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Hiking through history

The camping experience at Cape Lookout State Park south of Tillamook isn't complete without hiking to the tip of the cape for an exhilarating view of the Pacific Ocean from 400 feet above. The trail to the overlook takes hikers through a wildly overgrown forest, then emerges into daylight on the southern slope of the cape.

And it's there that a memorial plaque bolted into rock stops you in your tracks and inspires a moment of reflection. You are standing on the spot where a B-17 bomber crashed Aug. 1, 1943.

The 10-man crew was flying a wartime patrol mission that turned deadly when fog reduced visibility to zero. The bulky plane, nicknamed the Flying Fortress, slammed into the cape, killing all but one of the men on board. The survivor, Wilbur Perez, lived until 2009.

Up and down the Oregon Coast, reminders of World War II appear within state parks — or just a few miles from their boundaries. It's possible, therefore, to combine enjoyment of the outdoors, which these parks encourage, with a greater awareness of Oregon's connection to the war.

At Sunset Bay State Park, north of Bandon and west of Charleston, a nice beach with tidepools is the main attraction. A hiking trail connects the park campground with the Shore Acres State Park botanical garden and with Cape Arago State Park, where whales often frolic off the cape and huge colonies of seals and sea lions may be observed at the Simpson Reef overlook.

World War II history exists as a mere footnote within this tri-park area of natural beauty, scenic vistas and wildlife. But those with the desire to look for it can find it.

The U.S. Army and Coast Guard set up lookout sites around Cape Arago to detect enemy activity off the coast, as well as a radio station to call for firepower in case of an attack. The remnants of a four-room, cement lookout hide just off the trail between Shore Acres and the cape.

Ask a ranger at the Sunset Bay campground to direct you to the bunker. You could hike the whole way there or drive to a trailhead and then walk to the spot.

At Port Orford Heads State Park (between Bandon and Gold Beach), it's hard to say which comes first: natural beauty or history. Short trails through tall trees lead to overlooks of rugged Nellie's Cove and majestic headlands. Views north and south on a clear day stretch for miles along the coastline.

Though the waters are calm in good weather, the Coast Guard lifesaving station on the park grounds reminds visitors how treacherous the sea can be when storms rage. Immaculately preserved as a museum (open April through October, Thursday through Monday), the two-story building dating from the 1930s served as quarters for the rescue crews.

During World War II, the station saw double duty as an observation post with sentries on alert to sight enemy aircraft, ships and submarines. Soldiers dug foxholes and constructed machine-gun pits. Displays and photographs inside the museum detail the station's contribution to wartime vigilance. Visitors are encouraged to connect with the past by making their own Army identification pendant, known as a "dog tag," on a vintage machine.

In 1942, Oregon came under attack at opposite ends of the coast — once from sea and once from the sky.

On June 21 of that year, a Japanese submarine began firing on Fort Stevens (west of Astoria) from miles offshore. The assault, resulting in no American casualties or injuries, lasted only a few minutes, perhaps because the Japanese commander realized the fort was not a submarine and destroyer base, as he had first thought.

Now a state park, Fort Stevens — Oregon's northernmost coastal park — is rich in military history. During the Civil War, the Union built the original fortification to guard the Columbia River. The fort's role in strategic defense was renewed during the two world wars.

These days, an Army cargo truck serves as tour bus for narrated rides around the grounds (May through September), which include the Battery Russell — the gun emplacement hit by the submarine fire — and a World War II underground command center. A military museum displays hundreds of artifacts.

Bird watchers love the park for the wide variety of species that thrive in its river, dune, beach, sea and estuary habitats. The park also features miles of bike trails.

At the southern end of the coast, a curious episode in World War II occurred Sept. 9, 1942. A small seaplane, launched from a Japanese submarine, dropped bombs into the forest east of Brookings. The pilot carried out his mission undetected, though the bombing failed to produce the desired effect of igniting a massive forest fire and terrifying the American public.

Because the attack fizzled out, it seems farcical in retrospect. However, it is significant as one of the few times the American mainland has been bombed.

Consider visiting the site where one of the bombs landed the next time you're camping at Harris Beach State Park in Brookings. Getting there requires a drive along gravel Forest Service roads, and then a three-quarter-mile hike to the spot. The roads and the site itself are well-marked. The Bombsite Trail leaflet, available at Harris Beach or Crissey Field State Park (just south of Brookings), has directions.

Paul Hadella is a freelance writer living in Talent. Reach him at talenthouse@charter.net.

The trail at Cape Lookout State Park leads to the spot where a B-17 bomber crashed Aug. 1, 1943. - Photo by Paul Hadella