In the second most recent issue of The New Yorker, there is a great essay by John McPhee about the empirical art of editorial fact-checking. In it, the author relates as a case study in difficult fact-checking an anecdote about one of the only times the Japanese staged an attack on the American mainland during World War II, using giant paper balloons carrying explosive payloads.
Called fusen bakudan (in Japanese, literally, "balloon bomb"), the devices consisted of a paper, hydrogen-filled balloon about 10 meters (33 feet) in diameter, carrying either an incindiary or an antipersonnel bomb ranging from 12 - 15 kg in weight, and were launched from eastern Japanese coastal towns up into the jet stream, which carried them over thousands of miles to the United States in roughly three days.
According to The New Yorker and Wikipedia, the Japanese launched around 9,000 fusen bakudan between 1944 and 1945, of which at least 300 eventually made it to American soil. The idea was to destroy buildings and start forest fires, and to strike fear into the hearts of the American public at a time when Allied B-29 bombers had just begun doing the same for Japan's civilian population.
Although the campaign was wildly ineffective, resulting in just six deaths for a kill rate of 0.0627%, balloons were sighted in Oregon, Kansas, Iowa, British Columbia, Manitoba, Alberta, Washington, Idaho, South Dakota, Nevada, Colorado, Texas, Mexico, Michigan, and one made it all the way to Detroit, and by 1945 the rumors had started to spread.
Of course, there was a big cover-up by the U.S. government and press, who were colluding to keep morale high, and the balloon bombs were never substantiated in a public forum by anything other than anecdotal, eyewitness accounts. With the exception of one, the victims were all under the age of 15--likely children attracted by the mysterious appearance of a massive paper balloon, seemingly from nowhere.
The balloons flew too high and too fast for fighters to intercept them,
although sightings were reported by pilots, and mysterious sandbags,
scraps of balloon paper and isolated fireballs began to be discovered
all over the country. With the exception of the Trojan Horse, I can't
think of a more whimsical method of attack.
Then, most improbably....
The nuclear reactor the balloon hit was the one making the plutonium for "Fat Man," the bomb the United States would drop on Nagasaki a mere five months later.
Yes, in the face of infinitesimally impossible odds, the Japanese had hit the one target in North America that would ultimately have more of an impact on their country than perhaps anything in Japanese history...and they would never know.
I know, I know, crazy. There are a lot of amazing things about this amazing story, but the most amazing parts for me are the unintentional complicity of nature, and the absurd level of trust that must inherently coexist with an attack like this. Once those balloons were up in the jet stream, the Japanese must have known that they were utterly unable to know the specific outcome.
Would it have made a difference if the Japanese learned that, against all possible odds, they had nearly reversed the fate that would befall them just a few weeks later? Was there a sense of anticlimax once all 9,000 balloons were aloft? Surely it was a beautiful sight, but also a horrible one, knowing for what purpose they had been created.
Short of reading American newspapers, it would have been nearly impossible, during a war, for Japan to know whether their attack had been a success. But it probably didn't matter. It's almost as if it was an attack designed to win a domestic PR war, rather than to gain a foothold in a military conflict. The historical record shows that the Japanese military reported at home that the balloons were terribly effective, killing nearly 10,000 U.S. citizens and starting countless forest fires--they couldn't possibly have substantiated these reports.
It only serves to make the attack even more poetic, if you can imagine anything more poetic than 9,000 paper balloons crossing the Pacific in a silent pack. It could almost be a peace protest, were it not for their deadly passengers.
By the way, it's assumed by authorities that balloon bombs still lie unexploded in the United States' wilderness areas; in fact, one was found as recently as 1992 in Washington state.
So be careful, hippies...if you lose your hackey-sack in the forest, let it lie. Let it lie.