muzzle of the deck gun exploded and the first of the 16-inch long, 60-pound shells headed toward the coast. The crew passed a new shell, reloaded the gun, and after a bright flash and deafening explosion another missile was on its way. In all, 17 shells were fired. The gunnery crew didn’t use their gun sight (which they kept free in case they were attacked by air) – they just shot with the deck gun elevated to 30-40 degrees.

At 11:45 PM, the last shell was on its way and Commander Tagami ordered the crew below deck except for two lookouts. Then the sub headed west, passing unseen by several fishing boats and a blacked out Coast Guard ship, on its way to the open sea.

Tagami would have no way of knowing where the shells landed, or what effect they had. His job was finished for the day.

At Fort Stevens
Fort Stevens quickly became a madhouse after the first shell hit, with soldiers yelling and scrambling to get dressed and to their posts. A warning siren was wailing and one man ran into a parked truck and cut his head, which added to the confusion. Within a few minutes the men had the guns at Battery Russell loaded and ready to fire.

Powerful search lights, capable of exposing the submarine, were in place all along the beach. Momentarily, one of the lights was turned on, and then quickly extinguished after an officer threatened to shoot it out.

While waiting for the order to return fire, Captain Wood and his men considered their options. Since they couldn’t tell exactly where the shots were coming from, they decided to focus on the flashes from the submarine and fire their guns over and under the flashes, like field artillery pieces. If they weren’t able to hit the sub, that approach should at least scare it away.

Eventually a response was received: “Do not fire – I repeat do not fire.”

Wood’s men were unhappy. There was grumbling from soldiers at the guns and in the ammunition rooms below. Richard Emery, who was a soldier at Fort Stevens that night, said, “We were frustrated. There was a lot of anger. We felt that we should have been able to fire back.”

It appears that Major Robert Huston, who was the Senior Duty Officer that night, made the decision. It was a tough call, and a part of him wished he could have gone along with Captain Wood. He knew the effect it would have on troop morale and on his fellow officers. His decision was later supported by his superior, Colonel Doney, who when the attack started was in bed in his quarters.

At Battery Russell, Captain Wood and his crew remained at their positions, ready to fire if the orders changed. Eventually, when they were sure the submarine was gone, they unloaded the guns and returned the ammunition and powder to the supply rooms.

Because he was a professional officer, Captain Wood took the order in stride. His job was finished for the day.

Why didn’t the U.S. return fire?
Following the attack, there was a good deal of speculation about the decision to not return fire. One outlandish rumor was the officers had been drunk and unable to issue the order to fire. Another was the officers decided not to take action because the U.S. Army would have been required to give combat pay to soldiers who returned fire.

But a more plausible explanation was provided the next day by Major Huston and Colonel Doney. Based on the best estimates available that night, the submarine appeared to be out of range, so why give away defense positions to a target that couldn’t be hit?

Was the submarine really out of range? Probably not. Subsequent interviews with the submarine’s crew indicated it was around eight miles off shore, which, if correct, was within range of Fort Steven’s guns.

Was the submarine really trying to locate U.S. coastal defense positions? Probably not. After the war, Commander Tagami told author Bert Webber, “If I had any idea those cannons were right in front of me I would never have been there.”

“Too damned close”
Fortunately, the shells launched by Commander Tagami’s submarine caused negligible damage. They left man-sized craters in the beach and shell fragments all around Battery Russell. One shell damaged the backstop of a baseball diamond within 100 yards of Battery Russell, and another landed near a beach house in which three children trembled together in bed. Another hit a power line which eventually rusted through and broke.

When asked the next day how close the shells had come to the military post, Colonel Doney told reporters, “Too damned close.”

A more serious war
Despite military readiness and air raid drills, some Americans were skeptical of an enemy invasion, believing the Japanese were too busy fighting in Asia and the U.S. coastal defenses were dauntingly strong. But the attack on Fort Stevens changed a lot of minds. It brought the war home to Americans and changed the perception of World War II as an overseas event. “The next morning my feelings about the war had changed,” recalled Helen Healy, a civilian who lived near Fort Stevens.

For some Americans, the attack also increased their sense of vulnerability. “(It) made me realize that there really was an enemy lurking off our shores who might attack the mainland of the United States at any time,” recalled Margaret Swindler, a civilian who lived in Oregon during the attack.

And it increased readiness. Richard Emery, a soldier at Fort Stevens said, “Before the attack we were all just a little bit complacent. After the attack happened, we realized that we were vulnerable.”

Newspapers throughout the country ran front page accounts of the attack. The New York Times reported, “Foe’s Shells Fall on Oregon Coast,” and the San Francisco News gave an extensive account of the attack headlined, “Oregon Coast Shelled.” In a bit of war propaganda, Tokyo Radio erroneously reported that residents of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico were “panic stricken and are leaving in huge numbers for the interior.”

Improvements to U.S. coastal defenses
The shelling of Fort Stevens and the fact that an enemy vessel had “outreached” U.S. defenses led to several enhancements in the way the U.S. defended its coasts.

o Following the attack, The U.S. military strung thirty-four miles of barbed-wire around Fort Stevens to help stave off an invasion.

o Civilian warning systems were improved. Military and civilian defense officials in Oregon devised a comprehensive warning system that included yellow, blue, and red messages to indicate the proximity of enemy attacks.

o New guns with greater range were developed and installed. At Fort Stevens, the U.S. Army added two new 6-inch guns capable of firing up to 15 miles.

o Air defenses were strengthened and radar was eventually installed at coastal defense positions along the U.S. West Coast.

The attack served a larger purpose
History now regards the attack on Fort Stevens as a relatively minor incident, and only a few people alive today are aware that the Japanese attacked the U.S. mainland during World War II. In the short term, the attack frustrated soldiers at Fort Stevens and agitated U.S. civilians, but it also served a greater long-term purpose. Knowing that an enemy could attack the U.S. mainland increased awareness and readiness in the U.S., and eventually led to improvements in the way the U.S. defended its coasts.

About the author:

Dale Fehringer is a freelance writer and editor. His articles on people, places, and contemporary culture have been published in a variety of magazines and newspapers. Dale lives in San Francisco where he shares office space with his wife, Patty and calico cat, Molly.

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