Japanese Paper Balloon Bombs – January 2013

Diagram of a Japanese Fire Bomb from Japanese Paper Balloon Bombs:
Diagram of a Japanese Fire Bomb from Japanese Paper Balloon Bombs: The First ICBM
Henry Morris, Bird and Bull Press, 1982 (Rare Books, RB623.451 MOR)

Necessity is often said to be the mother of all invention. Sadly, with war, this often came in the form of scientific advances devised to kill and spread panic with more efficiency and devastation. During World War II, Germany’s most important technical achievement was the development and use of the V-2 missile; an unmanned, liquid propellant rocket capable of reaching overseas targets and the first known man-made object to enter space. Completed by July 1944, they were responsible for the death of 2,754 civilians in England alone and had an even greater propaganda value as a weapon coveted by the allies and feared by citizens at risk. However, they were not the only Axis power to launch such terrible initiatives, with Japan even outdoing the V-2 in terms of spanning continents to become the first truly inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM), albeit in a less successful, more rudimentary way…

This annotated sketch, enclosed in a book explaining the history behind them, depicts a prototype fire bomb or füsen bakudan, which Japan developed during World War II as a means of spreading terror, starting fires and inflicting casualties on North American soil. After the disastrous defeat of their Navy at the battle of Midway (4 – 7 June 1942), the Japanese Military were intent on causing a similar psychological victory over the U.S. Over the next two years, the Imperial Japanese Army’s elite Noborito Laboratory, staffed by over 1000 of the country’s top scientists, engineered and tested incendiary and anti-personnel devices attached to 32 foot balloons made of Japanese handmade paper. These were capable of travelling on the trans-Pacific upper wind currents or ‘jet streams’ over the Pacific Ocean.

Considerable research was carried out to allow the balloons to maintain the minimum altitudes needed during the estimated 60 hours and over 6,200 miles it took to reach America. An aneroid barometer detonated explosives to release sandbags when they descended too far. When all these ballasts had dropped, the weapon was presumed to be over its target and the bombs were released. Rubberized silk was trialled for the balloons, but found to be much too heavy, whereas the light but exceptionally strong paper was more successful.

From November 1944 to April 1945, more than 9000 füsen bakudan were launched. It is estimated 1000 reached America; roughly the success rate of 10% predicted by Japan. However, the U.S. authorities, fearful of the panic they would spread and not wanting the Japanese to know how successful they had been, ordered radio stations and newspapers to give no publicity to such incidents. Although damage was minimal, six Americans, a pregnant Pastor’s wife and five Sunday school children did lose their lives in Oregon on 5th May 1945 when they investigated a downed balloon and the still attached bomb exploded; the only deaths due to enemy action to occur on mainland America during World War II. Ironically, this tragedy took place on land owned by the Weyerhaeuser Company, who were papermakers.

This diagram and the accompanying book was one of only 375 copies printed at the Bird and Bull Press, Pennsylvania, founded by Henry Morris, a printer and papermaker, in 1958, specializing in the art, craft, and history of papermaking.

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