"Look what I found, dear!"
On May 5, 1945, Elyse Mitchell shouted these words back to her husband, as she and five teenaged students approached the oddity they had found, half buried in a late-season snowbank in Bly, Oregon. Someone shouted that it was a balloon, and Archie Mitchell remembered that he had heard of Japanese balloons being spotted near the west coast. He yelled back for them not to touch it, but it was too late - an explosion shook the park area and by the time Archie reached them, Elyse and all five students were lying around a one-foot crater left by the balloon. Elyse's dress was on fire; Archie tried to put it out with his bare hands, but could not. Elyse and four of the students were killed immediately by the blast; the fifth survived only for a few minutes. They had no way of knowing it, but 26-year-old pregnant Sunday School teacher Elyse Mitchell and her five students who were all on their way to a Saturday church picnic, had just become the only wartime casualties on the American continent due to enemy action in World War II.
How an explosive-laden balloon would end up in the wilderness of Oregon is best explained by going back in time by about a year. By 1944, the Empire of Japan was in the unenviable position of being involved in a large-scale war against a powerful opponent with plenty of industrial resources. In their attempt to find economical but effective ways to inflict damage on the United States, Japanese scientists devised a way to use the recently-discovered Pacific jet stream - a high-altitude river of air which crossed from Japan across the Pacific Ocean to North America - to their advantage. Japanese scientists developed a plan to create a series of 70-foot-tall hydrogen balloons made from mulberry paper, sealed by potato flour, and each carrying a 33 pound incendiary bomb. The balloons were assembled mostly by teenaged girls and were equipped with a complex system of weights and ballast using an altimeter, rotating wheels, and sandbags to keep the balloons aloft during their three-day floating journey. These airborne bombs were called Fu-Go, or "fire balloons".
From November 1944 until April 1945, the Japanese launched over 9,000 of these balloons, with the hopes that they would cause casualties, burn down forests and farmland, and cause panic in the United States and Canada. The first balloon was spotted near San Pedro, California, on November 4, 1944, but the U.S. Office of Censorship asked that news of them not be printed or spread, with the hopes that the Japanese would lose interest in the program if they did not see any evidence of it working. Nonetheless, rumors and sporadic reports persisted. The deaths of Elyse Mitchell and the five students inspired a change in the policy of silence. Civilians were now warned to be wary of the floating bombs. However, no other casualties would be attributed to the balloons and the Japanese never learned of any chaos they were hoping they would create. American geologists analyzed the sand within the sandbags and determined that they must have come from Japan itself; subsequently, American bombers were able to identify and destroy two of the three balloon factories. Disillusioned, the Japanese discontinued the program in April 1945.
For those interested in the technical aspects of the balloons, this video has since been declassified:
Links and Sources:
"How Geologists Unraveled the Mystery of Japanese Vengeance Balloon Bombs in World War II", by Dr. J. David Rogers , Missouri University of Science and Technology, retrieved March 14, 2012.
"Blast Kills 6, Five Children, Pastor's Wife in Explosion: Fishing Jaunt Proves Fatal to Bly Residents," Klamath Falls Herald and News, May 7, 1945.
"Japanese Balloon Bomb Killed 7", from the Southern Oregon Mail Tribune, November 22, 2009.
"Balloon Bombs" in the Oregon Encyclopedia, retrieved March 14, 2012.
Photo of balloon was taken by a US Army soldier in 1944 or 1945, and is in the public domain.
Diagram of balloon is from Japanese Balloon and Attached Devices, by the Technical Air Intelligence Center, Naval Air Station, Anacostia, DC, May 1945.
Photo of memorial plaque courtesy of the Southern Oregon Visitors Association.
Video from the National Archives and Records Administration, Dept. of the Navy, and is in the public domain.