Japanese Phosphorus Bombs

Japanese Phosphorus Bombs

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Consolidated B-24 Liberator (Crowood Aviation), Martin W. Bowman . A well balanced book that begins with a look at the development history of the B-24, before spending nine out of its ten chapters looking at the combat career of the aircraft in the USAAF, the US Navy and the RAF.


A grenade is an explosive weapon typically thrown by hand (also called by the retronym hand grenade), but can also refer to a shell (explosive projectile) shot out by a rifle (as a rifle grenade) or a grenade launcher. A modern hand grenade generally consists of an explosive charge ("filler"), a detonator mechanism, an internal striker to trigger the detonator, and a safety lever secured by a linchpin. The user pulls the safety pin before throwing, and once thrown the safety lever gets released, allowing the striker to trigger a primer that ignites a fuze (sometimes called the delay element), which burns down to the detonator and explodes the main charge.

Grenades work by dispersing shrapnels (fragmentation grenades), shockwave (high explosive, stun and anti-tank grenades), chemical aerosols (smoke and gas grenades) and flammables (incendiary grenades). Fragmentation grenades (or "frags") are probably the most common in modern armies, and when the word grenade is used colloquially, it is generally assumed to refer to a fragmentation grenade. Their outer casings, generally made of a hard synthetic material or steel, are designed to rupture and fragmentize on detonation, sending out numerous fragments (shards and splinters) as fast-flying projectiles. In modern grenades, a pre-formed fragmentation matrix inside the grenade is commonly used, which may be spherical, cuboid, wire or notched wire. Most anti-personnel (AP) grenades are designed to detonate either after a time delay or on impact. [1]

Grenades are typically oval/round-shaped with a "pineapple" or "baseball" appearance that fits the grasp of a normal-sized hand, but may also be mounted at the end of a handle, known as a "stick grenade". The term commonly refers to the German Stielhandgranate-style grenades introduced in 1915 and extensively used in World War I and World War II for trench and urban combats, by the Central Powers and Nazi Germany, while the Triple Entente and Allied powers typically favored the more traditional rounded grenades. The stick design provides leverage for throwing longer distances, but at the cost of additional weight and length, and has been considered obsolete since World War II and the Cold War periods. A friction igniter was used this method was uncommon in other countries but widely used for German grenades.

Beware Of Japanese Balloon Bombs

The Japanese balloon bomb, in all its terrible splendor.

Those who forget the past are liable to trip over it.

Just a few months ago a couple of forestry workers in Lumby, British Columbia — about 250 miles north of the U.S. border — happened upon a 70-year-old Japanese balloon bomb.

The dastardly contraption was one of thousands of balloon bombs launched toward North America in the 1940s as part of a secret plot by Japanese saboteurs. To date, only a few hundred of the devices have been found — and most are still unaccounted for.

The plan was diabolic. At some point during World War II, scientists in Japan figured out a way to harness a brisk air stream that sweeps eastward across the Pacific Ocean — to dispatch silent and deadly devices to the American mainland.

The project — named Fugo — "called for sending bomb-carrying balloons from Japan to set fire to the vast forests of America, in particular those of the Pacific Northwest. It was hoped that the fires would create havoc, dampen American morale and disrupt the U.S. war effort," James M. Powles describes in a 2003 issue of the journal World War II. The balloons, or "envelopes", designed by the Japanese army were made of lightweight paper fashioned from the bark of trees. Attached were bombs composed of sensors, powder-packed tubes, triggering devices and other simple and complex mechanisms.

'Jellyfish In The Sky'

"The envelopes are really amazing, made of hundreds of pieces of traditional hand-made paper glued together with glue made from a tuber," says Marilee Schmit Nason of the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum in New Mexico. "The control frame really is a piece of art."

As described by J. David Rodgers of the Missouri University of Science and Technology, the balloon bombs "were 33 feet in diameter and could lift approximately 1,000 pounds, but the deadly portion of their cargo was a 33-lb anti-personnel fragmentation bomb, attached to a 64–foot-long fuse that was intended to burn for 82 minutes before detonating."

This screen grab from a Navy training film features an elaborate balloon bomb. Jeff Quitney/YouTube hide caption

This screen grab from a Navy training film features an elaborate balloon bomb.

Once aloft, some of the ingeniously designed incendiary devices — weighted by expendable sandbags — floated from Japan to the U.S. mainland and into Canada. The trip took several days.

"Distribution of the balloon bombs was quite large," says Nason. They appeared from northern Mexico to Alaska, and from Hawaii to Michigan. "When launched — in groups — they are said to have looked like jellyfish floating in the sky

Mysterious Munitions

Sightings of the airborne bombs began cropping up throughout the western U.S. in late 1944. In December, folks at a coal mine close to Thermopolis, Wyo., saw "a parachute in the air, with lighted flares and after hearing a whistling noise, heard an explosion and saw smoke in a draw near the mine about 6:15 pm," Powles writes.

Another bomb was espied a few days later near Kalispell, Mont. According to Powles, "An investigation by local sheriffs determined that the object was not a parachute, but a large paper balloon with ropes attached along with a gas relief valve, a long fuse connected to a small incendiary bomb, and a thick rubber cord. The balloon and parts were taken to Butte, [Mont.] where personnel from the FBI, Army and Navy carefully examined everything. The officials determined that the balloon was of Japanese origin, but how it had gotten to Montana and where it came from was a mystery."

Eventually American scientists helped solve the puzzle. All in all, the Japanese military probably launched 6,000 or more of the wicked weapons. Several hundred were spotted in the air or found on the ground in the U.S. To keep the Japanese from tracking the success of their treachery, the U.S. government asked American news organizations to refrain from reporting on the balloon bombs. So presumably, we may never know the extent of the damage.

We do know of one tragic upshot: In the spring of 1945, Powles writes, a pregnant woman and five children were killed by "a 15-kilogram high-explosive anti-personnel bomb from a crashed Japanese balloon" on Gearhart Mountain near Bly, Ore. Reportedly, these were the only documented casualties of the plot.

Another balloon bomb struck a power line in Washington state, cutting off electricity to the Hanford Engineer Works, where the U.S. was conducting its own secret project, manufacturing plutonium for use in nuclear bombs.

Just after the war, reports came in from far and wide of balloon bomb incidents. The Beatrice Daily Sun reported that the pilotless weapons had landed in seven different Nebraska towns, including Omaha. The Winnipeg Tribune noted that one balloon bomb was found 10 miles from Detroit and another one near Grand Rapids.

Over the years, the explosive devices have popped up here and there. In November 1953, a balloon bomb was detonated by an Army crew in Edmonton, Alberta, according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. In January 1955, the Albuquerque Journal reported that the Air Force had discovered one in Alaska.

In 1984, the Santa Cruz Sentinel noted that Bert Webber, an author and researcher, had located 45 balloon bombs in Oregon, 37 in Alaska, 28 in Washington and 25 in California. One bomb fell in Medford, Ore., Webber said. "It just made a big hole in the ground."

The Sentinel reported that a bomb had been discovered in southwest Oregon in 1978.

The bomb recently recovered in British Columbia — in October 2014 — "has been in the dirt for 70 years," Henry Proce of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police told The Canadian Press. "It would have been far too dangerous to move it."

So how was the situation handled? "They put some C-4 on either side of this thing," Proce said, "and they blew it to smithereens."

Japanese Phosphorus Bombs - History

17 Oct 2012
12:00 pm - 1:30 pm

Event Type

Patrick Coffey
Visiting Scholar, Office for History of Science and Technology

Napalm killed more Japanese in World War II than did the two atomic bomb blasts. Invented in 1942, by Julius Fieser, a Harvard organic chemist, napalm was the ideal incendiary weapon: cheap, stable, and sticky—a burning gel that stuck to roofs, furniture, and skin. The U.S. Army’s Chemical Warfare Service tested it against reproductions of German and Japanese workers’ housing—detailed reproductions, designed by German and Japanese émigré architects and stocked with authentic clothing in the closets, children’s toys, overstuffed German furniture, and tatami mats.

Fieser became involved in “Project X-Ray,” a scheme to drop millions of hibernating bats, with tiny napalm time-bombs stapled to their chests, over Japanese cities, where the bats would roost in the attics of homes and factories and start uncontrollable blazes a few hours later.

The bat-bomb project was eventually canceled, but napalm did its work. Sixty-six Japanese cities were area-bombed with napalm, and 100,000 died in the Tokyo attack alone—this despite the announced policy of the Army Air Force that it engaged only in precision bombing against military targets and did not attack civilians.

Operation Meetinghouse: The 1945 firebombing of Tokyo was the single deadliest air raid in history

When we think of how World War Two came to an end, we recall the atomic bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, before the situation escalated to the point of the Allies commissioning a nuclear weapon, some devastating air raids were green-lighted.

An air-raid conducted on the night of March 9-10, 1945, is regarded as the single deadliest air raid in the history of the war. It damaged a greater area and led to more deaths than either of the two nuclear bombings. Reportedly, over 1 million people had their homes destroyed during the Tokyo bombing that night, and the estimated number of civilian deaths is recorded as 100,000 people. Subsequently, the Japanese would dub this event the Night of the Black Snow.

The United States declared war on Japan the day after their surprise-attack bombing of Pearl Harbor–“a date which will live in infamy,” in the words of President Franklin Roosevelt. In the Pearl Harbor attack, 188 U.S. aircraft were destroyed, 2,403 Americans were killed, and 1,178 others were wounded. The very first air raid on Tokyo occurred as early as April 1942, but these initial raids were small scale.

Tokyo burns under B-29 firebomb assault, This photo is dated May 26, 1945.

In the spring of 1945, Germany was clearly headed for surrender, but Japan was resisting any talk of surrender and President Harry Truman faced the prospect of further heavy American casualties in the Pacific war. Once the long-range B-29 Superfortress bombers had been introduced into service in 1944, the U.S. Army had the capacity to conduct strategic bombings and operations in urban areas.

Bombing raids on Japan had been ongoing since the B-29s were first deployed to China in April 1944, and then to the Mariana Islands seven months later. The results were unsatisfactory, because even in daytime, precision bombing raids were hampered by cloudy weather and the strong winds of the jet stream. When command of the 20th Air Force came to General Curtis LeMay in January 1945, he immediately set about planning a new tactic. His first change was to switch from general purpose to incendiary bombs and fragmentation bombs. These were used from high altitude in February on Kobe and Tokyo. The next step, boosted by the fact that Japanese anti-aircraft batteries had proved less effective at the low altitude of 5,000 feet to 9,000 feet, was to launch a low-altitude incendiary attack.

And so on March 9, 1945, a total of 334 B-29 bombers took off for Operation Meetinghouse. Pathfinder aircraft went out first to mark the targets using napalm bombs, then the horde of B-29s flew in at an altitude of between 2,000 feet and 2,500 feet and proceeded to firebomb the city.

A great portion of the loads used 500-pound E-46 cluster bombs that would release napalm-carrying M-69 incendiary “bomblets.” The M-69s would go off in the first few seconds upon impact, and they most certainly ignited great jets of blazing napalm. M-47 incendiaries were one other type of bombs that were greatly used too, and these weighed 100 pounds. Jelled with gasoline, the M-47s also had white phosphorus bombs that ignited upon impact.

Photo showing a Tokyo residential section virtually destroyed.

The fire defenses of Tokyo were eliminated in the first two hours of the raid as the attacking aircraft successfully unloaded their bomb deposits. The raid was performed strategically, having the first B-29s unloading their bombs in a vast X pattern concentrated in Tokyo’s densely populated working class districts nearby the city’s waterfronts.

The next rounds of bombings would add to the action by targeting the huge flaming X. This endless rain of bombs at first caused individual fires that shortly after would join all together in one unstoppable blaze that was further worsened by winds.

The result: an area of little less than 16 square miles of the city diminished under the fire, and 100,000 people lost their lives. A total of 282 out of the 334 B-29s at disposal for the action had made it successfully to their target. Another 27 bombers failed to survive the raid either because they were hit by air defenses or were caught in upward currents of the massive fires.

Air raids over Tokyo continued in the period afterward, and the death toll perhaps reached 200,000 civilian deaths alone. While the war in Europe was concluded with the Nazi Germany surrender May 7, 1945, the Japanese continually refused and ignored the Allies demands of unconditional surrender.

Before and after comparison of Tokyo

The Japanese finally did surrender, on August 15, 1945. It was six days after the second atomic bombing, of Nagasaki.

UNCENSORED HISTORY: Dark Chapters Of History: Images Of War, History , WW2

The raid also represented a tactical shift, as the Americans switched from high-altitude precision bombing to low-altitude incendiary raids. Tokyo was the first of five incendiary raids launched in quick succession against the largest Japanese cities. Nagoya, Osaka and Kobe were also targeted — with Nagoya getting hit twice within a week. By the end of the war, more than 60 Japanese cities had been laid waste by firebombing.

The Tokyo raid, codenamed Operation Meetinghouse, began an aerial onslaught so effective that the American air command concluded by July 1945 that no viable targets remained on the Japanese mainland. But if the American objective was to shorten the war by demoralizing the Japanese population and breaking its will to resist, it didn't work. What had proven true in Germany proved equally true here: Morale was shaken by bombing, but once the shock passed, the war work went on.

The Americans began looking to incendiaries as their stockpiles of those weapons increased, and because the typically cloudy weather conditions that prevailed over Japan made precision bombing difficult at best. Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay, commander of the 21st Bomber Command, also argued that incendiary bombing would be particularly effective, because Japanese cities contained a lot of tightly packed, wooden structures that would burn easily when set alight.

He was right. The B-29 bombers for the Tokyo raid were stripped of their defensive weapons and packed with various incendiary explosives, including white phosphorus and napalm, a new gasoline-based, fuel-gel mixture developed at Harvard University. As opposed to the high-altitude precision bombing, which the Allies practiced with only mixed success over both Germany and Japan, incendiary raids were carried out at low altitudes of between 5,000 and 9,000 feet.

The attackers were helped by the fact that Japanese air defenses were almost nonexistent by that point in the war. In fact, only 14 B-29s were lost in the March 9-10 Tokyo raid. As was done in Europe, pathfinder planes flying ahead of the bombers marked the target with a flaming X, guiding the attackers in. Tokyo was hit over a three-hour period by three bomber streams that dropped roughly 2,000 tons of incendiaries near the docklands and in the industrial heart of the Japanese capital.

Tokyo immediately burst into flames. The combination of incendiaries, the way they were dropped, windy weather conditions and lack of coordinated firefighting on the ground resulted in a firestorm similar to what occurred two years previously in Hamburg, and only a month before in Dresden. Temperatures on the ground in Tokyo reached 1,800 degrees in some places.

The human carnage was appalling bomber crews coming in near the tail end of the raid reported smelling the stench of charred human flesh as they passed over the burning capital. Sixty-three percent of Tokyo's commercial area, and 18 percent of its industry, was destroyed. An estimated 267,000 buildings burned to the ground. The firebombing campaign, coupled with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are believed to have killed more than 1 million Japanese civilians between March and August of 1945.

Ash, debris and burned bodies in Tokyo. March 1945

But it was in the Pacific theatre, and specifically in Japan, that the full brunt of air power would be felt. Between 1932 and 1945, Japan had bombed Shanghai, Nanjing, Chongqing and other cities, testing chemical weapons in Ningbo and throughout Zhejiang province. In the early months of 1945, the United States shifted its attention to the Pacific as it gained the capacity to attack Japan from newly captured bases in Tinian and Guam. While the US continued to proclaim adherence to tactical bombing, tests of firebombing options against Japanese homes throughout 1943-44 demonstrated that M-69 bombs were highly effective against the densely packed wooden structures of Japanese cities. In the final six months of the war, the US threw the full weight of its air power into campaigns to burn whole Japanese cities to the ground and terrorize, incapacitate and kill their largely defenseless residents in an effort to force surrender.

As Michael Sherry and Cary Karacas have pointed out for the US and Japan respectively, prophecy preceded practice in the destruction of Japanese cities, and well before US planners undertook strategic bombing. Thus Sherry observes that “Walt Disney imagined an orgiastic destruction of Japan by air in his 1943 animated feature Victory Through Air Power (based on Alexander P. De Seversky’s 1942 book),” while Karacas notes that the best-selling Japanese writer Unna Juzo, beginning in his early 1930s “air-defense novels”, anticipated the destruction of Tokyo by bombing. Both reached mass audiences in the US and Japan, in important senses anticipating the events to follow.

Curtis LeMay was appointed commander of the 21st Bomber Command in the Pacific on January 20, 1945. Capture of the Marianas, including Guam, Tinian and Saipan in summer 1944 had placed Japanese cities within effective range of the B-29 “Superfortress” bombers, while Japan’s depleted air and naval power left it virtually defenseless against sustained air attack.

LeMay was the primary architect, a strategic innovator, and most quotable spokesman for US policies of putting enemy cities, and later villages and forests, to the torch from Japan to Korea to Vietnam. In this, he was emblematic of the American way of war that emerged from World War II. Viewed from another angle, however, he was but a link in a chain of command that had begun to conduct area bombing in Europe. That chain of command extended upward through the Joint Chiefs to the president who authorized what would become the centerpiece of US warfare.

The US resumed bombing of Japan after a two-year lull following the 1942 Doolittle raids in fall 1944. The goal of the bombing assault that destroyed Japan’s major cities in the period between May and August 1945, the US Strategic Bombing Survey explained, was “either to bring overwhelming pressure on her to surrender, or to reduce her capability of resisting invasion. . . . [by destroying] the basic economic and social fabric of the country.” A proposal by the Chief of Staff of the Twentieth Air Force to target the imperial palace was rejected, but in the wake of successive failures to eliminate such key strategic targets as Japan’s Nakajima Aircraft Factory west of Tokyo, the area bombing of Japanese cities was approved.

The full fury of firebombing and napalm was unleashed on the night of March 9-10, 1945 when LeMay sent 334 B-29s low over Tokyo from the Marianas. Their mission was to reduce the city to rubble, kill its citizens, and instill terror in the survivors, with jellied gasoline and napalm that would create a sea of flames. Stripped of their guns to make more room for bombs, and flying at altitudes averaging 7,000 feet to evade detection, the bombers, which had been designed for high-altitude precision attacks, carried two kinds of incendiaries: M 47s, 100-pound oil gel bombs, 182 per aircraft, each capable of starting a major fire, followed by M 69s, 6-pound gelled-gasoline bombs, 1,520 per aircraft in addition to a few high explosives to deter firefighters. The attack on an area that the US Strategic Bombing Survey estimated to be 84.7 percent residential succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of air force planners. Whipped by fierce winds, flames detonated by the bombs leaped across a fifteen square mile area of Tokyo generating immense firestorms that engulfed and killed scores of thousands of residents.

In contrast with Vonnegut’s “wax museum” description of Dresden victims, accounts from inside the inferno that engulfed Tokyo chronicle scenes of utter carnage. We have come to measure the efficacy of bombing by throw weights and kill ratios, eliding the perspectives of their victims. But what of those who felt the wrath of the bombs?

Police cameraman Ishikawa Koyo described the streets of Tokyo as

Father Flaujac, a French cleric, compared the firebombing to the Tokyo earthquake twenty-two years earlier, an event whose massive destruction, another form of prophecy, had alerted both Japanese science fiction writers and some of the original planners of the Tokyo holocaust:

How many people died on the night of March 9-10 in what flight commander Gen. Thomas Power termed “the greatest single disaster incurred by any enemy in military history?” The Strategic Bombing Survey estimated that 87,793 people died in the raid, 40,918 were injured, and 1,008,005 people lost their homes. Robert Rhodes, estimating the dead at more than 100,000 men, women and children, suggested that probably a million more were injured and another million were left homeless. The Tokyo Fire Department estimated 97,000 killed and 125,000 wounded. The Tokyo Police offered a figure of 124,711 killed and wounded and 286,358 building and homes destroyed. The figure of roughly 100,000 deaths, provided by Japanese and American authorities, both of whom may have had reasons of their own for minimizing the death toll, seems to me arguably low in light of population density, wind conditions, and survivors’ accounts. [28] With an average of 103,000 inhabitants per square mile and peak levels as high as 135,000 per square mile, the highest density of any industrial city in the world, and with firefighting measures ludicrously inadequate to the task, 15.8 square miles of Tokyo were destroyed on a night when fierce winds whipped the flames and walls of fire blocked tens of thousands fleeing for their lives. An estimated 1.5 million people lived in the burned out areas. Given a near total inability to fight fires of the magnitude produced by the bombs, it is possible to imagine that casualties may have been several times higher than the figures presented on both sides of the conflict. The single effective Japanese government measure taken to reduce the slaughter of US bombing was the 1944 evacuation to the countryside of 400,000 children from major cities, 225, 000 of them from Tokyo.

Following the attack, LeMay, never one to mince words, said that he wanted Tokyo “burned down—wiped right off the map” to “shorten the war.” Tokyo did burn. Subsequent raids brought the devastated area of Tokyo to more than 56 square miles, provoking the flight of millions of refugees.

Japan's Reaction

Despite the horror of Hiroshima, there were many in the Japanese government that disbelieved the United States had the technical ability to develop, yet alone transport and drop, an atomic bomb.

The events of August 9 changed all that.

Urakami Cathedral, near the south wall entrance.The pillar of an entrance has crack and the plinth has shifted. Central back is the north wall.

Japanese Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo called the ninth of August "a bad day." The Soviet Union declared war on Japan, overrunning the Kwantung army in Manchuria. Sumihisa Ikeda, Director of the Imperial Cabinet Planning Board, described the once invincible army as "no more than a hollow shell."

When news of the Nagasaki bombing reached Tokyo, Togo proposed acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration which set out terms of surrender for Japan and was signed by the United States, Great Britain, and China (U.S.S.R. ruler Joseph Stalin was a principal participant at Potsdam but did not sign the declaration). Japan's Supreme War Direction Council was deadlocked on a decision.

Debate continued throughout that day and night. Finally, at 2 A.M. August 10, 1945, Prime Minister Admiral Baron Kantaro Suzuki respectfully begged His Imperial Majesty Hirohito to make a decision. Hirohito did not hesitate, ". I do not desire any further destruction of cultures, nor any additional misfortune for the peoples of the world. On this occasion, we have to bear the unbearable." The emperor had spoken.

Unfortunately antisurrender sentiment and objections from much of the Japanese military was widespread. Vice Admiral Takijiro Onishi, founder of the kamikazes, argued the Japanese "would never be defeated if we were prepared to sacrifice 20,000,000 Japanese lives in a 'special attack' effort." He later committed suicide rather than surrender.

Hirohito was determined. Against all precedent, the emperor himself convened an Imperial Conference and at noon on August 15, 1945, announced Japan's surrender. The war was over.

Effects on humans

White phosphorus can cause injuries and death in three ways: by burning deep into tissue, by being inhaled as a smoke and by being ingested. Extensive exposure in any way can be fatal.

Effects of exposure to WP weapons

Incandescent particles of WP cast off by a WP weapon's initial explosion can produce extensive, deep (second and third degree), painful burns. Phosphorus burns carry a greater risk of mortality than other forms of burns due to the absorption of phosphorus into the body through the burned area, resulting in liver, heart and kidney damage, and in some cases multi-organ failure. [23] These weapons are particularly dangerous to exposed people because white phosphorus continues to burn unless deprived of oxygen or until it is completely consumed. In some cases, burns may be limited to areas of exposed skin because the smaller WP particles do not burn completely through personal clothing before being consumed. According to GlobalSecurity.org, quoted by The Guardian, "White phosphorus results in painful chemical burn injuries" [24] .

Exposure and inhalation of smoke

Burning WP produces a hot, dense white smoke. Most forms of smoke are not hazardous in the kinds of concentrations produced by a battlefield smoke shell. However, exposure to heavy smoke concentrations of any kind for an extended period (particularly if near the source of emission) does have the potential to cause illness or even death.

WP smoke irritates the eyes and nose in moderate concentrations. With intense exposures, a very explosive cough may occur. However, no recorded casualties from the effects of WP smoke alone have occurred in combat operations and to date there are no confirmed deaths resulting from exposure to phosphorus smokes.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has set an acute inhalation Minimum Risk Level (MRL) for white phosphorus smoke of 0.02 mg/m³, the same as fuel oil fumes. By contrast, the chemical weapon mustard gas is 30 times more potent: 0.0007 mg/m³ ATSDR - Minimal Risk Levels for Hazardous Substances (MRLs). Retrieved on December 4, 2005. .

Oral ingestion

The accepted lethal dose when white phosphorus is ingested orally is 1 mg per kg of body weight, although the ingestion of as little as 15 mg has resulted in death. [25] It may also cause liver, heart or kidney damage. [26] There are reports of individuals with a history of oral ingestion who have passed phosphorus-laden stool ("smoking stool syndrome") (Irizarry 2005)

Israeli military confirms the use of white phosphorus bombs in the Gaza Strip

The Israeli military announced in a report on Thursday that it has used at least 20 white phosphorus bombs inside civilian areas during the IDF's offensive in the Gaza Strip to try and stop rockets being fired by Hamas, from going into southern Israel. The report comes as Israeli naval gunships went silent for the first time since Israel announced their ceasefire on January 18, with Hamas following a few days later.

The report states that the military used white phosphorous bombs in civilian areas, with at least twenty phosphorous shells fired by a reserve paratroops brigade into a densely packed area of Beit Lahiya. The United Nations head quarters and a hospital in Gaza City were also bombed with white phosphorus.

"We saw streets and alleyways littered with evidence of the use of white phosphorus, including still burning wedges and the remnants of the shells and canisters fired by the Israeli army," said Christopher Cobb-Smith, with Amnesty International who is also an expert in the field of weapons.

An official for the IDF said that two types of phosphorus weapons were used in the offensive. One contained little phosphorous and was primarily used as a smoke bomb and is fired from 155mm shells. The other type of bomb, made in 81mm and 120mm shells, are fired from mortar guns. These shells used a computer guidance system and Israel says that the system failed when the UN and hospital were hit. Phosphorus burns when it comes in contact with oxygen, and can cause serious injuries to humans if they are hit with it. Doctors in Gaza say that dozens of civilians have been treated for burns related to the use of the weapons.

The Israeli military had claimed that they had never used the bomb during the offensive, despite the existence of photographic and video evidence. The use of the white phosphorous bombs against civilian buildings is illegal under Protocol 3 of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, agreed in 1980. However, Israel, which signed the treaty in 1995, is not party to Protocol 3. Israel claims they were following international law when using the weapons. 200 of the bombs were used, 180 of which were used on farmland and orchards, where militants were launching rockets into southern Israel. The other 20 were used in residential areas, but the IDF says they were fired in areas that rockets were being fired from.

Nearly 1,300 Palestinians, the majority being civilians, died and nearly 5,450 were injured during the three-week offensive. Thirteen Israeli soldiers were also killed.

In 1945, a Japanese Balloon Bomb Killed Six Americans, Five of Them Children, in Oregon

Elsye Mitchell almost didn’t go on the picnic that sunny day in Bly, Oregon. She had baked a chocolate cake the night before in anticipation of their outing, her sister would later recall, but the 26-year-old was pregnant with her first child and had been feeling unwell. On the morning of May 5, 1945, she decided she felt decent enough to join her husband, Rev. Archie Mitchell, and a group of Sunday school children from their tight-knit community as they set out for nearby Gearhart Mountain in southern Oregon. Against a scenic backdrop far removed from the war raging across the Pacific, Mitchell and five other children would become the first—and only—civilians to die by enemy weapons on the United States mainland during World War II.

While Archie parked their car, Elsye and the children stumbled upon a strange-looking object in the forest and shouted back to him. The reverend would later describe that tragic moment to local newspapers: “I…hurriedly called a warning to them, but it was too late. Just then there was a big explosion. I ran up – and they were all lying there dead.” Lost in an instant were his wife and unborn child, alongside Eddie Engen, 13, Jay Gifford, 13, Sherman Shoemaker, 11, Dick Patzke, 14, and Joan “Sis” Patzke, 13.

Dottie McGinnis, sister of Dick and Joan Patzke, later recalled to her daughter in a family memory book the shock of coming home to cars gathered in the driveway, and the devastating news that two of her siblings and friends from the community were gone. “I ran to one of the cars and asked is Dick dead? Or Joan dead? Is Jay dead? Is Eddie dead? Is Sherman dead? Archie and Elsye had taken them on a Sunday school picnic up on Gearhart Mountain. After each question they answered yes. At the end they all were dead except Archie.” Like most in the community, the Patzke family had no inkling that the dangers of war would reach their own backyard in rural Oregon.

But the eyewitness accounts of Archie Mitchell and others would not be widely known for weeks. In the aftermath of the explosion, the small, lumber milling community would bear the added burden of enforced silence. For Rev. Mitchell and the families of the children lost, the unique circumstances of their devastating loss would be shared by none and known by few.

In the months leading up to that spring day on Gearhart Mountain, there had been some warning signs, apparitions scattered around the western United States that were largely unexplained—at least to the general public. Flashes of light, the sound of explosion, the discovery of mysterious fragments—all amounted to little concrete information to go on. First, the discovery of a large balloon miles off the California coast by the Navy on November 4, 1944. A month later, on December 6, 1944, witnesses reported an explosion and flame near Thermopolis, Wyoming. Reports of fallen balloons began to trickle in to local law enforcement with enough frequency that it was clear something unprecedented in the war had emerged that demanded explanation. Military officials began to piece together that a strange new weapon, with markings indicating it had been manufactured in Japan, had reached American shores. They did not yet know the extent or capability or scale of these balloon bombs.

Though relatively simple as a concept, these balloons—which aviation expert Robert C. Mikesh describes in Japan’s World War II Balloon Bomb Attacks on North America as the first successful intercontinental weapons, long before that concept was a mainstay in the Cold War vernacular—required more than two years of concerted effort and cutting-edge technology engineering to bring into reality. Japanese scientists carefully studied what would become commonly known as the jet stream, realizing these currents of wind could enable balloons to reach United States shores in just a couple of days. The balloons remained afloat through an elaborate mechanism that triggered a fuse when the balloon dropped in altitude, releasing a sandbag and lightening the weight enough for it to rise back up. This process would repeat until all that remained was the bomb itself. By then, the balloons would be expected to reach the mainland an estimated 1,000 out of 9,000 launched made the journey. Between the fall of 1944 and summer of 1945, several hundred incidents connected to the balloons had been cataloged.

One of the balloons filled with gas (Photo courtesy Robert Mikesh Collection, National Museum of the Pacific War)

The balloons not only required engineering acumen, but a massive logistical effort. Schoolgirls were conscripted to labor in factories manufacturing the balloons, which were made of endless reams of paper and held together by a paste made of konnyaku, a potato-like vegetable. The girls worked long, exhausting shifts, their contributions to this wartime project shrouded in silence. The massive balloons would then be launched, timed carefully to optimize the wind currents of the jet stream and reach the United States. Engineers hoped that the weapons’ impact would be compounded by forest fires, inflicting terror through both the initial explosion and an ensuing conflagration. That goal was stymied in part by the fact that they arrived during the rainy season, but had this goal been realized, these balloons may have been much more than an overlooked episode in a vast war.

As reports of isolated sightings (and theories on how they got there, ranging from submarines to saboteurs) made their way into a handful of news reports over the Christmas holiday, government officials stepped in to censor stories about the bombs, worrying that fear itself might soon magnify the effect of these new weapons. The reverse principle also applied—while the American public was largely in the dark in the early months of 1945, so were those who were launching these deadly weapons. Japanese officers later told the Associated Press that “they finally decided the weapon was worthless and the whole experiment useless, because they had repeatedly listened to [radio broadcasts] and had heard no further mention of the balloons.” Ironically, the Japanese had ceased launching them shortly before the picnicking children had stumbled across one.

The sandbag mechanism for the bombs (Photo courtesy Robert Mikesh Collection, National Museum of the Pacific War) Details of one of the bombs found by the U.S. military (Photo courtesy Robert Mikesh Collection, National Museum of the Pacific War)

However successful censorship had been in discouraging further launches, this very censorship “made it difficult to warn the people of the bomb danger,” writes Mikesh. “The risk seemed justified as weeks went by and no casualties were reported.” After that luck ran out with the Gearheart Mountain deaths, officials were forced to rethink their approach. On May 22, the War Department issued a statement confirming the bombs’ origin and nature “so the public may be aware of the possible danger and to reassure the nation that the attacks are so scattered and aimless that they constitute no military threat.” The statement was measured to provide sufficient information to avoid further casualties, but without giving the enemy encouragement. But by then, Germany’s surrender dominated headlines. Word of the Bly, Oregon, deaths—and the strange mechanism that had killed them – was overshadowed by the dizzying pace of the finale in the European theater.

The silence meant that for decades, grieving families were sometimes met with skepticism or outright disbelief. The balloon bombs have been so overlooked that during the making of the documentary On Paper Wings, several of those who lost family members told filmmaker Ilana Sol of reactions to their unusual stories. “They would be telling someone about the loss of their sibling and that person just didn’t believe them,” Sol recalls.

While much of the American public may have forgotten, the families in Bly never would. The effects of that moment would reverberate throughout the Mitchell family, shifting the trajectory of their lives in unexpected ways. Two years later, Rev. Mitchell would go on to marry the Betty Patzke, the elder sibling out of ten children in Dick and Joan Patzke’s family (they lost another brother fighting in the war), and fulfill the dream he and Elsye once shared of going overseas as missionaries. (Rev. Mitchell was later kidnapped from a leprosarium while he and Betty were serving as missionaries in Vietnam 57 years later his fate remains unknown).

“When you talk about something like that, as bad as it seems when that happened and everything, I look at my four children, they never would have been, and I’m so thankful for all four of my children and my ten grandchildren. They wouldn’t have been if that tragedy hadn’t happened,” Betty Mitchell told Sol in an interview.

The Bly incident also struck a chord decades later in Japan. In the late 1980s, University of Michigan professor Yuzuru “John” Takeshita, who as a child had been incarcerated as a Japanese-American in California during the war and was committed to healing efforts in the decades after, learned that the wife of a childhood friend had built the bombs as a young girl. He facilitated a correspondence between the former schoolgirls and the residents of Bly whose community had been turned upside down by one of the bombs they built. The women folded 1,000 paper cranes as a symbol of regret for the lives lost. On Paper Wings shows them meeting face-to-face in Bly decades later. Those gathered embodied a sentiment echoed by the Mitchell family. “It was a tragic thing that happened,” says Judy McGinnis-Sloan, Betty Mitchell’s niece. “But they have never been bitter over it.”

Japanese schoolgirls were conscripted to make the balloons. (Photo courtesy Robert Mikesh Collection, National Museum of the Pacific War)

These loss of these six lives puts into relief the scale of loss in the enormity of a war that swallowed up entire cities. At the same time as Bly residents were absorbing the loss they had endured, over the spring and summer of 1945 more than 60 Japanese cities burned – including the infamous firebombing of Tokyo. On August 6, 1945, the first atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima, followed three days later by another on Nagasaki. In total, an estimated 500,000 or more Japanese civilians would be killed. Sol recalls “working on these interviews and just thinking my God, this one death caused so much pain, what if it was everyone and everything? And that’s really what the Japanese people went through.”

In August of 1945, days after Japan announced its surrender, nearby Klamath Falls’ Herald and News published a retrospective, noting that “it was only by good luck that other tragedies were averted” but noted that balloon bombs still loomed in the vast West that likely remained undiscovered. “And so ends a sensational chapter of the war,” it noted. “But Klamathites were reminded that it still can have a tragic sequel.”

While the tragedy of that day in Bly has not been repeated, the sequel remains a real—if remote—possibility. In 2014, a couple of forestry workers in Canada came across one of the unexploded balloon bombs, which still posed enough of a danger that a military bomb disposal unit had to blow it up. Nearly three-quarters of a century later, these unknown remnants are a reminder that even the most overlooked scars of war are slow to fade.