Japanese Drones Hit Middle America in WWII

The unmanned bombing craft were supposed to spark forest fires in the West but mostly missed their marks.

Drones seem to epitomize 21st century warfare. Along with cyberattacks they suggest the growing distance between a war’s commanders and the outcomes of their decisions.

The idea that technology could allow nations to manage warfare from a distance evidently stretches back at least to the 1940s, though, according to this article by my old Grand Forks [N.D.] Herald colleague Chuck Haga.

The article describes a collection of bomb-laden hydrogen balloons imperial Japan sent toward the U.S. during the closing days of World War II in retaliation for air raids on Tokyo.

The balloons could hardly boast the level of precision the Obama administration has claimed for its drone warfare. Japan’s goal was for the balloons to catch a “river of wind” jet stream across the Pacific and set off forest fires in the Western U.S.

“Of the 9,200 balloons launched, only about 300 made it to North America,” Haga reports, mostly landing in unpopulated areas, though “bombs from one balloon killed six people in Bly, Ore., on May 5, 1945.”

Two of the balloons floated all the way to nearly treeless, North Dakota where locals thought they were an odd sort of weather balloon until military authorities came to haul them away.

“There were no contemporary newspaper accounts,” Haga reports. “Reporters from local and regional papers went to the scene but agreed not to publish the news. FBI agents and other authorities took possession of the balloon remnants -- and photos shot by the Herald photographer -- and urged people not to talk about the incident as that might cause panic. They also wanted to deny Japan intelligence on the effectiveness of the campaign.”