After the terrible suffering inflicted by World War II, America emerged as one of the world’s two superpowers. Much of America’s success after the war lay in the fact that it emerged from the conflagration with its homeland mostly unscathed, However, this was not due to a lack of effort on the part of her adversaries.
We have already covered Hitler’s secret submarine attack on the East Coast, and the Nazi’s plans to construct a suborbital intercontinental bomber. But for all of the German technological know-how, it was the Japanese who were able to reach across the vast ocean and bomb the American homeland from the air. They utilized a surprisingly low tech solution to the problem–they used balloons, thousands of them, mounted with incendiaries and anti-personnel bombs. Pushed along by invisible air currents far above the surface, these dastardly weapons were intended to cause chaos and confusion, disrupting the American war effort and giving Japan much needed breathing room.
In 1944, the Japanese were desperate to find a way to take the fight to America. Three years after waking the sleeping giant with the Pearl Harbor attack, the Japanese were on the ropes. Her navy destroyed, her armies routed, and her homeland threatened, Japan needed a way to relieve some of the pressure from the relentless American war machine. For hope, they looked to the skies.
Earlier in the war, Japanese scientists had mapped atmospheric air currents by launching weather balloons laden with measuring instruments from the west side of Japan and recovering them on the east side. These tests revealed a strong current of air blowing across the Pacific at 30,000 feet.
As the war lurched toward its conclusion, they put this meteorological knowledge to good use in a project called Fugo. The plan called for the construction of thousands of light weight paper balloons, which were outfitted with incendiary devices and anti-personnel bombs linked with intricate triggering mechanisms. They would be released into the jet stream and hopefully drift over the United States before dropping their payloads. The designers hoped their weapons would cause huge forest fires in the Pacific Northwest, causing panic and disrupting the war effort.
For the most part, the bombs were ineffective. Of the 9,000 or so of the weapons launched, only about an estimated 1,000 made it the America. Most were lost in the ocean, or fell to the earth without detonating. Tragically, one of these devious devices was all too effective.
May 5, 1945
Near Klamath Falls, in Oregon, a Sunday school teacher named Elyse Mitchell, who was pregnant, and her husband Reverend Archie Mitchell were driving five teenaged students to a Saturday afternoon picnic. When Elyse started to feel sick, the Reverend pulled over the sedan and everyone piled out. The Reverend struck up a conversation with a construction crew about fishing, while Elyse and the students walked away. They’d wandered about 100 yards when Elyse called out to her husband, “Look what I found, dear,” They would be her last words.
An explosion ripped through the quiet afternoon air. When the Reverend and the construction crew reached the site of the blast, Elyse and the five students were dead or dying, their bodies strewn around a one foot gouge in the ground.
These unfortunate six were the only known casualties caused by Project Fugo. Other bombs caused minor structural damage, and one lucky hit temporarily blacked out a nuclear weapons plant in Hanford, Washington. Most did nothing more than leave a hole in the ground and cause a bit of fright and confusion. Project Fugo ended soon after it began, when American bombing destroyed the hydrogen plants the provided the lighter than air gas necessary to create the balloons. Besides that, the Japanese military was skeptical of the weapon system’s effectiveness, and thought the precious hydrogen resources could be better used elsewhere.
For as simple as these weapons were, their relative effectiveness was impressive. The fact that a fragile paper balloon could make the trek across the Pacific Ocean intact was amazing in and of itself. Some of the weapons penetrated as far as northern Michigan. Now and then, a forester or a road crew will find a device from Project Fugo lodged in the ground, still lethal remnants of a bygone era that are typically detonated in place.