BLY, Ore. — A monument to one of the most curious tragedies of World War II was spared from the flames of the Bootleg Fire by fire crews, according to the Klamath County Museum.
The Mitchell Monument, located northeast of Bly within the Fremont National Forest, commemorates the only American deaths by enemy action in the continental US during the entirety of World War II — the result of a largely unsuccessful campaign by the Japanese government to float thousands of bomb-laden balloons across the Pacific Ocean in order to rain terror down on their enemies.
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Only one of the balloon bombs succeeded in its objective. About 13 miles northeast of Bly, an unexploded bomb detonated on a group out for a Saturday morning picnic, killing six people. Five of them were children. The Mitchell Monument was built in 1950 to mark the site.
Situated in the Fremont National Forest just south of Gearhart Mountain, the Mitchell Monument was directly in the path of the Bootleg Fire during its inexorable spread to the southeast. But extra effort from fire crews seem to have spared it from the worst the fire had to offer.
"Amidst the heartbreaking news of homes, farm buildings and other structures lost in the Bootleg fire — not to mention more than 600 square miles of Klamath and Lake county lands blackened — we were pleased to learn the Mitchell Monument escaped damage," the Klamath County Museum announced on Tuesday.
According to the Museum, firefighters wrapped the stone monument with flame-retardant and insulating blankets. It's unknown if the shrapnel tree a few feet from the monument survived.
"We're also waiting to hear reports on other heritage sites in the fire area, including the Merritt Creek trestle on the old Weyerhaeuser Woods Line railroad grade," the Klamath County Museum continued.
The Oregon Historical Society notes that 361 Japanese balloon bombs have been found across 26 states, Canada, and Mexico. The first bomb was spotted in California in November of 1944, and one reportedly exploded near Medford in early January of 1945. However, the US government directed news media not to publish reports about the bombs, fearing that it would cause panic.
On May 5 of 1945, minister Archie Mitchell of Bly was on a picnic with his pregnant wife Elsie and five children from his Sunday school class. Mitchell parked near Leonard Creek, while Elsie and the children headed down to the water.
Mitchell later recalled that the others called out, saying that they had found something that looked like a balloon. Mitchell, have heard something about Japanese balloons, started to warn them not to touch it — but the bomb exploded at that moment, killing all six.
The explosion blasted a hole one foot deep and three feet wide, sending fragments flying hundreds of feet in all directions. The victims were Elsie Mitchell, 26; Dick Patzke, 14; Jay Gifford, 13; Edward Engen, 13; Joan Patzke, 13; and Sherman Shoemaker, 11.
The Weyerhaeuser Timber Company, which owned the site of the bombing, dedicated a memorial built of local stone to the six victims in august of 1950. It's now managed by the U.S. Forest Service within the Fremont-Winema National Forest.