Nov. 16, 2021

Balloon Bombs: Japan's Low Tech Method of Attack

Ep: 003  In WWII, After the Doolittle Raid Over Tokyo, The Japanese Planned a Unique Way to Get Even.  The Fu-Go Project

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is is History Briefs, where in 20 minutes or less, you’ll hear bits of history you may know little or nothing about. I’m Brad Shreve.

 I remember when balloons were fun. Back in the days before we feared kids choking on them. Back when we could release them in the air without animals dying after eating one that hit the ground again.  Don't get me wrong, I'm glad we figured these things out. I don't want anyone or anything to choke to death just so I can have two minutes of fun watching a balloon fly away. I mean we used to play even more dangerously with lawn darts at family reunions, and in the 1950s there was even a kids science kit that had real uranium. 

 Say What?

 But I'm not going to be talking about dangerous toys, though that would make for an interesting episode. Balloons were what I first mentioned and that's what this is about. Yes, children's balloons can be dangerous if not used properly, but not all balloons were designed for fun and games. How about balloons with bombs on them? Balloons purposely created to kill people. It happened. It was a weapon used against the United States and people died.  

 To kick off this episode, I'm going to temporarily change the name to "Science Briefs" and talk a little bit about weather.  I won't be talking about the difference between cumulus and stratus clouds. I could never keep the two straight, and my apologies to all you meteorological fans out there, but I really don't give a damn about cloud types. Instead, I'm going to discuss something much more exciting - wind. 

 To be more specific, the jet streams. 

 Jet streams are narrow bands of strong winds that typically blow from west to east. There are a good number of them, but four primary ones. Two polar jet steams, and two subtropical jet streams closer to the equator. They're caused by warm air masses meeting with cold air masses. The routes and heights can vary, but a good rule of thumb is to say they're about 7 miles overhead. 

 Who discovered jet streams depends on who you ask. Some say it was Wasaburo Ooishi, a Japanese meteorologist. Others say it was Wiley Post, an American pilot known for being the first to fly around the world. During Wiley Posts famous flight in 1934, he noticed air speeds on the ground different than the high altitudes while flying at an altitude of 50,000 feet. However, in the 1920s, Wasaburo Ooishi tracked weather balloons in high altitude winds. To be fair, before Post and Ooishi, there were others that discovered the possibility of jet streams but didn't think there was much more to them other than interesting. As for the debate between the pilot and the meteorologist, a man flying around the world gets a lot more attention than a guy tossing balloons in the sky near Mount Fuji. Despite Ooishi's discovery never getting beyond Japan, I'm giving him the credit.  

 Whether it was an American or Japanese man who discovered these fast-moving streams of air, it was a German meteorologist who coined them "jet streams" in 1939. 

 Have you ever looked at maps of global flights and wondered why they don't always fly in straight lines? It's because flying east using the jet streams give planes greater speed and use less fuel and those flying west around the massive headwinds. The long gone, Pan Am was the first airline to use the jet streams to their advantage in 1952, cutting flight time from Tokyo to Honolulu from 18 hours to less than 12 hours. 

 Moving from "Science Briefs" back to "History Briefs" let's get to the whole balloon bombs which is what you're really wondering about. 

 Roosevelt Speech 

 That’s President Theodore Roosevelt referring to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  The U.S. was caught by surprise and it's hard to deny it was a victory by Japan. 

 After Pearl Harbor, I believe most American's today view the war with Japan as something OVER THERE. OVER THERE not meaning only in Japan itself, but away from U.S. soil. Out in those Pacific Ocean Places.  That's not entirely true. 

 After the attack on Hawaii, American's most anxious about another attack were those who lived on the West Coast, and with good reason. Japan had at least nine submarines poised to fire on major or strategic cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. They did some shelling, but with no major results. One attack in the Santa Barbara area resulted in no injuries and only about $500 in damage. 

 In Alaska in 1943, a battle occurred that seems to have been forgotten. In fact, the moniker most used to describe it is The Forgotten Battle. It's aptly named, unfortunately. The Japanese occupied a small area for almost a year and by the time they were fought off the U.S. territory, over 2,000 Japanese and 550 Americans lost their lives.  During the course of World War 2, the Japanese were victorious in two battles. the Battle of Wake Island, and the Battle of Bataan. The U.S. and its allies won all other battles, as they did in the one fought in Alaska. 

 One particular attack devastating to Japan was the Doolittle Raid, also called the Tokyo Raid. Only 4 months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Lt. Colonel James Doolittle led 16 B-25B aircraft off the Naval Carrier, the USS Hornet and bombed Japan's capital and largest city.

  The raid killed 50 people and material damage was small, but was a huge blow to morale in Japan. 

 Humiliated by the Doolittle Rain in Japan, the Empire and its military wanted retaliation, but two months later they had a catastrophic blow at the Battle of Midway, and this time it wasn't just their pride that was hurt. By the time the battle was over the Japanese had lost 3,000 men, 320 planes, a heavy cruiser and 4, count them 4 aircraft carriers.

Midway put Japan on the defensive for the remainder of the war. However, yes, they're were soundly defeated at Midway, but Emperor Hirohito had not forgotten the raid on his homeland. But with the great losses of their navy at Midway he was faced with how to strike back by attacking the U.S. navy. Don’t worry, I’ll get to the balloons, but first they tried another way.

 The Japanese had a trick up their sleeves - aircraft carrying submarines. By the end of 1941 they had 20 of them. Relatively speaking, it's easier to sneak up on the enemy with a submarine far easier than an aircraft carrier anyway, so you would think this would be the perfect plan except for one thing. The subs could each only carry two planes and those planes had to be light. The aircraft had wood and metal frames, but they had to use fabric to cover the exterior. Being only 3,500 pounds, these planes were designed for reconnaissance with minimal weaponry, but that didn't stop them from giving it a try.

Years before the war, in 1935, the Japanese took note of a forest fire in Oregon that destroyed the town of Brandon. Accepting a full attack on the U.S. mainland wasn’t possible, they used their knowledge of the forest fire and theorized they could use the small bombs they had to cause more fires, striking fear in the American people. The U.S. mainland was now vulnerable, they thought. 

 I early September 1942, off the coast of Oregon, Japan catapulted a plane off a submarine.  

 The plane carried two incendiary bombs to set the state ablaze. The bombs were dropped in the Siskiyou National Forest, and one exploded. September is usually one of the drier months in Oregon, and the bomb could have been successful. Fortunately, September in 1942 was not a typical year. The forest was damp from recent rains. A fire officer in a lookout tower didn't see the bombing but he did see a plume of smoke. The officer and another man hiked to the bomb site and were able to contain the small fire until a fire crew arrived the next morning. 

 20 days later, the Japanese made a second attempt. The pilot reported seeing flames but nothing was spotted by Americans. 

 The Lookout Air Raids was the only time during the war the continental United States was bombed by an enemy power.

On a side note, In 1962, Nobou Fujita, the pilot in both bombings was invited to Brookings Oregon, the town closest to the drop zones. He accepted their invitation after the Japanese government was assured he wouldn't be tried as a war criminal. During his visit, Fujita gifted the town his families 400 year old samurai sword as a symbol of regret. As a sign of peace, he served as the grand marshal in a local Azalea Festival.   

 At this point you may be thinking, nice war stories, but what does any of this have to do with balloons? If I've tried your patience, you'll be happy to know I've reached that part of the story. 

 The year was 1944. It was 2 years after the Doolittle Raid over Tokyo, and the Japanese military had not gotten over the shame of being bombed by their enemy. Regular bombings throughout the war didn't make them any happier. But, there was still the quandary over how to make the United States pay for the attacks. Submarines didn't work, small aircraft didn't work, and large aircraft carriers were still running defense against the allied forces. They came up with a low tech, yet diabolical plan.

 They still didn't see a way of wreaking havoc on the U.S. mainland, but hadn't given up hope of causing panic and hurting American morale. The new plan was to fly bomb carrying balloons to the west coast of the United States and Canada, drop them on cities and, once again, cause frightening forest fires. It was called the Fu-Go project.

 In Japan, schools were turned into Fu-Go factories, and teenage girls were put to work creatively gluing mulberry paper together with potato flour. 

 They were not told what they were making. When the balloons were ready to fly they were filled with hydrogen.  Initially, the idea was to set the balloons adrift off of submarines on the West Coast of America, but that idea was ditched when the submarines were recalled to retake the island of Guadalcanal they had lost to allied forces. What could they possibly do with all those balloons?

 Remember Wasaburo Ooishi? He's the guy who discovered the jet streams by sending up balloons near Mount Fuji?  The Japanese government hadn't forgotten him. Maybe, just maybe, those bomb carrying balloons could be set adrift and be carried to the United States by using the jet stream. That's what they did. But could the idea of successfully flying balloons work? There was only one way to find out. 

 Despite being low tech, the balloons were rather ingenious. They were designed to release hydrogen when they went over 38,000 feet, and to drop sandbags if they went below 30,000 feet. To prevent them from losing hydrogen by tipping to one side, the sandbags were set two drop two at a time. One on each side of the balloon. It took each 3 - 4 days to reach the U.S.

 The date to begin launching balloons was November 3rd, 1944. The date was significant for being the birthday of former Emperor  Meiji. Over a period of six months 9,000 balloons were launched. The operation ended when allied forces bombed Japanese hydrogen plants, making the gas too high of a commodity to be used to fill balloons.

 How successful was the program? Not very. While some of the bombs reached as far as Michigan, most that went of were of no significance. Some, such as one over the Dundee neighborhood in Omaha, Nebraska blew up in the sky. To keep Japan from knowing how far inland some balloons made it, the government was fortunate enough in most areas to convince the press and citizens tight lipped about what they discovered.  

In May 1945, only 3 months before Japan surrendered, a tragic incident occurred near Bly, Oregon. Pastor Archie Mitchell and his wife Elsie took five children out for a Sunday School picnic. Not feeling well, Elsie almost didn't go but decided she was fit enough to join the outing. Archie dropped the passengers off and pulled the car into a parking lot. While walking to join the rest of the group, they called to let him know of a strange object they found in the forest. He was only 40 yards away when the explosion occurred killing his pregnant wife, Elsie, and all five children whose ages ran from 11 to 13.  Victims of a balloon bomb, The six of them are the only known American civilians killed in the continental United States during World War II.  

Japan's hope was 10% of the balloons would reach the U.S.. There is no way of knowing how many reached the continent, most estimates put the number much lower. 76 years later not all have been found. As recent as 2014 loggers in British Columbia found a device and reported it to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Believing it was too dangerous to move, a military bomb disposal unit was called in to destroy it. 

Five years after the balloon bombs were released, Dr. Toshiro Otsuki, the inventor killed himself. It is assumed, but unknown, if it was either out of guilt or dishonor. 

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