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Fu-Go: The Curious History of Japan’s Balloon Bomb Attack on America, by Ross Coen.

July 24, 2014

Fu-Go: The Curious History of Japan’s Balloon Bomb Attack on America, by Ross Coen. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, November 2014.

The extensively researched history of a little-known aspect of World War II: the Japanese balloon bombs that landed in the USA during the last year of the fighting.

During World War II, the US government and military treated the balloon bombs that Japan began launching across the Pacific Ocean as a closely guarded secret, despite the fact that at least 350 of them reached the continental United States and they killed six people. When the balloons first appeared no one knew what they were or where they came from. Most of them were found in the Pacific states, but a few reached the Midwest. They were free-floating balloons that were designed to reach what we now know as the jet stream which enabled them to cross the Pacific. Clearly the balloons carried explosives that could ignite fires in the isolated forests of the west and cause people to panic. They were kept secret to avoid panicking residents and to prohibit the Japanese from knowing that the bombs had landed. Fear that the balloons might carry biological weapons was great, but none was ever found to be present. The largest number of the balloon bombs appeared in the early months of 1940 when the winds carrying them were strongest, but the winds also carried rain and snow which insured that any fires they started were quickly extinguished. Although the numbers of arriving balloon bombs was declining by May, a group on a church picnic found and investigated one. It exploded killing five teenagers and a pregnant woman. Some attempt was made to warn people to avoid anything they found, and the war soon ended.

Ross Coen has extensively researched the balloon bombs and provides readers with a clear account of events surrounding them. His account is straight-forward and non-emotional, descriptive rather than analytical or judgmental. He describes the bombs in detail, but his writing never becomes overly technical. At present, Coen is a Ph.D. candidate in History at the University of Washington, but he already has developed the skills needed for solid historical research and writing. He has published other books on Alaskan history and politics, as well as having taught and participated in political projects. Coming from Alaska, he presents the stories of the balloon bombs that landed there and in Canada. He also spent a year teaching in Japan and provides an unusually full account of why and how the bombs were created.

Fu-Go, as the Japanese called the project, was researched and developed over several years. When the plans were complete, Japanese high school girls were assembled to make the balloons. First they created five-layered paper, and then assembled the balloon pieces. The work was grueling and conditions bad, but the girls were encouraged to be patriotic. After the war, some of the men who had led the project were interviewed by American scientists. According to them, one of the aims of the balloon assault was to lift the morale of the Japanese people after the devastating US bombing of their cities. They also hoped that the balloons could cause forest fires that would panic US citizens. No plans to arm the balloons with biological warfare ever existed. Coen argues that their goal of terrorizing American citizens with the balloon bombs was no different to the carpet bombing of Japanese cities by the US military.

I was drawn to this book because my father had been involved in examining the Japanese balloon bombs. He was in the Medical Corp at Fort Lewis, near Tacoma, in 1944-1945, when the bombs began to appear. As described by Coen, the Army G-2 unit at Fort Lewis sent out a bomb expert and a bacteriologist as the first responders to each balloon sighting. He was the bacteriologist, sent to insure that the balloons did not contain any toxic materials. As I read Coen’s book, I remembered him leaving home secretly at strange times to do his G-2 work. I only later learned what he actually did.

This is an excellent book, written to be read by both historians and the general public. It is a somewhat specialized one, however. I recommend it to anyone interested in World War II, Japanese history, or the local history of Alaskan and the west coast regions.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 24, 2014 3:22 pm

    How neat to read a piece of history that your dad participated in!

    I had heard of these balloons, but didn’t know much about them. I’m very pleased to hear that was never any plan to use biological weapons with the balloons.

  2. July 24, 2014 6:58 pm

    As a history major, I am embarrass to say that I never heard of this attack. I will hopefully pick this book up soon.

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