Pastor Archie Mitchell had promised his wife, Elsie, a treat. Both of them were tired of reading newspaper articles about the war in the Far East. On Saturday, 5 May, 1945, Archie suggested a day of escapism, driving up into the mountains of southern Oregon and having a picnic. They didn't realize it would quickly blow out of control. Hear the full story in Giles Milton's Unknown History Podcast.
They set off by car in late morning and were soon winding through spectacular mountain scenery. The children from the local church who they had brought with them were restless in the crowded car and wanted to hike across the hills. Elsie went with them, and Archie meanwhile drove to Leonard Creek and began installing the picnic.
It was while he was unpacking the sandwiches that he heard shouts from a couple of the children. Breathless with excitement, they said they had found a strange balloon lying on the ground just a short distance away.
As he was setting off to see what they had found, the ground beneath him was suddenly rocked by a tremendous explosion. A series of shockwaves ripped through the undergrowth, filling the air with dust. A plume of black smoke could be seen rising above the trees.
Archie rushed to the scene, only to find the trees shredded and charred. But worse, far worse, was the fact that twenty-six-year-old Elsie, together with the five children, Dick Patzke, fourteen, Jay Gifford, Edward Engen and Joan Patzke, all thirteen, and Sherman Shoemaker, eleven, were sprawled on the ground and covered in blood. On closer inspection – and to his absolute horror – he saw that all of them were dead.
He had no idea what had happened and could only assume that the ‘strange balloon’ had somehow exploded. Only later did he discover that Elsie and the children had been the victims of a balloon bomb, a devastating new weapon that the Japanese were intending to drop on North America in massive quantities.
It was the brainchild of Major General Sueyoshi Kusaba, head of the Japanese Army’s secret Number Nine Research Laboratory. The technical work was supervised by a gifted scientist by the name of Major Taiji Takada.
Their idea was strikingly simple: to use the winter jet stream to carry bomb-laden balloons from Japan to North America, where they would land and explode, causing widespread destruction. Better still, from the Japanese point of view, they would instill fear into the American population at large.
Research revealed that the jet stream could carry a large balloon at high altitude across the 5,000 miles of Pacific Ocean in about three days. But there were some technical hurdles to be overcome if the balloons were to be successful.
What were the difficulties? And how did the Japanese overcome them?
To find out the answer, listen to the full episode of our podcast, Unknown History, in the top right hand player of this page or on iTunes, Stitcher, and Spotify. Plus, connect with Giles on Twitter and Facebook.