When the United States dropped atom bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, it signaled the second end to World War II called V-J Day (Victory in Japan), the first being V-E Day (Victory in Europe). The world was astounded by not one, but two major victories by a country still reeling from the dark days of the Great Depression. America was hailed as the world’s dominant and greatest super power to be reckoned with.
The Japanese, masters of the sneak attack, were still planning ways to destroy the North American coastline up until the end and tried their last — and perhaps most secretive plan — just months before President Harry S. Truman gave the order to send the nation’s own secret weapon to the “Land of the Rising Sun.”
The “Fu Go” — or fire balloon — was Japan’s final attempt to wreak havoc on the western United States, but thankfully it was not successful. It was, however, the launching of the first intercontinental missile in the world, with the longest attacking range in the history of warfare to that time, a record that was not surpassed until the war in the Falkland Islands in 1982.
These balloons were developed to be carried from Japanese shorelines and catch the cold winter air currents 30,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean on the jet stream. The plan was that 9,000 of these bombs would hit the mainland and crash, causing gigantic forest fires that would destroy much of the country, knowing that most able-bodied men would be away, fighting the war on other fronts. Some accounts have claimed that this action was in latent retaliation of the Doolittle raid over Tokyo in the spring of 1942.
The Japanese Imperial Navy’s name for the secret surprise was “Code Fu” for “weapon.” Each carried a payload of a 33-pound anti-personnel bomb or a 26-pound incendiary bomb, and 11-pound incendiary devices. Envelopes at first were made of rubberized silk and used hydrogen gas. Soon the process was changed to the use of washi paper, made from mulberry plants, which proved to be very tough and impermeable. Small sheets were then assembled and glued together with a special paste by school children, who worked covertly in schools, warehouses and similar locations, attending school classes at night. Since their project was piecemeal, they had no idea they were creating weaponry.
Balloons lifted into the air for the first time on a test basis in September 1944, with the first launchings taking place in April 1945, dotting the atmosphere on their three-day voyage. Some were spotted high in the skies and explosions were heard and reported from California to Alaska. When the United States government became aware of the potential danger, a news blackout went out to all media ordering them not to speak of it.
Calls to radio stations and authorities resulted in the public being told that these were weather balloons and not to be concerned. The people, however, were warned separately that if they saw something, it was their patriotic duty to say something or risk being arrested for charges of treason.
Fortunately, the balloons did not produce the expected results. Many disintegrated in midair, not reaching their destination, some went off course and were sighted over places as remote as Oklahoma and even New Mexico. Some flew over South Dakota.
Local papers carried news on sightings of glistening white objects against the sun. An explosion, later thought to have been a fire balloon, was rumored to be heard near the Badlands. Debris was said to have been found there years later. Pieces of these balloons were reported found in several states, Canada and Alaska through the end of the 1940s and into the 1950s and 1960s. Fragments were also found as late as 1978 and in October of 2014, a surviving balloon downed in British Columbia was detonated by specialists of the Royal Canadian Navy.
Remnants from one of these balloons are held in the collections of the South Dakota Heritage Center in Pierre.