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Remembering the arrival of an early UAV in N.D., launched in WW II

(Bobbi Duchamp / Forum News Service )

It's not big in the history books and it doesn't get talked about at gatherings of World War II veterans. But on a wintry day in the final year of the war, Imperial Japan attacked North Dakota.

The attack was from the air, an early strike by an unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, but it left no casualties and did no physical damage. Nor did the airstrikes -- there were two -- cause much alarm, thanks to a fairly tight news blackout, though a young Walsh County boy named Clarian Grabanski did tell authorities he fired six rifle shots at the craft that came down in a muddy field on his family's farm near the Red and Forest rivers.

A balloon.

Specifically, a hydrogen-filled balloon -- 30 feet in diameter -- launched from more than 6,000 miles away and armed with bombs and incendiary devices.

"It came in from the west, and it was kind of spooky," said Eugene Dauksavage, 78, who was a 10-year-old boy returning from a Lenten "stations of the cross" service at St. Stanislaus Catholic Church in Warsaw, N.D., with his family.

It was a blustery Friday evening, March 30, 1945.

"It was a pretty big balloon, gray, the size of those that people sit in there and fly with helium," Dauksavage said. "There was kind of a basket underneath, and ropes coming down.

"It was maybe a couple hundred yards in the air and coming down, down, down. We lived about a quarter-mile from where it landed, and we walked out to the road to look at it. But we never did get to see it close because it was so muddy in the field."

Several other people, on their way home from St. Stanislaus, watched the balloon come down, pulled on galoshes and hiked through the muddy field to check it out.

The FBI and the Army showed up the next day.

Goals: Panic, fires

Angered by the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in April 1942, which showed the Japanese that their home islands were not immune from attack, military strategists there began looking for new ways to strike at the United States.

After two years of design and production, thousands of high-altitude balloons armed with bombs and incendiary devices were launched from Nov. 3, 1944, to April 20, 1945. The newly discovered "river of wind" that was the jet stream would carry them in 50 to 60 days more than 6,000 miles to the West Coast of the United States and Canada.

Their objectives: cause massive fires in the Western forests, divert manpower and resources from the war effort, and shake American morale.

"Floating Vengeance," author and military historian Michael Unsworth called the project after researching it and its effects. In 1994, he came to Grand Forks for the dedication of a records archive at the University of North Dakota's Chester Fritz Library, Department of Special Collections.

The archive includes U.S. investigators' notes and accounts from Walsh County residents who saw the balloon float onto the Grabanski farm, leaving a trail of sand as it dropped its ballast sandbags. The documents had been stamped "confidential" until shortly before they were deposited at UND.

There were no contemporary newspaper accounts. Reporters from local and regional papers went to the scene but agreed not to publish the news. FBI agents and other authorities took possession of the balloon remnants -- and photos shot by the Grand Forks Herald photographer -- and urged people not to talk about the incident, as that might cause panic. They also wanted to deny Japan intelligence on the effectiveness of the campaign.

It was not particularly effective. Of the 9,200 balloons launched, only about 300 made it to North America. Most fell into the ocean, as batteries regulating the dropping of sandbags froze in the high altitude.

Almost all of those that made it across the Pacific Ocean fell in unpopulated areas of the Northwest and did little or no damage, but bombs from one balloon killed six people in Bly, Ore., on May 5, 1945. Another could have caused big problems two months earlier when it struck power lines leading to a facility in Washington state that was processing material for the American atomic bomb project.

Taking souvenirs

The first of the two balloons to reach North Dakota came down near Ashley, southwest of Jamestown near the South Dakota border, on Feb. 22, 1945. Farmers estimated it was traveling about 50 feet off the ground at 15 mph with its shroud lines just touching the ground. It came to a stop when one of the lines caught on a farmhouse radio antenna.

Gerald Rau, the 12-year-old grandson of the land's owner, rode his pony over the snowy fields to inspect the balloon up close, then reported to his father, who with friends hauled the device to Ashley. It was displayed there in a vacant lot, where local boys took souvenirs: patches with Japanese writing.

They later became concerned after hearing that the balloon could have carried a biological weapon, but nobody ever got sick and the event faded into historical obscurity. (Unsworth wrote later that the Japanese military was capable of arming the balloons with biological weapons but apparently elected not to, fearing retaliation from the United States.)

The FBI sent an agent from Minneapolis to inspect the Ashley balloon. He photographed it, packed it in his car and later sent it to Washington, D.C.

Five weeks later, Clarian Grabanski personally opened a new front in the war, firing six .22 rounds into the gondola of the Walsh County balloon.

"Fortunately for him, he did his shooting from a distance and did not set off the self-destruct charge" that was built into each balloon, Unsworth wrote. It apparently had dropped its bombs already.

Locals eyed the balloon for a day, wondering at its skin of shellacked mulberry paper and speculating on its origins. Despite young Grabanski's brave assault, most people thought it was a weather balloon or a U.S. military device. U.S. military authorities who arrived the next day tried to keep it that way.

Early UAVs?

Dauksavage said he doesn't remember when he first suspected or learned that the balloon that drifted into his young life in 1945 had come all the way from Japan and had been outfitted with a deadly weapon.

"Once in a while it comes up in conversation," he said. "But very few people are left who remember it now.

"I heard there were stories ... people said they heard a couple men were seen jumping out when it came down.

"But where did they go then, in that mud?"