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The Day the Japs Bombed De Leon

This article originally appeared in the September/October 1995 issue of The Messenger. 

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Click on the balloon photo to see a Youtube video on the Japanese bombs.

I have been asked at least a dozen times, if an article I wrote several years ago for the Free Press, about the Japanese bombing De Leon was true.  A newspaper in Lake Charles, Louisiana even called to get sources so they could write a feature story.  Well, the story is true and it occurred in the spring of 1945.

By the time the Jap bombs dropped around the De Leon area, the war was winding down.  A little more than a month after the bombings, Germany surrendered.  Everyone felt that it was just a matter of time until Japan did the same, but most feared that it would take an invasion of the Japanese mainland with the loss of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands more lives.  Though rumors abounded among U.S. servicemen that a super bomb was under construction, few realized that the two atomic bombs would so quickly end the fighting.  Most feared it would take another year for the ultimate victory to be achieved.

One of the reasons for the belief that the war with Japan might take yet another year was the persistence of the obviously defeated Japanese.  They had tried kamikaze attacks, banzai attacks, and in many battles, had chosen mass suicide rather than surrender.

On November 3, 1944, the Japanese began a new wave of terror, launching bomb carrying balloons from the eastern shore of Japan into the what we now call the jet stream on a path toward the United States.  The date picked to start the bombings was the birthday of their Emperor.  The balloons were made of five layers of paraffin covered rice paper and were filled with hydrogen.  Each carried five bombs, four of which were incendiaries and one 33 pound fragmentary anti-personnel device.

Research on the subject has revealed some differences in the number of bombs officially listed by the military as having fallen in Texas and the number reported in the newspapers of the day.  Sadly, there are no De Leon papers available from that time period to clarify the events.

It was not until a minister in Oregon watched as his pregnant wife and six children which were on a picnic were killed by one of the bombs while he parked the car, that the military began to inform people of the danger and acknowledged that bombs were coming from Japan on the jet stream.  The deaths in Oregon occurred forty-three days after bombs fell in this area.

Just less than 300 bomb laden balloons out of about 9,000 that were launched, managed to cross the Pacific into North America between November 1944 and July 1945.  Upon reaching the jet stream, some 30,000 feet in the air, they would move at a speed of between 80 and 120 miles an hour, dropping bombs from Alaska, through Canada and as far south as De Leon and as far east as Detroit and Sault St. Marie.

Officially, balloons dropped bombs in Texas at three locations, one east of De Leon, one south of Desdemona and one near Woodson in Throckmorton County.  However, several newspapers carried stories of bombs dropped in Brown County.

The bombs in the De Leon appear to have dropped from two separate balloons, both of which appear to have passed over the area on or about March 23, 1945.  I will refer to one as the De Leon balloon and the other as the Desdemona balloon.

The De Leon balloon was spotted as it crossed south of the De Leon city limits.  It apparently dropped one of its bombs between De Leon and Comyn, as an explosion was heard that was so loud that farmers from just east of De Leon to some well into Erath County reported hearing the blast.  The papers of the day reported the explosion but blamed it on a fuel tank.  After the war, the bomb attack was acknowledged and the fuel tank explanation dropped.  This balloon is believed to have landed near Desdemona but in Erath County.

Better documented is the balloon that landed just west of the present home of Pug and Vonnie Guthery a mile or so south of Desdemona.

Several people throughout the area had signed up as Civilian Air Observers.  One such individual was Inez Heeter.  Mrs. Heeter, was the daughter of Dr. Snodgrass, perhaps the most respected citizen ever to have lived in Desdemona and had grown up in the community.

Although she had maintained a vigil of the skies throughout the war, there had been virtually nothing to report until the afternoon of March 23, 1945.  According to the Dallas Morning News, a Japanese balloon floated over the Magnolia Refinery and across Desdemona just after school let out for the day.  Visibly emblazoned on top with the rising sun of Imperial Japan, Mrs. Heeter was certain it was no weather balloon.  She immediately called the number she had been provided but found the officer on the other end of the line skeptical of her report.

But Mrs. Heeter was by no means the only person to see the balloon.  The men at the refinery watched it pass over the plant and the kids heading home on the school bus saw it too.  The balloon drifted downward until it landed just south of Desdemona, inside Comanche County, a couple of miles from the Desdemona cemetery.

When Pug Guthery got off the school bus, he raced toward the balloon.  By the time he reached it, the balloon had flattened out.  He remembered it as being a large balloon with grass ropes and a gondola attached to the bottom.  He immediately got a whiff of creosote and because of that, kept his distance.  Other kids who arrived very quickly after Pug were not so careful and began to remove pieces of the balloon.  They were extremely lucky, for the balloon had already released its bombs.

It appears that both the De Leon and Desdemona balloons had begun dropping their bombs as they started to descend over Brown County.   One bomb buried itself eight feet deep in a Brown county pasture before exploding and creating a crater at the site.  A second bomb apparently exploded in the air southwest of De Leon.  A third bomb was buried about six feet deep in a field just north of De Leon, but failed to explode.  The other bomb exploded between De Leon and Comyn.

The next day, military officials came to the area to retrieve the balloons.  They went to the Desdemona school to collect the pieces taken by the students but gave no explanation of what the balloon was, where it came from or even warning them of the danger.

The Desdemona kids could hardly be blamed for their lack of caution.  The military secrecy did not let the public know of the danger and the silence resulted in the loss of the people in Oregon.  A memorial plaque at that site bears the following inscription, “The only place on the American continent where death resulted from enemy action during World War II.”

The balloons were hard for the military to bring down.  In Minnesota, an Air Corps plane attempted to overtake a balloon.  The pilot climbed to 17,000 feet and was still well below the balloon and could not match its speed.  The military claimed that only two bombs seriously threatened a real military target.  One fell near a military post in California, the other only ten miles from a major Detroit plant.  They never acknowledged that the bombs that fell in Brown County were not all that far from Camp Bowie.

A G-2 Periodic report now available on the internet indicates that in the cases of the two balloons, the military found a single balloon in one case while in the other they found both the balloon and fragments of a bomb.  Both were recorded as having been found at Desdemona.

Just 135 days later on August 6, 1945 (De Leon date August 5 due to international date line), the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima and ten days later Japan surrendered.

Sources:  Fort Worth Star Telegram, August 23, 1945; The Houston Post, The Dublin Progress August 24, 1945; Comanche Chief; the Dallas Morning News Westward supplement, December 7, 1980.
  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the story.

  • jay

    Them nippers never give up

  • Karrie

    I wonder why they kept it a secret? I never heard it mentioned in High School or College. The first I heard of it was today when I read this article. I lived about 30 miles north of there.

  • admin

    The government did not want the Japanese to know if the balloons were reaching America or how far into the country they had traveled. They also did not want them to know if the balloons were successful in bombing anything.

  • AJT

    Ajt; The Big Brother Syndrome never ceases to amaze. They think by not telling people anything ,they are protecting them ! What about the submarine that shelled the west coast?We never read anything about that episode. What else haven’t we been told or what about today? What nasty secrets are being hidden from US ?

  • http://www.deleonhistory.com De Leon History

    The government did not want the Japanese to know if the balloons were reaching America or how far into the country they had traveled. They also did not want them to know if the balloons were successful in bombing anything.