This Day in History: May 5th- A Secret Weapon

This Day In History: May 5, 1945

fire-balloonsOn May 5, 1945, Reverend Archie Mitchell and his pregnant wife Elsie had driven up to Gearhart Mountain with five of their Sunday school pupils (aged 11-14) to enjoy a picnic lunch. They encountered a road closure due to construction in Bly, Oregon. Elsie and the kids got out of the vehicle to find a suitable place to set up their meal while Archie parked the car and chatted with several members of the work crew.

While scouting out the perfect picnic spot, Elsie and the children, who had wandered about 100 yards away, happened upon a strange looking balloon on the ground. As Mrs. Mitchell was calling to her husband, according to the Oregon newspaper, The Mail Tribune, yelling, “Look what I found, dear,” the object exploded.

Richard Barnhouse, one of the road crew workers present at the scene, remembered, “There was a terrible explosion. Twigs flew through the air, pine needles began to fall, dead branches and dust, and dead logs went up.”

Archie and the others present immediately ran to the aid of Elsie and the children. Reverend Mitchell frantically tried to extinguish the flames engulfing the clothing of his pregnant wife and their young charges, but it was too late. All six (or seven, depending on how you want to count it) had been killed.

This incident was part of a campaign in which 9,000 fire balloons were launched from Japan against the United States during the Second World War. These 33-ft bombs of paper or rubberized silk carrying 35 lbs. of explosives would hook up with the jet stream, and arrive at America’s west coast in about three days. An altimeter would trigger the bombs to drop, causing forest fires, panic, and psychological damage to the American populace.

In theory anyway.

Counting on the weather is always a bad idea. The Japanese chose the right time of year to count on the jet stream, but they also picked the Northwest’s rainy season – not a good time to set a forest fire. Only about 900 of these “fu-gos” actually reached the United States. A few caused minor damage, and one temporarily blacked out a nuclear plant in Washington State when it hit a power line, shorting out power temporarily, but backup generators kicked on making sure the nuclear reactor cooling pumps continued to get power and avoiding any potential nuclear meltdown issues.

The media was aware of the sporadic balloon bomb attacks by early 1945. However, they agreed to sit on the story when the Office of Censorship (yes, that was a thing in the U.S. for a few years) requested they not mention it to the public to avoid giving the Japanese the idea that the fire balloons were in any way effective, as well as to avoid any panic. With no evidence to support continuing it, the Japanese aborted the operation in April of 1945.

Given the fact that the damage done by these bombs was virtually nonexistent, it is likely the program would have been deemed ineffective and canceled even if the media had reported on them. Further, had the media reported on the balloons hitting the west coast and made sure the public knew to stay away from them, this particular tragedy could have been avoided.  These facts were not lost on the Office of Censorship who promptly rescinded their request for the media not to mention the balloons to the public. They now wanted the public to know all about them and to stay away from any such balloons found.

A stone monument was erected at the site of the explosion in what is now the Mitchell recreation area. The victims (minus Elsie’s unborn child): Elsie Mitchell, Dick Patzke, Jay Gifford, Edward Engen, Joan Patzke and Sherman Shoemaker are memorialized on the Mitchell monument.

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Bonus Facts:


  • There may have been a few more deaths thanks to these balloons had it not been for some park rangers.  In Hayfork, California one of the balloons landed in a tree and a crowd gathered under it initially, but were then kept back by the rangers.  The balloon eventually exploded, but no one was hurt.  The explosion, however, had just been the hydrogen.  The mechanism for deploying the bombs, and the bombs themselves, were still intact allowing military officials to study how the clever system worked.
  • Much less cleverly designed balloons, though with similar purpose, were used by the British to attack the Germans during WWII.


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  • Nuclear reactor in 1945? I don’t think so.

  • This article made me sad in several ways. The least important one was the typical anti-government attitude of the author (criticizing the Office of Censorship, etc.), even though the White House was run by liberal Democrats. Now is REALLY hard-core, radicalism.

    Most depressing, however, was the anti-life mentality exposed by the author and the people who set up the monument at the Mitchell recreation area. The latter failed to name the unborn baby who was killed. The former wrote these words: “Reverend Mitchell frantically tried to extinguish the flames engulfing the clothing of his pregnant wife and their young charges, but it was too late. All six (or seven, depending on how you want to count it) had been killed.” WHAT?! Depending on how you want to count “IT.” A beloved, murdered baby is an “it?” There is unsureness about how to count the people? They were OBVIOUSLY seven, author, not six!

    Good Lord, when will the stupidity end?

    • I apologize for using the word, “stupidity,” in a moment of anger at the unfairness I witnessed.
      We all make mistakes, but that does not make us “stupid.”

      • Daven Hiskey

        @J.F. Gecik: Thanks for that. That “stupidity” comment skirted the line on our comment policy (no personal insults) and I debated deleting that one, but given you normally don’t do that and your comments are typically well thought out and polite even when (occasionally) giving pretty scathing criticism, I decided not to. 😉