At first, American authorities surmised that the balloons were originating in German POW camps or Japanese internment camps within the United States. Other experts thought the devices were weather or barrage balloons that had drifted off course. As more of the balloons were recovered across North America, however, the military realized that they were dealing with a new type of enemy weapon. With a little scientific detective work, the government pinpointed the geographical origin of the sand used in the weapons’ ballast bags. American B-29 bombers were dispatched to Honshu, Japan, where they destroyed several plants involved in the production of hydrogen for the balloons, effectively crippling the fugo project. Back in the United States, military officials quickly coordinated search efforts with forest rangers and law enforcement officials. Airborne coastal defense, less of a priority as the war neared its end, underwent a brief resurgence as the U.S. Army’s Project Sunset coordinated radar and aircraft surveillance around the clock. Over 2,000 military personnel participated in the overall effort to track, recover, and study the balloon bombs.
Warning the Public of the Threat of Balloon Bombs
On May 10, 1945, five days after the bombing of Bly, more than 450 people attended a mass funeral for the victims. Due to the size of the crowd, the service was held at the Klamath Temple in Klamath Falls, 50 miles southwest of Bly. Boy Scouts served as pallbearers, as the male victims had all been members of the local troop. To help avoid similar tragedies, the government lifted the media blackout. In late May 1945, the headquarters of Western Defense Command, based at the Presidio in San Francisco, issued a cautious message entitled “Japanese Balloon Information Bulletin No. 1.” In an effort to avoid a media frenzy and quell public paranoia, the document was to be read aloud to small gatherings “such as school children assembled in groups, preferably not more than 50 in a group and Boy Scout troops.” The bulletin warned that many hundreds of Japanese balloons were reaching American and Canadian airspace. If anyone came upon such a balloon bomb on the ground, the document instructed him to keep at least 100 yards away from the device and inform the local police or sheriff. “Let us all shoulder this very minor war load,” read the bulletin, “in such a way that our fighting soldiers at the front will be proud of us.”
In Japan, radio broadcasts trumpeted the success of the balloon bomb program, claiming that the devices had triggered major fires and caused 500 American casualties. The propaganda broadcasts promised that Japanese soldiers would invade the United States by the millions, all carried to the enemy coast by massive balloons. In reality, the Japanese high command had heard little about the balloon bombs’ effects on the United States before abruptly canceling the program in April 1945. Of the 9,000 balloons launched by the Japanese, experts estimated that perhaps 900 reached North America.
Memorializing the Victims of the Balloon Bombs
The accident site in Bly became a tragic landmark for the local community. In 1950, the Weyerhaeuser lumber company asked Robert Anderson, a local stonemason and Navy veteran, to create a monument to the victims of the balloon bomb. A newspaper account noted that “the wooded spot where tall pines show scars left by bomb fragments has been set aside by Weyerhaeuser Timber Company as Mitchell Recreation area, named in honor of the Rev. Archie Mitchell, sole survivor of the war tragedy. The location is on a Weyerhaeuser tree farm.” Today the land is supervised by the Forest Service.
Although the town of Bly soldiered on, the shock of the balloon bomb incident reverberated for decades afterward. Some 40 years after the deaths on Gearhart Mountain, John Takeshita, a former resident of the wartime relocation camp at Tule Lake, California, met a Japanese woman who as a young student during World War II had pieced together paper balloons in Tokyo. Takeshita, intrigued, talked to the woman and many of her former classmates, all unwitting participants in the balloon project during the war, and shared the story of the tragedy that had occurred in Bly. In 1985, the Japanese women crafted 1,000 paper cranes, symbols of peace, and sent them to the family members of those who were killed by the balloon bomb. Later, handmade dolls and handwritten letters arrived from Japan, each one a heartfelt apology to the people of Bly.
In May 1995, 50 years after the incident, nearly 500 people convened in the Mitchell Recreation Area for a rededication of the accident site. “It was really something,” remembered Ed Patzke, brother to two of the victims. “Hard to believe it could be put on by a little place like this. They had 10 big school buses to transport people to the site. There were several different speakers. They were playing taps and the bagpipes played ‘Amazing Grace.’ Near the end they had a flyover by the fighter jets from the Air National Guard unit at Kingsley Field. Most of the town was there. It was very effective.” John Takeshita purchased cherry trees to plant at the accident site, at Reverend Mitchell’s old church in Bly, and at a school in Japan that had supplied students for the balloon project.
On the day of the rededication, Cora Conner was finally able to come to terms with what had happened on Gearhart Mountain half a century earlier. Locked away in the telephone office on the day of the bombing, unable to inform anyone about what had happened, she had been haunted by the incident long after the bodies were cleared away. “I had really, really bad nightmares for years,” she says. “I didn’t realize what was causing them until I met John Takeshita and the Japanese women who visited Bly for the ceremony. One of the girls who had been involved in making the paper for the balloons was the same age I was. I was fortunate to meet her and talk about what had happened. It began to ease the pain, and eventually the nightmares stopped.”
For Archie Mitchell, who lost his wife, unborn child, and five members of his church on that fateful day in 1945, life eventually resumed its course. He remarried and in 1947 moved to Southeast Asia to continue the missionary work that inspired him. Unfortunately, fate would deal him yet another blow. On June 1, 1962, a wire report brought his name back into the news: “Today word came from South Vietnam that three Americans had been kidnapped by Communist guerrillas. One of them is Reverend Archie E. Mitchell, a former pastor at Bly in southeast Oregon.” Mitchell was never heard from again.
The Missing Balloon Bombs of North America
Even today, unrecovered balloon bombs are thought to dot the North American landscape. The bombs are slowly disintegrating with time, but are still potentially lethal. To date, approximately 300 of the aged weapons have been found. As late as 1992, a balloon bomb was recovered in Jackson County, Oregon, about 100 miles west of Bly. Nearby, the Klamath County Museum keeps the history of the incident alive for current and future generations. Todd Kepple, manager of the museum, notes, “It’s safe to say that we’ll always feature an exhibit on Japan’s balloon bomb campaign, including its general failure to inflict the widespread damage that was intended, and the heartache it caused in one tiny Northwest community. Many current residents of southern Oregon are scarcely aware of the history of Japanese balloon bombs, but a handful of local residents are determined to make sure the story is never forgotten.”
This article first appeared on the Warfare History Network.
Image: Wikimedia Commons