Only a child at the time, Johns later fought in Korea
HAMMOND - Harry Johns remembers the night the Japanese attacked the shores of Fort Stevens.
It's been 60 years, but Johns remembers it vividly as he stands before his father's grave at Fort Stevens Cemetery on Memorial Day.
Sirens blared just before midnight through military housing, sending the 7-year-old Johns and his family reeling into the darkness for an air raid shelter. He recalls gas masks everywhere. One was strapped to his face while his mother looked otherworldly wearing hers. He watched a truckload of gas masks speed toward Hammond to supply the civilian population.
His father was manning his post when shells began to drop, ready to fight back what might have been the Empire of Japan's invasion of the West Coast. He remembers his father running back to the house to yank a handful of fuses just in case Johns' grandfather - who refused to leave - accidentally flipped a switch and gave the Japanese a hint of where to fire their next shot.
"There was a lot of fear on the West Coast at that time," said David Lindstrom, a volunteer with Friends of Old Fort Stevens, during a Memorial Day lecture about the attack. "People in Oregon and Washington were afraid that one morning they'd wake up with a fleet of Japanese ships on the horizon."
Held in small underground room in Battery 245 with military maps projected on the concrete wall, Lindstrom's discussion of the bombardment was unintentionally punctuated by the gut-shaking boom of a vintage artillery cannon outside.
The Japanese I-25 submarine's 1942 visit to the Oregon Coast wasn't quite Pearl Harbor, but it surprised many soldiers and residents in the area.
Intent on a radio detection station that sniffed out the coordinates of Japanese ships, the 350-foot sub and its crew of 94 emerged off the coast near Fort Stevens June 21 to open fire. A gunner and the commander of the vessel later told an American historian that the sub was 10,000 to 13,000 yards from the beach. But Lindstrom estimates the sub may have been almost 6,000 yards form American soil.
"People could see the silhouettes of the guns as the shells went off," he said. "To be able to see that kind of detail, the sub would have to be pretty close."
Accounts also differ as to how many shots were fired. Japanese sources say 17 shells rained down on Fort Stevens from their deck-mounted cannon. A U.S. Coast Guardsman counted only nine shots, while Army intelligence personnel found seven craters. The southernmost crater was found near Delaura Beach Road, which is over a mile away from the Fort. Some believe a few shells could still be sitting around, waiting to go off, Lindstrom said.
"There are a lot of new homes being built in the area," he said. "Sometimes I wonder what would happen if a bulldozer nudged one of those shells."
No one was hurt in the attack - although a machine gunner stationed near what is now the entrance of the Fort Stevens camp ground was nearly nicked by a piece of flying shrapnel. The Japanese could only count a few ruptured phone lines.
But it rattled nerves.
"Everything seemed to be in a state of confusion," wrote soldier Andrew Kominsky after the shelling. At the time, Kominsky thought a night practice was under way, Lindstrom said.
"It broke the morale at the fort," he said. Many soldiers were frustrated with a commanding officer's mandate to not return fire, fearing it would reveal too much of the fort's location, he said. About 25 men went AWOL because they were "so distraught about not being able to shell."
Recent evidence shows the sub might not have been able to put up much of a fight after its midnight salvo. According to a crewman's testimony, the sub was caught in the mud under 60 feet of water after the tide went out. Lindstrom surmises the sub could have been stuck for up to four hours, with the crew waiting tensely until the tide came to free them.
"That was a pretty incredible situation," he said.
Johns chuckles in the rain by his father's grave about how the whole attack seemed more of an adventure than what must have been terrifying for everyone else.
"It was exciting to run around with that gas mask on," he said.
After the attack on Fort Stevens, Johns' father, Walter E. Johns, went on to serve in the Korean War. Johns also served in the Korean War and for a time was stationed in Pusan, South Korea, with his father. Following in his father's footsteps, Johns went on serve in a second war, acting as a U.S. Navy supply runner in Vietnam.
Johns visits his father's grave every Memorial Day. He hopes to be buried nearby. An Air Force officer already has the spot bordering his father's, but if the cemetery doesn't fill up too quickly, Johns says his chances of resting near his father in the fort where he was raised - and even attacked by the Japanese - are pretty good.