History Podcasts

The Secret History of Japan’s Balloon Bombs

The Secret History of Japan’s Balloon Bombs

Diagram of a balloon bomb

Towards the end of the Second World War, Japan launched thousands of bombs at the North American mainland, resulting in the war’s only deaths that occurred in the contiguous United States. Why have we never heard of this?

Japan’s wind weapons

In 1944–45, the Japanese Fu-Go project released at least 9,300 firebombs aimed at US and Canadian forests and cities. The incendiaries were carried over the Pacific Ocean by silent balloons via the jet stream. Only 300 examples have ever been found and only 1 bomb resulted in casualties, when a pregnant woman and 5 children were killed in an explosion upon discovering the device in a forest near Bly, Oregon.

The Kokoda campaign would last four months and has left a deep impression in the hearts and minds of the Australian people to this day.

Watch Now

Japan’s balloon bombs have been found over a wide range of territory, from Hawaii and Alaska to central Canada and throughout the western United States, as far east as Michigan and even over the Mexican border.

This excerpt from an article written by geologists at the Missouri University of Science and Technology explains how the Fu-Go bombs worked:

The balloons were crafted from mulberry paper, glued together with potato flour and filled with expansive hydrogen. They 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. The Japanese programmed the balloons to release hydrogen if they ascended to over 38,000 feet and to drop pairs of sand filled ballast bags if the balloon dropped below 30,000 feet, using an onboard altimeter.

Military geologists unravel the mystery of the floating bombs

At the time it was inconceivable that the balloon bomb devices could be coming from Japan. Ideas concerning their origins ranged from submarines landing on American beaches to Japanese-American internment camps.

However, upon analysis of the sandbags attached to the bombs, US military geologists concluded that the bombs had to originate in Japan. It was later discovered that the devices were constructed by young girls, after their schools were converted into makeshift Fu-Go factories.

An artists representation of Japanese school girls building the balloons that would carry the bombs to the US.

A US media blackout

Though the US government was aware of the balloon bombs, the Office of Censorship issued a press blackout on the subject. This was to both avoid panic among the American public and keep the Japanese unaware about the effectiveness of the bombs. Perhaps as a result, the Japanese only learned of one bomb that landed in Wyoming without exploding.

After the single deadly explosion in Oregon, the government lifted the media blackout on the bombs. However, if no blackout had ever been in place, those 6 deaths may have been avoided.

Perhaps unconvinced of its efficacy, Japan’s government cancelled the project after only 6 months.

In this heartfelt documentary, his son and grandson recount the story of Lieutenant Dial's life and military service, and reveal the impact his story and bravery has had on them and their family.

Watch Now

The legacy of the balloon bombs

Ingenious, diabolical and ultimately ineffective, the Fu-Go project was the world’s first intercontinental weapons delivery system. It was also a sort of last-ditch effort by a country with damaged military and limited resources. The balloon bombs were possibly viewed as a means of exacting some revenge for the extensive US bombing of Japanese cities, which were particularly vulnerable to incendiary attacks.

Throughout the years, Japan’s balloon bombs have continued to be discovered. One was found as recently as October 2014 in the mountains of British Colombia.

A balloon bomb found in rural Missouri.

Early proposals Edit

In 1792, Joseph-Michel Montgolfier proposed using balloons to drop bombs on British forces and ships in Toulon. [1]

In 1807, Denmark attempted to construct a hand-propelled dirigible that would bomb British ships blockading Copenhagen from the air. [2]

In 1846 a British board rejected as impractical a bombing design by Samuel Alfred Warner. [3] Attempts by Henry Tracey Coxwell to interest the British government a few years later were rejected as well. [3]

In 1847, John Wise proposed the use of balloon bombs in the Mexican–American War. [1]

Austrian use at Venice in 1849 Edit

The first aggressive use of balloons in warfare took place in 1849. [4] [5] Austrian imperial forces besieging Venice attempted to float some 200 paper hot air balloons, each carrying a 24-to-30-pound (11 to 14 kg) bomb that was to be dropped from the balloon with a time fuse over the besieged city. The balloons were launched mainly from land however, some were also launched from the side-wheel steamer SMS Vulcano that acted as a balloon carrier. The Austrians used smaller pilot balloons to determine the correct fuse settings. At least one bomb fell in the city however, due to the wind changing after launch, most of the balloons missed their target, and some drifted back over Austrian lines and the launching ship Vulcano. [2] [3] [6]

World War II Edit

Operation Outward Edit

During World War II, the British Operation Outward launched some 99,142 balloons at Germany, 53,543 of which were carrying incendiaries, the other 45,599 carrying trailing wires to damage high voltage lines. [7]

Fu-Go Edit

In 1944–1945, during World War II, Japan launched some 9,300 Fu-Go balloon bombs at North America. The 10-meter (33 ft) diameter balloons were inflated with hydrogen and typically carried one 15 kilograms (33 lb) bomb, or one 12 kilograms (26 lb) bomb along with four 5 kilograms (11 lb) bombs. [8] The Fu-Go utilized the 220 miles per hour (350 km/h) winter jet stream to cross 5,000 miles (8,000 km) of the Pacific Ocean in approximately three days. To control altitude, the balloon used a barometric sensor that would release ballast sand-bags when the balloon went below 30,000 feet (9,100 m). When the sensor registered an altitude of above 38,000 feet (12,000 m), hydrogen was vented from the balloon. The whole mechanism was activated 52 minutes after launch to allow the balloon to reach initial altitude. The final sandbag stations were fitted with incendiary bombs which were released by the same mechanism, and after the last release the balloon activated a self-destruct mechanism and released an additional bomb. [9]

The balloons were launched in the winter to take advantage of the more favorable winter jet stream. However this limited their damage potential as wildfires were less likely to catch in winter. [10] [11] The Fu-Go balloons inflicted relatively little damage, except for one fatal incident in which a woman and five children were killed near Bly, Oregon after they approached a balloon that had landed at the subsequently named Mitchell Recreation Area. [6] [12] The deaths of six civilians were the only fatalities caused by fire balloons on American soil during World War II. [13]

Cold War Edit

United States Edit

Following WWII, the United States developed the E77 balloon bomb based on the Fu-Go balloon. This balloon was intended to disperse an anti-crop agent however, it was not used operationally. [14] [15] The 1954–1955 WS-124A Flying Cloud program tested high-altitude balloons for delivery of weapons of mass destruction, but was found unfeasible in terms of accuracy. [16]

Gaza Strip use Edit

Since the beginning of the 2018 Gaza border protests, Palestinians have been launching incendiary kites at Israel. Since the beginning of May 2018, [17] helium-filled incendiary balloons have been used alongside the kites. [18] [19] [20] Gazan balloons are devised from helium-filled party balloons or condoms that are strung together, with flaming rags, other incendiary devices, or explosives strung below. [21] [22] The prevailing wind blowing in from the Mediterranean Sea, propels the balloons inland from Gaza into Israel. [23] [24]

According to a report in Ynet, as of 10 July 2018, incendiary kites and balloons started 678 fires in Israel, burning 910 hectares (2,260 acres) of woodland, 610 hectares (1,500 acres) of agricultural crops, as well as open fields. [25] Some balloons landed in the Eshkol Regional Council [26] and the Sdot Negev Regional Council, and no one was injured. [27] One balloon cluster reached Beersheba, some 40 kilometres (25 mi) from the Gaza strip. [28] [29]

Japan Used These Balloons To Bomb America in World War II

A Japanese balloon bomb drifted 6,000 miles to deliver a deadly blow to a party of Sunday school picnickers in Bly, Oregon.

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.

Balloon Bombs: Imperial Japan's Top Secret Plan to Bomb the U.S. Homeland

It crossed silently on a chilly winter evening over the southern Oregon coast, descending slowly, its ballast spent. The Japanese bomb-laden paper balloon collapsed into the Gearhart Mountain forest near the line separating Lake and Klamath Counties in south-central Oregon. The undercarriage of the 70-foot balloon slammed into the earth, its impact muffled by several inches of snow, which prevented a 33-pound high-explosive antipersonnel bomb from exploding.

This was only one of an estimated 6,000 balloon bombs, codenamed Fugo, launched by the Japanese Army from the main island of Honshu between November 1944 and April 1945. Flowing along the jet stream, their cargo of incendiary and high-explosive bombs reached North America in less than a week.

Finding the Pacific Stream

The origin of the Japanese balloon bombs dated back to the occupation of Manchuria in the early 1930s. The Japanese hoped to harass the Soviets across the Amur River, the border between Japanese-occupied Manchuria and Soviet Siberia, by dropping propaganda leaflets from those balloons. Though the plan was never carried out, Japanese military scientists gained valuable information about the complexity of balloon flights over considerable distances. The idea of eventually using balloons to transport special troops or deliver bombs held promise for the Japanese military.

In 1940, the Japanese purchased daily weather maps from the United States Weather Bureau after discovering the existence of an air current moving west to east from Japan to the North American continent at a high altitude. Traveling at over 30,000 feet, it was possible for a balloon launched from Japan to cross the Pacific Ocean in an optimum timeframe of three days. It was not until late in the war, with the beginning of long-distance American bombing of the Japanese home islands, that the United States and its allies learned about the existence and importance of the jet stream.

During the summer of 1942, some consideration was given to a new use of the balloon project on the island of Guadalcanal. The Japanese proposed to attach grenades to long lengths of piano wire that were held aloft by balloons in hopes of snaring U.S. Marine fighter planes as they took off from captured airfields on the island.

How to Make a Fire Balloon?

As the fortunes of the Japanese forces on the island turned against them in September 1942, the idea was redirected into a plan for transcontinental balloon bombing. The Japanese saw two distinct possibilities for success. By attacking the richly forested areas of the U.S. Pacific Northwest with incendiary devices, they hoped to tie up military and civilian resources as well as cost the Allies millions of dollars in damage. Of even greater importance, the Japanese believed that the panic created would have a great psychological impact on the citizens of the West Coast.

By this stage of the war, the Imperial naval forces were stretched to their limits. The valuable submarines that were left could not be spared for Tanaka’s experiments. However, he was not dissuaded. By early 1944, he had developed a 29.5-foot balloon composed of rubbercovered silk panels. This fabric made the balloon durable, leak proof, and most importantly, flexible enough to withstand expansion and contraction due to changes in air pressure.

The Army’s balloon had been developed separately. It was made of more economical paper and was eventually chosen for the continuation of the project. Only 34 of Tanaka’s rubber balloons were approved for launch, none of which contained explosives. Tanaka’s balloons carried only radiosondes to collect data and sand for ballast.

The Army’s paper balloon was lighter and easier to launch, could carry a larger payload, was less expensive, and was slightly larger at 32.8 feet in diameter. This paper balloon was held together by komyyaku-nori, an adhesive gum made from the arum root. It was made waterproof through the use of a lacquer-like substance made from the fermented juice of green persimmons. This unlikely delivery system was chosen to carry the cargo of destruction to America.

In addition to the four small incendiary bombs, the Japanese included one 33-pound high-explosive antipersonnel bomb with an instantaneous fuse. This bomb was designed to spread shrapnel up to 300 feet away.

Transcontinental Balloon Bombing Begins

On November 3, 1944, the first of 6,000 bomb-laden balloons lifted from their moorings and headed toward North America. Though the weather at that time of year was not conducive to starting forest fires, the Japanese hoped that panic would be the measure of their success. Even as the first balloons lifted off, General Kusaba was experimenting with larger balloons for a planned summer offensive strike when the woods would be tinder dry. Though the estimates vary, records indicate that a minimum of 6,000 balloons were launched over the six-month period between November 1944 and April 1945.

The first balloon was discovered on November 3, 1944, off the coast of San Pedro, California, by a U.S. Navy patrol craft. It was one of Tanaka’s rubberized silk models carrying a radio transmitter. The first recorded bombing from a balloon occurred on December 6, 1944, outside Thermopolis, Wyoming. The Independent Record, a weekly newspaper at Thermopolis, reported the incident. It was believed that the bomb was dropped from a plane. Witnesses reported seeing a parachute land with flares. The local authorities abandoned their search for the parachute, believing it to have been only a landing flare.

Less than a week later, a balloon with an unexploded bomb was discovered outside Libby, Montana. This one was reported in the December 14, 1944, issue of the Western News, a weekly newspaper in Libby. The story was picked up by both Time and Newsweek magazines for their New Year’s Day editions. The writers for both magazines were as puzzled by the purpose of the balloon as the people of Libby. In a follow-up story two weeks later, Newsweek, citing government sources, concluded that the reported balloons had a limited range of 400 miles and were probably launched from submarines.

On the evening of January 2, 1945, Mrs. Evelyn Cyr arrived home and witnessed an explosion in a field next to her house on Peach Street in Medford, Oregon. An investigation by military personnel from nearby Camp White revealed that the explosion was caused by a small incendiary bomb. This was one of the first recorded instances of balloon bombings in Oregon, the state in which the most incidents were recorded. The rest of the balloon and its deadly payload were not recovered in the Medford area.

American Response

Authorities were quick to act. A news blackout was issued, requesting the press not to print any news about the balloon attacks. Cooperation among military and civilian authorities was total. The military and several federal agencies, including the FBI, U.S. Forestry authorities, and the Department of Agriculture moved to defend against this new form of attack by the Japanese. It was agreed that any balloons or other materials that were recovered would be sent to either Cal-Tech University in Pasadena, California, or the Naval Research Laboratory.

Of immediate FBI concern was the potential that the Japanese were using balloons for biological warfare. Though a valid concern, there are no known records of any Japanese personnel suggesting the use of the balloons in this fashion.

Several defensive strategies were discussed by civilian and military authorities. The Western Defense Command stationed additional planes for coastal defense and about 2,700 troops for fire fighting at critical points to protect against further balloon attacks. Further media attention was squelched to prevent heightened anxiety among the general population of the western United States and Canada.

In February 1945, the Japanese added stories of massive fires and loss of life from balloon attacks to their propaganda broadcasts. Their stories were, of course, false. The Japanese high command had received no reports regarding the results of their unmanned flights. The official silence concerning the attacks was so complete that the Japanese did not know that some balloons had, in fact, successfully made the journey across the South Pacific until the war was over.

The Mysterious End of Project Fugo

The balloon attacks continued into April 1945. By the end of that month the launches were terminated. Two possible reasons for ending the Fugo project exist. First, the Japanese high command may have thought that none of the balloons were reaching North America because of the lack of press coverage. Second, the intensive American air raids over Japan may have destroyed factories that supplied needed materials for the balloons, most notably hydrogen gas. Destruction of railroads could have made it virtually impossible to deliver the necessary supplies to launch sites.

The number of reported balloon incidents topped 300 by the time the war ended. Though most of them came down in the Pacific Northwest with 45 in Oregon, 28 in Washington, 57 in British Columbia, and 37 in Alaska, many others were driven greater distances by the jet stream. One balloon fell on a farm in Kansas, and two were discovered as far south and east Texas.

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.

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.

Beware Of Japanese Balloon Bombs

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.

"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 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."

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

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."

The Men Who Created The Balloons

The Japanese couldn’t carry out an attack on the American mainland using their aircraft. So, they set out to design a machine that could reach the US — even if it were launched from the Japanese home islands. And it was Technical Major Teiji Takada of the Japanese Imperial Army who devised an innovative plan to do just that.

Major Takada’s plan, codenamed Fu-Go, would not rely on planes or rockets. Instead, hydrogen-filled balloons — often made of paper — would carry a payload of bombs across the Pacific ocean using nothing but the prevailing wind. The balloons would ascend to over 30,000 feet, where they would come into contact with a fast-moving wind current — what we now call the jet stream. The balloons, pushed by the jet stream, could cross the sea in a matter of days.

The balloon’s “brain center” was a ring that held altimeters and sandbags. When the sun warmed the balloon during daylight hours, the craft would rise to a maximum altitude of 38,000 feet. At that height, the altimeter would open a valve on the balloon that vented hydrogen, thus decreasing altitude. Below 30,000 feet, the altimeter would send a signal to release sandbags, which served as ballast, thus increasing altitude. Once there was no more ballast, the “brain center” released the bomb payload.

Takada and his team suggested three payload types for the balloons: a 33-pound high-explosive, a 26-pound thermite incendiary bomb, and an 11-pound thermite incendiary bomb.

Although the engineering was ingenious, the overall strategy was tenuous at best. The balloons’ main purpose — besides sowing fear — was to set off wildfires. Yet, the balloons had to be launched when the jet stream conditions were favorable— between November and March. However, this coincided with the Pacific Northwest’s wet winter months — an unlikely time for a forest fire.

Japanese Balloon Bombs of WWII: The Empire of Japan’s use of one way free balloons to bomb the US

A Coast Guard Reserve patrol boat of the “Corsair fleet” recovered from the sea around San Pedro California a water logged pile of gummed paper attached to what looked like a large bicycle wheel. The date was November 5, 1944 and the first of many Japanese balloon bombs had just been recovered. These devices began showing up across the country, mainly in the Northwest.

They were part of a last ditch effort by Japan to both scare the united states out of the war and to finally avenge the Doolittle Raid of two years previous. The Japanese launched the balloons from the Sendai area of northern Honshu Island. The designs varied but in general the balloons held 19,000 cubic feet of hydrogen, were 33 1/2 feet in diameter, made from hundreds of small pieces of paper glued in four plys together and lifted anywhere from 25 to 65 pounds of various explosives. Once released in Japan, the balloons were simply carried across the Pacific by recently discovered high air currents in roughly four days.

The mechanism of the bomb itself was set to release its load of explosives after that time period had elapsed, at which time it -should- be somewhere over North America. The Japanese nicknamed their devices ‘Fugu’ after the deadly pacific puffer fish which the inflated balloon resembled.

It was hoped that the Fugu would ignite forest fires in the giant old growth regions of the western United States. There is no known record that this occurred with any success. The devices however did draw blood on a peaceful Sunday afternoon. On May 5, 1945 in the small town of Bly, Oregon a woman and five children found one of the devices at a picnic in the surrounding hillside and the resulting explosion killed all six in front of dozens of shocked onlookers. An effort by the War Department kept the news of the deadly Fugu balloon as suppressed as possible to avoid widespread panic.

American military and civilian officials suspected the bombs could be an experiment or even a precursor to a larger attack using biological weapons carried by similar balloons. The War Department took immediate protective measures and drafted plans for combating anything that the balloon operations might bring. At the end of the war in September 1945 the Eastern and Western Defense Commands still had a complement of about 17,000 officers and men on duty, watching for Fugu or anything else that may have come. The only other known use of armed unguided ballons on warfare was on August 22, 1849 when the Austrians launched 200

pilotless bomb carrying balloons against the city of Venice -also without much success.

Surviving Fugu balloon bombs are on exhibit in the National Balloon Museum in Albuquerque New Mexico, the Washington State Army National Guard Museum on Camp Murray and in the Smithsonian in Washington among other places. However these may not be the only Fugu left on the continent. Of the 9000 balloons that were set free to make its destiny on the jet stream it is known that only 30 were shot down by fighters or anti-aircraft artillery. Another 100 were found during the war after they had landed.

Since August 1945, 150 more have been found stretching from The Yukon Territory to Mexico. It is thought that

1000 Fugu balloons made it across the Pacific so by this figure as many as 700 of these one way mad bombers could be left in the forests, deserts, lakes and mountains of North America. Seeing that each was activated by a 64-foot long delayed fuse upon separated from the balloon a great number of these may be unexploded.

WW2 History: Japanese Randomly Sent Fire Bombs by Balloon to Terrorize the US.

This is copied from the museum. It can be found at 00:40 in my video:

The “Doolittle Raid” during World War 2 was planned against Japan to cause confusion and impede production. Although the bomb loads of these B-25 bombers could not do enough physical damage to permanently delay the war, Americans hoped it would produce a psychological blow to the Japanese. Ironically, the mission also sparked the invention by the Japanese of the world’s first intercontinental weapon, the FUGO, or balloon bomb known as the windship weapon.

The Japanese worked for two years testing and preparing before the first bomb carrying balloon was released on American cities, forest and farmlands. In the dry season, widespread scattering of these weapons could literally burn out the vast forests of the Pacific Coast. This was Japan’s purpose along with the associated psychological effect upon the American people.Over 6,000 balloons were launched between November 1944 and April 1945, and an estimated 1,000 reached the US. The balloons took an average of 60 hours to cross the Pacific Ocean and were found from Atu in the Aleutians as far east as Michigan and reaching south of Mexico. Only a few hundred balloons have been tracked, located and recovered or destroyed. Of those remaining, there is no trace.

Considering the widespread dispersion of these balloon bombs, the primary goal of the US was to prevent the Japanese from learning of their effectiveness. The Office of Censorship requested newspaper editors and radio broadcasters to give no publicity whatsoever to balloon sighting or incidents.

Historians may make light of this last ditch effort by the Japanese to retaliate agaist the US, however, had this balloon weapon been further exploited by using germ or gas bombs, the result could have been disastrous to the American people.

Watch the video: Superior History Documentary 2017: Japans Secret WWII Weapon Balloon Bombs (January 2022).