Two-hundred forty-three people currently live in Stony Rapids, Saskatchewan, which is exactly the same number of words in the whole Wikipedia article about the community. Stony Rapids is so isolated that it doesn't even have a road connecting it to the rest of the province. In fact, the only way to enter it is by private aircraft, so it would seem strange that the events in this hamlet would involve a continental-wide search and destroy mission that would bring World War II to the heart of the Canadian Prairies.
Details of the events in Stony Rapids are minimal, with several news agencies calling the Canadian military records "maddeningly brief". Fortunately, the events in Stony Rapids had several precursors, and by the time the people of Stony Rapids saw something in the sky above them, the military already knew what it was.
The first recorded sighting was on December 4th, 1944 in Thermopolis, Wyoming. Two men were standing outside on that crisp night and heard a strange hissing sound coming from above them in the distance. Looking up, they witnessed a large explosion and a "white disk" floating away from the area. The men couldn't see what had happened where the explosion occurred, so they jumped into their truck and chased the disk. Within ten minutes they lost it in the darkness, so they returned to where the explosion was. There, they found a small crater and metallic shrapnel. This was the remains of one of the 10,000 balloon bombs launched by the Japanese to turn the tide of war against America. It was also the first ever intercontinental weapon.
Using pre-War knowledge of the Gulf Stream, the Japanese built sophisticated balloons with sandbags and hydrogen releasing valves to retaliate against the Americans for the Doolittle Raid – the first bombings the Americans committed against Japan. It is believed that since many of the men were at war during the construction of these bombs, the government had children create them during after school hours. The balloons were 32 feet in diameter and held 19,000 cubic feet of hydrogen. At the bottom of the balloon were the bombs, which varied in size and weight during their development. The purpose of these bombs was to set the forest-fires along the Western Coast ablaze, and draw forces back to America and away from Japanese shores.
To make sure the balloons arrived in America, the Japanese launched them from November, 1944, to April, 1945, when the wind was at its strongest. However, it was winter in North America, so the piles of snow and dead trees made the incineration of the forest extremely difficult. This the first mistake the Japanese made.
The second mistake was that the Japanese used inefficient antifreeze in their balloons. Each balloon is controlled by a battery, and that battery is wrapped in plastic and surrounded by antifreeze, keeping the battery usable even at 30,000 feet. Because the antifreeze was so weak however, the batteries would freeze and the balloons would plummet into the Pacific Ocean, along with their explosive cargo. Torn paper shreds were found along the coastlines of Hawaii and California long before the bombs were spotted over Wyoming, but nobody knew what they were. Of the 10,000 bombs, it is believed only 10%, or 1,000 bombs, made it to North America. Of those 1,000, only a quarter have documented sightings.
The bombs first came to the attention of the military two weeks after the Wyoming bombing, with the discovery of a balloon in the forest near Kalispell, Montana. The hiker who found it saw Japanese writing on the balloon, and contacted the FBI. The FBI then told the Army, Navy and Air Force, and a project was put into place to intercept and destroy these balloons. While the two bombs discovered so far were primarily fire-based, an idea took root that these bombs might very well carry biological pathogens, such as the B-encephalitis or Japanese encephalitis, a mosquito born virus that has an 80% mortality rate. (This was the same virus I had to be vaccinated from before entering Japan last year.) The Japanese had already used biological warfare on the Chinese with devastating results, so it wasn't out of the question that they would do it again. Another possibility was that the bombs held anthrax, and could be used to poison water reservoirs, crops and livestock. Farmers were told to watch their crops for unusual diseases and report anything if found, and military personal often wore protective equipment when approaching the bombsites. Any witnesses were told to keep quiet about what they saw.
It was decided on January 4th to issue a continental wide media blackout regarding the balloons. Newspapers, radio and television programs were not allowed to report on them for the sake of national security. Cooperation was unanimous, and as reports of sightings became more frequent, the people remained unaware. This was done so that fear wouldn't sweep the nation and that that Japanese wouldn't increase their production. This worked, as Japan began their own propaganda program by reporting that both Canada and America were completely devastated by fires caused by the bombs. In reality, it is believed that only one actual report of the bombing made its way to Japan, and that it was of a dud found in Wyoming.
Soon after the blackout, a joint military program was then put in place to intercept these balloons in an attempt to collect more data about them, but the balloons proved to be too small to be picked up on radar unless they are within 12 miles. Additionally, the balloons traveled around 30,000 feet into the air, and conventional aircraft struggled to achieve that height, let along retain it. Thus, even if the military could find the balloons, they were regularly unable to capture them. Fighter jets were not only deployed along the West coast, but also in the Canadian Prairies, with five being in Saskatchewan alone. Of the thousands of balloons sighted, only 19 were ever shot down. Of these 19, 10 happened in a single day. For several weeks knowledge of how they balloons worked was a mystery. That changed January 12th, 1945.
11-year-old Tony Frischholz was walking down a gravel road in his hometown of Minton, Saskatchewan, when he looked up and saw a balloon heading towards the community. Not far away, 15-year-old Ralph Melle, his uncle and father from Regina were driving alongside the road and noticed the same balloon. They got out of their truck and followed it. Twice the balloon touched ground, and twice the balloon rebounded. During one of the landings, the balloon even dropped one of its bombs. Ralph discovered it after stepping on, but it failed to detonate. The balloon drifted out of site, so the trio reported it to the RCMP. They were able to locate it and found it caught on a barbwire fence, after having already plowed through two previous ones. They were then able to capture the balloon in relatively good condition, and took it to a nearby school to dismantle it. Their findings proved the bombs were fire-based and that they were set to self-destruct upon detonation. Therefore, there was no longer any reason to assume they might be carrying biological materials.
The Minton bomb also helped identify the launch point of the 10,000 bombs. Geologists examined the sand grains used in the sandbags, and judged by the tiny marine fossils that it had originated from of Honshu, Japan's largest island. This dispelled fears that Japanese submarines were lurking off the Western coast, and that Japanese immigrants were launching them from their homes. Previous to the dissection of the Minton bomb, the idea that the bombs came from overseas seemed impractical. After the Minton bomb, it was the only logical explanation.
Although the Minton bomb proved the balloons weren't as dangerous as originally thought, they were still very mischievous. On March 10th, one of the bombs struck a power line in Oregon and power was lost to a portion of the state. This included a plutonium reactor that was developing fuel for the Manhattan Project. The plant would remain shut down for three days before it was safe to turn back on. This delayed the testing, and ultimate deployment, of the atomic bomb.
The father of the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, was even quoted saying: "Very shortly before the test of the first atomic bomb... I remember one morning when almost the whole project was out of doors staring at a bright object in the sky through glasses, binoculars, and whatever else they could find; and nearby Kirtland Field reported to us that they had no interceptors which had enabled them to come within range of the object. Our director of personnel was a man of some human wisdom; and he finally came to my office and asked whether we would stop trying to shoot down Venus."
The news blackout continued until May 5th, 1945, and was only discontinued when a group of two adults and five children found a balloon while picnicking in a forest near Bly, Oregon. They attempted to drag the balloon out of the wooded areas to see it better, but it was accidently detonated and six of the people died. On May 22nd, the blackout was lifted and people realized what the balloons were. Lifting this blackout was crucial as there were several reports of children in Saskatchewan and Alberta that had found the bombs and were playing with their propellers, the paper parachutes and were disassembling the bombs out of interest. The lifting of the blackout brought an end to this as now the parents could contact the authorities if their children found anything remotely similar. The deaths in Oregon were the only deaths to occur due to the bombs.
On May 31st, the Toronto Start wrote an article on the bombs, claiming some were "filled with jelly-like substance now being analyzed in the belief that this matter is bacterial culture intended for the use against humans, crops or stock". The Canadian government saw this article as an abuse of the newspapers privileges and the Star was forced to delete it from their records, attempting to erase this false statement from history.
The lifting of the blackout prompted the Japanese to respond in June, claiming another large-scale attack would soon commence, and that these bombs were the "prelude to something bigger". One possibility hinted was that the Japanese would send soldiers inside the balloons, deploying them across North America without warning. However, post-war records show a much more devastating plan scheduled for September – Operation Cherry Blossoms at Night – which was to unleash kamikaze fighter jets in southern California, and drop billions of fleas carrying diseases such as bubonic plague, cholera, smallpox, botulism, and anthrax, crippling the area and possibly the nation. The dropping of the atomic bomb and ultimate surrender of the Japanese in August prevented this from happened.
Production of the bombs increased in March of 1945, but suddenly ceased in April, right before the annual forest fire season would begin. If the bombing had continued, their results would have been horrific. There are four given possibilities to why the bomb development ended so suddenly:
The first possibility is that wind conditions proved to be too eradicate for precious bombings, with two reports of the balloons actually re-entering Japanese airspace and causing damage.
A second possibility is that in March, the United States began napalm bombing Tokyo, unleashing a hurricane of fire onto the city and leaving over a million homeless. It would be reasonable to assume several factories of the bombs were destroyed.
The third possibility is that the bombs' purpose had been fulfilled, at least according to the Japanese, and a next stage of the mission would begin by sending manned balloons.
The last, and most likely possibility, is that the Japanese found the balloons were ineffective. A 10% arrival rate, with a 2 – 3% denotation rate, was not worth the resources spent on development and deployment.
Of the estimated 1,000 bombs to have made it to North America, only 285 were ever found. The remaining 800 bombs are believed to be rusting and rotting in the forests of Canada and the United States. One bomb was found as recent as 2012 in British Columbia, and Canada's Department of National Defense was called in to destroy it. Prior to this, the last lethal bomb was discovered in 1955.
Seen as the greatest kept secret of the Second World War, the bombs weren't as hazardous as they were originally believed to be. Instead, they were mostly considered to a nuisance, and only caused isolated physical damage. However, the bombs had the potential to cause serious psychological damage to the American public, since it had only been three years since the devastating attack at Pearl Harbor. Had it been public knowledge the Japanese were able to strike America anywhere at any time, panic would have swept the nation. Thankfully, the news blackout stopped this, and turned what may have been complete pandemonium into something much less serious.
While the news blackout was lifted in 1945, the final report of the bombs wasn't published until 1949. It would remain classified until 1986, but with the influx of war documents released under the Freedom of Information Act, this incident was easily overlooked, and the memory of the day bombs fell on Saskatchewan would be forgotten by history.
This article wouldn't have been possible without help from Kristian Peachey, the Assistant Curator of the Saskatchewan Military Museum. Please visit their Facebook page and give them a "like" to learn more about Saskatchewan's incredible military history.
And, as always, a big thank you to my sweetheart Jessica Nuttall for proof reading a countless number of my articles. I couldn't do any of this without you. I love you.
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I've known Jenn Smith Nelson for several years now, and I often look up to her for inspiration and guidance on how to grow with my blog. I remember hearing about her book over a year ago, and I've been holding my breath in anticipation ever since.
Smith Nelson teamed up with Doug O'Neill, another talented travel writer, to cover two Canadian provinces. Their new book, 110 Nature Hot Spots in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, is a part of a Firefly Books series that showcase Canada's diversity of nature.
If you follow my blog, you know I love history. History is what makes us who we are today. It defines our accomplishments and highlights our failures. Most importantly, it helps us move forward as a society.
A lot of my focus is Saskatchewan's history, but there's plenty of amazing history to be told in our neighbour province of Alberta too. From First Nations culture, through to early pioneers, the oil boom and the legacy the province today, there is always something to learn about when visiting Alberta.
As I stood in the courtyard of Fort Henry, I heard screams emanating from within. Fort Henry was constructed to protect the Kingston Royal Dockyard from the invading American forces during the War of 1812. The threat was so real that the capital of Canada – which was then Kingston – was moved to Quebec to protect it. The docks are all that stood between the United States and the St. Lawrence River and both countries were all too familiar with how easily it would turn the tides of battle.
As the screams from inside Fort Henry faded, I turned to the man beside me. He had come with his family. We got talking, trying to calm our nerves as bloodied clowns and undead mimes began wandering out from inside the fort.