WWII Japanese Balloon Bombs
May 6, 2007 11:36 PM   Subscribe

Huge gently floating bombs made their way across the pacific below balloons using the high altitude jet streams floated to the Americas during WWII. Kept secret for most of the war, you can read about their amazing history here.
posted by lee (37 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I am reading Cloud Atlas by Liam Callahan and he mentions these balloon bombs that seemed so crazy that I thought he was making them up.
posted by lee at 11:37 PM on May 6, 2007

There is a nice display about these in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. Which is a great museum, btw, with other stuff I had no idea about before -- uboats in the St. Lawrence (one refueled at a U.S. naval base), German spies attempting to blend in in the Maritimes (caught within a day), etc. Fascinating.
posted by dreamsign at 11:51 PM on May 6, 2007

"The truth was that the Japanese did not really know if the balloons were effective or not. The 1000 balloons that got to the mainland managed to kill six people, start two small brush fires and cause a momentary loss of power at the Hanford, Washington, atomic-energy plant."

(i did not know that)

Which was busy making the plutonium that would eventually incinerate Nagasaki.

"The article also states that the Japanese violated the rules of war by using the bombs, but that part I don't understand. Why did it violate the rules of war?"

The Hague Conventions prohibited indiscriminate bombing. The evolution of the breaches of Hague 1939-1945 would make for an interesting research paper. Japan got off on the wrong foot by launching their PH attack before delivery of a declaration of war or ultimatum -- their actual message on 12/7, delivered during/after the attack, came short of an ultimatum.

The balloon bombs + the Unit 731 nastiness makes for some degree of background moral justification for the US to shut these people down.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 12:00 AM on May 7, 2007

Amazing. I remember blackouts in LA during the war and searchlights criss-crossing the sky, We had tiny, little black light bulbs with an orange spot at the top that gave out a kind of scary dim light and of course blackout curtains. My parents let me go outside and look for Zeros, But we never heard anything about balloons. I wonder what else we don't know that has gone on. Or is still going on.
posted by donfactor at 12:13 AM on May 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

Nice post lee, this is an interesting story. pax digita posted this link in this thread, as related.
posted by tellurian at 12:18 AM on May 7, 2007

donfactor, here is mentioned a sub attack on Santa Barbara. I read about A couple of other Japanese sub attacks when I was looking up the bombs. I can't find them now.
posted by lee at 1:08 AM on May 7, 2007

Great post; I'd read that the Nazis got really close to the US, but nothing about Japanese balloons.
posted by chuckdarwin at 2:01 AM on May 7, 2007

If folks are really interested in Unit 731, here's the wikipedia link.
I skimmed it, and stopped reading it when it discussed medically experiments/murders of captives. Soul-chilling stuff.
posted by sebastienbailard at 3:37 AM on May 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

uboats in the St. Lawrence (one refueled at a U.S. naval base)

dreamsign, please tell me more about this.

I'm trying to figure out how US bluejackets would somehow fail to notice they're passing diesel to a U-boat. I can't imagine how it might've been intentional. From everything I've read on the subject, even in '39 the War Department was regarding the Germans with suspicion if not outright enmity, and once they started torpedoing Allied shipping off the shores of the US, the Navy and Coast Guard were in what amounted to an undeclared war against the Kriegsmarine.
posted by pax digita at 4:31 AM on May 7, 2007

Great post; I'd read that the Nazis got really close to the US, but nothing about Japanese balloons.

The Nazis had actually developed an orbital bomber launched from rockets on a track, but the allied powers would easily have destroyed any launch track.
posted by delmoi at 5:19 AM on May 7, 2007

a bit left field, but worth a look if not too squeamish is The Men Behind the Sun. An attempt to portray Unit 731.

This remains probably one of the most disturbing films I've seen.
posted by mattoxic at 5:36 AM on May 7, 2007

Wow, I've never heard of this. Recently I heard an equally amazing story about the largest secret airbase ever built, which was in Greenland, and the US built it. Wikipedia doesn't seem to even mention it yet.
posted by mathowie at 6:07 AM on May 7, 2007

I'd have to do some reading in Theodore Roscoe's Pig Boats, but I think that's where I read about an abortive attempt to teach sea gulls to crap on periscopes. I dunno who the hell green-lighted this project, but apparently some animal-behaviorist type or ornithologist thought it'd be possible to train gulls to fly out to sea, look for periscopes, and squat on them.
posted by pax digita at 6:12 AM on May 7, 2007

pax digita-

sharing your surprise re dreamsign. I did find this (scroll down, sorry), which suggests an old rumor about u-boat sailors going walkabout for groceries in the US is a myth.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:16 AM on May 7, 2007

IJ, I'd read about the Ireland rumor someplace else.

The trouble with far-out stories like this is that the Germans, once the war was over, didn't have any qualms about sharing data with the western Allies, although the Soviets and the West didn't collaborate too well in sharing postwar data. From what I've read, we learned after the war of all the instances that U-boats landed shore parties in North America. Except for when the Germans were doing wx reconnaisance in some remote part of the Maritimes, they didn't get away with much in the way of "reach the beach" ops. (Killing merchies, on the other hand....)

For years I've wondered if the "buying groceries" story was the germ of an idea for the novel from which this movie was made.
posted by pax digita at 6:33 AM on May 7, 2007

It's not online yet, but the June 2007 issue of America In World War II magazine has an article by Bruce Heydt about this, Killer Balloons Over America. (I got a copy in the mail the other day because I wrote the cover story, about the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in April 1942.)
posted by LeLiLo at 7:19 AM on May 7, 2007

Actually, a U-Boat carrying spies landed on Long Island during the war. The spies lived in Manhattan for a while, then turned themselves in.

See the court case Ex parte Quirin.
posted by nasreddin at 7:45 AM on May 7, 2007

Newfoundland's Bell Island, the only North American location directly attacked by the Germans.

On preview lee already linked to the entry, but what the hey.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:11 AM on May 7, 2007

I wonder what else we don't know that has gone on. Or is still going on.

The answer is, and always has been, "more than you would ever believe".

I once heard a retired 3-star general remark that most conspiracy theories you hear are cute, quaint even, compared to the truth.
posted by Ynoxas at 9:13 AM on May 7, 2007

Clearly, this "jet stream" must be stopped before it can be used by the terrorists.
posted by spock at 9:45 AM on May 7, 2007

One angle here is that before WWII, the jet streams were essentially undiscovered everywhere but in Japan. There had been theories and many lost weather balloons, but nobody really believed that what were called "high (as in altitude) winds" were anything but local phenomena. A Japanese meteorologist, Ooishi, realized what was going on, but due to language barriers his work was not widely shared before the war. The government knew of it, though, and used his calculations to launch the balloon attacks. When you consider the odds, they were actually pretty successful to actually hit anything at all.

The West discovered the jet stream due to various military aeronautic adventures, including bomber squadrons that blown off course.
posted by dhartung at 10:01 AM on May 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

The refueling? No, not like the grocery tale. I'd first heard of this event at the museum, and afterward dug around a bit for confirmation. Found two links at the time but needed dead-specific search terms from the notes I'd made. I've just spent a half hour trying to find them but that was June or July of 2005 and I don't remember the uboat ID, which was one of the necessary search terms.

Any Ottawans feel like a trip to the museum? :)

Oh, the story as I remember it was that the port determined that it would violate neutrality to refuse the refuel. This was back when British ships were under fire, the U.S. was painting its flag on its merchant marine to avoid being targetted, and uboats were regularly penetrating the Gulf. I know that seems a tad off but it wouldn't be the first chronically underreported embarassing story from the past. It's late here but I will search more for this tomorrow, and perhaps Mrs. Dreamsign remembers enough to find it.

They also had hilarious pics of "Weather Station Kurt", set up by U-537 on Labrador. The Germans had erected a sign which read "Canadian Weather Service" (I always pictured it with little backwards letters like a kid's lemonade stand sign). Mmm, oh cool. That you can find here.
posted by dreamsign at 10:31 AM on May 7, 2007

oh, but not the pics, sorry.
posted by dreamsign at 10:32 AM on May 7, 2007

This seems like exactly the kind of the Damn Interesting would cover.

As a matter of fact, they did! Damn Interesting has quite a fetish for unconventional military tactics, I spent hours reading through the archives when someone first directed me to the site.
posted by Hargrimm at 10:59 AM on May 7, 2007

Woah! I had no idea! Excellent post.
posted by serazin at 11:01 AM on May 7, 2007

By the summer of 1945, the Japanese had perfected the means of spreading plague by ceramic "bombs" that contained plague-infected fleas. Their research was conducted in rural China, where about a quarter-million people were killed. At times, Japanese military medical units ("Unit 731") would dissect Chinese peasants alive, without anasethsia, to gauge the effect of their various experiments.

The Japanese experimentation with the ballons was a matter of delivering the bombs. I think I have read that the Japanese realized that it was unsuccessful. They designed the world's largest submarine, which held aircraft inside. The idea was to send the aircraft in the sub, undetected, to the West Coast, and drop plague bombs on Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle.

Historians I trust say that if the Japanese hadn't surrendered in August 1945, the plague bombs would have been delivered by the end of that year.
posted by Charles Wilson at 11:09 AM on May 7, 2007

These guys say it was 50,000 Chinese killed in those experiments, and that it wasn't only plague that the Japanese worked with. I had read that it was 250,000 killed, but I can't recall where I read it.
posted by Charles Wilson at 11:12 AM on May 7, 2007

I spent the morning trying to think of where I had read this. I think it was in Irons in the Fire, by John McPhee, possibly "The Gravel Page" story.

As I recall, a geologist tracked down the source of the bombs from the composition of the sand that was used as ballast. It was a unique type, and they pinpointed the source of the sand to one of two short stretches of Japanese beach.

Geology CSI.
posted by MtDewd at 11:18 AM on May 7, 2007

I'd read that the Nazis got really close to the US.

U-boats sank a lot of shipping within sight of the East Coast in 1942. If the Germans had kept doing it, Britain would have fallen and the Nazis probably would have won the European war.

The fight against them involved convoys and anti-submarine flights, and eventually the breaking of German naval codes by British mathematicians led by Alan Turing -- who was openly homosexual and was forced to take female hormones in the 1950s, leading to his suicide. Some gratitude.

There is a monument to the people who died in what's known as the Battle of the Atlantic, 1942-1944. It's located at Battery Park on the southern tip of Manhattan. It consists of a series of large granite slabs with the names of the dead, and a very fierce eagle that stares straight out at the Statue of Liberty in the harbor.
posted by Charles Wilson at 11:18 AM on May 7, 2007

Yes, "The Gravel Page"-Balloons of War, John McPhee, here on mp3.
posted by MtDewd at 11:25 AM on May 7, 2007

see also: bat bombs.

Dr. Adams maintained that the bat bombs would have been effective without the devastating effects of the Atomic bomb. He is quoted as having said:

“ Think of thousands of fires breaking out simultaneously over a circle of forty miles in diameter for every bomb dropped.

Japan could have been devastated, yet with small loss of life.

posted by SBMike at 1:04 PM on May 7, 2007

Oh, the story as I remember it was that the port determined that it would violate neutrality to refuse the refuel.


Minor quibble: Okay, are we talking about a civilian port? I thought it was a US naval base. The Navy has no "ports" as such; it has "stations" and "yards" and "bases" and "centers," but other than traditional names like "Port Hueneme" or "Port Chicago," they're generally not part of designations of stuff where bluejackets work.

The real questions: Who the heck told a DKM warship "OK to fuel here" and who paid for the diesel?

If a US Navy officer at the time authorized refueling a U-boat to avoid violating neutrality and it got back to Harold Stark, I'd've liked to have been in the office to hear that telephone conversation and the ensuing discussion with then-CINCLANT Ernie King -- the @$$-chewing would've made a Chief blush, no doubt. Somebody would've probably gotten immediate orders for -- oh, I dunno...NAVSTA Adak, maybe (Alaska, at the bitter end of the Aleutian chain, "birthplace of the winds"). The Navy did NOT appreciate being dicked around by the State Department on operational stuff (and still doesn't, I imagine), and (former UNSECNAV, stalwart supporter of the UK and his friend Churchill) Franklin Delano Roosevelt would've probably nearly had apoplexy himself on learning what had occurred.

I've heard crazier stuff -- postwar, my dad almost shot a Soviet officer who was forcibly taking custody of a dripping-wet enlisted man who'd swum a river trying to defect to the Americans; a US officer told Dad to safe up his weapon and forget any of it had ever happened -- so, not saying "ain't no way" but I'd love to learn the whole story.
posted by pax digita at 2:19 PM on May 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

Well, I've just done more reading about maritime tanker convoys than I've ever wanted to do, though it was interesting reading. No links, unfortunately, backing up the claim. I would be interested in returning to the museum to talk to a curator about it. In all honesty, I was introduced to a half dozen or more outlandish new facts about the war (balloon bombs, Kurt, the 2 captured spies, etc.) so my skepticism-metre may have been ailing. I'm certain open to seeing it debunked. Will have to have a chat with museum staff either way, though it will be some months before I return there.

In terms of generalized responses to the idea

In an interview with Admiral Karl Donitz ,World War II Commander of the German Navy and a former submariner himself, I asked this specific question. "Admiral, was the Kriegsmarine ever supplied or otherwise supported on the American coast?"

His answer was an emphatic "No!"

Though that was in response to questioning about regular refueling or resupply.
posted by dreamsign at 6:26 PM on May 7, 2007

I'd read that the Nazis got really close to the US...

Here's my AinWWII article from a few years ago about the Nazis who landed in my neighborhood in Maine.
posted by LeLiLo at 6:50 PM on May 7, 2007

Dr. Adams maintained that the bat bombs would have been effective without the devastating effects of the Atomic bomb

And the delivery vehicle? The Batmobile, of course.
posted by Charles Wilson at 7:56 PM on May 7, 2007

wow, they must have thought they'd figured out the weather pretty goddammed well. small wonder they have such a poor success rate. the jet stream have multiple layers, heading in multiple directions. when I realized that hot air balloons used this to navigate, I got more interested in fixed wing single engine aircraft.

of course, I think of how towards the end of the war, kamikaze pilots had their landing gear come off to be reusable, and they only had enough gas to get there, etc.

what a waste of resources these things seem like.

though they're pretty cool to read about.

let's hear it for eccentric and futile methods to kill!
posted by Busithoth at 10:02 PM on May 7, 2007

donfactor, here is mentioned a sub attack on Santa Barbara. I read about A couple of other Japanese sub attacks when I was looking up the bombs. I can't find them now.

They made a crazy movie about this, with John Belushi.
posted by eye of newt at 10:55 PM on May 7, 2007

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