It was November in 1944, less than a year before The War snapped to an abrupt end in the Pacific, and the Japanese came up with an incandescent scheme to burn down America.
The diabolical plan was cunning—on a grand scale—and it was a complete failure. The idea was to build hydrogen-filled paper balloons with ingenious instrumentation, allowing them to drift at 30,000 feet in the Jetstream at about 60 miles an hour and then drop incendiary bombs into the forests of the West Coast of the USA, setting them alight with the effect of fulminating panic—as had ensued as a result of the Japanese air raid bombings in the Battle of Los Angeles. Too bad they couldn’t have waited to light the forests up until 2020 when this might well have worked.
The balloons were 33 feet in diameter and made of five layers of mulberry leaf paper glued with paste. They were assembled by women and children in large rooms such as gyms and sumo arenas. There was a perpetual problem on the manufacturing floor because the starving people kept eating the vegetable-based paste. Kids in America licked ‘library paste’ back then too because it tasted pretty good, but in Japan it was no joke.
At first the US military thought the balloons must have been sent aloft from submarines off the coast, or even at secret locations in America. But an analysis of the sand in the bags revealed it to be of Japanese origin.
The balloons were equipped with valves to vent the hydrogen if they flew too high and they could drop sandbags if they drifted too low. They were also equipped with sophisticated speed and time controls which, when over the great forests of America, would release the bombs. There is no record of how many dropped their bombs, but about 300 are known to have crash landed from Alaska to Mexico and as far east as the Great Lakes. So, maybe not so sophisticated, though, to their credit, many did land in the forests. In Japanese Fu Go means ‘fire balloon’ but no fires resulted.
Also there was no panic because once the press started writing about the balloons Roosevelt asked nicely that the press stop reporting on them in support of the national defense. There were no penalties for not complying but the press cooperated and panic was averted.
Panic is a real thing in wartime, especially when you can’t accurately assess risk. Pearl Harbor had been a big surprise and that put the West Coast on high alert. We had known that war with Japan was coming and we were gunned up in major coastal cities. The military also installed powerful searchlights which crisscrossed the skies at night scanning for a possible invasion.
Japanese submarines had prowled the coast in December of 1941 and several ships were shot at and two were sunk-ish. I say -ish because one, which was off Los Angeles, was loaded with lumber and though it hit below the waterline the lumber kept it afloat. Also an oil tanker was torpedoed off the Oregon coast. The crew abandoned ship and came ashore in lifeboats only to be humiliated the following day when the ship drifted into the harbor at Coos Bay in pretty good shape.
With all this commotion it’s no wonder that panic set off The Battle of Los Angeles when a squadron of Japanese bombers flew over Los Angeles, setting off a barrage of gunfire where 1,200 explosive shells were blasted into the clouds. One bomber was hit and crashed at 154th St. and Vermont Blvd. Buildings were set alight and four people were killed.
In the cold light of day, the sneak attack turned out to be imaginary when it was determined that converging searchlights ‘looked’ like bombers. The deaths and fires were from friendly fire; also there is no 154th St. in Los Angeles. The clouds took quite a beating, however.
But the balloons were real, enough even if woefully ineffective. That is until May of 1945 when a family was having a picnic in the woods in Oregon. The father went to park the car as a woman and five kids approached a strange object. When they touched it the bombs detonated and they were all killed. These were the only people killed in enemy action in America from WWII.