Story last updated at 5/15/2013 - 1:28 pm
Japanese bombs fell on the Aleutian Islands during World War II, a historical fact most people know. One of the little known events was the balloon bomb attacks on other parts of Alaska and the Pacific Coast.
I had never heard of these attacks before when I was reading the Petersburg newspapers of yore about a mysterious balloon in the forest. I added the information to my files as an "oddity." It wasn't until Ross Coen, a Fairbanks historian of Alaska, came to Wrangell to speak about the Japanese fire balloons or balloon bombs that I said "Ah ha!" Apparently one had ridden the wind currents to Southeast!
The first of the Alaskan balloons was found in the Interior near Marshall in 1944. The Alaska Territorial Guard was notified and didn't know what to make of it. The Alaska division of the Army and the FBI did not know that a number of these mysterious balloons had turned up in the western states.
Ross told Wrangellites that the balloons were Japanese offensive weapons. They measured over 30 feet in diameter; the balloons were filled with hydrogen, launched in Japan and carried to North America by the strong westerly winds, now known as the "jet stream." Each fabric balloon carried four incendiary bombs and one 30-pound high-explosive bomb, all designed to drop in a timed sequence once the device crossed the ocean and descended. Sandbags, for ballast, were attached and in complicated technology, pre-computer age, were dropped to keep the balloon in the jet stream and then to allow it to float down to the ground.
During the war, almost 300 of these balloons were observed and/or discovered in the U.S. Around 48 are attributed to Alaska.
Why did no one but the military and Territorial Guard know about what apparently could be a destructive device? An information blackout and press censorship policy kept civilians from knowing the danger posed by the incendiary devices. The blackout, according to Ross, kept the Japanese head of the balloon program completely in the dark. The Japanese had no idea if any of the balloons had made the transatlantic journey.
In Alaska the military and the Territorial Guard tracked balloons by foot, by snowshoes, by skis, and by boat. A few were shot down by the 11th Air Force. Reports on each recovered balloon were made. Ross examined these reports, and none were shot down by the Territorial Guard, a myth started by Guardsman Muktuk Marston, and this was often repeated.
With today's news that Syria may have conducted chemical warfare, it is pertinent to note there was concern the balloons were for biological warfare. The health officials with Army Intelligence believed any bacteriological agents would have been in the sand bags or in a plastic box on top of the carriage. The list of possible agents, both animal and human, is scary. Anything that looked suspicious was sent to Washington to be analyzed. All were negative.
Apparently many of the bombs came down in the snow, in the ocean, in the muskeg, in trees, and on the tundra where the impact could not have been great enough to explode. In Alaska no one was killed, and no property damaged. The only people killed by the balloon bombs were six Oregonians: five children and their chaperone. They were on a Sunday School class picnic in the woods and discovered the bomb.
Now to Southeast Alaska. It wasn't until after the war that Andrew Hanson in late 1947 discovered "an unidentified aerial bomb" in Ideal Cove on the east side of Mitkof Island. He first noticed the parachute's white fabric entangled in tree branches about five feet above the ground. A metal device, what Ross calls the gondola, dangled from the manila ropes. We don't know if Hanson had heard about the balloon bombs. No matter, Hanson decided it was a bomb. Hanson returned to Petersburg and reported the strange find to the U.S. Coast Guard. It sent men who landed on the shores of Ideal Cove and trudged through the forest for about 25 minutes. The Coast Guard men took photographs, but there was never a report released to the Petersburg Press. Later there was a notice that a "Japanese barrage balloon" was disposed of near Petersburg.
Are there other unfound bombs in the vast wilderness of Alaska? Let's hope if someone finds one, they know what it is.
The Alaska History Magazine of the Alaska Historical Society, Vol. 25, No.2, Fall 1910 has a detailed article about Alaska's "bombing." Ross Coen's manuscript about the Japanese balloon bombs that came to the United States during the war has been accepted by the University of Nebraska Press. He hopes it will be out for distribution this fall.
Pat Roppel is the author of numerous books about mining, fishing, and man's use of the land. She lives in Wrangell. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.