Japanese balloon bomb killed 7

A stone monument marks the spot where six people and an unborn baby were killed by a Japanese balloon bomb in 1945. The Ponderosa pine to the right still bears the shrapnel scars of that blast.Bill Miller

Rev. Archie Mitchell's 1931 sedan sputtered up the muddy dirt road, slipping and sliding through the Ponderosa pine forest on Gearhart Mountain.

It was May 5, 1945, and at his church in Bly, the clear skies, light winds and temperatures in the mid-60s had promised a beautiful spring day for a picnic. But here on the mountain there still were patches of snow, and the road was blocked by a road grader stuck in a mud hole.

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The Mitchell Monument lists the names of the victims of the May 5, 1945, balloon-bomb explosion — Elyse Mitchell, 26, whose name often is spelled "Elsie," Jay Gifford, 13, Edward Engen, 13, Dick Patzke, 14, Joan Patzke, 13, and Sherman Shoemaker, 11.

Gifford is buried in Medford's Siskiyou Memorial Park, the Patzkes and Engen at the Linkville Cemetery in Klamath Falls, and Shoemaker in Live Oak, Calif. Elyse's body was returned to her home in Port Angeles, Wash.

Missionary Archie Mitchell disappeared while being held captive by the North Vietnamese in 1962.

From Klamath Falls, drive east on Highway 140 to Bly. Continue 1.5 miles to Campbell Road and turn left. After a half-mile, turn right onto Forest Road 34 and drive another eight miles on the narrow, paved road. Parking for the Mitchell Monument will be on the right.

Mitchell pulled to the side of the road. His wife, Elyse, was five months pregnant and feeling a little car sick. She and five children from the couple's Sunday school class got out and walked down the hill.

Mitchell approached the three-man road crew and asked about road and fishing conditions.

From the seat on his road grader, Richard "Jumbo" Barnhouse could see Elyse and the children, perhaps a hundred yards away, pointing at something on the ground.

"Look what I found, dear," Elyse shouted.

"There was a terrible explosion," remembered Barnhouse. "Twigs flew through the air, pine needles began to fall, dead branches and dust, and dead logs went up."

Mitchell and the road crew ran downhill.

Elyse's dress was on fire, and Mitchell tried to smother it with his bare hands. It was too late. The bodies of the four boys were scattered in a circle around a large hole nearly a foot deep. Only 13-year-old Joan Patzke still was barely alive, lingering but a few minutes before she too passed on.

Barnhouse jumped in his truck and bounced downhill to the ranger station in Bly, nine miles away.

Bursting through the office door he shouted, "There's been an explosion on Gearhart Mountain and several people are hurt."

Rangers Spike Armstrong and Jack Smith gathered first-aid supplies and headed up the mountain.

They found six bloodied bodies near a deflated white paper balloon that was partially buried under a snowdrift.

"Spike said to me, 'Can you check their pulse? I don't think I can handle it,' " said Smith. "So I checked. Mrs. Mitchell and the five young people were all dead."

Recently married, the Mitchells had arrived in Bly just two weeks earlier. He was the new pastor of the town's Christian and Missionary Alliance Church. That picnic was a way to get acquainted with the community.

Six people and an unborn baby, the only World War II casualties to occur on U.S. soil, died from an explosion of a Japanese bomb, carried across the Pacific Ocean by a weatherproofed paper balloon.

Beginning in 1944, the Japanese began launching nearly 10,000 bomb-equipped balloons into the jet stream, hoping to have them explode in the United States, setting forest fires and causing panic.

The U.S. War Department knew they were coming, but because they didn't want the Japanese to know the balloons were reaching the continent, and officials didn't expect casualties, the government kept it a secret.

All of that changed three weeks after the blast on Gearhart Mountain. Citizens finally were warned to watch out for balloon bombs.

Today, standing before the Mitchell Monument, the winds that carried death across the ocean are still. The forest is peaceful again. It's a perfect day for a picnic. Just as it was 64 years ago.


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