“Duck and cover!”
Though I am too young to remember this instruction when coined in a British 1964 public information film to tell people what to do in the event of a nuclear explosion, I am surprised how much it has come up in conversation lately. These days, the thought of nuclear war erupting seems more prevalent in the minds of Americans than when I was a kid growing up during the Cold War (a term that has multiple meanings to us Minnesotans!).
A STRIKE FROM THE WEST
What many forget is that the United States has already been struck by intercontinental weapons, though not with anything like the destructiveness of a nuclear warhead. It occurred during 1944 and 1945, when the Japanese launched more than 9,300 fire balloons (“Fu-Go”) with the intention of the jet stream carrying them to the continental United States. Under Major General Sueyoshi Kusaba, the Imperial Japanese Army’s Number Nine Research Laboratory developed the weapons to attack the United States with incendiaries — and if successful, to further the campaign with biological weapons.
Kusaba’s team figured the balloons would cross the ocean by riding a strong current of winter air. The Japanese had discovered this unique meteorological phenomenon flowing over their country at a high altitude and speed (later, this would become known as the “jet stream”).
The researchers developed two types of balloons used in the program of 1944-45. The Japanese used the 30-foot (9-meter) diameter, rubberized silk "Type B” balloons for observing meteorological conditions. The Type B balloons’ flight data determined the likelihood of a second, bomb-carrying type of balloon reaching North America.
These second-type hydrogen balloons could carry loads varying from a 33-lb (15 kg) anti-personnel bomb to a 26-lb (12 kg) incendiary bomb with four 11-lb (5 kg) attached incendiary devices. About 19,000 cu ft (540 m3) of hydrogen was needed to fully inflate each of these balloons.
On November 3, 1944, General Kusaba’s soldiers released the first intercontinental firebombing balloons from the east side of the main Japanese island of Honshū. A Japanese officer recalled the launch, "The figure of the balloon was visible only for several minutes following its release until it faded away as a spot in the blue sky like a daytime star."
Rather than bombs, a few of the balloons carried radiosonde equipment — battery-powered telemetry instruments. Direction finding stations in Ichinomiya, Chiba; Iwanuma, Miyagi; Misawa, Aomori; and on Sakhalin estimated progress toward the United States.
On November 4, 1944, a United States Navy patrol craft discovered one of the radiosonde balloons floating off San Pedro, Los Angeles. When more balloons were found later in the month in Wyoming and Montana, national and state agencies were placed on heightened alert.
US authorities concluded that the balloons posed the greatest danger by igniting Pacific coastal forest fires. To combat the threat, they organized 2,700 troops including 200 paratroopers of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, members of the Fourth Air Force, Western Defense Command, and Ninth Service Command organized the Firefly Project.
Equipped with Stinson L-5 Sentinel and Douglas C-47 Skytrain aircraft, this force was stationed at critical points for use in fire-fighting missions. Over the following weeks, reports of more balloons came in from Oregon, Kansas, Iowa, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Alberta, the Yukon, Northwest Territories, Washington, Idaho, South Dakota, Nevada. In all, seven fire balloons were turned in to the Army in Nevada, Colorado, Texas, Northern Mexico, Michigan, and even the outskirts of Detroit.
Air Force fighters had attempted to intercept several balloons, but they had little success — the balloons flew very high and surprisingly fast. By the end of the balloon attacks in 1945, the fighters confirmed less than 20 balloons destroyed.
In part, the United States’ censorship of any damage reports led Japanese authorities to conclude that the expensive program had negligible effectiveness. Regardless, the Japanese military had envisioned a greater use for the intercontinental balloon bombs, so the program continued. General Kusaba had intended to use the balloons to carry bio-warfare agents to North America. The Japanese Imperial Army Noborito Institute cultivated anthrax and Pasteurella pestis in addition to 20 tons of cowpox virus to be delivered by balloon bombs.
As this work progressed, however, Air Force B-29s destroyed two of the three plants producing the hydrogen to inflate the balloons. This major setback coupled with little evidence of the effectiveness of the weapons led to General Kusaba receiving orders to end the project. His balloon squadrons released the final balloon against North America in April 1945 — the last time an intercontinental weapon was launched against the United States.
"INTERCONTINENTAL" ISN'T THAT FAR ANYMORE
At the time, the Japanese balloon attacks on North America were the longest ranged attacks ever conducted in the history of warfare. This record remained unbroken until 1982 during the Falkland Islands War when Royal Air Force Vulcan bombers launched seven extremely long-range ground attacks against Argentine.
More recently, drone operations have extended the intercontinental reach of the military in attacks against targets in several African nations, Iraq, Syrian, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. And in August 2021, China launched a missile that circled the globe before striking its target just 24 miles off its mark.
"Intercontinental" doesn't offer much of a cushion anymore.
Preserve the Memories,
John Adams-Graf, Editor
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