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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Aircraft Warning System spotted few enemies, but saved many friends

The "eyes on the sky" on the West Coast during World War II watched for Japanese planes, but mostly they helped guide American planes in distress to safe landings

Wartime photo of the E14Y seaplane, the type launched from I-25 for the bombiung attack at Brookings.
This type of seaplane was the only enemy aircraft ever to hit the North
American continent. It's an E14Y Type Zero reconnaissance plane (not to
be confused with Japan’s famous Zero fighter).This “erector-set”
seaplane was disassembled to stow on a submarine; that's exactly the
sort of activity the AWS was formed to watch. [Bigger image: 1200 px
(Photo: Imperial Japanese government, circa 1942)
By Finn J.D. John — September 3, 2009

During World War II, people on the West Coast had a certain feeling that they were on the front lines of the home front.

This made sense. After all, the Nazis had to go through Britain’s Royal Navy to get to the Eastern Seaboard across the Atlantic.

But on the other side of the world, across the Pacific Ocean from the Oregon Coast, loomed one of the most powerful naval nations in the world — with aircraft carriers well-stocked with the best carrier-based fighter built before 1943: Japan. To make things worse, after the Japanese invaded the Aleutian Islands in Alaska in 1942, they actually had a place from which they could launch land-based strikes against the lower 48.

To meet this threat, the Army — then in control of the nation’s main air forces — had a cadre of civilian volunteers whose job it was to watch for incoming aircraft: The Aircraft Warning Service.

The AWS was mainly staffed with people who couldn’t be sent to fight: women, younger teens and men above prime fighting age. It was run by a branch of the government called Civilian Defense, which worked with the Army in a supporting role kind of like a fire department’s auxiliary does. The West Coast had about 150,000 eyes watching the sky for Japanese marauders.

And, in fact, some of those eyes did behold a Japanese marauder. The only enemy wartime airstrikes on U.S. territory happened in the early morning on Sept. 9, 1942, when a tiny seaplane that had been sneaked across the ocean in a special compartment on a Japanese submarine dropped two tiny bombs near Brookings, hoping to start a forest fire. The plane tried again on Sept. 29, dropping another pair of 170-pounders near Cape Blanco. Both times it was spotted and reported by the AWS, and any resulting fires were put out without incident.

The massive Japanese attacks never came, and presently the U.S. took the Aleutians back.

But the AWS really proved its worth in another way. Local historian Bill McCash estimates the spotters saved the lives of at least 100 American aviators — likely more.

Remember, this was in an age when navigation instruments were crude. Planes would fairly regularly get lost in the fog — especially along Oregon’s notoriously misty south and central coast — and lumber along blindly until they ran out of fuel, which they usually did over some inhospitable piece of old-growth forest or open sea.

With 150,000 eager pairs of eyes and ears on the ground, many of those planes were spotted and reported. Knowing their positions, the Army could radio the pilots and tell them where to go to either get out of the fog or find an airport.

In one highly dramatic case, an AWS spotter saw a bomber ditching in the open sea off Seaside. The Navy quickly got on the scene and managed, despite a storm raging at the time, to rescue a crew member. (Another swam to shore; the rest drowned before the amphibious rescue plane got there.)

The AWS is one of McCash’s great historical interests, and he is very interested in building a historical record of this vital, but often overlooked, part of Oregon’s war effort. If you, or someone you know, was involved in the AWS during the Big One, drop me a line at 541-357-2222 or finn@offbeatoregon.com and I’ll put you in touch with him.

 (Sources: McCash, Bill. Bombs Over Brookings. Bend: Maverick, 2005; McCash, Bill. “The Aircraft Warning Service in World War II,” Waterways. Coos County Historical Society, Sept. 2007.)