Drone Strike Killed Six in Oregon — in 1945
The United States suffered its first deadly attack from the use of an unmanned aircraft in the forests of southern Oregon. It was a picnic-worthy day in early May. Archie Mitchell and his pregnant wife Elsie had taken five children on a fishing trip in southern Oregon when they came across a large paper balloon stuck in a tree. The kids scampered ahead curiously. A young hand reached out to tug on a piece of the debris. Mitchell had heard about the balloon bombs, but before he could yell out his warning, a shattering blast killed his wife and all of the children.
Unmanned aerial drones have evolved into precision weapons of war and assassination. But their precursors, like many military innovations, began haphazardly, with strategically insignificant, tragic results.
Elise Mitchell and the children — only the husband survived — became the only American casualties during World War II in the continental United States on May 5, 1945. At the time it wasn’t even called a drone attack. The term “drone” still referred to the unmanned airplanes the military used for target practice. So after a news blackout was lifted, the New York Times ran a slightly different headline nearly a month later on June 1.
“Six Killed In West By A Balloon Bomb — Released in Japan, It Explodes in Oregon Forest When Found by a Young Girl”
The event marks a little known footnote in the history of the fighting, but it underscores the still imprecise remote killing tactics that are increasingly at the center of American military power.
The balloon and its deadly bomb found in southern Oregon was one of more than 9,000 released in Japan late in 1944 that drifted across the Pacific. Most are thought to have sunk in the ocean, but several hundred were found in the United States and Canada, including as far east as Michigan. It’s not known how long the one that exploded sat on the forest floor before the eleven year old girl found the paper balloon and its payload.
When the balloon was released in Japan, there was absolutely no way for it to be guided to any specific target other than something downwind thanks to the jet stream, which had only been discovered a few decades earlier by a scientist in Japan. The Japanese expected the balloons and their bombs would wreak some havoc, but they likely never imagined the curious paper contraption would lure a troupe of children and a pregnant woman to their deaths.
Today’s drone wars are very different than the use of an unmanned balloon that drifts thousands of miles with nothing more than a westerly wind for navigation. Modern unmanned aircraft can loiter at high altitudes for a day over a specific area, the pilots and operators watching with powerful cameras for something as subtle as a door opening miles away. Once a target is identified, guided bombs and missiles descend from above with precision guidance. But despite the difference in technology, the results can be the same. Not everybody killed is the intended target.
Unmanned aircraft have become one of the most discussed and debated aspects of modern warfare as their use has grown exponentially in recent years. Since 1995, modern unmanned aircraft have been widely deployed in combat zones from the Balkans to Afghanistan. They were initially used as observation platforms, as they were first intended. But after September 11, 2001 the push to arm the drones led to their near ubiquitous use in multiple war zones around the world.
A young Austrian named Franz von Uchatius came up with the idea of using explosives attached to balloons as an unguided war machine. It was 1849, Venice was under revolt and he wanted to find a new way to lay siege to the city. In what is thought to be one of the first aerial attacks — and the first use of an aircraft carrier as many were launched from a ship — several hundred balloons were released with 33 pounds of explosives each. As is often the case, the pioneering effort didn’t go so well. The Venetians knew the balloons were coming thanks to an advance warning given by the Austrians months earlier. And when they did arrive, most exploded high above the city, causing those below to gather on the streets and cheer “bravo!” when the fireworks-like attack commenced. After a shift in the winds blew several of the “drones” back over the Austrians, the idea was shelved and more traditional warfare continued.
The helium drone attacks of World War II were a bit more sophisticated. The Japanese balloons climbed as the helium expanded, warmed by the daytime sun, and descended during the night. Sand bags carried on board were automatically cut loose if the balloon dropped below about 30,000 feet. This cycle was repeated until all of the sand bags were gone, at which time the bomb was dropped. One of the primary goals of the campaign was to start a massive forest fire, or cause some other sort of significant destruction diverting manpower and resources in the continental United States. Many of them ended up being tracked across the United States and Canada. People would see them drifting overhead, and a few were even shot down. But by the end of the war the deaths in Oregon would be the only fatalities from the thousands of balloon attacks launched against the United States.
Newspaper accounts at the time recount little other than the tragic killing of the six victims back in 1945. The news was controlled in an effort to not give the Japanese any information regarding how successful their drone attacks were going on the other side of the Pacific. Undersecretary of War Robert P. Patterson warned residents of the western states to “take precautions against the sporadic balloon-bomb attacks” from “the enemy homeland,” but people largely went about their business. There was little fear that the balloon attacks of 1945 were anything like the drone attacks of 2013. When the bomb went off in Oregon, fear spread among the campers and loggers of the area according to the New York Times. But the slowly drifting balloons turned out to be mostly ineffective, and once word spread, those found on the ground were left alone.
The drone attacks of today do not happen in an Oregon forest, or anywhere close to the United States. More than 60 years later, perhaps the only similarity between Japan’s balloon drones and modern war is the surprise and anguish of indiscriminate death that takes place half a world away.