Christian Decker

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Defending the Coast
Christian Decker

A Testament of Our Nation

It was a cold Sunday night on June 21, 1942 and Captain Jack R. Wood could be seen pacing about the off duty guns of the Russell Battery in Fort Stevens. He made his way up the battlements of the battery and gazed out over the black sea and the contrasting lights surrounding the mouth of the Columbia River that divided Oregon and Washington. He shook his head gravely; just the night before news had arrived that Vancouver Island had been attacked by a submarine. Submarines from the Imperial Japanese Navy have been shelling emplacements all along the West Coast and it was only a matter of time before they targeted a potential invasion point such as the Columbia River. The inhabitants of the Columbia River failed to consider themselves a serious target for the axis power, but the United States was prepared for an attack on whatever front. Fort Stevens and her sister forts on the other side of the river are excellent examples of such preparations. Construction of Fort Stevens began in 1864 and was named after the late Isaac Ingalls Stevens who served as territorial governor of what would become Washington and fought in the Mexican-American War. As a Brigadier General, he was killed in action in 1862 during the Civil War at the Battle of Chantilly.

Captain Wood was first introduced to his post in 1941 along with the rest of the National Guard's 249th Coastal Artillery Regiment under the command of Col. Clifton M. Irwin. Fort Stevens in World War II was comprised of three Batteries; Battery Pratt faced north to the river and its 6-in. artillery guns were on ready status duty tonight under the command of Lt. Lynn Neeley. Battery Russell, with several 10-in. artillery guns that could disappear under firm battlements after they fired a round, sat overlooking the Pacific under Captain Jack Wood. The final one, Battery Clark, was under the command of Captain Platt Davis and served as additional support for both batteries with 4, 12-in. mortars poised to attack in any given direction. There was once a fourth battery titled Mishler, but it was now converted into an underground HQ for the local forces, HECP (Harbor Entrance Control Post). The highly top secret RADAR system was also in use by an air base nearby and Captain Wood was familiar with the installation of such systems along the coast, providing unseen eyes that could serve to notify the Americans of an impending attack. Machine gun nests housing old .30 caliber Browning machine-guns were strewn along the beach and extensive sea minefields provided extra barriers designed to discourage enemy encroachment of the shore. Along the coast, similar coastal defenses coupled with massive blimps that patrolled the seas gave the Northwest a version of Hitler's sea wall in Europe.

Captain Jack R. Wood and the rest of Fort Stevens were galvanized into action when the mournful cry of a shell sounded overhead. Men rushed to their posts and the guns were readied. Battery Pratt was helpless as it faced the river and the shells were originating from the ocean. Battery Russell wasted no time and guns were unveiled and propped into position, the only thing missing was the command to fire. As 17 shells lobbed towards American soil, no order came to return fire though. Colonel Doney, who was the Commander of the Columbia River Defenses, was away; so the decision to refuse the requests to take action was determined by the duty officers. Their justification being that the enemy vessel was out of range of the fort's weaponry even though at that distant everything was imperceptible except the briefest of muzzle flashes given off by the enemy gun. The commander of the submarine later revealed that he had no knowledge of Fort Steven's existence before his attack and acknowledged that his crew of 108 was easily in range of Battery Russell's guns as they fired at what they assumed was a submarine port. In the aftermath of the attack, no one was injured and minimal damage was done.

Though Oregon and America at large was never the subject of a massive invasion during World War II; the incident on the night of June 21, 1942 proved that the Oregon coastline was eager for action and refused to back down in the face of danger and call of death.