Known as Fu-Gos, the United States was the intended target of 9,300 of these incendiary devices.
"How come we're not aware of this?!" you cry.
First off, the U.S. media did a fine job keeping these weapons of war under wraps. Secondly, nowhere near all 9,300 Fu-Gos reached their intended destination.
It was the late stages of World War II, and the Allied Forces had victory in sight. The Pacific Axis Powers were searching for anything with which to turn the tide. Enter the Fu-Go; a.k.a. fire balloon.
Since technology enabling an overseas adversary to bomb the Continental U.S. had yet to be developed, Japanese Forces concocted an alternate plan. Fu-Gos, 33-foot diameter inflatable balloons, carrying somewhere between 26 and 33 pounds of explosives, were launched into the winds of the Jet Stream, and directed toward the United States. Calculated to detonate after crossing the Pacific, these weapons of war were intended to ignite a string of forest fires, thereby causing widespread damage, and mass hysteria.
Although this scheme sounds like a last-ditch effort, the Japanese had actually been developing this offensive since 1933. During the two years prior to the Fu-Go launchings, Asian Axis Powers were studying the Jet Stream between Japan and the United States, in efforts to make their silent, floating attack possible. Believe it or not, these ingenious flying bombs were the precursor to the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile.
Initially, Japanese forces planned on launching their deadly balloons from submarines, located some 600 miles from the U.S. West Coast. This plan may have proven successful, had the submersibles in question not been called away at the last second to aid troops fighting in Guadalcanal. As such, Japan was forced to redesign their balloon bombs, in order to traverse the 60-plus hour, 6,200 mile trek across the Pacific.
Upwards of 1,000 Fu-Gos completed the oceanic journey, and six Americans were killed as a result. This devastation wasn't nearly what the Japanese had in mind. Because these buoyant weapons were launched during the fall and winter months in North America, heavier precipitation kept forest fires from becoming a hazard. In addition, a number of these bombs ditched in the Pacific, due to mechanical failure.
It's been theorized that should the Japanese have outfitted the Fu-Gos to disperse biological agents, their efforts would have been far more devastating. As it was, only the censorship of the United States media kept these deadly devices from causing mass hysteria. Silent killers floating with impunity into one's yard, day or night, might have been enough to panic a nation.
In fact, the U.S. military compiled numerous accounts, like the one below, conspicuously illustrating that, should the U.S. public have been informed of Fu-Gos, there was potential for widespread frenzy:
"A father and son on an early morning fishing trip were just settling down when they observed a parachute or balloon-like object drift silently by and over a nearby hill. Moments later an explosion echoed through the valley leaving only a small trace of smoke coming from the direction in which the object had disappeared. By the time the two reached the area of the incident, fragments of paper were the only thing unusual in the silence of the north woods."
Had reports similar to the following been made public, it becomes understandable how a United States populace could find itself in a heightened state of alert:
"A mother tucking her sleeping child in for the night was shocked by a sudden flash of light through the window followed instantly by the sharp crack of an explosion in the silent darkness."
Fire balloons have been uncovered in 19 total states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wyoming, as well as the countries of Canada and Mexico.
Of the 1,000 Fu-Gos speculated to have reached North America, roughly 300 have been recovered. That leaves 700, considered live and unaccounted for, in the remote regions of Canada, Mexico and the U.S.
Following the Fu-Go attacks, Japanese propaganda implied the balloons were a "prelude to something big." Many historians believe this pending offensive was comprised of massive planes filled with explosives, and only enough fuel for a one way, kamikaze trip to the U.S.
It was also alluded to that should the Fu-Go barrage have proven successful, 62-foot diameter balloons, each carrying a single Japanese soldier prepared to wreak havoc on U.S. soil, were being considered.
One fire balloon actually did have a significant affect on the war. This particular Fu-Go exploded within Washington state, subsequently shutting down the Hanford Nuclear Power Plant, where components for the Fat Man and Little Boy atomic devices were being constructed. An automatic safety procedure kicked in, and production of radioactive material came to a halt for three days, thus delaying the eventual nuclear onslaught on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
It should be noted the Japanese did attack the U.S. mainland with an aerial vehicle other than balloons. Known as the Lookout Air Raid, this incident occurred on the evening of September 9, 1942.
Japanese pilot Nobuo Fujita had taken off in a Yokosuka E14Y sea plane, launched from a submarine aircraft carrier in the Pacific. The Yokosuka came complete with folded wings, allowing it to be stored inside the submersible, prior to departure. Once the submarine had reached its intended coordinates, it sounded, and the aircraft was rolled onto the deck. From there, the plane was launched, and flown to its destination.
In the case of the Lookout Air Raid, this particular target was Mount Emily, near Brookings, Oregon. It was here that Nobuo dropped a pair of 170-pound incendiary devices, in attempts to ignite a forest fire.
The Lookout Air Raid failed, when no serious damage was inflicted. That didn't stop the Japanese from a second attempt, however, which yielded similar results, on September 29 of the same year.
© 2010. Hugh Mungus
Jessen, Kenneth. (2005). Colorado's Strangest: A Legacy of Bizarre Events and Eccentric People. pp. 202-206. J.V. Publications. ISBN 1-928656-04-8
Mikesh, Robert C. (1973). Japan's World War II Balloon Bomb Attacks on North America. Smithsonian Institution Press. ISBN 0-87474-911-5
On a Wind and a Prayer. Dir. Michael White. Perfs. Dilly Barlow. Prod. Michael White, Sonja Engelhorn. DVD, 2008. ISBN: 0-7936-9479-5