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Fifty Years Ago, Six Killed by Balloon Bomb Launched From Japan

May 5, 1995

GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) _ The end of World War II was only months away when the Rev. Archie Mitchell loaded his wife and five Sunday school students into his old sedan and left the logging town of Bly for a day of fishing.

Patches of snow still covered the ground near Gearhart Mountain as Mitchell’s wife, Elsie, got out by the creek with the children while he parked the car.

The minister was just coming down a hill to join them when an explosion erupted in their midst, killing his wife and all five youngsters.

Fifty years ago today, they became the only Americans killed in the continental United States by enemy action in World War II. They were victims of a bomb carried 6,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean by a balloon that Japanese schoolgirls made from paper and paste.

``Who would have thought anything like that could happen in a little town like Bly?″ said Betty Patzke Mitchell, who lost a brother and sister in the blast, then married Mitchell two years later. ``I always thought that was such a safe little place.″

On Saturday, a simple stone monument erected on remote Gearhart Mountain in 1950 will be rededicated. Six cherry trees donated by Japanese schoolchildren will be planted at the monument, two more at Mitchell’s church and two at Gearhart Elementary in Bly.

About 6,000 balloon bombs were launched from Japan in the winter of 1944-45 to ride the jet stream to the United States in a campaign to set fire to the Western forests, according to Bert Webber, author of ``Silent Siege: Japanese Attacks on North America in World War II.″

Only 369 bombs were found. They descended to earth from the Aleutian Islands south of Alaska to Mexico, and as far east as Detroit.

After the first half-dozen were found in the United States, the Army clamped a lid of secrecy on their existence that ultimately was a factor in ending the bombings, said Webber.

U.S. bombing raids destroyed many of the Japanese factories that made parts for balloon bombs. With no word on whether the bombs were working, plus the problems with their manufacture, the Japanese Army abandoned the campaign in April 1945.

The next month, Mitchell, the new pastor at the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church in Bly, decided to take his boys’ Sunday school class on a fishing trip. A sister of one boy tagged along. They left on May 5, 1945.

After the explosion, the Army immediately dispatched investigators.

``They knew all about it before the family did,″ recalled Edward L. Patzke, whose brother Dick and sister Joan, both 14, were killed. ``They swore everybody to secrecy. They didn’t want Japan to get the word back they were even hitting their target.″

Betty Patzke Mitchell said her husband told her that in the aftermath of the explosion, ``he felt like Job of old.″

``All were taken and he alone was left to tell the story. He said, `The Lord gives and the Lord taketh away,‴ Mrs. Mitchell recalled.

``He never once showed bitterness at all towards the government, or the military, or the Japanese,″ she added.

Two years later, the Mitchells went to Vietnam as missionaries. Mitchell was taken prisoner by the Viet Cong in 1962 and never seen again.

When the bomb exploded, John Takeshita was among the Japanese-Americans held at the Tule Lake Relocation Center in California, 50 miles from Bly. Now a professor of public health at the University of Michigan, Takeshita recalled hearing rumors in the camp about balloon bombs and watching for them in the sky.

Forty years later, he learned they were real.

During a visit to his grandmother’s village in Japan in 1985, he heard from the wife of a friend that she had helped assemble the balloons. On another visit a year later, he saw teacher Yoshiko Hisaga describe on television how her students made the balloons. She also mentioned how fortunate it was that only six people were killed by them.

Takeshita sent Hisaga the names of the six victims. Before Takeshita returned home a year later, Hisaga gave him 1,000 hand-folded paper cranes, a symbol of atonement, to take to the people of Bly.

``Up to then it was just a number,″ Takeshita said of the victims. ``You know how it is, people compare the size of the losses, whether it is the Holocaust or the Rape of Nanking or Hiroshima-Nagasaki.

``Talking with them, they suddenly came to realize the importance of human lives. It’s not so much how many lost, but an individual life. A child of a mother. They related to that. They wanted to reach out. It was remarkable to see people change their whole perception of the experience.″

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