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National Geographic films Brookings Bomb Site Trail

September 8, 2015

National Geographic films Brookings Bomb Site Trail
By Jayati Ramakrishnan, Pilot staff writer September 08, 2015 09:14 pm

Filmmaker Peter Hankoff is used to going to obscure places for his work — and he’s also used to finding what he’s looking for.

When he came to Brookings looking for the World War II Japanese bomb site, he found himself facing a new challenge: photographing something that he couldn’t find.

Hankoff and Richard Lyons, a Portland-based videographer, spent a recent afternoon searching for the display at the site where Japanese pilot Nobuo Fujita dropped a bomb during World War II — one of only two attacks on the continental U.S. during that war. The two spent several hours searching for the sites, following the signs at the trailhead and traipsing miles through the woods — but came up empty-handed.

“Strange Truth”

Hankoff and Lyons were paired up to film a segment of a documentary series for National Geographic, tentatively titled “Strange Truth.” The series will span four episodes and touch on a wide range of subjects, including attacks on the United States, Nazi summer camps in America before World War II, and facial recognition abilities in crows. The series is scheduled to air in January.

Unknown by most

Many Brookings residents have heard the story of the Mount Emily bombing, but it’s still somewhat of a secret from the rest of the world — much like Brookings itself.

During the second World War, Fujita and his crew assembled a small sea plane while aboard an I-25 submarine off the coast of Port Orford. Fujita flew east and dropped a bomb on the forests east of Brookings in an effort to start a forest fire. With damp conditions from the previous night’s rain, the bomb did not cause the damage the Japanese had hoped.

About 20 years later, a local group called the Brookings-Harbor Jaycees reached out to Fujita as an expression of goodwill and peace. The gesture elicited emotional reactions from locals, some of whom felt Fujita should not be welcomed back after his attack on the U.S., and others who applauded the demonstration of friendship.

Fujita visited Brookings, unsure of how he would be received. He was relieved to find that the people of Brookings welcomed him, and he presented the city with a family artifact in an expression of peacemaking — a 400 year-old samurai sword, which is displayed the Chetco Community Public Library.

The visit sparked a long-term friendship between Fujita and the city of Brookings. Students from Brookings-Harbor High School visited Japan, and Fujita was made an honorary citizen of Brookings shortly before his death.

Toward the end of his life he made several more visits to Brookings, and planted a redwood tree at the bomb site. The sapling is now about 4 feet tall.

Though Fujita passed away in 1997 at the age of 85, a memorial stands to this day at the site where the bomb fell. There are several information boards at the trailhead, and then a commemorative display at the spot of the bomb’s impact.

Accidental discovery

Hankoff’s discovery of Brookings was somewhat accidental. In doing research for the series, he was reading about the Japanese attacks on another Oregon area.

Bly, a small community in Klamath County, was the site of the only other known attack on the continental U.S. — and the site of the only deaths in the Lower 48 due to enemy fire during World War II.

Near the end of the war, Japan launched about 9,000 fire balloons, hoping the balloons would reach the mainland United States and explode, causing forest fires and diverting resources. Only a few hundred reached the mainland, and most were quickly found and extinguished. However, one bomb killed a pregnant woman and five schoolchildren.

While reading about these incidents, Hankoff came across a story about the Brookings bomb site and, realizing the two monuments were relatively close to each other, included it in his feature.

Futile search

After a bumpy drive to the trailhead, Hankoff and Lyons took out their gear, which included a video camera on a tripod and a GoPro camera attached an 8-foot pole.

“This is the forest he would have been bombing,” Hankoff says as Lyons panned over the towering trees, sunlight streaming through their branches.

A 2-mile hike into the woods produced no results, and finally Hankoff determined there had to be another trail. Turning around, the two lugged their gear back to their car, where they discovered another trailhead just beyond the bend of the road, and a sign indicating that this was, in fact, the trail to the Japanese bomb site.

Over a mile up the correct trail, however, there was still no sign of a monument — and no signs to indicate how much closer they were to the sign. The two made it to a bench under an enormous redwood and, after 6 miles of searching, turned back, unaware that they were only .1 of a mile away from their destination.

Filming the samurai

The next morning, Hankoff and Lyons visited the Chetco Community Public Library, where they filmed the samurai sword and the informational display.

Once Hankoff and Lyons have finished shooting their footage, it will take about a month to edit. Writers will have to create the script that will narrate the film. Hankoff is not the writer, but, having written scripts in the past, he tries to keep the final format in mind during the making of the film.

“I try to think like a writer in how I interview,” he says.

Making his films

Hankoff has held a lot of different jobs, from writing his first screenplay at 23 to creating a television pilot. He has made at least 40 documentary films. His current job, working as a freelance filmmaker, allows him to focus on one of his major interests: war.

Hankoff is especially intrigued by World War II, and has been since childhood.

“World War II is my parents’ generation,” he says. “I’d hear stories — my best friend’s dad was a tank sergeant with Patton. Plus, World War II is totally the story of good versus evil — the last time someone really evil was defeated by someone really good.”

He pauses. “I think man is basically good but man does some horrible things. So I want to know — how horrible?”

Hankoff feels that if his work can teach people to think twice about doing something horrible, he’s done his job.

“But then the downside,” he says with a laugh, “is that some people hear about something horrible and want to try it.”

Hankoff has covered a lot of different subjects in his shows. “Anything horrible you can think of,” he says. “The basics.”

He’s been to Iwo Jima, and visited Auschwitz three times. The strangest place he’s been, though, is a place called “salehuette —” where Josef Mengele and the Nazis would go and drink outside of the concentration camps.

“It really felt uncomfortable,” Hankoff said. “There was no sense of prayer, no sense of closure.”

Lyons, a freelance videographer, has spent his career shooting everything from commercials to documentaries.

“I like nonfiction work,” Lyons said. His favorite job, he says, was with the U.S. Geological Survey, where he worked with scientists on Kilauea, an active volcano in Hawai’i. “We got so close, the sunshade on my camera started to melt.”

Lyons has also freelanced with the Travel Channel and the National Parks Service.


Hankoff and Lyons left Brookings the next morning, satisfied with the way their trip had gone. They saw the samurai sword, and they walked in the forest Fujita had bombed. Nevertheless, the lack of signage was a bit troubling, and perhaps a signal in itself: if the guys from National Geographic can’t find it, it’s amazing it was ever found in the first place.

Read the full story at the Curry Coastal Pilot »