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Story of fatal Bly balloon bomb featured in documentary

A new documentary film, “The Great Balloon Bomb Invasion,” which focuses on the use of balloon bombs sent from Japan to do damage in the United States during World War II, will be featured beginning Thursday on the Discovery+ streaming platform.

Executive director Stu Chait said the documentary “will lift the lid on a relatively lesser-known attack” though the use of balloon bombs. Between 1944 and 1945, Japan launched more than 9,000 bomb-rigged balloons across the Pacific Ocean. Because the U.S. government prevented the news media from reporting on the bombs, the incidents remain largely unknown outside of Klamath County.

The only deaths caused by balloon bombs happened in the woods outside of Bly on May 5, 1945, when six people on a picnic were killed after finding what turned out to be a balloon bomb. Elise Mitchell and five children died in the explosion. The site where the bomb went off has since become known as the Mitchell Monument.

Earlier this year, a film crew led by Chait was in the Klamath Basin. Filming at the monument was done June 13 after visiting and filming at the Klamath County Museum in Klamath Falls. The filming was done before the Bootleg Fire burned and devastated a large portion of the surrounding area. The Mitchell Monument received special attention from fire crews and was not damaged. Filmmakers did record a series of interviews with people associated with or knowledgeable about the bomb in Bly.

During the filming at the Mitchell Monument, Chait requested no publicity about the project until it was assured the documentary would be aired. In confirming the film’s upcoming release, he said the Bly story is featured near the beginning of the show. Many people were interviewed by the film crew, but only parts of two interviews are included in the film.

Among those interviewed at the Mitchell Monument include Faye Murphy Blain of Paisley, the daughter of Elaine Richardson Murphy, a Bly area resident who had been invited to join the Mitchells and others for the picnic. In the film, Blair briefly talks about her mother.

During the filming at the Mitchell Monument, Blain said she knew little about her mother’s connections until about 2005.

“She’d tell me bits and pieces about it. She always thought about it in the back of her mind. Why? Because she lost her best friend Joannie.” Blair came to understand “it bothered her a lot … she wouldn’t have the kids she had or the life she had” if she had joined on the outing.

Blain said her mother, who died in 2016, had twice been invited to go on the picnic. The second time was the morning of the explosion, while she was moving steers with her parents Loring “Boss” and Thelma Richardson.

“Those kids were screaming and hollering,” Murphy told Blair of her friends, who drove past her while driving up the road to where they discovered the balloon. When asked if she could join the party, Murphy said her father thought about allowing her, but decided he needed her help to move the cattle.

Leda Hunter, a longtime Bly resident who for many years worked for the Fremont-Winema National Forest’s Bly Ranger District and is president of the Bly Community Action Team, said the government’s decision to censor information about balloon bombs “is still kind of a touchy subject. People were upset. They’re still upset.” Hunter appears briefly in the film.

It wasn’t until a month after the explosion that the government lifted the ban on reporting on the existence and potential danger of balloon bombs, which carried explosives.

Hunter said many Bly area residents make visits to the monument because “it’s still fresh in everybody’s mind. There’s a lot of traffic up here.”

She expressed appreciation for visits by Japanese people, including some of the women who as schoolgirls were required to make items that they much later learned were used in constructing the bombs. During one visit, the Japanese women brought paper cranes and planted cherry trees at the site.

“It was kind of gratifying for them to want to come here,” Hunter said, terming their visit and actions as “a moment of healing.”

David Prantner, pastor at the Standing Stone Church in Bly the past three years, can be heard offering a prayer at the monument at the beginning of the film. He said he learned about the explosion and deaths while researching a possible move to Bly. During an interview before taking the pastor post at the same church where Mitchell was the pastor, Pranter said church members took him and his family to the site.

“It was like a weight on my shoulder knowing people died here,” he said. Although he studied history, Pratner said he “had no clue” about the incident.

“To know that civilians, children, were taken ...” Pratner said. “War doesn’t need to be necessary.”




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