Taking a hike into history

By Scott Graves, Pilot staff writer January 24, 2009 12:04 pm

It took me 10 years and three attempts, but I finally made it to the Wheeler Ridge Japanese Bombing Site Trail.

Why 10 years?

Well, I’ve edited numerous stories and published photos about the site and I thought actually going there might be, well, anticlimatic.

Why three attempts?

I had a deadline to meet, and I was determined not to let a slippery road, bad memory and confusing signs keep me from that commitment.

A week ago today, my wife and I packed up the dogs, daughter and a picnic lunch and headed up South Bank Chetco River Road in the Jeep. We were about six miles into a 20-mile journey when we took a wrong turn up a steep private driveway slick with mud and moss. The truck rolled backward, even with the brakes mashed down, and slid into a roadside ditch.

Fortunately, my in-laws were following us in their vehicle. My father-in-law, Jim, and I spent the next two hours getting the Jeep unstuck. It took a nearby tree, a tow strap, several sturdy chains, a hand-operated winch, and a lot of elbow grease.

I drove the Jeep home, its bumper and my pride dented, but I was determined to drive to the bomb site on Sunday. Jim declined my invitation to come, as did my wife, so off I went that afternoon in my trusty old Trooper (it has 4-wheel drive, the Jeep doesn’t). I thumbed my nose at the spot where we got stuck the day before as I drove by. Bad move.

This time I didn’t get stuck. I missed a crucial turnoff and ended up turning from Forest Service Road 1205 onto 1106, which led me away from the bomb site and to Winchuck River Road. With a sigh, and the sun heading toward the horizon, I motored home – disappointed, but not undaunted.

On Monday, after I double checked the directions on the U.S. Forest Service map, my father-in-law and I drove in the Trooper 15 mph over a rough, unpaved road deep into the forest until we reached the starting point of the bomb site trail.

The afternoon was blissfully warm as we hiked the easy-to-moderate .08-mile trail to the redesigned observation platform. The interpretive signs – victims of recent vandalism – had yet to be repaired, but were readable. Knowing the history of the site and having a vivid imagination is critical to enjoying the experience.

In a clearing below the platform is a sapling redwood. It was planted at the approximate impact point of one of two incendiary bombs that were dropped by Japanese pilot Nobuo Fujita in 1942 during World War II. The plan was to ignite a forest fire and cause panic, but damp conditions and quick-acting firefighters extinguished the attempt.

In 1962, Fujita, in an act of repentance and peace, presenting his family’s 400-year-old Samurai sword to the city. In the 1990s, several years before his death at age 86, the pilot planted a redwood tree at the bomb site.

On Monday, as I touched the small, tender needles of a redwood sapling (a replacement for Fujita’s tree, which did not survive), I thought of a war that happened 25 years before I was born. I thought of dark nights and danger, bombs and burning. I thought of Fujita, and his transformation from foe to friend. I thought of how where bombs once fell, now grows a symbol of peace, reaching for the sky.

And I thought, why did it take me 10 years to visit this wonderful place?