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Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Bombing of Desdemona

by Clay Coppedge

In 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 Desdemona, 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.

A 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 Woodson in Throckmorton 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.

Germany 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 children.

A plaque at the site recognizes those six as the only Americans killed in the continental U.S. by enemy action in World War II.

A little more than four months later, on Aug. 6, 1945 (August 5 in Desdemona) the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, killing 140,000 people.

Ten days later, Japan surrendered and World War II ended.

Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" July 16, 2017 column

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