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FU-GO: DEATH RIDES THE JET STREAM

During the final year of war in the Pacific, Japan introduced a new weapon designed for mass destruction and terror, Fu-go. Simple in concept and deployment, Fu-go (or the "windship weapon") was a bomb- laden paper ballistic weapon that became the first intercontinental ballistic weapon.

From November 1944 to April 1945, Japan launched some 6,000 to 9,000 balloons armed with a complicated array of incendiary and anti-personnel bombs. These potent balloons were intended, as it was with Nobuo Fujita's floatplane bombing raid of September 1942, to set fire to the vast forests along the North American West Coast, and perhaps kill a number of citizens in the process. Japan believed the ensuing widespread devastation and panic would force America to increase security at home, diverting manpower and equipment otherwise aimed at Japan

Constructed of laminated mulberry paper and persimmon glue, the 32.8-foot diameter balloon carried its deadly payload suspended from 50-foot shroud lines, giving the flying weapon an overall height of nearly 70 feet. Central to the armament was an aluminum ring approximately 30 inches across, which consisted of a sophisticated assembly of explosive charges-called blow plugs. Suspended from the ring were several sandbags for ballast, four 11- pound incendiary termite bombs, and one 33-pound high explosive anti-personnel bomb.

Filled with hydrogen, the balloons were designed to soar to 30,000 feet and then be carried eastward by the jet stream. Traveling at more than 200 miles per hour, the balloons would cross the 6,000-mile expanse of the Pacific to North America in just three days. Optimum altitude was maintained by on-board sensors that vented gas when the balloon got too high during the day and jettisoned sandbag ballast when the balloon got too low at night.

It was determined the balloon would be over North America after three such daily cycles. At this point, the triggering device would release an incendiary bomb once every 24 hours, leaving fires in its wake. Last to fall was the anti-personnel bomb, which simultaneously triggered a self-destruct mechanism--a picric acid charge to destroy the payload platform, and a magnesium charge to ignite the hydrogen gas, destroying any hint of the balloon's existence.

Although ingenious in concept and design, Fu-go failed to achieve its intended goal for three fundamental reasons: first, the time of year the balloons were launched (winter) produced unfavorable weather conditions; second, an effective media blackout in the United States denied the Japanese any opportunity to accurately appraise the project's effectiveness; and; finally, an insufficient supply of hydrogen hastened the end of the project.

The only city to be bombed was Medford, Ore. on January 4,1945 The only deaths were those of a 23 year-old pregnant Sunday school teacher and her five elementary school-aged students on a picnic near Bly, Ore., in May.

Scattered from Hawaii to Michigan and from the upper reaches of the Yukon Territory to central Mexico, these weapons still pose a deadly threat if found. To date only 361 balloons have been accounted for. The most recent discovery was in 1992 in the Applegate region of southern Oregon. Although most probably fell harmlessly into the Pacific Ocean, many may still lie hidden in isolated regions of the Pacific Northwest, awaiting discovery.

E.P.B.

This article appeared in the June 2000 Issue of Military History Magazine

Submitted by Dr. Vic Durrance, 39th BGA Historian
vrdurrance@beggstelco.net

This page was created on 23 January 2001
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