Editor’s note: This story is part of a 12-month series called Kitsap Goes to War, which explores how World War II affected Kitsap County and its residents. The series began in December in our Kitsap Military Times, which is no longer published and continues now once a month in Kitsap Weekly. For earlier stories in the series, go to KitsapDailyNews.com and type “Kitsap Goes to War” in Search.
KINGSTON — Katie (Tarbill) Fortune remembers the day, 72 years ago this March, that the Empire of Japan bombed Kingston.
In 1925, Katie’s father, Von Tarbill, an economics professor at the University of Washington, bought 23 acres of oceanfront property at Apple Tree Point, west of Kingston. He paid $3,000 and moved his family there. He built a home. The couple eventually had five children, the youngest being Katie.
“We had eight cows, 12 horses, pigs, 2,000 chickens, an orchard and a two-acre vegetable garden,” Fortune recalls. “It carried us through the Great Depression.”
For added income, he built seven small cabins on the property and rented them out to other professors for vacation homes.
By March 1945, Fortune was 10 years old and living with her mother in Seattle. The other children had left the nest and their father had passed away. But the family had hung onto the farm at Apple Tree Point and had others farming it for them.
That fateful morning in March, Fortune recalls she woke up from a bad nightmare.
“I saw the property on Apple Tree Point on fire,” she remembers. “People were trying to put it out and they couldn’t put it out.”
A few minutes later, the phone rang. It was not a dream. It was a call from neighbors on Apple Tree Point, the Jaadans.
“ ‘You’ve got to come here right away,’” she recalls them saying. “‘The alfalfa field is on fire and we can’t put it out!’
“So we jumped in the car and came over on the ferry. As we started down the hill and came to the first opening (in the trees), we saw the fire blazing, just like in my dream. There were maybe a dozen people living on the point 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 shovelfuls of sand to snuff it out — the whole point was made of sand, you know.”
Fortune and her mother stayed on and “it wasn’t long before two FBI agents in suits came out to investigate,” she says.
“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 about the fire until after the war was over, because they didn’t want the Japanese to know how effective they were.”
Kingston had been bombed and nobody knew it. Fortunately, neither did Japan’s military, who never learned how effective their “fusen bakudan,” or balloon bombs, were until nearly the end of the war.
The hydrogen-filled balloons were 33 feet in diameter and carried a payload of about 33 pounds — either an antipersonnel device, such as the one that killed six people in Bly, Oregon; or incendiaries, like the one that set fire to the Tarbills’ alfalfa field.
From November 1944 to April 1945, Japan launched more than 9,300 of these fire balloons, which were carried by the jet stream across the Pacific in three or four days. The locations where 300 of them fell or were observed in the United States and Canada are known; one of them made it as far east as Grand Rapids, Michigan, according to History.com.
One of the last ones landed in Kingston.
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 there was a balloon bomb sighting reported at Chimacum on March 13 1945, which matches the time frame of when the Tarbills’ field was set ablaze. That same month, another balloon hit a high-tension power line and caused a temporary blackout at Hanford, where plutonium was being produced for the atomic bomb that would be dropped on Nagasaki.
Thanks in no small part to the media blackout on the balloon bombs in Kingston and elsewhere, Japan’s military abandoned the project in April 1945. However, the danger of a fire balloon claiming more victims still remains. In 2014, an unexploded balloon bomb was found in the Monashee Mountains near Lumby, British Columbia.
Today, no trace of the Apple Tree Point bombing remains. The Tarbill’s alfalfa field has been allowed to go back to natural wetlands and the seven small cabins the family once rented out are gone, too, replaced by million-dollar homes. A painting Fortune did in the 1950s is the only physical reminder of what the area looked like 72 years ago.
And while others whose families lived on Apple Tree Point in 1945 can recall relatives and friends talking about what happened that day, it appears Fortune is the only remaining eyewitness.
That place, time and historic event exist now only as footnotes in Katie Fortune’s memories: the day Kingston was bombed.
Special thanks to Kathleen Sole, president of the Kingston Historical Society, for bringing Katie and this story to our attention.
Corrections and additions: This online version contains additional materials (maps, etc.) not included in the March 3 print edition. It also corrects several inaccuracies in the print version. The cover of the Kitsap Weekly said the bomb landed in Apple Tree Cove. It should have read “Apple Tree Point.” The Tarbills bought the property there in 1925, not 1923, and her father’s name was “Von,” not “Ivan.”
— Terryl Asla is a reporter for Kitsap News Group. He can be reached at email@example.com.