I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Japan’s Fugo (sometimes Fu-Go, fire balloons, or balloon bombs) program was one of its desperate last-gasp attempts to turn the tide of war in its favour.
After crushing 1944 defeats at Guam, Truk, the Marshall Islands, and elsewhere, the Japanese tried a new tactic. High explosive and incendiary devices were attached to balloons and launched into the high altitude. The idea was that these balloons would be carried across the Pacific Ocean by the jet stream and create havoc on the West coasts of Canada and the United States.
National Public Radio reports that “The balloons, or ‘envelopes,’ designed by the Japanese army were made of lightweight paper fashioned from the bark of trees.”
Hundreds of individual pieces of paper were glued together, often by schoolchildren, who used a paste made from a tuber. According to airvectors.net “Hungry workers stole the paste and ate it.”
The balloons were big, measuring 10 metres in diameter and 21 metres from top to bottom. They were filled with hydrogen gas.
The device could lift about 450 kilograms but a lot of this was in the form of ballast sand held in bags. The lethal part of the package was only 15 kilos in weight.
The balloons rose to about 35,000 feet (10.7 km) and travelled eastwards, taking three to five days to reach North America. During the journey, hydrogen gas leaked out of the balloon causing it to descend. So, a battery-controlled mechanism was needed to counteract this effect.
At about 25,000 feet (7.6 km) a barometric pressure switch would release sandbags so the balloon would rise back to its cruising altitude. Once at the correct height, a valve would open to release some hydrogen to hold the contraption in the right place.
The Japanese calculated that by the time the balloon reached landfall it would be out of sandbags, and the barometric pressure switch would start dropping bombs instead. With the last bomb gone, a fuse would light causing the balloon to blow up in an orange fireball.
The Campaign Begins
The first of up to 10,000 fire balloons was released in early November 1944. The man who oversaw the technical side of the program, Major Teiji Takada, was at the launch. He is reported to have said “The figure of the balloon was visible only for several minutes following its release until it faded away as a spot in the blue sky like a daytime star.”
A couple of days later, a navy patrol off the California coast saw what looked like tattered cloth in the water. Sailors retrieved it and sent it off to the FBI. It didn’t take long for experts to figure out what was happening.
Writing in World War II Journal (2003), James M. Powles describes how in December 1944 some coal miners in Wyoming 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.”
Soon, reports were coming in from all over the Pacific coast. A balloon was shot down near Santa Rosa, California and people were finding bits of paper from the balloons in Los Angeles. They were turning up in the Northwest Territories, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan in Canada, as well as Oregon, Montana, and Arizona.
After all the technical challenges the Japanese had overcome, their fire balloons were almost totally ineffective. The main purpose was to set fire to the vast forests of the Pacific northwest, but climate got in the way of that plan.
The west to east jet stream is at its strongest between November and March, so that was the chosen bombing period. However, that’s the time of the highest precipitation in the target region. The incendiaries that did reach the ground were unable to start major conflagrations in the snow pack or saturated debris on the forest floor.
Despite this, the Japanese propaganda machine claimed large numbers of casualties and forest fires. The Fugo campaign was the “prelude to something big” America was warned.
That "something big" might have been biological warfare that the Japanese were known to be experimenting with. The ballooning season ended with the northern hemisphere spring of 1945 as the high altitude winds moderated. By the following autumn, Japan had been bombed into unconditional surrender.
Keeping it Quiet
As reports of more sightings came in, the U.S. government decided to drop a cloak of secrecy over the entire business. There were two reasons for this.
It was determined that the balloon bombs were not significantly dangerous and revealing their existence to the general public might cause a panic.
Secondly, if the attacks were reported in the media, the Japanese might consider them successful and be encouraged to launch more. And, if the location of the finds was revealed the Japanese might perfect their navigation.
In May 1945, the government lifted the censorship. That was because of a tragic accident.
The Gearhart Mountain Picnic
On May 5, 1945, Pastor Archie Mitchell and his wife Elsie guided a group of children from their church in Bly, Oregon into the Fremont National Forest for a picnic. Pastor Mitchell dropped his passengers off and went to park his car.
Mrs. Mitchell and the children found something on the ground and called to the pastor to come and take a look.
Before he could examine the object there was an explosion. When Pastor Mitchell and another man who was nearby arrived at the scene “Four of the children were dead, part of them badly mangled, another died immediately, and Mrs. Mitchell died within a few minutes. None were conscious after the explosion. Mrs. Mitchell’s clothes were on fire, and Mr. Mitchell immediately put this fire out (Melva Bach, History of the Fremont National Forest, pages 207-208) …”
It was, of course, a Japanese balloon bomb.
Elsie Mitchell was 26 years old and five months pregnant. The others who died with her were: Sherman Shoemaker, 11, Edward Engen, 14, Jay Gifford,13, Joan Patzke,14, and Dick Patzke, 15. These were the only Americans killed by enemy action on the U.S. mainland during the Second World War.
- After the war, U.S. investigators found that part of the motivation for the Fugo program was the so-called Doolittle raid. In April 1942, Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle of the U.S. Army Air Forces planned and led a raid on Tokyo. Sixteen B52s dropped bombs on Japan’s capital and on other targets on the island of Honshu. The fact that the Japanese homeland was vulnerable to aerial attacks came as a huge shock to the people and some form of retaliation was demanded.
- In October 2014, an unexploded balloon bomb was found by forestry workers in the mountains near Lumby, British Columbia, Canada. It was described as still “functional,” although it isn’t any more. A bomb disposal team blew the device up. Experts believe there are still more of these unexploded balloon bombs lying where they landed in remote forested areas.
- The crane is a symbol in Japan of peace and healing. So, in 1987, some of the schoolchildren who made the paper balloons folded 1,000 paper cranes. They sent these icons of atonement to the families of the Oregon picnickers who were killed by one of their devices. A letter accompanied the cranes saying, in part, “We participated in the building of weapons used to kill people without understanding much beyond the knowledge that America was our adversary in a war. To think that the weapons we made took your lives as you were out on a picnic! We were overwhelmed with deep sorrow.”
- “The Fusen Bakudan.” Airvectors.net, undated.
- “Beware Of Japanese Balloon Bombs.” Linton Weeks, National Public Radio, January 20, 2015.
- “The Two Tragedies of Archie Mitchell.” Jamie Lewis, Peeling Back the Bark, May 30, 2012.
- “Japanese Balloon Bombs ‘Fu-Go.’ ” Franklin Matthias, Atomic Heritage Foundation, August 10, 2016.
- “WWII Japanese Balloon Bomb Discovered, Blown To ‘Smithereens’ In B.C.” Dene Moore, Canadian Press, October 10, 2014.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor