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From the Files of the Lassen Historical Society: Balloon Invasion

Balloon found near Alturas, California, on January 10th, 1945, reinflated for tests
National Museum of the U.S. Navy photo

by Susan Couso

Their forces and supplies were depleted, and by June of 1944, the Nazi army was in retreat. By the end of 1944, Germany’s success in the war was all but impossible. In early 1945, Germany was invaded by the Allied forces, and in April 1945, Hitler committed suicide. A week later, Hitler’s second-in-command, Hermann Goring, surrendered.

This left the war in the pacific to be dealt with. Japan, seeing the decline of the Axis powers, first with the surrender of Italian forces and then the obvious eventuality of Germany’s loss, began to throw all of its might into a battle to save the Nipponese homeland.

On December 7th, 1941, with the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japanese air forces, the United States had been propelled into the war, and Japan, one of the Axis powers, became our enemy.

U.S. Army Air Forces Lt. Col. James H. ‘Jimmy’ Doolittle led a raid on Tokyo and surrounding areas on Honshu, Japan’s largest island. The raid began on April 18, 1942 and was called the ‘Battle of the Pacific’. It caused little damage, but the attack showed just how vulnerable Japan was to Allied strikes.

Japan had limited ability to assault the U.S. mainland and couldn’t spare ships and planes for an attack. With the bombardment of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese air forces had the ‘advantage of surprise’, but now it was different. We were aware and we were ready.

Back in 1933, the Japanese government had begun experimenting with using giant balloons as weapons, but it wasn’t really considered to be a feasible option.

After Doolittle’s raid, the Japanese officials decided to revive the balloon idea as a means of attacking the U.S.

In 1943 there was a plan to release 200 balloons from submarines placed 600 miles off the coast of the U.S., but the plan was scrapped when the subs were needed around Guadalcanal.

The plan was again revised in 1944 with the Fu-Go balloon. This time, the balloons would be released from Honshu, and their hopes were that the balloons would be carried by the prevailing winds towards the U.S.

The Fu-Go incendiary balloons were 33 feet in diameter and contained 19,000 cubic feet of Hydrogen. They were made of a paper called ‘washi’ and stuck together with a potato-based paste by schoolgirls in Japan.

The Japanese devised an ingenious system with weights and gas valves to control the altitude of the balloons. If they dropped below a certain level, the bombs would be released to do their damage.

These Fu-Go balloons were the world’s first intercontinental weapons and had the longest range of any weapon in the history of warfare at the time.

The main purpose of the incendiary balloons was to start fires and terrorize the nation. But the project was mostly a failure.

To reach the ‘jet stream’ and head toward the U.S., the balloons needed cooler weather. This cooler winter weather meant that the balloon’s payload would be dropped over cool damp land, and that inhibited the fires. Very few fires were created by the bombs, and none were large.

As the balloons began to arrive over the western part of the U.S., the government Office of Censorship quashed the media’s reporting of the incidents. They feared widespread panic if citizens learned of the invading balloons. This brought great concern to the Japanese who were monitoring news reports from the U.S. They heard nothing of their balloons and feared that the giant gas bags had gone missing, burst high in the sky, or simply failed to explode as planned. They considered the balloons worthless, and by early 1945 stopped the program.

Between November 1944 and April 1945, the Imperial Japanese Army sent 9,300 balloons towards the Pacific Coast. The balloons went up into Alaska and Canada, as far east as Michigan, and down into Mexico, but their impact was minimal.

They were seen floating over the Quincy area, but Sheriff Braden said that none were known to have landed. Several floated over Alturas with three in one day. On January 10, 1945, one of the giant gas bags was captured at Alturas and sent to an Army Air Corps base in California, where it was inflated and tested. There were about 300 Fu-Go balloons which were seen in various parts of the country, mainly in the Pacific Coast states.

On May 5, 1945 in Bly, Oregon, the Reverend Archie Mitchell, his 26-year-old pregnant wife, Elsye, and a group of school children from their church, went on a picnic. It was a beautiful day, and as they reached their destination, Rev. Mitchell let everyone out of the car and then went to park.

Elsye and the children looked about the forest, planning where to have their picnic, when one of them spied something unusual. Elsye called back to her husband, who immediately cautioned them to be careful and not to touch the unknown object.

But it was too late. There was an explosion, and as Archie ran to the site, he found the entire group blown away from the device in a circle, all of them dead. He tried to beat the flames from his dying wife’s dress, but there was no use. Elsye Mitchell and her unborn baby, 13-year-olds Eddie Engen, Jay Gifford, and Joan Patzke, along with 11-year-old Sherman Shoemaker and 14-year-old Dick Patzke were all dead. They became the only American citizens to die by enemy hands on the U.S. mainland during WWII. The Fu-Go bombs were indeed deadly.

Military investigators were sent to the scene, and the U.S. government sprang into action to keep the event under wraps. The entire town of Bly, Oregon was forbidden to speak of the deaths.

But wiser heads eventually prevailed. Government officials soon agreed that the public needed to know of the danger to prevent another incident like the one in Bly, Oregon. They warned the public to stay away from any suspicious devices. And that advice saved lives.

Japan officially surrendered on September 2nd, 1945, and the war was over. But the balloons remained.

On September 20th, 1945, two deer hunters, Morris Albers and Don Entenier, found a downed balloon near the western edge of Lassen County. Because of the government decision to release information, they knew not to touch it. The men contacted authorities and the remnants of the deadly device were removed to San Francisco by the Army.

In 2014, forestry workers near Lumby, British Columbia found the remains of one of these ancient Fu-Go balloons. It was removed to a safe location and detonated by a military bomb disposal unit. Undoubtedly, there are many more out there.

If you are a fan of our weekly history stories you should join the Lassen County Historical Society! It’s a fun way to be a part of our county’s rich history. When you sign up, you’ll receive regular Historical Society newsletters with interesting stories and information. Membership is open to anyone with an interest in area history.

Through your membership you help preserve local history. You can download a membership application by clicking here.

Jeremy Couso
Jeremy Couso Publisher/Editor
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