While driving along Oregon Route 140 in southern Oregon, we discovered a poignant and sobering memorial. The small picnic site is managed by the Fremont-Winema National Forest in the Bly Ranger District.
A monument made of native stone and displaying a bronze plaque is the pivotal attraction of the recreational area. The Mitchell Monument is dedicated to six picnickers, the only World War II casualties to occur on continental U.S. soil as the result of enemy action.
On May 5, 1945, Reverend Archie Mitchell, his pregnant wife Elsie, and five of his Sunday school students planned a picnic about five miles northeast of Bly, Oregon. They stopped at Leonard Creek on Gearhart Mountain. Archie let Elsie and the children out to explore while he parked the car.
Before he’d even left the car or turned off the engine, he heard his wife call to him to look at what they had found. He observed the group huddled around a foreign-looking object and saw one of the children reach for it. Before he could step out of the car, an explosion shattered the area, killing his wife and the five children. Archie was the only survivor.
The object they’d found was a Japanese fugo, a simply-designed wind-driven bombing balloon. The fugo balloons, developed in the final months of World War II, were hoped to create psychological terror, death and destruction in the continental United States. The balloons were launched in Japan and carried by the jet stream, an easterly blowing wind current. About 300 of the 9,000 balloon-bombs launched were found in several states—Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Michigan and Iowa, as well as Mexico and Canada.
The United States government knew the country was under attack but ordered the media not to disclose information, hoping to minimize public awareness and also to prevent the Japanese from discovering their mission’s success. The silence proved valuable. Americans were not alarmed and Japan believed their mission had failed.
In 1945, after the Mitchell party tripped a balloon bomb, the government finally alerted the public to the danger. By then, the Japanese were no longer sending fugos.
In August, 1950, the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company, which owned the bomb site, dedicated a memorial to the six who perished
In later years, on a trip to Japan, Yuzuru John Takeshita, a former internment camp prisoner, was told how a friend and her classmates were taken out of school to work in a factory to make paper balloon bombs. When told of the tragedy, the former students, moved by regret and compassion, asked Takeshita to deliver 1,000 paper cranes to the families of the victims. Paper cranes, the Japanese symbol of healing and peace, were sent as good-will gifts. In addition, six cherry trees were also delivered to Bly with the former Japanese students’ condolences. The trees were planted at a re-dedication ceremony in 1995.
The Memorial plaque lists the victims of the fugo bomb:
Mrs. Elsie Mitchell, age 26
Jay Gifford, age 13
Edward Engen, age 13
Dick Patzke, age 14
Joan Patzke, age 13
Sherman Shoemaker, age 11