Adventure Guide

The Tumultuous Yet Fascinating History of Oregon's Mitchell Monument

Klamath County and the surrounding region—which includes a lot of beautiful remote areas, far from the hustle and bustle of big cities—lays claim to some remarkable history. Visitors here can delve into some fascinating, sometimes quirky, hyper-local cultural heritage, and also historical happenings that are linked directly to national—and global—events.

Among the most poignant of Klamath County’s historical sites is the Mitchell Monument, some 65 miles northeast of Klamath Falls and 10 miles outside of the small town of Bly. It’s one of a number of regional locations tying this sprawling and quiet corner of the Northwest to the drama and ravages of the Second World War.


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Photo Credit: Michael McCullough

The Mitchell Monument

A Tragic Landmark

A stone marker with a bronze plaque along Forest Road 34 in the Fremont-Winema National Forest serves as the centerpiece of the Mitchell Monument, dedicated in 1950 to memorialize the only World War II casualties from enemy action that occurred on the U.S. mainland.

The tragedy took place on the morning of May 5, 1945, during the final stretch of the War. Reverend Archie Mitchell and his pregnant wife, Elsie, came here to Leonard Creek on the flanks of Gearhart Mountain in the company of five Sunday-school students for a picnic. The tranquil scene turned tragic in moments. 

As Archie—the sole survivor of the incident—told it (as recorded by the Oregon Encyclopedia), “As I got out of the car to bring the lunch, the others were not far away and called to me that they had found something that looked like a balloon. I heard of Japanese balloons so I shouted a warning not to touch it. But just then there was a big explosion. Iran up there—and they were all dead.”

One of the children had indeed triggered one of the more unique weapons employed during World War II: a Japanese balloon bomb, or fugo (“wind ship”).Japanese meteorologists had early on identified the great, high-altitude westerly airflow of the jet stream, and the country’s military conceived of taking advantage of it to attack the North American mainland. Roughly33-foot-diameter balloons rigged with multiple bombs and an altitude-control device were launched from Japan, lofted into the jet stream, and carried across the Pacific on roughly 70-hour journeys. Slowly cooling at altitudes of 30,000to 40,000 feet or so, these fugos were designed to gradually descend and explode on North American soil: detonations intended to spark wildfires—and terror.

Japan released better than 9,000 balloon bombs from November 1944 to April1945, but their effectiveness was hampered by equipment malfunction and the seasonal dampness of the forests they fell upon. The U.S. government became aware of the program but kept a lid on the information to avoid panicking the public and to sow doubt among the Japanese military, which did indeed conclude the program was a failure and discontinued it. 

Many balloon bombs were shot down, and undetonated ones were safely removed. The Mitchell party marked the only casualties inflicted by a fugo in North America: Elsie Mitchell (26), Jay Gifford (13), Edward Engen (13), Dick Patzke (14), Joan Patzke (13), and Sherman Shoemaker (11)  .

Besides the plaque, the Mitchell Monument includes a ponderosa pine damaged by the explosion: the so-called “Shrapnel Tree,” which stands as a living testament to this local tragedy of the Second World War.

You can learn more about balloon bombs—and see fragments of that detonated on Gearhart Mountain as well as another recovered from Pelican Butte—at the Klamath County Museum.

The Tule Lake Segregation Center

& the Mitchell Monument’s Origami Cranes

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in February 1942, thereby establishing a program of excluding and incarcerating persons of Japanese descent in the U.S. This resulted in the establishment of War Relocation Authority (WRA) internment camps that, over the course of their existence, housed some 120,000 individuals of Japanese ancestry: the majority of them American citizens. 

The largest and longest-lasting of the 10 WRA camps was located in Northern California at Tule Lake. The site of the Tule Lake Segregation Center and the associated Camp Tulelake—opened in the 1930s as a Civilian Conservation Corps and converted into a prison camp during the Second World War—now fall within Tule Lake National Monument. 

The history of the Tule Lake concentration camp—which at its peak held 18,789 incarcerees, and which, operating from May 26, 1942, to March 28, 1946,housed nearly 30,000 in total—is a dark and troubled one, which involved segregating those incarcerated based on their answers to “loyalty questions” and, ultimately, the institution of martial law. You can learn more about it at the websites of the TuleLake Committee and TuleLake National Monument.

Among the Japanese-Americans incarcerated at Tule Lake was Yuzuru “John” Takeshita, who decades later learned about the balloon-bomb tragedy near Bly. He ended up connecting with a number of Japanese women who, as school children, had been forced to make paper for the fugos. Informed by Takeshita of the Bly-area deaths in 1945, these women crafted one thousand origami cranes for the affected families and ended up visiting the site of the Mitchell Monument in the 1990s. That’s part of the story told in the well-awarded documentary On Paper Wings, directed by the Portland-based filmmaker Ilana Sol.

Other Profound Regional History

The challenging histories of the Mitchell Monument and the Tule Lake Segregation Center are only some of the interwoven, multicultural sagas that build our heritage here in Klamath County. Indulge in some illuminating time travel via our region’s numerous self-guided tours, from downtown Klamath Falls to Lava Beds National Monument. 

These tour routes include The Modoc War: A Homeland Lost, which explores the resistance of Kintpuash (“Captain Jack”) and his Modoc band to being forcibly removed to the Klamath Reservation, which famously partly played out amid the rough lava flows of the Medicine Lake Volcano.

Historical Sightseeing

And Reflection on a Klamath County Getaway

Understanding local history helps deepen one’s sense of place. Consider tapping into Klamath County’s human backstories on your next getaway here, from the historic architecture and museum exhibits of Klamath Falls to the pinewoods, buttelands, and lava fields farther afield.

Explore Klamath's Best Museums

Klamath's museums are not just repositories of the past; they are vibrant centers where history is brought to life. These institutions offer a panoramic view of diverse and significant histories, ranging from natural and cultural to local and global narratives. They serve as gateways to understanding the complex tapestry of events and cultures that have shaped the region. From the intricate details of Native American history to the impactful stories of WWII, each museum in Klamath is a unique chapter in the larger story of human resilience and creativity.

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