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Balloon bombs away: remembering an unsuccessful attack on Vancouver Island

Restored Japanese World War II weapon on display at Comox Air Force Museum

From Denman Island to along the coast of Mexico, around one hundred Japanese balloon bombs have been found in North America.

And now one can be found freshly restored and displayed at the Comox Air Force Museum.

Deputy director Sgt. Mike O’Rourke said the museum recently restored the balloon bomb - on permanent loan from the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa - and museum volunteers created a new display case which showcases the unique hydrogen-filled balloon bomb used following the Battle of Midway in 1942.

“The Japanese launched about 9,000 of them with the idea of invading the U.S. and Canada,” O’Rourke explained. “Less than 1,000 made it across the Pacific, and about 100 landed in Canada.”

While the execution of the balloons was not successful, O’Rourke noted they were sophisticated for their time.

“Schoolgirls made the fabric, and they were some of the first to understand the jet stream. They had the ability to lower with a release valve or able to release the sandbags to go higher.”

A map at the museum displaying where some of the balloons have been recovered or sighted across North America.

He said some made it onto the coast of British Columbia, including Vancouver Island and nearby islands. Some, have yet to be discovered he believes, but one was found on Denman Island.

“They have to be out there - I suspect over time more will be found. They’re most likely in forested, remote locations, but may be found at hiking sites.”

Carol Popkin, program manager/volunteer co-ordinator for the museum said the balloons were intended to use the air currents - jet stream - with the intention of carrying and dropping bombs on North American cities and starting fires with the incendiary bombs in the forest.

The balloons were 33 feet in diameter and 70 feet high, and each had to carry about 1,000 pounds of equipment.

Popkin noted while the bombs caused little damage, the sight of one in the sky would have been cause for alarm.

During the mid-1940s, she said the U.S. government sent a message to media asking for a blackout in order to reduce panic around the country.

The balloons have been documented to have floated as far inland as Manitoba and the American midwest. While there has only been one lethal attack in Oregon after a family discovered a balloon in the forest, Popkin noted if anyone does come across a balloon to not go near it and call the proper authorities.

Previously, the balloon was in the museum, but just the original round centerpiece - something she said resembled an old wheel - didn’t provide a lot of context for storytelling.

Now, thanks to volunteers who added a battery, wires, sandbags and more to the display, along with the museum’s woodworking team who created a large display box a few months ago, the history behind the Japanese balloon bombs and its connection to the Valley will continue.

“Eighty per cent of people who come through the museum are civilian,” said Popkin. “So many people had no idea about this.”

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The Comox Air Force Museum will be hosting the Canadian Forces Snowbirds for an annual autograph session on May 4 at 4 p.m. The museum is located at the corner of Ryan Road and Military Row near the main entrance to CFB Comox.

The Snowbirds are set to complete training in the Comox Valley on May 6.

• • •

The museum is also hosting four classic military-themed movies at their theatre inside the building. Entry is by donation and tickets are available at the museum gift shop or the Military Family Resource Centre. All movies are set for 1 p.m.

The schedule is:

• June 1 - Reach for the Sky - the true story of Douglas Bader who overcame the loss of both legs and became a fighter pilot and wing commander of Canada’s 242 spitfire squadron during the Second World War.

• July 6 - The Dambusters - the 1955 black and white film which captures the story of the bouncing bomb and the Canadian involvement.

• Aug. 10 - Reunion of the Giants - Documentary about the tour of the last two flying Lancasters in the world.

• Sept. 7 - The Battle of Britain - A historical re-enactment of the air war for control of the skies over Britain.

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Erin Haluschak

About the Author: Erin Haluschak

Erin Haluschak is a journalist with the Comox Valley Record since 2008. She is also the editor of Trio Magazine...
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