On May 5, 1945 Elsie (Elyse) Mitchell and five children from her husband’s Sunday school class left their church and headed for a picnic. Elsie’s husband, Archie Mitchell, a Reverend in the small town of Bly, Oregon, drove the group from their church to nearby Gearhart Mountain where they looked for a nice place to enjoy the day. At the time, Elsie was pregnant and the couple was looking forward to starting a family.

balloon bombs

Japanese Balloon Bomb

Archie Mitchell let Elsie and the children out and parked the car. As he walked toward his wife, he heard her call that she found something like a balloon. Elsie and the children did not know it, but they found one of Japan’s secret weapons: Japanese Balloon Bombs sent to attack America.

In late 1944, the Japanese 9th Army Technical Research Laboratory under the direction of Major General Sueyoshi Kubasa, came up with the idea of using Pacific Jet Streams to send bomb laden balloons to America. The lab created hydrogen balloons capable of carrying a 33 pound anti-personnel bomb or a 26 pound incendiary bomb or four 11 pound incendiary bombs. The Japanese organized almost three thousand men to launch over 9,000 balloons from Chiba, Ibaraki and Fukushima prefectures. The balloons were initially made of rubberized silk but were later made from Japanese “Washi” handmade paper.

The balloon bombs took about three days to reach North America. Although most landed in uninhabited regions of Alaska, Canada and the West Coast of the United States, they were reported to have landed as far as Iowa, South Dakota, Texas and even Michigan.

The US military was alarmed by these balloons, in spite of them causing very little damage, as they feared they could be used to send biological weapons or other unconventional bombs. One Japanese balloon bomb even landed near power lines in Washington State close to the Hanford Site, where plutonium was being manufactured for the Manhattan Project.

balloon bombs

Gun camera footage of a balloon bomb getting shot down

Forest fires were another major concern and the all black 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion was sent to Oregon to deal with forest fires caused by the Japanese bombs.

In the face of hundreds of bombs reaching the US, American authorities felt the best way to deal with the balloon bombs was to ignore them. A silence in the press was enforced in hopes the Japanese would think none of their balloon bombs were actually reaching North America. This idea worked, and without any American news reports of bombs exploding, the Japanese declared their project a failure and abandoned the bombs in mid-1945.

For Elsie Mitchell and the five children with her however, the Japanese balloon bombs proved fatal. They were the only Americans killed in the ingenious but ultimately futile idea by the Japanese to win their fight against America.

balloon bombs

Map of reported balloon bomb landings (Courtesy of Dave Tewsbury, Hamilton College)

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