It was on this date in 1945 that a Japanese bomb balloon claimed the lives of six people in Oregon. They were the only casualties of World War II in the continental United States. Two of them were the children of Grand Forks railroad engineer, Frank Patzke, 13 year-old Joan and 14 year-old Dick.
Reverend Archie Mitchell and his young expectant wife, Elsie, were hosting an outing for five adolescents who attended Sunday School at the Bly Christian and Missionary Alliance Church. The plan was to have a picnic and do some fishing in the mountains. According to reports, Reverend Mitchell found the main road to the Fremont National Forest blocked by equipment, so he pulled off the road at a different spot where they could fish in a creek.
Mrs. Mitchell and the children got out while Archie was either parking the car or unloading food or both. He heard Joan Patzke say, “Look what I found!” and saw a gigantic balloon she’d discovered caught on some tree branches.
Just a few weeks earlier, one of the other kids, 13 year-old Jay Gifford, had found a weather balloon. He had returned it to the weather station in Klamath Falls, where he was praised for his action. Now, here was another balloon. Someone tugged on one of the balloon’s ropes and an on-board bombs detonated. The explosion instantly killed all but the Reverend.
During the previous six months, thousands of hydrogen-filled bomb balloons had been launched from a seaside beach in Honshu, Japan. Each was 33 feet across and carried 5 bombs – four that would cause fires and one that was meant to kill. Traveling in the jet stream, the balloons to crossed the Pacific in approximately 3 days.
The experiment was short-lived, because censorship in the U.S. kept the enemy from learning whether these weapons were doing their job. It was also expensive. Originally, the balloons were made of rubberized silk. Then, someone thought of using a special waterproof paper traditionally used for making stencils for textile design. The technique for manufacturing the paper was long and laborious; after the paper was made, it was waterproofed by soaking in mulberry juice that had been aged many months.
Given the fact that the government had ordered 10 thousand balloons, one can only imagine how laborious it was to construct them. Individual sheets of this paper were only about the size of a piece of gift wrap; not only did they have to be spliced together, they had to be laminated three to four layers deep. The paste that was used was derived from a tuber called “devil’s-tongue” and was often eaten by hungry workers on the sly.
Final construction required auditorium-size work spaces, but a bigger problem arose when B-29 bombers took out two of Japan’s three hydrogen plants. Without hydrogen, the balloons were grounded.
Without any evidence of their effectiveness, General Kusaba cancelled the balloon operation in April 1945. What he didn’t know was that the month before, one of the last paper balloons had come down near the Manhattan Project’s production site at Hanford, WA. It landed on a power line and shut down the reactor that was producing plutonium for the Nagasaki bomb.
Written by Merry Helm
Sources: www.rightnation.us/forums/lofiversion/index.php/t35190.html; http://encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com/Balloon%20bomb; Harold Schindler, Utah Was Spared Damage By Japan's Floating Weapons, 05/05/1995, http://historytogo.utah.gov/5595spared.html