The East Oregonian in December of 1944 was full of stories of the war raging in Europe and the Pacific. Local heroes, and Umatilla County residents lost to the fighting — either missing or dead — were memorialized almost every day. U.S. citizens in general were thankful that the war was not on our doorstep, but a few stories surfaced about attempted attacks on U.S. soil.
One such was the story of the incendiary balloon that landed 17 miles southwest of Kalispell, Montana. The Federal Bureau of Investigation announced a huge paper balloon, bearing Japanese ideographs and armed with an incendiary bomb capable of starting a major fire in Northwest forests, was found the week before by Owen Hill and his father, O.B. Hill, while on a wood-cutting trip. More than 500 residents of the Kalispell area saw the balloon, but were urged by the FBI to keep it quiet.
Ward Bannister, in charge of Montana-Idaho FBI offices, said the 33 1/2-foot-diameter balloon was constructed of high-quality paper treated with varnish, and was painted in blue and white camouflage. The Japanese ideograms stated date of manufacture and inspection, and the balloon was armed with a six-inch bomb containing “aluminum and some oxide.” A 70-foot fuse, designed to set off the bomb and then consume the balloon, had ignited but sputtered out without causing any damage.
Bannister listed the flying device as a “free balloon,” designed to make only one flight, and said it was not a weather balloon. Free balloons are known to travel as fast as 200 miles an hour in swift, high air currents. In December of 1944 the prevailing winds were from the west and northwest, but Bannister did not comment on the point of the balloon’s release nor its purpose.