Balloon Bombs — How Japan Killed Americans At Home In WWII

History
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, was a shocking display of its ruthless military tactics during World War II. Over 2,400 U.S. servicemen died during the surprise attack, thrusting the United States into a war that shook the world to its core. But it wasn’t Japan’s final attack on American soil. Roughly two years later, the Japanese came up with a plan to harness air currents to create the world’s first intercontinental weapons: balloon bombs.


Titled ‘Project Fugo,’ the booby-trapped hot-air balloons were designed to ride 30,000-foot altitudes en route to North America, where, if everything went according to plan, they would set fire to the United State’s vast forests. Japan hoped these massive wildfires — particularly in the Pacific Northwest—would create mayhem and disturb the U.S. war effort. Each balloon was essentially a giant, floating Molotov cocktail.

Japanese fire balloon of mulberry paper reinflated at Moffett Field, CA after it had been shot down by a Navy aircraft January 10, 1945Army photo via Wikimedia Commons

According to J. David Rodgers of the Missouri University of Science and Technology, the hydrogen-filled balloon was constructed from mulberry paper, measured about 33 feet in diameter, and was capable of lifting a thousand pounds. The light, sturdy frame was saddled with bags of sand, sensors, triggering devices and a 33 lb. anti-personnel fragmentation bomb. Because the balloons took between 30-60 hours to reach North America, the bomb’s 64-foot fuse was designed to ignite after about three days of flight and detonate after 82 minutes.

Related: This World War II soldier hid in a Philippine jungle for 30 years »

Project Fugo officially launched on November 3, 1944, kicking off a six-month frenzy during which the Japanese fired between 6,000 - 8,000 balloon bombs at North America. The Japanese hoped their origin would be untraceable, but Col. Sigmund Poole, who was the head of the U.S. Geological Survey at the time, was able to track their launchpoint back to the island of Honshu—just east of Tokyo—by examining the bags of sand they were saddled with.

The numbers vary, but experts estimate about 1,000 reached their target, landing anywhere from Northern Mexico to Alaska to Michigan.There was even one discovered in the mountains of British Columbia just two years ago by two forestry workers who used C-4 to blow it up because it was too dangerous to move.

Despite its ingenuity, the strategy had one small problem: the balloons couldn’t be tracked or controlled. Because they were at the mercy of the airstreams they were designed to ride, the balloons ultimately didn’t have their intended effect; though, an Army airborne unit, the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion was deployed to the Pacific Northwest in the fall of 1945 just in case, earning the nickname “Smoke Jumpers.” To date, only about 300 balloons have been reported as sighted or discovered over the years, with no trace of hysteria — or forest fires — breaking out in the wake of their arrival on American soil.

The Mitchell Monument in the Fremont-Winema National Forests near Bly, Oregon, United States. The Mitchell Recreation Area is listed on the US National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) as the only location in the continental US where Americans died due to enemy action during World War II.United States Forest Service photo via Wikimedia Commons

There was one reported deadly incident, though. On May 5, 1945 in Bly, Oregon, five children and a pastor’s pregnant wife, Elsie Mitchell, were killed as they played with the large paper balloon, unaware of its explosive contents. In 1950, a memorial for the victims, called the Mitchell Monument, was erected in Oregon near the site of the bombing. It reads: “Only place on the American continent where death resulted from enemy action during World War II.”

Project Fugo was a total bust. In fact, for years, few people even knew the balloon bombs existed because the American government asked news organizations to refrain from reporting their sightings. Still, you’ve got to acknowledge the gumption it took to produce this terrifying and unique concept, regardless of how poorly it was carried out.

A Coast Guard lieutenant arrested this week planned to "murder innocent civilians on a scale rarely seen in this country," according to a court filing requesting he be detained until his trial.

Read More Show Less
(From left to right) Chris Osman, Chris McKinley, Kent Kroeker, and Talon Burton

At least four American veterans were among a group of eight men arrested by police in Haiti earlier this week for driving without license plates and possessing an arsenal of weaponry and tactical gear.

Police in Port-au-Prince arrested five Americans, two Serbians, and one Haitian man at a police checkpoint on Sunday, according to The Miami-Herald. The men told police they were on a "government mission" but did not specify for which government, according to The Herald.

They also told police that "their boss was going to call their boss," implying that someone high in Haiti's government would vouch for them and secure their release, Herald reporter Jacqueline Charles told NPR.

What they were actually doing or who they were potentially working for remains unclear. A State Department spokesperson told Task & Purpose they were aware that Haitian police arrested a "group of individuals, including some U.S. citizens," but declined to answer whether the men were employed by or operating under contract with the U.S. government.

Read More Show Less
A photo shared by Hoda Muthana on her now-closed @ZumarulJannaTwitter account. (Twitter/ZumarulJannah)

The State Department announced Wednesday that notorious ISIS bride Hoda Muthana, a U.S.-born woman who left Alabama to join ISIS but began begging to return to the U.S. after recently deserting the terror group, is not a U.S. citizen and will not be allowed to return home.

Read More Show Less
Heckler & Koch's first batch of M27 Infantry Automatic Rifles

Have you ever wondered what would happen if the employee behind a firearm company's Facebook page decided to goad a bunch of Marines into destroying their brand new firearms? Now you know.

Read More Show Less

A top Senate Republican and fierce ally of President Donald Trump reportedly exploded at Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan recently about the U.S. military's plans to withdraw all troops from Syria by the end of April.

"That's the dumbest f******g idea I've ever heard," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) reportedly replied when Shanahan confirmed the Trump administration still plans to complete the Syria withdrawal by April 30.

Later, Graham told Shanahan, "I am now your adversary, not your friend."

Read More Show Less