November of 1944, in the waning days of World
War II, the Japanese military began arming more than 9,000 hot
air balloons with bombs and releasing them in the general direction
of the United States. Only about 30 of the balloons made it across
the Pacific Ocean but at least three of them got to Texas just as
fast as they could.
Hardly anybody noticed, but Inez Heeter, a Civilian Air Observer
in Eastland County,
noticed. She spent the war years scanning the Texas skies for enemy
aircraft as part of the U.S. government's Ground Observer Corps.
Vigilant though she was, Mrs. Heeter never saw anything out of the
ordinary until March 23, 1945 when she spotted a huge balloon floating
innocently above the Magnolia Oil Refinery and across the town of
descending ever so slightly to reveal the rising sun emblem of the
Imperial Japanese on top of the balloon.
After years of waiting to call the number the military gave her
in case of a sighting, Mrs. Heeter picked up the phone and dialed
the appropriate numbers only to be greeted with skepticism on the
other end of the line. But she wasn't the only one who saw the balloon.
The men working at the Magnolia refinery also saw it and asked one
another, "What the heck is it?" A 14-year old boy named Pug Guthery
was getting off a school bus just south of Desdemona
when the balloon sailed overhead and landed in a field about two
miles away. Pug took off running to see what it was he'd just seen.
By the time he reached the balloon it had flattened out and was
altogether unremarkable looking except for the big rising sun on
the top. Other children getting off another school bus saw the same
balloon and they came running across the field to investigate as
well. Guthery caught a whiff of what smelled to him like creosote
and he backed away.
"It looked like leather," Guthery recalled. "Whatever it was, it
was a tough material."
The other kids weren't so cautious. They tore into the balloons
with pocket knives and cut away strips of the balloon and part of
a grass rope that encircled it to carry home as souvenirs. This
balloon fortunately, had already dropped its bombs.
Military officials showed up at the Desdemona
school the next day, lined the students up and said to each one
in turn, "Give it back, kid" without offering any explanations.
second Japanese balloon made it to the tiny community of Comyn
in Comanche County.
Wade Cowan, a member of Company D of the Texas State Guard at the
time, said the balloons were "about 30 feet high when extended and
carried five metal canisters. Four were incendiaries and one was
a fragmentary, or anti-personnel device."
The next day Ivan Miller, a cowboy on the Barney Davis ranch near
County, found a third balloon. His widow, Florence Miller, told
the Texas Almanac's Mike Kingston in 1992 that her husband said
the balloon was "as big around as a house" with several smaller
versions of the rising sun located around the bottom. School kids
had seen this balloon and, like the Desdemona
balloon, it was missing several pieces.
Miller notified the local postmaster, who alerted other government
officials, who arrived at school the next day and made those kids
give back their souvenirs, too.
surrendered a little more than a month after the Texas bombings.
Japan, however, showed no signs of surrender even though the war
was going very badly for them. They began releasing the balloons
on the Emperor's birthday with hopes of starting a series of forest
fires in the Northwest and causing citizens to panic - a last ditch
effort to turn the tide in their favor.
The balloons rode the jet stream some 30,000 feet in the air, traveling
between 80 and 120 mph, but only about 300 of the thousands they
released made it across the Pacific. The U.S. government knew about
the bomb-laden balloons but kept the knowledge secret until one
of the bombs went off in Oregon, killing a minister's wife and five
A plaque at the site recognizes those six as the only Americans
killed in the continental U.S. by enemy action in World
A little more than four months later, on Aug. 6, 1945 (August 5
the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, killing 140,000
Ten days later, Japan surrendered and World
War II ended.
© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
July 16, 2017 column