Following the 1883 eruption of the Krakatoa volcano, weather watchers described an eastbound, upper atmospheric air current described as the “equatorial smoke stream”.
In the 1920s, Japanese meteorologist Wasaburo Oishi tracked these upper level winds using pilot balloons from a site, near Mount Fuji. Oishi published his findings in Esperanto, dooming his work to international obscurity. Inside Japan there were those who took note, filing away this new-found knowledge of what we now call the “Jet Stream”.
During the latter half of WWII, Japanese military thinkers conceived a fūsen bakudan or “fire balloon”, a hydrogen filled balloon device designed to ride the jet stream using sand ballast and a valve system, to navigate its way to the North American continent.
With sandbags, explosives, and the device which made the thing work, the total payload was about a thousand pounds at liftoff. The first such device was released on November 3, 1944, beginning the crossing to the west coast of North America.
Between late 1944 and April 1945 some 9,300 such balloons were released, with military payloads.
Today, inter-continental ballistic missiles are an everyday if frightening reality, of our time. Such a long range attack was unheard of during World war 2 and would not be duplicated until the Falklands War, in 1982.
In 1945, intercontinental weapons existed only in the realm of science fiction. As these devices began to appear, American speculation ran wild. Authorities theorized that they originated with submarine-based beach assaults, German POW camps, even the internment camps into which the Roosevelt administration herded Japanese Americans.
These “washi” paper balloons flew at high altitude and surprisingly quickly, completing the Pacific crossing in only three days. Balloons came down from Alaska to Northern Mexico and as far east, as Detroit.
A P-38 Lightning fighter shot one down near Santa Rosa, California, while Yerington, Nevada cowboys cut one up to make hay tarps. Pieces of balloon were found in the streets of Los Angeles. A prospector near Elko Nevada delivered one to local authorities, on the back of a donkey.
Among US units assigned to fight fire balloons was the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, which suffered one fatality and 22 injuries fighting fires.
One of the last balloons came down on March 10 near Hanford Washington, shorting out power lines supplying electricity for Manhattan Project nuclear reactor cooling pumps. The war in the Pacific could have ended very differently had not backup safety devices restored power, almost immediately.
Colonel Sigmund Poole, head of the U.S. Geological Survey military geology unit, asked, “Where’d the damned sand come from?” Microscopic analysis of sand ballast identified diatoms and other microscopic sea life. This and the mineral content of the sand itself proved to be definitive. The stuff could only have come from the home islands of Japan, more specifically, one or two beaches on the island of Honshu.
American authorities were alarmed. Anti-personnel and incendiary bombs were relatively low grade threats. Not so the biological weapons Japanese military authorities were known to be developing at the infamous Unit 731, in northern China.
284 of these weapons are known to have completed the Pacific crossing to the United States, Mexico and Canada. Experts estimate as many as 1,000 may have made the crossing. Sightings were reported in seventeen US states. Pilots were ordered to shoot them down on sight, but many escaped detection, altogether.
In an effort to deny valuable intelligence to their Japanese adversary, US military and government authorities did everything they could to keep these “Fire Bombs” out of the media. Even while such secrecy put Americans at risk.
Japanese Authorities reported that the bombs were hitting key targets. Thousands were dead or injured they insisted, and American morale was low.
On the morning of May 5, 1945, Pastor Archie Mitchell and his wife Elsie took a Sunday school class of five on a picnic to a forest area near Bly, Oregon. As Pastor Mitchell parked the car, Elsie and the kids came upon a large balloon with a strange looking device, attached. There was no way they could have known, what they had found was a Japanese weapon of war. The device exploded killing all six, instantly.
Several such devices exploded, igniting wildfires in the forests of California, Oregon and Washington, but the site near Bly is the only one known to have resulted in American casualties.
Today there is a small picnic area located in the Fremont-Winema National Forest in Lake County, Oregon. It’s maintained by the US Forest Service, memorialized as the Mitchell Recreation Area and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A small stone marker points the way to a shrapnel scarred tree.
A second monument bears the words cast in bronze: The “only place on the American continent where death resulted from enemy action during World War II”. There are six names above those words, those of five children and their teacher: Elsie Mitchell, age 26, Edward Engen, 13, Jay Gifford, 13, Joan Patzke, 13, Dick Patzke, 14 and Sherman Shoemaker, age 11.
Elsie Mitchell was pregnant at the time of her death. Her unborn child was the 7th albeit nameless victim, of one of the most bizarre weapon systems of WW2.