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Six Central Oregon picnickers were balloon bombs’ only victims

Lunching in the woods during World War II, hundreds of miles from the sea, Elyse Mitchell and four kids from church were killed in the blast. But, hoping to deny the Japanese knowledge of their “victory,” the newspapers kept it quiet.

The Mitchell Recreation Area in the Fremont National Forest, where the Japanese balloon bomb was fatally found by the six picnickers. (Image: Michael McCullough/ Wikimedia)

One sunny Saturday morning, a few months before the Second World War came to an end, the Rev. Archie Mitchell and his wife Elyse filled their car up with children and headed into the woods for a picnic lunch.

Archie was the pastor of the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church in the town of Bly, a tiny town about halfway between Klamath Falls and Lakeview. The kids were the children of friends and fellow church members. The Mitchells’ own child was on the way; Elyse was five months pregnant.

It was May 5, 1945. The war was still going on, and Americans were still dying on battlefields; but everyone knew the end was coming soon. The Germans were on the brink of capitulation (they would surrender two days later), and the Japanese were holding out from sheer stubbornness.

The early years of the war had been fearful times for Oregonians who lived along the coast, where the Japanese submarine I-25 had busied itself reminding West Coast residents that should the war in the Pacific go poorly, they’d be on the front lines. But that had been 1942. By now, even the Coast Guard beach patrols had been discontinued in most places. The Japanese were in no position to consider invading Oregon, and everyone knew it. They were too busy trying to slow the torrent of B-29s that was daily pouring megatons of high explosives into their cities.

The Christian and Missionary Alliance Church in Bly. This is the church of which Archie Mitchell was pastor in 1945, when his wife Elyse and five children from the church were killed by a Japanese balloon bomb. (Image: Otebig/ Wikimedia)

As for the Mitchells, living as they did deep in the barely-populated heart of Lake County 200 highway miles from the nearest beach, it likely never entered their mind that they might be faced with enemy action. It certainly wasn’t in their thoughts on that sunny spring morning as Archie drove them up into the hills to their picnic spot.

They were nearly there when Elyse started feeling carsick. So she opted to hike through the woods to their picnic spot while Archie drove the car there, following the meandering roadway. The children — 12-year-old Sherman Shoemaker and Jay Clifford; 13-year-old Eddie Engen and Dick Patzke; and 11-year-old Joan Patzke — accompanied Elyse.

“As I got out of my car to bring the lunch, the others were not far away and called to me they had found something that looked like a balloon,” Mitchell later told a UPI reporter.

It was 11-year-old Joan who’d spotted it, that strange-looking white thing lying on the ground nearby. The six of them gathered around it, tugging at it, trying to figure out what it was.

And then, of course — just as the suspicious Archie was shouting to them not to touch it — the peaceful spring morning was transformed into a grisly scene from a battlefield.

The Weyerhaeuser Company commissioned this monument on the site of the explosion, in memory of the Bly picnic party slain by a Japanese bomb five years before. (Image: Jay Edgerton/ Wikimedia)

Archie ran to the scene. Everyone was dead. Everyone had, it appeared, died instantly.

As he frantically searched through the mutilated little bodies looking for some faint sign of life, a pair of Forest Service rangers arrived; they’d been close enough to hear the explosion, and had raced to the scene. They covered the bodies and took Mitchell back to Bly, leaving his car behind.

And they confirmed Archie’s suspicions: his family and friends’ children had been killed by a balloon bomb.

Archie had heard rumors about balloon bombs. He said those rumors had been in his mind when he shouted to his wife not to touch this one. The rumors were that the Japanese had started launching balloons made of paper from Japan, with bombs dangling beneath, to ride the high-elevation air currents across the Pacific Ocean. When they arrived over the U.S., they were supposed to release their bombs and self-destruct. Several of them had been found, and several others had been spotted self-destructing.

But there had been nothing but rumors, because the U.S. government was keen to keep the success of the balloon bombing operation from the Japanese. The enemy, they knew, didn’t really know if the balloons were working. So they kept all mention of the program out of the newspapers.

This wartime photo is a shot-down Japanese fire balloon that was reinflated and photographed. (Image: U.S. Army)

By the time of the Bly explosion, that silence had worked. The Japanese, after months of monitoring West Coast newspapers without hearing anything, had given up the program.

But that silence had been a costly one for the children of Bly.

The newspapers had to report something, so they simply announced that the deaths had been due to an unknown explosion. Within a week or two the authorities knew that had been a mistake. Rumors and whispers by Southern Oregon residents quickly escalated into wild and frightful speculations. Loggers working the woods all over the state started stepping gingerly, and production plummeted, and fear levels started to ramp up — precisely the reaction the Japanese had hoped to inspire. Belatedly, authorities realized they’d need to come clean, and so Archie Mitchell — still shaken by the tragedy that had befallen his wife and the children of his friends — was authorized to tell the reporters all.

Perhaps it worked. When the Japanese finally did surrender, two months later, their balloon bombs hadn’t taken any other lives — although there’s reason to suspect they did start a fairly serious forest fire, the 180,000-acre monster known as the Third Tillamook Burn, which broke out on July 9 of that year.

Four years later, the U.S. Congress approved a bill that paid a total of $20,000 to Archie Mitchell and the families of the slain children.

The members of the Mitchell picnic party have gone down in history as the only casualties of an enemy attack on the American mainland during the war … the only casualties so far, that is. Even today, 70 years later, it’s worth remembering that the Japanese launched 9,000 of these devices, each loaded with three bombs. Only 361 of them have been accounted for.

Clearly, thousands of them fell harmlessly in the Pacific Ocean … but it’s still a possibility that one or two fell unnoticed in a deep forest somewhere, and are still up there, just waiting for some careless cross-country trekker to find one of them the hard way.

(Sources: Juillerat, Lee. “Balloon bombs,” The Oregon Encyclopedia (PSU and OHS), oregonencyclopedia.org; Portland Oregonian, 6/01/45, 6/02/45, 12/30/45, 5/10/49)