How many of you are aware of the fact that Japan used balloon bombs, known as fire balloons, during WWII? Yes, that is true! In fact, a total of 9,000 of such balloons were launched. The Japanese called them balloon bombs or fire balloon. These bombs were an ingenious way of offsetting the loss of Japanese air power during the war in the Pacific. Since the Japanese didn’t have any long range and heavy bomber like the B-29 or aircraft carriers for taking their aircraft through the Pacific, they came up with a brilliant way of attacking.
Wasaburo Oishi was a Japanese meteorologist that had discovered about twenty years ago that a stream of high-altitude current blows across the Pacific. The current is now known as ‘jet stream.’ By conducting a set of experiments with pilot balloons that were launched from various locations in Japan, Oishi was able to conclude that the strong air currents were persistent and blew from the west to the east. Oishi published his work in Esperanto, an ‘artificial’ language that only a few spoke. The Japanese military got hold of this and decided to use the current as the conveyor belt for carrying bombs across the Pacific to the US.
During the course of five months that ended in April 1945, the Japanese had launched over 9,000 fire balloons. Each of these balloons was about 10 meters wide and housed sever hundred pounds of incendiary and high-explosives. The balloons would rise to a height of 30,000 feet before a control mechanism would kick in and keep the balloons in the right altitude by discarding sandbags or venting hydrogen. The balloons would drift across the Pacific for three days, and then a timing mechanism would release the bombs over the US territory. The balloons also self-destructed so that the US wouldn’t be able to reverse-engineer the technology.
Around 300 of the fire balloons reached the western coast of the North American continent making it as far inland as Texas, Michigan, and Wyoming. Most of the bombs fell remotely and didn’t cause any damage. Except for one that caused the death of 6 family members of Reverend Archie Mitchell on 5th May 1945. Another concern that these fire balloons raised was that of wildfire. Two thousand seven hundred troops were stations at critical points along the Pacific coastal forests along with fire-fighting equipment.
Nobody believed that the balloons flew all the way from Japan in the beginning. However, geologists confirmed that the sand in the sandbags belonged to a beach near the city of Ichinomiya on the island of Honshu. Two hydrogen production plants were destroyed by bombing to cease this operation involving fire balloons.