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Friday, May 28, 2010

GRACE UNDER FIRE

I draw your attention to one rather peaceful morning.  A lone sailing vessel tacks gracefully across an empty silver grey horizen. It could be anytime in history after 1430, and it could be a vision on any sea. Violence must have seemed a million miles away from that sleek wooden hull. But it was Saturday, November 4, 1944, and war was about to intrude upon grace.
The vessel was a now anominous member of the "Coarsair Fleet" – private sailing yahts which partoled the outer approaches to American ports on both coasts. This particular ship was criss-crossing the Pacific, 66 miles outside of San Pedro and the Port of Los Angeles. The owner, too old for military service, was her acting captain. But she was crewed by uniformed members of the United States Coast Guard. Being wooden and small, these vessels were often missed by the radar of the day. While under sail, they were invsible to submarrines listening for the grinding of porpellers from patrol craft. And then a crewman’s shout pierced the morning serentity.
Rolling with the swell was a large section of white cloth. The captain reefed his sails and hove to. As the sailors pulled the cloth onboard they became aware that suspended beneath the fabric was a large metel ring resembaling a bicycle wheel, upon which was mounted electronic equipment, all marked in Japanese.
Three months before members of the Yamaguchi Girl’s High School received a visit from a Major from the Kokura military arsenal. He informed the girls they were now members of the Student Special Attack Force, and would be working on a secret weapon which would fly directly to America and would have a great impact upon the war. The girls were thrilled at being asked to participate directly in the war effort, especially considering the traditional subservient and hidden role of Japanese women.
One of the girls, 15 year old Tanaka Tetsuko, explained later. “Stands were placed all over the schoolyard and drying boards were erected on them.... We covered the board with a thin layer of paste...and then laid down two sheets of Japanese paper and brushed out any bubbles. When dry, a thicker layer of paste, with a slightly bluish hue…. was evenly applied to it. That process was repeated five times".
 "We really believed we were doing secret work, so I didn’t talk about this even at home. But my clothes were covered with paste, so my family must have been able to figure out something. We didn't have any newspapers, no radio. We didn't even hear the news announcements made by Imperial General Headquarters. We just pasted paper”
Over the next few months some 300 balloons fell to earth off Hawaii and in Alaska, Oregon, Washington State, California, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and Texas, as well as British Columbia and Alberta, Canada.
 The balloons were all 33 feet in diamater and made of mulberry paper, glued together with potato flour and then inflated with hydrogen. Each balloon was programed during its three to five day flight across the north Pacific to control its height by dropping 2 lb. bags of sand ballast each evening.
Once they had flown long enough to be over North America they would then drop their cargo of 33-lb fragmentation and incindiary bombs The production markings made in grease pen by the Japanese workers revealed the balloons had been made only a few weeks before being launched, and even recorded the hours required to make them.
There was inital panic amongst officals because of the real fear was that these balloons might carry a biological attack. American intelligence sources had already heard rumors of the Japanese Unit Number 731, which was experimenting with plagues on prisoners of War in Machuria. Some 200,000 of these unwilling test subjects, mostly Chinese, would die. American authorities clamped a total press blackout on any information concerning the balloons, to prevent the Japanese from learning of their effectiveness. Meanwhile, a search was begun to find their launching point. The Military Geology Unit within the U.S. Geological Survey, provided the answer.
Geologists examined the sand in the ballast bags under a microscope. They found several species of extinct single-celled plants, described by prewar Japanese marine biologists. In addition the sand contained enough trace minerals to narrow their source to one of  two beaches, one of which was at Ichinomiya, Japan. In February of 1945, surveillance flights identified two plants near Ichinomiya which manufactured hydrogen. In April, American B-29 bombers burned over half of Ichinomiya to the ground, and destroyed both of those plants. There was a third plant, left undamaged because it was undiscovered, But without any information on the effectiveness of the 9,000 balloons released so far, the Japanese military decided to cut off funding for any future balloons.
On the morning of Saturday, May 5, 1945, 27 year old Reverend Archie Mitchell and his wife Elsie, who was five months pregnant, were accompaning children from their church on a fishing outing to Leanord Creek, at the foot of Gearhart Mountin, five miles outside of Bly, Oreagon. The  children's parents were all working overtime to produce lumber and food for the war effort, and the couple was trying fill in for the parents and restore a small piece of a normal childhood lost to the war. Archie dropped his wife and the children off at a bend in the road and drove a mile ahead, to the river bank. He unloaded the fishing gear, and had just returned to the car to unlaod the picnic supplies, when he heard Elsie and the children approaching. He heard Elsie call out that one of the children had found a weather balloon.
Archie just had time to shout a warning when an explosion ripped through the forest. By the time Archie had reached the scene, his wife and unborn child and all five of the other children were dead.
Sherman Shoemaker, age 11, Jay Gifford, age 13, Edward Engen, age 13, Joan Patzke, age 13, and Dick Patzke, age 14; these were the only American civilian casualties during the Second World War, giving the Japanese balloon bombs a kill rate of just 0.067%.
The last of the Japanese balloon bombs was discovered in Alaska in 1955. It’s bombs were still lethal. The remains of another balloon bomb was discovered in 1978 near Agness, Oregon. It can be seen in the Coos County Historical Museum.
But it was not until the 1986 that now 55 year old Tanaka Tetsuko learned what one of the bombs she had helped to construct, had achieved. She and two of her classmates carefully folded 1,000 paper storks, and in 1987 arrainged for them to be delivered to the community of Bly, with her heartfelt apology.
It must be assumed that of the 9,000 “Fu-Go” ballon bombs launched from Japan, roughly 10% reached North America. Even 65 years later, less than 300 have been found. In all probability the bombs from some of the missing 200 of so balloons are still out there, hidden in the underbrush, tangled in tree branches and still capable of killing people, even those who think the Second World War is over and ancient history.
Wars are not fought merely by armies. And their violence does not cease merely because a peace treaty is signed.
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