Alaska Life

‘If one should come your way, shoot it down’: The history of the balloon bombs spotted in Alaska and the West during World War II

Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

From 1944 to 1945, the western reaches of North America were under direct assault, though only a select few knew of the threat. Launched in Japan, the first intercontinental weapons in human history crossed the Pacific Ocean and blindly struck in a wide swath from Alaska to Mexico. They were a technological achievement, silent and potentially deadly if thankfully ineffective. They were fu-gos, the Japanese balloon bombs.

Military usage of balloons dates to at least third-century China when the strategist Zhuge Liang, also known as Kǒngmíng, employed small, paper hot air balloons for signaling. Outside Paris on Nov. 21, 1783, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent d’Arlandes made the first manned, untethered hot air balloon ascent. The modern era of military balloons began just 11 years later when one was used for reconnaissance in the Battle of Fleurus, part of the French Revolutionary Wars. Austrian forces attached bombs to balloons during the 1849 siege of Venice, the first use of balloons as an offensive weapon.

In the United States, balloons were first used in combat during the Civil War. The Union Army included a Balloon Corps consisting of seven balloons, the largest of which could carry five people in their baskets. The Confederate army responded by building two of their own balloons, including one made of multicolored silk swatches. Soldiers falsely believed that Southern women had sacrificed their dresses for the cause.

By World War I, all the major combatant countries utilized lighter-than-air vessels, including balloons, blimps and dirigibles. They were used for observation, to drop propaganda, and to raise wire nets that defended positions from enemy airplanes. Military balloon usage thereafter declined, though several countries continued to use balloons in the subsequent decades for anti-aircraft defense, bombing, spotting and surveillance. So, when the Japanese Army first began developing bomb-carrying hydrogen balloons in 1933, the concept was not as laughable as it might sound but was instead in keeping with an established military tradition.

Every project in the experimental weapon program was assigned a name ending with “-go.” The balloon bombs were fu-gos; fūsen is the Japanese word for a balloon. This iteration of the balloon bomb initiative was shut down in 1935, but the name survived.

Then came war. On Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese forces launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. On April 18, 1942, America retaliated with a long-range air strike on the Japanese mainland, the Doolittle Raid. And in response to the Doolittle Raid, Japanese leadership demanded a way to bomb the American homeland.


Researchers and designers began working on concepts to stretch the Japanese bombing range across the vast Pacific Ocean. Large one-way and small floatplane bombers were considered but eventually rejected. The smaller bombers were tested once. On Sept. 9, 1942, one such plane took off from a submarine off the Oregon coast and dropped two incendiary bombs in a forest, creating some small fires that were quickly contained.

By 1943, the focus returned to hydrogen balloon bombs via a revived fu-go program. The original plan called for submarines to surface and release the balloons roughly 600 miles off the American coast. When the designated submarines were recalled to frontline action in August 1943, those balloons were placed in storage.

Without a method for closer dispersal, the designers began exploring the possibility of simply dispatching the balloons from Japan. However, the air currents across the Pacific Ocean had not been mapped. From 1943 to 1944, roughly 200 paper balloons were launched to identify meteorological conditions in the upper atmosphere. None of these test balloons reached the United States, but the information they gathered suggested the concept was feasible if likely inefficient.

Two fu-go designs were developed. The A-Type models featured balloons made of several pressed layers of washi, paper made from the pulp of the kōzo bush, or paper mulberry. The washi was inexpensive, light and surprisingly tough. An automatic ballast system controlled the altitude, releasing sand as necessary to keep the balloon within the desired air currents.

The B-Type models featured balloons made of rubberized silk. While the silk was more durable than the washi, it was also heavier, had less lifting capability, and utilized resources in greater demand elsewhere. As such, only around 300 B-Type balloons were produced. The bombs themselves were a varying combination of thermite devices, high explosives, and shrapnel.

The fu-gos were launched from the main island of Honshu’s east coast beginning in November 1944. Through April 1945, when the program ceased, about 9,300 balloon bombs were released. Schoolchildren built most of the paper balloons, but they did not know their intended purpose.

Though conceptually simple, the fu-gos were, in actuality, a technological breakthrough. In the long history of humankind’s desire to kill each other faster and at longer ranges, the Japanese balloon bombs were the first intercontinental weapon. Never before had humans tried to kill others from so far away.

That said, there was no hope that the fu-gos would cause significant damage to the United States, let alone turn the tide of war. Expectations were lower because of the expected high attrition rate during the ocean crossing and the inherent lack of targeting. Instead, the balloon bombs were a potential morale boost for the Japanese people, just as the Doolittle Raid had raised American spirits but accomplished little of immediate military value. At best, successful fu-go strikes might have prompted American leaders to shift resources away from the Pacific theater and toward defense on the homefront.

The far majority of the balloon bombs failed to reach North America. Of the roughly 9,300 fu-gos launched toward the United States, only around 300, about 3%, were ever identified as reaching this side of the ocean. During the estimated average crossing time of 60 hours, most balloons malfunctioned, landed in the sea, or drifted away. Many of the balloons that survived the trip and were discovered had also malfunctioned in some way.

The first fu-go found in America was one of the relatively rare B-Type balloons. On Nov. 4, 1944, the balloon was discovered floating off San Pedro, California. Ten days later, another balloon, an A-Type, was recovered five miles west of Kailua, Hawaii. While they were identified as Japanese in origin, neither recovery included any bomb material and were thus treated as curiosities.

On Dec. 6, the balloons finally became a concern. That day, one of the fu-gos landed and exploded near Thermopolis, Wyoming. Observers heard an explosive crack followed by a bright red flame. Investigators discovered a two-foot crater where the bomb had landed. Through the rest of the month, more reports of balloon bombs arrived from Alaska, Montana and Oregon. By the end of the month, federal, state and territorial agencies had been warned of the danger and advised to report all sightings.

After a brief spate of publicity on the balloon discoveries, American authorities ordered newspapers and broadcasters to refrain from any further mentions. A Jan. 4, 1945 memorandum stated, “Information that the balloons have reached this country and particularly what section they have reached is information of value to the enemy. The War Department is appropriate authority for such information. Please do not aid the enemy by publishing or broadcasting such information without appropriate authority.”

The secrecy had its merits. Any news on balloon bombs would have indeed been treasured intelligence for the Japanese military. In addition, the stunning revelation that Japan could strike at the western United States might have caused a panic.

Such was the secrecy surrounding the balloon bombs that Alaska Territorial Guard, or ATG, founder Marvin “Muktuk” Marston believed the ATG had been the first to warn American authorities of the threat, in mid-December 1944. In a 1961 interview, he said, “Our greatest fear was that the Japanese would use the balloons for germ warfare.” For this reason, the Department of Agriculture quietly warned veterinarians and others in contact with livestock to be on the lookout for sudden and strange disease outbreaks.

Unfortunately, the lack of public warnings contributed to the one fu-go tragedy. On May 5, 1945, Rev. Archie Mitchell, his wife Elsie, and five children from their Sunday school class headed out for a picnic and fishing excursion near Bly, Oregon. They stopped, and the children ran out of the car. Rev. Mitchell recalled, “As I got out of my car to bring the lunch, the others were not far away and called to me they had found something that looked like a balloon. I had heard of Japanese balloons so I shouted a warning not to touch it. But just then there was a big explosion.”

Elsie and the five children died. From the snow underneath, it was clear that the bomb had been there for several days at the least. If they had known the extent of the danger, they might have avoided the balloon and lived, a point made repeatedly by reporters, officials, and citizens in the following days. On May 22, the restrictions were lifted, and a public education campaign was initiated. Elsie and the children were the only fatalities from enemy fire within the contiguous United States during World War II.

Many of the balloons wound up in Alaska. Per a 1973 study, there were 32 documented sightings or recoveries from 1944 to 1945, including nine balloons shot down over Attu in a single day, April 13, 1945. Other sources suggest dozens more sightings. Traces of the fu-gos were seen from the Aleutians to Bethel to above the Arctic Circle. At least one bomb made it to Anchorage. On June 18, 1945, a downed fu-go was discovered in the area. The single high-explosive and two incendiary bombs failed to ignite on landing and were safely deactivated. Another bomb was found near Petersburg in 1947.


In April 1945, Marston issued instructions regarding the balloon bombs. “If one should come your way, shoot it down; or, if it is found on the ground, post a guard and let no one go near it. Remember, it is contact with the enemy and anything might happen. All personnel in your organizations should be instructed to report dates and locations of balloon sightings and landings to you at the earliest possible time ... This is a confidential matter and if it is published it will aid the enemy.”

Fu-gos were sighted as north as Alaska, as south as Mexico, and as far east as Michigan. Yet, when the veil of secrecy was lifted in the United States, Japan had already ceased production of the bombs. Despite Japanese propaganda and the tragedy in Oregon to the contrary, the program had been a dismal failure. Toshiro Otsuki, who supervised the development of the altitude control mechanism, committed suicide in 1950.

In the 1950s, the Army briefly tested a biological weapon delivered by balloons, the E77 balloon bomb that was directly inspired by fu-gos. Undiscovered fu-gos are likely still scattered across the continent. As recently as 2019, an unexploded fu-go was discovered near McBride, British Columbia. Pieces of the Japanese balloon bombs also endure, gathering dust or locked away in archives. The most visible reminder of this entire episode is in southern Oregon, a monument to six deaths in what is now called the Mitchell Recreation Area.

Key sources:

Coen, Ross. Fu-go: The Curious History of Japan’s Balloon Bomb Attack on America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014.

Fattig, Paul. “Japanese Failed with Balloon Bombs.” Anchorage Times, June 8, 1985, C1, C2.

“Japanese Bomb Deactivated Here.” Petersburg Press, October 17, 1947, 1.

Marston, Marvin “Muktuk.” Men of the Tundra: Alaska Eskimos at War. New York City: October House Inc., 1969.


McCracken, Andru. “Looking for Goats, Man Finds WWII Bomb.” Rocky Mountain Goat, October 22, 2019.

Mikesh, Robert C. Japan’s World War II Balloon Bomb Attacks on North America. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1973.

David Reamer | Alaska history

David Reamer is a historian who writes about Anchorage. His peer-reviewed articles include topics as diverse as baseball, housing discrimination, Alaska Jewish history and the English gin craze. He’s a UAA graduate and nerd for research who loves helping people with history questions. He also posts daily Alaska history on Twitter @ANC_Historian.