WWII Memoirs – May 5, 1945 – The War Comes to Oregon, Bly

On a bright Saturday afternoon a group of five children and one of their chaperone adults, picnicking in a forested area in southern Oregon, became the only casualties on the American mainland during World War II.

Japanese balloon bomb in flight - U.S. Air Force photo

Japanese balloon bomb in flight – U.S. Air Force photo

A 33-foot balloon, launched from the Japanese island of Honshu in late April of 1945, had survived the 5000-mile trip in the jet stream and landed in this unlikely spot near Bly, Oregon. Its primary purpose was to start forest fires, but instead it destroyed the lives of six innocent people.

The war must have seemed far way, the children feeling carefree, enjoying the bright, outdoor surroundings and excited by the huge balloon lodged in a tree up ahead. A fourteen year-old girl raced ahead to pull it down, unaware that that was the last thing she would do in her life. Attached to the balloon was an explosive device which was detonated by her exuberant actions. The five children were killed instantly. The adult, the pregnant wife of the one survivor, a minister, died soon after.

The fact that the balloon landed in such a remote spot indicates the randomness of that device. There was no steering mechanism, and destinations were quite unpredictable. In fact, two balloons landed back in Japan! But another, fortunately but just as randomly, came down near the Manhattan project’s production center at the Hanford site and caused minor damage to power lines supplying electricity for the nuclear cooling pumps.

Similarly, the range of the balloons could not be controlled. Some were found as far away as northern Mexico and on the outskirts of Detroit, Michigan. Any general idea of where one was going was dependent on knowledge of the prevailing air currents, and these operate over broad areas of the globe.

Though the Japanese were unsuccessful in creating the devastating forest fires they has hoped for, the potential for such disasters was very real. They had launched more than 9000 balloons and 342 incidents involving them were recorded in western United States and Canada. A major factor in the Japanese’s lack of success in Oregon was the fact that they began launching them after the rainy began and stopped as the rainy season was coming to a close (November 1944–April 1945).

U.S. authorities, however, feared a worst threat involving balloons, than raging forest fires. They were aware of Japan’s experiments with biological weapons and considered the balloon as a potential means for carrying out germ warfare.

Though the war is long over, the threat of this unusual, but lethal device remains. Hundreds of them have never been found, and though the odds are long of their explosives still being viable, they are still “out there.” The last known “live” bomb found in North America was in 1955, and a non-lethal one turned up in Alaska as recently as 1992.

The incident near Bly reminds that during war, disaster can come unannounced out of the gentle, blue sky on any day of the week. The statement about the un-located bombs warns us that the last casualty of World War II may not yet have occurred!

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