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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 CountryThe last balloons were launched on 20 April 1945. The Japanese stated that this was due to erratic wind conditions, although it would seem more likely that the effects of Allied bombing raids on factories and launch sites made it a wiser choice to devote war materials to more conventional uses.22

During the entire campaign the total production of about 9300 balloons was launched. However, only six fatalities were caused by the balloon bomb offensive. A woman and five children detonated a bomb while dragging a balloon out of a treed area near Bly, Oregon on 5 May 1945. Another near-disaster was averted when the fail-safe mechanism kicked in at the Hanford Engineering Works during a power outage on 10 May 1945. A Japanese balloon, flying low over the Yakima Valley, shorted power lines of the Bonneville generating station. Interestingly, this was the power source for the Hanford plant which was manufacturing heavy water for the Manhattan Project. The production of atomic bombs for use against Japan was delayed a few weeks because of this.23

Since the balloon bomb offensive against North America was carried out in the winter and spring months, snow and an extremely wet spring prevented the anticipated severe fire damage.24 Specialized personnel were trained to defend against this new weapon. However in the main both military and civilian establishments simply added one more chore to their duties. Thus the Japanese failed to drain vast amounts of manpower from the war front, as they had hoped, or for that matter to disrupt the flow of material to the Allied war effort. In fact shortages of food and material in Japan itself resulted in the employment of extra manpower to watch the students assembling the balloons, as they had to be prevented from eating the vegetable-based glue being used on this project. This anticlimactic situation coupled with other more telling reversals soon led to the Japanese surrender.25

At the war's end it was estimated by some that there might have been as many as 1000 undetected balloons or bombs in remote areas of North America. In fact some have been found as recently as 1972. Many without a doubt have caused forest fires by self-detonation, or when triggered by animals which may have been trying to eat the rotting mulberry paper. Many balloons or their payloads also must have been destroyed by forest fires caused by other natural means such as lightning strikes.26

During the months following the Japanese attack on the US Fleet at Pearl Harbor, fear and concern regarding the vulnerability of the North American continent to enemy attack grew to a peak. By mid-1942 this virtual hysteria had abated on the home front, where most Albertans simply got on with the business of supporting the war effort. Many of the rumours regarding saboteurs, fifth columnists, and even the feared Japanese attack on the continental mainland which appeared to have been heralded by the brief invasions of the Aleutian Islands, were no longer a concern. The irony is that at the end of the war, when most Albertans felt most confident, the most dangerous and direct assault did occur. Even more ironic is the fact that few knew about the balloon bombs which were sometimes landing near their communities. Due to wartime media blackouts, it would be decades before the facts of the Japanese balloon bomb assault would begin to come to the attention of Albertans, for whom the war was an increasingly distant memory.

Notes

22. Canadian Army Headquarters, Historical Section, op. cit.

23. Robert C. Mikesh, op. cit.; Randall A. Johnson, “Japanese Balloons Bombed West”, The Pacific Northwesterner, Vol. 20, No. 3 [Summer 1976]; Carmine A. Prioli, “Banzai Balloons a Bust”, American Heritage.

24. Weather Records; Edmonton Municipal A [3012208] January-December, 1944, January-December 1945; Rocky Mountain House [3015530] January-December, 1944, January-December 1945; Kelowna BC [112930] 1944-45; Vancouver International A [1108447] 1944-45; Prince Rupert BC [1066480] 1944-45; Prince George BC A [1096450] 1944-1945; Victoria International A [1018620] 1944-45.

25. Randall A. Johnson, op. cit.; the following sources also provide useful information: HQS 8872-2 Vol 4 [Oprs 206-0], Restricted Extracts from A Preliminary Report Of A U.S. Army Field organization Concerning Japanese Balloons, 15 November, 1945; Restricted Copy, General Headquarters United States Army Forces, Pacific Scientific and Technical Advisory Section, Scientific and Technical Advisory Section, 25 September 1945; Text of Joint Army and navy Press Release Re: Japanese Balloons Fm. Bissell AD G-2, Washington DC To: Military Attaché, American Embassy, Ottawa, Canada.

26. The author wishes to thank the following people who aided in the preparation of this paper: Robert C. Mikesh, Curator of Aircraft, Aeronautics, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC; Peter J. Murphy, Associate Dean-Forestry, Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry, University of Alberta; D.E. Adderly, Manager, Public Affairs, Ministry of Forests and Lands, Province of British Columbia; Lt S. Brown, CFB Dockyard, Victoria, BC; William Beahen, RCMP Staff Historian, Ottawa; Eric Huestis, former Deputy Minister of Forestry, Province of Alberta; and especially RCMP S/Sgt Buchanan [Retired]. Also Stefano Chiovelli and Bill Galloway for their assistance.

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