On March 13, 1945, World War II came to the U.S. mainland when a Japanese bomb fell on Everett, Washington.
But no airplane dropped it: A hydrogen balloon launched from a beach on Japan’s Honshu island had carried the incendiary device thousands of miles in just three or four days. Once the 30-foot diameter balloon reached 30,000-35,000 feet, strong westerly winds of the upper atmosphere – the jet stream – carried it toward North America.
Of the approximately 9,000 balloon bombs that Japan launched, only about 300 were confirmed to have landed in North America. Most dropped into the ocean, but others were found as far north as Alaska, as far south as Mexico and as far east as Michigan, just outside of Detroit.
Ross Coen, a historian at the University of Washington and the author of “Fu-go: The Curious History of Japan’s Balloon Bomb Attack on America,” attributes an unexpected motive to this form of warfare.
“The idea from the Japanese perspective is that these incendiary devices would ignite wildfires in the western states that the Americans would have to fight by diverting resources that would otherwise be used in the Pacific theater,” Coen said, speaking to Marcie Sillman on KUOW’s The Record.
In reality, Coen said, the balloon attacks caused very little damage, although six people were killed when they found a balloon on May 5, 1945, in a forest near Bly, Oregon.
It turns out that Northwest weather foiled many of the attacks.
“The unfortunate meteorological oddity for the Japanese is that the jet stream is strongest in the winter months and basically nonexistent in the summer,” Coen said. “What that means is that the balloons could only arrive in December, January, February, March – when the Pacific Northwest is covered with rain and snow – at the least-opportune time to be trying to start forest fires.”
Everett bomb didn’t do any damage and was disposed of by members of the military. It was one of 16 bombs that landed that day from Alaska to California – the largest single day total in the whole campaign
The Everett Herald reports that a surviving piece of it is thought to be in the possession of a Texas woman whose grandfather was given a scrap of the balloon paper as a souvenir at Paine Field.
Coen said that as a weapon of war, the balloon bombs were a complete failure that had no bearing on the outcome of the Pacific war. But they are of historical interest for another reason.
“It's very significant in that the Japanese balloon bombs are the world's first intercontinental ballistic missile – the first time in history that an army on one continent attacked its enemy on another continent by means of a free floating unmanned vehicle,” he said. “This balloon bomb showed that the United States could be attacked from afar.”
This would set the stage for the Cold War, when the U.S. and Soviet Union would take the phrase “intercontinental ballistic missile” and produce nuclear-tipped missiles capable of reaching anywhere on earth.
“We went from balloons to nuclear rockets in the span of a couple decades. That's a fairly significant development in the history of warfare,” Coen said.
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