Skip to main content
Balloon found near Bigelow, Kansas, on February 23, 1945

Long Time Gone and the Japanese Balloon Bombs that Terrorized the Mainland

By Betsy Barnett

February 15, 2023

This past week the country has directed their eyes to the skies as at least four objects, thought to be coming from China, had entered North American, and more specifically American, sovereign air space more than likely spying on American and North American weapons capabilities.

In late January a large Chinese Spy Balloon entered U.S. air space via the Allutian Islands, across Alaska and down to Montana where it hovered for an unspecified number of days over the Malmstrom Air Force Base where nuclear weapons are stored. A citizen in Billings, Chase Doak, spotted the balloon over the Montana skies and alerted the Billings Gazette newspaper. A reporter used a high-resolution lens to photograph the spy balloon.

The outcry and criticism from the country was immediate questioning why the Biden Administration would not eliminate the threat from the American skies. Various reasons, across a couple of days, was floated by the administration and military. The Chinese Spy Balloon, reportedly floating at 60,000 feet, took a route over Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, NE, another area where nuclear weapons are stored, and then over Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. The balloon’s size was described as being as large as three buses. It was finally shot down off the coast of South Carolina on February 4. The debris field is still being evaluated by government officials as it will take many weeks to recover it all in the deep coastal waters.

Then, on Friday, February 10, another unidentified object was detected by NORAD coming into U.S. air space on the northern coast of Alaska. This one was described as cylinder in shape, about the size of a vehicle, and floating much lower at 40,000 feet. That object was shot down by a U.S. figher plane and the debris settled in a frozen area within the boundaries of the United States. Thus far, the weather has not allowed for access to the debris site.

Saturday arrived and things got even more interesting. First another object, described as cylinder in shape was shot down by an American fighter plane after President Biden and Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau agreed to shoot it down over Canada’s Yukon Territory. No word as of now as to when that debris will be accessed or evaluated.

Later on Saturday, the air space over northern Montana, the same area where the original Chinese Spy Balloon was first noticed, was closed as NORAD had detected a “radar anomaly” over the northern part of the state. Nothing was found and the area was reopened later on Saturday evening.

But then on Sunday, just as the Super Bowl was about to begin, the country learned of yet another unidentified object being shot down by a United Stated F16 over Lake Huron located on the eastern side of Michigan. This object was described as “octangular” in shape and was floating at 20,000 feet, well below the level of the other objects that had been shot down. The debris fell into Lake Huron with yet another search and recovery mission in progress.

Captain Tom Oltorik, retired USMC fighter pilot, in an interview on a Sunday news show indicated that the objects were different in shape and function and their differing shapes made them more difficult to pick up by our air defenses. He added the objects are definitely not commercial in nature such as a weather balloon and more than likely surveillance devices sent by China.

At any rate, according to Oltorik, “This is definitely unusual, and we’ve never seen activity like this before.”

But that’s not exactly true as towards the end of World War II Japan, in perhaps a desperate measure to cause whatever random havoc they could, sent an estimated 9,000 Japanese Balloon Bombs over a six month period across the Pacific Ocean, into the prevailing winds headed for North America with the hope these small hydrogen-filled balloons with bombs attached would cause fear and devastation, such as forest fires, upon the United States.

Most of the Japanese Balloon Bombs landed north of Colorado in the northern states and into Canada. One landed in the Dundee neighborhood of Omaha, Nebraska on April 18, 1945. Few people knew a bomb had gone off. Some saw a flash of light and others heard noises they thought were fireworks. But by the next morning, nearly everyone in the neighborhood knew something had happened. “Some residents heard the explosion and several others saw it flash as it ignited,” according to newspaper reports at the time. One witness described “a ring of fire” in the sky. The plaque commemorating the incident notes: “The incendiary device flared brightly in the night but caused no damage.”

Luckily, the Dundee neighborhood in Omaha dodged devastation and death. But that wasn’t the case in Oregon when the only deaths caused by the Japanese Balloon Bombs occurred on May 5, 1945, where six civilians were killed near Bly, Oregon, when they discovered one of the balloon bombs in Fremont National Forest.

According to Wikipedia,”Reverend Archie Mitchell and his pregnant wife Elsie (age 26) drove up Gearhart Mountain on that day with five of their Sunday school students for a picnic., Elsie and the children found the balloon and carriage, loaded with an anti-personnel bomb, on the ground. A large explosion occurred; the four boys (Edward Engen, 13; Jay Gifford, 13; Dick Patzke, 14; and Sherman Shoemaker, 11) were killed instantly, while Joan Patzke (13) and Elsie died shortly afterwards. A bomb disposal expert guessed that the bomb had been kicked or otherwise disturbed. Military personnel who arrived on the scene observed that the balloon had snow beneath it, unlike the surrounding area, and concluded that it had lain there undisturbed for weeks until discovered.”

The following story about the only Japanese Balloon Bomb that landed in Colorado causing damage was written by Barbara Fleming and published in the Coloradoan on May 11, 2014:

The war in Europe was winding down in the spring of 1945, but the Pacific continued to be the scene of many battles, even though the Allies were gradually recapturing territory once held by Japan. Yet Japanese rulers did not give up easily, as the Swets family, Timnath farmers, learned on March 19, 1945.

Jack Swets, who was only 8 at the time, was in the corral near the family home when he heard an unusual noise—a loud buzzing sound. The next thing he knew, a ball of fire landed in a field only a short distance from where he stood. Flames 10 or 15 feet high filled the air.

Jack was struck dumb. He dashed for the house but could not get out the words to describe what he had just seen. A book of Timnath history compiled by the Columbine Club relates that he was “white as a sheet.”

Jack’s father, John Swets, promptly called the sheriff, who called in the FBI and the Army Department of Security and Intelligence. It developed the theory that the explosion had been caused by a bomb launched far off in Japan.

Though residents of Fort Collins had taken part in air raid drills and many homes had black-out curtains, few people thought the enemy actually would attack this far inland. Residents took precautions; authorities were prepared but not unduly concerned.

Then came the bomb.

The government quickly suppressed news of the balloons in the interest of preventing general panic; the Swets family was warned not to discuss anything about the incident, and newspaper reporters agreed not to run the story. One radio reporter was cut off mid-sentence when he tried to broadcast from the farm. The result of this secrecy was that the Japanese government deemed the project a failure and gave up on it.

After the deaths occurred in Oregon on May 5, 1945 the government lifted the media blackout on May 22.

After the war ended, John Swets discovered a second bomb buried deep in a field on this farm, unearth as he was plowing. Luckily, this bomb had exploded underground.

Although a number of incidents were documented throughout the state, the damage to Swets’ tractor was the only destruction the incendiary bombs managed to inflict on Colorado.