…near the end of the World War II
Five gallons of gas a week and a handful of ration coupons for anything worth eating. No Wrigley’s Spearmint and no Hershey bars and only Marvels and Wings if you smoked.
The Amador Theater in Jackson was showing “The Lodger” with Merle Oberon, George Sanders, and Laird Cregar, and the Saturday afternoon serial was “The Mysterious Dr. Satan” starring that evil genius, Eduardo Ciannelli. The masked hero was “The Copperhead,” and in Chapter 15 he fought a duel to the death with Dr. Satan’s mechanical monster. It was great stuff, as I recall.
Tam’s Clothing Store on Main Street was advertising “... fine suits at the amazingly low price of $37.50,” and the Amador Creamery was selling filet of mackerel for 47 cents a package.
Private Norm Waters and Miss Dorotha Mattock were married, and the county’s War Fund Drive was nearing the halfway mark with Ione in the lead.
The Amador Ledger’s weekly war report appeared, as usual, in a little box in the upper right hand corner of the paper: ‘’The squeeze is on again... Russia presses the Nazis... Nimitz squeezes the Nips... and the western front continues to rip h---- out of the Siegfried line. Now for the knockout!”
And in Volcano the townspeople were getting ready to dedicate their Military Honor Roll. Wives and mothers, old-timers and kids, were busy decorating the town hall, and things were festive and peaceful, for the war was being won, and their loved ones would soon be coming home.
This complacency ended abruptly the evening of March 22, 1945.
For on that date a master plan that had originated three years earlier and five thousand miles from Amador County was in the final stage of execution. Gas release valves activated, switches automatically unlocked, and an infernal flying device, designed and launched by the Imperial Japanese Army, plummeted through the darkening skies.
The target: Volcano
Two interviews follow. Both were recorded in January 1981, thirty-six years after the aforementioned incident.
The first interview is with Jock Thebaut of Volcano. The second is with Sarah Gillick, also of Volcano.
Cedric: I’ve heard a rumor that Volcano was bombed by the Japanese during World War II. What can you tell us about this?
Jock: Sure, it happened. It was one of the best kept secrets of the war-, this attempt by the Japanese military to bomb the west coast of North America. Burn down our forests and kill a lot of people in the bargain; this was the plan. They sent balloons filled with hydrogen and carrying explosives and incendiary bombs across the Pacific. They were launched in Japan and carried by the prevailing winds across the ocean.
Cedric: It’s hard to believe.
Jock: Hard to believe but relatively simple. They planned to release the incendiary bombs over the forests of the Pacific Northwest, Oregon, and California. They also had high explosive antipersonnel bombs on board.
Cedric: Do you know how many people were killed by these things?
Jock: Well, the balloon bombs weren’t the best idea the Japanese ever had. All told, I think there was only one fatal incident. It occurred when six people on a Sunday school outing in Oregon came upon a bomb that hadn’t detonated. Curiosity got them, and they were all killed. But I believe that was it.
Cedric: Do you know where other balloons landed?
Jock: Well, as I said, they were carried by the prevailing winds, therefore they were scattered all the way from Alaska to northern Mexico, and as far east as Grand Rapids, Michigan. But most of them landed in the area of Oregon.
Cedric: What about the Volcano bomb?
Jock: It was in March of 1945, on the 22nd. One of the balloons was sighted over Pine Grove and approaching the town of Volcano. It landed, believe it or not, in what was almost downtown Volcano.
Cedric: Can you tell us where that was?
Jock: Sure. It landed in Clapboard Gulch. The landing was reported to the sheriff, who in turn reported it to the Army, who sent a bomb recovery unit to Volcano; they put a guard around the balloon.
Incidentally, the explosive charge was not attached when they found the balloon; it must have been released earlier. Or maybe some brave soul got it before the Army arrived. Anyway, the explosives were gone. And ya know, it’s been a pretty well-kept secret ever since. The feeling then. and rightly so, was if it’s a military matter you keep quiet about it. Lots of people were involved in the affair, but there was no leakage of information.
Cedric: Do you know what the reaction was like in Volcano?
Jock: Well, the teacher of the Volcano one-room school, that would be Hattie Mclane, marched her class up Clapboard Gulch so they could see the Japanese balloon.
Cedric: Were there markings on the balloon that identified it as being Japanese?
Jock: According to the information I’ve seen, there were no markings on the balloon itself, but there were markings on the hardware. And here’s something interesting: The timing devices that were used were designed by what is now the Seiko Watch Company. I don’t know what that tells you.
But anyway, getting back to Hattie, she was shooed away by the officer in charge of the team that was picking up the balloon.
But she persisted in taking her students up there, because it was current history, and she believed that the kids should know what was going on. She got away with it, but the amusing thing is that when this information was recently re-discovered up here, people had been so accustomed to not talking about it, that they sort of just brushed it off. Sure it happened, but so what!
Cedric: Was it reported in the newspapers?
Jock: Oh, no. As a matter of fact this was supposed to have been the second best kept secret of World War II, the first being the Allies’ invasion plans for Europe.
Cedric: Why was it kept such a secret?
Jock: It kept the Japanese from discovering how successful-or unsuccessful-their effort was. And the result was that the Japanese discontinued sending the balloons because there was no feedback.
Cedric: Do you know how long it took the balloons to cross the ocean?
Jock: Only a matter of days; practically hours, actually. The balloon-bombs would rise into the jet stream and come across the Pacific pretty fast. If my memory serves, it took between four to six days to cross.
Cedric: Were they all launched in Japan, or did some take off from submarines?
Jock: In the early days of the war an attempt was made to launch these balloons from submarines off our coast. It came about because one Japanese submarine carried a small plane that had flown over the Oregon coast during the early days of the war and dropped incendiary bombs. It failed because it had been an extremely wet winter, and the forests were sodden. But it gave the Japanese an idea that they could do this by launching balloon bombs. And that’s what they did.
Cedric: Why did they rule out using subs?
Jock: Well, after the battle of Midway the Japanese Navy could not spare any subs for this sort of project. This was in June of 1942. So they were forced to launch the balloons from the mainland of Japan.
Cedric: What gas did the balloons use?
Jock: Hydrogen. They had no helium. And I guess it’s still true that the United States has a worldwide monopoly on helium. Anyone who wants to fill a helium balloon has to buy it from the U. S. government.
Cedric: Do you have any idea how many balloon-bombs were launched?
Jock: I don’t really know. It was in the thousands, however. They were launched with great frequency, because so much was left up to chance. And since they didn’t know how many were being lost at sea, and because they didn’t know how many were getting to the Pacific Coast, they became discouraged.
Cedric: What can you tell us about some of the other bombs that were found?
Jock: There were some pretty weird stories. The Navy had one under wraps at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey, and they decided to test fly it. Well, they had the whole station under tight security, filled the balloon with helium, and ya know what? The balloon broke loose and started to float away over their heads. So the Navy sent an SNJ airplane after it, but they forgot that the normal flight altitude of the balloon was thirty thousand feet, and the plane had a ceiling of only twenty-one thousand feet. So everyone just had to sit back and watch the balloon sail out over the Atlantic and disappear.
Cedric: You have all this information. When did you first hear about the balloon-bomb?
Jock: Well, no one talked about it. Not because of any conspiracy of silence, but because their silence was merely a continuation of their wartime attitude which was: Don’t talk! And over the years I suppose most of the people who knew about it simply forgot it. As a matter of fact it wasn’t until Muriel questioned Sarah Gillick about the matter that Sarah recalled that she had been in the class that went over and looked at the thing.
Cedric: But where did you and Muriel get all this information?
Jock: We were looking through a history magazine, and were surprised and shocked to find Volcano mentioned as one of the places where the balloons fell. It was so unique, that we began to research it, and it’s been fun. But we were not here then, and so all the information is second hand; But talk to Sarah, as I said, she was here. Go talk to Sarah.
Cedric: Sarah, do you remember the day the Japanese balloon-bomb landed in Volcano?
Sarah: Yes, but it didn’t land during the day; it landed in the early evening. It flew over town about four in the afternoon and landed on a hillside way up Clapboard Gulch. It was guarded there all night long.
Cedric: What happened then?
Sarah: The next day Hattie, she was our teacher, took us up to see the bomb. The soldiers pulled the balloon part way down the hill so we could see it. Then they told all of us to leave. But we did get a good look at it.
Cedric: Were you asked not to talk about it?
Sarah: No. But who were we going to talk to anyway! Everyone in town knew about it already, and we didn’t get into Jackson every day.
Cedric: Here’s a picture of the balloon that landed in Volcano. It was in a magazine that reported the story a couple of years ago.
Sarah: Well, it’s a balloon, but it sure isn’t the balloon that landed in Volcano.
Cedric: How do you know that?
Sarah: Because the balloon landed on a hillside, and this photograph was taken in a field.
Cedric: Maybe the soldiers moved it before they took the picture.
Sarah: They wouldn’t have had time, but anyway, it still isn’t the same balloon.
Sarah: Because the balloon I saw was brightly colored and had the rising sun painted on it. No, Volcano was bombed all right, but not by this balloon!
So that’s about it. Some things are cleared up now, but other things are just as murky. And it reminds me of something that happened to Jan and myself a couple of years ago.
One evening we were out on our deck looking over the valley, watching sheet lightning light up the sky. It reminded us of the movie “Close Encounters” which we had just seen, and Jan said, “Wouldn’t it be great if a spaceship landed in Amador County!”
Well, maybe one did.