Japanese balloon bomb kills six at Bly in 1945
A Japanese balloon bomb drifted over Oregon and came to rest in the forested lands of Lake County near Bly in May 1945.
The balloon bombs were about 70 feet tall. Each had a 33-foot diameter paper canopy that was connected to the main device by shroud lines. The device contained two incendiary bombs.
The balloons were released into the jet stream at an altitude of about 30,000 feet. The balloons drifted onto the northwest coast of the continental United States. The bombs were rigged to self-destruct and leave no evidence behind. One of the original intents was to start forest fires.
On May 5, 1945, a group of children led by Rev. Archie Mitchell and his pregnant wife, Elise, went on a picnic northeast of Bly near Gearhart Mountain. Elsie and the children started hiking toward Leonard Creek. Rev. Mitchell remained at the car to gather up their lunches when the others called to him and said they had found something that looked like a balloon.
Before he could reach their location, there was a large explosion. He ran up to where the others were and found them all dead or dying.
A member of a Forest Service crew, Richard Barnhouse, was nearby and ran to the scene. He said the explosion shook the ground and caused debris to fly through the air.
He and Rev. Mitchell found four children badly mangled and dead. A fifth child died soon afterward. Elise's clothes were on fire, and Archie extinguished the flames. She died in his arms only moments later.
Those killed were Edward Engen (13), Jay Gilford (13), Sherman Shoemaker (11), Joan Patzke (13), Dick Patzke (14) and Elise Mitchell (26). They were the only fatalities from wartime actions on the continental United States during the war.
The explosion created a hole 1-foot deep and 3 feet in diameter. Some fragments flew almost 400 feet. Federal investigators told those present to keep quiet about the cause of the explosion. The government did release warnings about the dangers of Japanese balloon bombs after the incident.
A stone monument with a bronze plaque was later dedicated at the site on Aug. 20, 1950. Oregon Gov. Douglas McKay attended the event and stated that the six were casualties "just as surely as if they had been in uniform."
The site became known as the Mitchell Monument.
Steve Lent is a local historian and assistant director of the Bowman Museum. He can be reached at: 541-447-3715.