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A Japanese paper balloon carries bombs circa 1944-45. Thousands of the experimental weapons were sent across the Pacific during the Second World War.Courtesy of Robert Mikesh Collection, National Museum of the Pacific War

Mark Bourrie’s most recent book is Big Men Fear Me: The Fast Life and Quick Death of Canada’s Most Powerful Media Mogul.

The Chinese spy balloon shot down off the coast of South Carolina and the three objects of uncertain origin blown from North American skies in recent days seem like a new threat, but this isn’t the first time we have worried about strange balloons floating toward us from across the Pacific. Nearly 80 years ago, people in Western Canada watched for bomb-laden balloons drifting on the jet stream.

Japanese Fu-Go balloon bombs were perhaps the strangest weapon launched against the Allies in the Second World War. Made of paper and silk, the 12-metre balloons were filled with hydrogen and designed to catch the jet stream at 10,000 metres for a 220-kilometre-an-hour, four-or-five-day trip to North America. Schoolchildren sang songs and wrote anti-American slogans on the balloons at launching ceremonies in northern Japan.

The balloons were fitted with altimeters and ballast weights to keep them in the stratosphere. Every night, as they cooled and fell below the jet stream, each device dropped a sandbag. By the time the balloons arrived on the coast of Alaska, British Columbia or the continental United States, all the ballast was dropped. If things worked as planned, the balloon’s cluster of incendiary and high-explosive bombs were released one by one as the balloon drifted inland.

A Canadian military intelligence officer called the bombs “fiendishly clever but a military failure.” The devices were relatively harmless, partly because so many of their bombs were duds. This was a secret that the U.S. and Canadian military intelligence establishments wanted to keep from the Japanese.

People in Victoria and Vancouver clearly saw them drifting overhead. Some made it over the mountains, deep into Canada and as far as Texas and Michigan.

The balloons did not start many forest fires, which was their main purpose, nor, partly because of press censorship, did they instill much fear. Their singular “success” was a public-relations disaster for the Japanese: A woman and five children were killed when a bomb exploded on a downed balloon near Bly, Ore., in May, 1945.

The first wave of balloon bombs arrived in the fall of 1944. Early in the campaign, military and press censorship authorities, working for the federal government, knew very little about them, so the natural reaction was to stifle coverage. Newspapers, like the rest of the public, were left to speculate. A few Canadian papers wondered if the balloons carried biological weapons – an idea that terrified readers – but the censors cracked down on anything that discussed their success rates or flight paths.

The Japanese were to be kept in the dark about the number of balloons that made it to North America. The fewer the reports, the thinking went, the more likely the Japanese would believe the bombs weren’t able to get across the Pacific Ocean. The Japanese didn’t know that one balloon drifted over downtown Moose Jaw, terrifying people there, or that a balloon almost made it as far east as Detroit.

Censors killed a Vancouver Province story that said only about one out of every 40 balloons launched from Japan reached the coast of North America. A picture of one of the balloons drifting over Vancouver Island was allowed to run in the Province but the caption was changed to remove the location.

One balloon landed south of Regina, near the U.S. border. Eyewitnesses told a newspaper reporter the balloon was as high as a two-storey house and drifted along at treetop level. Its bombs had dropped but had not exploded. Press censors spiked the Regina Leader-Post’s story but offered an exclusive once the news blackout was lifted.

Canadian journalists followed the lead of their American counterparts, who wrote in vague terms about the balloon bombs and datelined their stories “Somewhere West of the Mississippi.” This embargo on locations and specific details held until the first week of June, 1945.

By late spring, newspapers in Toronto had stories on 190 balloon sightings but couldn’t publish them until the war was almost over.

George Murray, who, with his wife “Ma” Murray, ran a newspaper in Fort St. John, in northwestern British Columbia, freelanced stories on balloon-bomb sightings to several Canadian daily newspapers. Censors contacted Murray’s customers to kill the story and told Murray to check with them before selling any more balloon-bomb news.

On April 3, 1945, the Vancouver Sun pushed for permission to publish stories about the balloon bombs. Everyone in B.C. knew about the balloons, Sun managing editor Hugh Slaight said. Forest rangers were watching for them, and militia soldiers hunted for crash sites.

Schoolteachers in Vancouver warned their students about the bombs.

Censorship wouldn’t keep the Japanese from learning about the damage done by the bombs, journalists argued. The Germans knew of the carnage V-weapons had caused in the United Kingdom and Western Europe, despite the British government’s news blackout. The difference, a press censor replied, was the Nazis’ ability to send aerial reconnaissance flights over V1 and V2 target areas. The Japanese had no planes over B.C.

If the newspapers printed stories about the balloon bombs, any Japanese agent in North America would get “the very information he was seeking,” censors claimed.

That spring, balloons were dropping bombs all over western North America: one near Puyallup, Wash.; two in rural Montana; and one in northern California. One bomb blew up at Pine Lake, Alta., without hurting anyone.

Controversy erupted between North American newspaper publishers, press censors and military intelligence officers over a comic strip called Tim Tyler’s Luck, which suggested the balloons were bacteriological warfare weapons. The strip was the start of a new series called Man Eating Enemies in which Tim Tyler and his pals in a U.S. Navy submarine find “something like the balloons reported recently in the States.” The balloon did not carry bombs, just a box containing something that looks like seeds.

Censors in Washington and Ottawa managed to have the rest of the comic series killed, but journalists in Canada and the U.S. argued that the story was now out there. They should be allowed to run the stories and pictures that had been suppressed.

They were turned down.

A few days after the comic-strip fiasco, the Japanese got another chance to learn about the success of their campaign. Popular radio journalist Walter Winchell broke the story of the Oregon balloon-bomb fatalities, leaving out details about the balloons and saying the children had been killed by “enemy action.” The next day, the Associated Press carried a story on the tragedy with an eyewitness account from Archie Mitchell, pastor of the Christian Alliance Church in Bly, the only survivor of the bomb blast.

Censors believed the balloon bombs were Canada’s best-kept war secret, and they were right. In 1948, Brigadier-General W.H. Wilbur, wartime chief of staff of the U.S. West Coast Command, visited Japan. He dropped in on Major-General Sueyoshi Kusaba, who ran the fire-balloon campaign.

Kusaba told Wilbur that the Japanese high command had pulled the plug after combing through stacks of North American newspapers, looking for stories about their balloons. They found a few, but not enough to convince them that many balloons were getting through.

It’s the only time that there was ever evidence from Axis countries that press censorship affected enemy strategy.