On May 5, 1945, a pregnant Sunday school teacher and her five students were killed by a Japanese fire balloon in rural eastern Oregon. The six victims are the only known fatalities caused by balloon bombs and the sole deaths caused by the enemy in the continental United States during World War II.
Reverend Archie Mitchell and his wife Elsie had driven up to Gearhart Mountain with five of their Sunday school pupils (aged 11–14) to enjoy a picnic lunch. They encountered a road closing due to construction in Bly, Oregon. Elsie and the kids got out of the vehicle to find a suitable place to set up their meal while Archie parked the car and chatted with several members of the work crew.
While scouting out the perfect picnic spot Elsie and children, who had wandered about 100 yards away, happened upon a strange-looking balloon on the ground. As Mrs. Mitchell was calling to her husband, the object exploded.
Richard Barnhouse, one of the road crew workers present at the scene, remembered,
“There was a terrible explosion. Twigs flew through the air, pine needles began to fall, dead branches and dust, and dead logs went up.”
Archie and the others present immediately ran to the aid of Elsie and the children. Reverend Mitchell frantically tried to extinguish the flames engulfing the clothing of his wife and their young charges, but it was too late. All six had been killed instantly.
This incident was part of a campaign in which 9,000 fire balloons were launched from Japan against the United States during the Second World War. These 33-ft bombs of paper or rubberized silk carrying 35 lbs. of explosives would hook up with the jet stream, and arrive at America’s west coast in about three days. An altimeter would trigger the bombs to drop, causing forest fires, panic, and psychological damage to the American populace.
In theory anyway.
Counting on the weather is always a bad idea. The Japanese chose the right time of year to count on the jet stream, but they also picked the Northwest’s rainy season — not a good time to set a forest fire. Only about 900 of these “fu-gos” actually reached the United States. A few caused minor damage, and one temporarily blacked out a nuke plant in Washington State when it hit a power line.
The media was aware of the sporadic balloon bomb attacks by early 1945. They agreed to sit on the story when the Office of Censorship requested they do so to avoid giving the Japanese the idea that the fire balloons were in any way effective. With no evidence to support continuing it, the Japanese aborted the operation in April 1945.
Years later, it was discovered that Japanese schoolchildren manufactured the bombs. Sad to think the instrument of death for five innocent kids in the U.S. was fashioned by other kids who had no clue what they were being ordered to do.
A stone monument for all six victims, Elsie Mitchell, Dick Patzke, Jay Gifford, Edward Engen, Joan Patzke, and Sherman Shoemaker was erected at the site of the explosion in what is now the Mitchell recreation area.
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