Key Point: Even today, unrecovered balloon bombs are thought to dot the North American landscape.
On Saturday, May 5, 1945, three days before the end of World War II in Europe and just three months before the Japanese surrendered, spinning shards of metal ripped into the tall pine trees, burrowing holes into bark and tearing needles from branches outside the tiny logging community of Bly, Oregon. The nerve-shattering echo of an exploding bomb rolled across the mountain landscape. When it was over, a lone figure—Archie Mitchell, a young, bespectacled clergyman—stood over six dead bodies strewn across the scorched earth. One of the victims was Elsie Mitchell, the minister’s pregnant wife. The rest were children barely into their teens.
Mitchell, pastor of the Christian Missionary Alliance Church, had invited students from his Sunday school classes to a picnic on Gearhart Mountain in the Fremont National Forest. Everyone piled into the Mitchells’ automobile and rode to the secluded area, where Mitchell dropped off his wife and the other picnickers as he parked the car. Suddenly Elsie called out to him. She and the children had found something on the ground. “Don’t touch that!” shouted Mitchell. He was too late. A sudden explosion rent the air.
Hurrying over, a horrified Mitchell stood over the mangled body of his dead wife. Hot shrapnel was still burning on her body. Four of the children—Jay Gifford, Eddie Engen, Dick Patzke, and Sherman Shoemaker—lay dead alongside her. Joan Patzke, 13 years old, initially survived the explosion but succumbed to her injuries shortly afterward.
Forestry workers were running a grader nearby when the force of the explosion blew one of them off the equipment. Another dashed to the nearby telephone office, where Cora Conner was running the town’s two-line exchange that day. “He had me place a call to the naval base in nearby Lakeview, the closest military installation to our town,” recalls Conner. “He told them that there had been an explosion and people had been killed.”
Six Deaths From an “Unannounced Cause”
Within 45 minutes, a government vehicle roared to a stop in front of the telephone shack. A military intelligence officer scrambled out of the car and joined Conner inside. “He warned me not to say anything,” Conner says. “I was not to accept any calls except military ones, nor was I allowed to send out any information.” The rest of the day proved difficult, as Conner struggled with lumber companies and angry locals who had been stripped of their phone privileges without explanation. Angry citizens congregated outside the telephone office, banging on the windows and doors. A frightened Conner handled it as best she could. Ironically, the 16-year-old Conner had narrowly missed becoming another victim of the mishap. “Dick and Joan Patzke were in our kitchen that morning and invited my sister and me to join them on the picnic,” Conner recalls. “But Saturday was a workday in our house, so we didn’t go.”
Back on the mountain, Army intelligence officers joined the local sheriff at the accident site. The bodies of the victims were grouped within a 10-foot radius of the explosion, which had churned up the forest floor. At the center of the impact zone, lying on a snow pile six inches deep, were the rusting remains of a bomb. A huge paper balloon, deflated and pockmarked with mildew, lay nearby.
The U.S. government immediately shrouded the event in secrecy, labeling the six deaths as occurring from an “unannounced cause.” But in the close-knit atmosphere of Bly, 25 miles north of the California state line, many of the locals had already learned the truth: Elsie Mitchell and the five children were victims of an enemy balloon bomb, held aloft by a gigantic hydrogen-filled sphere and whisked from Japan to the western seaboard of the United States. The contraption had alighted on Gearhart Mountain, where it lay in wait until the fateful day when it found its victims—the only deaths from enemy attack within the continental United States during World War II.
The Japanese high command launched balloon bombs against the United States for a period of six months, from November 1944 through the spring of 1945. In an ironic twist, the Japanese had canceled the program just several weeks prior to the incident in Bly, citing the program’s apparent ineffectiveness. A five-month media blackout ordered by the U.S. government helped disguise the fact that several hundred Japanese balloon bombs had reached the West Coast. Woodsmen in Spokane, Washington, stumbled across two fallen bombs on the ground and, according to reports, “fiddled” with the devices, which failed to detonate. Elsewhere, a farmer noticed one of the balloons drifting in the sky above, then watched as it plummeted to the ground and wedged itself against a barbed wire fence. He was able to secure the device for investigation by the FBI and military authorities. Week after week, the public reported more and more sightings of the mysterious airborne devices. Balloons fell into rivers, tumbled onto forest roads, and interrupted electric service when they dropped onto power lines. Military pilots engaged balloons in midair and shot them down.
The Japanese Balloon Project: Avenging the Doolittle Raid
For Americans living near the coastline, the threat of a Japanese invasion by air or sea was nothing new. In September 1942, a Japanese submarine surfaced off the Oregon coast and launched a small airplane that dropped a 165-pound incendiary bomb over the Siskiyou National Forest. Authorities quickly contained the resulting fire, which was minor and had little effect. Further exploring their long-range options, the Japanese also planned to riddle the American coastline with submarine-fired rocket volleys. But as the war continued and the Allies marched ever closer to Tokyo, the Japanese high command altered its plans. The balloon bomb, though seemingly a passive weapon, provided the Japanese with an effective method of bringing the war to American shores without expending enormous amounts of manpower and materiel. When detonated, the bombs might trigger massive forest fires in the northwestern United States that would divert manpower from the war effort and knock the lumber industry back on its heels. Moreover, the potential devastation would hammer away at American morale.
The Japanese balloon project was revenge for an altogether different morale-smashing mission. In April 1942, four months after the Pearl Harbor attack, Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle and 16 B-25 medium bombers roared off the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet to pummel targets in and around Tokyo. The Doolittle Raid, although limited in destruction, was an effective psychological ploy, proving that American forces had the capability to strike the Japanese homeland. In retaliation, the Japanese high command injected new life into its previously dormant balloon project, which had begun in the early 1930s but had been relegated to the back burner as other wartime priorities took hold.
Two years passed before the Japanese launched the first operational balloon bomb across the Pacific. The designers planned to have the balloons drop their ordnance via timed fuses, but an important question had to be answered: how would the device maintain altitude for 70 hours as it traversed 6,000 miles of ocean? Some sort of altimeter was needed to respond to changes in air pressure as the balloon sailed along its path. A gas-discharge valve and ballast-dropping system were added to the design, allowing the balloon to self-correct any drops in altitude. The jet stream, an atmospheric phenomenon just beginning to be understood, would do the rest, carrying the balloon from the Japanese mainland all the way to North America.
10,000 “Fugo” Balloon Bombs
The Japanese set a production goal of 10,000 balloons. Due to wartime shortages, only 300 balloons of rubberized silk were crafted; the rest were made of paper. School children were drafted to paste together balloons in seven factories around Tokyo. When pumped full of hydrogen, the spheres grew to 33 feet in diameter. Each balloon was wrapped in a cloth band from which hung a set of 50-foot shroud lines to carry its ordnance and instruments. A typical balloon was equipped with five bombs, including a 33-pound antipersonnel device and several types of incendiaries. To launch the weapons en masse, the Japanese selected three sites on the island of Honshu. Each launch procedure required 30 personnel and took half an hour to complete. With good weather, several hundred balloons could be launched each day.
After several hundred tests, the Japanese released the first balloon bomb, named fugo, or “wind-ship weapon,” on November 3, 1944. Additional launches followed in quick succession. A large number of the balloons that successfully reached North America failed to release their bomb loads when they arrived. By the summer of 1945, nearly 300 fallen balloons would be found, strewn across 27 different states. Balloons were reported over an area stretching from the Alaskan island of Attu to Michigan—all the way to northern Mexico. The American media reported on many of the earliest recoveries, but in January 1945 the government’s Office of Censorship, hoping to convince the Japanese that their program was failing, ordered a publicity blackout. That same day, a balloon bomb exploded in Medford, Oregon, digging a shallow crater and shooting flames 20 feet into the air.