by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)
The fact that so many Japanese Fu-Go balloons or balloon fragments and bombs were recovered in Canada and the U.S. was an indication of the failure of all 32 sandbag ballasts to be released in order to trigger the detonations. And since the bombs could not be armed until the ballasts were released from the ring-shaped carrying rack, they were usually inactive, unless handled incautiously by civilians unfamiliar with the nature of explosive devices.
Historian Michael Unsworth said that the balloons had a fatal flaw. “The ballast-dropping mechanism was powered by a battery which in turn was encased in a protective plastic box filled with antifreeze,” wrote Hugh A. Halliday in the August 22, 2009, Legion magazine article, The West Coast Balloon Attack: Air Force. “The antifreeze solution was too weak; most batteries froze at high altitude and the greatest number of balloons simply descended into the Pacific with their ballast bags dragging them down.”
But a woman and five children did die when they disturbed a bomb, and were the only victims of a Fu-Go attack in North America.
The June 1, 1945, Winnipeg Tribune reported that the sole survivor of the May 5 tragedy, Rev. Archie Mitchell, said he had taken his pregnant wife, Elyse, and five neighbouring children on a fishing trip near Leonard Creek, 13 kilometres east of Bly, Oregon, near Gearhart Mountain. They decided to eat lunch at a picnic site a short distance from the creek, related Mitchell. His wife and the children were walking to the picnic area, while he drove the car to the location.
Upon arriving, Mitchell said he heard someone shout, “Look what we’ve found.” Years later, the minister added to his account of the events on May 5, saying the group shouted out that they found something that looked like a balloon.
The reverend said he called out, “Don’t touch it!’ and ran towards the group.”
He had heard rumours about the Japanese balloons and was afraid that was what they had actually found.
“As I ran through the woods,” he said, “there was a terrific explosion.”
He found the six of them dead, all within a three-metre radius of the balloon fragments.
When he talked to the military about the tragic accident, he was at first told to remain silent. But the authorities in both Canada and the U.S., who at first censored information on the balloons, decided that in order to prevent further tragedies, they had to publicly acknowledge the existence of the Fu-Go balloons, while still controlling more detailed information about the balloons.
On May 22, the U.S. army and navy issued a joint statement to newspapers and radio stations, warning people, “especially children living west of the Mississippi River” of the possible danger associated with tampering with intact balloons on the ground, “and cautioned under no circumstances to touch or approach any unfamiliar object.” The same statement was released in Canada by the Department of National Defence.
To reassure the public, it was asserted that the balloons posed no
serious military threat, because the attacks were “so scattered and
The danger to children was exemplified by the six deaths in Oregon, as well as another incident that occurred on the Canadian Prairies. The Canadian Press reported the warning on May 23, 1945, in conjunction with a story that the children of a prairie farmer at an undisclosed location had discovered one of the first balloons to fall in the region.
“The children made a fire and were just about to throw bombs they had found into the flames when the farmer — a gunner in the First Great War — arrived. He snatched the explosives from the children, put out the fire and informed the police.”
The CP report mentioned that the RCMP and the military were usually the first on the scene and “and would say nothing about them.”
“Persons who have seen the balloons said the attitude has been one of mingled curiosity and scorn. There have been no reports of spectacular explosions or damage to property.”
The same CP report gave some details about the balloons, including information that the balloons were known to have dropped explosives in isolated locations, “but it was emphasized that the attacks ‘should not be viewed with alarm.’”
With the Canadian public duly warned about tampering with fallen balloons, further news about the balloons was not reported until the end of the war.
After the war, the Lethbridge Herald reported on August 16, 1945, that a bomb released from a balloon had been found on the prairie near Consul, Saskatchewan, although the true nature of the weapon was unknown by those who made the discovery. A railway employee asked a cowboy to stay with the “strange object” while he went to notify the police.
“Tired of just standing and looking at the strange object, the cowboy decided to examine it. He kicked it one way and then another, casually looking it over as he bumped it about.
“When police arrived on the scene they immediately recognized the strange object as a Japanese bomb and summoned military experts to dispose of it. The railway worker and cowboy were told that the object was something which had drifted there from a Canadian army experimental station.”
Days later, the cowboy learned the truth and “nearly jumped out of his skin” after realizing the danger he was in while carelessly kicking the bomb about.
According to the newspaper, the first report of a balloon landing in Manitoba was by an aboriginal trapper. “He sighted the balloon and then heard the bomb explode, a great ‘upheaval,’ he called it. Then he travelled two days by dog-team across northern wilds to report to police.”
Later reports indicated that the explosion left a crater and bomb fragments beside an unidentified northern Manitoba “roadway.”
Robert C. Mikesh wrote in Japan’s World War II Balloon Bomb Attacks on North America (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1973) that the incident occurred near Nelson House on March 10, 1945.
On August 23, 1945, the Department of Defence finally confirmed that Japanese Fu-Go balloons had landed in Canada in an area extending from the Pacific coast to a few kilometres west of Winnipeg, and from the Northwest territories to the U.S. border. The confirmation claimed it was also possible that more balloons fell in remote areas and as such were never reported.
Mikesh wrote that the date of the first balloon sighting in Canada was
on January 1, 1945, when balloon envelope fragments were found at Stony Rapids in northern Saskatchewan. The next sighting was at Minton, Saskatchewan, on January 12, 1945, but unlike at Stony Rapids. After the balloon released its bombs, a 15-kilogram anti-personnel bomb and two incendiary bombs (one incendiary exploded), the balloon disappeared.
In total, six balloons or their fragments were reported at locations in Manitoba. Mikesh wrote that the sites, all of which were reported in 1945, were:
• Nelson House, 75 kilometres northwest of Thompson, on March 10, where bomb fragments were found.
• Oxford House, 600 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, on March 12, where a balloon envelope, shroud lines and a ballast-dropping apparatus were recovered.
• Marie Lake, 50 kilometres northeast of Lynn Lake, on March 19, where an entire balloon was found.
• William Lake, just north of the International Peace Gardens, on March 20, where an envelope with ballast equipment was recovered.
• Waterhen Lake, between Lake Winnipegosis and Lake Winnipeg, on March 30, where a balloon envelope and valve were found.
• South Indian Lake, 130 kilometres northwest of Thompson, on April 10, where a balloon envelope and other parts were recovered.
Overall, Canadian and American military authorities did take the attacks somewhat seriously, despite their assurances to the public that the Fu-Go balloons posed little threat.
In Canada, Western Air Command of the RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force) initially assigned one aircraft from each West Coast airbase to investigate balloon sightings.
Later, fighter aircraft were ordered to shoot down the balloons. In total, the RCAF only brought down three Fu-Go balloons. A Canso flying boat forced another balloon down near Rupert Inlet, B.C. The RCAF was hampered in scrambling fighters to intercept the balloons as the balloons couldn’t be detected by existing radar systems until they were quite close.
Other sightings of mysterious objects in the sky — UFOs, or Unidentified Flying Objects, in today’s vernacular — were falsely reported to the authorities as Fu-Go balloons.
The RCAF also provided transport for bomb disposal personnel — one unit was located in each prairie province and three were located in British Columbia.
In another attempt to instill fear in North America, the Japanese announced that they were preparing to launch balloons carrying “suicide pilots” against the West Coast of the U.S, according to a June 7, 1945, release issued by the North American Newspaper Alliance.
The Japanese announcement, broadcast by the Domei News Agency in English, indicated that the unmanned Fu-Go balloons had “wrought great damage and personal injury,” (which was far removed from the truth).
An earlier Domei report in English claimed that 500 casualties had been inflicted and numerous forest fires started by the balloons.
This belief was also probably “the basis for the announcement that manned balloons would be sent against North America in the future. But the odds against the success of such a venture are so low that it scarcely seems worth the trouble it would cause” the Japanese.
The North American Newspaper Alliance reported that the reaction to this threat from Japan in Washington was that it was an absurd idea.
It should be noted that by this time, the Japanese had already given up on their ineffective unmanned balloons.
The Fu-Go program was abandoned on April 20, 1945. By then, B-29 bombers had also knocked out two of the three hydrogen factories needed to supply the gas for the balloon envelops. The American bomber attacks made it virtually impossible to continue to manufacture and launch the balloons on a large scale.
Japanese propaganda spokesman, Lt.-Col. Shoro Nakajima, said on the Japanese radio broadcast that was recorded by U.S. authorities that only “when actual results of the experiment (the unmanned Fu-Go balloons) have been obtained, large scale attacks with death defying airmen manning the balloons will be launched.”
The reality is that the Japanese, since they had no concrete information about their “experiment,” due to the co-operation of North American newspapers and radio stations with censors, were groping for details from U.S. and Canadian authorities, which wasn’t forthcoming.
After the war, Japanese staff involved in the Fu-Go program admitted to abandoning the attacks “because neither the Japanese public nor the people of the North American continent seemed to pay any attention to them,” reported the Lethbridge Herald on October 2, 1945.
In addition, the attacks ceased due to the need to channel continually diminishing resources toward the defence of the Japanese homeland.
After the war, General Sueki Kusaba, a leader of the balloon project, reported: “Soon after the campaign began, the air raids against our mainland were intensified. Many factories that manufactured various parts were destroyed. Moreover, we were not informed about the effect of Fu-Go throughout the wartime. Due to the combination of hardships we were compelled to cease operations.”
The last report in Canada of a Fu-Go attack was when two balloons were observed on June 21, 1945, floating at a height of 4,500 metres over Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, which attracted “the attention of hundreds of citizens,” according to an August 15, 1945, Canadian Press report. “RCAF planes took off from a Moose Jaw station, but took no destructive action, and the balloons drifted out of sight to the north.”
The Fu-Go balloons had become such a curiosity that the downtown Eaton’s (now MTS Centre) mounted a week-long window display in October 1946, with “an actual balloon-bomb in all its parts, how it works, and the locations where 74 full recoveries of Japanese balloon material have been made in America — the points spotted on a large photographic map.”
Ten years after the end of the war with Japan, the last recorded discovery of a balloon with its payload still attached and viable was made on January 1, 1955, by a bush pilot flying along the Scheenjek River in Alaska (Mikesh). The paper balloon envelop was stuffed under a tree by Lt. Harold L. Hales, an intelligence technician with the 504th Air Intelligence Squadron, and the ring carrying the bombs was flown by helicopter to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
In 1978, a ballast ring, fuses and barometers were found near Agness, Oregon, and are now part of the collection of the Coos Historical & Maritime Museum. The latest incident was reported in 1992 from Applegate Reservoir in Oregon where pieces of a Japanese bomb were found on the lakeshore.
In hindsight, the Fu-Go balloons, the world’s first intercontinental bomb delivery system, were a harebrained scheme. But they could have instilled widespread panic and been an actual threat if the balloons carried a deadlier payload — biological weapons then in development by the Japanese military — as first suspected by U.S. authorities. Instead, the bombs the balloons carried were so insignificant in explosive power that they caused only six accidental deaths and did little property damage.
“The balloon campaign was an interesting experiment, but it was a military failure,” wrote Mikesh.
Ultimately, sending the balloons over the Pacific to North America amounted to little more than a desperate act by a desperate regime. By early-April 1945, just before the Fu-Go program ended, the Americans had landed on the Japanese island of Okinawa, which is only 340 kilometres from the mainland, and claimed victory after 82 days of intense fighting. The captured island was intended to be the staging ground for a U.S.-led invasion of the mainland, which became unnecessary with the dropping of A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, forcing Japan to surrender and ending the Second World War.