Seventy years ago, deadly fire bombs filled Cowichan skies

It was one of the best kept secrets of the Second World War: Canada came under direct attack by the Japanese not once but hundreds of times.

It was one of the best kept secrets of the Second World War: Canada came under direct attack by the Japanese not once but hundreds of times. Possibly as many as 15 of those attacks involved the Cowichan Valley!

Although it’s generally accepted that Japan’s sole military strike against a B.C. target was the shelling by a submarine off the Estevan Point lighthouse on the west coast of Vancouver Island in 1942, this isn’t the case. An aerial assault was conducted from late 1944 through early 1945.

Not until October 1945 and Japan’s surrender did official secrecy begin to lift and Valley residents learn of their repeated near-calls with airborne incendiaries. At that time, Allied intelligence officers sifting through captured Japanese documents estimated that 9,000 (actually 9,300) hydrogen balloon-propelled bombs had been launched from Japan and carried, at an altitude of 25,000 feet, by the jet stream to land amid west coast forests.

Fortunately, most of the bombs that reached the B.C. coast burned themselves out.

But that’s not the reason that the Japanese finally abandoned the effort. It was because they had no way of confirming, local and national press coverage being forbidden, the results of their bombing campaign. For all they knew, for all the good it was doing their war effort, they were launching their bombs into outer space.

One bomb did claim the lives of a Longview, Wash. woman and her five children when they innocently examined a balloon which had landed nearby. So far as is known, none of the thousands of others caused serious injury or damage.

When some of the undetonated bombs were examined, the U.S. Army apprised Canadian officials of what we, too, had to contend with. Because of the clampdown on secrecy, however, American and Canadian civilians were left completely unaware of what was happening.

Among the few who were in the know in B.C. were the Pacific Coast Militia Rangers, the unit best equipped for the job, the civilian Aircraft Detection Corps, forestry officials and police. Both the PCMR and ADC were assigned regional zones and men and women posted on lookout. Alerted RCAF pilots shot some down after being advised to do so in a way that the device could be recovered for study.

They did this by using their aircraft’s slipstream to steer the bomb in the desired direction before shooting away the balloon.

Civilians who reported discovering an unexploded balloon were sworn to secrecy with the result that, “So well was this secrecy order observed by all concerned that the Japanese failed to obtain the information [results] they so eagerly sought.” As a result, the balloon bombing campaign was abandoned, April 1, 1945.

In March 1944 a balloon bomb “obligingly” failed to explode upon alighting in a snowfield near Nanaimo Lakes and a trapper wisely didn’t tamper with its 26-pound explosive payload before informing the police. Disarmed, it was rushed to Vancouver for examination and for use as a demonstration model.

Its recovery, when made known to those in on the secret, sparked a flood of reports to Pacific Command of other “robot” balloon devices which, until then it seems, had been dismissed as harmless curiosities or, perhaps, downed weather balloons.

Cowichan obviously was on the balloon bombs’ flight path as there were numerous reports of their having landed or passed overhead, beginning with that of Mrs. R.C. Mainguy and Rangers D. Chaster and J. Cain who spotted one, March 28, “drifting north over Richard’s Trail at 6 p.m.”

Five weeks later, there was a 6 a.m. balloon report from unidentified parties at Deerholme. Reports of balloon sightings became more frequent:

May 28 – Another 6 p.m. event, this one over Somenos Lake.

June 15 – A balloon is seen drifting from the Nanaimo area towards Saltspring Island in the early evening.

June 14 – Employees of Lake Logging Co. spot a balloon at high altitude southwest of Honeymoon Bay.

June 14 – A second sighting at noon of the same day, also made by loggers, this one of a balloon (the same one?) over Hill 60.

June 15 – Another doubleheader: Mr. And Mrs. George Potts, Duncan, report a balloon high over Cowichan Bay at 6 a.m., and CNR employees sight a balloon at Mile 48 in the Shawnigan Lake area.

June 18 – Another sighting over Cowichan Bay.

June 25 – This one isn’t seen but is heard as a “loud explosion” over Heather Mountain.

July 9 – John Dick “and others” reported seeing a balloon dropping towards Somenos Lake. When search parties failed to find it, it was surmised that it had carried on over the Quamichan area and over the saltchuck.

July 19 – Yet another balloon is seen in the Quamichan area, this one drifting towards Saltspring Island.

August 31 – The last report is that of a balloon over Rounds logging camp, headed towards Lake Cowichan.

Several false alarms were attributed to sightings of the planet Venus which is highly visible in summer months. There also were reports of explosions occurring in the daytime and at night; most were attributed to blasting operations and one to a boy experimenting with a home-made mortar, but several remained unexplained.

During the emergency PCM Rangers investigated several spot fires without ascertaining their cause, conducted regular fire patrols in forested areas and prepared trails to assist firefighters should they be called into action.

The public were cautioned that the danger remained as it was highly likely that there were unexploded balloon bombs in the woods; they were advised not to handle them but to report them to the authorities.

Although a failure, Japan’s balloon bomb campaign goes down in history as “the longest ranged attack ever conducted in the history of warfare” up until that time.

For more from columnist and historian T.W. Paterson check out his website at www.twpaterson.com

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