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The Jet Stream, Fu-Go and an Apology

The jet stream was first discovered by a Japanese meteorologist named Wasaburo Oishi who launched over 1300 weather balloons between 1923 and 1925 to track the position and speed of persistent strong westerly winds over Japan.  The discovery of this high-altitude high speed river of air went unnoticed by the world because Oishi published his 1200 pages of research in Esperanto, a language he was a proponent of. Esperanto was designed in the 1870’s as a concept to globalize communication with one language but never really took off.
The jet stream he discovered generally moves west to east around the globe at about 30,000 feet and travels about 350 km/h. You probably have seen or heard weatherman talk about its problematic oscillations. Since 2017 it’s climate-change driven weakening and stalling has exacerbated hurricanes over the eastern United States dramatically. Airlines began using the jet stream as a speed and fuel assist way back in the fifties when transoceanic travel became common.
But somehow, back in 1944/45, the Japanese military decided to work with this jet stream and hatched a rather unique and insidious plan. It was, of course, to equip high altitude balloons with incendiary and anti-personnel bombs and send them eastward in the jet stream to set fires in North American forests. They called them Fu-Go or fire balloons.
The idea was, as I said, quite unique and involved using that easterly wintertime jet stream that flows across the Pacific Ocean from Japan to the North American continent. The balloons were crafted from paper made from mulberry bushes and glued together with potato flour (called washi) and filled with expansive hydrogen. They were 33 feet in diameter and could lift approximately 1,000 pounds. The deadly portion of their cargo was a 33 lb anti-personnel fragmentation bomb, attached to a 64-foot long fuse that was intended to burn for 82 minutes before detonating. Add to that payload four 11-pound incendiary devices and you had a pretty ominous looking and sounding destructive device.
The Japanese programmed the balloons to release hydrogen if they ascended to over 38,000 feet and to drop pairs of sand-filled ballast bags if the balloon dropped below 30,000 feet, using an onboard aneroid barometer and electrically fired charges. Three-dozen sand-filled ballast bags were hung from a four-spoke aluminum wheel that was suspended beneath the balloon, along with the bombs. Each ballast bag weighed between 3 and 7 pounds. The bags were programmed to be released in pairs on opposing sides of the wheel so the balloon would not be tipped to one side or another, releasing any of the precious hydrogen. In this way the balloons would rise in the daylight heat, each day of the crossing, and fall each evening until their ballast bags were depleted, at which time the balloon and its deadly contents would descend upon whatever lay beneath it. The trick was to get the balloons across the Pacific in three days so that when it had expended all its bags and the fuse was lit to burn up the balloon it would fall into the forest.
The first balloons were launched on November 3, 1944 and began landing in places like California three days later. Eventually 285 confirmed landings/sightings were made over a wide area, stretching from the Aleutian Islands, Canada and across the width and breadth of the continental United States The balloons  soared as far south as Nogales, Arizona (on the Mexican border) and easterly, to Farmington, Michigan (10 miles from Detroit)! What?  A map showing Canadian confirmed locations includes spots as far north as Great Slave Lake and as far east as Lake Winnipeg.
Most of the ballast bags from these oriental airborne torpedoes were released in the trip across the north Pacific, but a few balloons crashed without exploding and some of the ballast bags were recovered. All of the bags contained the same type of particular dark colored sand. A Military Geological Unit of the U.S. Geological Survey eventually tracked down the source of that sand to the eastern shores of Honshu Island. They did this by studying specific microscopic diatoms and mollusks found in the sand. How’s that for detective work?  Aerial reconnaissance later revealed two hydrogen production plants near the sands source which B-29 bombers targeted in April of 1945.
While over 9,000 were launched, it is generally believed by experts that only about 1,000 made it across the Pacific. The Crowsnest Pass apparently acted as a funnel for balloons drifting over the Rockies. (no kidding).  I recall hearing stories from my father about devices being found west of Crowsnest Mountain and down in the Flathead.  In fact on Sept 4, 1947 one was discovered at the foot of Window Mountain in the vicinity of Race Horse Creek. It was eventually exploded by members of the 33rd Field Park Squadron, R.C.E., Lethbridge and created a crater eight feet deep and about thirty feet around.
One was shot down in 1945 out around the Picture Butte, Alberta area. When it was spotted it was blown out of the sky by a pair of Mosquito bombers stationed in the area to specifically deal with this threat.   
The strategy of Canadian and American officials at the time was to suppress any information about them, with the media’s help no less! Good luck trying to pull that off nowadays. The fact is the balloon bomb scheme just did not work at all and was finally abandoned in the spring of 1945. The Americans did have genuine concern about these balloons though, as they knew the Japanese were working to design biological weapons that could be delivered by them. However the emperor at the time in Japan mercifully nixed that plan.
Japanese propaganda broadcasts announced great fires and an American public in panic, declaring casualties in the thousands. This was in fact not the case but there was one unfortunate incident. The discovery of one of the unexploded balloon devices, in May 1945, resulted in the tragic death of five children and minister Archie Mitchell’s 26-year-old  pregnant wife, all of who were on a church picnic in the woods near Bly, Oregon. Thirteen year old Joan Patzke was trying to pull the immense balloon from a tree when it exploded. A commemorative plaque, known as the Mitchell monument, is posted near the site and lists their names and ages and goes on to state that they were the only known casualties inflicted by the Japanese attack on the US mainland during the Second World War.
There is a remarkable follow up story that goes with this incident. It happened 42 years after the Bly accident and involves a university professor from the United States by the name of Yuzuru Takashita. Takashita had spent time in a Japanese American internment camp during the war and had heard stories of the balloon bombs.
In a quest to help heal the wounds of World War II he tracked down some of the women who had helped make the balloons while on a research trip to Japan. When they learned of what happened in Oregon they crafted letters of apology and a thousand paper cranes that were eventually given over to relatives of those lost at Bly.
These women were actually young girls taken from their classrooms and sent to a war plant to help make the balloons "without understanding much beyond the knowledge that America was our adversary in war."
In one letter it was written, "These one thousand cranes were folded one by one by some of us who made the balloon bombs, seeking forgiveness and with prayer for peace and a vow that the error of the past shall never again be repeated."

Author’s Note:  In 1991 while living in Fernie I remember that the jet stream was locked up in the far north and some places in Alaska were at -50 below. It finally broke loose and looped south as it is known to do, and while the stream usually is at altitude, it has been known to have its bottom side reach the ground. It did on a terrible January night that year and tore through the Elk Valley and South Country toppling thousands of trees. The devastation was widespread and it had unbelievable power and came in from a bad direction.

Diagram of the control device and bombs - John Kinnear sketch

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Complicated inner workings of device - wikipedia

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Actual device found in Northern BC - John Kinnear photo

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Diagram of the control device and bombs - John Kinnear sketch

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