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On This Day: Japanese WWII Balloon Bomb Kills 6 in Oregon

Last updated: February 11, 2023

On May 5, 1945, a woman and five children in Gearhart Mountain, Ore., were killed after discovering an explosive balloon launched by the Japanese military.

Japanese Balloon Bombs Dropped on U.S.

The Rev. Archie Mitchell was on an outing with his pregnant wife, Elsie, and five local youngsters when they found the odd-looking balloon. As Elsie and the children examined the balloon, it exploded, killing all six of them.

“I had heard of Japanese balloons so I shouted a warning not to touch it,” said Rev. Mitchell to the Seattle Times in June 1945. “But just then there was a big explosion. I ran up there—and they were all dead.”

In a little-known 1944 Fu-Go campaign, Japan released between 9,000 and 10,000 bomb-laden balloons that floated across the Pacific and were intended to explode in America, causing forest fires and panic.

Each balloon was armed with a 15-kilogram antipersonnel bomb and four 4.5-kilogram incendiaries, as well as a flash bomb to destroy evidence of the devices, writes Hugh A. Halliday in Legion Magazine.

Japan said it was retaliation for the 1942 U.S. “Doolittle raid,” in which American pilots bombed key targets in Tokyo, under cover of darkness, from aircraft carriers in the Pacific.

As the balloons landed, the U.S. government tried to hide the information from the American public, hoping the Japanese would abandon the campaign as ineffective. The press largely cooperated with the government’s secrecy efforts.

In April 1945, U.S. B-29 bombers destroyed the plants that produced the balloons, though the Japanese had halted the project around the same time because they thought the bombs were not reaching America, according to the Missouri University of Science & Technology.

Following the deaths of Elsie Mitchell and the children—the “only known fatalities on the U.S mainland from enemy attack during World War II,” according to B-17 navigator Marshall Stelzriede’s Web site—the U.S. government decided to inform the public about the balloon bombs.

The Danger of Balloon Bombs

Sources in this Story

  • Marshall Stelzriede’s Wartime Story: Japanese Fugo Bombing Balloons
  • Legion Magazine: The West Coast Balloon Attack: Air Force, Part 34
  • USS Enterprise CV-6: The Doolittle Raid
  • Missouri University of Science & Technology: How Geologists Unraveled the Mystery of Japanese Vengeance Balloon Bombs in World War II
  • Japanese Balloon Bomb attack on the US
  • America in WWII: Sharks in American Waters

Though the balloon bombs caused minimal damage in the U.S., there was potential for the Fu-Go campaign to be far more destructive, according to the book “Japan’s World War II Bomb Attacks on North America.”

“The concept of balloon bombs might have changed the course of the war in favor of the Japanese had it been pursued with more vigor and tenacity,” it writes. “Had this balloon weapon been further exploited by using germ or gas bombs, the results could have been disastrous to the American people.”

Other Lesser-Known WWII Attacks on the U.S.

The balloon bombs aren’t the only World War II occurrence largely unknown by Americans today. In 1942, a Japanese submarine shelled Fort Stevens on the Oregon coast, which was the only bomb attack of a military base on the U.S. mainland during World War. Then, a few months later, Japanese planes dropped bombs on Oregon, causing forest fires on two separate occasions.

A 2006 article in America in WWII magazine describes the highly effective German U-boat presence on America’s Atlantic coast during World War II. “Ship by sinking ship, the Nazis achieved a victory over the United States comparable to and even more devastating than the one the Japanese had enjoyed at Pearl Harbor a few weeks earlier. … Meanwhile, the American people were not being told how close they were to disaster.”

In 1849, Austria launched a pair of balloon bombs attacks on Venice, both of which failed to inflict any damage.

Reference: Balloon Wars in History

“On a Wind and a Prayer,” a 2005 documentary, describes the history of balloon warfare and the Fu-Go weapons. The site includes a video trailer for the film, facts about the Japanese campaign and interviews.

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