September 2nd — this Thursday — marks the 65th anniversary of World War II’s end. Japanese officials signed the surrender papers aboard the U.S.S. Missouri, docked in Tokyo Bay.
I thought about this a few nights ago, when I found my 9 year old son — who should have been in bed — standing at the bottom of the stairs outside his bedroom.
He had tears in his eyes. He wasn’t crying. But it was close. Like he was waiting for one more thought before the tears spilled out.
“What’s up?” I asked.
It was his first night home after he, his brother and my wife took a three day driving tour of southern Oregon.
“It’s not fair,” he said. “They were just children and they were just on a picnic. And they died. That’s just not fair.”
He started to cry.
It took some time and some hugs, but eventually I was able to piece together what happened.
My wife and sons stopped for a few hours in Bly, Oregon. It’s a town of about 500 people in the central part of southern Oregon, fairly close to the California border. Here’s what they learned about Bly:
On May 5, 1945, Reverend Archie Mitchell of the Bly Christian & Missionary Alliance Church took his expectant wife and 5 Sunday school children on fishing trip and picnic. Finding the main road blocked by equipment, he pulled off to a spot where the creek was accessible. As he got the food from the car he heard one of the children say “Look what I found!”. As his wife and the children ran to see what was found, there was an explosion. The 5 children and Mrs. Mitchell were killed instantly.
What the children had found was the remains of balloon bomb. Thousands of these balloons were launched from Honshu, Japan during a 5 month period that ended in April 1945. The hydrogen-filled paper balloons were 33 feet in diameter and carried 5 bombs – 4 incendiaries and one antipersonnel high explosive. The balloons … could be carried by the jet stream from Japan to North America in 3 days. More than 350 balloons were documented as having reached [the United States.] Some were found as far east as Michigan.
A U.S. Forest Service employee (Jack Smith) was one of the first people on the scene that day in 1945. He wrote about his experience:
Spike [Armstrong] and I happened to be at the ranger station in the morning of May the 5th when Jumbo Barnhouse, the forest road grader operator drove hurriedly into the ranger station and bailed out of his pickup. He said, “There’s been an explosion on Gearhart Mountain and several people are hurt.”
Spike and I gathered up sheets, blankets, and first aid kits, and notified the supervisor’s office that we were headed to the site. The accident scene was on the shoulder of Gearhart Mountain, perhaps five miles or so from Bly. As we approached, Reverend Archie Mitchell pointed the way for us to hike to the site that was a short distance off the road. The balloon canopy was mostly deflated and partially covered by a snowdrift. It was white. Near the canopy were six bloody bodies on the ground, somewhat like spokes of a wheel. There was little brush, but a fair stand of mature Ponderosa Pine timber. Everything was quiet; the bodies were close together.
Spike said to me, “Can you check their pulse? I don’t think I can handle it.” So I checked for pulse and breathing. Mrs. Mitchell and the five young people were all dead, No one was breathing and I could feel no pulse. The bomb that killed them was attached to a Japanese Hydrogen balloon that had come over the Pacific Ocean on the jet stream. Forest Service employees were aware that these balloons were coming and we had been instructed how to report them by code to the military if we saw one in the air.
One of the victims was Jay Gifford, about a 12-year-old boy, whose father owned the Standard Oil bulk plant in Bly. A couple of weeks earlier, Jay had found a weather balloon and had been praised by the weather bureau for returning it to the weather station in Klamath Falls. Apparently one of the group must have touched something that caused the personnel bomb explosion. Nothing could be done and so Spike and I waited. I didn’t see Reverend Mitchell after we left the road …. Apparently Reverend Mitchell had ran to the sound of the explosion and knew that he could do nothing for the victims. He heard the Forest Service road grader and intercepted Jumbo to tell him of the accident. Rev. Mitchell indicated that the group had planned to picnic and do a little fishing in a branch of the Sprague River. He had gone back to the car to get picnic supplies when the group found the balloon and the explosion occurred.
Spike and I were there alone for a short while until the sheriff arrived. Then the forest supervisor … arrived, and then the coroner showed up. So there were four or five of us there for perhaps an hour. Nothing could be done. Larry Mays informed us that we had to wait for the Navy people to come from Whidby Island in Washington State. This was enemy action. The Navy people needed to inspect and make sure there were no radiological, biological, or chemical contaminants before anything could be handled or moved. [CBRNE 65 years ago]
The sheriff had duty elsewhere; Larry, the supervisor had duty elsewhere; the coroner had duty elsewhere; Spike had duty elsewhere; so I spent several hours alone, safeguarding the corpses….
Mrs. Mitchell was a few months pregnant and the youngsters were 12 – 15 years old and they were local neighbor kids so this was hard to take. It was a great shock to the Bly Community. We had held community meetings in Bly to inform the citizens. This was war time, so it was hush, hush to keep the news from getting back to Japan that the bombs were getting to America.
The people who died were Richard Patzke, Joan Patzke, Jay Gifford, Edward Engen and Sherman Shoemaker, as well as Mrs. Elsie Mitchell.
More than 400,000 Americans, mostly military, died in World War II. These six fatalities were the only civilian deaths directly attributable to enemy action in the 48 contiguous United States.
In a tragically romantic irony just begging for more details, Reverend Archie Mitchell eventually married Betty Patzke, sister of two of the victims.
According to another report about the World War II balloon attacks:
Many of the balloons had been made by patriotic Japanese school children as a part of the war effort. In 1987, several tried to atone. They folded 1,000 paper cranes, a Japanese symbol of healing and peace, and sent them to the families of the Oregon picnickers. Here is an excerpt from one of the accompanying letters:
“We participated in the building of weapons used to kill people without understanding much beyond the knowledge that America was our adversary in a war. To think that the weapons we made took your lives as you were out on a picnic! We were overwhelmed with deep sorrow.”
If my son’s sensitivity to this random tragedy is any example, it — and what it symbolizes — is also a timeless sorrow.
However, like one more folded paper crane, life continues.
Reverend Mitchell and his wife went to Vietnam in 1962 to work at a leprosarium. Archie Mitchell was captured by the Viet Cong and was never seen again.
Bly’s path from World War II to Vietnam continues into to the Terrorism Wars.
In 2007, James Ujaama pled guilty to trying to set up a terrorist training camp at a ranch just outside Bly.