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Fu-go: The Curious History of Japan's Balloon Bomb Attack on America

Fu-go: The Curious History of Japan's Balloon Bomb Attack on America

by Ross Coen
Fu-go: The Curious History of Japan's Balloon Bomb Attack on America

Fu-go: The Curious History of Japan's Balloon Bomb Attack on America

by Ross Coen

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Near the end of World War II, in an attempt to attack the United States mainland, Japan launched its fu-go campaign, deploying thousands of high-altitude hydrogen balloons armed with incendiary and high-explosive bombs designed to follow the westerly winds of the upper atmosphere and drift to the west coast of North America. After reaching the mainland, these fu-go, the Japanese hoped, would terrorize American citizens and ignite devastating forest fires across the western states, ultimately causing the United States to divert wartime resources to deal with the domestic crisis. While the fu-go offensive proved to be a complete tactical failure, six Americans lost their lives when a discovered balloon exploded.

Ross Coen provides a fascinating look into the obscure history of the fu-go campaign, from the Japanese schoolgirls who manufactured the balloons by hand to the generals in the U.S. War Department who developed defense procedures. The book delves into panic, propaganda, and media censorship in wartime. Fu-go is a compelling story of a little-known episode in our national history that unfolded virtually unseen.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803256682
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 11/01/2014
Series: Studies in War, Society, and the Military
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 280
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Ross Coen is a historian who writes about the American West, Alaska, and the Arctic. He is the author of The Long View: Dispatches on Alaska History and Breaking Ice for Arctic Oil: The Epic Voyage of the SS Manhattan through the Northwest Passage.

Read an Excerpt


The Curious History of Japan's Balloon Bomb Attack on America

By Ross Coen


Copyright © 2014 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-5668-2



All eyes were on Lieutenant Colonel James H. "Jimmy" Doolittle as he climbed into the cockpit of his B-25 shortly after 8:00 a.m. on April 18, 1942. His was the first in line of sixteen long-range bombers crowding the deck of the USS Hornet, positioned in the Pacific Ocean some 620 miles east of Japan. Doolittle's plane had only 467 feet of deck ahead. The tail of the last B-25 hung out over the ship's fantail. Doolittle steered his plane into position, aligning his left and nose wheels with two white hashmarks the Hornet's crew had painted on the deck. Holding to those marks during takeoff would allow the B-25's right wing to clear the ship's superstructure by about six feet.

Before this mission few thought it possible that a land-based plane, fully loaded with thousands of pounds of ordnance, could take off from a carrier at sea. Doolittle, a legendary aviator who had reenlisted in the Army two years before at the age of forty-three after a decade in civilian life, had spent the previous five months studying and training in B-25s for this unusual mission. He stripped the planes of all unnecessary equipment (including the radios) and modified the gas tanks and carburetors for greater fuel efficiency. Doolittle found that on a carrier going full speed into a strong headwind, a B-25 could achieve minimum takeoff speed and be airborne in only a few hundred feet.

The mission that would come to be known as the Doolittle Raid was planned and executed in direct response to the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Approval for an offensive air strike on the Japanese mainland came almost immediately from Army Air Force general Henry "Hap" Arnold. On April 2, 1942, the Hornet sailed from San Francisco accompanied by four destroyers, two cruisers, and a refueling ship. The force made rendezvous ten days later with the carrier Enterprise and her attendant fleet of support vessels. Task Force 16, as the joint armada was now called, fell into cruising formation headed due west across the Pacific. Those crew members not fully informed of the true nature of the top-secret mission could by now make a pretty accurate guess.

The plan called for the Hornet to take a position 500 miles from Tokyo on April 19, from which the B-25s would be launched. A day earlier and 120 miles short of the launch zone, however, the fleet spotted a Japanese reconnaissance vessel. Intercepted radio transmissions in Japanese convinced the Hornet's officers their position had been compromised. Dive bombers launched from the Enterprise attacked and sank the enemy vessel. Doolittle ordered his men to their planes. They were going to take off now.

All the pilots' previous training in short takeoffs had taken place on land at Elgin Field in Florida, where an outline of the Hornet's deck had been painted on the runway to simulate the carrier. Persistent mechanical problems and equipment constraints limited the crews to only twenty-five flight hours in the B-25s and not a single practice takeoff from a carrier at sea. Doolittle himself had never before done it. When the deck crew pulled the chocks from his wheels and Doolittle revved the plane's engines, everyone onboard knew the entire mission was at stake. If Doolittle couldn't take off in 467 feet, it was over. If he could, then each successive plane had that much additional room for takeoff. The sixteenth and last plane would have a clear deck with a more than comfortable 820-foot margin.

Doolittle accelerated just as the Hornet's bow began recovering from a plunge into the wind-whipped thirty-foot waves. The deck was still rising when he achieved full speed and took off with room to spare. The crews of the other B-25s breathed sighs of relief. Within exactly one hour all sixteen planes were airborne and flying for Japan. The ships of Task Force 16 turned around immediately and sailed for Hawaii.

At that moment six hundred miles away in Tokyo, civil defense forces initiated a routine air raid drill that had been announced in the newspapers two days before. Planes took to the sky as barrage balloons (large inflatables tethered to cables and held in place high over cities to deter enemy aircraft from approaching overhead) were launched along the waterfront. Firefighters tested their equipment. The city's residents barely noticed, however. There had been no sirens that morning, and the drills were becoming so commonplace as to attract little attention. Few noticed when a twin-engine bomber approached the city from the north just after noon. (Doolittle had maneuvered to come in from that direction figuring the Japanese would concentrate their air defenses for an expected attack from the east.) After dropping its entire bomb payload in an industrial area of the city, the B-25 quickly descended in an S-pattern to rooftop altitude to evade any anti-aircraft fire or Japanese fighters that might be in pursuit (none were).

Joseph C. Grew, the U.S. ambassador to Japan whose repatriation the Japanese would prevent until later that summer, at first believed he was witnessing a training exercise, a mock dogfight among Japanese planes. Even when half a dozen large fires with black, billowing smoke broke out around the city, it hardly seemed possible this was an American attack. Father Bruno Bitter, the rector of Sophia University in Tokyo, would similarly recall that most people thought it was just another drill. But when they realized the sirens were real, he noted, "nobody could hold them back to go outside, to climb the roofs or the chimneys to get a better view." An intense curiosity overcame everyone's better instincts to seek shelter.

Over the course of the hour, the American planes engaged military and industrial targets in five cities in Japan—Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, Kobe, and Nagoya—each dropping three 500-pound high explosive demolition bombs and one 500-pound incendiary bomb. None experienced any significant defensive fire from the Japanese. The sixteen planes continued west toward five Allied airfields in China. Deteriorating weather conditions and empty fuel tanks, however, kept every plane from reaching its intended rendezvous point. All either crash-landed short of the airfields or were ditched by their crew. One landed in Russia near Vladivostok.

Doolittle and his crew bailed out over Quzhou and, armed with the one phrase they knew—Lushu hoo megwa fugi (I am an American)—received assistance from Chinese civilians and soldiers. Though he survived and was feted by Chiang Kai-Shek, Doolittle knew the bombings had caused little actual damage in Japan. He had lost his entire fleet of B-25s and had no knowledge of the safety or whereabouts of most of his crew. Doolittle wondered whether a court-martial awaited him back in the States. What Doolittle and his fellow airmen received was a hero's welcome. Doolittle received the Medal of Honor, as well as a promotion to the rank of Brigadier General, and all eighty Raiders received the Distinguished Flying Cross. By directly avenging the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Doolittle Raid boosted the morale of Americans and marked a turning point in attitudes about the war. Japanese domination in Asia and the Pacific suddenly appeared vulnerable.

In Japan, the effect was nearly as dramatic.

For a people with an almost spiritual belief their homeland would never be invaded, the Doolittle Raid shook their confidence to its core. The Japanese had absolute faith in the emperor. They believed officials who claimed the nation was invincible. That enemy planes had entered Japan unmolested and dropped bombs in cities across the country belied that notion. What else had the government lied to them about? Besieged for information after the bombing, Japanese military officials first sought to exaggerate the Americans' ruthlessness. They claimed entire fleets of bombers destroyed whole city blocks and killed thousands of civilians, including dozens of children machine-gunned to death in their schoolyard. As embarrassment over the surprise raid set in, however, the government reversed course and began downplaying the attack. Official releases stated the Americans' pathetic strike had caused minimal damage. Newspapers reported nine American planes had been shot down, an obvious lie. For senior officials, allowing the life of the emperor to be put in danger proved the worst humiliation of all. Just six weeks later, Japan sought to expunge the dishonor by attacking Midway Island (from which they suspected the Doolittle Raid had been launched). The disastrous defeat at Midway permanently weakened the Japanese navy and altered the balance of power in the Pacific in favor of the United States.

The Doolittle Raid started in motion still another chain of events in Tokyo. Infuriated that mainland America remained comfortably untouched, the Imperial General Headquarters demanded a retaliatory strike on the United States. The violation of their homeland convinced the Japanese of the need to respond in kind. Even an offensive that caused only minimal damage, no more than the marginally strategic scattering of bombs Doolittle had accomplished, would give Japan a moral boost. Just weeks after the Doolittle bombing, a simple directive went out to scientists and engineers at the Noborito Institute to devise an offensive strike capability. The order was no more descriptive than that. Find a way to bomb America.


The Ninth Military Technical Research Institute, more commonly called the Noborito Institute, occupied an expansive compound on a bluff above the Tama River in southwest Tokyo. Founded in 1927 by Captain Ryo Shinoda as part of the Army Science Research Institute, Noborito began as a small research division dedicated to covert warfare. Shinoda, a chemist who had studied at the prestigious Tokyo Imperial University, at first mined spy novels and movies for ideas about intelligence and counterintelligence operations. His staff tinkered with secret inks, miniature cameras, counterfeit foreign currencies, telephone wiretapping devices, and other tools of the espionage trade. Eventually the laboratory moved on to more lethal applications, including poisons and biological agents that could be used to destroy crops and livestock. By the outbreak of World War II, the division had grown to two dozen buildings and nearly one thousand employees. Shinoda himself would achieve the rank of lieutenant general.

In summer 1942 Noborito began investigating ways to fulfill the retaliation directive. One early proposal called for long-range bombers to make one-way sorties from Japan to the U.S. mainland. After dropping the entire payload of high-explosive ordnance on Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, or some other urban center on the West Coast, the crew would use the aircraft itself as a weapon, crashing it into some high-value target. Engineers dreamed up ways a bomber could fly all the way from Tokyo to New York. They'd have to strip the aircraft of all unnecessary equipment and install fuel tanks inside the fuselage, essentially turning the airplane into a flying fuel tank. The plan never advanced beyond a few design drawings, however. A more practical option called for a small bomb-laden aircraft equipped with floats for water landings that could be launched from the deck of a submarine. The proposal was field-tested on September 9, 1942, when Warrant Officer Nobuo Fujita took off in a Yokosuka E14Y floatplane from a submarine that had surfaced off the Oregon coast. Fujita dropped two large incendiary bombs in the Siskiyou National Forest in the hope of starting a forest fire. His plane was spotted from a lookout tower, however, and response crews easily located where the bombs fell and contained the small fires. A recent rainstorm had also made the woods very damp and prevented the fires from spreading any further. Although the sortie was a "success" in that Fujita bombed his target and was safely retrieved after landing the plane alongside the submarine, the Imperial Navy canceled the project.

That same month, Sueki Kusaba, a major general stationed in Manchuria, was recalled to Japan and assigned to Noborito. Like Shinoda and nearly all other top scientists at the institute, Kusaba was a graduate of Tokyo Imperial University, the nation's premier institute of higher learning, where he had studied applied physics. Upon arriving at Noborito he was placed in charge of a unit then experimenting with free balloons. Technicians were modifying weather balloons and barrage balloons to see whether a free balloon could transport ordnance great distances. Engineers at Noborito had first studied the concept of a balloon bomb in the early 1930s, when Lieutenant General Reikichi Tada led a program that designed a four-meter balloon capable of delivering explosives up to seventy miles. The device featured a time-fuse that could be calibrated depending on wind speed and the distance the balloon needed to travel to reach enemy lines.

The small balloon designed by General Tada was one of many unique weapons under development at Noborito, then still in its spy movie phase. Other devices included a small unmanned tank, rocket-propelled explosives, and the "death ray," a concentrated burst of electricity that it was hoped would obliterate any enemy soldier in its path. Each prototype was assigned a code name with the ending -go (a numbering suffix in Japanese). The tank was the Igo, the rocket the Ro-go. Tada's balloon project took the name fu-go from the first character of fusen, the Japanese word for "balloon."

General Kusaba, who had served under Tada in the 1930s in the original balloon program, now revived the fu-go project. Using the very prototypes that had been in storage for a decade, Kusaba began modifying the design for longer flights. After nearly a year of research and testing, his team came up with a design capable of remaining aloft for thirty hours at an altitude of 25,000 feet. Tests demonstrated the balloon could easily travel several hundred miles, though General Kusaba believed a range as great as two thousand miles was possible under optimum wind conditions. According to the proposal then under development, the six-meter balloon was to be inflated on the deck of a submarine and released at night within six hundred miles of the coast of the United States, a distance the balloon could cover in about ten hours. Launching the balloons in the cool nighttime temperatures would keep internal pressure fluctuations to a minimum and offered the best prospect for relatively constant altitude. Looking ahead to the program's operational phase, the Noborito technicians planned to install a time-control device on each balloon that would release a five-kilogram incendiary bomb once the vehicle had completed its flight.

By summer 1943 two submarines had been outfitted with launching equipment, and Kusaba's team had initiated the manufacture of several hundred balloons. Despite this progress, the project was canceled that August. The escalating war in the Pacific required every vessel in the Japanese fleet, and the Imperial Navy proved unwilling to dispatch any submarines on balloon missions that would only scatter minor ordnance on American soil. The finished balloons were warehoused at Noborito.

Could a balloon launched directly from Japan reach the United States? A trans-Pacific flight required a balloon with a range of at least six thousand miles. Engineers at Noborito faced two immediate problems. First, experience with the submarine balloons suggested that such a flight would take several days, meaning the balloon would undergo severe pressure fluctuations over the course of its journey. A fixed volume of gas inside a sealed balloon would expand during the daytime as temperatures rose. The envelope would almost certainly burst unless some means for venting the gas could be devised. At night, cooling temperatures would result in contraction of the gas and loss of altitude. The balloons might fall into the ocean their first night out.

The second problem engineers identified was whether the westerly winds crossing Japan were even capable of carrying a balloon across the ocean. For answers they consulted Hidetoshi Arakawa at the Central Meteorological Observatory in Tokyo. Arakawa and his colleagues had long known of the existence of high-altitude westerlies directly above Japan. They believed these winds continued into the Western Hemisphere, though their probable flow patterns remained a mystery. In attempting to diagram the possible trajectory of winds across the Pacific, Arakawa drew on decades-old research from a pioneer of Japanese meteorology, Wasaburo Ooishi.

As a young atmospheric physicist in the 1910s, Ooishi visited universities and meteorological institutes throughout the United States and Europe, including the Lindenberg Aerological Observatory in Berlin. His travels typified the Japanese practice of the time where promising young scientists were sent abroad to learn Western scientific methods and then brought back home to prestigious university posts. Despite having his travels interrupted by World War I, Ooishi spent several years observing leading scientists who pioneered techniques for studying the upper atmosphere. He brought cases of instruments back to Japan in 1920, intent on researching upper-air wind currents.

Over several days in early December 1924, under brilliantly clear skies with seemingly no limit to upper-air visibility, Ooishi launched a sequence of one-meter balloons from the Tateno Observatory, a small weather station northeast of Tokyo he had established immediately following his return from the West. The balloons reached 30,000 feet in about half an hour. Tracking the balloons' lateral movement with a theodolite, Ooishi calculated the wind speed at 140 knots at altitude.


Excerpted from Fu-go by Ross Coen. Copyright © 2014 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
1. Paper,
2. Thermopolis,
3. Alturas,
4. BW,
5. Alaska,
6. Defense,
7. Canada,
8. Censorship,
9. Summer,
Appendix: Maps and Table of Fu-go Incidents,

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