A little known incident that happened in Oregon during World War II is told with heart and compassion in the film, “Samurai in the Oregon Sky.”
Ilane Sol, who nine years ago produced and directed “On Paper Wings,” a film about the Japanese balloon bomb that killed six people on a picnic near the Klamath County community of Bly — they were the only people killed by enemy action on American soil during World War II — has created another thoughtful, exceptionally humane film. This time Sol unveils the story of Nobuo Fujita.
On Sept. 9, 1942, a float-plane piloted by Fujita of the Japanese Imperial Navy was catapulted off a Japanese submarine in the Pacific Ocean off the Oregon coast. Fujita’s mission was to start massive forest fires and create panic on the U.S. mainland. He flew over the coastal town of Brookings to nearby forestlands and dropped two bombs, one eight miles east of town, and another at an unknown location. The bomb caused a small blaze, the Wheeler Ridge Fire that was extinguished by Forest Service crews without causing significant damage. Fujita became the only pilot to bomb the U.S. mainland during World War II.
On Sept. 29, he flew another mission that dropped four incendiary bombs, with one causing the Grassy Knob fire near Port Orford.
The bombings are little known because of U.S. censorship during the war.
Twenty years later, the Brookings Jaycees, who had just learned of the incident, invited Fujita and his family to visit during the annual Azalea Festival. Despite heavy controversy — some people threatened to shoot and kill Fujita and sponsoring Jaycees — Fujita made the trip.
“He never dreamed he would one day be invited back to the region, where he would begin a lifelong friendship with the people of a small Oregon town,” said Sol, who describes the film as being about “peace and reconciliation.”
“Samurai,” which will be shown 11:45 a.m. Saturday at the Pelican Cinemas during the Klamath Independent Film Festival, tells how Fujita eventually came to regard Brookings as his “second home.” After his initial visit in 1962, Fujita sponsored a visit to Japan by three Brookings-Harbor High School students in 1985. He returned to Brookings in 1990, 1992 and 1995. After his death in 1997 at age 85, his family honored his wishes and buried his ashes by a tree he had planted as a peace gesture at the bombing site during his 1992 visit.
Sol said she learned about the bombing and its aftermath in 2002 at the Oregon Historical Society. “It piqued my interest because I had never heard about the attack. What initially caught my interest was the attack, but what drew me in was the conciliation,” she said, referring to Fujita’s controversial 1962 visit to Brookings and the friendships generated over the years.
When contacted by the Jaycees about the 1962 visit, Sol said Fujita was uneasy, noting, “Mr. Fujita initially did think this was a trick to bring him over and try him for war crimes.” After exchanging letters with Jaycees, he agreed. But when news of the visit appeared in newspapers, many people were upset and angry because, “They only knew he was the bomber.”
Brotherhood of man
As emphasized in the film, despite the threats the Jaycees pursued their efforts because, according to Sol, they genuinely believed part of the Jaycee creed that says, “the brotherhood of man transcends the sovereignty of nations.”
Sol, 42, worked on the film over a nine-year period. “I did do it pretty much in my spare time,” said Sol, who lives in Portland and works as a freelance archival researcher and has part-time jobs with the Multnomah Library and Northwest Film Center.
“The hardest part was that Mr. Fujita had died,” Sol said of making the film. She met with Fujita’s daughter in 2012 at the annual Azalea Festival in Brookings and traveled to Japan a year later to meet with Fujita family members. While in Japan, Sol was given access to archival film footage and family photos, and some of that material is used in the film.
The title, “Samurai,” refers to one of the film’s emotional moments. During the war, Fujita always carried his samurai sword, which had been passed down through his family for 400 years. As an act of friendship and reconciliation, he and his son, Yasuyoshi, presented the ornate sword to the people of Brookings, where it remains on display.
The Klamath Falls screening marks only the third time “Samurai” has been shown. Earlier showings were in Portland in June and Brookings in July. “I was delighted — I’ve received really good reactions. That was a big relief,” Sol said.
During the question-answer session after the Brookings screening, many memories were shared, including some from people who helped extinguish the blaze and others who recalled meeting Fujita during his visits. Sol had been concerned there might be lingering antagonism, admitting, “I would ask myself how would I feel today if a Nazi pilot was invited to my town.”
“Samurai” is being submitted to film festivals and, she hopes, will be shown at libraries and museums and on Oregon Public Broadcasting. “I really want to show it to the people of Oregon and to people all over the Pacific Northwest,” Sol said. “I want to get it to the widest audience possible.”
“Samurai in the Oregon Sky” is an exceptional film, one that tells a beautiful story of, as Sol says, peace and reconciliation. It’s a story that’s excellently told, and a story worth knowing.