For A Year During WWII Japan Attacked Us With Balloons Made By Children
It was an otherwise normal day on May 5th, 1945 in Bly, Oregon. Archie Mitchell the pastor for the Bly Christian and Missionary Alliance Church, and his wife, Elsie, a teacher decided to take five students up Gearhart Mountain for a picnic. Mrs. Mitchell wasn’t feeling well, probably due to the pregnancy, so the good Pastor pulled over to let her out.
She and the students wandered away from the car as the Pastor struck up a conversation with nearby construction workers about local fishing conditions. The last thing Pastor Mitchell heard before the explosion was, “look what I found, dear.”
The explosion not only blew branches and dust everywhere, but it killed the five children and Mrs. Mitchell. What none of them knew was that they were victims of a Fu-go bomb, sent from Japan. As it turned out, they would be the only victims of the 9,000 fire balloons that Japan floated over the Pacific in a bid to bomb the United States.
The Fu-go bombs were the brainchild of a nation desperate to inflict pain on the United States, but too war-strapped to launch a real offensive. To say the balloons were ineffective might be the most ridiculous statement one could make about the war. They were not only a flop, the Japanese thought making children make them would be a good idea. It wasn’t.
The Idea For Fire Balloons
There were two final designs for the fire balloons, but when they first conceived of them, the idea seemed far-fetched. It was the 1930s. At that time their designs only created balloons that would travel 70 miles, where they needed to travel 6,200 miles.
After a raid on Tokyo April 18, 1942, where we dropped 16 tons of bombs, the Japanese reinvestigated the practicality of fire balloons. They postulated that a more advanced design, if launched high enough, would travel in the jet stream.
They needed a balloon that wouldn’t burst from expanding in higher altitudes. To adjust for this, they designed the balloons to release pressure when it was too high. This would lower the altitude of the balloon.
As it floated lower, the balloon dropped sandbags to float back up. By these two methods, the balloons would bob up and down until they reached the intended destination, where they would run out of gas. The balloons would descend over American soil.
At 27,000 feet, the balloon would drop three bombs on whatever was below, then self-destruct the balloon and its evidence.
The deeper irony of this was unseeable at the time. As the United States was busy developing the atom bomb, the Japanese were floating balloons. At the time, they had limited options. Their industrial capabilities couldn’t match ours, even back then.
Had their Fu-gos worked, even a fraction of what they’d hoped for, it would’ve been a genius application of low-tech incited mayhem. The Japanese hoped for a 10% success rate. Of the 9,300 balloons sent, only the one in Oregon completed the mission.
Initially, because we didn’t know what we were dealing with, the military suppressed the news of the Oregon explosion. If the Japanese were attacking us with floating bombs, we had no idea how many to expect or how effective they could be.
Not only that, but the American people would have lost their boogie-woogie minds.
Adding to the insanity of the Japanese strategy, these were not incendiary devices cranked out of a warehouse in the outskirts of Tokyo. They had school kids making them, sometimes without the knowledge of their parents.
In 1944, the Japanese military enlisted students to make what they were calling “secret weapons.” They didn’t tell the kids exactly what it was they were making, but they told them their contributions would fly to America.
One by one, they taught the kids the process to make parts for the balloons. By one student’s account from the site America in WWII, referencing the book Japan at War: An Oral History, they had no idea what they doing.
“A factory started at our school in August 1944… We really believed we were doing secret work, so I didn’t talk about this even at home…”
The goal of the program had been ambitious. They Japanese military anticipated the kids would make 120,000 balloons. With a 10% success rate, that would have meant 12,000 explosions on American soil.
We should thank our 50 lucky stars they enlisted children to do this work.
The U.S. military did a good job of covering the results of the fire balloon strike. They didn’t want the Japanese to know the success rate of their strategy, but they also didn’t want to create a panic in the U.S.
We recovered many of the balloons, some that failed, some that exploded but didn’t hurt anyone. We all know how this story ended.
A few more successful Fu-go explosions would not likely have saved us from the burden of what happened in Hiroshima or Nagasaki. When you consider the magnitude of what happened in those cities, it frames what happened to Pastor Mitchell on that Mountain.