Beginning in 1944, the United States began to see balloons flying over its air space. These were no ordinary balloons as the flying objects were carrying explosives that could cause havoc and devastation wherever they landed and exploded.

After World War II, even when the US was unscathed by the war, the people were trying to pick up where they left off when these mysterious balloons suddenly started to appear. Multiple theories about these balloons’ origin were given until one of the balloons’ components gave away where it came from.

Flying Chaos

Unknown to the Americans at that time yet, these balloons were made and launched in Japan, traveled across the Pacific Ocean, and brought chaos and terror to the people of the US. These balloons used a jet stream to carry the ordnance. However, the thing about these balloons was that they were wholly unguided and reliant on the guidance of the kamikaze wind to reach their targets. The Japanese balloon bombs were the first intercontinental weapons before the B-36 Peacemaker bomber arrived in the late 1940s. They also held the record for the most prolonged ranged attacks in the history of warfare before Operation Black Buck missions on the Falklands Islands that happened in 1982.

The concept of the balloons started after the Japanese discovered the existence of the jet stream at around 30,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean. Despite the seemingly simplistic nature, the flying bombs had some complex engineering applied to make them work. So the balloons were filled with hydrogen, making them rise high when warmed by the sun during the day. At night, when the temperature cooled down, they would fall. The Japanese engineers also had to create a mechanized system that would release the sandbag weights below a specific altitude so that its flying height could be maintained and vent out hydrogen above certain heights so that the balloons would not ascend too high above.

Japanese fire balloons were shot down near Attu in the Aleutians and were shown on gun cameras. P-38 in the lower right frame. (11th Air Force Fighter, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Once the balloons were over the US, as they hoped, they would release a 4540-kilogram payload with an explosive charge. After that, another charge would destroy the balloons themselves to not leave evidence of their presence so they couldn’t be traced back, too. The balloons were made from silk but eventually changed to paper made from mulberry wood.

It was in November 1944 that the balloon bombs, named Fu-Go, were first discovered by a US Navy patrol aircraft near Los Angeles. Soon, more Fu-Gos arrived in other US states. The Fu-Gos caught the attention of the government and prompted them to investigate. The threat from the balloon was low, but there was still a risk of it causing forest fires. Apart from that, it also affected public morale. And so, fighter aircraft were sent to shoot them down, but it was complex due to the high altitude and speed of the balloons.

The Sand Snitched

The US was unsure where the bombs came from, and there were theories about it. One was that they were released from prisoner of war camps just in the country, while another suggested that Japanese mini-subs were releasing them near the shores of America. Others think that they came a long way from Japan.


Shot-down fire balloon reinflated by Americans in California. (US Army photo A 37180C, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Sand from the balloon was sent and studied by the Military Geology Unit of the United States Geological Survey. Through their chemical and microscopic analysis, they found out the composition and connected it to Ichinomiya. Their aerial survey found that hydrogen manufacturing facilities were bombed and destroyed by B-29 bombers in April 1945.

Over 9,000 of these Fu-Go balloons were launched in total, 300 of which reached the US.

Only Victim

One of the balloons landed near the Hanford Site, where fissile nuclear fuel or the Manhattan Project was produced. It caused the powerlines to short-circuit, and the powers were cut down. Most of the Fu-Gos dropped their payload into the Pacific Ocean due to an estimation error in the journey time to the US.

There was, however, one tragic event that happened on May 5th, 1945. Archie Mitchel, a Missionary Alliance Church pastor, was with his pregnant wife and five kids from Sunday school. They went up Gearhart Mountain for a picnic, and Archie dropped his wife Elsie and the kids off at a spot while he parked the car.

As he approached them, the group exclaimed that they had found a balloon slightly covered in snow. As he had already heard the news about the Japanese balloon bombs, he warned them to stay away from them, but he did not manage to finish what he was saying as a series of two explosions occurred. Only Archie survived the explosion. It was believed that one of the victims touched the balloon.