Seventy years ago, Sunday school teacher Elyse Mitchell and five of her adolescent charges died when they disturbed a Japanese bomb they found in a mountain forest near Bly, Oregon.
Last October, two forestry workers working near Lumby found a similar bomb. The bomb-disposal crew called in from CFB Esquimalt safely detonated that bomb, with no casualties.
The Japanese military had dispatched both bombs, and more besides, to North America by balloon during the Second World War.
From November 1944 to April 1945, they released thousands of paper balloons into the skies over Honshu, Japan’s largest island.
Each of the 10-metre bags of hydrogen gas carried small payloads of incendiary bombs and high explosives. Japanese commanders hoped the balloons would sail across the Pacific Ocean and start forest fires in North America, destroy farms, divert resources needed for fighting the war and incite panic across the continent.
Only two decades earlier, a Japanese meteorologist had discovered a vast river of air that flows west to east, about 9,000 metres overhead. Now known as the jet stream, the atmospheric river moves at speeds up to 280 kilometres per hour. It is fast enough to have delivered Japan’s bombs within days — to North America, with love.
The attack was simple, elegant, but mostly ineffective. Some balloons drifted as far east as Manitoba and Michigan. Isolated explosions puzzled farmers, ranchers and trappers across the west. In Washington state, a balloon-bomb knocked out the power supply to the Hanford Nuclear Station on March 10, 1945, but a backup supply kicked in immediately.
As the quiet, unpredictable attack continued, U.S. and Canadian authorities noticed and began to understand it.
Their greatest concern was that the Japanese would use the balloons to spread biological agents across North America. Human, livestock, crop and forest diseases could take hold, spread and cause real harm for many years.
They proclaimed a news blackout and recruited spotters from the ranks of civilian pilots, trappers and foresters.
Canada’s Western Air Command ordered fighter planes at Pat Bay and Tofino to be on standby at all times to investigate balloon sightings. From January through May 1945, the squadrons were called out 89 times. They shot three balloons down.
By the end of April, the Japanese had ended the attack. Of about 9,000 balloons released over the attack’s six months, the Japanese expected about 1,000 to survive the ocean crossing. Only about 300 have been accounted for.
The irony of the attack is that, today, we need not fear bombs dropping out of the jet stream onto our heads, but those same winds carry other undesirable materials our way. Every day, Asia launches an unintended attack on air quality via the jet stream. It delivers dust, soot, mercury, lead, arsenic and other heavy metals from Asian factories and processing plants. It wafts PCBs, dioxins and other industrial toxins. It blows biological agents such as plant pollen, fungus spores, bacteria, viruses and even insects to our shores, forests, farms and cities.
Nobody intentionally lofts these materials across the ocean, but nonetheless they arrive and rain down on our unsuspecting, unaware heads, causing asthma, allergies and who knows what else.
The goods that those polluting factories produce are shipped to us across the ocean. Transport ships now cross the Pacific as quickly as the jet stream once pushed bomb-toting balloons. A cargo ship might carry as many as 20,000 containers from one side of the Pacific to the other in just days.
Each container is packed with goods.
Each container also might harbour hitchhiking spores, bacteria, viruses and insects that could thrive in B.C. Each of those unwanted agents has the potential to wreak havoc on our farms, parks and forests. We don’t know if they will — nor sometimes even if they’re here — and might not know until they take us by surprise.
Despite the vigilance of biologists and entomologists at our ports and in our labs, despite border security and international regulations to control air quality and the unintended transport of pests, the unwanted “stuff” keeps coming.
And we can’t fight these payloads off with fighter pilots and machine guns.