The man from the Forest Service burst into the switchboard room with orders for the young operator. Keep quiet, he told Cora ...
PHILADELPHIA — The man from the Forest Service burst into the switchboard room with orders for the operator. Keep quiet, he told Cora Conner, 16. Stay put.
It was May 5, 1945. Six people lay dead in the Oregon woods, their bodies arrayed “like spokes in a wheel,” victims of a bomb attached to a balloon.
The balloon, launched in Japan, had ridden ferocious, high-altitude winds discovered by a Japanese scientist.
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Far more is known about jet-stream winds now: They detonate storms, such as last winter’s record snows; they have conspired in the summer heat in much of the country; they may mark the boundaries of winners and losers in a warming world; and they someday may turn on the lights.
But in the final months of World War II, they played a different role: They were highways of war.
As the world marked the 65th anniversary of Japan’s Aug. 15 surrender, the little-known story of the balloon bombing remains vivid in the memories of a few Americans, including Conner.
“I was just numb,” she said. “It took me 40 years before I could talk to anybody about this.”
The bomb blast in Bly, Ore., had its origins in the work of a gentle Japanese genius.
Wasaburo Ooishi, according to his granddaughter, treasured his chestnut trees and cultivated morning glories. Using pilot balloons and making 1,228 observations from March 1923 to February 1925, he became the first scientist to document high-speed winds that howl three to nine miles above Earth, where warm and cold air meet.
He published his pioneering work in Esperanto. But this “universal language” never caught on, and his findings were overlooked.
Scientists long had theorized about concentrated, high-speed winds in the upper atmosphere. The phrase jet stream — think of water pulsing from a hose — was minted by a German meteorologist as early as 1939.
Since World War II, experts have made great leaps in understanding and predicting the winds’ behavior, a standard feature of computer models forecasting weather.
But thanks to their global span and wild nature, the winds remain difficult to measure.
Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, in Stanford, Calif., and Christina Archer, of California State University, Chico, recently published a paper describing the jet stream as a high-speed energy mine, holding about 100 times the world’s needs.
Archer says tapping the jet stream for electrical power no longer is merely a dream. Prototypes are in the works, though it may take a decade or more to resolve technological obstacles.
In a sense, scientists and entrepreneurs are building on Ooishi’s legacy.
He was no maker of bombs. He merely had wanted to improve weather forecasts.
But Japanese military leaders saw the potential. Retaliating for a bombing raid and desperate for a victory late in the war, they devised an attack on the United States. They conscripted schoolchildren to help by gluing together paper squares to form balloon canopies.
Japan launched more than 9,000 of the hydrogen-filled balloons, each 33 feet in diameter and equipped with altitude-control instruments and incendiary devices.
The balloons were meant to reach the Pacific Northwest, drop their bombs, set off panic and forest fires, and self-destruct without leaving a trace.
The U.S. government learned of this campaign but censored reports in the media, lest the Japanese think they were succeeding.
For the most part, the balloon bombs failed. They rode the strong winds of the cool months, the Northwest’s rainy season. That put a damper on forest fires.
And the Japanese could not have accounted for the chaos reigning in the upper atmosphere. Balloon parts were found from Alaska to Mexico, and as far east as Michigan.
Where the bombs did set fires, an all-black paratroop battalion, the 555th, was sent in. Commanders judged the “Triple Nickels” unfit for combat, recalls one of them, Walter Morris.
Serving with Morris was Malvin Brown, 25, a Philadelphia native. He died fighting a fire in the war’s final days. Morris accompanied his remains back to Pennsylvania.
The only balloon-bomb fatalities — the war’s only fatalities inflicted on U.S. soil — occurred that brilliant May day in the Oregon woods.
Conner’s family ran the town switchboard for the phone company, and it was her turn to be on duty. So her mother denied her request to go to a Sunday-school picnic with five friends.
It was a get-acquainted picnic organized by the new pastor in town, the Rev. Archie Mitchell of the Christian and Missionary Church, and his pregnant wife, Elsye.
The minister dropped his wife and the children at the picnic spot and was parking his car when the group saw a fallen balloon. Someone may have touched it, and Mitchell witnessed the explosion.
Jack Smith, the first forest ranger to reach the scene, saw the bodies “like spokes” around a crater. Now 95, he still has the shrapnel he dug out of a pine tree that day.
Another Forest Service man went to the Bly switchboard that day to alert the military. He ordered Conner to stay in the room and not even tell her family.
“I was there early in the morning until late at night,” she said. “People were yelling at me. … They pounded on the door and the window.”
“On Paper Wings”
In interviews with documentary filmmaker Ilana Sol, Japanese women who made the balloons said they did so to help the war effort. They did not know of the deaths in Bly until years later.
In 1996, four of those women were invited to Bly. Their visit is depicted in Sol’s documentary, “On Paper Wings.”
Archie Mitchell did not live to witness the reconciliation. After the bombing, he married Betty Patzke, sister of two of the victims. He and his wife later went to Vietnam to work at a hospital for leprosy patients, but he was captured by Viet Cong in 1962 and never seen again.
Betty Mitchell did participate in the Bly meeting. She says the bombing and her husband’s capture were “part of God’s plan.”
Conner, now 81, has forgiven the Japanese women and the man who pounded hardest on the door that day, “shaking his fists and screaming.”
He was Ed Patzke, the older brother of two victims.
He apologized to her later, Conner says — “and we cried and cried and cried.”