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Balloons That Bombed : 49 Years Ago, Japanese Explosives Drifted Into the Footnotes of Ventura County History

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It wasn’t exactly a day of infamy in Ventura County--hardly anyone knew what happened.

But 49 years ago yesterday--Jan. 15, 1945, toward the end of World War II--the winds of war brought the first of three spectacularly unsuccessful and almost unnoticed Japanese assaults on the coast.

The attacks were not carried out by enemy submarines, or even by long-distance bombers. These bombs came by balloon-- paper balloons --sent all the way from Japan.

The first Fugo balloon bomb created a crater in the dry bed of the Santa Clara River near Saticoy. Two days later, on Jan. 17, an entire balloon was found in Moorpark, containing unexploded incendiary bombs but missing the 33-pound anti-personnel bomb carried by the balloons. Remnants of a third balloon bomb were found Feb. 21 in Oxnard.

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“It’s probably the only time anyone could actually say that the war came to Ventura County,” said Richard Senate, a Thousand Oaks-based historian. “These balloons were very ingeniously designed devices on the drawing board. Luckily for us, they didn’t perform well in real life.”

The Japanese attack on the county was not revealed at the time, Senate and others said. Local news media agreed with government officials to squelch stories about the incidents to prevent the Japanese from knowing whether their unassuming weapons made it to American shores.

“It wasn’t until 1947 did we see any kind of news reports about the balloons,” Senate said. “By then, people were getting on with their lives and didn’t really seem to care too much about the incident.”

No other landings in Southern California were recorded, although remnants of a balloon were found floating about 60 miles west of San Pedro.

The balloons, about 70 feet high and 30 feet in diameter, were launched from Japan in November, 1944. The idea, according to Tom Crouch, chairman of the Smithsonian Institution’s Department of Aeronautics in Washington, was to start hundreds of forest fires in California and throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Designed to ride the swift west-to-east high-altitude jet stream, an estimated 10,000 balloons launched by the Japanese army malfunctioned by the hundreds. Crouch said it is possible that only 10% of the devices made it across the Pacific to places as far-flung as Alaska and Mexico. An estimated 355 of the airborne bombs were credited with reaching U.S. territory, some getting as far as Michigan and Texas.

“They wanted to set the Northwest on fire,” Crouch said. “It was a desperation move. They wanted to strike back at us for our aerial bombing raids.”

Bert Webber, an Oregon-based historian, said the bombs are known to have caused six fatalities among U.S. civilians. On May 5, 1945, an Oregon woman and five children on a church picnic became the only known victims when they approached a downed balloon and its 33-pound bomb exploded.

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The balloons were made of paper and glued with potato paste. The air envelope was filled with hydrogen and an elaborate system of ballast weights linked to a barometer managed the device in flight.

When the balloon would lose altitude, Webber said, a small explosive device--about the size of a shotgun shell--would fire and a ballast weight would be released, allowing the balloon to resume its normal operating altitude--about 38,000 feet. A typical crossing took two to three days, he said.

Webber said the balloon bomb attacks would have been stepped up by the Japanese if the U.S. forces had not started even more intensive aerial bombing over Japan with B-29 Superfortress bombers.

“There’s evidence indicating that they were ready to launch even larger balloons with larger bomb loads,” Webber said. “What stopped them was our B-29 raids over Japan. It literally crushed their ability to make the things.”

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For Senate, the balloon bombs showed the resourcefulness of the Japanese military.

“They used Japanese schoolgirls to construct these things using non-strategic materials such as paper and potato paste,” Senate said. “For very little money they were essentially making unguided missiles.”


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