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U.S. Air Force
Balloon bombs were a Japanese innovation. When the Japanese found themselves unable to retaliate by any conventional means against the U.S. strategic bombing campaign of 1944, the Noborito Reasearch Institute
developed designs for large (13' or 4 meter) hydrogen-filled balloons
armed with incendiary and antipersonnel bombs. The balloon bombs were
equipped with automatic mechanisms to release ballast or hydrogen in
order to maintain altitude within the jet stream.
The jet stream would carry the balloons to North America within a
matter of days, and a timing mechanism would then release the bomb
load. The Japanese hoped to start large forest fires in the Pacific Northwest and spread panic among the civilian population.
According to Sears (2008), the balloon bomb
program was known as Flying Elephant and was seen as a way for ordinary
Japanese to share in the spirit of the kamikazes.
Each balloon required the assembly of 600 strips of rice paper using
paste, and the work was often done by schoolgirls or sex workers
supervised by paperhangers. The first balloon bombs were launched in November
1944. The principal American response was to impose a press blackout to
prevent the Japanese gaining any information
on the effectiveness of the bombs. Hearing of no reports of the
weapons, the Japanese concluded
that the weapons had been ineffective and ended the balloon bombing
campaign six months later. In fact, of the 9300 bombs released, remains
of 285 were eventually discovered, and it is estimated that about
1000 reached North America. One bomb made it as far as the suburbs of
Detroit. However, the only damage or casualties
inflicted by the bombs were the deaths of a pastor's wife and five
children who discovered a balloon bomb while on a picnic in Oregon.
Because the balloons relied on the jet stream, which lies above the
storm track, it was almost guaranteed that the balloon bombs would drop
only on forest that was soaked by rain.
American officials were concerned about the possibility that the Japanese would arm the bombs with biological agents and quietly took precautions, such as distributing disinfectant to decontaminate balloon bomb wreckage. A number of fighters were assigned to air defense against the balloons and succeeded in shooting down about 20 of the weapons.
Ironically, this attempt to burn out the cities of
the Pacific Northwest preceded by two or three months the first of the
much more successful American fire bombing raids against Japanese urban
U.S. Air Force (2010; accessed 2010-12-1)
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