anniversary, Bly remains connected to tragic WWII event -
Japanese balloon bomb
A monument at the site of the
Japanese balloon bomb explosion near Bly is viewed by parents of
a woman killed in the incident.
monument tucked in a remote pine forest in Klamath County marks
the site of a tragic incident that caused the only American
casualties of World War II on continental U.S. soil.
It honors a mostly forgotten moment in history.
But it’s personal for everyone in the small community of Bly, an
old lumber town that is home to a U.S. Forest Service station
and fewer than 1,000 people.
They all know the story. And many knew the people who were
killed 75 years ago.
On May 5, 1945, Rev. Archie Mitchell, his pregnant wife, Elsie,
and five Sunday school students went for a picnic about 10 miles
northeast of Bly. As Mitchell parked the car, his wife and the
children headed to find a picnic spot.
A moment later, Mitchell heard a loud explosion.
“It’s really important to everyone around here because it was
Bly residents that were killed,” said Leda Hunter, a lifelong
Bly resident and chair of the Bly Community Action Team. “It
just had a huge impact on people and still does.”
Hunter, a retired U.S. Forest Service engineer, joined others in
the community to organize a ceremony at the Mitchell Monument to
mark the 75th anniversary of the tragedy. It was originally
planned for Tuesday, on the anniversary, but was postponed due
to the COVID-19 pandemic. A tentative date for the ceremony is
The 50th anniversary in 1995 drew more than 500 people to the
monument, Hunter said. She was expecting another large crowd
Bly residents will stay home Tuesday due to the pandemic, but
they will take time to think about the anniversary. They will
remember the names of the victims written on the monument:
Sherman Shoemaker, 11; Edward Engen, 13; Jay Gifford, 13; Joan
Patzke, 13; Dick Patzke, 14; and Elsie Mitchell, 26, who was
about five months pregnant.
According to historic records, Elsie Mitchell and the children
got out of the car and started walking toward Leonard Creek when
they spotted a large balloon on the ground.
One of the children tugged at it, which triggered a bomb
attached to the balloon.
Archie Mitchell, 27 at the time, ran to the gruesome scene.
“As I got out of my car to bring the lunch, the others were not
far away and called to me they had found something that looked
like a balloon,” Archie Mitchell said in a June 1, 1945, Bend
Bulletin article. “I had heard of Japanese balloons so I shouted
a warning not to touch it. But just then there was a big
explosion. I ran up there and they were all dead.”
About two years later, Archie Mitchell married Betty Patzke, the
older sister of Joan and Dick, who were killed in the blast.
Mitchell and his wife became missionaries in Vietnam.
The couple was working at a Vietnam facility that treated
leprosy patients on May 30, 1962, when Viet Cong soldiers
arrived and took Mitchell and two other Americans, according to
Mitchell was never heard from again. The U.S. government
declared him dead in 1969.
“He had quite an interesting life,” said David Prantner, pastor
at the Standing Stone Church of the Christian Missionary
Alliance in Bly. “Two tragedies happened.”
Prantner feels a connection to Archie Mitchell since he is
leading the same church Mitchell ran 75 years ago.
Reminders of Mitchell and the balloon bomb explosion are
displayed throughout the church, including a collection of
Japanese folded paper cranes.
Japanese women who helped build the bombs as children during the
war sent 1,000 paper cranes, which are a Japanese symbol of
healing and peace.
The women said they never knew how the balloons would be used
when they were removed from school to make them in a factory.
Ilana Sol, a Portland-based filmmaker whose 2008 documentary,
“On Paper Wings,” documented the visit to Bly by the Japanese
women, said the balloon bomb incident is not widely known around
“Personally, I often find myself staring at blank or confused
faces when I say that I made a film about the balloon bombs,”
Sol said. “Most people still don’t know about them, or the
incident in Bly.”
Japan launched more than 9,000 hydrogen balloon bombs between
November 1944 and March 1945, according to historical records.
The goal was to set fires in the Western U.S. forests to divert
resources from the war.
Each balloon was 70 feet tall and carried three bombs. They
floated for nearly three days at high altitude across the
Pacific Ocean before reaching the U.S.
About 300 to 400 balloon bombs were found in America, including
more than 40 across Oregon and two as far as Michigan and
Kansas, Sol said.
When the balloon bombs began landing across the United States,
the military enacted a censorship policy to prevent the media
from reporting on them. The military didn’t want Japan to know
its weapons had reached the U.S., Sol said.
Sol said some of the balloons are still out there. In 2014,
forestry workers in British Columbia found a balloon bomb and
safely destroyed it.
“It is important for people to know that there are likely still
some undiscovered balloon bombs in remote or mountainous areas,
and they may still pose a danger,” Sol said.
Michelle Durant, an archaeologist for the Fremont-Winema
National Forest who oversees the Mitchell Monument, said the
Japanese women who made the balloon bombs have visited Bly a few
times over the years and they stay in contact with the
The women planted six cherry trees around the monument in 1995
during the 50th anniversary as a way to offer their condolences,
Two of the cherry trees are still standing. Having them next to
the monument is a powerful sight, Durant said.
“Even though it was a horrific thing at the time, something good
has come out of it,” she said. “These two cultures have come
together and found peace and forgiveness.”
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