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The year they firebombed the West.

Poor timing is all that prevented Project FUGO's "alien mechanisms" from igniting massive fires and blunting our effort in World War II.

The alien mechanisms swept out of the western skies by the thousands. Riding the jet-stream, they moved across the Pacific coastline and inland on a mission of war. Somewhere over the vast forests of the western United States and Canada, something triggered their robotic brains and they dropped their deadly weapons of fire and destruction. Their purpose: to snuff out American lives and burn down the western forests of America.

Something from a sci-fi novel? Nope. These events actually happened in 1944 and 1945. The "alien mechanisms" were bomb-carrying balloons sent our way by the Japanese in a massive program called FUGO, the Windship Weapon.

Incredibly, it almost worked: Only poor timing and a shortage of supplies kept FUGO from igniting vast conflagrations that would almost surely have caused serious loss of lives, timber, and property.

Even before FUGO, the Japanese had tried setting our western woods on fire. On September 9, 1942, a seaplane from Japanese submarine I-25 dropped two incendiary bombs on the Siskiyou National Forest 40 miles from Grants Pass, Oregon. The bombs started a fire, but the forest was damp, and Forest Service workers soon extinguished it.

The 1944 FUGO invasion, however, was massive. Some 15,000 balloons, each carrying five bombs, were scheduled to be launched during the winter of 1944-45 alone. Had the winter assault been successful, thousands more doubtlessly would have been launched the following summer and fall.

Each 33-foot-diameter balloon was filled with hydrogen and could ride the high jet winds to America. With 800 pounds of lift, it carried a metal platform loaded with altitude-regulating equipment, 32 dangling sandbags, and the five small bombs. If the balloon dipped below 30,000 feet, a barometrically controlled electrical system caused a sandbag to drop and the balloon would rise again. If the balloon went too high, another device allowed hydrogen to escape and the unit descended a bit. Thus kept at the best altitude for the jet-stream, the balloon usually crossed the Pacific in only 80 to 120 hours.

When all 32 sandbags were gone, the bombs began dropping, the designers assuming that by then the balloon would be over America. The usual load included one 33-pound fragmentation bomb, four 11-pound incendiary bombs, and two demolition charges to destroy the balloon itself.
KNOWN BALLOON/BOMB LANDINGS OR INCIDENTS
Alaska 37
Arizona 2
California 25
Colorado 3
Hawaii 23
Idaho 12
Iowa 3
Kansas 1
Michigan 2
Montana 35
Nebraska 5
Nevada 7
North Dakota 2
Oregon 45
South Dakota 9
Texas 3
Utah 5
Washington 28
Wyoming 11
At Sea, North Pacific Ocean 4
Alberta 20
Brit. Columbia 57
Manitoba 6
Northwest Terr. 4
Saskatchewan 9
Yukon Terr. 6
Mexico 3


At first, the balloon fabric mystified authorities. Tests finally showed it to be a tough paper made from fibers of the paper mulberry and another tree. Sheets of the paper were pasted together with a glue made from the potato-like arum root and waterproofed with an ancient Japanese concoction: fermented green persimmon juice! So here were balloons made of trees sent to try to burn down other trees.

The first bomb balloon was sent off on November 3, 1944, birthday of Emperor Meiji. From then until April 1945, the Japanese launched about 9,300 balloons--up to 100 a day.

Although primitive by today's standards, the balloons made it to North America by at least the hundreds and apparently dropped all or part of their loads. Balloons were spotted in the sky, and considerable fallen debris was being found. Still, few Americans knew about this strange sky-borne invasion. The U.S. government hushed things up as much as possible, and gathered up any found debris for study.

Month after month the balloons kept coming, falling, or being seen in 26 states and provinces from Mexico to Alaska, and as far east as Kansas, Iowa, and Michigan.

What saved the West from burning down in 1944-45 was simply this: snow and wet forests. The Japanese--despite spending much time, effort, materials, and $200 million on FUGO--doomed their own project by sending all those balloons at the worst possible time, during the wet, snowy months of winter. The war was going badly for them, and it is likely they were simply too desperate to wait until the dry summer when our forests are so prone to fire.

By April 1945, the Japanese had concluded that FUGO was a failure, and they cancelled the remainder of the project. Other than a few charred circles here and there, no known fires were caused by any of the FUGO bombs.

Maybe we'll never know how close we came to disaster. In an August 1950 Reader's Digest article, Brigadier General W.H. Wilbur, formerly of the Western Defense Command, said: "We can consider ourselves fortunate ... If the balloon assault had continued into the dry summer ... and if they had equipped their balloons with hundreds of small incendiaries instead of a few large ones, they would have wrought havoc."

Massive fires might have kept many U.S. troops at home. General Wilbur also wrote: "We concluded ... incendiaries would be a serious threat during the fire season ... We needed the timber in those forests, so paratroop firefighting units were organized to cooperate with firefighting agencies. At best, however, our blanket of protection would have been very thin."

Though the nation as a whole escaped havoc from FUGO, several Americans did not. Five children and their teacher were on a Sunday-school outing in the mountains near Bly, Oregon, on May 5, 1945, when they found a fallen balloon. Somehow one of its bombs detonated. All five of the children and Mrs. Mitchell, who was five months pregnant, were killed. A stone memorial has been erected near this site.

It was only after this tragedy that the government finally permitted warnings about the balloon danger to be issued to the public--by word of mouth only.

Could there be other fallen balloon bombs, still armed and dangerous, out there? It is likely. Only a relative few of the 1,000 or so devices believed to have reached this continent have been accounted for. No one really knows how dangerous they might be after all this time, but these instructions from the 1945 Japanese Balloon Bulletin #1 still make sense: "Stay 100 yards away ... leave a guard ... report location to sheriff or police."

Today we debate the merits of letting fires cleanse and rejuvenate timberlands. But the potential impact of the torching of our forests by an enemy at war isn't part of the discussion. Perhaps it should be.

John McDowell is a freelance writer living in Plainfield, Iowa.
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Title Annotation:Burning Issues
Author:McDowell, John
Publication:American Forests
Date:May 1, 1993
Words:1125
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