Kingston was fire bombed in World War II, but it was a secret for nearly three-quarters of a century until 2017 when the Kingston Historical Society unearthed the story.
A government secret
March 1945: A bad nightmare wakes up 10 year old Katie Tarbill in their family home in Seattle.
“I saw our [Kingston property] on Apple Tree Point on fire,” she said in a 2017 interview. “People were trying to put it out and they couldn’t."
A few minutes later, the phone rings. It's their neighbors in Kingston.
“You’ve got to come here right away,’” they say. "The alfalfa field is on fire and we can’t put it out!"
Katie and her mother jump in their car and come over on the ferry.
"We saw the fire blazing, just like in my dream," Katie, now Katie Tarbill Fortune, recalls. "There were maybe a dozen people and at first they tried to put it out with a bucket brigade … but that just caused the fire to spread. Eventually, they found they could use ... sand to snuff it out.
“It wasn’t long before two FBI agents in suits came out to investigate. They took us all out to the field where it happened and showed us the trigger mechanism they had found and told us the fire was caused by a Japanese fire bomb balloon. Then they made us all stand in a row and raise our right hands and pledge not to tell anyone ... because they didn’t want the Japanese to know how effective they were.”
And so, the story remained one of Kingston's best-kept secrets for almost 75 years.
The first inter-continental weapons
From November 1944 to April 1945, Japan launched more than 9,300 fire balloons, which were carried by the jet stream across the Pacific in three or four days. The locations where 300 of them fell were observed. One of them made it as far east as Grand Rapids, Michigan, according to History.com.
The hydrogen-filled balloons were 33 feet in diameter and carried a payload of about 33 pounds — either antipersonnel bombs or incendiaries like the one that set fire to the Tarbills’ alfalfa field.
According to historian Ross Coen, author of “Fu-go: The Curious History of Japan’s Balloon Bomb Attack on America” (University of Nebraska Press, 2014), the government’s records on where the bombs landed “is very sketchy.” However, he said a balloon bomb was sighted at Chimacum on March 13 1945, matching the time when the Tarbills’ field was set ablaze.
Still a danger
The danger from fire balloons remains. In 2014, an unexploded balloon bomb was found near Lumby, British Columbia. The fate of the other 8,999 Fu-gos remains a mystery to this day.