By D.A. Brockett…
During WWII the Grand Valley valiantly illustrated patriotism. Droves of young men signed up — including those of Japanese descent — for military duty, while home front efforts included war bond drives, civil air patrols, blackouts, and rationing. As their men fought, women rolled bandages and worked. A USO canteen opened in the Grand Junction American Legion, and townsfolk met troop trains with gifts of cigarettes, stamped stationery, homemade cookies, and grateful hugs.
From the beginning, the Valley’s sacrifices were evident. When the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbor, Ellis Harris, a local man stationed in Washington, D.C., received the urgent call from the navy base and grimly announced the news to his superiors. Harold Wood, a young man from the area, went down with the Arizona. Another local, James Massey, also died in the attack.
At home, the military was a strong presence. German POWs were transported from Camps Carson and Hale to Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) camps, one in Palisade and the other near Fruita, to work during harvest time. At Walker Field, naval aviation training took place, and an Army Ordnance Automotive School housed trainees at Lincoln Park’s CCC camp.
Third and Main secreted a division of the Manhattan Project responsible for developing the atomic bomb.
Speaking of bombs, the Western Slope was the only stateside area bombed twice during WWII: once by friendly fire, once by enemy.
In the early morning hours of June 28, 1943, a munitions train car passing through Grand Junction caught fire. Three brave railroad employees rushed to uncouple it. Within minutes, exploding 75mm shells bombarded the sleeping downtown, continuing its siege for hours, setting fires to businesses and homes. Many citizens barely missed injury, although the only serious casualty was Fire Chief Charles Downing, who lost an arm to shrapnel.
The second attack came in 1944. The Imperial Army developed large paper balloons armed with bombs and released them on course for America using the recently discovered Pacific Jet Stream, with the goal of panicking the enemy and setting forests ablaze, thereby wasting precious war resources.
According to S. W. Henderson, a local history buff, “Large numbers of Japanese schoolchildren, mostly girls, were used to make the balloons; most did not know their purpose.”
Exploded balloons were discovered across the western part of the U.S. all the way to Michigan. Aside from a few small brush fires, the only casualties were at Bly, Oregon.
On May 5, 1945, a picnicking pastor, his pregnant wife, and their Sunday school class found a live balloon dangling from a tree. It detonated, killing the wife and five children.
Two bombs reached Western Colorado. In March of 1944, paper fragments and shroud lines were found in Delta. Several months later, rancher Roe Lyons spotted another balloon above Collbran. As with all bomb discoveries, the government censored the local news outlets.
Silence had its reward — Japan deemed the experiment a failure and retired the project. Lest we judge, our government had its own flying bomb. Project X-Ray utilized bats strapped with incendiaries and scheduled for deployment to Japan, hoping they would roost and then detonate. Project X-Ray was shelved after successful firebomb campaigns and the appearance of the atom bombs.
Throughout America celebrations rang in the streets, as Victory over Japan (VJ Day) was celebrated on August 14. A whistle announced the news to the Grand Valley, and businesses closed as streets filled with jubilant people and the sound of honking horns.
Mesa County suffered the loss of 148, with more missing. Many came home decorated servicemen.
Over the years, Japan and America have endeavored to heal emotional scars left from the war, with one poignant moment coming in 1996 when six Japanese women delivered a thousand paper cranes — a gesture of peace — at the Bly, Oregon, monument. The families of the dead embraced the former schoolgirls, now grandmothers, with tears. VJ Day is still celebrated. ***
Another tie to WWII history involves Colonel Scott Willey, USAF (Ret).
He was one of the restorers of the Enola Gay, which is displayed at the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.
His decorated grandfather was Colonel Lee Willey, who grew up here and had quite a career in flying.
Lee owned a flying school, flew stunts with 13 Black Cats in Hollywood movies, entered several air races, and served in the United States Army Air Corps, taking missions all over the world during WWII.
Lee died in Grand Junction in 1952. Col. Scott Willey, his father (Selwyn), and his grandfather (Lee) all served in the military.
You can see pictures and find information on Lee Willey’s life and war experiences at www.dmairfield.org/people/willey_le/index.html.
For more History Sleuth by DA Brockett, visit www.dabrockett.com
This and several other select Grand Valley Magazine stories on this site are part of our GV Classics Collection. This story was featured in the August 2010 issue of Grand Valley Magazine (c) 2010.