Balloon Bomb Attacks

A couple of weeks ago, I was reading a book about various attempts by Japan to attack the U.S. and Australia between 1942 and 1945. Among these ventures was the attack on Sydney Harbor by midget submarines, a submarine-based seaplane incendiary bombing of Mount Emily, near Brookings, Oregon, and the 1944-45 launching of 9,000 balloons that dropped explosive and incendiary bombs across the U.S. and Canada as far east as Michigan.

I don’t know about other readers of that book, but when I got to the bomb-bearing balloons, I thought, “Smithsonian Annals of Flight!” This publication series, which ran from 1964 to 1974, produced 10 booklets on various aspects of the history of aviation, all of which are worth reading. The one I remembered was Japan’s World War II Balloon Bomb Attacks on North America, an exhaustive study of the strategic concept (a Japanese desire for retaliation after the 1942 Doolittle raid on Tokyo and subsequent American bombing), the years of research and development of various prototypes, and  how the approximately 9,000 paper (!) balloons were constructed and launched.

The author makes the interesting point that the main reason these attacks failed to achieve the psychological victory anticipated by Japan was the total secrecy with which the American government and media greeted the aerial invaders. Since the Japanese military failed to learn anything about the fate of this extraordinary weapon and faced a growing shortage of resources by early 1945, it simply gave up. By then, though, the remnants of many balloons had been recovered on U.S. and Canadian soil, several had been shot down by fighter planes,  and, tragically, a woman and five children were killed when they triggered a balloon bomb they found in the Oregon woods during a church picnic.

Although the balloon bomb campaign failed, it did have the potential to cause extensive damage to the war effort by starting forest fires, as well as damaging civilian morale. Scary note: one bomb landed near the Hanford nuclear facility involved in the Manhattan Project but resulted only in an electrical outage – whew!

Japan’s World War II Balloon Bomb Attacks on North America tells a fascinating and little-known story of World War II that also describes the first intercontinental weapon of war – and unfortunately, not the last. You can read this publication here or drift over to a library to read it. It was later reprinted by Smithsonian Institution Press using a more colorful cover than the original, and either edition can be found via various used book Web sites.

 

16 Responses to Balloon Bomb Attacks

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  2. John says:

    I think I read somewhere that there was actually a single fatality from the balloon attacks, a woman in Oregon was killed when one landed near her home.

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  3. Lisa says:

    Brookings Oregon!?!? I love that place! Even so I have never heard of this balloon warfare, but it’s interesting. Does anyone have anymore links or info on this I would love to read more…

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  4. Ben. says:

    Among the wars in history, WW II fascinates me the most.thanks for this valuable info which will be saved in my war archive.

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  5. zannias vasilis says:

    ACTUALLY THE “JAPAN’S WORLD WAR II BALLON BOMB ATTACKS ON NORTH AMERICA” IS A FASCINATING AND UNKNOWN STORY OF WORLD WAR II ,FOR ME!VIA THIS STORY WE CAN SEE , THAT THE WAR HAS MANY FACES , ASPECTS AND PRACTICIES!

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  6. richard says:

    thanks for the notification. i always enjoy reading well-researched publications.

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  7. Great comments and queries, everybody.
    –It’s hard to get primary sources about the Hanford incident. The Dept. of Energy did make a massive amount of declassified material available but horribly organized. I’m glad that Wheeler mentioned it in his autobiography (which I’ve requested on inter-library loan.
    –The military intelligence files on the balloons had a great deal of information on the sand analysis, so I haven’t seen the need to go to the USGS records. They were able to identify the precise beaches that were used for launching. American research facilities had samples of sand from around the world and did comparisons. Open source information takes on a new meaning in this example.
    –Finally, in 2002 I gave a talk on the balloons to Canadian scientists attached to a defense research facility and mentioned that al-Qaida mentioned captured in Afghanistan speculated on balloon biological weaponry. The scientists said that balloons are a poor delivery vehicle for bio-weapons. Investigating such an attack would be a royal pain.

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  8. starman says:

    I wonder what the terrorist of today could do done with low-tech devices like that? Filled with what? I shudder to think of the possibilities.

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  9. Shirley Elston says:

    We knew a USGS geologist who worked with the Military Geology Branch during WW11. She told us that the sand recovered from the balloons was analyzed by her group. The beach where the sand had been obtained was identified and was subsequently bombed by the U.S. The USGS may have more information on this project.

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  10. starman says:

    in Physicist John Wheeler’s autobiography, “Geons, Black Holes and Quantum Foam,” he tells of a story of one of those balloon bombs landing at Hanford, Wahsington Atomic reactor site where Wheeler was a research scientist for the Manhattan Project. It started a fire there that shut down the power grid and took the site down for a day or so. Fascinating first hand account in the book.

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  11. jugs says:

    not a good time to bring this up with the high tourist alert and the balloon festival comming up in AZ!

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  12. This book started my interest and research on the Japanese balloon attack: http://staff.lib.msu.edu/unsworth/Vita/Research/BB.html

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