Fire Balloons and Fairness

By Jennifer Johnson

During World War II, the Japanese were so incensed by America’s brazenness in dropping bombs directly over Tokyo they decided to seek revenge in a creative way. The government transformed many of the country’s schools into factories and employed thousands of children in creating ingenious bomb-carrying balloons with sophisticated temperature sensors that could travel, not via airplane, but on the jet stream over the Pacific Ocean.

Their goal with these “fu-go,” or “fire balloons,” was to orchestrate a terror operation and create panic among the American people. They were so angry at the United States they devoted thousands of hours and millions of yen to a complex scheme of revenge.

This "chandelier" is part of a Japanese balloon bomb.
This “chandelier” is part of a Japanese balloon bomb.

I’m sure there are times Paul Janszen wishes he could have gone fu-go on Pete Rose. (See related article.) After Janszen told the truth about Rose betting on baseball, Rose accused him of extortion, and the city of Cincinnati villainized him for casting shadows on their hometown hero. Janszen spent the following years working hard to build a new business and enduring the scorn of complete strangers while watching Rose continuing to lobby for a spot in the Hall of Fame. (Rose has also never paid him back the $34,000 he borrowed to pay gambling debts.)

So I would have understood if Janszen still felt bitterness toward his former friend. I know anger and resentment and cynicism are appealing; ask any stepmom whether she’s had to emotionally or financially deal with crises she didn’t cause and then stand back so you’re clear of her spit take. There’s a reason the psalm writers ask God to break arms and break teeth—being the victim of irreparable injustice, of unending and unfixable unfairness, makes you desperate for revenge.

But I didn’t hear this in my conversations with Janszen. Instead, he told me he wouldn’t change a thing about his life if he could, because it’s brought him where he is today. He said he’d love to talk with Pete again, “although I don’t think he’s any different than he was 30 years ago,” and even said he felt neither vindictiveness nor vindication when, in 2004, Rose finally admitted to betting on baseball.

“There was no euphoria, no big rush of relief or liberation,” he said. “Really I felt nothing.”

I’m sure he still has days when he ruminates over the friendship he lost, the money he lost, the years he lost. But Paul Janszen realized some injustices were outside his control, and his persistent rage at the situation would only hurt him.

It’s a lesson the Japanese should have learned. All told, they launched more than 9,000 fire balloons during the war. Yet only 300 of them made it to the western United States, and only one of them caused any American loss of life. That isolated incident is tragic, of course, but it’s microscopic compared to the damage and fear the Japanese hoped to create. They poured money and time and energy into a plan to destroy the enemy, but all their effort really only hurt themselves.

And it’s a lesson I need to learn. Nothing makes me more furious than things not being “fair.” When unfairness is my reality, I have a choice. I can either ruminate on it, daydream about revenge, and fuel my own anger, or I can accept my inability to control it and channel my energy into better things.

It’s easy to allow anger to slowly scorch your heart with a low-level flame. Thanks, Paul, for the reminder that the solution isn’t to go fu-go.

You Might Also Like


  1. David Cole
    November 8, 2015 at 3:09 am

    It would be nice if Johnson would be truthful about the things she writes as facts. The Japanese made balloon bombs but they weren’t angry responses to incendiary bombs on there cities. The balloons were planned in 1940 before the war even started. The rank and file Japanese people should not be blamed for the actions of their government anymore than Americans should be blamed for the atrocities there government is currently doing in the Middle East.

    The greatest war crimes of ww2 were in the form of targeting civilians through the use of incendiary and nuclear bombs in both Germany and Japan. So perhaps she should have used them as examples instead of making up blatantly racist lies about people in other countries.

  2. Lloyd Strickland
    November 9, 2015 at 2:06 am

    Western Canada was also targeted by fire balloons. We have a church member who found one of these balloons in 1944 while he and a buddy were trapping in an isolated valley in central British Columbia. A Canadian army unit went in and destroyed the balloon, and made the two discoverers swear to secrecy. There was a fear of panicking people, and they also did not want the enemy know of any successes. However, our member kept a piece of the balloon. It is a reminder of those sad days. The remains of one of the balloons was found near Lumby, BC last year.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *