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Bombers Over the Rainier Valley? World War Two Defenses

These pictures arrived in our office last week, sent by Mr. Vern Farrow. They may not seem all that spectacular at first glance, but they were greeted with great fanfare.

The Farrow family lived at 5120 S. Juneau St., just up the hill from Seward Park, for more than fifty years. The house faces a knoll to the south known then – unfortunately – as “Chink Hill.” (This racial slur may refer to Chinese laborers brought to the area to work on nearby railroads, who may have had a camp on the hill at one time. A very slightly less offensive etymology holds that the hill was populated by Chinese pheasants, which Mr. Farrow hunted on occasion. Either way, the name certainly says something about the racial climate of the early 20th century.)

Back to the photographs: we have heard for years that there was an anti-aircraft gun on the hill during the Second World War. According to historylink.org, the Army installed batteries of 3-inch guns in several locations around Seattle in January of 1942, just a month after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. These guns were to protect Seattle and its military production from enemy planes that might venture across the Pacific on aircraft carriers. The gun on the hill south of Juneau Street may have been part of this operation.

After searching various photo collections, and trying in vain to track down Army records, we had pretty much given up on finding a photograph of the gun on “Chink Hill.” But then came the surprise package from Mr. Farrow. Here we see a pile of ammunition partially covered with a tarp, next to one of the tents used by the soldiers camped at the base of the hill. In the upper left corner of the photograph is the gun itself. 

The second photograph documents another feature of homefront life that we hear about often. This view looking west over the Farrows’ house shows the sky above the Boeing plant dotted with twenty barrage balloons. These blimp-like craft hung over many military production sites, including the Boeing plant and the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard at Bremerton. Cables tied from the balloon to the ground kept enemy planes from flying over the target. Jim Lough, who grew up on Empire Way (now M.L. King Way) in the 1940s, remembers a barrage balloon company stationed near his house; the Loughs invited the men in the company over for dinner on occasion. Lough explains, “Boeing Field was surrounded by these little companies that were [each] in charge of one barrage balloon.” When all the balloons were in the air with their cables, “It would be like netting, almost.” The Farrow photograph confirms this description: it’s hard to imagine flying a plane through this obstacle course.

Anti-aircraft guns, barrage balloons – these and other homefront defenses illustrate the terrible fear of Japanese attack along the West Coast in the 1940s. Kids like Vern Farrow and Jim Lough grew up in the shadow of the war. They knew that at any moment the ammunition stockpiled across the street from their house might be needed to shoot down enemy bombers, that their friends at the barrage balloon company were ever on the alert. Students at Whitworth knelt in the coatroom with their jackets over their heads during air raid drills. Japanese American schoolmates were sent away to internment camps – an injustice fueled by the same fear of attack.

Of course, no Japanese plane ever made it to Seattle to be shot down by anti-aircraft guns or foiled by barrage balloons. Likewise, the smokescreen over the shipyard proved to be unnecessary. So were Boeing’s attempts to disguise its hangars as residential neighborhoods by building fake houses and trees on top of them. But the threat and the fear were both very real.

The hill south of the Farrows’ house is now covered with handsome post-war homes with well-manicured gardens and enviable views. There are no traces of the anti-aircraft gun or the pile of ammunition, and nobody calls it “Chink Hill” anymore. But perhaps as the neighbors gather there on the 4th of July to watch the official and unofficial fireworks displays all over the city, they’ll take a moment to remember the Chinese laborers that may have camped there, the barrage balloons that once filled the sky to the west, and the anti-aircraft gun that sat right behind them, ready for action, all those years ago.