Riiinnng! Hello? Why, it’s aunt Ginny in Peoria! How are you, au- What’s that you say? We’re a bunch of naked perverts undermining the war effort?

There were probably lots of calls from angry aunties on that morning of July 6, 1944, as an AP wire story hit the pages of newspapers nationwide: “At least 200 members of a vast nudist retreat in the Valley of the Moon were called on the office of price administration carpet today to explain how they reached the place on ‘A’ ration gasoline, some from as far away as Oregon and southern California.”

Even without the nudity angle, this would still have been a major story at the time. The Office of Price Administration (OPA) controlled gasoline rationing during WWII and it was a hot-button issue; nobody liked it but cheating was viewed as awfully selfish and unpatriotic. For fuel efficiency and preservation of rubber tires, the national speedlimit was 35 MPH and anyone caught going faster not only got a fine but their name in the paper – and repeat violators could lose their gas coupons for the duration of the war, however long that might be. For some of these people to be driving hundreds of miles to visit Sonoma county strongly implied they were tapping into the black market.

Headline editors were surprisingly restrained (Kingsport Tenn. Times: “Nudists Must Give OPA The Bare Facts”) with the most sensationalistic being our own Press Democrat: “Professional Men, Housewives Found Flitting About Hilltop Elysium From All Over State”. While the San Francisco Examiner printed a fuzzy photo of naked people on a volleyball court, the PD also published the most salacious account:

…Surprise arrival of the agents at first sent an array of ‘nudies’ of all ages, sizes and descriptions scurrying for cover, disappearing into the array of cabins or into the bushes. But before it was over the nudists apparently said ‘what the heck’ or its equivalent and returned to their games of volley ball, croquet, swimming, and dancing to a boogie-woogie piano…As one young lass, standing unabashed with her curves, moaned: “Heavens! My husband doesn’t know I’ve been using our car to come here. What will he say?”

That “Hilltop Elysium” was the Sun-O-Ma nudist colony, which is currently on the market for $11.3M and redubbed the “Castle Road Estate,” in the hills above the Bartholomew Park Estate Vineyards – and therein lies the nut of our tale.

Those vineyards are the remnants of Agoston Haraszthy’s historic Buena Vista winery. Stories about what became of the ranch after he was (supposedly) eaten by alligators have appeared here twice before: Kate Johnson built a 40-room “castle” in 1885 (see “THE MAKING OF A CRAZY CAT LADY“) which the state purchased to create the California Industrial Farm for Women (see “THE DELINQUENT WOMEN OF SONOMA“). After the castle burned down in 1923 there were several proposals made for the state to build some sort of new institution, but aside from the infirmary building becoming an unofficial annex of the nearby Sonoma State Home at Eldridge, the grand estate – which was once often compared to Golden Gate Park – went to rack and ruin. Then arrived the nudist’s nemesis, Frank Bartholomew.


It is astonishing no one has ever written a biography (or even a Wikipedia page!) about Frank H. Bartholomew; there should have been a heroic movie about him in the 1950s with a cheezy title like, “Dateline: Hell in the Pacific” where he would be played by a middle-aged Clark Gable. (Late in life he self-published a memoir, “Bart,” which does not mention the Sun-O-Ma war.)

“Bart” rose through the ranks of the United Press wire service as their top correspondent in the Pacific Theatre during and after WWII. His adventures were the stuff of legend; he beat General MacArthur into Tokyo and got a confession from General Tojo, the Commander-in-Chief of the all Japanese forces as he was attempting suicide. More from Bart’s 1985 UPI obituary:

He was on the battleship Missouri when Japan surrendered to end World War II, and he covered the Bikini atomic bomb tests of 1946 as the lone media observer aboard a B-29 observation plane. He also wrote a graphic description of Shanghai as the last correspondent out of that city when it fell to the Communists…Bartholomew was the first correspondent into Naha, Okinawa, while that city was still under siege in 1945…

Even at age sixty in 1958 while president of UPI, he continued breaking top-notch stories. He revealed the U.S. was running “fail safe” missions when tensions with the Soviets were high – that B-52s loaded with H-bombs were constantly flying over the Arctic headed for Russia with instructions to turn back just before entering USSR air space unless attack orders were given. That same year he was tipped off that the Chinese government was smuggling huge amounts of opium through the Swiss capital of Bern.

In late 1943 Bartholomew (who always went by just “Bart”) was enjoying a few days of R&R away from the warfront. He and his wife, Antonia, had Sunday lunch with a friend in Kenwood who told them the next day the state was auctioning off a nearby 500-acre ranch. On their drive back to San Francisco the Bartholomews made a quick detour to see the property. Without an appraisal or knowing anything about its history, they offered a bid of $17,600 and won. Bart left at once for the South Pacific to rejoin MacArthur’s forces planning to retake the Philippines, while Antonia was left alone except for the cows and horses in the rented pastures. (The horses were Anheuser Busch Clydesdales that could collapse sections of a fence when one of the big animals used a post to scratch an itch, leaving Antonia to round ’em up and wrangle ’em back to the ranch.)

The Bartholomews probably didn’t know about Sun-O-Ma when they bought the ranch on an impulse, but they surely must have soon learned about the doings next door. “The camp has been no secret, nudists having scampered unmolested in the Sonoma hills since 1937,” the Press Democrat reported, “the colony felt secure behind the protection of a securely locked gate that kept out the curious.” That gate led to a dirt road through the Bartholomew property – an easement which was the only way in or out of the nudist camp.

As the weather warmed up in 1944 Antonia would have found hundreds of cars a week streaming through that gate towards Sun-O-Ma and according to the PD it was Bart who tipped off the OPA investigators. Were Antonia and Bart bluenoses who were intent on stopping activities they considered immoral, or were they NIMBYs who just wanted to cut off traffic on that road? Or some of both? We don’t know, but it’s clear they did not like what was going on one bit. Within a month of the OPA bust they were in Superior Court seeking to shut down public access to the road – and with it, their neighbor’s business.

And so began what the PD called, “the Battle of the Blushing Bartholomews and their Naked Neighbors.”

The Bartholomews retained W. Finlaw Geary, the top trial lawyer in the area and a man who could hold his liquor, more or less. It was like hiring Perry Mason to shut down your neighbor’s noisy pool parties.

On the other side were the owners of Sun-O-Ma, Emma and Victor Staheli and Naiva/Nelva Forward (the newspapers often mangled the Staheli name as well). Just a month before the OPA raid the Stahelis had sold the property to a man from Alameda who was a frequent visitor and who was there when the Feds swooped down on the place. Besides their patrons being in trouble for possibly abusing their gasoline rations, the Stahelis were busted for not having registered their rooms and cabins with the OPA in compliance with the wartime rent control laws. Emma first said they were exempt because the cabins were privately owned by their club members, but after investigators found flyers advertising overnight stays for 50¢ to $1.50 the cabins were registered as available for “fruit pickers.”

Besides the cottages, the federal agents and reporters tagging along found there was a swimming tank, a drinking hall and store on the 240 acre property. Emma Staheli explained it was a private club which was part of the New Jersey-based American Sunbathing Association, Inc. Members from affiliated chapters were “constantly” visiting, and a few days earlier fifty from the Oakland group had spent the weekend there. In his press conference the OPA Enforcement Attorney said Sun-O-Ma attracted as many as 250 guests a week.

That doesn’t sound at all like the frenzied scene described in the complaint written by Finlaw Geary, as reported in the PD: “From 400 to 500 persons per day have traveled over said road, on their way to and from the nudist resort, raising clouds of dust which settles over the extensive apricot and prune orchards, rendering the fruit unmarketable. Further, says the complaint, the nudist resort patrons have created much noise and disturbance, destroyed cattle guards and even carried away gates which the Bartholomews had erected across the road.” Bart repeated these points at a hearing a few months later, adding that his vineyards were likewise unmarketable.

If 250 nudists were really making up to 3,500 weekly trips up and down that road, they must have spent almost all of the rest of their time either dressing or undressing. Bart later testified someone had “broken down his gates” and not stolen them, which along with the damaged cattle guards makes me think more about those itchy Clydesdales (did you know they can weigh more than a ton?) than vandalizing naked people with sledgehammers and bolt cutters. And aside from the absurd claim that he couldn’t sell dusty fruit, where did those “extensive apricot and prune orchards” come from? The estate really hadn’t been maintained since Kate Johnson died in 1893, and one of the stories in Bart’s memoir is how Antonia was amazed to find a few remains of Haraszthy’s old grape rootstock buried among the high weeds.


On November 17, Superior Court Judge Hilliard Comstock granted a temporary restraining order blocking anyone except the Stahelis from using the road. In a moment we’ll come back to discuss other big doings in late 1944, but let’s first wrapup the court case, which dragged on for almost four years. Some of that was undoubtedly stretched out by Bart being away for months in 1945 covering the end of the war, but there were also Finlaw Geary’s courtroom stunts which led to lots of yelling and jumping up and down.

Bart was on hand for days of court hearings in April 1945 where he charged the Stahelis with violating the TRO and leading groups of autos (“sometimes as many as five at a time”) through the gate. He surprised the judge by bringing in a movie projector to show a film made by his investigator. Yes, the Bartholomews had hired a San Francisco private eye, who kept a sharp watch on that dirt road for dusty sinners eager to drop their duds faster than the filly who won him enough clams at Bay Meadows to crawl inside a fifth of good bourbon instead of the rotgut that left him feeling so lousy his hair hurt when he donned his fedora. From the PD:

Bartholomew charged the naughty nudists” with cutting a chain across a gateway, tearing down a notice, hinting at possible gunplay and with covering license plates on their cars with sacking in a move to hide their identity. If there were any nudists depicted in the film, however, they were out of character. For all in view of the camera were fully clad. The picture was taken last March – and it was a cold day.

All that was seen on the film was Victor Staheli unlocking the gate to let a group of cars on his place and unlocking it again to let them off. One of Bart’s private dicks supposedly asked a woman why she had covered her license plate. “I’m a schoolteacher, and people might think it funny that I’m up here with two teenage girls,” she answered. Color me skeptical.

After an eight-month hiatus the hearings resumed in December. Geary tried to introduce two photos “for identification” – one showing naked people in the distance (Staheli’s lawyer called it a “double exposure”) and another of people showering (a “telephoto picture” said the Staheli attorney). Judge Comstock said it wasn’t admissible as evidence.

While Bart claimed the road was only intended for ranch work, Staheli’s lawyers called “78-year-old John J. Wagnan, former Sonoma postmaster, to testify that he had traversed the road as far back as ’78 or ’79 to visit the property now known as the Staheli property…Wagnan testified that he had heard that timber used in building the old Sonoma Mission in 1823 came from the property in question,” according to the PD – which would certainly have established it as a public road.

W. Finlaw Geary was a courtroom bruiser, however, and not about to let a hearing get bogged down by meaningful facts.

He called a witness who produced a map which suggested the road was originally eighty feet further away, so this wasn’t the old road at all. He suggested the old postmaster had once admitted that and was now lying under oath.

Geary also created an uproar by charging the Stahelis and their lawyers tried to intimidate one of his witnesses outside of the courtroom. Staheli’s attorney demanded Geary “prove I was ever near” the witness and Judge Comstock told Geary he should make a formal accusation of contempt of court if it were true. The Staheli lawyer accused Geary of libel and demanded Geary be sworn in and give a statement under oath. Comstock whipped the schoolyard into order by telling them they had wandered far into the weeds and all of their charges and counter-charges would be struck from the record.

Then Geary dropped his bombshell: Mrs. Emma Staheli was an imposter, and Victor’s real wife was a different woman in Los Angeles who also happened to be named Emma.

And that, Gentle Reader, was the moment which convinced me William Finlaw Geary had indeed sold his soul at a country crossroads at midnight.

Here was the scene as described in the Press Democrat:

…Staheli was asked by Geary if his wife was not also known as Emma Shelton a question which caused Mrs. Staheli, present in court, to object so strenuously that Judge Comstock threatened to have her ejected from the courtroom if the disturbance persisted. It was in relation to this question that the freedom of the press matter arose. Attorney J. H. Brill, one of the Staheli counsel, asked that all testimony relative to the pair’s marital status be stricken from the record and that a representative of this newspaper present be admonished not to publish that portion of the testimony. Judge Comstock refused to accede to the demand.

Victor Staheli, it seems, had bought the property in 1929 when he was married to woman named Lorena/Laurena. He married Emma, née Emma Shelton, in 1934 or 1935 (he couldn’t remember). In 1943 Victor signed over half of the Sun-O-Ma property to Emma, and about a year later gave his ex-wife the full title to some property in Los Angeles. That deed read “Emma Shelton, also known as Laurena Belle Staheli, also known as Belle L. Staheli, also known as Emma Staheli.” The legal form had been filled out at a bank in Los Angeles, and the simplest explanation is that the bank officer doing the paperwork got mixed up. Victor either didn’t read the document or didn’t think it was worth the trouble to fix.

Regardless, what any of that had to do with a road easement in Sonoma County was unclear. Said attorney Brill: “We’re going into an extraneous matter which has no connection with the case.”

Said Judge Comstock: “I’m not aware we have any extraneous matter in this case.”

Said Geary: “I’m so much at sea in regard to people involved in the title to the property that I don’t know yet where we are.”

The circus over the Staheli’s marital status and the LA deed dragged on for over two months in 1946, allowing newspapers nationwide to remind all the Aunt Ginnys in all the Peorias that Sonoma County was up to its neck in all sorts of deviants. It also presumably allowed Finlaw Geary to happily rack up many, many billable hours.

At one point, Geary even questioned if that was Victor Staheli’s signature on the quitclaim, and what pen he had used. He had Staheli sign his name repeatedly on a sheet of paper and introduced it as evidence. Staheli’s lawyer was exasperated: “Why not ask him the color of his necktie?”

The wheels of justice continued to grind slowly onwards, and in September 1946, Judge Hilliard Comstock’s 10-page decision permitted road use for only “a single family dwelling and farm” and specifically enjoined road use for “the conduct and maintenance of a nudist colony.” There was an appeal of the road closure in 1947 and finally in July, 1948 – four years after the OPA raid – the appeals court upheld Comstock’s ruling. It was over. Nevermore would sun-lovers bask at Sun-O-Ma.

But there was more to this story than a civil suit of Bartholomew vs. Staheli over a road. As they say, context is everything.

Let’s wind back the clocks to 1944; the same Fourth of July holiday when Sun-O-Ma was busted, there were OPA agents out in force all over the country looking for gasoline scofflaws, but word about those arrests rarely made it beyond the local papers, if at all. Neither Santa Rosa paper reported that license plate numbers from 597 autos were recorded by the OPA in the Guerneville area the previous weekend. When 756 cars were tagged at the New Jersey’s Garden State race track – some driven from as far away as Louisiana – editors yawned, while Sun-O-Ma became national news. And you know why.

sunomamovieThose were oddly prurient times in Sonoma County. In towns all over the country there would be a movie theater that would sometimes run a midnight showing of a “naughty” film, usually something from Pre-Code days such as “Ecstasy,” “Female” or a quasi-documentary such as “This Nude World” aimed at young adults (“Girls get up a party,” encouraged the Daily Times in Davenport Iowa). In April 1944, Santa Rosa’s Roxy theater scheduled a midnight program with “Elysia,” an exquisitely boring 1933 film about a nudist camp (it’s probably NSFW but if you really must take a peek, don’t miss the energetic accordion player at the 13:35 timemark). After widespread protests, District Attorney McGettigan demanded the theater cancel the show, even though he admitted the main problem was the advertising, not the movie itself which he termed “epidermal.”

The Sonoma Valley Women’s Club expressed shock that a nudist camp was allowed to exist in their midst (no surprise, really) and the Sonoma Index-Tribune waved the morality flag in an op-ed shortly after the OPA raid (best read in the quivering voice of The Simpson’s Mr. Burns):

We believe the nudist colony idea is a racket which appeals to some warped minds…public morals and decency are jeopardized as adolescent and curious youth discover the presence of those who would write off all young people have been taught of modesty and decency. There are oldsters too, foolish enough to think they might recapture youth by playing volleyball with the striplings.

Later in 1944 we learned that someone in Sonoma Valley was in contact with the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors seeking their support for state legislation banning nudist camps. That letter writer was, of course, Frank H. Bartholomew. And again, we don’t know whether he had sincere moral objections against nudity or if this was a cynical Plan B to knock off Sun-O-Ma should he lose the civil suit.

Bart certainly picked a good champion for his cause. Los Angeles had banned nudist activity way back in 1939, and Curtis Smith of their County Counsel office said the ordinance had “worked good, but hasn’t stopped nudists from going to other parts of the state.” He said the LA Supervisors were anxious to halt “nudistic practices throughout California.”

As the anti-nudism bill was heading to Sacramento, Bart was also working the local government angle. After Santa Rosa clubwomen unanimously approved a resolution against nudists, the Sonoma County supervisors unanimously passed a new ordinance on January 22, 1945, and it was because of this new law that Judge Comstock would later block further use of the property as a nudist resort:

A person who in any place within the unincorporated territory of the county of Sonoma willfully exposes his or her private parts in the presence and view of two or more persons of the opposite sex whose private parts are similarly exposed, or who aids or abets any such act, or who procures another so to expose his or her private parts, or who as owner, manager, lessee, director, promoter or agent, or in any other capacity, hires, leases or permits the land, building or premises of which he or she is the owner, lessee or tenant, or over which he or she has control, to be used for any such purpose, is guilty of a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of not more than five hundred dollars or by imprisonment in the county jail for not to exceed six months, or by both such fine and imprisonment.

While that ordinance is no longer on the books, its spirit lives on in §19(11), “Nudity prohibited on public property and on private property open to public view,” which states, “it is the intent of this board of supervisors to prohibit nudity on public property and on private property open to public view even when such nudity is not sexually motivated or otherwise lewd….”

It’s a point of interest that the wording in Bart’s legislative proposals never mentions minors (unaccompanied or otherwise) yet that was the most serious of his accusations against Sun-O-Ma:

…He characterized the nudist camp and others like it as “rackets” demoralizing adolescents in a letter to the Los Angeles supervisors, and as a result that august body yesterday recommended new legislation to bring all California nudist colonies under state control. In his protest to the Los Angeles board, Mr. Bartholomew charged the club at Sonoma “is visited by hundreds over the weekend and offers such entertainment as dancing in the nude, overnight accommodations for two, the guest register of which shows such names as ‘Mabel and Bud’ and ‘Isabel and Bill.'” Furthermore, he protests, the club caters to adolescents of both sexes who associate with naked adults, and Sonoma High School boys swarm over his ranch to “peek at the exotic performances.”

Bart invented the unfounded “racket” claim early and it caught on, as shown in the Sonoma I-T editorial above and in the later state hearings. In 1944-1945, however, that term had lost much of its context as being restricted to crime or graft – it was now just used to complain about something that ticked you off. People who weren’t used to paying gratuities griped about the tipping racket; there was a popular book, “Goodbye Mr. Chippendale” about the interior decorating racket; when cats didn’t come home in Hagerstown Maryland there were fears of a stolen cat racket and in Sarasota there was a tennis racket repair racket. Search the newspapers from those years and you can find hits for just about any noun+racket.

Even more skeezy was Bart’s implication that the resort was renting cabins to teenagers ‘Mabel and Bud’ et. al. That’s a pants-on-fire fib; the names were cited in the OPA press conference just to show the Stahelis were renting rooms which weren’t registered with the rent control board. “On the premises were found informal notations of occupancy such as ‘Elinor and Al,’ ‘Mabel and Bud,’ and ‘Margo and Fred,'” said the OPA Enforcement Attorney.

The proposed state regulation of nudist colonies had hearings on April 9, 1945 before the Assembly Crime and Corrections Committee. Ralph Dills (D-Gardena) was the sponsor (fun fact: He was one of only two state legislators to protest the Japanese-American internment camps) and Albert Dekker (D-Hollywood) led the committee opposition (fun fact: He was the first movie star elected to state office). Dekker said they were wasting their time on the bill “…when there are so many important issues before us, we sit here worrying about whether or not someone has their shirt on.” Dills read letters and editorials in support or regulation, including one that claimed Hitler approved of nudism. Dekker said that wasn’t true and Hitler had abolished it. Thus appears one of the earliest sightings of Godwin’s law, which states any debate that goes on long enough will end up with comparing someone or something to Adolf Hitler. The bill was tabled 7-2 and not heard of again.

Bart may not have squashed nudist colonies at the state level, but here in Sonoma County – and particularly on the land next to his vineyards – our private parts would stay private by law. Thus the rich irony in our Believe-it-or-Not! epilogue:

In 1998, the Bartholomew Park Winery, which was then leased to the Bundschu family, had a wine tasting where guests were entertained by nude models. From their press release: “Bartholomew Park Winery cordially invites you to bare to be different and attend an open house honoring the nudes from 5 to 7 pm Aug 19…Artists of varying experience and styles are invited to sketch from nudes who will pose in the vineyards. Reservations required. No Cameras Allowed.”

According to the Napa Valley Register, “Rather than a risque marketing ploy, the winery claims they were capitalizing on the area’s history as a nudist colony.”

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It crashed through the treetops on the Vine Hill farm, and the only reason the bomb didn’t kill the farmer milking a goat was because it got snagged in the branches. Had it exploded, he would have been the first war casualty on American soil since Pearl Harbor. It was January 4, 1945.

The farmer called the sheriff and soon deputies, FBI agents and Army ballistics experts from Hamilton Field were speeding to that West County goat farm. None of them knew what they were handling – they didn’t even realize it was a live bomb, so they took it to the sheriff’s office and put it on display in the lobby.

All they knew was that it probably had been dropped from a balloon. “Hundreds of residents of western Sonoma county had seen the mysterious balloon sweeping inland from the vicinity of Jenner, highlighted by rays of the setting sun,” the Press Democrat later reported.

A couple of days earlier the PD had a front page story about the “mystery spheres” which had been found in Wyoming, Montana, Washington and Oregon. They were believed to be of Japanese origin, but the Army hadn’t confirmed that; all that was known for sure was that they carried incendiary devices. That story repeated speculation that the balloons were carrying enemy soldiers, which was the working theory for a couple of weeks: “There was no actual evidence that the balloon had carried enemy saboteurs but that seemed the only logical explanation for its arrival. It trailed an elastic cable that had been cut, possibly indicating that it once was equipped with a cage capable of carrying a crew of perhaps four or five who, on arriving over the United States, cut themselves free and parachuted to earth in a small-sized ‘invasion.'”

bombs(RIGHT: Balloon bomb exhibit at Canadian War Museum in Ottowa)

The same day the Vine Hill bomb landed, the Office of Censorship ordered a complete blackout of any balloon stories in newspapers and on radio. The curtain of silence remained in place until the war ended in August.

Pity Press Democrat editor Herbert Waters; this was the biggest local war story during WWII and he couldn’t write a word. He must have been gnashing his teeth when another balloon was spotted over Santa Rosa on February 23 and the crew of a Lockheed P-38 from the Santa Rosa Army Air Field (now the Sonoma County Airport) scrambled to shoot it down midair as it neared Calistoga – the first time one of the balloons was brought down by gunners.

Editor Herb surely was hopping mad that the PD couldn’t tell readers that three balloons came down in March – west of Cloverdale, near Guerneville, and close to the Mount Jackson quicksilver mine overlooking the Russian River Valley. Another turned up May 15 near Geyserville. There were probably frustrated screams in the newsroom as Waters learned one of the bombs blew a swimming pool-sized crater in a field near Santa Rosa (with people watching!) and another apparently started a fire close to Cotati. Sonoma Valley subscribers probably were irked because the paper didn’t mention some incident (a fire?) that occurred near the Heins ranch in Glen Ellen, or how El Verano schoolkids were all wound up about seeing that big balloon drifting overhead.

All in all, it’s believed at least ten balloons fell to earth in Sonoma county – more than anywhere else in the state.

Although authorities weren’t exactly sure what was going on, the Vine Hill bomb convinced the government that the U.S. was under some sort of air attack from Japan, and to say that the military in early 1945 was unprepared to handle it was an understatement.

The West Coast had never faced an active threat from Imperial Japan and slipped into a lack of readiness. The Navy and Army air bases in Santa Rosa were just used for general training, as was Hamilton Field; no combat planes were kept on ground alert anywhere on the coast; the long-range radar system wasn’t turned on most of the time; the civilian Ground Observer Corps was disbanded; most anti-aircraft artillery had been mothballed. Had Japan mounted a Pearl Harbor-like attack we would have been defenseless for hours.

The Fourth Air Force at Hamilton Field was suddenly thrust very much back into the war, with the critical mission to figure out what the hell the enemy was doing with those balloons. The very first one landed near San Pedro a couple of months before the Vine Hill bomb and was found to be carrying radio and meteorological equipment. Was it just a weather balloon which had blown off course all the way across the Pacific? A few other balloon fragments were found around the West and they thought they might be coming from Japanese relocation camps in the U.S. (remember, they were also wondering if the balloons were intended to carry a few men). Only when parts of a balloon were found at a bomb crater near Thermopolis, Wyoming did our best military minds realize that yep, this was a weapon.

A War Department memo listed six ways they feared the balloons might be used:

  1. Bacteriological/chemical warfare
  2. Incendiary and anti-personnel bombs
  3. Experiments for unknown purposes
  4. Psychological efforts to inspire terror and diversion of forces
  5. Transportation of agents
  6. Anti-aircraft devices

The immediate and overwhelming concern was not that the devices would blow up Americans but that they might set the great forests of the Northwest ablaze. There wasn’t an issue at the moment because it was still winter with its snow+rain, but if the balloons continued floating over through the spring and summer, it might divert thousands of soldiers from the warfront to fighting fires back home. To prepare, the Western Defense Command launched the “Firefly Project” which stationed 2,700 troops (including paratroopers) along with transport planes at strategic points.

examine(RIGHT: U.S. Navy personnel examine an unexploded bomb)

The other top worry was the balloons could deliver some sort of bioweapon. Although the War Department’s specific fears weren’t listed, a payload of anthrax or plague could kill animals and people while grain smut (fungus) might wipe out America’s breadbasket – and Japan’s military was indeed thinking along these lines, as discussed in the next section.

To counter that threat the “Lightning Project” was launched to create an early-warning system for signs of unusual diseases in livestock or crops. Without explaining why this was so important, the Department of Agriculture quietly asked regional offices to stay in touch with veterinarians and ag workers down to 4-H clubs and report anything amiss. Remedies (presumably fungicides and sulfa drugs) were stockpiled throughout the West.

As weeks passed, an ever-increasing number of balloons were observed high over Sonoma County headed eastward (they were almost impossible to track via radar, as it turned out). They were now being found – usually in fragments after exploding, although also sometimes intact – from Alaska to Baja California. The farthest east a balloon travelled was Michigan, with the most active month being March. After censorship was lifted it was revealed that a group of the balloons were seen heading for San Francisco during the historic United Nations Conference, with one of them eerily hanging over the city for hours before drifting on. (The proper name for a group is a “festival of balloons,” but I applaud the wag who tweeted, “the collective noun for a collection of slow moving things filled with hot air is a ‘government.'”)

The only fatalities caused by the bombs happened on May 5 in Oregon, as the Rev. Archie Mitchell and his wife were leading five children on a fishing trip. An 11 year-old girl found the balloon in the woods and called for the others to come see. It exploded when one of the kids tugged on it, killing all of the children and the minister’s wife, four of them dying immediately. (The site is now memorialized by the Mitchell Monument.)

The government kept a lid on the news until rumors about the incident spread fear among southern Oregon loggers and campers; finally on May 22 the War Department and Navy issued a joint statement admitting the balloon bombs existed, but they weren’t a serious threat because the attacks were “so scattered and aimless.” They also initiated an educational campaign to warn against tampering with strange objects found in the woods. If that saved even one American life, the statement read, “…it would more than offset any military gain occurring to the enemy from the mere knowledge that some of his balloons actually have arrived on this side of the Pacific.”

Had the Mitchell tragedy occurred a month earlier, it’s possible WWII might have gone on longer – with the United States suffering many civilian casualties, particularly in places like Sonoma county. But Japan had ended the balloon bomb program in mid-April, convinced that it had been a complete failure, mistakenly assuming almost none of the devices actually reached America. In truth, about 10% of the 9,300+ balloons are believed to have reached North America – exactly as the Japanese engineers predicted.

fu go(RIGHT: A Fu-Go balloon inflated by the U.S.)

It turned out that the War Department’s censorship was a brilliant move. The Japanese high command indeed had been scanning media reports from Russia, China and the U.S. looking for any news, but all they found was a single report about that explosion in Thermopolis, Wyoming.

The Japanese military had been tinkering with the idea of a balloon weapon since 1933, considering designs which would drop bombs or shower propaganda leaflets behind enemy lines after flying a fixed distance, as well as a balloon large enough to carry a soldier. Nothing apparently went past the drawing board until the Doolittle Raid in April 1942, which made Japan hungry to inflict damage on the American mainland. The best they could do was starting a minor forest fire near Mt. Emily, Oregon five months later, using a small bomb-carrying airplane launched from a submarine. That morphed into the 1943 plan of using subs off the coastline to inflate and launch balloons with a timer-release bomb. That plan was dropped later in the year as all submarines were pressed into service delivering weapons and food to soldiers fighting on Pacific islands.

The only option left was to launch balloons from Japan itself, 6,200 miles away from North America. Problem was, the jet stream winds were still poorly understood; the estimated time for a balloon to reach the West Coast ranged from 1-4 days, making any sort of timer useless. For more than a year they experimented with a couple of hundred balloons carrying radio transponders, none of them intended to reach the U.S.

The result of their multi-agency research project was the “Fu-Go” balloon bomb (a code name which roughly translates as something like, “Weapon Model B”). It was designed to fly between 30,000-38,000 feet, cutting loose ballast when it dropped too low and releasing hydrogen when it ascended too high. When all the ballast sandbags were gone it released the incendiary and TNT bombs, then blew up the balloon. All of this was done without electronics, of course; Wikipedia has a clear explanation of the balloon’s ingenious control system.

Wikipedia also cites a couple of non-translated documents which apparently state there were plans to use the Fu-Go to release anthrax and plague (Yersinia pestis), although the definitive Mikesh report (see sources) says, “though possible, the Japanese did not consider this aspect.” But as they were preparing to cancel the Fu-Go project thinking it a failure, a plan called “Operation Cherry Blossoms at Night” was finalized; this called for kamikaze attacks on the Naval base at San Diego with the planes carrying ceramic jars of plague-infested fleas. The war ended before the operation could be carried out.

While all mention of the balloon bombs was suppressed in America, Japanese propaganda news agencies were telling their domestic audience that the balloons were causing havoc in the U.S. and starting numerous fires plus killing 10,000 casualties. After the Mitchell tragedy was revealed (which happened after the last Fu-Go was launched, remember) they made English-language broadcasts claiming the balloons had been only used on an experimental scale and were the “prelude to something big.”

Finally, Gentle Reader may be surprised to learn there’s even a few Believe-it-or-Not! items to our story because so many found the balloons and/or the ordinance and didn’t know what it was. Authorities in Elko, Nevada, were startled to find an old prospector come into town with a still-inflated balloon tied to his burro – he thought the government “had lost something.” In Yakima, Washington a boy had an anti-personnel bomb which he had been carrying around for several days. Ranch hands at Yerington, Nevada came across a balloon with its attachment; they tied it to the bumper of a car and towed it to a garage. The guys wrote a letter to authorities about it but heard nothing back, so they deflated the balloon and used it to cover a haystack. When the state police finally came calling they found there were still two live bombs.

TOP: Snapshot of a balloon bomb snagged on a tree in Kansas, February 1945


Details about the Vine Hill bomb and other Sonoma county incidents were released when censorship was lifted and appeared in the Press Democrat on August 16, 1945 and a UP wire service story in the Petaluma Argus-Courier August 17. Details of the Mitchell incident are from the Associated Press datelined May 31. The definitive document on the Fu-Go balloon bombs is Japan’s World War II Balloon Bomb Attacks on North America by Robert C. Mikesh, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1973, and all other details in this article are summarized from his report except as noted.

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