- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 6, 2015

BLY, Oregon (AP) - A beautiful day for a picnic.

About 35 people gathered just up the hill from Leonard Creek for a Tuesday picnic lunch. They were there to remember a planned picnic that didn’t happen 70 years earlier.

It was May 5, 1945, when Rev. Archie and Elsie Mitchell and five children from his Sunday school class stopped near Leonard Creek about 10 miles northeast of Bly on a fishing-picnic outing.

Although the story of what happened next sometimes varies, while Archie was parking the car, Elsie and the five children found a strange object. They yelled to Archie about their discovery, but before he could shout a warning, the object - a Japanese balloon bomb - detonated. The five youths - Jay Gifford, 13, Edward Engen, 13, Dick Patzke, 14, Joan Patzke, 13 and Sherman Shoemaker, 11 - died immediately. Elsie, 26 years old and five months pregnant, was critically wounded and died shortly afterward.

“I always tear up when I talk about Elsie,” said John Kaiser, the Fremont-Winema National Forest archaeologist, while recounting the 70-years-ago events during the low-key gathering. “She suffered more than anyone.”

Although the deaths were the only fatalities caused by enemy action on the continental United States during World War II, Kaiser and others noted the little-known incident remains an obscure historical footnote.

Dave Brillenz, the Fremont-Winema’s Lakeview-Bly District Ranger, said he hopes to increase knowledge about the incident with the help of the Bly Community Action Team.

“We want it to be a monument to peace,” Brillenz said of the tall stone monument built at the explosion site that was dedicated in 1950.

He said a meeting will be held Tuesday in Bly to discuss projects to improve and upgrade the site, formally named the Mitchell Recreation Area, during a National Public Lands Day work project in September and in coming years.

Possible projects include removing the existing cyclone fence and replacing it with a stone wall, making the site ADA accessible, installing interpretive panels, developing campsites, adding log benches and building a trail to Leonard Creek.

After years of planning, Brillenz said a long-wanted sign along Highway 140 indicating the turnoff to the Mitchell Monument is scheduled to be installed by Oregon Department of Transportation crews within a month.

“Most of America doesn’t know this exists,” said Kaiser, who grew up in Corvallis but wasn’t aware of the incident until he moved to Lakeview with the Forest Service.

Annie Fagan Patzke, 84, who was the same age as Dick Patzke and best friends with his sister, Joan, said her grandchildren have often written reports about what is known as the Bly Bombing for school reports. She said when her grandson, Drew Patzke, wrote a report “his teacher said it didn’t happen.”

Annie Patzke had been asked to be part of the outing by Joan Patzke. Annie’s family had temporarily moved from Bly to Tionesta, then a railroad town south of Tulelake.

She said her parents, Elmo and Verna Fagan, had planned to allow her to join the group, but decided against doing so because they needed to stop in Klamath Falls that morning before driving out to Bly.

“When we got to Bly they were already gone,” Patzke said, noting she and others learned of the deaths because, “There was some talking done that was not supposed to be done.”

Military officials had early censored any information about balloon bombs and, after the Bly incident, refused to disclose information about the deaths and the cause of the deaths.

The censorship was imposed to prevent the Japanese, who had hoped the balloon bombs would cause forest fires and other damage and divert attention from the war effort, from knowing they had reached the U.S.

The bombs were attached to large balloons that flew from Japan to the Pacific Northwest by the easterly blowing jet stream.

“It was that night they told us,” remembered Patzke, who was staying with the Patzke family, of confirmation of the deaths. “It was sad. It was 9 o’clock that night. They didn’t want to tell us why.”

She said her family and many other Bly area people visited the site the following morning. The bodies had been removed but a large amount of debris was scattered about the site. “I know there were a lot of people taking shrapnel from the trees.”

She later married Pat Patzke, Joan and Dick’s brother. At the time of the incident, he was serving in the Army in Europe.

“He didn’t hear about it for a while,” Annie Patzke said of her husband-to-be. “He got a sympathy card from somebody saying, ‘I’m sorry for the death in your family.’”

Patzke, who lives in Klamath Falls and owns Casey’s Restaurant, said she learned of Tuesday’s gathering that morning from her son and daughter, who had seen a story in the Herald and News.

“So I just finished up what I was doing at Casey’s and took off. Why? Because it was my family.”

Patzke was pleased to learn about Forest Service plans to upgrade the monument site and enjoyed meeting friends on what proved a perfect day for a picnic.

“What better place,” she said, smiling brightly, “to go to heaven.”


Information from: Herald and News, https://www.heraldandnews.com

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