11/07/10 605 W, 1 I - + 9 - 3 Fire Balloons During World War II

For today's random history lesson, let's turn the clock back to World War II. Our country and our allies were at war with Japan and Germany. Only a handful of attacks were made on the United States mainland, and only one incident resulted in fatalities. These were the six people killed in southern Oregon by a balloon bomb launched days earlier from Japan. What!?! Bombs on balloons, and carried across the Pacific Ocean!?! Here's the condensed version of a story many have never heard.1

The plan was deviously simple. Launch balloons carrying incendiary bombs from Japan, let the jet stream carry them across the ocean, and use mechanical timers to release and explode the bombs. The results would be destruction of property, deaths of people, and demoralization of everyone. The resulting balloons were hydrogen-filled, measured 33-feet in diameter, and equipped with devices to increase and decrease their altitude, based on atmospheric heating and cooling of the hydrogen.2

Between November 1944 and April 1945, they launched over 9,000 of the fire balloons. Some 300 were found or observed in North America. They were found in 16 states in the West and Midwest. Plus Canada, Mexico, and Alaska. They did exceptionally minimal damage, and resulted in only set of fatalities. Since the Japanese chose the time of year when the jet stream was strongest, this was also the time of year when American forests were largely too damp to easily catch fire.

The fatal attack occurred on May 5, 1945, when a Pastor, his pregnant wife, and five of their teenage Sunday-school students found a balloon on the ground in the forest of Gearhart Mountain in southern Oregon. As they approached the craft, the bomb exploded, killing the wife and the five children. The husband was not harmed. They are the only known deaths in the continental states as a result of enemy action.

There was also no press coverage of the balloons at that time, as the Office of Censorship requested in January of that year that newspapers and radio stations refrain from mentioning balloons and balloon-bomb incidents. This embargo was lifted after the deaths, to ensure the public was warned. The Japanese ceased operations in April 1945. It was costly, two of three needed hydrogen plants had been destroyed by bombers, and they had no evidence of results. In that regard, the lack of press was probably good.3

How does this history relate to what happened in North Carolina during the war years? Well, we were on guard against such aerial attacks. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, State Fire Marshal Sherwood Brockwell gathered the state's fire chiefs and began instruction on preparations for war-time operations. Among his presentations included information on bombs and aerial devices. Some fire departments including Raleigh formed auxiliary fire companies, comprised of citizen volunteers. This initiative was also designed to help with staffing reductions due to the draft. Municipalities also practiced blackout drills, to ensure that both citizens and responders acted appropriately in the event of enemy attack.


1The balloons are mentioned in travel writer Bill Bryson's hilarious autobiography The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, which is Mr. Blogger's current audio book.

2This Wikipedia page and its referenced sources provides extensive technical information on the balloons, their devices, and the history behind them.

3The United States remained practically unscathed as a result of enemy action during World War II. Other countries suffered extensive life loss and property damage. It was perhaps history's most difficult period for for the firefighters of those nations. Fire historian Paul Ditzel wrote good book about that subject, Firefighting During World War II.

It’s amazing how serious the folks ‘over there’ take fire prevention. I guess having your city fire bombed (Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo, Yokohama, Rotterdam, London, and more) does do that for you.
DJ - 11/07/10 - 15:32

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