Among the lesser known weapons used in World War II were airborne bombs, that drifted across the ocean like flying jellyfish. They were known as fugo, or fire balloons, and they were the only successful attack on the mainland United States.
Top image: Steve Lacy/Flickr.com.
Drifting across the skies above the Pacific Ocean, during 1944 and 1945, were nearly ten thousand bombs. Although Japan couldn't match the size and population of a larger country, there were ways to turn the sheer size of the United States against it. The established air currents helped, but even with the wind cooperating, it takes navigation to fly to Japan. The continental United States is a bigger target that can be reached with less technology.
School children in Japan were asked to make gigantic balloons, thirty-three feet in diameter. The first prototypes were made out of paper, but later ones were made from silk. The balloons, when filled with hydrogen gas, were buoyant enough to carry a thirty-three pound bomb, as well as a few incendiary bombs and thirty-six sandbags. When released they would shoot up to 35,000 feet. They'd leak gas, slowly dropping, until a barometer caused one of the sand bags to drop off into the sea, at which point they'd go up to 35,000 feet again. The balloons could travel on air currents at up to 120 miles per hour, and so, when the last sandbag fell, they descended onto North America. For navigatorless objects, drifting on the wind, a surprising amount of them made it over the sea.
Out of the nine thousand launched, about one thousand reached land, while the rest exploded in the sky or dropped into the ocean. The bombs went off as far east as Kansas and Texas. Some drifted down to Mexico, and some up to Canada. Although the bombs caused a few fires, American officials asked people not to talk widely about them. The bombs didn't cause any actual casualties until 1945. Six people, five of them children, were killed at a church picnic, when they saw a deflated balloon and touched the bomb, not knowing what it was. A sad but touching epilogue came from the Japanese children who had built the balloons, also not knowing what they were. In the late 1980s, they sent letters and paper cranes to the families of the people who'd been at the picnic.
We participated in the building of weapons used to kill people without understanding much beyond the knowledge that America was our adversary in a war. To think that the weapons we made took your lives as you were out on a picnic! We were overwhelmed with deep sorrow.
This bombing was neither the first nor the last of the conflict between Japan and America. These bombs were in response to the Doolittle Raid, an air raid on Japan, which was itself in response to Pearl Harbor. And then of course, there was the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The letter, sent decades later, is remarkable because it indicates that, whatever horrible things happen in war, nations and people retain the ability to reconcile with each other after wars are over.
Balloon Image: Aviation History