FLASH -- Kansas Bombed During WW II

 

     I'm not kidding!  Nope -- I don't mean a bomb from a Smoky Hill airplane accidently fell out -- the bombing was intentional.  Kansas was attacked in WWII by Japanese bombs.  This old story was news to me just a while back and I thought I'd better spread the word.  Don't be alarmed -- it was over long ago and things are fine now.

 

     Here's the location under attack as somewhat vaguely reported these days:  A farm owned or worked by Roland North five miles south of the town of Bigelow (pop. 200 in 1910) in Bigelow Township of Marshall County, 30 miles due north of Manhattan, KS.  The latitude and longitude are approx. 39 34 N, 96 30 W.

     Throughout WWII the Japanese knew it was important to strike the US mainland for help their morale and hurt ours.  A couple of small submarine attacks on the west coast were like pinpricks and as the war kept going against Japan all the submarines were needed to defend their holdings in the Pacific and then the mainland.  Sending planes on one-way suicide missions to the US was ruled out as impractical.  An idea not quite as far-fetched was to bombard the US with balloons carrying bombs.  (That's one of them in the photo on the left.)  The spherical balloons were 33 ft. in diameter.

     Work was begun on a practical device in mid-1942 after the Doolittle raid on Japan made them want to retaliate with raids on the US (ignoring the raid on Pearl Harbor that started it all).  In those days the jet stream was better understood by the Japanese than anyone so they knew that getting balloons 30,000 in the air meant they could be propelled the 5,000 miles to the US in 2 to 7 days.  A low-tech but clever mechanism was devised to regulate a balloon's altitude by dropping small sand bags or releasing some of the hydrogen gas, as needed.

     The photo on the right shows an actual payload from a war-time photo.  A dark high-explosive bomb is seen at an angle, amid small bags of sand, with the control and timing mechanism in the ring above the bomb.

     Another view of a payload is on the left.  Six 26-lb incendiary bombs jut out, ready to be released.  Apparently the missing weight of the iron bomb allowed for 6 incendiaries instead of the usual 4.

     When the balloon could no longer be kept at high altitude, it would begin releasing its bombs.  If the sand and gas supplies had begun in just the right amounts. this would be over the USA.

 

     The army's balloons were made of layers of special paper and glue totaling 150 lbs., prepared by teenage girls under grueling conditions.  (How do you make a spherical balloon out of paper?  It's tricky.)  The navy tried using silk balloons but they were heavier and had a smaller payload; this approach was abandoned after only a few were made.  The typical payload was one iron bomb with 35 lbs of high explosive and four incendiary bombs. 

 

     By comparison, a typical single bomb dropped by B-29s had 500 lbs of high explosive (and it could carry 32 of them -- that's 16,000 lbs!) and thousands of incendiary bombs were dropped on Japanese cities.  So how could these few balloons' bombs have any meaningful effect?  The hope was to have tens of thousands of balloons raining on the US, starting massive forest fires in the Northwest that would detract from the workforce needed for the shooting war.  The high explosive bombs would demoralize the US citizens to the point that they wouldn't want to continue the war.  The war would end without a winner but at least Japan wouldn't lose.  (That scenario had to wait a few years for the Korean War.)

     A similar desperate strategy was taken by the Germans with their very high-tech V-1 and V-2 weapons aimed at London to demoralize the English.  These wouldn't win the war, but they might keep Germany from losing it.  The rockets had to go only 100 to 200 miles and had gyroscopic guidance.  A payload was 2000 lbs of high explosive.  But even the 3,000 V-2 rockets readied by slave labor (about 8 a day) couldn't give the English pause and the advancing allied armies eventually overran the underground factory and firing sites in Northern France and Germany. 

     Meanwhile, the US's super-high-tech weapon was nearing completion:  the A-Bomb.  Our strategy was simple:  end the war by winning it.

 

     The Japanese had tested their balloon concept enough by Nov. 1944 to starting sending bombs toward the US.  During this same month, the first B-29 raids on Tokyo from Tinian took place and eastern France was liberated.

     About 300 balloons made it to the US over the next 7 months until the war ended.  Americans began to find bits and pieces of balloons in out-of-the-way places and soon a picture developed of what was happening.  Complete balloons were sometimes found that had landed intact without destroying themselves as planned.  This map shows where balloons or their parts were found, numbered in chronological order.  The Bigelow balloon location, number 70, is circled in red.  (Not shown is a landing near Detroit.)  Some balloons were found in the Pacific ocean before sinking; many more must have gone under the waters unnoticed.  Remember:  the aiming point was the heavily forest northwest! 

 

 

     The bombs were released when a balloon began a final descent as it ran out of hydrogen and had dropped all its small bags of sand.  The initial amounts of gas and sand were chosen to run out over the Northwest but, of course, winds are fickle so it's remarkable that as many bombs fell over the target region as did.  The prevailing winds are most favorable for this type of weapon during the winter months, hence the November 1944 start of the campaign.

 

     Despite attempts at censorship, leaks and rumors about balloon landings were published in small American newspapers and even Time and Newsweek magazines.  The news spread into other countries and quickly got back to Japan to confirm for them that their balloons were indeed working.  The officials in charge of the program celebrated this success as revenge for all the Japanese soldiers killed (again ignoring just who started this war).

     Some of the balloons did indeed start small fires in the Northwest but were easily put out by small crews in the damp forests.  The balloons simply had no military significance.  Many balloons strayed far afield to the east and even into Canada and Mexico.

     It was Feb. 23, 1945 when the Roland E. North farm south of Bigelow was attacked by a balloon.  Elsewhere, the battle of Manila had just begun; there was heavy bombing of Berlin; the Yalta Conference took place; Belgium was liberated; Dresden was fire bombed; Iwo Jima was invaded and taken; massive incendiary raids on Japanese cities continued.

     In nearby Manhattan, the temperature that day ranged from 23 F to 48 F with a humidity close to 50%.  A tiny amount of snow fell (0.04 in.) and the maximum wind speed was a mere 3 mph with no gusts recorded.

     I don't know of any record of Mr. North's thoughts when we found this huge balloon still afloat but dangling from his tree, aside from thinking it must be a US weather balloon.  At least he took some great photos of this bizarre event.  I presume the Army confiscated the film for wartime secrecy. 

     By the middle of August Japan had given up, the huge secret of the atomic bomb was released to public, and North's photos of the balloon bomber were made available to journalists by the Army.  (I haven't run across such photos of any other balloon landing, so North's collection of photos is quite a valuable record.)  Newspapers on or about August 18 showed some photos and told the tale.  Here are the photos I could find with the web, a book, and newspaper archives.

 

 

This well composed photo was published in the Council Bluffs, IA Nonpareil ("Unrivaled") newspaper on Aug. 19, 1945.

The caption says that North took the photo "with a kodak" before the balloon was deflated by civilian and army authorities.

The dimple in the balloon shows that it had lost a lot of hydrogen and even without any remaining sandbags for ballast it could not stay afloat.

The photo on the left is from a book rather than a newspaper, so it more clear.  The balloon was detached from the tree and tied to a fence post.  The scene has attracted a small group of interested people to perk up an otherwise dreary winter day.  I think the payload ring is still attached to the balloon and is in the hands of someone.  No bomb is apparent, but there still could have been an explosive inside (see below).

Below, left, a poor reproduction of a photo, published in the Emporia Gazette, shows the balloon partially deflated.  It is mostly deflated in the photo on the lower-right, available on the web through the Ft. Collins Museum of Discovery and the Poudre River Public Library District.

 

     I'll quote a couple of sources on the Bigelow balloon story:

 

     A farmer discovered a balloon snagged in a tree. He hitched a team of horses to it and hauled it to town, where "the thing," including its live explosive devices, was stored for several days in the Bigelow Post Office until the county sheriff arrived and took it away. "I was lucky I didn't get blown up." the farmer recalled, "because when I found the thing, I jerked the bucket out of the tree and it landed right beside me. I supposed it was some sort of weather balloon."

     "War Balloons over the Prairie:  The Japanese Invasion of South Dakota," Lawrence H. Lahsen

 

     I underlined the part about explosives because most reports say the bombs were missing.

 

REVEAL JAP BALLOON LANDED IN KANSAS

Joplin Globe, Joplin, Missouri, Aug. 16, 1945, p. 6.

 

Inflated Bag Pound in Tree Near Bigelow --No Truce of Bombs. Topeka, Aug. 15.--(AP)

     One of Japan's bomb-carrying balloons fell in Kansas February 23, five miles south of Bigelow on the farm of Roland E. North, army authorities revealed here today. It was the only Japanese balloon reported to have fallen in Kansas during the war. Lieutenant Colonel C. J. Frankforter, district commander of the Kansas area, said.' The information was released following a nation-wide relaxation of censorship and with the approval of Lieutenant Colonel R. W. Reed, public relations officer of the Seventh service command, Omaha.

     Frankforter said the balloon and its mechanism were the only portions found. The bombs are still missing, despite a long and thorough search by army and civilian authorities. Sent to Anacostia [naval site], the balloon, 35 feet in diameter, and still partially inflated by hydrogen, was found by North early in the morning with the lower mechanism caught in a tree and the bag floating in the air. North took a picture of the apparatus, while it was still airborne, but believed the balloon had floated in during the night.

     North notified Charles Anderson, sheriff of Marshall county at Marysville, and the two of them removed the mechanism, Frankforter said. Anderson called the federal bureau of investigation and army officers from Frankforter's office in Topeka were dispatched to investigate. Frankforter said he believed the balloon left Japan with 72 small sand-bags attached. It was probably carrying a high explosive bomb measuring eight inches in diameter and two to three feet long. He said there was no way of estimating how many bombs were carried, or where they were released. The bombs would have exploded on contact.

     "The bag itself was made out of waterproof and rip-proof paper, "Frankforter said. "It took four men to bring it down out of the air and roll it up for mailing to the Anacostia naval air station outside Washington, D. C. The mechanism of fuses, wiring, air pressure gauges, and other barometric devices measured about three feet square and could be carried by one man."

100 Balloons Reach U.S.

     Frankforter said there was one number found on the apparatus, in English numerals--3377. No Japanese writing was discovered. The mechanism and bombs had been suspended by ropes approximately six feet below the balloon. "The workmanship throughout was good, but not as skilled as American work," Frankforter said. "I believe it had been produced on a mass production basis."

     Frankforter reported he had been informed of approximately 100 Japanese balloons falling in the United States, and knew of four personally. He told of two in northwest Nebraska--one at Chadron and the other at Crawford. The other one, in addition to the Kansas balloon, was reported at Laurens, Ia., 90 miles northeast of Sioux City.

 

     All the newspaper reports at the time (probably parroting the information from the Army) said that there were no bombs on board when the balloon was found.  Yet Mr. North speaks of it having "live explosive devices," plural.  And the Smithsonian chronological list of balloons says the device was recovered "intact."  The fence post photo just might show the payload ring without any sandbags or bombs.  The Army, through Frankforter, said no bombs were found; with the war over, why would the Army downplay the existence of any bombs if in fact some were found attached?

     I choose to believe that no bombs were still attached when the balloon landed on the North farm.  Despite a lot of searching, none were reportedly found anywhere else in the area.  But in addition to the "big" bomb and incendiary devices, each balloon carried an explosive charge intended to destroy the balloon's mechanism after the bombs were dropped; it obviously failed to explode in this case.  Mr. North could have been referring to this charge when he spoke about the balloon's danger unknown to him at first. 

     Six civilians were killed by one balloon that they found intact on the ground in Oregon during a May 5, 1945 picnic in a forest.  Wartime secrecy meant they hadn't heard about dangerous Japanese balloons and approached it out of curiosity.  These were the only casualties from the 300 balloons.  No forest fires of any consequence were started.  This memorial (left) remembers the victims at the spot where they were killed.

     However, a descending balloon interrupted the electricity supply to a reactor in Hanford, WA where plutonium for A-bombs was being created; backup generators quickly kept the reactor operating normally and the reactor's product eventually destroyed Nagasaki in August.  Another balloon bomb came down close to an American Japanese relocation camp near Powell, WY (probably #64 on the map).

    

     The greatest fear seems to have been that payloads would carry bacteria to spread diseases in the US.  The Japanese had a very active (and vicious) bacterial warfare development site in northern Korea.  The items in recovered payloads were tested for bacterial agents and ill effects on mice.  None was ever found.

     One balloon reached a few miles from Detroit, MI, the furthest to the east of any balloon.  Three balloons were found in Iowa.  The Bigelow balloon is the next one farthest to the east.  These had to be malfunctions because the main goal was to divert military troops into fighting forest fires in the northwest.

     The manufacture of balloons ceased in Feb., 1945 when the fabrication of the special paper and hydrogen gas became impossible because of the lack of raw materials in an economy stretched thin by a looming invasion.  Official records on the balloons were deliberately destroyed as the war ended, but Japanese interviewed said about 9,000 balloons had been launched toward the US.  About 300 are known to have reached us; how many others got here but were never detected?  Years after the war ended, downed balloons were still being found in remote areas.  The 300 gives a "hit the USA" success rate of only 3%.

 

     Whereas the Japanese failed to damage Bigelow, KS, the US Army Corp of Engineers finished the town off a little later.  All the town's structures (left is a street map from its hay-day of 1904) were completely demolished in 1960 just before water began filling the new Tuttle Creek Reservoir.  I can't find a figure for its population in 1960, but it probably was far below the last census figure of 200.  A restrained plaque on a memorial (below) stands on dry ground near the old town.  Its old Antioch cemetery a mile to the west is high enough to have been left alone by both armies. 

     From maps it looks to me that the Bigelow town site at 1175 ft. is 100 ft. above the normal lake level and may have even been 30 ft. above the highest water in 1993 when the spillways were opened for the only time in the dam's history.  Did Bigelow really have to be demolished?  I'm sure the issue was hotly discussed.  (I recall seeing a billboard decrying "Big Dam Foolishness!")  The town may have died naturally on its own soon anyway, but who knows?

     The Roland North farm south of Bigelow must still exist, although I don't know it's exact location.  Its likely elevation of around 1350' puts it well above waters of Tuttle Creek Lake.  (On the web I found a 1922 plat map of the county but no land was assigned to a "North."  A check of 1940 census records found no Roland North at that time.)

 

     A nice war-time 5-min video of the balloon is on this web site (click on the lower-right corner of the video's screen to get a larger image):

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/05/130527-map-video-balloon-bomb-wwii-japanese-air-current-jet-stream/ .  (Ignore the "Restricted" label on the introduction; the secret's been out for some time now.)  It shows some details of the payload that I never understood from any written account.

 

  

    You can see actual Japanese balloon payloads at various museums.  The display on the left is at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center (near Dulles airport, Washington, D.C.).  (I see a conventional bomb but no incendiaries.)  You have to find the right alcove off the main display floor.  The Enola Gay B-29 that dropped the A-bomb on Hiroshima is nearby on the main floor.  Such related yet very different bomb delivery devices in such close proximity make you stop and think, should you be so inclined.

     To wrap up these desperation weaponry, see a real German V-2 at the White Sands Missile Range Museum off US Highway 70 between Las Cruces and Alamogordo http://www.wsmr-history.org/v-2display1.htm .  It was restored at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson!

 

     There is a lot of information about this balloon topic on web sites.  A book that conveniently and thoroughly tells the tale (and triggered my interest) is "FU-GO, The Curious History of Japan's Balloon Bomb Attack on America," by Ross Coen (2014).

 

 

 

 

          CLASS NOTES

 

     The New Yorker weekly magazine has humorous writings as well as cartoons.  I ran across a 2003 article by Ian Frazier that simulated "news" on the activities of members of some class, as if it's a newsletter sent out to try and keep everyone up to date.  Sort of a web site without the web or a site.

     Below are some of the items the editor dutifully reported.  I feel a lot of empathy for this editor for some reason. 

     Any resemblance to persons living or dead would not be impossible.  In fact, I spotted a couple without even trying very hard.

 

     Jack "Spicer" Conant tells us that when he was in Houston recently on a business trip he put in a call to Houstonite and classmate Chuck Gales, but Chuck didn't call back.

 

     Anne (Patterson) Simms asks, "What was I thinking of, going out with Mike Stack?"  Don't know, Annie -- but are you sure his name wasn't Russ?

 

     Arthur Stancik never liked Jim McMickens, and hasn't seen him in years.

 

     A luncheon buffet and cash bar at the Westin Hotel gave class members in the San Francisco area a chance for catching up and reminiscing last month.  Spencer Beale, who attended, reports that nobody there looked at all familiar, and he thinks he might have been in the wrong room.

 

     The secretary of Fisk Pettibone passes along the welcome news that "of course he remembers [us]" and will drop us a note when he has time.

 

     McMurdo Station, a lonely research outpost in Antarctica near the South Pole, has to be the last place on earth where you'd expect to run into your roommate from sophomore year.  If anyone ever does, please write or call with details.

 

There was much more in the original, but this is enough.  My empathy is being eroded by a growing headache, so I had better stop.

 

 

 

 

        Just for Fun

 

     I like to keep up with current events but here's one from when we were only about 6 years old.  I think we can be excused for not remembering much about this topic at the time, especially when it was a big secret (although poorly kept).

     We might have been enjoying balloons back then and wondering where they suddenly went with a "pop."  It was well beyond our (and most others') imagination to dream about the balloons described below that were designed to "go" with a much bigger pop.

 

     And then there's how a class newsletter might be filled by a editor desperate for news to report, a tale told by someone with tongue-in-cheek.  Any resemblance to someone living or dead should be sent in for publication.