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On Paper Wings
May 2, 2009 1:49 PM   Subscribe

Japanese Balloon Bombs — "In 1944, during World War II, Japan launched a top secret project, nearly two years in the making, to send thousands of "balloon bombs" (called Fu-Go Weapons) to the United States. The goal of the attack was to create panic, forest fires, and show the United States that it could be attacked from afar. Each of the more than 9,000 balloon bombs launched towards the United States, over the course of several months, carried a 15 kilogram bomb that would detach from the balloon and explode on impact with the ground." On a Wind and a Prayer.

The United States government went to extraordinary measures to keep information on the Japanese balloon bombs out of the media. The United States knew that Japan could only measure its success based on media reports. And giving them that type of intelligence information could cause them to refine the balloons to be more accurate and deadly.

The story of the Japanese balloon bombs is intriguing because so few Americans (to this day) know the story. Few realize that the only six American civilian casualties in the continental U.S. during World War II happened at the hands of a balloon bomb. And five of those casualties were children.

Most primary sources on the Balloon attacks remained classified until the early 1980s because information on the Fugo Balloon Bomb technology was used by the U.S. military for their own balloon spying activities against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
posted by netbros (39 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
More history in the wiki.
posted by netbros at 1:52 PM on May 2, 2009


Seems almost delicate compared with what we would soon unleash on them.
posted by Joe Beese at 1:55 PM on May 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


I need to relisten to 99 Luftbaloons now.
posted by Navelgazer at 1:58 PM on May 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm nearly positive that this is a multiple post in spirit, even if there are additional (if not new) links. This is certainly something that's been talked about on the blue quite a bit. See here and here for starts.
posted by allen.spaulding at 2:04 PM on May 2, 2009


Seems almost delicate compared with what we would soon unleash on them.

or what they were doing in China, opposition to which was of course what got us into the war, our "Pull your hooks out of China!" strategic resources trade embargo.

Double here.
posted by mrt at 2:21 PM on May 2, 2009


they had plans and were preparing that which they had used on the Chinese and which, in turn, we were working on against them and the Germans...all the use of plabues, germs, bugs, etc traced and discussed in great detail, with a history going way back in time (the bible), through Greek, Roman, medieval etc right up to today. If you think though that we no longer develop such stuff (or our enemies don't) we have a base, little known, that claims to be in the business of countering bad things from bad people but also develops along the way bad stuff to use on others. See: http://www.amazon.com/Six-Legged-Soldiers-Using-Insects-Weapons/dp/0195333055
posted by Postroad at 2:29 PM on May 2, 2009


So Postroad has access to MarkovFilter but the rest of us don't?
posted by Dumsnill at 2:32 PM on May 2, 2009 [12 favorites]


Seems almost delicate compared with what we would soon unleash on them.

those were just prototypes. the final design came in the form of helium-filled origami cranes, made from paper featuring stylised birds & flowers.
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:34 PM on May 2, 2009


The Fort Rodd Hill & Fisgard Lighthouse National Historic Site of Canada has some fusen bakudan on display. A SciencePunk reader was nice enough to send me some pics.
posted by SciencePunk at 2:44 PM on May 2, 2009


PS: I once worked in a Max Planck Institute. I am glad that no paper left this place with my name on it... Thanks god.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 3:03 PM on May 2, 2009


balloon bombs have been around a while...i remember an exhibit at the NYPL that had a piece of a balloon from the civil war. i forget which side launched it though...
posted by sexyrobot at 3:16 PM on May 2, 2009


To reiterate what I said two years ago, what's most fascinating about this is that it utilized the jet stream -- then basically unknown to Western science except in hints dismissed as localized weather.

Obviously in retrospect it was more in the spirit of a terror attack -- small resource investment by you, great resource investment by your enemy.

I'm a little annoyed by the scare quotes in It was meant to be "revenge" for the Doolittle raids on Japan. The Doolittle raid (one raid, multiple planes) was of course retaliation for Pearl Harbor. In intent it was the same thing: despite the Pacific's breadth, fear us. Neither side was remotely ready to mount a truly menacing offensive on the other, and arguably Japan never would be (unless perhaps they successfully held key resources in Oceania and Southeast Asia).
posted by dhartung at 3:24 PM on May 2, 2009


balloon bombs have been around a while...i remember an exhibit at the NYPL that had a piece of a balloon from the civil war.

Wasn't that just a reconnaissance balloon?

I find the whole idea of "balloons as weapons" both terrifying and silly, like being beaten to death by a clown. You can't really aim these things, right? It's like spreading propaganda leaflets by dropping messages inside bottles into the ocean.
posted by twoleftfeet at 3:39 PM on May 2, 2009


or what they were doing in China, opposition to which was of course what got us into the war

The Japanese probably learned a lot from what Americans did in the Philippines. But, as colonialists, of course the yellow people were far, far worse than the righteous, democratic Americans, right?
posted by KokuRyu at 3:40 PM on May 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


The Fu-Go bomb program is one of the more interesting non-dead-aliens explanations that I've heard of concerning the "UFO" crash in Roswell: that what crashed was a bomb, kept aloft in the atmosphere until 1947. A Fo-go bomb would explain some of the accounts of what was recovered from the crash site - "bright wreckage made up of rubber strips, tinfoil, a rather tough paper and sticks", along with some of the oddities reported by the local rancher who discovered the crash site, such as the fact that the paper was impressed with the pattern of flowers, and that the printing and characters on the debris could not be interpreted.

This is close enough to the official Air Force explanation - that what was found was a crashed weather balloon that was part of the Project Mogul program to monitor Russian nuclear weapons tests - to be plausible, especially given the rapid cover-up later (the public outcry that America was still being bombed by a country it was now ostensibly at peace with, after being defeated in a long and costly war, would have been huge). The only problem is that the Fu-go bombs were only meant to be in the westerly slipstream for several days, not 22 months. Still, it's an interesting possibility.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 3:45 PM on May 2, 2009 [17 favorites]


KokuRyu, the Japanese killed 20 to 30 million people in the second Sino-Japanese War '37-45 and created 95 million refugees.
posted by stavrogin at 3:54 PM on May 2, 2009 [5 favorites]


A friend of mine also made a documentary about this, which included interviews with women who worked in factories which produced the balloons. On Paper Wings
posted by nímwunnan at 4:01 PM on May 2, 2009


Hey, look at the first comment on SciencePunk's link:

"The balloon bombs that had incendiary devices were not sent to cause damage, but to check wind currents to determine the best launching points from submarines to hit US cities. The actual intended weapons were WMDs! They were to be fitted with large glass orbs filled with biologicals such as anthrax, pneumonic plague and other fatal epidemic type diseases. The head of the project was Japanese General Shiroo Ishii. He commanded “Unit 731″ which was a biological weapons test and development unit stationed in Pingfan and Mukden Manchuria. They experiemented on live prisoners including American POWs that had been captured in the Philippines. Two such bio balloons actually made it here, one coming down on a ranch in Montana and one found in the Arizona desert. neither had any bio escape and were contained on site. Both were taken to Fort Detrick, Maryland for study, and subsequently via a captured Japanese officer in Burma who had worked for Ishii, we found about Ishii and his experiments (including several live human vivasections!). Two books go into depth on Ishii and Unit 731, one “Unit 731″ and the other “The Medusa File” by Craig Roberts."

Postie was aiming at this general information in his remark above, I think.
posted by mwhybark at 4:08 PM on May 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


Wasn't that just a reconnaissance balloon?

sorry...brainfart...i guess i meant 'balloons in warfare'...what they had at the library was a ragged scrap of the balloon itself...silk coated in grease or wax or something...looked nasty...
posted by sexyrobot at 4:20 PM on May 2, 2009


And then there was the US Navy's research into bat bombs.

That program was ended when the bats flew back to the hanger to roost. D-oh.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:19 PM on May 2, 2009


stavrogin: "KokuRyu, the Japanese killed 20 to 30 million people in the second Sino-Japanese War '37-45 and created 95 million refugees."

So since we only killed a million, we're only 3.3% to 5% as evil as the Japanese.

Why do you hate America?
posted by Joe Beese at 5:36 PM on May 2, 2009


the Japanese killed 20 to 30 million people in the second Sino-Japanese War

"Casualties" means killed and wounded, not just killed.
posted by p3t3 at 6:05 PM on May 2, 2009


i read @ this in the context of the new yorker's amazing fact checking dept... can't remember the details though
posted by jcruelty at 6:39 PM on May 2, 2009


p3t3, those estimates on casualties from that wikipedia link come from the Japanese government. This is the same government which denied the existence of comfort women and massacres in Nanjing.
posted by cazoo at 6:45 PM on May 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


That program was ended when the bats flew back to the hanger to roost. D-oh.

Darn it! There goes my idea for cluster boomerangs.
posted by FelliniBlank at 6:52 PM on May 2, 2009


p3t3, those estimates on casualties from that wikipedia link come from the Japanese government. This is the same government which denied the existence of comfort women and massacres in Nanjing.

The estimates for Japanese casualties were from Japanese sources, the Chinese estimates were from Chinese and western sources:

(wiki quote) Chinese sources list the total number of military and non-military casualties, both dead and wounded, at 35 million.[24] Most Western historians believed that the total number of casualties was at least 20 million

And again, casualties means injured plus killed.
posted by p3t3 at 6:54 PM on May 2, 2009


Ah, fuck, not to derail this thread (I already have) but I sure hate to quibble over the number of tens of millions of people that were killed. The Japanese invaded China. They were brutal. They killed a lot of people. That was wrong.

But, good Christ, given the context of its own record of colonialism and brutality (in the same region!), it's ironic and even shocking that Americans can point the finger at how bad Japan was in Asia-Pacific. Why is killing *only* 1 million people somehow better than killing 20 million?
posted by KokuRyu at 6:59 PM on May 2, 2009


1 million people somehow better than killing 20 million?

I see what you're trying to say, but on one side there are 19,000,000 people who would think one was better than another. There aren't any western nations that can hold their head high about colonialism, I don't think, but there is a difference, which I hope you can see.
posted by maxwelton at 7:12 PM on May 2, 2009


As was noted before from one of the other links, the War Museum in Ottawa has one of these units on display. Here's a photo (not mine)
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 7:47 PM on May 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


Why is killing *only* 1 million people somehow better than killing 20 million?

The answer can be a utlitarian philosophical argument, which has variable "swayability".

One can propose that it's more moral to avoid incinerating thousands of schoolchildren at their desks even it meant millions of Japanese would would end dying indirectly should the war have continued to drag on.

This is the same argument you'll find in Freshman Philosophy -- would you divert the train and kill 1 person to save 20.

The origin of the war was to stop the killing in China. The British, exile Dutch gov't, and Americans told the Japanese they weren't getting any more of the natural resources we controlled until the backed their forces out of French Indochina and China proper.

That didn't work and by 1944-45 the medium-term aim was to get the Japanese warmongers to relinquish governmental power to the civilian state apparatus and personally surrender to our hangman justice, within the overall requirement of backing Japan out from establishing a competing imperialist bloc (its East-Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere) and restoring the status quo ante position of a junior partner of the Anglo-American colonial / neo-colonial economic regime.

Given the nature of industrial warfare between first-world nation-states, it was going to take a lot of killing to "liberate" the Japanese from their own murderous government.

The battles of 1944-45 in Germany was one model. Grind their warfighting capacity down until the militarists lacked the capacity to fight back and their civil population had had their fill of offensive war.

In early 1945 it was decided that it was no longer strictly necessary for the US to fight the war on this level; we had the capability to terror-bomb the urban centers of Japan directly to prosecute our war aims (cf The Grave of the Fireflies), and there was little if nothing the Japanese could do in response.

In isolation this of course would be highly morally offensive, and the more I think about it the more I agree that the Japanese people were victimized in this.

But I consider all service people to be victims in this war, since dead is dead and maimed is maimed, regardless of whether you were a draftee, officer, or civilian caught in the middle.

After all the US went through in fighting Japan 1942-44, if you'd have taken a poll as to how many innocent Japanese civilians could be killed to save one American serviceman's life, I'm not sure where the median number would be but it'd certainly be a very high number.

And if we asked the Japanese the parallel question, I think you would have gotten a similar answer, but the Japanese didn't have ICBMs or the even Kidobutai anymore, just balloon bombs and a favorable atmospheric airstream to launch them into.
posted by mrt at 8:18 PM on May 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


Sorry Kokuryu, but you're just building a strawman here. The only person who said "oh Americans ONLY killed 1 million people" was someone referencing it sarcastically. So unless there was some other comment I missed or was deleted I'm not getting your pet peeve.

Also if we were to follow the logic in the second part of your sorry to not derail but derail comment, here's my not to derail but derail pet peeve of people who say "war is shitty we all did bad things, Americans too so who are we to say anything" whenever Japanese war crimes are brought. I hate the "millions were killed" dick measuring contest also because it blurs the argument, but I don't think that automatically equals we can't talk about what Japan did and shut people up like what you're saying about how ironic it is for us to point fingers. Why the hell can't we NOT point fingers? Look talk about shitty things Americans or any other country did in war, but what happened in Nanjing, Korea losing its culture and language for years, comfort women, Maruta experiments aren't erased or made OK as moments in history because Japanese people also suffered. Casualties are not a points system that add or minus the great tally of who's ultimately right in war. ANY terrible consequence or tragedy of war is fair game for discussion in my opinion so people know it happened and it's not repeated.
posted by kkokkodalk at 9:03 PM on May 2, 2009 [3 favorites]


But, as colonialists, of course the yellow people were far, far worse than the righteous, democratic Americans, right?

Way to go right for the race card.
posted by Bonzai at 9:09 PM on May 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm glad this was taken seriously at the time. I think a successful attack with those, especially if they managed to start forest fires in a dry area, could prove to be about as delicate as a calligraphy-inscribed gold-filigreed pink envelope full of weaponized anthrax. I bet someone was remembering the Spanish Armada.
posted by XMLicious at 10:10 PM on May 2, 2009


Misreading as Fu-Gu bombs, my eyes opened wide at the possibilities.

tasty fish, tasty fish, tasty fish, HIGH EXPLOSIVE....

tasty fish...

posted by rokusan at 11:17 PM on May 2, 2009


My grandparents were dating during this time. I remember hearing a story about how the two boys (can't remember if it was my grandfather and his friend or his brother) stayed visiting with my grandmother and her friend too long and had to drive from the mainland back to Whidbey Island with the car lights off. (It's even scarier when you know that the drive requires driving along Deception Pass)
posted by silkygreenbelly at 11:18 PM on May 2, 2009


a ragged scrap of the balloon itself...silk coated in grease or wax or something...looked nasty...

What a perfect metaphor for war.
posted by rokusan at 11:18 PM on May 2, 2009


I am user 14014 that posted this two years ago. The Cloud Atlas by Liam Callanan is where I first heard of them, it's a great book.
posted by lee at 1:06 AM on May 3, 2009


a ragged scrap of the balloon itself...silk coated in grease or wax or something

I have no idea if silk was indeed used for some of those balloons, but a great number of them were apparently made from paper. The elderly papermaker I currently get most of my handmade washi (Japanese paper) from tells about the war years, when for an extended period, their entire production was taken by the military, leaving nothing for other uses. They had no idea what the paper was to be used for, just that they had to work long overtime hours producing as much as possible.

This kind of paper is strong beyond belief. The long mulberry fibres form such a dense mat that a strip of this paper around an inch wide can defeat the efforts of two grown men to tear it apart, pulling from each end. Once oiled up, the same way that Japanese umbrellas are made, the paper becomes strong, stiff, and waterproof.

And the prints in my collection that date from the final years of the war (yes, they were still being made, kind of unbelievably ...) are all on a cheap paper with lots of pulp mixed in, and are now decaying rapidly, yet one more casualty of that program ...
posted by woodblock100 at 2:49 AM on May 3, 2009 [4 favorites]


Firsthand account of the only fatal balloon attack, with mention of secrecy measures.
posted by availablelight at 6:43 AM on May 3, 2009


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