Fu-Go: The Curious History of Japan’s Balloon Bomb Attack on America
By Ross Allen Coen
On this day, April 18, in 1942 the U.S. struck the Japanese homeland, and the Japanese immediately began formulating their own attack on our heartland. Fu-Go tells the story of that attack.
In World War II, after Pearl Harbor and the subsequent morale-boosting retaliatory Doolittle raid, Japan focused on ways to strike terror in Americans, and Americans, especially on the West Coast, worried about an attack. In fact, Japan did launch an attack that was successful in that the devices reached American shores, but also unsuccessful in that little damage or panic resulted. For the most part, the attack went largely unnoticed, except by those people directly effected and the U.S. military and the F.B.I. It’s probably true to say that outside those with a compelling interest in WWII, this attack, if anything, is little more than a vagueness in the minds of today’s Americans. So, in that regard, bringing the attack to the forefront of our collective minds, Ross Coen does us a service, especially these days when you could say we share with our 1940s precursors a sensitivity to wartime vulnerability.
Fu-Go is the “fire balloons” or “balloon bombs” initiative launched by the Japanese after the Doolittle raid and finally executed in the fall of 1944 through the summer of 1945. The objective was to panic Americans and to divert American resources by starting vast forest and grass fires in the United States. It didn’t meet its objective and was never well known within the country due to censorship imposed by the U.S. military. Not only did damage not occur, but, miraculously (despite the military secrecy), few lives of civilians who found the balloons and bombs were lost. Those few deaths occurred on May 5, 1945 near Bly, OR, well after the balloon attack was known to the military, when a Sunday school teacher and his pregnant wife took their Sunday school charges on a picnic. ( Those killed were: Elsie Mitchell, 26; Edward Engen, 13; Jay Gifford, 13; Joan Patzke, 13; Dick Patzke, 14; and Sherman Shoemaker, 11).
Other military historians have written about the attack. What Coen brings is a humanizing approach, not only by recounting the above deaths, but also various incidents, the Japanese schoolgirls enlisted to manufacture the paper envelopes covering the balloons, the various people who observed or found the balloons, and the Japanese involved in developing the balloon bombs and Americans analyzing and developing strategies to defend against the attack. For the most part, Coen’s approach is engaging and interesting, though it does get a bit bogged down in detail only a few might find particularly compelling. Nonetheless, it’s certainly worth the time to learn about a largely unknown or at best forgotten slice of WWII history.
Curious if one of the hundreds of balloons that landed might have landed where you live? Coen provides a list of those landings, as well as a map of locations.
On a final note, Coen spends time describing how the balloons and bombs were constructed and operated. For those who might like a more illustrated idea, they can find a U.S. Navy training film, classified restricted at the time, titled “Japanese Paper Balloon.” c/w