Fifty years ago this week, a young minister and his wife took five children on a church-group picnic in a forested area seventy miles northeast of Klamath Falls, Oregon. One of the youngsters, 13-year-old Joan Patzke, spotted a huge balloon caught on trees in the woods near the tiny town of Bly in southern Oregon. She called the others, and one of them tugged at the immense bag. A tremendous explosion rocked the countryside, killing the girl as well as the minister's wife, Elsie Mitchell, 26; Edward Engen, 13; Jay Gifford, 13; Dick Patzke, 14; and Sherman Shoemaker, 11. The Reverend Archie Mitchell, the only survivor, escaped because he was a short distance behind the others.
These six became the only victims of a Japanese attack on the United States mainland in World War II--an offensive that hit Utah and nearly every Intermountain and Pacific Coast state. The instrument of death was one of an estimated 9,000 bomb-laden, hydrogen balloons launched from the Japanese home islands during 1944-45 and meant to drift on upper air currents across the Pacific Ocean to North America.
At least four, and perhaps five, of the last-ditch terror weapons came down in Utah. Fortunately, the bombs injured no one, though one Utah lawman came away with a few bumps and bruises after a harrowing attempt at pulling one to the ground. There were, however, a few close calls.For the most part, however, the bombs that landed in Utah either failed to explode or detonated harmlessly in rural areas.
Japanese strategists expected the mysterious explosions to create forest fires and public panic, and a new threat would redirect American military defenses from the war's Pacific theater to the U.S. mainland. The balloons were designed to float undetected at an altitude of 30,000 feet and self-destruct after dropping their bomb payloads. But the contraptions did not always function as planned. Many reached the ground with bombs intact, as in the case of the Bly explosions. Winter rain and snow in the United States significantly reduced forest-fire potential.
Interest in Japan's balloon-bomb operation was revived this week because of a 50th-year memorial ceremony rededicating a monument to the six victims of the Bly explosion. The Mitchell Monument, located seventy miles northeast of Klamath Falls and thirty minutes north of Bly, will be the scene Saturday at 2:00 p.m. of services attended by surviving family members.
Of the thousands of the silent killers launched in the closing months of the war, fewer than 300 balloon bombs ultimately came to earth in the United States. Others may have gone undetected. Each balloon was thirty-two feet wide, weighed 152 pounds and was capable of lifting a 360-pound payload. All were equipped with five bombs, four incendiary and one high-explosive shrapnel casing, with barometers, a sequential firing system, and ballast sandbags to maintain altitude. The laminated-paper balloon skins were made from the bark of koso and matsumata trees. Japanese women peeled the bark, then flattened, soaked and kneaded it many times to produce paper sheets. Six hundred sheets laminated in four or five layers were necessary for each balloon.
First public announcement of the "balloon war" came in the third week of May 1945 when Washington confirmed that Japan had been launching gasbags for "several months" and warned Western residents to be on the lookout for the deadly devises. A week later the War Department acknowledged that such a balloon had caused the six deaths in Oregon; and in July, a syndicated wire story in The Salt Lake Tribune quoted a Japanese military spokesman in a broadcast from Singapore predicting "major scale assaults" by soldiers manning suicide balloons against cities in the Western United States.
Then, on VJ-Day, August 15, with the relaxation of censorship, the government confirmed that 230 of the balloons had fallen in an area from Alaska to Mexico. In Washington, which experienced more "hits" than any other state, a small boy turned the arming device on a live bomb until it was within one-sixteenth of an inch of detonating, and a sheepherder dragged another balloon casually behind his automobile--bombs and all. The Tribune also carried a story that same August day, revealing that four balloons had been reported in Utah: two in Box Elder County, one in Duchesne and another in Iron County.
Box Elder County Sheriff Warren W. Hyde got a free half-mile ride February 23, 1945, when he clung to the ropes of a balloon as it drifted low to the ground, jouncing the lawman along. Next day the hydrogen-filled craft was dismantled and shipped to the West Coast for study. Sheriff Dewey Meriweather of Duchesne reported that one of the gasbags had been spotted in his area on March 30. Dates of the other two landings in Snowville in Box Elder County and Paragonah in--Iron County were not available. Deer hunters in East Canyon found what was thought to be a fifth Japanese balloon that October.
At least three balloons were picked up in eastern Idaho counties. Mechanical portions of a balloon discovered in the Swan Valley district was missing and presumed exploded on landing. Balloons had been reported in early spring in Jefferson and Bingham counties in Idaho. Two balloons fell near Twin Falls in central Idaho in February and March. At least ten drifted over Nevada at one time or another; all were located and rendered harmless between November 9, 1944, and May 1, 1945. One of Emperor Hirohito's so-called "puffballs" was found by workers on the Wilson ranch near Yerington, Nevada, but it wasn't identified for almost a month.
Cowboys--uncertain of the object's identity--tied it to the rear bumper of a car and towed it to a garage. They attempted to notify authorities by mail, and when they received no answer, they deflated the gasbag and used what they believed to be "white rubberized silk" to cover a haystack on the ranch. State police later identified the improvised "tarp" as a Japanese balloon with two bombs still hidden at its base.
Still another of the balloons was found by an old prospector who thought the "guvmint" had lost something and delivered it by burro from the hills near Elko to authorities. It was one of seven such devices turned over to the Army by Nevadans. Citizens of Reno had their first look at one of the balloons when it floated over the city for a time on March 9, 1945, and was shot down by Army air corps planes near Reno two hours later.