FAITH: A Japanese balloon bomb in Oregon and God's heart for the world
(The following article was originally published August 2015)
I grew up on a cattle ranch on the other side of the hill from a town called Bly, Oregon. Through the years, I would get vague accounts of a tragic incident that happened many years ago on a hill rich with hunting and fishing called "Gearhart Mountain" — essentially in my back yard — and a recent NPR podcast had sparked my interest.
On May 5, 1945, Gearhart Mountain became the site of the only World War II fatalities on the mainland United States due to enemy attack. Archie Mitchell, pastor of the Missionary Alliance church in Bly had done what many small-town pastors had done in my youth on a Saturday morning: He rounded up the kids from the church and took them on an outdoor picnic and fishing adventure.
Squeezing five kids into his sedan, along with his 26-year-old pregnant wife, Elsie, Archie set off to the hills for an afternoon of fun. As they arrived, the children piled out of the car and began to run and explore, Elsie not far behind, keeping watch with Archie left at the car to pack the fishing poles and a picnic basket by himself. As the kids went into the tall pine trees, they discovered an object partially hanging from low branches and they beckoned Pastor Archie and Elsie to come see.
Just as Archie shouted, "Don't touch it, let me have a look first," the object exploded, shooting shrapnel in all directions including into the group of curious children, the mother and her unborn child, and the neighboring pine trees. Archie was knocked down, but quickly ran to the injured. Elsie used her final breaths to whisper something into Archie's ear before she was gone. All five children ranging from ages 11-14 were killed in the explosion.
It was later determined that the explosion came from a technically elaborate balloon bomb that, along with thousands of others like it, had made its way clear across the Pacific Ocean in an effort to strike terror into U.S. citizens and set fire to our forests. Some had made it as far as Montana and Wyoming.
I was visiting home this past spring break when I decided to take a trip through Bly, where I planned to stop at the Missionary Alliance church, visit with local folks and then drive to the site of the explosion. Today, there is a monument with the names of the victims inscribed, and the pine trees that were present at the tragedy still have fragments of shrapnel pockmarking the bark. Citizens of Japan have even visited the monument and have left flowers and expressions of sorrow for the ravages of war and the innocent ones who are affected.
I read a few more articles regarding the incident, hearing the last names of children that were well known in our small community, when I came across a special page on the Missionary Alliance website dedicated to Pastor Archie Mitchell. It was in this article that Archie rose in my book from the place of "unfortunate man involved in horrible tragedy" to "an epic hero of Christian missionary work."
I have written articles in the past explaining the current state of world missions -- how, that out of some 7 billion people in the world, nearly half are "unreached people groups," having less than 2% of their culture considered "born again Christian." It is estimated that some 1.75 billion people are considered "unengaged unreached," meaning that in the 2,000 years since Jesus said, "go unto all the world and preach the gospel" there has been no active gospel-spreading work taking place among them. This is where the story of a small-town preacher who would invest in the lives of the children of his community gets even more interesting!
After two years of recovering from the explosion that took his young wife and unborn child, as well as a substantial number of the young ones in his church, Archie Mitchell would marry a woman named Bette Patzke, a sister to a boy and girl killed by the same bomb.
Two days before Christmas, Archie and Betty sailed to what was then called Indo-China, where they served for two terms at the school for Dalat, Vietnam. During their third term in 1962, while serving in a leper hospital and finishing up a midweek prayer meeting, the doors were broken through by Viet Cong soldiers who pointed weapons at them. They demanded the workers and doctors come with them. Archie was able to reason with the soldiers that the doctors and workers would leave peaceably, if the mothers and children could stay in safety.
The soldiers obliged Archie's request. Betty and the children remained working among the leprous. The Mitchell children would be raised among the lepers and eventually come back to the states to continue their education. Archie and the doctors who were taken by the soldiers were never heard from again.
In April 1975, Betty and six other missionaries were taken captive by the Viet Cong and held for nearly 10 months, during which time they battled illness and rough treatment. Eventually, they were released. Betty has continued in various forms of missionary work since, including in North Carolina with the Dega people, a Vietnamese tribal group that has resettled in the States.
The (Missionary) Alliance Weekly, from April 10, 1920, writes of an earlier pastor: "Rev. R.A. Jaffray accompanied by his wife [Minnie], [who] recently made a trip into Indo-China (Annam [now Vietnam]) covering about six weeks. They hoped to be able to open the first chapel in Saigon [now Ho Chi Minh City] and to make a tour into the utterly untouched country of Cambodia, where there is no work at all. Mr. Jaffray writes: 'Here are 1 million souls for whom Christ died, and, after 1,920 years, not one of His messengers has gone to them with the story of free salvation. May He help the Alliance to give them a chance 'ere the Lord return.'" Jaffray would be arrested by the Japanese during the invasion of Indonesia, placed in an internment camp where he would die from illness and malnutrition on July 24, 1945, less than a month before the Japanese surrender.
Upon hearing of the Mitchells' life of sacrificial gospel service, I couldn't help but imagine what it would have been like to lose a wife to an Asian enemy, remarry a relative of victims from that same tragedy and soon after, tell their family and a hurting and bitter community that I will be taking my new family back to Asia, where I will lovingly serve the lost and hurting, including the people who would eventually go to war with the United States in a separate conflict. I can only imagine the encouragement and pleading of friends, family and community members to stay in the United States and continue ministry work here, locally and safely, as it was needed as well.
It's the same pleading Oregon wrester Jim Elliot received when He was told to forsake global missionary ambitions, that America needed good preachers too! His reply was, "He is no fool who gives that which he cannot keep, to gain that which he cannot lose." He was soon after martyred along with five of his friends by the Alca natives in Ecuador. The extremely wealthy and well educated C.T. Studd, a member of the Cambridge Seven cricket team, was reprimanded for his choice to leave a comfortable life for gospel service in China. He said, "If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for Him."
John Patton, who lost his wife and child while ministering among cannibals in the New Hebrides Islands, was told by an elder in his church, "John, you'll be eaten by cannibals!" to which he replied, "Mr. Dickson, you are advanced in years now, and your own prospect is soon to be laid in the grave, there to be eaten by worms; I confess to you, that if I can but live and die serving and honoring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by cannibals or by worms; and in the Great Day my Resurrection body will rise as fair as yours in the likeness of our risen Redeemer."
I am stirred to radical global and missional action by Archie Mitchell, his family and his legacy. This is a legacy that goes back to the true and better hero, Jesus Christ, who left the comforts of His throne in heaven and the rich fellowship of the Father and Spirit to dwell among men. These were men who hated Him and spitefully abused Him to the point of death, that the world might be saved. May we, too, lay down our comfort, status and lives for the salvation of Christ Jesus to be known among all the nations.
Rory Rodgers is the pastor of Calvary Chapel of Crook County. He can be reached at 541-362-1125.
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