Danger from the sky

In February 1945, a World War II balloon bomb landed near Laurens. Farmers cut the fuse. Consequently, no damage was done.

-Messenger photo by Bill Shea
Dorothy Lamberti, a member of the Pocahontas County Historical Society, examines a piece of a World War II balloon bomb that landed north of Laurens in 1945. The bomb caused no damage, but caught the attention of the military and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

LAURENS — The roughly folded piece of thin material preserved in a frame at the Pocahontas County Historical Society Museum hardly seems menacing.

But when it came down to earth north of Laurens during World War II, it caused a stir that reverberated all the way to Washington. D.C., and the office of J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The scrap of material came from one of the thousands of balloon bombs launched by Japan in one of the lesser known attacks of World War II.

In late 1944, the Japanese military launched about 9,300 hydrogen balloons with bombs dangling from them in hopes of causing wildfires and other chaos in the United States. The balloons were sent aloft in Japan and traveled across the Pacific Ocean.

One bomb killed six people when it exploded near Bly, Oregon, on May 5, 1945. But most of them didn’t cause any harm.

-Messenger photo by Bill Shea
A fragment of a World War II balloon bomb that landed north of Laurens in 1945 is displayed in the Pocahontas County Historical Museum in Laurens alongside ration books and other items from the war years.

The Laurens bomb did no damage, thanks to a pair of quick-thinking farmers who cut its burning fuse.

It landed on Feb. 2, 1945, about three miles north of Laurens in Swan Lake Township.

”It landed on a field across from our place,” said Mike Ford, of Henderson, Nevada.

Ford was a 3-year-old living on the family farm at the time, but he still remembers some of the events of that day.

He said his brother, Joe, who was 11 at the time, was pumping water by the farm’s windmill when he spotted the strange object in the sky. He alerted his father, Harold Ford, and Paul Felsing, who farmed the property across the road from the Ford farm.

-Messenger photo by Bill Shea
This piece of material was part of a Japanese balloon bomb launched during World War II that landed north of Laurens in February 1945.

Mike Ford said as the balloon got closer to the ground, it was obvious that something on it was burning.

When the balloon landed, Felsing and Harold Ford rushed over to it.

”They put out whatever was burning,” Mike Ford said.

The object that was burning was a long fuse attached to the bomb, according to an Aug. 16, 1945, article from the Laurens Sun. That newspaper reported that Felsing and Harold Ford cut the fuse off with a pocketknife and then stepped on it repeatedly until it stopped burning.

Mike Ford watched through a window in the family home and didn’t understand what he was seeing.

-Submitted photo
A shot-down fire balloon was reinflated by Americans in California.

”I thought I saw a dead horse,” he said in a recent phone interview.”It was kind of buff-colored. But I was told it wasn’t that.”

George Buckwalter, the Civil Defense commander for Pocahontas County, came to the scene. He took custody of the balloon.

”The next thing I directly remember is the Civil Defense guy backing his car across the field,” Mike Ford said. ”He had this buff-colored thing on the front fender.”

Buckwalter took the balloon to his home. There, people tore off pieces of it as souvenirs, according to the Laurens Sun report.

Three carloads of FBI agents arrived at Buckwalter’s home the next day. One of them maintained a direct phone connection to Washington and Hoover’s office all day, according to information in the historical society’s files.

A search of a 25-mile radius around the site where the balloon landed was launched, but was quickly called off.

The military also responded to the bomb incident, and troops arrived at the Ford farm.

”A day or so later, the house was full of soldiers,” Mike Ford said.

He said his mother was busy supplying them with fresh coffee.

”Everyone was cautioned that this was big secret stuff,” he said.

He said his brother was taken into a room and told not to talk about the incident. But when his brother came home from school, he reported that the kids there knew more about the balloon bomb than he did, Mike Ford said.

The commotion soon ended. The military collected the balloon and its parts from Buckwalter and took it to Kansas City, Missouri, according to the historical society’s records.

But sometime before the balloon was taken away, Mike Ford’s mother, Cecilia Ford, got a piece of it. That piece is the one that’s now preserved in the Pocahontas County Historical Society Museum.

That balloon bomb was not the last one to come down in Pocahontas County. Parts of a second one were found in the county on March 14,, 1945, according to information in the historical society’s files. There is little information available on that second balloon, however.

The society has a copy of an article from a 1973 ”Smithsonian Annals of Flight” publication entitled ”Japan’s WWII Balloon Bomb Attacks on North America,” written by Robert Mikesh.

That article indicates that a damaged balloon envelope and shroud lines were recovered in the March 1945 incident. In the Laurens incident, a complete balloon including envelope, rigging and bomb apparatus were recovered, according to Mikesh’s article.