by John Keel
The Fugo Balloons
It was not known to the general public that during the war the Japanese were attempting to use fire balloons against the West Coast of the United States. —Manhattan Project: The Untold Story of the Making of the Atomic Bomb by Stephane Groueff, 1967.
While American school children were engaged in scrap metal drives for the war effort in the 1940s, Japanese children were put to work on a much more imaginative project. They were asked to build large paper balloons that could be filled with hydrogen and set adrift in the jet stream. Ultimately, a total of 9,000 of these Fugo balloons were built and launched. How many finally reached the U.S. will never be known, but we do know that several did manage to make the long trip. (Incidentally, many years later it was revealed that the American scrap metal drives were a phony and that the scrap metal collected was never used. The whole thing was just a scheme to give school children a sense of participation in the war.) Wartime Japan was faced with many critical shortages. The balloons were a practical idea because they could be made of readily-available brown rice paper. Artistic Japanese children decorated the paper panels with fierce dragons, snow-topped mountains, flowers and anti-American slogans. The panels were carefully glued together and reinforced with silken strings. An indestructible mylar-like material was used for “sails” on some balloons, with spars fashioned of a lightweight pressed-rice kind of plastic. This pseudo-plastic was widely used in Japan during the war years because wood was virtually unobtainable. It was fireproof and wouldn’t melt (unlike the early plastics used in the West, such as forms of bakelite).
Each balloon was equipped with a clever altimeter and system of weights. Whenever the balloon dipped below a certain altitude, the altimeter would trigger a release that would drop a weight. When all the weights were gone and the balloon still sank to a low altitude, the altimeter would finally release the payload—an incendiary bomb. The balloons were 33 feet in diameter. As more and more of them were launched, they became more sophisticated. Eventually some of them were attached to tracking devices and gadgets designed to attract or confuse radar. Japanese submarines spread across the Pacific and tried to check their westward journey in an effort to ascertain if the scheme was really working.
One ingenious attachment was a simple sphere made of aluminum. It was lightweight and dangled beneath the balloon until the altimeter finally released it. When a radar beam struck the sphere, the signal would ricochet in such a way that when it returned to the radar transmitter it would produce a huge image on the tracking screen. It looked as if the radar had detected an object 700-1,000 feet in diameter! The Japanese subs would know they had picked up one of their balloons, but U.S. Naval ships were totally baffled by the gigantic—and impossible—returns. After the war, the U.S. Navy even released some of their reports about these huge radar “ghosts” of the Pacific. And for many years after WW II, the spheres were found in many odd places from Australia to the Himalaya Mountains, probably dropped by Fugo balloons that had wandered way off course.
Another anti-radar technique, developed by the British early in the war, was called “chaff” by Allied pilots. The Germans and Japanese were soon using this, too. At first it consisted of chopped up tinfoil that was dumped out of planes and caused “snow” on enemy radar screens. Later, tiny strips of aluminum foil were used. These strips were cut to the wave lengths of the radar transmitters. Some were only a few centimeters long while others, called “rope,” were several feet in length. Some balloons had pieces of this stuff of varying lengths dangling from their payload. When picked up by radar, they produced a scrambled image that suggested a flight of birds. Other balloons were constructed to dump batches of “chaff” at periodic intervals along their flight path.
Imagine how weird some of these balloons must have looked, with silvery streamers dangling from them and wide vanes spread out to act as sails and help speed them across the Pacific. Those that managed to reach the U.S. were undoubtedly seen by thousands of people, though no one would ever suspect that they came from hostile Japan 5,000 miles away.
An Incredible Coincidence
America’s top secret during the war years was the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. One of the super-secret plutoni-um processing plants was located in a barren area called Hanford in the state of Washington.
“One day a mysterious power failure occurred somewhere in the current, immediately triggering the safety controls of the reactors,” according to Groueff’s Manhattan Project. “What had happened? Was it sabotage? Colonel Matthias’ security men swarmed into the area and imposed the strictest secrecy on all information concerning the power failure. Only the top Du Pont people were informed confidentially about the cause of the trouble: a Japanese balloon.”
It does seem unreal, you must admit, that a flimsy paper balloon could cross the vast Pacific on an uncontrolled flight and then effectively settle on the power lines leading to one of America’s most secret—and isolated—installations. But it happened. More than once!
“At least two Japanese balloons fell in the Hanford area,” Groueff states, “and one of them dropped on the power line between Bonneville and Grand Coulee, thus interrupting electric current and thereby triggering the safety mechanism of the reactors.”
Only the very highest officials in the government knew that America was under siege. We now know that at least one forest fire in Canada was started by a Fugo balloon and four campers in Montana were killed by one. The latter incident set off the government censors.
“The first two balloons to be seen in the United States fell in Montana and North Dakota and were reported in the Japanese press a week later,” Groueff wrote. “Since only local American newspapers had mentioned the incidents, Japanese spies were obviously reading the smallest country publications. After that any mention of the balloons in American papers was censored out.”
Post War Censorship
Fugo balloons must have been a great embarrassment to American military authorities. They eluded our radar and we had no way to combat those paper balloons constructed by school children. In typical bureaucratic fashion, our leaders had to ignore their existence and the public remained ignorant of the menace, even long after the war ended.
“On January 4, 1945, the Office of Censorship asked newspaper editors and radio broadcasters to give no publicity whatsoever to balloon incidents. This voluntary censorship was adhered to from coast to coast, a remarkable self-restraint in a free-press-conscious country…” (Japan’s World War II Balloon Bomb Attacks on North America, Smithsonian Institution, 1973.)
A propaganda office, the Office of War Information (O.W.I.), had been set up in Washington during WW II. The Office of Censorship, a branch of O.W.I., was primarily concerned with keeping the Manhattan Project secret. Their methodology was simple enough. They would send letters to the editors of the 2,000-plus newspapers in the country asking them to avoid certain subjects. It worked.
“In a ‘strictly confidential’ note to editors and broadcasters, the Office of Censorship stated: ‘Cooperation from the press and radio under this request has been excellent despite the fact that Japanese free balloons are reaching the United States, Canada, and Mexico in increasing numbers…There is no question that your refusal to broadcast information about these balloons has baffled the Japanese, annoyed and hindered them, and has been an important contribution to security.” (Article, “Jap Balloons Dropped Bombs on U.S. During World War II” by R. C. Mikesh, National Enquirer, July 28, 1968.)
So we know the balloons were accidentally bombing Mexico and Canada, too. Thanks to the self-imposed censorship, we will never know just how many of the balloons reached this continent or what the total damage really was.
Still More Secrecy
Japan, somewhat unnerved by our atomic bombs, surrendered in August 1945. The war ended, our boys came home, the Office of Censorship was disbanded and the launching of Fugo balloons ceased. But something strange happened. Fugo balloons continued to appear over the United States for years!
Every Fortean has heard the strange reports of old newspapers suddenly fluttering out of a clear sky, giving no clue as to where they had been in the months or years since they were published. Lightweight items may float around in the atmosphere for 100 years before dropping into your backyard.
Of the 9,000 balloons sent aloft by the Japanese, it is safe to assume that most of them finally landed harmlessly in the ocean. A few reached North America, and the rest got caught in the peculiar winds and eddies of the upper stratosphere where all those old newspapers, hats, frogs and blocks of ice drift about. Then, from time to time, one would crash to earth and thoroughly mystify all those who had never heard about the secret balloon invasion.
Almost a year after the war, one turned up on the border of Colorado and New Mexico, according to the Durango Chapbook, July 1946. “On April 19, 1946, two men excitedly reported that Navajo Lake had been bombed by a flying brown thing. They said a silvery object had been dropped from a brown sphere. Just before it reached the water it exploded and showered flames in all directions. The sphere soared away.”
The jet stream seemed to carry many of the balloons on a curved course from Oregon to New Mexico. In early 1947, they were still drifting down. Reports were scanty, but elements of the U.S. Army were clearly interested.
“Two big, brown paper balloons, one of which had Christmas tree ‘icicles’ hanging from it, were found by campers near Malheur Lake this Spring,” a brief item in The West Oregonian revealed on September 27, 1947. “The remnants of a third, with a strange metal instrument attached, were found in Klamath County in August. Army personnel visited the site and removed all the debris. All three balloons appeared to be handmade, according to witnesses, and contained mysterious Oriental-like inscriptions.”
A curtain of secrecy continued to shield the unwary public from the explosive balloons in their midst. The biggest breech of this security occurred in July 1947, at the height of the first “flying saucer scare” when, after a severe storm, the remains of one of the balloons was found on a ranch in Lincoln County, New Mexico. Local newspapers described the find, and the wire services picked up the story. Later, military authorities carted away the materials and announced it was nothing but a “weather balloon.” Obviously, they were determined to keep the existence of the Fugo balloons a secret two years after the war. In fact, few knew about the Fugo project until the 1950s, when a small Japanese booklet on the subject was published.
There is evidence that the balloons were still bombing New Mexico in 1949, four years after the end of hostilities. In his 1953 book, Flying Saucers From Outer Space, Donald Keyhoe describes the “Red Spray saucers” which appeared near Albuquerque, dropped to about 200 feet, exploded and sprayed fire in all directions.
There was a mysterious explosion of an incendiary-type device over a Brazilian beach in 1957. It scattered pieces of magnesium, a prime ingredient for WW II incendiary bombs, and is still considered a “crashed saucer” by UFO cultists. It does seem unlikely that a bomb launched in 1945 would turn up in Brazil 12 years later, but it is possible.
Military secrecy worked so well that the Fugo project would have been completely forgotten if a couple of the damnable things had not knocked out the lights at Hanford and thus found immortality in the literature on the development of the atomic bomb. When the U.S. Government Printing Office published the Smithsonian’s report on the subject in 1973, only a few random aviation historians paid any attention to it.
A 1950 bestseller, Behind the Flying Saucers by Variety columnist Frank Scully, embellished the New Mexico incidents with complicated tales of dead “little men,” the autopsies of same, and other fanciful rumors. Although thoroughly disproven later, Scully’s stories became an integral part of the burgeoning flying saucer lore known as the “Roswell Incident.”
Horror novelist Whitley Strieber visited Roswell in the 1980s and tracked down some of the surviving witnesses. In the Afterword to Majestic, he repeats the testimony of some of the witnesses:
“Marcel went on to describe what he had found. ‘There was all kinds of stuff—small beams about three-eighths or a half-inch square with some sort of hieroglyphics on them that nobody could decipher. These looked something like balsa wood, and were of about the same weight, except they were not wood at all. They were very hard, although flexible, and would not burn. There was a great deal of unusual parchment-like substance which was brown in color and extremely strong, and a great number of small pieces of a metal like tinfoil, except that it wasn’t tinfoil.’ Later ‘Mac’ Brazel’s daughter Bessie described the paper as having apparent flowers pressed in it.”
Unfortunately, Strieber did not have the last word. Several books and countless magazine articles have been inspired by the “Roswell Incident,” and several more are due to appear in 1990-91. The Fugo balloons will be with us for a long time.