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.