Farmington bombed in WWII? The Japanese Balloon Bomb Incident of 1945

by Dennis Burck

To say the first intercontinental weapon struck Farmington might seem like an urban legend. However, what happened around Gill and Eight Mile Road in late March of 1945 is much more interesting than any tall tale could be.

Japanese Balloon Bomb
Japanese Balloon Bomb (U.S. Air Force)

Upon tending his garden, John T. Cook of Gill Road found something that looked like a “new tin can as the material had a bright metallic finish,” according to a declassified Security and Intelligence Division report on the incident.

“At the time he picked it up on the end of his shovel and tossed it aside,” the report said. “It laid where he had thrown it until 6 June 1945, when he was working in the garden and found it necessary to move it again.” The report said that Cook read an article the day after about Japanese Balloon attacks that said to “turn over all suspicious looking articles to the police.”

Japanese Balloon Bomb Detroit Times article
Detroit Times June 7, 1945 (Microfilm via Detroit Public Library)

Examining the object closer, the report said, Cook grew suspicious.

He gave what we now know was a spent shell of a 5-kg thermite incendiary bomb from a Japanese FU-GO balloon bomb to his neighbor, Michigan State Police sergeant William Hedt, for inspection.

According to Michigan Police Complaint No. 21-5392, after Hedt investigated the incident, he turned over the “object” to Michigan State Police, who forwarded it to “Army Intelligence at Detroit Michigan for disposition.”

This triggered Hedt and his wife’s memory about a mysterious fire seen in the the latter part of March that year.

Interviewing the Hedt’s about the incident, the Security and Intelligence report continued, “At approximately 4 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon they were sitting in their living room. At the time Mrs. Hedt heard a muffled report similar to a shot, and happened to look out the window.”

What they noticed was similar to a bonfire, but it was difficult to discern from their 200-yard distance from the property, the report said. “According to the Hedts, the fire lasted approximately three minutes and flames were seen to spurt from the locality of the fire and Hedt thought they were similar to those he had seen caused by Magnesium.”

A Smithsonian report on Japanese balloon bomb contents corroborates Hedt’s assertion: “The first fire charge is a compressed black powder composed of magnesium, barium peroxide, and potassium nitrate. The main charge is thermite.”

Despite a thorough search of the area, the report said the field agent could not find any other evidence in connection with the balloon bomb.

This balloon fragment, travelling about 6,400 miles from its launch site, is the farthest east of the 284 recorded balloons that were sighted or found. A whopping 9,300 balloons were launched. Many of them crashed in the Pacific Ocean in route. Some may still be lost in the wilderness.

A complete balloon bomb fell in rural Dorr, Michigan as well.

‘Phenomenally ingenious’

Livonia Civic Center Library Assistant Branch Librarian Carl Katafiasz extensively researched the balloon bomb campaign for a history series at the Livonia library in 2016.

“The subject matter came up when I was cleaning out some files out from the library, and I ran across an article on floating Japanese balloon bombs coming down in Livonia,” Katafiasz said. “This piqued my interest.”

The balloon bomb plot was a way to show Americans they, too, could be reached, said Katafiasz.

“You take a look at how proud the Japanese were; they pulled off the coup at Pearl Harbor. When [the] Doolittle [raid] came and said the Americans can reach you, it was a wakeup call,” said Katafiasz. “So they had to militarize to save face. One of the things they couldn’t utilize was the massive attack.”

Though bizarre at first glance, Katafiasz said, the balloon bomb project was meticulously engineered and groundbreaking in its time.

“You have to take and give them a ton of respect the way they utilized what resources they had during the war,” said Katafiasz. “This program was phenomenally ingenious. They made it out of paper. The glue was made from a vegetable. They used products that were right there.”

“They didn’t have the rubber. They didn’t have the foundries. They drew in the civilians to help build the bombs. They built the bombs in sumo wrestling theaters so that American airplanes wouldn’t see it has a military value,” he added.

According to the 1946 Pueblo Indicator newspaper, the estimated cost of the balloon bomb program was $18,000,000 in 1946. Extrapolated in today’s dollar value, the cost would be $255,000,000.

There was a significant investment in the carriage to keep the balloons at proper altitude during their journey, said Katafiasz.

Japanese Balloon Bomb Farmington Michigan
(National Museum of the U.S. Navy – 342-FH-3B23426)

“If you take a look at the carriage, what they did was develop a system: As it’s going across the Pacific, it will begin to sink,” he explained. “At certain times, they would have little explosive devices on the carriage and when it would reach a certain altitude, one of these devices would explode and a weight would fall off. It becomes lighter, it goes back up. So you have this undulating effect coming up and down all the way across. The physics and technology behind it at that time blows your mind.”

Carried by the jet stream

Katafiasz said a Japanese professor’s atmospheric studies before the war can be credited with most of the data used in the balloon bomb’s planning.

Discovering jet streams in the 1920s, Wasaburo Oishi’s research at Japan’s Tateno atmospheric observatory provided the science behind the balloon bomb campaign. Publishing his findings in the 1870s era international language of Esperanto, his jet stream discovery was ignored by the United States.

“They had to find something and came across this idea,” said Katafiasz. “Oishi found that the winds are stronger in the winter months, and they utilized the winter months. They took his science and said we are going to launch.”

However, using the winter jet stream coincided with wet and cold winter months in the U.S. “It just so happened that in November, December and January the forests aren’t all that dry in the Northwest. It may very well be that they landed and exploded. But with the saturation, the snow and the moisture, it fizzles.”

The plan had other shortcomings as well, Katafiasz said.

“The development of the carriage was significantly planned,” said Katafiasz. “But when you take into consideration once you put a balloon in the air it is basically out of your control. Now it is up to Mother Nature to go from point A to point B. There was no way to really determine ‘I’m going to send balloon number 989 to Los Angeles, California.’”

Media blackout

The U.S. war department’s response deserves credit for making sure Japan didn’t know the balloons were successful in reaching the US, said Katafiasz.

“They basically told the press ‘we don’t want any information out.’ So it was very important to keep this all hush hush. When these things landed, we didn’t want to give Japan the look what we did bravado.”

However, the government reneged the media blackout after a deadly incident with a balloon in Oregon, the only continental American civilian lives lost during the war.

Japanese Balloon Bomb Death Memorial

A report by the Oregon Historical Society detailed the incident:

“On Saturday morning, May 5, 1945, Archie Mitchell, the pastor of the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church in Bly, Oregon, drove his wife Elsye and five children who attended his Sunday school on a fishing trip near Gearhart Mountain.

“Elyse, five months pregnant and feeling carsick, got out with the children to walk down to Leonard Creek while Archie parked up the road. ‘Look what we found, dear,’ she called out. Then there was a terrible explosion.”

Elyse and the children died instantly, the report said.

“(The government) didn’t want the Japanese to see they were successful,” said Katafiasz. “When they did that, it wasn’t until the people died in Oregon when the officials said if these things land, people have to know about them.”

Where are they now?

Debra Pawlak, a local historian, covered the balloon bombs in her book, Farmington and Farmington Hills.

“It was a typical American small community in the war years,” said Pawlak. “They did a lot of work for the war effort, collecting different types of materials. There were blackouts at night where they couldn’t have lights on.”

Farmington was very agrarian back then, including the Gill Road and Eight Mile area. She doubts the rest of the balloon bomb that struck Farmington will be discovered.

“After all these years, I think it is decayed and gone,” Pawlak said. “I can’t imagine there would be anything left. It is just interesting that something like that happened in a small little town.”

Because more than 9,000 were launched, Katafiasz said he thinks balloon bombs still have a chance of being discovered today.

“You take a look at the California, Arizona and New Mexico deserts, the mountains of Colorado; one of these may be in a crevice,” he said. “With that kind of thing, landing in a desert, someone can stumble upon it, no ifs ands or buts about it.”

Katafiasz said the paper balloon part will be gone from exposure. “But the carriage itself, it may have landed in a desert and fizzled out, just like it did in Farmington. That wouldn’t destroy the entire carriage. He [Cook] only found a can. What happened to the mechanism? Could something have loosened, dropped the incendiary and the mechanism continued on?”

Though the location of the Farmington balloon bomb carriage remains unsolved, a carriage was found recently in Canada.

Japanese Balloon Bomb Remains
Photo of Balloon Bomb remnants (https://infotel.ca/newsitem/unexploded-wwii-japanese-balloon-bomb-found-near-lumby/it13681)

In 2014, forestry workers found a carriage in the Monashee Mountains of British Columbia. Though the parachute was long gone, the carriage was half buried with approximately 20 cm sticking out of the ground.

Taking no chances, Canada’s Maritime Pacific Forces bomb disposal unit used C4 in a controlled explosion to neutralize the bomb.

Katafiasz said that lack of common knowledge about the balloon bomb campaign comes down people not wanting to glorify Japanese accomplishments in the war years.

“When you take a look at what the Japanese did to us in Pearl Harbor; look at how they marched through the Philippines and southern Pacific and how the empire grew and grew. At one point, we didn’t want to give them too much credit,” said Katafiasz. “However, when you study it and find something like it in local history, it is sort of cool. This is something that not many places can say, ‘we’ve been bombed by Japan’.”

“That is local lore. That should be put on a pedestal. This happened in your backyard. It basically ties us in to one of these aspects of WW2 that not a lot of people can tie into. That should be relished and made known.”

Dennis Burck is a freelance writer and a graduate of North Farmington High School.