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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Sean V. O’Brien: World War II balloon assault on U.S. was abject failure

Sean V. O’Brien

By Sean V. O’Brien

With the latest reports that last week’s spy balloon incursion was just the latest of several Chinese surveillance intrusions over the continental United States in recent years, it may help to recall an often-untold chapter of significant military conflict with a different nation across the Pacific Ocean.

On May 5, 1945, seven American civilians were killed near the small lumber town of Bly, Oregon – the first and only casualties of World War II to occur in the continental U.S. A pastor and his pregnant wife were taking five Sunday school children – aged 11-14 – for a spring picnic to Gearhart Mountain when the expectant mother and the class happened upon a white, parachute-like canvas on the forest floor. Just moments later, the device exploded, killing the five students, the young pastor’s wife, and her unborn child.

Between late 1944 and spring of 1945, the Imperial Japanese Army sent more than 9,000 hydrogen-filled balloon bombs across the Pacific Ocean. Intending to wreak havoc over the U.S. mainland, the Japanese initiated the operation to utilize “fusen bakudan,” 30-foot-diameter balloons carrying multiple incendiary devices and antipersonnel bombs, as well as a series of sandbags triggered to maintain altitude in the jet stream over the Pacific.

The “Fu-Go” plan, for short, “called for sending bomb-carrying balloons from Japan to set fire to the vast forests of America, in particular those of the Pacific Northwest. It was hoped that the fires would create havoc, dampen American morale and disrupt the U.S. war effort,” wrote James M. Powles for the World War II Journal.

As diabolical as the plan was on its face, the Japanese military utilized schoolgirls to make the balloons. Working 12-hour shifts, the schoolgirls glued together stacks of washi paper from mulberry trees to form the makeshift bombs.

While it is estimated that roughly 1,000 of the devices actually made it across the Pacific – as far inland as Michigan – the operation was a failure. The bombs were largely ineffective and caused little damage, notwithstanding the tragic deaths in Oregon.

Less than two months before that deadly afternoon picnic, one device struck a main transmission line stemming from the Grand Coulee and Bonneville dams on the Columbia River here in Washington state. The strike, unbeknownst to the Japanese, temporarily cut power to Hanford Engineer Works, where the top-secret Manhattan Project was producing the plutonium for the bomb that ended the war just months later.

Already conditioned by the federal government’s secretive posture in the war mission, the media – and communities directly – were cautioned not to discuss any of the balloon attacks in order to prevent panic and to ensure information would not fall into the hands of the Japanese.

A U.S. Navy training video during the period stated, “Any balloons approaching the United States from outside its borders can be enemy attacks against the nation. Information that the balloons have reached this country and particularly what section they have reached is information of value to the enemy. Please do not aid the enemy by publishing or broadcasting or discussing such information without appropriate authority.”

The U.S. Office of War Information shared posters with phrases like, “Free Speech Doesn’t Mean Careless Talk.”

As successful as the efforts had been in preventing the stories from reaching far and wide, it also clearly made it difficult to warn American communities in the Western U.S. of the dangers of the balloons.

After the war, many reports began to more fully depict the numbers of devices spotted and encountered across the Western United States. As recently as 2014, another bomb was found – this time in Lumby, British Columbia. Two forestry workers came across the device which had been half-buried for 70 years. A naval bomb disposal team was called in and destroyed the device with C-4 explosives.

As remedial a means of destruction or nefarious intent may be, the memory of the seven souls lost that afternoon in Oregon should be a sober reminder for us all – particularly now.

Sean V. O’Brien is Eastern Washington director for Washington Policy Center. He is the former executive director of the Congressional Western Caucus and is based in the Tri-Cities.

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