If you asked most Americans how many combat deaths there were during World War II here in the continental United States, they’d say none. And they’d almost be right, but not quite.
While it’s true that there was no conventional combat within the United States, six civilians were indeed killed here on May 5, 1945, indisputably the result of enemy fire. Their names are on the Mitchell Monument in the foothills of Gearhart Mountain near Bly, Oregon:
Elsie Mitchell, her husband (the Reverend) Archie Mitchell, and five children from their church group had come here for a picnic, and it’s easy to see why. The Gearhart Mountain area features gorgeous alpine meadows:
…and interesting rock formations like The Palisades:
Elsie and the children took a little walk into the woods while Archie took a short drive. But just as Archie was parking the car to bring out everyone’s lunch, the children discovered a strange and very large object on the ground. One of them spotted Archie returning and shouted back to him, “Look what we found! It’s some kind of big balloon!” Archie had heard rumors about dangerous objects being found in forests in the region, but as he tried to vocalize a warning, a child was tugging at the apparatus. It exploded, killing all six curious observers and leaving a crater a foot deep. The Seattle Times was finally permitted to run a story about the incident nearly a month later, on June 1, 1945.
What they had found was a fugo, or balloon weapon, that had been launched from Japan anywhere from three days to a few months earlier.
Japan could not reach the U.S. mainland with planes — not even on one-way trips — because they didn’t control any airbases close enough to North America. A few Japanese submarines got near enough to launch some shells at the U.S. coastline, and in two cases even a small seaplane, but their capacity to do damage was very limited.
The U.S., on the other hand, had been punishing Japan with air raids on a nearly daily basis, and as early as 1942 had launched the daring Doolittle raid directly on Tokyo, with B-25’s taking off from aircraft carriers (from which they could barely get airborne) and landing at a friendly airbase in Zhuzhou, China (for which they had barely enough fuel).
Japan was desperate to hit the U.S. mainland somehow, and they had recently discovered, by launching weather balloons equipped with radio transmitters over the Pacific, a powerful westerly wind above 30,000 feet — now of course called the jet stream. It becomes especially strong in October, and this lasts into the spring:
The Japanese had made some prototype balloons as weapons in the 1930’s but had abandoned the project. Balloons as weapons already had a very shaky history, starting with Austrian forces attempting to drop balloon bombs on seceding Venice in 1849, only to wind up entertaining the Venetians instead, when a shift in the wind blew the balloons right back at the Austrians:
When a cloud of smoke appeared in the air to make an explosion, all clapped and shouted. Applause was greatest when the balloons blew over the Austrian forces and exploded, and in such cases the Venetians added cries of ‘Bravo!’ and ‘Good appetite!’
Nevertheless, the Japanese reopened the fugo project. They would build 9,300 balloons from late 1944 through mid-1945, equipped with incendiary and explosive devices, and launch them into the jet stream, hoping they would reach North America and cause panic by starting fires, damage, or death. These weren’t just any balloons; they were about 32 feet in diameter:
The main material was a kind of tissue paper made using kozo fibers. The kozo bush is a member of the mulberry-tree family, and the paper made from it, dating back to ancient times, is still with us today as washi:
At the base of each balloon was an apparatus that used an aneroid barometer to detect when the balloon was getting too low (30,000 feet or less) because of leakage or cooling. A circuit was completed when this happened, detonating plugs that were holding up sandbags being used as ballast, thus allowing the balloon to rise to an area of lower pressure again:
The fused plug remnants would then complete the circuit (except for the aneroid) for the next sandbag and so on, and the balloon would bounce along between 30,000 and 38,000 feet this way. The last items to be dropped, after a set number of high/low pressure cycles, were two incendiary devices and one 15-kg bomb. So they had to know the wind speeds the balloon would encounter along the way so that the bombs would be dropped at the right time, over land.
The paper and stitching needed for 10,000 giant balloons was of course an extensive amount, and Japanese schoolchildren were put to work in the assembly:
Fugo balloons had to be inflated completely to be tested properly, but rather than do that in the open and betray the program, buildings such as Tokyo’s Nichigeki Music Hall were used:
The success rate turned out to be rather poor, as only about 10% of the balloons are estimated to have reached North America at all, and many were recovered on the ground with some of the sandbags and bombs still in place. There were reports of a few explosions in America and Canada over the first half of 1945, and in one peculiar case, a balloon caused a brief power outage.
In a bizarre coincidence, that single power outage was at the atomic energy plant in Hanford, Washington, which was producing material that would be used to make Fat Man, the bomb that was detonated at Nagasaki only months later.
Balloons or parts of balloons have been found at these locations:
Because most of these have been found in more-populated areas, there are surely more unexploded balloons left out in the wilderness. If you’re ever hiking, especially in the Pacific Northwest, and you see anything that looks like this, don’t get near it, because there have been findings long after the war of active bombs.
Yuzuru John Takeshita spent four of his teenage years at an internment camp in northern California, about 50 miles from where the picnickers were killed. He was visiting friends in Japan 40 years later, and one of them told him that during the war, she and her classmates were taken out of school and sent to fugo factories, which were not pleasant places to be. The girls knew the purpose of these balloons, but the propaganda of the time convinced them that they were doing the right thing.
Later on a business trip in Washington, he saw a fugo balloon at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and was immediately drawn to it. Deeply affected by what he learned, he said, “I saw these names and it shook me. My daughter is about the age of some of the victims.”
Takeshita kept looking for more information. He found an interview on a Japanese talk show with a schoolteacher named Yoshiko Hisaga whose students were among those who had participated in fugo making. She said she regretted that the children were used in this way and was relieved there were only a few victims. Takeshita wrote her a letter and asked her if she could please name the victims in subsequent interviews, but he didn’t hear back from her.
But a few months later, Hisaga called Takeshita with her own favor to ask. Could he find the victims’ families and present them with something? Hisaga and her former students had hand-folded one thousand origami cranes, a Japanese symbol of hope, healing, and recovery, and wanted to give them to the families of the Oregon picnickers. They also wrote letters to the families, one of which said:
“We participated in the building of weapons used to kill people without understanding much beyond the knowledge that America was our adversary in a war. To think that the weapon we made took your lives as you were out on a picnic! We were overwhelmed with deep sorrow.”
Takeshita located three siblings of Dick and Joan Patzke, two of the children who died: Dottie McGinnis, and Ed and Opal Patzke. He was nervous about going to meet them, not sure how things would unfold. But it turned out all right:
The meeting was awkward at first, as meaningful meetings between strangers tend to be. Takeshita, dressed in a suit, and his wife and 10-year-old daughter arrived at the Patzke house, a simple home on the main street of Bly. Ed Patzke, 72, sat in his recliner as Takeshita knelt by him and spoke quietly. To ease the tension, Ed Patzke joked about Japanese cameras. Then he placed his large hand on Takeshita’s slender arm. “We don’t hold anything against you,” he said.
A small caravan of cars followed Ed Patzke’s pickup truck up a logging road onto Gearhart Mountain. They stopped at the site of the fatal picnic, an area that has been named the Mitchell Recreation Area after the Rev. Archie Mitchell. (The minister later remarried one of the older sisters of Joan and Dick Patzke and eventually disappeared while doing missionary work in Vietnam.)
There followed a ceremony in front of the stone monument that memorializes the Bly victims. Takeshita read the letters from the women in Japan, and his daughter, Junko, placed the heavy strings of confetti-colored paper cranes at the base of the monument.
The ceremony was a small thing in the context of a large and terrible war, Takeshita reflected, but, for him, something had been resolved this day. The women in Japan had been allowed to apologize; the Patzkes had been given the chance to forgive. And in acting as the intermediary, Takeshita too felt relieved of some bitterness about his family’s treatment during the war.
“I pray that someday there will never be any more war,” said Dottie McGinnis as she stood in the clearing, the trees around her still scarred by shrapnel. “That’s my prayer and my expectation.”