Japanese Balloon Bombs Reach Texas in WWII

Earlier this summer, World War II historian G. P. Cox posted an excellent blog entry in his blog Pacific Paratrooper about Japanese balloon bombs reaching the United States.  His article was reblogged here immediately before this post.  If you are interested in World War II in the Pacific, we highly recommend this blog.

In June 1942, Japan seized the Aleutian islands of Attu and Kiska, but these islands represented the only North American properties overtaken by the regime.  A newspaper report from 1972 recapped three other incidents in which the Japanese war machine carried out attacks in the continental United States and Canada, possibly in retaliation for the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo two months earlier.  At the time they occurred, it was unknown whether these events were isolated attacks or if they were harbingers of a larger Japanese offensive.  On June 21, 1942, connected in time with the seizing of the two Aleutian islands, a Japanese submarine later identified as the I-25 fired seventeen five-inch rounds at Fort Stevens at the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon.  Since it appeared to come only from one source, no return fire was made, in order to avoid revealing the location of the coastal guns.  On September 9 and 29, 1942, a Japanese seaplane thought to have also been launched from the same submarine, I-25, dropped incendiary bombs in heavy forests roughly ten miles east of Brookings on the southern Oregon coast.  It was later learned that the same pilot, Nobuo Fujito, had been flying the seaplane and that a third flight had been cancelled due to the weather.  The forest fires were fairly easily extinguished and no other similar attacks were noted for over two years.  Then on May 5, 1945, six people were killed by a Japanese balloon bomb, also in Oregon.

The balloon bomb project was activated in 1944 called “Fugo” or “Fu-Go” and estimates of as many as nine thousand explosive devices were transported by the upper level winds that carried the hydrogen filled mulberry paper balloons with a payload of a small antipersonnel bomb and/or an incendiary device.  The balloons were weighted with sandbags and set to explode about three days after launch.  The path of the devices were completely dependent on the west to east prevailing winds and delivery was expected to take roughly sixty hours.  The project was designed to incite terror and anxiety in the United States by generating random fires in the vast forests of the West.

An estimated number of three to four hundred balloon bombs reached North America, and as far as we know, only two such devices reached Texas, although more could have fallen without detection in rural areas of the state.  The two that were located in Texas were the furthest east locations in North America, except for a few more that reached the Great Lakes region of the United States.

In January, 1944, Allied forces were attacking the Marshall Islands and the war in the Pacific was well underway.  The Japanese mainland had been bombed at least once with the one-way Doolittle Raid of 1942, but Japanese forces still held all key islands and other locations that could have been used for the launch of air strikes against the Japanese homeland.  An Associated Press release dated February 3, 1944, a German radio broadcast quoted the unnamed mayor of Tokyo as saying that the officials “anticipate and are prepared for air attacks” and that they were disbursing the eight million residents of the capital city.  Although their fate was eventually to change, at that time the residents of Tokyo and other large Japanese cities had little to fear from the Allies.  The main thrust of the Allied effort in the Pacific had been to regain control of all the Pacific islands, southeast Asia, India and China with offensives in New Guinea, Thailand, the Marianas, Guam, Tinian, Okinawa and the Philippines.  It would take months of heavy fighting before Allied bombing flights to the Japanese cities could be staged from locations where the participating aircraft could be recovered.

The citizens of the United States had made preparations for a Japanese invasion, but realistically, the likelihood of such an effort was still thought to be somewhat remote.  In late 1944 after months of research, Japanese scientists believed that they could reach the United States by launching their balloons during certain months from the winter to the spring.  Within that launch window, there were usually only fifty to sixty days when the winds were ideal for the project.  Launches were begun in November, 1944.  Many such devices reached the mainland of the United States, but most were thought to have fallen harmlessly in the Pacific.  Of the ones that reached the United States and Canada, few are thought to have caused any measurable damage.  There was little loss of life, except for Elsie Winters Mitchell, the expectant wife of a minister, and five children in the Pacific Northwest who were killed while on a picnic, when they came across the debris of a downed balloon bomb.  Only the minister, Archie Mitchell, had heard of the possible existence of the balloons as the group began its outing.  Archie would say that one of the children had yelled that he had found something, but that the lethal blast went off before he could shout out a warning.   The United States government had generally prevailed on local authorities and the news media to suppress these reports in an effort to prevent panic and anxiety that might occur if the facts were revealed to the public, although it is understood that the government eventually authorized some warnings regarding balloon-borne devices.

According to the Texas Almanac, the only two balloon bombs known to have reached the Lone Star State were both discovered in late March, 1945.  One was found near Desdemona in Eastland County and another was located near Woodson in Throckmorton County.  A youth named C. M. “Pug” Guthery sighted the first one out of the window of his school bus near Desdemona while the balloon was still in flight.  Guthery and other students found the balloon after it landed.  and even cut some souvenirs from it before it was recovered by the government.  Fortunately it did not detonate.  The next day, a cowboy named Ivan Miller discovered the second balloon on the ground in a pasture of the ranch where he worked.  It had already landed and is also believed not to have detonated.  In each case, government officials quickly retrieved the material and recovered all the souvenirs that they could.

Consistent with the news blackout, no mention of the Texas balloon bomb recoveries can be found in local newspaper online archives from the 1940s.  In 1960, a news report in Port Angeles (Washington) Evening News regarding a memorial that was unveiled at the Walter Akely Post No. 29 of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1024 for Mrs. Elsie Mitchell, the 1945 adult victim from Oregon.  The speaker’s remarks cited the circumstances of her death and raised the possibility that the balloons could have also been used for bacteriological warfare.  He also stated that the Japanese launch site for the balloon project was located by Allied troops and destroyed as soon as it could be located.

The question would arise as to why the balloon bomb project seemed to stop.  American officials thought that the news blackout may have led the Japanese to believe that the project had been a failure, which it mostly was.  Japanese officials were later interviewed to say that it was discontinued around April, 1945 due to a scarcity of hydrogen and trees needed for construction of the balloons.  Nevertheless, within a few months, Japan surrendered.  Remnants of these balloon bombs were discovered in North America as recently as 2014.

Special thanks: G. P. Cox.

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