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The Japanese Balloon Bomb Assault on North America: An Alberta Perspective

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N. Frank Chiovelli

Reprinted with permission of the author and publisher of For King and Country: Alberta in the Second World War

For King and CountryIt was critical to defence planners to recover and analyze the characteristics of this weapon delivery system. Radar and Radio Detection Systems would enable the Royal Canadian Air Force to intercept and destroy incoming balloons while still over the Pacific, or away from populated areas when over land. Analysis of sand in the ballast bags would help identify probable launch sites and render them vulnerable to air attack. At the time the fear that Japan might attempt to use these craft to spread chemical or bacteriological warfare agents was very strong. Therefore scientists and BID crew carried out routine tests to determine if this was indeed happening.18

An example of problems that could arise from an overly strict security programme occurred when a balloon came down about five miles north of Delburne, Alberta on the evening of 20 March 1945. Souvenir hunters removed most of the debris before the RCMP arrived. This made it difficult to determine if the envelope self-destruct charge had in fact functioned.19

Retired RCMP Staff Sergeant Ed E. Buchanan, now living in Edmonton, recalled that while he was stationed in Lethbridge during the war he coordinated the recovery of a few balloons. The lack of knowledge by the general population and the need for security led to several close calls, endangering life and limb in Alberta locations. Mr. Buchanan cannot now recall the date; however, one day about noon a Japanese balloon flew over the centre of Lethbridge, and Red Flight, two Mosquito Bombers stationed at the local airport on intercept duties, were scrambled. The eager pilots took off at high speed in a shallow climb that rattled windows and shook many houses in their flight path. A local grocer, startled by the noise and vibrations, lost his temper as he watched his goods shaken off their shelves and onto the floor. Having demonstrated to the citizens of Lethbridge that they had the best air force squadron in the Dominion, the two pilots gained altitude and pursued the balloon to an open range between Turin and Vauxhall where they shot it down. Mr. Buchanan, having seen the balloon with the aircraft in pursuit, gauged the direction of its flight and notified Constable Simbalist at Picture Butte to track the balloon and render any assistance required.

About late February or early March, 1945 a balloon came down in a field of grazing cattle. The rancher living nearby heard the cattle bawling, went to investigate and saw a few cows tangled in the rigging of what he thought was a weather balloon. Working quickly, he freed the cows and draped the balloon and lines over the nearest fence. He then removed what he assumed was a recording device and threw it in the toolbox of his truck. A week or two later while in Foremost shopping he paid a visit to the local RCMP Detachment. Storming into Cpl. John Wilson's office, he banged the brass box down on Wilson's desk, telling Wilson what he and the Weather Office could do with their scientific apparatus. After finishing his flowery list of instructions the rancher then left. A somewhat confused Wilson phoned S/Sgt Buchanan at Lethbridge with a description of the brass box and requested instructions. Buchanan very diplomatically informed Wilson that he was holding a demolition charge which, if it exploded, probably would level the detachment office. Buchanan also observed, with tongue in cheek, that it might also damage the phone. He asked Wilson to put the box in a secure place until the BID team could remove it. Buchanan and the BID Team arrived shortly and placed the demolition charge in their bomb-disposal trailer, then with Wilson paid the rancher a visit to recover the balloon. This recovery was recorded as Foremost 20 March 1945. While there were no bombs attached to this balloon, about two weeks prior to the Foremost incident a sheep herder moving his flock to a new location heard a loud explosion around noon. Returning to his shack that evening he was startled to find it demolished. Mr. Buchanan believes that the explosion and destruction of the sheep herder's line cabin were caused by a high-explosive bomb dropped by the balloon recovered at Foremost.20

Eric Huestis, Alberta's Acting Director of Forestry in 1945, recalled that during the war there were only seven full-time Forest Rangers to patrol the entire province. Nonetheless, when the balloon attacks started his department gave whatever assistance that was requested by the military. Rangers helped when a balloon landed outside Edson on 11 March 1945. Shortly thereafter, when a summer camp was being set up in the Jarvis Creek area near Hinton, the Forestry Crew were surprised to find that a balloon had landed in the creek valley. Mr. Huestis was informed that after the war his department could dispose of any balloon-related material in their possession. A disarmed high-explosive bomb was put on display in the Edson Forestry Office and remained there for some years. Between three and five chandeliers from balloons that landed in the Edson-Coal Branch area were taken to the dump.21

Notes

18. Ibid; also see HQ 11th US Air Force, Report No. 46 Re: 13 BALLOONS SIGHTED. This report of radar and radio signal statistics is not dated.

19. National Defence Headquarters, General Staff Directorate of Military Operations and Planning, op. cit.

20. Ed E. Buchanan, Interview with author, October 1994; this interview provided a unique opportunity to research previously unknown details of the balloon bomb recoveries in southern Alberta.

21. Eric Huestis, Interview with the author, April 1984.

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