Japanese bombs landed in Saskatchewan 71 years ago

Japanese bombs landed all across North America, including eight in Saskatchewan, during Second World War.

Bombs found near Moose Jaw and Minton, Sask.

Contents from the balloon bomb found in Minton, Sask. in January 1945. (LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA/PA203215)

It's a bombshell of a story. 

Japanese bombs landed all across North America, including eight in Saskatchewan.

It is one of those little known, but fascinating tales from the Second World War.

"It's a quirky story [of] World War II. It's not very commonly known," said Kristian Peachey, the assistant curator of the Saskatchewan Military Museum.

From November 1944 to April 1945, Japan's Special Balloon Regiment launched 9,000 high altitude balloons loaded with bombs over the Pacific Ocean.

It's a quirky story [of] World War II. It's not very commonly known.- Kristian Peachey

They sent the balloons during this time to take advantage of the strong winds, according to Peachey, 

"The main goal was to send them across and start fires and kind of cause some panic, so they were a timed release to drop. There are usually five or four [bombs] attached to each [balloon] coming across. They would all drop at different times," said Peachey.

"It was not the ideal time to start the fires that they were intending. They weren't really effective at all."

Only about 300 made it to North America, some as far south as Mexico.

8 found in Saskatchewan

Seventy-one years ago this week, a balloon bomb was discovered near Moose Jaw, Sask.

A month earlier, one was found in Minton,Sask. just north of the American border. It was the first one found in Saskatchewan.

Ralph Melle described finding the first bomb in a farmer's field to the Morning Edition's Sheila Coles in 2005.

Melle was 15 years old, riding in a one-ton truck down a grid road with his father, when he spotted something in the sky.

"I saw something on the windshield, you know that, it was strange because it wasn't moving, it was separate from the windshield. I was looking up and I thought it was a guy coming down the parachute. I kept watching it for maybe a few minutes and it started to come down. And then I could finally identify it as a balloon," said Melle.

"We went straight for it, exactly straight into it."

A tangled balloon was found in Delburne, Alta. (LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA/PA203216)

Melle and his dad followed the balloon into the valley and got out of the truck to take a closer look.

He says his father, who was in the army, warned him it was a bomb.

"He told us exactly what it was. 'Stay away from it.' It was live, too," said Melle.

Melle and his father told the RCMP about the bomb. He says officers guarded it for a few weeks before it was sent to Ottawa to be dismantled.

"You could tell that, you know, this wasn't something that you see every day, you know what I mean. It was so odd," Melle said.

Peachey says the Minton bomb was a significant discovery. Both explosive and incendiary bombs were found, along with the sand bags attached to the device carrying the bombs.

Scientists were able to analyze the sand, pinpointing the launch sites of the balloons to a Japanese island and ruled out fears that they were being launched from submarines.

News blackout

Melle was told by the RCMP to keep the bomb a secret to prevent panic. He was only able to talk about what he saw once the war ended.

"When we first told them about it, they wouldn't believe you, they thought you were a little off," said Melle.

"A lot of this kind of story is who the heck would ever believe that. But it is actually true."

Peachey says the Canadian and U.S. governments issued a publication ban on the bombs and censored the media from reporting on them.

The Japanese incendiary balloon left debris in a farmer's field. (LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA/PA203222)

"The main goal on the censoring I think was to keep it getting back to Japan to be used in any propaganda," said Peachy.

It wasn't until after the first and only lethal attack that the publication ban was lifted. A minister's wife and five children were picnicking in the woods in Oregon when a balloon bomb exploded.

"They decided they better let people know what was going on so no other people would get injured but that was late, in May 1945," said Peachey.

The Globe Youth Company will be performing a play on the story of these mysterious balloons that arrived in North America.

It's part of the Shumiatcher Sandbox Series and runs April 28 to 30.