BLY, OREGON BALLOON BOMBING
By Jack Smith
I am John B. (Jack) Smith, a U.S. Forest Service Retiree,
having retired in
I was working in Timber Management on the
Spike Armstrong was the district Ranger on the Bly Ranger District and both of us were working primarily
in timber. Spike administered the
district as well. Everything went well
on the district; Spike was a joy to work with.
We got many things done. The
timber work was similar to what I had done on the
Spike and I gathered up sheets, blankets, and first aid
kits, and notified the supervisor’s office that we were headed to the
site. The accident scene was on the
Spike said to me, “Can you check their pulse? I don’t think I can handle it.” So I checked for pulse and breathing. Mrs. Mitchell and the five young people were
all dead, No one was breathing and I could feel no pulse. The bomb that killed them was attached to a
Japanese Hydrogen balloon that had come over the
One of the victims was Jay Gifford, about a 12-year-old boy,
whose father owned the Standard Oil bulk plant in Bly. A couple of weeks earlier, Jay had found a
weather balloon and had been praised by the weather bureau for returning it to
the weather station in
Spike and I were there alone for a short while until the
sheriff arrived. Then the forest
supervisor, Larry Mays, arrived, and then the coroner showed up. So there were four or five of us there for
perhaps an hour. Nothing could be
done. Larry Mays informed us that we had
to wait for the Navy people to come from
The sheriff had duty elsewhere; Larry, the supervisor had duty elsewhere; the coroner had duty elsewhere; Spike had duty elsewhere; so I spent several hours alone, safeguarding the corpses. While waiting, I dug a jagged piece of shrapnel from a pine tree and I still have it as a memento of this tragedy.
To explain more about the situation: The balloon canopy,
which I thought was made out of rice paper, was laminated together in several
layers and was tough. It was filled with hydrogen gas, was launched in
Perhaps a month earlier, on a clear April day, I reported one of the balloons by Code to the Military. Within minutes, the word came back that I (and others) had reported the planet Venus.
This particular balloon had not functioned as intended. The canopy had partially deflated and there was a snowdrift partially covering it. It was a pleasant day with daytime temperatures probably in the 50’s or 60’s °F and the nights below freezing. Apparently, the group, except for Rev. Mitchell, was gathered around the cogwheel that suspended under the gas-bag. That is where the explosive was located. They were in a tight circle around it. The powerful explosion and the shrapnel from it killed every member of the group. We had received the first report from Jumbo around . It was late in the afternoon, almost dark, when the Navy people arrived. They took only a few minutes, but examined the site quite thoroughly with instruments. They said there were no hazards so the bodies could be removed. My memory is that a part of the cogwheel assembly contained an aneroid barometer, several pounds of high explosive in metal containers, and an array of small cotton bags filled with sand, each containing 2 or 3 pounds of beach sand. If the balloon descended to a certain level, the cog wheel would turn, a bag of perhaps 2 to 3 pounds of sand would be dropped and the canopy would ascend. The final act, if he balloon was working as intended, was that the explosion would set off some primacord, which would go into the hydrogen gas-filled balloon and explode it. That was the reason we saw lots of small pieces of paper at other places where balloons had worked as intended.
Mrs. Mitchell was a few months pregnant and the youngsters
were 12 – 15 years old and they were local neighbor kids so this was hard to
take. It was a great shock to the Bly Community. We
had held community meetings in Bly to inform the
citizens. This was war time, so it was
hush, hush to keep the news from getting back to
The people who died were Richard Patzke, Joan Patzke, Jay Gifford, Edward Engen and Sherman Shoemaker, as well as Mrs. Elsie Mitchell.
More than 400,000 Americans, mostly military, died in World
War II. These six fatalities were the
only civilian deaths directly attributable to enemy action in the 48 contiguous
I understand there is a sign and a monument placed at the location where the bomb exploded. It is on Weyerhaeuser land and that Weyerhaeuser Timber Company put up the sign and monument.