The first time that the U.S. was attacked by balloons from the Far East, six people were killed at a Sunday school picnic in the forests of Oregon.
Other bomb-laden balloons struck California, Texas, Colorado and other parts of western North America.
As Washington continues to debate the timing of President Biden’s orders to shoot down the Chinese “spy balloon” off the coast of South Carolina on February 4, the events recall an earlier attack launched by Imperial Japan during World War II.
The Japanese launched some 10,000 “Fu-Go” balloons carrying fire-making bombs and other explosives, sending the first ones aloft in November 1944. The last balloon-bombs were launched in April 1945 – as Allied forces closed in on the Japanese home islands. Those last balloon bombs – which took the most human life – landed in Oregon in May 1945.
Remnants of the Japanese “Fu-Go” bombs are preserved in private collections and in museums, including the National Museum of the United States Air Force, which has displayed a balloon-bomb wreckage.
The balloons, 33 feet in diameter, could lift 1,000 pounds and float over the Pacific Ocean in a matter of days.
Of the 10,000 balloons launched, only 285 incidents were recorded on U.S. soil, according the National Museum of the United States Air Force.
The hydrogen-filled balloons were intended to creep into U.S. airspace and detonate bombs to ignite forest fires on the West coast. However, the balloons were sent off during the winter of 1944 and spring of 1945, and wetter-than-usual conditions and cold weather along the Pacific coast thwarted forest fire attempts.
The 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, also known as the Triple Nickle, was an African-American unit whose mission was a closely kept secret. The unit made 15 jumps into the forests of the Pacific Northwest and California during the summer and fall of 1945 to find and detonate Fu-Go bombs. One month prior to the Japanese surrender, a single Triple Nickle soldier perished on August 6th, 1945. The sacrifices of this unit were chronicled in The Triple Nickles, first published in 1986 and long since out of print.
The deadliest balloon incident occurred at Fermont National Forest in Oregon on May 5, 1945, when the wife of a preacher and five Sunday school students were killed during a picnic when a balloon-bomb they found in the woods exploded. The government issued widespread warnings to the public to avoid and report the balloons if found.
Remnants of Japan’s balloon weapons are still being discovered across North America. Two forestry workers discovered a half-buried bomb in the mountains of British Columbia in 2015. Canada’s bomb disposal unit was called to the scene and the historic remnant was detonated safely.
“We have some fragments that were recovered by high school student Edward Spears in a field in Throckmorton County, Texas in March 1945,” said Regan Grau, director of collections and exhibits at the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas. “The rest of the balloon was confiscated by federal officials.”
“They did carry the incendiary and some of them even had anti-personnel weapons,” said Grau. “If it was an effective weapon, it could have been a lot worse. But they were not effective long-range weapons.”
“Japan was running out of raw materials to invest in these balloons that were not a very good return on their investment. At this point in time Japan was on defense and probably didn’t have much capability in the way of offense.”
The United States is “downhill” from Asia given that the Coriolis Effect, caused by the rotation of the Earth, sends high altitude winds in a westerly direction, according to National Geographic. That also means that the U.S. cannot launch similar balloons in the opposite direction. The remains of another Fu-Go device in Canada were discovered in 2019.
A handful of observers spotted the historical parallels between the Japanese attacks and this week’s wandering Chinese spy balloon on social media.
“Speaking of war balloons, did you know a Japanese firebomb balloon managed to make it all the way to Colorado during WWII? The government swore the owners of the land where it exploded to secrecy in order to prevent a panic,” said Ben Kraus on Twitter.
Some users were quick to point out what the Chinese balloon incident indicated about the U.S.’s national defense strategy.
“Not only has Biden and the White House concealed an U.S. airspace violation by China, but now we know our missile/threat detection system is inadequate. The only civilian deaths in the continental U.S. caused by the Japanese during WWII were from balloons,” said Jeffrey W. Ludwig on Twitter.
“The Chinese spy balloon is much more dangerous than people want to recognize. It may well be a dry run for more balloons— where the next ones carry nuclear weapons, like the Japanese balloons carried explosives. Both balloons were meant to taunt us with the message that our airspace can be penetrated and we are vulnerable to attack,” said psychiatrist Dr. Carole Lieberman.
“Shoot down the balloon!” said former President Trump on Truth Social on February 3. The Pentagon said three similar balloon incidents took place while Trump was in office, although the incidents were not discovered until after Trump left office. It is unclear how and when those incidents were discovered.
“This surveillance balloon purposefully traversed the United States and Canada. And we are confident it was seeking to monitor sensitive military sites, the Pentagon said in a press briefing.
The Defense department defended its decision to shoot the surveillance balloon down three days after it was initially spotted.
“On Wednesday, President Biden gave his authorization to take down the surveillance balloon as soon as the mission could be accomplished without undue risk to American lives under the balloon’s path. After careful analysis, U.S. military commanders had determined downing the balloon while over land posed an undue risk to people across a wide area due to the size and altitude of the balloon and its surveillance payload,” said Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III in a statement.
A second Chinese surveillance balloon was spotted over Colombia by the Colombian Air Force on February 3.
(Additional reporting provided by Joseph Hammond)
Edited by Joseph Hammond
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The San Diego Monitor-News has been serving Black San Diego since 1986