In Lakeview, Oregon, Mrs. Elsie Mitchell and five neighborhood children are killed while attempting to drag a Japanese balloon out the woods. Unbeknownst to Mitchell and the children, the balloon was armed, and it exploded soon after they began tampering with it.
They were the first and only known American civilians to be killed in the continental United States during World War II. The U.S. government eventually gave $5,000 in compensation to Mitchell’s husband, and $3,000 each to the families of Edward Engen, Sherman Shoemaker, Jay Gifford, and Richard and Ethel Patzke, the five slain children.
The explosive balloon found at Lakeview was a product of one of only a handful of Japanese attacks against the continental United States, which were conducted early in the war by Japanese submarines and later by high-altitude balloons carrying explosives or incendiaries.
The following is an account of the Japanese balloon bomb explosion by a girl who lived in Bly, Oregon at the time.
“In looking back some 60-plus years, my memories of the Japanese balloon explosion and the resulting death of my classmates are still quite vivid.
The adults didn’t talk about it to the children other than to say there had been an accident – an explosion. The entire community accepted a “code of silence” requested by the military and the government. During the following days at school, everyone was quiet. There was one funeral held for all the victims, with the exception of one boy – I believe it was Jay Gifford. His family chose to take him back to the family home – back east. The caskets were all closed and lined up side by side in the front of the church. I remember sitting there – and still wondering what had happened. Two of the kids – were in my class – “Sis” Patzke sat in front of me and Eddie Engan across. It was a small school – so we all knew each other well.
I was supposed to go on the outing that day but my mom who was supposed to make sandwiches for a community gathering at the Ivory Pine Community Hall – was ill and said I had to go and fill in for her. Years later, I learned that my dad had known about the balloons. His name was Jim McMillan and he was superintendent of the Ivory Pine Co. logging operations. Apparently, because of his position, he had been informed – but again it was “top secret” information and not to be shared. The day of the accident – tragedy – he went to the site to help secure and clean up the area. A few years later he gave me a piece of the balloon that he had picked up that day.
I went back for the 50th anniversary. There was a large gathering of friends and families that had lived in the area 50-years ago. Some – such as the Patzkes had never left. There were Japanese representatives who shared the fact that the school children of Japan had made the balloons (gluing and stitching the balloon fabric panels together) – not knowing what they were or their purpose. In the evening there was a dinner at the school gym – and everyone shared in the memory of that day and the days that followed 50-years ago.
On Sunday morning there was a church service – the same little church from which “the picnic” had originated. Betty Patzke Mitchell (older sister of Joan and Dick Patzke) spoke of renewing the love,
forgiveness, and the life-long bonds shared by the small community of Bly.”
Hollie McMillan White