In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, columnist George Will wrote that those “war deaths (were) the first within America since 1865.” Sadly, he was wrong. In fact, during World War II several Americans living in the United States lost their lives because of enemy action. Seventy years ago this week, on May 5, 1945, six Americans, five of them children between the ages of 11 and 14, were killed in the explosion of a Japanese bomb in the uplands of south-central Oregon.
This tragedy occurred at the end of the war, when Germany was collapsing and Japan was struggling to stave off defeat. Beginning in late 1944, Japan had released 6,000 balloons armed with bombs, expecting them to ride the S-shaped “jet stream” that swings northeastward, and then southeast and finally eastward across the United States and Canada. Once over enemy territory, built-in timers would cause the balloons to drop and the bombs to explode, thus igniting forest fires and causing other destruction. At speeds of up to 300 miles per hour, the bombs floated from Japan thousands of miles across the Pacific toward unsuspecting residents in North America in little more than a day.
Saturday morning, May 5, was sunny and clear in Bly, Ore., a lumbering and ranching community of 750 people at the foot of Gearhart Mountain. This was such a beautiful spring morning that Elsie Mitchell, five months pregnant, changed her mind and decided to join her husband Archie, a local pastor, and five Sunday School children on a fishing outing. Archie loaded his 1931 sedan with fishing equipment, picnic lunches, the children and his wife. But he had not anticipated the rough and slippery roads they encountered as they motored through the Ponderosa pine forest. At an especially muddy spot, where the road dipped toward a creek, Archie braked the car to a halt. Fifty yards ahead of him a road crew had just extricated a grader from the mud. Archie asked the men about road and fishing conditions; the road was impassable, they replied, and the creek was probably too muddy for fishing. Meanwhile, the rough ride had made Elsie slightly carsick; she was thus happy to get out of the car to take the children on an inspection tour of the creek. It was about 10:20 a.m. Archie had started the car, and as he began to move it to higher ground, he heard Elsye call, “Look what I found, dear.”
Richard R. Barnhouse, foreman of the road crew, had started the grader and was following Archie up the hill. He stopped, too. From the high seat of the grader, he could see Mrs. Mitchell and the children about 100 yards away in the woods staring at something. “As Mr. Mitchell stopped his car,” Barnhouse wrote later in his official statement, “there was a terrible explosion.”
Stunned, the four men rushed down the hill just as another bomb, a smaller one, exploded. They were not injured, but the two bombs together seemed to eliminate the possibility that Mrs. Mitchell or the children could survive. The mangled bodies of four boys were scattered around the bomb crater; a girl lived through the immediate blasts, but died later. Elsie Mitchell, too, was still alive, but her clothing was on fire, and she died while Archie struggled to smother the flames with his bare hands.
A bomb disposal expert, who located and disarmed other unexploded bombs lying nearby, guessed that somebody had kicked the bomb. The tragedy, of course, devastated the townspeople. A mass funeral for the four boys, attended by 450 people, was held in the Klamath Temple, in the neighboring town of Klamath Falls, because their church seated only 150. Surprisingly little news about the explosion reached the public. To avoid panic, federal government officials had prevailed upon the local coroner to conclude, “The cause of death, in my opinion, was from an explosion of undetermined source.”
Forty years later, a group of Japanese women who had learned of the bomb explosion traveled to Bly, Ore., to atone for their part in the tragedy. In 1945, as schoolgirls, they had been assigned the task of making washi, a heavy rice paper glued together with potato paste. The washi was made into balloons 36 feet in diameter. For years, they had no idea what it was for.
By coming to Bly, planting cherry trees and placing folded paper cranes on the graves of the 1945 bomb victims, the women hoped to bring closure to their participation in events that had led to the deaths of innocent people. Such closure might not yet be possible, however. For there is still a danger from unexploded balloons-bombs lying in the U.S. and Canada, where to date only a few hundred of the 6,000 bombs have been found.
Bill Tuttle is professor emeritus of American Studies at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.