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The Second World War’s strangest weapon

A Japanese 10-metre-diameter balloon re-inflated following its downing by a Navy aircraft on Jan. 10, 1945.
During the Second World War, Japan dreamt up one of the most bizarre weapons mid-20th-century warfare. It launched 9,000 of them across the Pacific Ocean from November 1944 to April 1945 and the idea was as unexpected as it was inefficient; it had created the balloon bomb. 

They aren’t often seen as dangerous weapons, but Japanese balloon bombs, called Fu-Go, were diabolical—at least in theory. Carrying a 33-pound fragmentation shell, the device was meant to cause widespread fire, essentially aiming to wreak havoc on American morale and the North American war effort when delivered in great numbers. Only 10 per cent of them​ reached ​the continent, however. And on ​Jan. 12, 1945​​​, ​a teenager spotted one of​​​ ​the floating​ bombs near Regina, the first of eight to land in Saskatchewan.

“It’s a quirky story [of] World War II,” the assistant curator of the Saskatchewan Military Museum told CBC. “It’s not very commonly known.”

During the war, Japan had no effective way to attack the Americans and their Allies in North America. With the exception of Pearl Harbor, its attempts, including the Aleutians campaign of 1942-1943 and some submarine shelling off the coast of British Columbia, weren’t particularly effective. However, using the air stream that blows across the Pacific Ocean to mainland America, a clever plan was born: it would disperse bomb-wielding balloons along the current to set North America’s densely-packed forests ablaze.  

Balloon found near Bigelow, Kansas, on Feb. xf23, 1945.
The Japanese army sequestered a portion of its personnel for the Fu-Go project, calling themselves the Special Balloon Regiment. Its members soon got to work constructing a weapon that was the first of its kind. Tree bark was used to make a lightweight paper “envelope” for the balloon. The attached bombs were fit with sensors, tubed powders, triggers and a 19.5-metre-long fuse that burned for 82 minutes before detonating at preset intervals instead of simply hitting the ground and exploding on impact.

“The envelopes are really amazing,” said a curator from the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum in an NPR interview, “made of hundreds of pieces of traditional hand-made paper glued together with glue made from a tuber.”

“The control frame really is a piece of art.”

By late fall 1944, the Fu-Go were ready to go. Japan released thousands of the balloon bombs as high as 9,100 metres (30,000 feet), an altitude that kept them carefully tucked away from the reach of patrol aircraft. “When launched,” continued the Albuquerque curator, “they are said to have looked like jellyfish floating in the sky.” 

But, as the balloons slowly lost hydrogen on their trip across the Pacific, a battery-operated system would release sandbags to keep them aloft. But in the cooler, higher altitudes, the batteries would freeze and most of the balloons fell harmlessly into the ocean. Still, a few stragglers did end up in North America.

The U.S. government implemented a five-month media blackout on reports of the balloons.

Ralph Melle of Minton, Sask., and his father spotted a large object gliding while in their truck. Mistaking the oddity as a parachuter, they drove toward it until it landed in a nearby valley. Melle’s father, who served in the Canadian army, was no stranger to bombs, and when the two got out of the vehicle, he warned Melle to “stay away from it.” The bomb was live. 

Soon, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police flocked to the area, guarding the bomb for weeks before it was eventually sent to Ottawa to be disassembled. In the meantime, though, Melle and his father were instructed to stay quiet, with both the American and Canadian governments fearing news of the bombs would cause continent-wide panic. 

The U.S. government implemented a five-month media blackout on reports about the balloons, but lifted it after the pregnant wife, Elyse Mitchell, of a local minister and five Sunday school children were killed after tampering with one of the devices in a Bly, Ore., park in May 1945. Melle remained mum about his find until after the war. 

“When we first told [people] about it, they wouldn’t believe you, they thought you were a little off,” said Melle in a 2005 interview. “A lot of this kind of story is who the heck would ever believe that. But it is actually true.” 


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