A documentary now playing on Discovery+ brings to audiences around the world the true story of the balloon bombs Japan sent across the Pacific Ocean and the impact it had on one family in 1945 at what is now the Mitchell Monument, called the “Great Balloon Bomb Invasion.”
Stuart Chait, executive producer of “Great Balloon Bomb Invasion,” said he joined the project to help see it through the interviews and production right at the beginning of February 2020, before many places were shut down due to COVID. He said that the crew was cognizant of 2020 being the 75th anniversary of the Japanese balloon bomb incident that killed a preacher’s pregnant wife and five children north of Bly.
“I like studying history and I really like the stories that are not as well known as they should be, and this story interested me because outside of the regional area not many people know about these Fugo balloon bombs,” said Chait.
The documentary follows historian Martin Morgan and comedian Renaldo Evans to teach the history of the balloon bomb explosion that occurred north of Bly but also the other aspects of the balloon bombing campaign that even people living in the Pacific Northwest might not know about.
One of the aspects of the film was tracing the story of the 555th parachute infantry battalion, an all-Black military unit, that was deployed to Oregon to fight fires and to disarm any balloon bombs that were found. The unit was to do this without the public knowing about the balloon bombs, though several news outlets reported on their activities in mid-1945, but many people today do not know that this infantry unit went across Oregon disposing of found bombs and putting out forest fires.
“One of the most interesting things I found out when working on this documentary was the role the conscripted Japanese women played in making these bombs,” said Chait.
In the winter of 1944 and into early 1945 the Japanese government deployed a little over 9,000 balloon bombs. It is estimated that 10% of the bombs made it across the Pacific Ocean and landed somewhere in the Pacific Northwest or western Canada. To date a little over 300 bombs have been found since the end of World War II. Part of the documentary examines areas where there could still be a balloon bomb on the ground. Remnants of two balloon bombs were found in British Columbia, Canada, in 2013 and 2019, so Chait believes that there could be more out in the field.
The Japanese government knew that it was slowly losing the war as the American armed forces were working their way through the Pacific theater. The bombs were a way to spread terror through the American public and force public opinion in the United States to negotiate a peace treaty, but most of the balloon bombs never achieved their target and it is estimated that most of the balloon bombs that did make it fell in rural and mountainous areas. The American government tried to keep the balloon bombs a secret and did so until the end of the war.
“We used drones and consulted meteorologists about the wind patterns that would have existed at that time to help determine where there might be a balloon bomb today. But it is like trying to find a single four leaf clover in a field full of clovers,” said Chait.
The documentary crew used libraries, archives, and memories of people from that era to help piece together the full picture of the balloon bombing campaign. This included talking to Marie Lee, curator of the Lake County Museums.
Lee said she was first approached by Kurt Liedtke, who is with the Klamath Film Foundation and former reporter at the Lake County Examiner. Lee said she showed Chait and other film crew members a book written by Bruce Webber, a journalist, who devoted a whole chapter to the Bly balloon bomb incident in a book he wrote about World War II. According to the book, the incident took place in Lake County and the bodies were examined by the Lake County Coroner and the Lake County Sheriff Hank Casidy was in charge of the investigation.
To view the documentary visit discoveryplus.com.