Monday, April 2, 2012

Japanese Balloons

Historian Jon Axline tells a story about Oscar Hill and his son, who in 1944 were cutting firewood seventeen miles southwest of Kalispell. They found a strange parachute-like object with Japanese writing and a rising sun symbol stenciled on it. Sheriff Duncan McCarthy took the object to a Kalispell garage. Rumors flew and soon five hundred people crowded into the garage to take a look. It turned out to be a Japanese balloon rigged to carry a bomb. It was the beginning of an aerial attack on the United States by Imperial Japan as World War II wound down. In November of 1944, the Japanese began launching hydrogen-filled paper balloons believing the jet stream would carry them to North America. The attached incendiary and anti-personnel bombs would start forest fires and kill civilians. The Japanese also intended the balloon bombs as psychological weapons, designed to cause confusion and spread panic. The Japanese called them Fu-Go, “Windship Weapons.” They were the first intercontinental weapons, a low tech predecessor to the ballistic missiles of the late twentieth century.

Army Intelligence Captain W. Boyce Stanard (left) watches as FBI special agent W. G. Banister examines the balloon that fell in Kalispell. Army Air Force Major J. E. Bolgiano is holding the balloon's pressure relief valve. Photo from Project 1947.
By April 1945, the Japanese launched over nine thousand balloons. Only 277 reached the United States and Canada. Only one caused injuries, killing five Oregon picnickers when they inadvertently detonated one of the bombs. The project was a failure. A voluntary news blackout in the United States kept the Japanese from discovering if the balloons landed. At least thirty-two balloon bombs reached Montana between 1944 and 1945. A hiker discovered the last one hanging from a tree southwest of Basin in 1947. Axline points out that balloon bombs in Montana proved that the state was not as isolated and free from world events as the public thought.

Update: Here's a better photo of FBI agents examining the bomb. This one is an illustration in my new book, More Montana Moments.
Donald D. Cook, photographer, Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, PAc 93-1

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