When six Americans were killed by an “exploding balloon”

May 5, 2022 marks the 77th anniversary of the deaths of six Americans, the only Americans to die on American soil as a result of enemy action during World War II. They were killed by a Japanese Fu-Go, also known as an explosive balloon.

Fear, Panic and Wildfires

In 1944, the Japanese military attempted to create panic in the United States by dropping thousands of bombs transported across the Pacific using hydrogen-filled balloons. The bombs were designed primarily as incendiary devices. The target was the forests of the Pacific Northwest. Because they were made of paper, it was believed that the exploding balloons would explode and burn, leaving no trace. According to Japanese documentation, it was thought that the fires would draw army resources away and that the stealthy nature of the explosive balloons would enrage and terrify the populace.

An exhibit on Japanese explosive balloons at the National Museum of the US Air Force [Courtesy: National Museum of the U.S. Air Force]

Construction of explosive balloons

Fu-Go balloons measured 70 feet by 33 feet and were made primarily of paper. Fueled by hydrogen, they were designed to fly at 30,000 feet where prevailing winds carried them east toward the United States. It took three to four days for a balloon to cross the Pacific. The balloons carried sandbags designed to break free when a pressure sensor determined the balloon had descended below 30,000 feet. The balloons rose when the hydrogen was heated by the sun and descended when the hydrogen cooled at night. When all the sandbags were dropped, the balloon was supposed to self-destruct. Each balloon carried a total of three bombs suspended by attachments to the shroud: one was a 33-pound high-explosive anti-personnel device and the other two were designed to start fires.

According to OregonEncyclopedia.org, between November 1944 and April 1945, Japan launched approximately 9,300 Fu-Go balloons. About 900 balloons reached the United States

Most balloons fell in remote areas; wildfires created by some of the balloons were quickly extinguished by the rain the Pacific Northwest is so famous for.

There are reports of balloons sighted in:

  • Wyoming
  • The Aleutian Islands
  • Canada
  • California
  • Michigan
  • Oregon

Some of the balloons crashed, exploded and burned but did not injure anyone. Americans became aware of the origin of the exploding balloons when some of them crashed and did not explode with the sandbags still attached. A study of the sand revealed that it came from the Pacific rim – it was black sand containing microscopic amounts of shells, which led the Americans to deduce that the devices came from Japan.

Hoping to prevent a panic – and more importantly to prevent the Japanese from learning that the bombs had reached America – the US Bureau of Censorship asked the media to keep silent about the explosive balloons. The media obeyed.

This camera photograph shows balloons shot down by 11th Air Force fighters near Attu in the Aleutians on April 11, 1945. [Courtesy: National Museum of the U.S. Air Force]

Victims in Oregon

On May 5, 1945, one of the balloons was found by Sunday school children in south-central Oregon.

Minister Archie Mitchell, his pregnant wife, Elsie, and the children of Mitchell’s Sunday School class were out in the woods. Mitchell told local media he was getting lunch from the car when the others called him, saying they had found what looked like a large balloon. Mitchell shouted a warning, but it was too late. The bomb exploded, killing his 26-year-old wife; Dick Patzke, 14; Jay Gifford, 13; Edouard Engen, 13 years old; Joan Patzke, 13; and Sherman Shoemaker, 11.

A story about the explosion and loss of life appeared in the Klamath Falls Herald and News, but he did not provide details of the explosion except to say it was of unknown origin. There was no mention of a Japanese explosive balloon. Details will not come out until after the war.

Today there is a monument to the victims located in the Fremont-Winema National Forest northeast of the town of Bly, Oregon. Known as the Mitchell Monument Historic Site, the stone monument was established in 1950. It features a bronze plaque showing the names of the victims and marks the only place in the continental United States where people have been killed by the enemy action during World War II.

In 2003, the monument was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.