This Day in History: The Japanese attack the United States mainland
On this day in 1945, seven Americans are killed by a Japanese bomb—in Oregon!?! The Japanese had been trying to attack Americans on our home soil for months. They’d finally succeeded. Unfortunately, five children and a pregnant woman turned out to be the victims of the Japanese attack.
Reverend Archie Mitchell and his wife Elsie were supposed to be on a fun expedition that day. They’d offered to take five children from their church on a fishing trip and picnic. They were headed for some streams in the lower slopes of a nearby mountain. Melting snow and slushy roads kept them from going too far, but they found a spot to pull over. The children ran toward a nearby creek, with Elsie close behind. Archie stayed behind to move and unload the car.
If only they’d made it just a tiny bit further. Perhaps the next few moments would have played out differently.
As the children ran toward the creek, one of them spotted something dark on the ground. The children and Elsie huddled around it, trying to figure out what it was. It looked like a balloon. Elsie yelled back to Archie, describing the find.
Archie had an inkling about what it could be. He’d heard rumors about Japanese fire balloons, launched from Japan so they could float across the Pacific, carrying dangerous payloads of bombs that could be timed to drop once they hit the American mainland.
He yelled out a warning, but it was too late. An explosion rocked through the area, killing four of the children instantly. As fate would have it, a Forest Service crew happened to be nearby. When the men found Archie mere minutes later, he was frantically trying to put out a fire on his wife’s clothes. It was too late. Elsie would die within a few minutes, as would the last little girl who had been with the group.
The U.S. military had known about this new Japanese tactic for months, but the existence of the balloon bombs wasn’t widely known. The military had been trying to keep the matter quiet: They wanted the Japanese to believe that their balloons were failing so they would abandon the project. They also didn’t want to create a panic, which was sure to follow if Americans learned that the mainland was under attack.
In the midst of all this, some journalists knew about the balloon bombs. Some balloons had been found across the western side of the U.S., undetonated. Others had exploded, albeit in remote locations. Amazingly, the media kept the matter quiet when asked to do so.
“The Japanese listened eagerly to radio reports, hoping to hear of the bombs’ effectiveness,” one report later stated. “But American editors voluntarily kept the information to themselves and so discouraged the Japanese that they abandoned the project. The Japanese learned of only one bomb landing in the United States. It was one which came down in Wyoming and failed to explode.”
The deaths in Oregon would change the rule of secrecy that had prevailed for so long. It’s one thing to keep quiet when bombs seem to be mostly failing or falling in remote locations. More details were now needed.
The Navy and War Departments issued a joint statement, warning people of the danger. The statement still attempted to forestall panic: The attacks, it noted, were “scattered and aimless.”
Fortunately, secrecy had prevailed for long enough. Nuclear bombs would drop at Hiroshima and Nagasaki just a few months later. The Japanese surrender was just around the corner.
Japanese Paper Balloon (Navy Training video; 1945)
Johnna Rizzo, Japan’s Secret WWII Weapon: Balloon Bombs (National Geographic; May 27, 2013)
Robert C. Mikesh, Japan’s World War II Balloon Bomb Attacks on North America (Smithsonian Annals of Flight; 1973)
Ross Coen, Fu-go: The Curious History of Japan’s Balloon Bomb Attack on America (2014)