Bombs Away

by Lance Nixon for Montana 55

When they found it south of Bozeman on Sourdough Creek, Steve Van Antwerp and his significant other, Mary Ackerman, thought it was a bomb – maybe one of those Japanese-launched “fire balloon” bombs from World War II that terrorized people in the western United States and Canada.

For Van Antwerp and Ackerman, it turned out to be a false alarm.

Steve Van Antwerp thought the item he's holding in his hands, found near Bozeman, might be a Japanese fire ballon bomb, launched during World War II.

Steve Van Antwerp thought the item he’s holding in his hands, found near Bozeman, might be a Japanese fire ballon bomb, launched during World War II.

Hayes Otoupalik of Hayes Otoupalik Militaria in Missoula diagnosed it in a moment: a practice bomb, equipped with a smoke cartridge when it was in use. Made by the U.S., it was far smaller than the array of terror-causing devices the Japanese attached to high-altitude balloons and let loose against the U.S. and Canada during World War II.

But it’s no surprise at all that Bozeman-area residents should consider the possibility that some of those so-called “fire balloons” or Fu-Go bombs might have come to rest in Bozeman and might still be found. After all, 35 of them did come down in Montana, more than in any state or province except British Columbia, Oregon and Alaska.

One of the devices already was found in Bozeman back in March 1978.

Long-range mayhem
They were no joke, says Otoupalik. They were attached to balloons calculated to travel with the jet
stream over the Pacific and drop their weapons loads on North American forests and farmland. Ingenious
technology dropped sand if the balloon dropped too low or released hydrogen if the balloon went too high.

“It was a big bomb that went on it. And then it had incendiaries packed around it and sand for ballast,” said Otoupalik, an expert on weaponry of the times.

“The Japanese mailed off thousands of those to the North American coast. They launched them out of
north Japan. It was a terror weapon.”

It was also, for a long while after World War II, the weapon that helped the Japanese carry out the longest ranged military attack in history – but definitely not the most successful.

“They were set so that they would fly as far as where the forests are,” says Arley Fadness of Custer, South Dakota, who has studied the topic in writing about the history of ballooning. “They wanted to light the forests on fire and create panic in North America. They were targeted for the West Coast with their technology.”

That’s why relatively few of the devices made it east of the mountains, he said.

Where the bombs were
Bert Webber tabulated in his 1984 book, “Silent Siege: Japanese Attacks Against North America in
World War II” where the devices had been found in North America.

More than 9,000 such bombs were launched in all and the Japanese expected that about 10 percent of
them would reach North America. The attacks began in November 1944 and ended in April 1945.

The first to be found, according to writer Mark Matthews, who touched on the topic in his book,
“Smoke Jumping on the Western Fire Line,” was one encountered by two men cutting firewood near
Kalispell, Montana, on Dec. 11, 1944.

“Newspapers reported the balloon discovered near Kalispell, but the government, not wanting to let the
Japanese know whether their balloon armada had been successful, ordered strict censorship thereafter,”
Matthews wrote.

Consequently, the Japanese didn’t know whether the campaign was hurting the Americans; but to a degree, it was.

A pastor’s wife in Oregon, age 26, and five children on a church picnic, ages 11 to 14, were killed near Bly, Oregon, when they approached one of the balloons in May 1945.

It was the only such incident, though more than 300 of the devices were found.

Here’s where the bombs came down, according to Webber: Alaska, 37; Alberta, 20; Arizona, 2; British
Columbia, 57; California, 25; Colorado, 3; Hawaii, 1; Idaho, 12; Iowa, 3; Kansas, 1; Manitoba, 6; Mexico, 3; Michigan, 2; Montana, 35; Nebraska, 5; Nevada, 7; North Dakota, 2; Northwest Territories, 4; Oregon, 45; Saskatchewan, 9; South Dakota, 9; Texas, 3; Utah, 5; Washington, 28; Wyoming, 11; Yukon Territory, 6. In addition, 4 came down in the north Pacific Ocean.

This image shows what a Japanese fire balloon looked like in the sky.

This image shows what a Japanese fire balloon looked like in the sky.

Matthews’ book reveals another connection to Montana: In summer 1945, the War Department recruited members of the Civilian Public Service – an organization made up in large part of conscientious objectors who sought alternatives to serving in the armed forces – to serve on a top secret project called Operation Firefly. They were to fight fires in case the Japanese effort to bomb the western United States was successful.

The 555th Parachute Battalion, an all-black unit, was trained for that mission at Pendleton, Oregon, but some of the trainers were from Missoula, where the country’s first experimental smoke-jumper program began in 1939.

The Japanese bombing campaign wasn’t successful, as it turned out. The 555th Parachute Battalion did indeed fight 28 fires in 1945, Matthews notes, but none of them were attributed to the Japanese campaign.

Rather, it was the usual foe on the fireline – Mother Nature – from that day to this. But the memory of the Japanese terror campaign of World War II still lingers in the mountains of Montana – and well it should.

Fadness said that if U.S. and Japanese experts agreed that about 10 percent of the 9,000 weapons launched made it to the U.S., then 900 might have reached North America, and only something over
300 have been found. That’s roughly a third of what experts thought might have arrived on these shores.

And the rest? Fadness expects a few of them might still turn up in the wilderness of places such as
Montana, Oregon and British Columbia where they were found in such numbers early on.

“They’re out there. I would bet on that,” said Fadness. “And some of them are still dangerous. That
would be my guess, knowing a little bit about the ballooning scene.”

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