That time in World War II when Japan used a hot air balloon to bomb Oregon and kill six people

// January 19th, 2016 // People in Unusual Circumstances

Japanese Fu-Go (Fire) balloon

It may surprise you to find that there were actually six civilian casualties in the 48 states during World War II. The incident occurred in 1945 when a Japanese balloon bomb floated into the United States where it killed six people in rural eastern Oregon. They are the only World War II U.S. combat casualties in the contiguous 48 states.  Up until their deaths, U.S. officials kept news of the deadly weaponized balloons from the public in order to avoid panic.

The death of Elyse and five children in Oregon

A Japanese Fu-Go (Fire) balloonOn May 5, 1945, as the United States and Japan were locked in the final stages of World War II, Reverend Archie Mitchell and his wife were driving five young teenage students to a Saturday afternoon picnic. They were driving the muddy dirt roads through the Ponderosa pine forest on Gearhart Mountain when Elyse Mitchell, who was pregnant, became car sick. Mitch pulled to the side of the road and waited until Elyse began feeling better. As they stood by the car on the side of the road, Mitch began talking to a road-crew who were attempting to free a road grader stuck in the mud. As he talked, Elyse and the students walked down the hill, checking out the beautiful wooded scenery.

From the seat on his road grader, Richard “Jumbo” Barnhouse could see Elyse and the children pointing at something on the ground. Elyse and the students were about a hundred yards from the car when she shouted back, “Look what I found, dear!”

One of the road-crew workers described what happened next.

“There was a terrible explosion. Twigs flew through the air, pine needles began to fall, dead branches and dust, and dead logs went up.”

The minister and the road crew ran down the hill towards the sound of the explosion. At the bottom of the hill, they found Jay Gifford, Edward Engen, Sherman Shoemaker, Dick Patzke and Elyse were all dead, strewn around a large hole in the ground. Elyse’s dress was on fire and Dick Patzke’s sister Joan was barely alive (she died minutes later).

The road crew sought help from a nearby ranger station. When paramedics arrived, they found six bloodied bodies near a deflated white paper balloon that was partially buried under a snowdrift. The six (plus Elyse’s unborn baby) had become the first (and only) combat deaths on the U.S. mainland.

Japanese Fu-Go (Fire) balloon illustration showing components of the weaponized balloonElyse and the children were victims of Japan’s Fu-Go (fire balloon) campaign which used 33-foot hydrogen-filled balloons designed to travel across the Pacific to North America where they would drop incendiary devices and anti-personnel explosives on unsuspecting citizens. At the time, the strikes on North America were the longest ranged attacks ever conducted in the history of warfare (a record that held until 1982)

The Japanese Fire Balloon campaign

The balloons were constructed of rubberized-silk (later made of washi paper) and used barometer-assisted valves to release hydrogen to make the balloon fall or drop sandbags if it lost too much altitude. Each balloon carried over 1,000 pounds of gear and explosives. In all, the Japanese released over 9,300 fire balloons with hopes that about 10% would reach the mainland. At least 342 were proven to have reached the mainland United States drifting as far as Nebraska. It is believed many more landed in unpopulated rural areas.

The US government’s dirty little secret

The U.S. government knew the balloons were coming. On November 4, 1944, a United States Navy patrol craft discovered one of the first fire balloons floating off San Pedro, Los Angeles. Later more were found in Wyoming and Montana. However, officials didn’t want to panic the public nor let the Japanese know the balloons were reaching the mainland. The Office of Censorship sent a message to newspapers and radio stations asking them to make no mention of the balloons and balloon-bomb incidents. After the deaths of Elyse and the children, citizens were finally told to watch out for balloon bombs.

Hundreds of dangerous fire balloons land throughout the United States

NatGeo map showing the locations where Japanese Fire Balloons were discovered

Japanese Fire Balloon in the Pacific oceanIn all, the balloons arrived in Oregon, Kansas, Iowa, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Alberta, the Yukon, Northwest Territories, Washington, Idaho, South Dakota, Nevada. In Nevada, one landed near Yerington and was discovered by cowboys who cut it up and used it as a hay tarp. Another was found by a prospector near Elko who delivered it to local authorities on the back of a donkey. A P-38 Lightning shot one of the balloons out of the air near Santa Monica and bits of washi paper were found scattered in the streets of Los Angeles.

Japanese Fire BalloonOn February 1, 1945, a Japanese bombing balloon was spotted by several local residents drifting over the Trinity National Forest area and slowly falling towards the ground. No one knew what it was, but an alert forest ranger called the military authorities and reported it. Meanwhile, the balloon came to rest atop a 60-foot dead fir tree in the forest near a local road. In the next few hours several people gathered in the area to gaze up at the strange object.

Shortly after dark there was a tremendous blast. The balloon’s gas bag disappeared in a fireball and the balloon’s undercarriage came crashing to the ground. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Forest rangers kept the curious well away from the fallen debris until Army personnel could arrive and contain the situation. Upon examination, it was found to be a Japanese bombing balloon with four incendiary bombs and one high explosive bomb still attached. It later proved to be one of the most intact bombing balloons yet to fall into American hands. Locals who witnessed the event were told what the device was, the danger it presented, and were asked to keep secret what they had seen

Ironically, on March 10, 1945, one of the last paper balloons descended in the vicinity of the Manhattan Project’s production facility at the Hanford Site. This balloon entangled in nearby power lines, which supplied electricity for the nuclear reactor cooling pumps, and shorted out the circuits. Backup safety devices restored power almost immediately and the plant continued to produce the plutonium for the bombs that the USA would soon drop on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Aftermath

That last balloon-bomb was discovered in October 2014 in Lumby, British Columbia. It was detonated by a Royal Canadian Navy ordnance disposal team.

Elyse Mitchell is buried in the Ocean View Cemetery in Port Angeles, Washington. A memorial, the Mitchell Monument, is located at the point of the explosion, 68 miles northeast of Klamath Falls in the Mitchell Recreation Area.

Additional information

The six victims

Mrs. Elsie Mitchell……….. Age 26

Jay Gifford………………….. Age 13

Edward Engen …………….. Age 13

Dick Patzke…………………. Age 14

Joan Patzke…………………. Age 13

Sherman Shoemaker…….. Age 11

Pictorial gallery

Check out pictures of the Japanese Fire Balloons in the pictorial gallery below.

Sources: Wikipedia, Wired Magazine, National Geographic, NPR

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