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Months before an atomic bomb decimated Hiroshima, the United States and Japan were locked in the final stages of World War II. The United States had turned the tables and invaded Japan’s outlying islands three years after Japan’s invasion of the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. That probably seemed a world away to a Sunday school teacher, her minister husband and five 13- and 14-year-old students near Klamath Falls. Rev. Archie Mitchell was driving the group along a mountainous road on the way to a Saturday afternoon picnic, according to the Mail Tribune, a southern Oregon newspaper.
Teacher Elyse Mitchell, who was pregnant, became sick. Her husband pulled the sedan over. He began speaking to a construction crew about fishing conditions, and his wife and the students momentarily walked away. They were about a hundred yards from the car when she shouted back: “Look what I found, dear,”.
One of the road-crew workers, Richard Barnhouse, said “There was a terrible explosion. Twigs flew through the air, pine needles began to fall, dead branches and dust, and dead logs went up.” The minister and the road crew ran to the scene. Jay Gifford, Edward Engen, Sherman Shoemaker, Dick Patzke and their teacher were all dead, strewn around a one-foot hole. The teacher’s dress was ablaze. Dick Patzke’s sister Joan was severely injured and died minutes later.
The six were victims of Japan’s so-called Fu-Go or fire-balloon campaign. Carried aloft by 19,000 cubic feet of hydrogen and borne eastward by the jet stream, the balloons were designed to travel across the Pacific to North America, where they would drop incendiary devices or anti-personnel explosives.
The balloons measured about 33 feet in diameter and 70 feet from the top of the balloon to the payload at the bottom. They were first made of paraffined paper, and later from latex and fabricated silk, and contained hydrogen gas. Barometer-operated valves released hydrogen if the balloon gained too much altitude or dropped sandbags if it flew too low. The payload consisted of 36 sand-filled paper bags for use as ballast, 4 incendiary bombs and 1 33-pound anti-personnel bomb.
In November, 1944, the Japanese began launching unmanned bomb-carrying balloons, which travelled on prevailing winds across the Pacific Ocean to North America. It was hoped that the balloons would start forest fires and cause general panic among the population.
The balloons began their three to five day journey from Japan at an altitude of about 35,000 feet, usually travelling at speeds between 80 and 120 miles per hour. As gas slowly leaked from the balloons, they descended in altitude. When they fell to about 25,000 feet, a barometric pressure switch would cause one of the ballast sandbags to be dropped, and the balloons would rise again to 35,000 feet. This up and down pattern continued as the balloons crossed the Pacific Ocean. When the balloons reached the west coast of North America, they were supposed to have exhausted their supply of ballast sandbags and the bombs would then be used as ballast, with one bomb being dropped with each descent to 25,000 feet as they travelled across land. After the final bomb was dropped, a fuse would be ignited and the balloons would destroy themselves in bright orange fireballs.
The first discovery of a balloon in North America was made by two woodchoppers, who discovered a balloon on the ground near Kalispell, Montana in December, 1944. It was determined that the balloon originated in Japan by analyzing beach sand from one of the balloon's ballast sandbags. Tight censorship was immediately imposed on further balloon sightings, since it was feared that disclosing when and where balloons were being found would encourage the enemy to launch more balloons and perfect their delivery. The period of censorship appeared to have served its purpose, since it was later learned that the Japanese scaled down and eventually abandoned the balloon launchings, considering them ineffective since they had heard of very few balloons reaching U.S. territory.