Saturday, September 13, 2008

Attack of the Killer Balloons

During World War II, Japan had a secret weapon designed to spark a massive forest fire in the United States. Thanksfully, the device - which was partly made by Japanese schoolgirls - was a dud. Here's the bizarre story of the Fugo killer balloons:

On May 5, 1945, Reverend Archie Mitchell, his wife Elsie, and five children from his Sunday school drove from the tiny southern Oregon town of Bly for a picnic on Gearhart Mountain. While Reverend Mitchell parked the car, his wife and the children explore. They came upon a device the U.S. government knew about but had kept secret. When one of them touched the device, it exploded: Mrs. Mitchell and the five children were killed. The six Oregonians became the only known fatalities on the U.S. mainland from enemy attack during all of World War II.


The exploding contraption was a Japanese Fugo balloon bomb, the brainchild of Major General Sueyoshi Kusaba of the Japanese Ninth Army Technical Research Laboratory. The balloons measured 33 feet across and 70 feet long from top to bomb. They were constructed (by Japanese schoolgirls) from bits of a tough paper called washi, made from mulberry trees, and glued together with potato paste. The bomb parts were made in a factory - not by schoolgirls.

Filled with hydrogen gas, the payload consisted of 36 sandbags for ballast, four incendiary bombs, and one 33-pound antipersonnel bomb. Launched to rise 35,000 feet, the balloons were designed to use the prevailing Pacific eastward winds to reach the west coast of North America. As the balloons leaked gas and lost altitude, barometric pressure switches caused the sandbags to drop off and the balloons to rise back to the jetstream. The trip took three to five days. By the time they reached the United States, the baloons, now out of sandbags, were supposed to drop the bombs and then self-destruct. The Japanese hoped the bomb would cause forest fires and panic the American public.


Between October 1944 and April 1945, Japan launched 9,300 of these balloons. Estimates are that fewer than 500 balloons reached the United States or Canada; the rest fell into the Pacific Ocean.

In November 1944, one balloon was discovered in the ocean off San Pedro, California. In January 1945, a balloon bomb landed in Medford, Oregon, without exploding. At some point, a rancher in Nevada discovered a balloon and used it as a tarp to cover his hay; police later discovered that two bombs were still attached to it.


Most of the balloons either exploded harmlessly or failed to detonate on impact. Approximately 90 of them were recovered in the United States as far east as Michigan. Strict censorship kept their existence out of the newspapers, and those who knew of their presence were sworn to secrecy. It was feared that news of the balloons arrival would encourage the launching of more balloons. They weren't seen as much of a danger, but the hush-hush handling of the situation worked: the Japanese abandoned the project because they didn't hear of any success.

But after the Mitchell family tragedy in Oregon, the public was warned. The last balloon bomb was found in Alaska in 1955; its bombs were still capable of exploding. Ironically, on March 10, 1945, one of the last paper balloons desceded near Hanford, Washington. The balloon landed on electrical power lines, shutting off the Hanford nuclear reactor for three days. The Hanford reactor, part of the top-secret Manhattan project, was producing plutonium for the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, five months later.

The Fugo balloon bombs are considered a failure as weapons system. There were no proven bomb-caused forest fires, and they caused little other damage. Elsie Mitchell and the five children were the tragic exceptions.

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