I. The Fu-go Project

PrintPrintEmailEmail

On August 3, 1976, a retired Japanese scientist made a pilgrimage to a World War II battlefield shrine. Accompanied by a small group of Americans from the nearby lumbering community of Bly, Oregon, Sakyo Adachi climbed a secluded woodland slope and stopped before a monument built of native stone. While the others watched, Adachi placed a floral wreath below an inscription that reads:

THE ONLY PLACE ON THE AMERICAN CONTINENT WHERE DEATH RESULTED FROM ENEMY ACTION DURING WORLD WAR II.

Then he stepped back, pressed his palms together in a gesture of prayer, and bowed. His American companions grasped his hands in friendship.

The people being memorialized had been killed by a weapon that linked the technology of twentieth-century warfare with an ancient object of fragile grace.

In the early daylight hours of April 18, 1942, the carrier Hornet , steaming several hundred miles off the Japanese coast, headed into the wind as, one by one, sixteen B-25’s lifted off her rolling deck. Flying low and in brilliant daylight, all sixteen planes reached their targets and unloaded incendiary bombs on Kōbe, Nagoya, Yokosuka, and Tokyo. The physical damage inflicted by James H. Doolittle’s spectacular raid was negligible,'but it shook the Japanese Imperial High Command: the homeland had been violated, and honor demanded retaliation upon America.

For more than a decade Japanese meteorologists had been aware of air currents high overhead that traced a serpentine pattern eastward. Would it be possible for these currents, later to be called “jet streams,” to carry free-floating balloons that could bomb the forests, farm lands, and cities of the United States? The idea seemed preposterous. But Japanese scientists had been experimenting with hydrogen-filled balloons since the early 1930’s, and they had solved some formidable technical problems. So by 1943, when military leaders ordered a face-saving counter-attack, the balloon specialists already had their “Fu-Go” project under way. They were close to perfecting a weapon that would travel sixty-two hundred miles toward a target area, drop its payload of bombs, and then destroy itself, entirely under its own power.

The first bomb-laden balloons lifted off the Japanese mainland on November 3, 1944. If all went as planned, heat from the sun’s rays would cause the hydrogen in the bag to expand, raising each balloon to its highest altitude, approximately thirty-eight thousand feet. There it would meet the winter winds coursing northeastward at speeds often exceeding two hundred knots. At night, when temperatures dropped to minus 50 degrees Centrigrade and the contracting gas pitched the craft about three thousand feet, a specially developed altitude-control device would discharge enough ballast to lighten the balloon, maintaining a minimum altitude of thirty thousand feet. Next day the sun would again warm the gas and the balloon would ascend to repeat its vaulting cycle. By the time the craft reached the American Northwest, all its ballast would have been dropped. The altitude mechanism would then begin discharging bombs instead of sandbags. The estimated sailing time from Japan to the United States was sixty hours.

During the last weeks of 1944 the U.S. Western Defense Command began receiving reports of paper balloons, or fragments of them, landing in scattered areas across the American Northwest. At first they were thought to be Japanese weather or antiaircraft barrage balloons that had accidentally drifted across the Pacific. By the end of December, however, sightings grew more frequent, and the Naval Research Laboratory and the FBI set out to determine the origin and objective of the balloons. Investigators already knew that the balloons were Japanese and, in some cases, when they were constructed and even where they were launched. Early in the new year they would discover their purpose.

On January 4, 1945, two men working in a field about a mile southwest of Medford, Oregon, were startled by a strange aerial whine. Within seconds there was an explosion nearby, and a thirty-foot column of flame shot skyward. When investigators arrived, they found a charred hole six inches wide and twelve deep and the remains of an incendiary bomb. Since no aircraft had been heard, the source of the bomb remained a mystery until someone found a hook nearby, identical to ones discovered among fragments of the peculiar balloons now being reported in alarming numbers. The origin of the mysterious bomb became apparent: Japanese balloons were bombing the United States.

The U.S. Office of Censorship immediately quashed the story. News agencies were requested to refrain from publishing reports of the balloon operations for fear that if the Japanese knew their bombs were reaching North America, they would redouble their attacks.

A few days after the Medford, Oregon, explosion, a Navy P-38 Lightning was dispatched to intercept a balloon drifting high over Alturas, California. Employing British antibuzz-bomb tactics, the pilot used his plane’s slip stream to force the balloon to a lower altitude, where he laced the bag with machine-gun bullets. It gradually lost gas, settled gently, and was recovered with all its remaining ballast, bombs, and release mechanisms intact. The entire balloon was shipped to Moffett Field, Sunnyvale, California, where it became the basis for the Western Defense Command’s first detailed report on the new weapon.