78 years ago, the Inland Northwest faced a different - and potentially deadly - floating device from Asia: Japan balloon bombs
Feb. 3, 2023 Updated Fri., Feb. 3, 2023 at 10:18 p.m.
This depiction of the bombs deployed using balloons by Japan and intended for the United States during World War II was published by the Smithsonian Institution in 1973. (Smithsonian Institution)
When a surveillance balloon launched by the Chinese floated over the Inland Northwest last week, it wasn’t the first time an Asian power had deployed unmanned, airborne objects in Spokane’s air space.
At least two unexploded bombs, dropped as part of the Japanese Empire’s “Fu-Go” program against the United States during World War II, fell on Spokane’s city dump in February 1945. It would take The Spokane Daily Chronicle several months to report the details to readers in the Inland Empire, describing how dramatically close children had come to exploding the bombs that were swept over the country by the jet stream several miles above the Earth’s surface after some “woodsmen” found the devices.
“The woodsmen ‘fooled’ with the bombs, and later officials said, the children even removed the arming device and detonator from the fragmentation missile,” the paper reported on June 5, 1945.
Because of the ongoing war against Japan, the paper kept many of the details about the event secret. Without air flight tracking software, social media and high-powered cameras to capture images of the balloons, it was possible for FBI and military officials to keep under wraps the extent of the bomb’s discoveries throughout the region.
But on Aug. 15, 1945, the day Japan surrendered after America dropped a pair of atomic bombs on the country, the paper was able to publish an account of dozens of the devices, part of an estimated 9,300 the empire launched, that had been seen or recovered around Spokane. That number comes from a 1973 report written by Robert Mikesh, an Air Force veteran and later museum curator, for the Smithsonian Institution.
“They were found over an area from Attu in the Aleutians, as far east as Michigan, and reaching southward to Mexico,” Mikesh wrote in the report, which can be read in its entirety at the Smithsonian’s website.
Some local law enforcement had the same idea then as today’s lawmakers on how to deal with the Chinese balloon.
“On March 10, Sheriff Gordon Nicks of Ephrata shot down a balloon by using a tracer bullet in a rifle,” the Chronicle reported.
Mikesh wrote that the military was able to keep the existence of the balloons under wraps until early May, when five children and a woman were killed near Lakeview, Oregon, while trying to drag one of the bombs out of the woods. Even that story was overshadowed by the news that Nazi Germany had surrendered unconditionally to the Allies.
The main threat posed by the balloons, which measured about 30 feet in diameter and carried a trio of incendiary devices, was in sparking large-scale forest fires. The Chronicle reported no such fires were reported to have been caused by the balloon bombs. One did, however, fall on a power line at Toppenish in early March, the paper reported, “temporarily disrupting part of the power service to the Hanford project.”
That project, of course, would produce the plutonium used in the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, killing an estimated tens of thousands of Japanese.
The biggest effect the bombing campaign may have had was on the American psyche, Mikesh wrote, in a conclusion that could apply to the national worry being expressed about the latest Chinese incursion into the country’s airspace.
“Hardly more was attained than a psychological effort against the United States resulting in rumors and uncertainty,” Mikesh wrote, “even though it was assumed that not more than ten percent ever reached the United States and Canada.”
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