Imagine, a group of kids out in the woods, exploring during a church gathering in Oregon. Their parents know they are quite safe as they are with the pastor’s wife. Hanging from a tree they find something large and odd. Naturally they begin hanging from it and playing with it. Suddenly, something on the object gives way. There is a blinding flash. After the explosion subsides, there is no sound. The giggling of children is no longer present and the sound of snapping twigs and rustling leaves from their romping will never be heard again. They had stumbled upon a bomb attached to a balloon. This was not created by some sinister town resident, but a weapon of war. Unfortunately this scenario really did happen. The six children and the pastors wife were all killed in a tragic event that left a community heartbroken.
The method of their demise was sent from Japan during world war II. They were known as the Fu-go, or fire balloons. Sporting a diameter of approximately 33 feet, they were filled with hydrogen and constructed of paper. Incendiary devices were attached to the sides of the balloon. Ropes trailed below it connected to a system of counterweights designed to keep it at an exact altitude. A normal balloon would never make it to North America, but the Japanese found a thin, extremely fast moving band of air that allowed it’s travel to be expedited. We now know this to be a jet stream.
These weapons began appearing late in 1944. Instantly the United States and Canadian air forces recognized them as a potential threat. As a matter of national security, the existence of these bombs were kept from the public. The rationale behind this was that the japanese had no way of knowing if they would be successful or not. If any stories of them reaching American shores were read by Japanese forces, many more would be sent. While the Japanese sent well over 9,000 Fu-go, just over a thousand made in to North America. To combat forest fires that erupted as a result of explosions, airborne firefighters were employed. The 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion took up the task of extinguishing these blazes (these paratrooping firefighters today are known as “smoke jumpers”). While fire was a concern, the US government was highly alarmed by the thought of these balloons being used to carry biological weapons. Had the success rate data of the fu-go reached enemy hands, US intelligence predicted that outcome to be a certainty. Thankfully that horror never materialized. The CIA still use this scare as a tool to teach the importance of secrecy in instances of national security.
While stories like that of the Oregon church disaster reached the public, many other smaller incidents were kept quiet. When balloons reached the US shoreline, the official story was that a Canadian airforce mishap occurred, sparking a small fire. In the case it reached Canadian soil, the US airforce conducted a training mission that went awry. The Fu-go was actively sought out by these forces and several were brought down by our fighter planes before they were able to wreak havoc on our shores.
There were rumors of odd balloons starting fires as far away as Illinois and Texas! While these are unconfirmed, it definitely serves as a stark illustration of what could have happened, had the war drug on, and word spread in the media. Today, cherry blossoms stand where the Oregonian church tragedy took place. Japanese visitors planted them in remorse for this tragic loss of life.
Until the next installment…
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