Another wild-green spring day dawned over the city of Bly, Oregon on May 5, 1945. The news of Hitler’s death had just begun circulating, the Allied forces were capturing island after island in the Pacific and making bombing runs on the Japanese mainland—there was every reason to believe that the fighting would soon be over.
In the shadows of the forests of the Fremont Wilderness, where patches of snow could still be found in the lees of rocks and trees, a terrible blast rang out. Archie Mitchell, pastor at a nearby church, came running from the car to his pregnant wife and the other children scattered about. He managed to smother the flames that were spreading on their clothes and the brush around them, but there was no life left to save. The strange device they’d disturbed was an anti-personnel explosive that had sailed on the winds from the distant island of Honshu.
Immediately after the incident, the gag order was removed from the American media. Up to that point, they’d been silenced from reporting the appearance of the strange balloons drifting in all over the North American continent. They’d caused only minor damage, mostly small fires, but this event convinced the military and government that the news should be made public in order to prevent further loss of life. The attacks were meant to instill fear and unease in the American populace, and the media blackout was meant to discourage the Japanese from believing the tactic was working.
The balloons themselves (fusen bakudan), even ladened as they were with only the promise of death, can be admired for being elegantly executed. The actual balloon was constructed from washi, a traditional handmade paper made from the fibers of trees or shrubs. Women near the infamous Noborito Laboratory in Japan were conscripted to make vast quantities of this paper. The paper was then treated with wax to create a material suitable for housing hydrogen gas. The materials were then sent to the northeast where the explosives and incendiary devices were attached. Sandbag ballasts were used along with a altimeter to keep the balloons from flying too high or too low while making the trip over the Pacific Ocean. Too high and the balloon would vent gas, too low and the balloon would drop a sandbag. Some of the balloons were reported to have been artfully painted. Even though the operation itself was largely ineffective, the simplicity of design and concept were ingenious.
It took a great deal of time to uncover where the balloons were coming from. It was theorized that submarines off the coast were launching them, or that perhaps they were coming from internment camps, or that Japanese forces had established a foothold somewhere on the continent. After an investigation of the sand found in the ballast, geologists finally determined the area where the bombs were being launched, as unlikely as it sounded—all the way from Japan.
The balloons made the trek at an altitude of 30,000ft over 5000 miles of open sea, and then, wind permitting, a few more thousand miles to touchdown in the middle of America. Balloons were recovered as far inland as Michigan and as far south as Mexico. The jet stream carried the weaponized balloons these great distances in as little as three days. The first balloons were launched in November of 1944, with the last one leaving the shores of Japan in April of 1945. The number of recovered or spotted balloons is a scant 300, but it’s believed many more, possibly as many as 900, landed in remote regions.
This type of unconventional warfare was adopted by Japan against the US primarily because of the great distance between the two countries, but in some senses they resorted to this, and other harrying tactics, out of a sense of desperation. There were several very small incidents that occurred along the West Coast. The bombardment of Estevan Point Lighthouse, the bombing of Fort Stevens, the Lookout Air Raids; all caused relatively little damage, but they did have the effect of shaking American morale.
Japan was losing ground in the Pacific. They were totally cut off from their allies in Europe. Allied air raids devastated urban areas with near impunity, but Japanese forces continued to fight and make counterattacks. They were backpedaling but still taking swipes at the much larger opponent. Eventually, B-29s were dispatched to destroy the hydrogen plants that were supplying the balloons, putting a stop to the operation. A few months later, President Truman gave the green light to drop the fruits of the Manhattan Project, Little Boy and Fat Man.
Japan’s fusen bakudan were not enough to cause the widespread fires, terror, or casualties that perhaps they’d hoped for. It did buy them time by diverting US resources, it did show that Japan was not to be underestimated, that they were resourceful and resilient. During times of war, creativity, perhaps the greatest human trait, becomes warped. War bends our thoughts toward destruction. Rather than compromise, we too often commit ourselves to unspeakable acts and devise fascinatingly beautiful, intricate, death dealing contraptions. They are inventions wonderful to gaze upon, removed from context of function and consequence, and tragically horrific to see when used.