Winds of War
by Thomas D. Potter
Gearhart Mountain near Bly, Oregon. Photograph courtesy of Hollie McMillan White.
An explosion was heard outside of Bly, Oregon, on the spring morning of May 5, 1945, just days prior to VE-Day in Europe. On the other side of the world, the Pacific war raged on against the Empire of Japan and its flag of the Rising Sun.
The deadly blast left five school children and one expectant mother dead. The cause of the tragic deaths was the result of a Japanese balloon bomb; the only deaths, civilian or military, inflicted by enemy action in the continental United States during World War II.
In retaliation for the daring Doolittle bombing raid by B-25s over Japan in 1942, the Japanese military sent thousands of hydrogen-filled balloons (laden with incendiary and anti-personnel bombs) to ride the winds of war across the vast Pacific Ocean to North America. The ultimate goal for the balloon bomb project was to start massive forest fires in the northwestern United States (thus diverting vital resources away from the war effort) and to cause widespread panic among the American populace. An estimated 9,300 of the balloon bombs were launched from several secret locations along the east coast of the Japanese island of Honshu. Eventually, some 361-balloon bombs were found in 26 states, Mexico and Canada.
On the morning of May 5, 1945, the Reverend Archie Mitchell of the Christian Alliance Church, accompanied by his wife Elsie (26), and five children from their Sunday school class, Sherman Shoemaker (11), Edward Engan (13), Jay Gifford (13), Joan Patzke (13) and Dick Patzke (14), left for a Saturday morning picnic at nearby Leonard Creek thirteen-miles northeast of Bly on the southern flanks of Gearhart Mountain.
As Reverend Mitchell parked the car, he could hear his wife call out, “They had found something that looked like a balloon!” An unexpected bright flash and a large explosion soon followed.
The world’s first intercontinental ballistic weapon,
a Japanese balloon bomb or “Fu-Go” weapon.
photo, California Institute of Technology
A newspaper article explaining the Bly tradegy published in June of 1945.
Jack Smith worked for the United States Forrest Service for over 35 years. He remains active to this day working on his tree farm and attending to his 262 acres in the state of Oregon.
"During World War II, I was working in Timber Management on the Umpqua National Forest with its headquarters located in Roseburg, Oregon. In November of 1943, I was transferred to the Bly Ranger District on the Freemont National Forest as Assistant Ranger, where I was also employed primarily in Timber Management work. The Ivory Pine and Crane Mills timber companies were located near Bly. Weyerhaeuser also had a large railroad logging operation at Camp Six cutting primarily Weyerhaeuser timber, including National Forest timber sales as well. Most of the National Forest timber harvested was going into the war effort during that time.
Ranger Spike Armstrong and I happened to be at the Bly Ranger Station on Saturday morning of May 5th, 1945, when a Richard G. “Jumbo” Barnhouse, a forest road grader operator, drove hurriedly into the ranger station. Jumbo bailed out of his pickup and yelled, “There’s been an explosion on Gearhart Mountain and several people are hurt!”
Spike and I gathered up sheets, blankets, first-aid-kits, and then notified the supervisor’s office that we were headed for the site. The accident scene was on the shoulder of Gearhart Mountain, perhaps ten-miles or so from Bly. As we approached, the Reverend Archie Mitchell pointed the way for us to hike to the site, which was a short distance off the road. There was little brush in the area, but a fair stand of mature Ponderosa Pine timber. It was very quiet. The white balloon canopy was mostly deflated and partially covered by a snowdrift. Near the canopy were six bloody bodies on the ground, close together, laid out somewhat like the spokes of a wheel. Spike said to me, “Can you check their pulse? I don’t think I can handle it.” So I checked for pulse and breathing, but Mrs. Mitchell and the five young children were all dead.
Spike and I were there alone at the bombsite for a short while until the sheriff arrived. Then Forrest Supervisor Larry Mays, shortly followed by the coroner, showed up. Nothing could be done for the victims. Larry Mays informed us that we had to wait for the Navy people to come from Whidby Island in Washington State. This was enemy action and the Navy people needed to inspect the site and make sure there were no radiological, biological, or chemical contaminants before anything could be handled or removed.
Students of Bly High School, Oregon, 1946. Hollie McMillan White (front row/second from the left).
A friend of my mother’s, Hollie McMillan White, was raised in Bly, Oregon. The following is her account of the Japanese balloon bomb explosion.
"In looking back some 60-plus years, my memories of the Japanese balloon explosion and the resulting death of my classmates are still quite vivid.
I was supposed to go on the outing that day but my mom who was supposed to make sandwiches for a community gathering at the Ivory Pine Community Hall – was ill and said I had to go and fill in for her. Years later, I learned that my dad had known about the balloons. His name was Jim McMillan and he was superintendent of the Ivory Pine Co. logging operations. Apparently, because of his position, he had been informed – but again it was “top secret” information and not to be shared. The day of the accident – tragedy – he went to the site to help secure and clean up the area. A few years later he gave me a piece of the balloon that he had picked up that day.
I went back for the 50th anniversary. There was a large gathering of friends and families that had lived in the area 50-years ago. Some – such as the Patzkes had never left. There were Japanese representatives who shared the fact that the school children of Japan had made the balloons (gluing and stitching the balloon fabric panels together) – not knowing what they were or their purpose. In the evening there was a dinner at the school gym – and everyone shared in the memory of that day and the days that followed 50-years ago.
On Sunday morning there was a church service – the same little church from which “the picnic” had originated. Betty Patzke Mitchell (older sister of Joan and Dick Patzke) spoke of renewing the love,
Hollie McMillan White
A Japanese balloon bomb.
The lower undercarriage section of a Japanese balloon bomb (showing the aluminum control frame and blow-out plugs) currently on display at the Fort Rodd Hill National Historic Site, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
Most Americans were not informed about the Japanese balloon bombs until after the war. Our government censored the news to the public of the balloon bomb attacks to prevent the Japanese military from finding out that they were even partially successful. It worked, and after B-29 raids on Japan’s balloon-hydrogen making facilities, the Japanese High Command quickly terminated its balloon bomb project. Their hope to rain death and destruction on the American homeland was never fully realized. The planning and expense that went into the top-secret Japanese balloon bomb project only took the lives of six innocent people, five of them children.
During the summer of 2003, my wife, son, and I visited the location of the tragedy near Bly, Oregon: a serene location under tall trees of Ponderosa Pine, some still deeply scarred by hot shrapnel during that deadly explosion some sixty-two years ago. A large native-stone monument with a brass memorial plaque now stands guard on the very spot of the deadly blast that took the only lives lost on continental American soil (where death resulted from enemy action) during World War II.
Under a beautiful blue sky, we found the small creek where the children were to have fished that day. We collected six small stones from its cold, clear water, and carefully placed them at the base of the monument in our personal tribute and remembrance to the fallen.
The author and his son visiting the Mitchell Monument (dedicated by the Weyerhaeuser Timber Co.)
My grandfather Fred Larson was a lumberman for most of his life. He worked at various sawmills in Minnesota during and after the Great Depression. In 1942, he moved his wife and young family of four to a new sawmill site near Bly, Oregon. The Ivory Pine Company, located some ten-miles northwest of Bly, was composed of a small group of buildings and homes for the families that worked at the sawmill site (a community that no longer exists, the buildings and homes all but removed now). My mother and the other children of Ivory Pine were bussed to school in Bly. The following Monday after the deadly tragedy of May 5, 1945, my mother could not but notice the empty school desks around her. Some of the young victims had been her friends.
Parade day – Ivory Pine Company. Courtesy of Hollie McMillan White.
Some final notes;
Two years after the deadly tragedy on Gearhart Mountain, Betty Patzke (the older sister of Dick and Joan Patzke who perished in the Japanese balloon bomb explosion) married the Reverend Archie Mitchell (the only survivor of the incident). In 1947, they accepted a missionary assignment to South Vietnam. Archie Mitchell was taken prisoner by the Viet Cong in 1962 and was never to be seen again. In 1975, Betty Mitchell was imprisoned for eight months in Vietnam during the fall of Saigon. Betty Mitchell now resides in North Carolina.
On May 5, 1945, the day of this deadly tragedy, which occurred outside of Bly, Oregon, my father (a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division) moved into Hitler’s retreat of Bertesgaden in the German Bavarian Alps. The war in Europe would officially end two-days later on May 7, 1945. However, the fight against the Empire of Japan would continue for another three months. Only after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did the 20th century’s greatest conflict come to an end.