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Did Japan use reconnaissance balloons in WWII?

Did Japan use reconnaissance balloons in WWII?


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I have heard that Japan had used reconnaissance balloons in WWII, especially in China as the Chinese lacked air power and effective anti-air weaponry. I know that balloons - airships to be precise - were used effectively by USA in anti-submarine roles.

Did the Japanese actually use balloons in this manner? If so, what are some incidents where this was used? I have failed to find any reference online as all I find are about the balloon bombs.


During the siege of Corregidor the Japanese used an observation balloon for artillery spotting (14th Army Opns, II, App. VIII, pp. 37-45.)

The Japanese used an observation balloon during the siege of Singapore (see any detailed history of the siege).

At the Battle of Nomonhan (1939) the artillery had a small, independent detachment called the "Balloon Unit" that operated hydrogen-filled observation balloons for artillery spotting, apparently a very dangerous duty. (see Nomonhan: Japan Against Russia, 1939, by Alvin Coox)

No English language discussion of the use of observation balloons exists for China that I could find, but that is probably just because there were not that many English speakers involved in the battle for China. I am sure Chinese sources will describe the balloons, as the Japanese undoubtedly used them for artillery spotting throughout the war.


Beware Of Japanese Balloon Bombs

The Japanese balloon bomb, in all its terrible splendor.

Those who forget the past are liable to trip over it.

Just a few months ago a couple of forestry workers in Lumby, British Columbia — about 250 miles north of the U.S. border — happened upon a 70-year-old Japanese balloon bomb.

The dastardly contraption was one of thousands of balloon bombs launched toward North America in the 1940s as part of a secret plot by Japanese saboteurs. To date, only a few hundred of the devices have been found — and most are still unaccounted for.

The plan was diabolic. At some point during World War II, scientists in Japan figured out a way to harness a brisk air stream that sweeps eastward across the Pacific Ocean — to dispatch silent and deadly devices to the American mainland.

The project — named Fugo — "called for sending bomb-carrying balloons from Japan to set fire to the vast forests of America, in particular those of the Pacific Northwest. It was hoped that the fires would create havoc, dampen American morale and disrupt the U.S. war effort," James M. Powles describes in a 2003 issue of the journal World War II. The balloons, or "envelopes", designed by the Japanese army were made of lightweight paper fashioned from the bark of trees. Attached were bombs composed of sensors, powder-packed tubes, triggering devices and other simple and complex mechanisms.

'Jellyfish In The Sky'

"The envelopes are really amazing, made of hundreds of pieces of traditional hand-made paper glued together with glue made from a tuber," says Marilee Schmit Nason of the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum in New Mexico. "The control frame really is a piece of art."

As described by J. David Rodgers of the Missouri University of Science and Technology, the balloon bombs "were 33 feet in diameter and could lift approximately 1,000 pounds, but the deadly portion of their cargo was a 33-lb anti-personnel fragmentation bomb, attached to a 64–foot-long fuse that was intended to burn for 82 minutes before detonating."

This screen grab from a Navy training film features an elaborate balloon bomb. Jeff Quitney/YouTube hide caption

This screen grab from a Navy training film features an elaborate balloon bomb.

Once aloft, some of the ingeniously designed incendiary devices — weighted by expendable sandbags — floated from Japan to the U.S. mainland and into Canada. The trip took several days.

"Distribution of the balloon bombs was quite large," says Nason. They appeared from northern Mexico to Alaska, and from Hawaii to Michigan. "When launched — in groups — they are said to have looked like jellyfish floating in the sky

Mysterious Munitions

Sightings of the airborne bombs began cropping up throughout the western U.S. in late 1944. In December, folks at a coal mine close to Thermopolis, Wyo., saw "a parachute in the air, with lighted flares and after hearing a whistling noise, heard an explosion and saw smoke in a draw near the mine about 6:15 pm," Powles writes.

Another bomb was espied a few days later near Kalispell, Mont. According to Powles, "An investigation by local sheriffs determined that the object was not a parachute, but a large paper balloon with ropes attached along with a gas relief valve, a long fuse connected to a small incendiary bomb, and a thick rubber cord. The balloon and parts were taken to Butte, [Mont.] where personnel from the FBI, Army and Navy carefully examined everything. The officials determined that the balloon was of Japanese origin, but how it had gotten to Montana and where it came from was a mystery."

Eventually American scientists helped solve the puzzle. All in all, the Japanese military probably launched 6,000 or more of the wicked weapons. Several hundred were spotted in the air or found on the ground in the U.S. To keep the Japanese from tracking the success of their treachery, the U.S. government asked American news organizations to refrain from reporting on the balloon bombs. So presumably, we may never know the extent of the damage.

We do know of one tragic upshot: In the spring of 1945, Powles writes, a pregnant woman and five children were killed by "a 15-kilogram high-explosive anti-personnel bomb from a crashed Japanese balloon" on Gearhart Mountain near Bly, Ore. Reportedly, these were the only documented casualties of the plot.

Another balloon bomb struck a power line in Washington state, cutting off electricity to the Hanford Engineer Works, where the U.S. was conducting its own secret project, manufacturing plutonium for use in nuclear bombs.

Just after the war, reports came in from far and wide of balloon bomb incidents. The Beatrice Daily Sun reported that the pilotless weapons had landed in seven different Nebraska towns, including Omaha. The Winnipeg Tribune noted that one balloon bomb was found 10 miles from Detroit and another one near Grand Rapids.

Over the years, the explosive devices have popped up here and there. In November 1953, a balloon bomb was detonated by an Army crew in Edmonton, Alberta, according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. In January 1955, the Albuquerque Journal reported that the Air Force had discovered one in Alaska.

In 1984, the Santa Cruz Sentinel noted that Bert Webber, an author and researcher, had located 45 balloon bombs in Oregon, 37 in Alaska, 28 in Washington and 25 in California. One bomb fell in Medford, Ore., Webber said. "It just made a big hole in the ground."

The Sentinel reported that a bomb had been discovered in southwest Oregon in 1978.

The bomb recently recovered in British Columbia — in October 2014 — "has been in the dirt for 70 years," Henry Proce of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police told The Canadian Press. "It would have been far too dangerous to move it."

So how was the situation handled? "They put some C-4 on either side of this thing," Proce said, "and they blew it to smithereens."


A retaliation plan

The Japanese had multiple goals with the operation, Coen said.

"On a practical level, the Japanese thought it would create large, widespread wildfires in the western states that Americans would have to fight by diverting resources that would otherwise go toward the war in the Pacific."

The balloon bombs also were intended as weapons of terror, he said.

"They were hoping word would get in the newspapers and people would be terrorized," Coen said. "On the other side, if they were able to boast that raging fires were occurring all over the U.S., it would boost the morale of the Japanese people as well."

That morale among Japanese citizenry had taken a blow following the Doolittle Raid, a surprise attack on Tokyo on April 18, 1942, by U.S. bombers launched from an aircraft carrier. While the raid itself inflicted little damage, it humiliated Imperial Japan and its military, said Michael Unsworth, a retired history librarian at Michigan State University who has written and lectured on the balloon bombs.

"They felt honor-bound to retaliate," he said.

But the Japanese had no similar long-range capabilities &mdash particularly after the significant losses their Pacific fleet had taken in the Battle of Midway in June 1942.

That's when Japanese strategists and researchers hit upon using the jet stream, a west-to-east air current in the upper atmosphere only discovered by a Japanese researcher, Wasaburo Oishi, in the mid-1920s. His research didn't receive extensive international attention because he published it in Esperanto, a dialect invented in the 1880s in an attempt to create a uniform international language.

The balloons developed for the mission were 33 feet in diameter and filled with about 19,000 cubic feet of hydrogen. They were made out of layers of thin, fibrous paper made from mulberry bushes that, pasted together with a vegetable-based glue, made for a tough, canvas-like balloon material.

Hanging from the balloons by ropes was an elaborate "chandelier" featuring fuses, switches, batteries and, typically, one high-explosive bomb and two incendiary bombs. Ringing the chandelier were 7-pound sandbags.

"Japanese engineers knew that at night, at 35,000 feet, temperatures would drop to minus-65 centigrade," or minus-85 Fahrenheit &mdash temperatures that would cause the high-flying, hydrogen balloons to begin to drop, Coen said.

The sandbags were ballast, he said. When the balloons dropped below a certain height, an onboard altimeter would trigger a small charge, dropping a sandbag from the balloon.

"It was an ingenious way to keep the balloons aloft for the 6,400-mile journey to the United States," Coen said. "That said, it's estimated there was probably about a 90% failure rate."

As the balloons dropped their last sandbags and neared the ground, other small flash bombs would trigger to drop the incendiary bombs and high explosive. As the last bomb was dropped, a long, 64-foot fuse was also lit, leading to another flash device to destroy the balloon.

"If the thing worked as planned, you'd have unexplained explosions, maybe a flash in the sky," Unsworth said.


American Reaction

Two days after the initial launch, a navy patrol off the coast of California spotted some tattered cloth in the sea. Upon retrieval, they noted its Japanese markings and alerted the FBI. It wasn’t until two weeks later, when more sea debris of the balloons were found, that the military realized its importance. Then, over the next four weeks, various reports of the balloons popped up all over the Western half of America, as Americans began spotting the cloth or hearing explosions.

The initial reaction of the military was immediate concern. Little was known about the purpose of these balloons at first, and some military officials worried that they carried biological weapons. They suspected that the balloons were being launched from nearby Japanese relocation camps, or German POW camps.

In December 1944, a military intelligence project began evaluating the weapon by collecting the various evidence from the balloon sites. An analysis of the ballast revealed the sand to be from a beach in the south of Japan, which helped narrow down the launch sites. They also concluded that the main damage from these bombs came from the incendiaries, which were especially dangerous for the forests of the Pacific Northwest. The winter was the dry season, during which forest fires could turn very destructive and spread easily. Yet overall, the military concluded that the attacks were scattered and aimless.

Because the military worried that any report of these balloon bombs would induce panic among Americans, they ultimately decided the best course of action was to stay silent. This also helped prevent the Japanese from gaining any morale boost from news of a successful operation. In January 4, 1945, the Office of Censorship requested that newspaper editors and radio broadcasts not discuss the balloons. The silence was successful, as the Japanese only heard about one balloon incident in America, through the Chinese newspaper Takungpao.

In February 17, 1945, the Japanese used the Domei News Agency to broadcast directly to America in English and claimed that 500 or 10,000 casualties (the news accounts differ) had been inflicted and fires caused, all from their fire balloons. The propaganda largely aimed to play up the success of the Fu-Go operation, and warned the US that the balloons were merely a “prelude to something big.”

The American government, however, continued to maintain silence until May 5, 1945. In Bly, Oregon, a Sunday school picnic approached the debris of a balloon. Reverend Archie Mitchell was about to yell a warning when it exploded. Sherman Shoemaker, Edward Engen, Jay Gifford, Joan Patzke, and Dick Patzke, all between 11 to 14 years old, were killed, along with Rev. Mitchell’s wife Elsie, who had been five months pregnant. They were the only Americans to be killed by enemy action during World War II in the continental USA.

Their deaths caused the military to break its silence and begin issuing warnings to not tamper with such devices. They emphasized that the balloons did not represent serious threats, but should be reported. In the end, there would be about 300 incidents recorded with various parts recovered, but no more lives lost.

The closest the balloons came to causing major damage was on March 10, 1945, when one of the balloons struck a high tension wire on the Bonneville Power Administration in Washington. The balloon caused sparks and a fireball that resulted in the power being cut. Coincidentally, the largest consumer of energy on this power grid was the Hanford site of the Manhattan Project, which suddenly lost power.

“We had built special safeguards into that line, so the whole Northwest could have been out of power, but we still were online from either end,” said Colonel Franklin Matthias, the officer-in-charge at Hanford during the Manhattan Project, in an interview with Stephane Groueff in 1965. “This knocked out the power, and our controls tripped fast enough so there was no heat rise to speak of. But it shut down the plant cold, and it took us about three days to get it back up to full power again.”

The balloon did not have any major consequences. Matthias recalled that although the Hanford plant did lose about two days of production, “we were all tickled to death this happened” because it proved the back-up system worked.

Vincent "Bud" Whitehead, a counter-intelligence agent at Hanford, recalled chasing and bringing down another balloon from a small airplane: "I threw a brick at it. I put a hole in it and it went down. I got out there and I start tromping all over that thing and got all the gas out of it. I radioed in that I had found it and got it. They sent a bus up with all of this specially trained personnel, gloves, full contamination suits, masks. I had been walking around on that stuff and they had not told me! They were afraid of bacterial warfare."

Although balloon sightings would continue, there was a sharp decline in the number of sightings by April 1945, explains historian Ross Coen. By late May, there was no balloons observed in flight.


Japan's Secret WWII Weapon: Balloon Bombs

The Japanese harnessed air currents to create the first intercontinental weapons—balloons.

Balloon bombs aimed to be the silent assassins of World War II. Hitching a ride on a jet stream, these weapons from Japan could float soundlessly across the Pacific Ocean to their marks in North America.

Still largely unknown, these armaments were a byproduct of an atmospheric experiment by the Axis power. In the 1940s, the Japanese were mapping out air currents by launching balloons attached with measuring instruments from the western side of Japan and picking them up on the eastern side.

The researchers noticed that a strong air current traveled across the Pacific at about 30,000 feet.

Using that knowledge, in 1944 the Japanese military made what many experts consider the first intercontinental weapon system: explosive devices attached to paper balloons that were buoyed across the ocean by a jet stream.

Experts estimate it took between 30 and 60 hours for a balloon bomb to reach North America's West Coast.

Atmospheric uncertainty made for an uncontrolled attack. "An awful lot of this was just 'put them up there and see what happens,' " said Dave Tewksbury, a member of the geosciences department at Hamilton College, New York. But the lack of a governed outcome was tempered by the fact that no Japanese troops were at risk.

When the balloons made landfall, there were no obvious clues as to where they originated. But forensic geology, then in its infancy, was able to pinpoint Japan as the point of launch. When Col. Sigmund Poole, head of the U.S. Geological Survey military geology unit at the time, was given sand from one of the balloon's ballast bags, he is alleged to have asked, "Where'd the damn sand come from?"

His team of geologists knew it wasn't a type of sand found in North America or Hawaii. "Japan was a logical guess," said Tewksbury. The sand was unique enough to narrow the source down to two areas on the island of Honshu. "Most likely it had been coming from a small chunk of beach east of Tokyo," he added.

The first balloon was launched on November 3, 1944. Between then and April 1945, experts estimate about 1,000 of them reached North America 284 are documented as sighted or found, many as fragments (see map). Records uncovered in Japan after the war indicate that about 9,000 were launched.

The Japanese government withdrew funding for the program around the same time that Allied forces blew up Japanese hydrogen plants, making the commodity needed to fill the balloons scarcer than ever. Plus it was unclear whether the weapons were working security was so good on the U.S. side that news of the balloon bombs' arrival never got back to Japan.

The downside to such secrecy was that American citizens didn't know what these weapons were. As a result, a single one achieved its goal.


‘Fu-Go’ explores World War II Japanese balloon attacks on US

“Fu-Go: The Curious History of Japan’s Balloon Bomb Attack on America,” by Ross Coen, was published by University of Nebraska Press.

Ross Coen is a doctoral student in the University of Washington history department and the author of “Fu-Go: The Curious History of Japan’s Balloon Bomb Attack on America.” He answered a few questions about his book.

What’s the concept behind this book?

RC: When we think about the history of World War II we often picture the United States as being protected by the Atlantic on one side and the Pacific on the other. And that’s largely true the U.S. escaped the devastation that was visited upon cities and people around the world. But this weapon, the Japanese balloon bomb, represented the first time in history that an army on one continent attacked its enemy on another continent by means of a free-traveling unmanned vehicle.

It was ineffective as a weapon, a total failure, but it ushered in a new era of warfare that within just a couple decades would be refined by the Cold War superpowers to include nuclear-armed rockets.

With this book I provide a social history of the balloon bombs: who built them and why, how Americans viewed the weapons when discovered, how the U.S. military and security agencies responded, and so on. So it’s “military history” but within a social and political context of the last stages of the war.

How did this story come your way, and why did you decide to pursue it?

RC: By accident, honestly. I read a short article about the Japanese balloon bombs about 10 years ago and it piqued my interest. I had never heard of these weapons before. So I read what few sources were out there, and they were all technical manuals that described only the nuts and bolts and how the balloons worked. I knew there had to be stories about farmers finding balloons in the fields, kids playing outside and seeing one drift overhead, and so on. I began doing some research just out of curiosity, and the more I learned the more interested I became. Now here I am 10 years later and I’ve written a book.

What was the research process like for this book?

RC: I first knew I had the materials for a book when I visited the National Archives and they brought out 40 boxes of War Department records — investigative reports, eyewitness statements, defense plans, photographs, the works. All had been declassified in the 1970s.

I also visited archives in Ottawa, Seattle, Alaska and a few other places. The one downside is that the Japanese burned all their records the day after the surrender in August 1945, so there was very little to investigate on that end. But a few officers, both Japanese and American, wrote memoirs after the war and those accounts proved invaluable.

You write that the balloon designers were “enthralled with the prospect that bombs would rain down on the Americans, who would have no idea where they had come from.” The balloons flew in 1944. So late in the war, what did Japan hope to gain? Was the goal more terror than loss of life?

RC: The Japanese knew full well that the likelihood of these weapons destroying actual targets in America was slim, practically nonexistent. They were hoping instead to terrorize the Americans while simultaneously providing a morale boost in Japan. Propagandists in Tokyo hoped to fill newspapers with stories of raging fires and panicked Americans. When that didn’t happen, they made up a few stories and printed them anyway.

What was the reaction of U.S. military authorities to these odd attacks? Were they ever viewed as a serious threat?

RC: The War Department was at first puzzled by the balloons. It took several weeks and numerous balloon landings before military officials even understood what was happening. By early 1945, it became clear that Japan was launching thousands of balloon bombs, even though only a fraction of the total were surviving the transoceanic crossing and arriving in North America. The U.S. military never really feared the bombs as they were likely to fall in unpopulated areas and cause little damage, if any.

The far greater concern was that some part of the balloon might contain bacteriological agents and infect people, livestock, or wild animals with anthrax, encephalitis or some other malady. Military officials cautiously inspected every balloon that landed. Although the Japanese did develop chemical and biological weapons in other theaters of the war, none were used on the balloon bombs.

What’s next for you?

RC: I’m currently working on a doctoral dissertation in the UW History Department that focuses on North Pacific salmon fisheries from 1880 to 1960. I’m interested in how diplomats, fishermen and scientists from America, Japan and Canada sometimes collaborated but more often competed over the ever-fluctuating salmon harvest.


A Brief History of Project Moby Dick, the Cold War’s Least Believable Surveillance Strategy

Launch of a Project Moby Dick balloon at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico circa 1955. United States Air Force Public Affairs/Public Domain

On January 13, 1956, a specially modified Air Force C-119 roared over the Sea of Japan in pursuit of a high priority target. The plane, callsign “Center 39,” suddenly made visual contact with what looked like a huge, translucent teardrop floating 50,000 feet in the air.

The crew quickly typed out a “cut down code” and watched a box drop from the bottom of the teardrop before deploying a set of parachutes. After a painfully tense series of unsuccessful passes, the crew finally succeeded, at 9,000 feet, with the difficult task of snatching the object with a grappling hook extended out of the rear of the aircraft.

This daring aeronautical maneuver was a part of one of the Cold War’s most incredible intelligence gathering stunts. In an effort to gather information from behind the Iron Curtain, the U.S. Air Force launched hundreds of spy balloons to float over the Soviet Union, collect photographic coverage, and hopefully reappear in friendly airspace for midair recovery.

In the days before reconnaissance satellites, balloons were seen as a safer alternative to proposals for manned overflights, and less provocative than plans to attach cameras to cruise missiles. But the audacity of the balloon program also reflected the tremendous appetite for recon information in Washington. In his 1991 history of the Moby Dick program, as it was known, Curtis Peebles describes how “the reconnaissance balloon had the highest national priority of 1-A. The only other project to share this priority was the hydrogen bomb. Knowledge is power.”

Project Moby Dick used “skyhook” balloons, developed by the U.S. military. These are two other examples of Cold War era skyhooks. Photo left: Office of Naval Reserach right: US Air Force / Public Domain

The Air Force began work on high-altitude balloon prototypes after World War II, and accelerated the programs during the 1950s. (One of the unintended results of these tests were a crop of purported UFO sightings across the U.S. Southwest.) Through trial and error, they discovered that tropospheric jet streams meander west to east, meaning that balloons released from Western Europe would hypothetically fly over the USSR toward U.S. military* bases in Japan. But flight at this altitude posed its own challenges. To cope with temperatures of -70℉, the balloons employed a special polyethylene that wouldn’t crack in the cold.

The balloons carried a 150-pound metal box with the approximate dimensions of an old television. Inside, a camera, film, and electronics were shielded from the conditions by several inches of styrofoam. Two additional tubs of ballast provided the balloons with rudimentary navigational aids. If sensors indicated a drop in altitude, magnetic valves inside the tubs could gradually release its steel dust to lighten the load.

Altitude was a critical detail, because in addition to taking advantage of the jet stream, balloons cruising at 50,000 feet were hypothetically out of reach of Soviet air defenses. Peebles’ history of the program describes optimal flight conditions: “Each morning as the sun rose, the photo cell would turn on the camera. The sunlight would heat the gas, causing the balloon to rise. Later, the gas would cool, causing it to descend. At sunset the balloon would glow red, green and blue in the darkening sky. The fading light would cause the photo cell to shut off the camera, the day’s photo run complete… Each day the cycle would repeat.”

Anyone who found a downed-balloon were instructed what to do with it. US Navy Film/Public Domain/CC BY 2.0

Still, even the most optimistic assessments admitted that there was a possibility that some of the balloons would veer wildly off course. To aid in recovery, a cartoon and multilingual placard was included, encouraging them to be brought to U.S.-allied bases for a reward.  

“THIS BOX CAME FROM THE SKY
IT IS HARMLESS
IT HAS WEATHER DATA IN IT
NOTIFY THE AUTHORITIES
YOU WILL RECEIVE A REWARD IF YOU
TURN IT IN AS IT IS”

The program officially commenced on January 10, 1956, with eight launches from Incirlik, Turkey, and one from Giebelstadt, West Germany. Wave after wave followed over the coming weeks, quickly racking up some 448 successful launches.

On February 4, the Russian ambassador presented the U.S. with a formal protest note, complaining about the “gross violation of Soviet Air Space… incompatible with normal relations between states.” The Russians also started searching for ways to attack the unarmored intruders. MiG pilots discovered that the balloons dropped in altitude at night and were easy prey at first sunlight.

An estimated 90 percent of the balloons either crashed or were shot down in this manner. And on February 6, two days after the Soviet protest, President Eisenhower met with his Secretary of State and ordered an end to the problematic launches.

Of the more than 500 Moby Dick balloons launched, only 44 were recovered. Defense Visual Information Center (Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum)/Public Domain

The loss rate “wasn’t as bad as it sounds,” says Tom Crouch, senior curator of the Division of Aeronautics at the National Air and Space Museum. That’s because the 44 surviving balloons came back with 13,813 photos covering over a million square miles of Sino-Soviet territory, roughly 8 percent of the nations’ landmass. Peebles concurs in his book, writing that the cost per square mile was “$48.49… significantly cheaper than the cost of getting mapping coverage of the U.S., then or now.” In the end, the balloon program provided illuminating information about Soviet infrastructure, and led to the discovery of a huge nuclear facility at Dodonovo, Siberia.

Soviet scientists examining the captured balloons also got something out of the program. Inside the hundreds of downed cameras they found temperature-resistant, radiation-hardened film that promised to solve a problem that their outer space program had been struggling with. When the Luna 3 probe recorded the first pictures of the far side of the moon in 1959, it did so using captured American film.


Japanese Balloon Bomb

The granddaughter of a World War II veteran from Austin, Texas has a wartime memento with a note claiming it is a piece of Japanese balloon that floated across the Pacific Ocean in 1945.

The alleged balloon scrap could be evidence of a unique weapon in modern warfare: the Japanese Balloon Bomb.

More than 9,000 of these incendiary weapons were launched from Japan during the war via the jet stream with the intention of causing mass disruption and forest fires in the American West. These Balloon Bombs caused the only fatalities on the U.S. mainland due to enemy action during World War II.

The existence and purpose of the Balloon Bombs were kept secret from the American public for security reasons until a tragic accident forced a change in policy.

History Detectives investigates whether this scrap of fabric is a missing piece of an ingenious secret weapon.

Aired:
Season 6, Episode 3
Season 7, Episode 9

Detective:
Tukufu Zuberi Location:
Austin, Texas and Washington, D.C.


World War II Fact: Imperial Japan Hit San Francisco and Other American Targets

It seemed like just another ordinary day at sea. Early on December 7, 1941, a U.S. Army-chartered cargo vessel, the 250-foot SS Cynthia Olson, under the command of a civilian skipper, Berthel Carlsen, was plying the Pacific waters about 1,200 miles northeast of Diamond Head, Oahu, Hawaii, and over 1,000 miles west of the Tacoma, Washington, port from which she had sailed on December 1.

On board the unarmed Cynthia Olson, formerly the Coquina and renamed for the daughter of the owner, Oliver J. Olson Company of San Francisco, California, were several tons of supplies destined for the U.S. Army in Hawaii. Thirty-three Merchant Marine crewmen and two soldiers were accompanying the cargo

Unknown to the crew of the Cynthia Olson, the Japanese submarine I-26, under Commander Minoru Yokota, was running alongside the slow, fat target, waiting for the moment to attack. The I-26 was about to strike the first blow of World War II against America.

“Tora, Tora, Tora”

Five days earlier, Yokota had received the coded message, Niitakayama nobore 1208 (“Climb Mount Niitaka, December 8”). The signal meant that war with the United States would commence on December 8, Japan time, or December 7 in Hawaii. Among the nine Japanese submarines assigned to patrol the waters between Hawaii and America’s West Coast, the I-26 had been at sea for a month. Its initial sea service took it to Alaska’s Aleutian Islands it was then ordered south to look for American ships.

At dawn on December 7, 1941, Yokota and his 90 submariners went to battle stations and surfaced. A warning shot from I-26’s deck gun raced across the Cynthia Olson’s bow. While skipper Carlson attempted some evasive maneuvers, the Olson’s radio operator sent out a distress call, but the ship had nothing with which to fight back.

Now the 5.5-inch shells from the sub’s deck gun began to find their mark, and flying shards of steel sent the crew rushing for the lifeboats. The I-26’s gunners kept up the one-sided battle until 18 rounds had been expended and the badly damaged cargo ship appeared to be riding low in the water. She refused to sink, however, so Yokota submerged and fired a torpedo at her, but it missed. Resurfacing, Yokota ordered the deck gun to resume firing. Only after another 30 shots were fired did the Cynthia Olson go under.

During the shelling, a coded message was received aboard the I-26: “Tora, Tora, Tora,” indicating that the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor had commenced and everything seemed to be going well for the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN). As the Cynthia Olson slipped beneath the waves, the I-26 turned and sailed away, leaving the men on the transport ship and in the lifeboats to their fates none survived.

Thus began Japan’s submarine war against the United States.

The B-1 Class Submarine

Truth be told, the Imperial Japanese Navy had been preparing for submarine warfare long before Pearl Harbor. In time they honed a design to do just that. It became their B-1 class submarine. The B-1 class was designated the “I” Series, and 20 of them would sail the Pacific Ocean during the war.

The typical B-1, with a crew of 95 men, was 356 feet long and 30 feet at the beam with a hull 17 feet high. Its standard weight was 2,200 tons, and it could carry 800 tons of diesel fuel that enabled it to cruise 14,000 miles at 16 knots (17.6 mph) per hour. Its top speeds surfaced were 23.5 knots (25.3 mph) and eight knots (8.8 mph), respectively. It carried 17 torpedoes and had a deadly 5.5-inch deck gun. To ward off encroaching enemy aircraft, it employed two 25mm machine guns. Its safest maximum depth was 330 feet.

What made the B-1s unique was that each submarine housed one Yokosuka E14Y1 scout plane (code named “Glen” by the Allies) inside a watertight, on-deck hangar forward of the conning tower. A double-track launch rail catapulted the plane to get it airborne. Its normal cruising speed was 85 mph, with a maximum speed of 150 mph. Although the plane’s primary role was scouting and it could do so with a 200-mile radius in a five-hour flight time, it could also carry a maximum bomb load of 340 pounds. The Glen’s second crew member, a gunner, sat facing rearward behind a single 7.7mm machine gun.

To fit a Glen into the onboard hangar, its wings, floats, and tail assembly were either removed or folded. With a crew of four it could be made air ready in less than 40 minutes. Upon returning, it landed next to the sub where a crane lifted it back on board. Crew members then disassembled it to fit it into the hangar.

Before the war, America’s military had no idea the Japanese had such capabilities. These weapons, the “I” subs and warplanes, were state of the art.

Japan’s antagonistic attitude against America rose between 1922 and 1930. Japan keenly felt snubbed by the Western Allies following their World War I victory. During the negotiations of naval limitations in Washington, D.C., in the 1920s, restrictions were placed on the naval power of the United States, Great Britain, and Japan in a ratio of 5:3:3. In other words, for every five warships America and England built, Japan could only produce three. The Japanese considered this a blow to national prestige and their expansionist aims.

From that point on a grudge match evolved between Japan and America, and the militarists in Japan began scheming for retribution as early as 1931. At that time Japan was considering stationing four mine-laying submarines off the West Coast should hostilities with the United States erupt. A major emphasis was placed on developing state-of-the-art submarines that could carry their own reconnaissance planes stored in on-deck hangars. (See WWII Quarterly, Winter 2012.)

Submarines Off San Francisco

Three days after the sinking of the Cynthia Olson, December 10, 1941, the I-26, along with other subs, was called back toward Pearl Harbor. It was imperative that the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier Lexington be located and removed from action, but a four-day search proved fruitless. A new role was then established for the submarines. Vice Admiral Mitsumi Shimizu, commander of Japanese submarine forces, directed Rear Admiral Tsutomu Sato in his flagship I-9 to park his nine submarines off San Francisco by December 17 and commence bombarding the city on Christmas Day. Each submarine was ordered to surface, then fire no fewer than 30 5.5-inch rounds into the city.

Beyond the Golden Gate Bridge the nine subs loitered undetected and waited for December 25. During the week before Christmas they cruised out of sight and resurfaced at night to recharge batteries as needed. On the 22nd an unexpected order was received postponing the attack until December 27. That order came directly from Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander in chief of the Combined Fleet.

Five days later, Sato had a message to share with headquarters. His subs were drastically short of fuel. In all probability the attack could still commence on the 27th, but the complication would come in returning to Japan. Literally speaking, some subs might run out of fuel. Yamamoto called off the attack for that—and for another reason.

During the 1920s, Yamamoto had studied at Harvard University. He observed America’s industrial capacity and realized that Japan could not hope to win a protracted war with the United States. Yamamoto was further hesitant to attack the U.S. civilian population, particularly during a holiday, and was concerned about U.S. retailiation sometime in the future.

Four and a half months later, Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle’s carrier-launched North American B-25 Mitchell bombers, seeking revenge for Pearl Harbor, struck Tokyo. Had Yamamoto known that Tokyo would be bombed, he may well have authorized the shelling of San Francisco.

Christmas Eve Attack on the Absaroka

At 10:30 am on Christmas Eve, one of the Japanese submarines nevertheless went into action near Los Angeles. The submarine I-19, captained by an officer named Nahara, was cruising off Point Fermin in the Catalina Channel when the 5,700-ton freighter Absaroka, which had sailed from Oregon with a load of lumber, was spotted heading south for Los Angeles harbor.

The I-19 launched a torpedo that struck the freighter at the No. 5 hold, causing extensive damage and blowing the cargo from the hold into the air. A crewman was killed by flying debris. The radio operator sent an SOS signal, but within minutes the Absaroka had settled to her main deck. As the crew abandoned ship, one of their two lifeboats capsized, but the surviving 33 men managed to escape in a single lifeboat.

Shortly after the SOS went out, American war planes arrived and dropped bombs near where the sub was last seen. Following the aircraft attack, the patrol yacht USS Amethyst (PYc-3), assigned to the Inshore Patrol, 11th Naval District, and patrolling the entrance to Los Angeles harbor, dropped 32 depth charges.

The Absaroka’s crew was picked up over an hour after the attack, and the freighter was later reboarded by the Coast Guard, towed into San Pedro harbor, and beached below Fort MacArthur.

Kozo’s Raid on the Ellwood Richfield Oil Refinery

After the attack on the Absaroka, coastal defenses were strengthened around Santa Monica Bay and Redondo Beach. In early 1942, soldiers from Fort MacArthur installed two 155mm cannon and machine guns at the end of the Redondo Pier. This battery, known as Tactical Battery 3, was one of several around Santa Monica Bay. There were similar batteries installed at Pacific Palisades, Playa del Rey, El Segundo/Hyperion, Manhattan Beach, and Rocky Point and Long Point (both Palos Verdes). California was getting ready for invasion.

American soil was finally attacked by a Japanese submarine on February 23, 1942.

The sub that launched the raid was Commander Nishino Kozo’s I-17, commissioned a year earlier at the Yokosuka Navy Yard. Prior to the war, Kozo had captained a Japanese merchant ship that made stops in California’s Santa Barbara area at the Ellwood Richfield Oil Company refinery and storage facility, so he was familiar with the territory.

Kozo had another reason for the attack on the Ellwood oil facility. Prior to the war, he paused there to refuel his ship. As was the custom at the facility, Nishino came ashore to be greeted by the president of Richfield Oil Company. His party crossed the sandy, pear cactus-covered beach. Nishino lost his footing and fell onto one of the thorny plants. He took a couple of prickly thorns in his posterior and suffered a great deal more embarrassment when nearby depot workers laughed.

In the week prior to the attack, numerous nervous residents reported sightings of unidentifiable submarines surfacing off shore, but none were taken seriously. Besides, little could be done about it. Defenses at the oil storage facility were scant, consisting only of two obsolescent World War I howitzers at different locations. The closest officer in charge of those units was Captain Bernard E. Hagen of A Battery, 143rd Field Artillery, 40th Division. Furthermore, the Coast Guard patrol boat that was normally assigned to that area was off duty by the 23rd. At 7 pm that night, President Franklin D. Roosevelt commenced his radio fireside chat. Those in the Santa Barbara/Goleta area settled in to listen.

From the I-17’s vantage point on the surface, traffic along Pacific Coast Highway 101 was easily visible through binoculars. Oil derricks stood out just as plainly. There seemed to be no noticeable defenses or state of alert. Kozo’s plan was to fire at least 20 shells into the facility before any coordinated reaction came from defensive positions, as he expected would happen. At 7:07 pm the I-17 fired the first of 15 or 16 rounds into the depot from about a mile off shore. Most of the 5.5-inch shells fell harmlessly into the water, overshot the target, or landed as duds.

At 7:35, assuming that the Americans would be hot on his trail, Kozo fired his last round and beat a hasty retreat into the dark. He could have made a leisurely escape as nobody fired at his boat or came after him.

The results of the attack were minimal, producing only a slightly damaged derrick and a shot-up pier amounting to a few hundred dollars. But the panic caused by Kozo’s less-than-spectacular raid was incalculable. Mainland America had been attacked! People did not know what to do. Residents of Ellwood jumped into their cars and drove madly inland, trying to escape the attack and worried that an invasion would follow. The local phone lines were so tied up that no military calls could get through.

Following the shelling, Captain Hagen and a master sergeant went to the refinery and were defusing dud rounds when one detonated and Hagen received a shrapnel wound. He became America’s only assigned service member to receive the Purple Heart for a wound received from hostile action on American soil.

“L.A. AREA RAIDED”

The San Pedro Naval Operations Base sent three planes and two destroyers to scour the area. The planes evidently saw something and dropped flares and depth charges to keep the enemy submarine submerged until the destroyers arrived. At 4:51 the next morning, the U.S. Navy reported that the USS Amethyst had made contact with a submarine three miles southwest of Point Vincente and was dropping depth charges. The Amethyst also reported that she had evaded a torpedo.

War jitters were rampant in the wake of Pearl Harbor, the submarine attacks on coastal shipping, and I-17’s shelling of the Ellwood oil facility, just 80 miles from Los Angeles. Many saw these events as precursors of a greater attack, and tensions rose rapidly along the coast, a prelude for the “nonattack” on the West Coast, the so-called Battle of Los Angeles.

The forced evacuation and relocation of ethnic Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians from the coastal states and western Canada was just a few days old when, late on February 24, rumors of an impending attack on Los Angeles began to circulate. Around midnight, a report was sent out to antiaircraft batteries on the heights overlooking the L.A. area that enemy planes had been spotted, and the Battle of Los Angeles was on. One of the batteries opened fire on the unseen airplanes, and searchlights scanned the sky. The panic soon spread, and other gunners opened up.

Air-raid wardens dashed about, ordering people to extinguish lights and take cover. A number of auto accidents occurred as drivers drove through darkened streets with their headlights off, and several people suffered heart attacks, including one that was fatal. Some civilians rushed for shelters, while others went outside to see what the noise was all about. Some thought they saw the planes, while others thought they saw parachutes and bombs falling. Spent antiaircraft shells (over 1,400 were fired) and shrapnel rained down on homes and cars, with Santa Monica and Long Beach taking the brunt of the fallout.

There were also rumors that an enemy plane had been shot down and crashed at 185th Street and Vermont Avenue, and that other sections of the city were on fire.

The “battle” lasted over two hours before common sense prevailed and the guns fell silent. The next morning’s Los Angeles Times headline declared in bold type, “L.A. AREA RAIDED.” Like the rest of the populace, newspaper editors had succumbed to the rumors. A 1983 Air Force report attributed the panic to the sighting of a runaway weather balloon.

The fact that the city had not been bombed quickly became apparent, and there was plenty of chagrin and embarrassment. The realistic, unplanned air-raid drill was actually beneficial for Los Angelenos, however, because they gained experience in case the real thing happened. The Japanese did have plans to use giant seaplanes to bomb the city.

Two Attacks by I-25

Of the nine I-boats off America’s northwest coast, the busiest may have been Commander Meiji Tagami’s I-25, which made two direct attacks on American soil. After putting out to sea on October 15, 1941, the I-25, like several of the other I-boats prowling the American West Coast, was a brand-new vessel. Arriving on station one week after Pearl Harbor, Tagami, like some of his fellow I-boat commanders, proved to have sloppy work habits.

The I-boats had one crippling restriction when attacking merchant vessels. They were allowed to fire only one torpedo per merchant ship. Everything else had to be done via the deck gun. On December 14, the I-25 had sent 10 rounds toward the Union Oil tanker SS L.P. St. Clair, but all 10 missed. The tanker escaped into Oregon’s Columbia River estuary, which separates southern Washington from northern Oregon.

Twelve days later, Tagami and I-25 crossed paths with the 8,684-ton tanker SS Connecticut. This time Tagami exercised his single-torpedo option. He hit the target and set it afire, but it ran aground at the estuary. Afterward, Tagami departed for several months to attack military shipping in the Marshall Islands. He would return.

Near where the Columbia empties into the Pacific Ocean stands Fort Stevens, constructed on the Oregon side of the river during the Civil War. By 1941, its 10-inch coastal defense guns were near-antiques left over from World War I. The eight original guns were made in 1900 and installed at the site in 1904, but six of them had been removed, as local residents complained of their excessively noisy concussions during firing practice. The two remaining pieces, capable of firing 617-pound shells up to nine miles, were mounted at Battery Russell on carriages that retracted out of view. The fort was manned by the Oregon Army National Guard’s 249th Coastal Artillery Battalion, led by Lt. Col. Lifton M. Irwin.

Three months after Doolittle’s April 1942 bombing raid on Tokyo, Tagami and I-25 approached Fort Stevens. Believing that he had a worthwhile target before him (Fort Stevens was wrongly thought to be the entrance to American submarine pens), Tagami submerged and followed a collection of fishing boats closer to shore. Just before midnight on June 21, 1942, the I-25 fired 17 5.5-inch rounds in the direction of Fort Stevens. Tagami expected immediate return fire, so he ordered his gun crew to fire as quickly as possible without bothering to aim properly.

Those on shore would testify that only half the shells hit the ground. The rest were either duds or landed in the water. The most property damage done was to the post’s baseball field and a power line. One soldier incurred an injury running to his post.

Having quickly fired his rounds, Tagami made a hasty escape, but not a single shot was returned his way. Captain Jack Wood’s Battery Russell failed to reply. Gun crews totally miscalculated I-25’s position, believing it was out of range. The post commander ordered Wood to hold his fire so as not to reveal the fort’s exact gun positions.

Tagami later asserted that had he known of the fort’s insignificance he never would have fired on it. By mid-July 1942, the I-25 was back at its naval base of Yokosuka.

Nobuo Fujita: Determined Aerial Raider

Whatever Japanese intentions were for America’s West Coast, they never fully developed. But if there was a shining star in their abortive show, it would be Warrant Flying Officer Nobuo Fujita.

Fujita was born in 1911. Twenty-one years later he was drafted into the Navy and he became a pilot in 1933. Fujita was aboard the I-25 during a deployment in the Aelutian Islands. In the spring of 1942, he had flown above Kodiak Island at 9,000 feet and observed that the American response to an unidentifed plane was apparent indifference.

Fujita suggested an air raid against the United States utilizing Glen reconaissance planes launched from surfaced I-boats. The proposal was later endorsed by Prince Nobuhito Takamatsu, younger brother of Emperor Hirohito.

When a Japanese official who had been previously assigned to the consulate in Seattle, Washington, mentioned that late summer was quite dry in the Pacific Northwest, it was decided to launch such an attack, dropping incendiary bombs to ignite major forest fires and threaten population centers.

Fujita had also noted that the Panama Canal could be similarly targeted. The I-25, under Tagami, left Yokosuka on August 15, 1942, and headed back toward America’s West Coast with pilot Fujita and six 170-pound incendiary bombs aboard.

Each incendiary contained over 500 igniting elements that would disperse across a 100-yard blast area. Fujita’s aircraft would deliver two such bombs on successive flights.

Arriving off the Oregon coast during the first week of September, the I-25 whiled away the days waiting for a strong storm to blow over. Unusually heavy rain pelted the area, but in the predawn hours of September 9, 1942, conditions had moderated and Fujita and his bombardier, Petty Officer Shoji Okuda, were propelled off the sub. Flying 50 miles eastward, Fujita saw the lighthouse at Cape Blanco, and it became their beacon.

The first bomb was dropped 50 miles inland. Six miles farther, the second was released. In a flash both ignited. The two fliers fully believed they had succeeded and enthusiastically shared the news with Tagami. However, although both bombs exploded, the foliage was too damp from rain and lingering mist for a raging fire to develop. Fire warden Howard Gardner and one volunteer, Keith Johnson, easily controlled what smoldered.

A second raid went ahead on September 29 in the same general locale. Fujita reasoned that no one would expect a repeat incident. Flying 90 minutes inland, he let two bombs go. They plummeted onto a site called Grassy Knob near Port Orford, Oregon, but even less came of these as the wet foliage refused to catch fire.

Finding his way back to I-25 was a challenge for Fujita because of low cloud cover. He was able to find the submarine by following a trail of oil on the ocean’s surface. The I-25 had been previously attacked by air, and no one was aware of an oil leak until it was seen from above.

Unfavorable weather and heavy seas precluded a third attack.

Project Fugo

Later in the war, the Japanese resorted to using long-range, high-altitude balloons to cross the Pacific in hopes of starting forest fires. They were as ineffective as the bombers. However, in one unfortunate incident, several civilians were killed when a bomb exploded near their picnic site.

One question remains: Why did the Japanese choose the isolated region of Brookings, Oregon, to drop their bomb? Nothing of significance was there. even massive forest fires would not have impaired the American war effort.

Recalling the I-Boats

The Japanese did contemplate another air raid plan, this one involving the Kawanishi H8K “Emily” flying boat. The Emily had four engines and floats, making it a bomber-reconnaissance seaplane. Its wingspan extended 124 feet, and its fuselage was 92 feet long. It had a maximum air speed of 290 mph, a cruising range of 4,400 miles, and a bomb load of 5,000 pounds, with an armament of four 7.7mm machine guns and six 20mm cannons. In time, a dual 20mm cannon replaced the machine guns. By war’s end, 131 Emilys had been built but failed to realize their potential.

Lieutenant Commander Tsuneo Hitsuji, himself a pilot, proposed flying six updated Emilys to just off the California coast. There a flotilla of I-boats would meet them for refueling. The Emilys would then bomb Los Angeles. After hitting their targets, the planes would fly as far west as possible, seeking Japanese-held territory for landing.

Hitsuji dreamed even further. A fleet of 30 H8K2s might set down in Mexico’s Baja California waterway. There Japanese I-boats and German U-boats could surface to refuel and load them with bombs. Their new targets would be the Texas oilfields and beyond. With a 4,400-mile range, the Emily could fly any direction to hit the interior of America. Alas for the Japanese, as with other grandiose schemes, time ran out.

The Japanese threat to the U.S. West Coast never became substantial. The Imperial Navy claimed to have sunk five freighters off the West Coast for a total of 30,370 tons. Five others were damaged but salvageable. Captains of the I-boats grossly exaggerated America’s military response to their attacks.

The few responses made by the U.S. military were often as haphazard as the I-boat attacks. In the end, Japan never had the time, opportunity, or resources to launch a major offensive effort against the continental United States.

This article by Steven D. Lutz first appeared in the Warfare History Network on December 12, 2018.

Image: Japanese Submarine I-6 (JUNSEN-class, type II). 1935 or 1936. Public domain.


In 1945, a Japanese Balloon Bomb Killed Six Americans, Five of Them Children, in Oregon

Elsye Mitchell almost didn’t go on the picnic that sunny day in Bly, Oregon. She had baked a chocolate cake the night before in anticipation of their outing, her sister would later recall, but the 26-year-old was pregnant with her first child and had been feeling unwell. On the morning of May 5, 1945, she decided she felt decent enough to join her husband, Rev. Archie Mitchell, and a group of Sunday school children from their tight-knit community as they set out for nearby Gearhart Mountain in southern Oregon. Against a scenic backdrop far removed from the war raging across the Pacific, Mitchell and five other children would become the first—and only—civilians to die by enemy weapons on the United States mainland during World War II.

While Archie parked their car, Elsye and the children stumbled upon a strange-looking object in the forest and shouted back to him. The reverend would later describe that tragic moment to local newspapers: “I…hurriedly called a warning to them, but it was too late. Just then there was a big explosion. I ran up – and they were all lying there dead.” Lost in an instant were his wife and unborn child, alongside Eddie Engen, 13, Jay Gifford, 13, Sherman Shoemaker, 11, Dick Patzke, 14, and Joan “Sis” Patzke, 13.

Dottie McGinnis, sister of Dick and Joan Patzke, later recalled to her daughter in a family memory book the shock of coming home to cars gathered in the driveway, and the devastating news that two of her siblings and friends from the community were gone. “I ran to one of the cars and asked is Dick dead? Or Joan dead? Is Jay dead? Is Eddie dead? Is Sherman dead? Archie and Elsye had taken them on a Sunday school picnic up on Gearhart Mountain. After each question they answered yes. At the end they all were dead except Archie.” Like most in the community, the Patzke family had no inkling that the dangers of war would reach their own backyard in rural Oregon.

But the eyewitness accounts of Archie Mitchell and others would not be widely known for weeks. In the aftermath of the explosion, the small, lumber milling community would bear the added burden of enforced silence. For Rev. Mitchell and the families of the children lost, the unique circumstances of their devastating loss would be shared by none and known by few.

In the months leading up to that spring day on Gearhart Mountain, there had been some warning signs, apparitions scattered around the western United States that were largely unexplained—at least to the general public. Flashes of light, the sound of explosion, the discovery of mysterious fragments—all amounted to little concrete information to go on. First, the discovery of a large balloon miles off the California coast by the Navy on November 4, 1944. A month later, on December 6, 1944, witnesses reported an explosion and flame near Thermopolis, Wyoming. Reports of fallen balloons began to trickle in to local law enforcement with enough frequency that it was clear something unprecedented in the war had emerged that demanded explanation. Military officials began to piece together that a strange new weapon, with markings indicating it had been manufactured in Japan, had reached American shores. They did not yet know the extent or capability or scale of these balloon bombs.

Though relatively simple as a concept, these balloons—which aviation expert Robert C. Mikesh describes in Japan’s World War II Balloon Bomb Attacks on North America as the first successful intercontinental weapons, long before that concept was a mainstay in the Cold War vernacular—required more than two years of concerted effort and cutting-edge technology engineering to bring into reality. Japanese scientists carefully studied what would become commonly known as the jet stream, realizing these currents of wind could enable balloons to reach United States shores in just a couple of days. The balloons remained afloat through an elaborate mechanism that triggered a fuse when the balloon dropped in altitude, releasing a sandbag and lightening the weight enough for it to rise back up. This process would repeat until all that remained was the bomb itself. By then, the balloons would be expected to reach the mainland an estimated 1,000 out of 9,000 launched made the journey. Between the fall of 1944 and summer of 1945, several hundred incidents connected to the balloons had been cataloged.

One of the balloons filled with gas (Photo courtesy Robert Mikesh Collection, National Museum of the Pacific War)

The balloons not only required engineering acumen, but a massive logistical effort. Schoolgirls were conscripted to labor in factories manufacturing the balloons, which were made of endless reams of paper and held together by a paste made of konnyaku, a potato-like vegetable. The girls worked long, exhausting shifts, their contributions to this wartime project shrouded in silence. The massive balloons would then be launched, timed carefully to optimize the wind currents of the jet stream and reach the United States. Engineers hoped that the weapons’ impact would be compounded by forest fires, inflicting terror through both the initial explosion and an ensuing conflagration. That goal was stymied in part by the fact that they arrived during the rainy season, but had this goal been realized, these balloons may have been much more than an overlooked episode in a vast war.

As reports of isolated sightings (and theories on how they got there, ranging from submarines to saboteurs) made their way into a handful of news reports over the Christmas holiday, government officials stepped in to censor stories about the bombs, worrying that fear itself might soon magnify the effect of these new weapons. The reverse principle also applied—while the American public was largely in the dark in the early months of 1945, so were those who were launching these deadly weapons. Japanese officers later told the Associated Press that “they finally decided the weapon was worthless and the whole experiment useless, because they had repeatedly listened to [radio broadcasts] and had heard no further mention of the balloons.” Ironically, the Japanese had ceased launching them shortly before the picnicking children had stumbled across one.

The sandbag mechanism for the bombs (Photo courtesy Robert Mikesh Collection, National Museum of the Pacific War) Details of one of the bombs found by the U.S. military (Photo courtesy Robert Mikesh Collection, National Museum of the Pacific War)

However successful censorship had been in discouraging further launches, this very censorship “made it difficult to warn the people of the bomb danger,” writes Mikesh. “The risk seemed justified as weeks went by and no casualties were reported.” After that luck ran out with the Gearheart Mountain deaths, officials were forced to rethink their approach. On May 22, the War Department issued a statement confirming the bombs’ origin and nature “so the public may be aware of the possible danger and to reassure the nation that the attacks are so scattered and aimless that they constitute no military threat.” The statement was measured to provide sufficient information to avoid further casualties, but without giving the enemy encouragement. But by then, Germany’s surrender dominated headlines. Word of the Bly, Oregon, deaths—and the strange mechanism that had killed them – was overshadowed by the dizzying pace of the finale in the European theater.

The silence meant that for decades, grieving families were sometimes met with skepticism or outright disbelief. The balloon bombs have been so overlooked that during the making of the documentary On Paper Wings, several of those who lost family members told filmmaker Ilana Sol of reactions to their unusual stories. “They would be telling someone about the loss of their sibling and that person just didn’t believe them,” Sol recalls.

While much of the American public may have forgotten, the families in Bly never would. The effects of that moment would reverberate throughout the Mitchell family, shifting the trajectory of their lives in unexpected ways. Two years later, Rev. Mitchell would go on to marry the Betty Patzke, the elder sibling out of ten children in Dick and Joan Patzke’s family (they lost another brother fighting in the war), and fulfill the dream he and Elsye once shared of going overseas as missionaries. (Rev. Mitchell was later kidnapped from a leprosarium while he and Betty were serving as missionaries in Vietnam 57 years later his fate remains unknown).

“When you talk about something like that, as bad as it seems when that happened and everything, I look at my four children, they never would have been, and I’m so thankful for all four of my children and my ten grandchildren. They wouldn’t have been if that tragedy hadn’t happened,” Betty Mitchell told Sol in an interview.

The Bly incident also struck a chord decades later in Japan. In the late 1980s, University of Michigan professor Yuzuru “John” Takeshita, who as a child had been incarcerated as a Japanese-American in California during the war and was committed to healing efforts in the decades after, learned that the wife of a childhood friend had built the bombs as a young girl. He facilitated a correspondence between the former schoolgirls and the residents of Bly whose community had been turned upside down by one of the bombs they built. The women folded 1,000 paper cranes as a symbol of regret for the lives lost. On Paper Wings shows them meeting face-to-face in Bly decades later. Those gathered embodied a sentiment echoed by the Mitchell family. “It was a tragic thing that happened,” says Judy McGinnis-Sloan, Betty Mitchell’s niece. “But they have never been bitter over it.”

Japanese schoolgirls were conscripted to make the balloons. (Photo courtesy Robert Mikesh Collection, National Museum of the Pacific War)

These loss of these six lives puts into relief the scale of loss in the enormity of a war that swallowed up entire cities. At the same time as Bly residents were absorbing the loss they had endured, over the spring and summer of 1945 more than 60 Japanese cities burned – including the infamous firebombing of Tokyo. On August 6, 1945, the first atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima, followed three days later by another on Nagasaki. In total, an estimated 500,000 or more Japanese civilians would be killed. Sol recalls “working on these interviews and just thinking my God, this one death caused so much pain, what if it was everyone and everything? And that’s really what the Japanese people went through.”

In August of 1945, days after Japan announced its surrender, nearby Klamath Falls’ Herald and News published a retrospective, noting that “it was only by good luck that other tragedies were averted” but noted that balloon bombs still loomed in the vast West that likely remained undiscovered. “And so ends a sensational chapter of the war,” it noted. “But Klamathites were reminded that it still can have a tragic sequel.”

While the tragedy of that day in Bly has not been repeated, the sequel remains a real—if remote—possibility. In 2014, a couple of forestry workers in Canada came across one of the unexploded balloon bombs, which still posed enough of a danger that a military bomb disposal unit had to blow it up. Nearly three-quarters of a century later, these unknown remnants are a reminder that even the most overlooked scars of war are slow to fade.


Watch the video: 10 Body Horror Movie Fates Worse Than Death (July 2022).


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