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On 75th anniversary, Bly remains connected to tragic WWII event - Japanese balloon bomb


Bly tragedy monument< A monument at the site of the Japanese balloon bomb explosion near Bly is viewed by parents of a woman killed in the incident.

A stone monument tucked in a remote pine forest in Klamath County marks the site of a tragic incident that caused the only American casualties of World War II on continental U.S. soil.

It honors a mostly forgotten moment in history.

But it’s personal for everyone in the small community of Bly, an old lumber town that is home to a U.S. Forest Service station and fewer than 1,000 people.

They all know the story. And many knew the people who were killed 75 years ago.

On May 5, 1945, Rev. Archie Mitchell, his pregnant wife, Elsie, and five Sunday school students went for a picnic about 10 miles northeast of Bly. As Mitchell parked the car, his wife and the children headed to find a picnic spot.

A moment later, Mitchell heard a loud explosion.

“It’s really important to everyone around here because it was Bly residents that were killed,” said Leda Hunter, a lifelong Bly resident and chair of the Bly Community Action Team. “It just had a huge impact on people and still does.”

Hunter, a retired U.S. Forest Service engineer, joined others in the community to organize a ceremony at the Mitchell Monument to mark the 75th anniversary of the tragedy. It was originally planned for Tuesday, on the anniversary, but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A tentative date for the ceremony is Sept. 19.

The 50th anniversary in 1995 drew more than 500 people to the monument, Hunter said. She was expecting another large crowd this year.

Bly residents will stay home Tuesday due to the pandemic, but they will take time to think about the anniversary. They will remember the names of the victims written on the monument: Sherman Shoemaker, 11; Edward Engen, 13; Jay Gifford, 13; Joan Patzke, 13; Dick Patzke, 14; and Elsie Mitchell, 26, who was about five months pregnant.

According to historic records, Elsie Mitchell and the children got out of the car and started walking toward Leonard Creek when they spotted a large balloon on the ground.

One of the children tugged at it, which triggered a bomb attached to the balloon.

Archie Mitchell, 27 at the time, ran to the gruesome scene.

“As I got out of my car to bring the lunch, the others were not far away and called to me they had found something that looked like a balloon,” Archie Mitchell said in a June 1, 1945, Bend Bulletin article. “I had heard of Japanese balloons so I shouted a warning not to touch it. But just then there was a big explosion. I ran up there and they were all dead.”

About two years later, Archie Mitchell married Betty Patzke, the older sister of Joan and Dick, who were killed in the blast. Mitchell and his wife became missionaries in Vietnam.

The couple was working at a Vietnam facility that treated leprosy patients on May 30, 1962, when Viet Cong soldiers arrived and took Mitchell and two other Americans, according to military records.

Mitchell was never heard from again. The U.S. government declared him dead in 1969.

“He had quite an interesting life,” said David Prantner, pastor at the Standing Stone Church of the Christian Missionary Alliance in Bly. “Two tragedies happened.”

Prantner feels a connection to Archie Mitchell since he is leading the same church Mitchell ran 75 years ago.

Reminders of Mitchell and the balloon bomb explosion are displayed throughout the church, including a collection of Japanese folded paper cranes.

Japanese women who helped build the bombs as children during the war sent 1,000 paper cranes, which are a Japanese symbol of healing and peace.

The women said they never knew how the balloons would be used when they were removed from school to make them in a factory.

Ilana Sol, a Portland-based filmmaker whose 2008 documentary, “On Paper Wings,” documented the visit to Bly by the Japanese women, said the balloon bomb incident is not widely known around the world.

“Personally, I often find myself staring at blank or confused faces when I say that I made a film about the balloon bombs,” Sol said. “Most people still don’t know about them, or the incident in Bly.”

Japan launched more than 9,000 hydrogen balloon bombs between November 1944 and March 1945, according to historical records. The goal was to set fires in the Western U.S. forests to divert resources from the war.

Each balloon was 70 feet tall and carried three bombs. They floated for nearly three days at high altitude across the Pacific Ocean before reaching the U.S.

About 300 to 400 balloon bombs were found in America, including more than 40 across Oregon and two as far as Michigan and Kansas, Sol said.

When the balloon bombs began landing across the United States, the military enacted a censorship policy to prevent the media from reporting on them. The military didn’t want Japan to know its weapons had reached the U.S., Sol said.

Sol said some of the balloons are still out there. In 2014, forestry workers in British Columbia found a balloon bomb and safely destroyed it.

“It is important for people to know that there are likely still some undiscovered balloon bombs in remote or mountainous areas, and they may still pose a danger,” Sol said.

Michelle Durant, an archaeologist for the Fremont-Winema National Forest who oversees the Mitchell Monument, said the Japanese women who made the balloon bombs have visited Bly a few times over the years and they stay in contact with the community.

The women planted six cherry trees around the monument in 1995 during the 50th anniversary as a way to offer their condolences, Durant said.

Two of the cherry trees are still standing. Having them next to the monument is a powerful sight, Durant said.

“Even though it was a horrific thing at the time, something good has come out of it,” she said. “These two cultures have come together and found peace and forgiveness.”



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