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Japanese FU-GO Balloon Bombs in Michigan

Balloon bomb in flight

On November 4th, 1944 a United States Navy patrol craft spotted something odd floating on the sea 66 miles southwest of San Pedro, California. When the object was hauled on board, it was found to be a rubberized-silk balloon.
The Japanese called the balloon weapons Fu-Go ("Fu" being the first character of the Japanese word for balloon).  They were assembled by hand, usually by schoolgirls, constructed of mulberry paper, glued together with potato flour and filled with hydrogen. The thirty-three foot diameter balloons carried an aluminum ring (about three feet across) suspended from the balloon with nineteen shroud lines. On board the ring was a control and ballast system consisting of thirty-two, 7-10 pound sandbags and the bomb load.  The typical maximum loading was one fifteen kilogram high explosive bomb or one twelve kilogram incendiary along with four five-kilogram incendiary bombs.

Balloon construction:

The use of balloons as a weapon of war was first conceived by the Japanese Military Scientific Laboratory in 1933 but only reached the theoretical stage and the project was soon tabled. In seeking reprisals for the Doolittle raid, the Japanese developed the first transoceanic balloon bombing campaign in history. The Japanese were the first to discover the high altitude winds known today as the jet stream. With thirty plus mile per hour winds, in theory, the jet stream was capable of delivering a balloon from the coast of Japan to the west coast of the USA in 30-100 hours, with an average time of 60 hours. The balloons were programmed to release hydrogen if they ascended to over 38,000 feet and to drop pairs of sand filled ballast bags if the balloon dropped below 30,000 feet, using an onboard altimeter, a battery and electric fuses. Utilizing this system, the balloons would rise in the daylight heat (expanding the gas) and fall each evening in the colder temperatures. Once all ballast was released, the bomb payload would be released, setting off a self destruct mechanism which would blow up the balloon and carriage system about 82 minutes after the bombs dropped.

From 3 November, 1944 until mid April of 1945, approximately 9300 balloons were released. While only 285 were ever documented to have made landfall, experts believe about 10 percent, or 1000 balloons made the trek successfully. 
Balloons were reported over an area stretching from the island of Attu in the west to the state of Michigan in the east, and from northern Alaska to northern Mexico. One interesting story of a near "success" - on 10 March 1945, a Fu-Go balloon landed near a production site of the secret Manhattan Project at Hanford, in Washington state. The balloon destroyed a power line that fed electricity to the building containing the reactor producing plutonium for the Nagasaki bomb, and shut the reactor down. Backup generators came online, as designed, to restore power.

There is also mention that
two actually landed back in Japan, but caused no damage. Since the report uses the words "back in Japan," one would assume that the balloons went all the way around the world and back, but I do not have any corroborating sources.

As late as 1978, loggers in Oregon are documented to have found the remains of a balloon bomb in the canopy of a tree. I have seen anecdotal accounts suggesting that in 1992 balloon pieces were found in either Alaska or Oregon (or both?).

The balloons were meant to ignite forest fires along the west coast, thus taking vital man-power from the American war effort and to create a sense of panic amongst the general public. Some forest fires were started but damage was minimal and, thanks in part to voluntary press censorship, the Japanese didn’t even know balloons were reaching their “targets.” A very unfortunate result of this secrecy occurred on May 5th , 1945 in Bly, Oregon when Mrs. Elsie Mitchell and five children discovered an unexploded bomb while on a picnic. The bomb exploded, killing all six people. These were the only known fatalities of the FU-GO campaign, and as a result, the censorship of the issue was lifted to keep the public safe. Ironically, the Japanese had launched the last balloon in April – a full month earlier. With only a ten percent “success” rate, a price tag of 10,000 yen (or $2,300) per balloon , and the destruction of the hydrogen plants by B-29’s, the last Fu-GO balloon was launched in mid- April,1945. There were still 1,000 balloons ready for launch.

Confirmed Fu-Go Balloons in Michigan

On 23 February, 1945 in the small town of Dorr, MI just south of Grand Rapids, three young boys were playing in a farm field when they noticed something strange floating in the sky. Larry Bailey and brothers Ken and Robert Fein followed the giant balloon until it landed in a nearby farm field. The horrors and dangers of WWII were far from their minds as they thought about everything they could do with all that rope! It proved to be too much for the boys to drag all the way back to the Fein's house, so the boys were relieved when neighbor Joe Wolf stopped by in his truck to help them haul their prize. To the boys’ dismay, the sheriff was called and the balloon, identified as a Japanese FU-GO balloon bomb, was confiscated by the FBI.  Fortunately for them, the balloon had already dropped its deadly load. There were no reports of any strange explosions or fires in the vicinity of Dorr.

In 1946, Don Piccard, a young sailor stationed at Lakehurst (NJ) Naval Air Station as a balloon/airship rigger was ordered to take an old balloon to the base dump. Piccard was the son of ballooning pioneers Jean and Jeanette Piccard who experimented with stratospheric ballooning throughout the 1930s. It is presumably the reason that the Navy stationed him at Lakehurst, which was the Navy’s balloon and airship research facility. The old balloon which Piccard was to dispose of was the FUGO balloon found by Larry Bailey and the Fein brothers in Dorr, MI in February of 1945. The war was over and the Navy was done testing the balloons. As an aspiring balloonist, Piccard believed he could fix the balloon and fly it. He was given permission to take the balloon as war souvenir and the project began. By 1947, Don Piccard was an aeronautical engineering student at the University of Minnesota and in the Army ROTC. He convinced the Army that they could use his balloon flight as a promotional opportunity for the upcoming birth of the United States Air Force. The Minneapolis Daily Times pitched in and bought sand ballast and the hydrogen for the balloon. After patching the heavily damaged paper envelope of the balloon and crafting a lightweight aluminum basket he was ready for his flight.
February 16th , almost two years to the day the balloon landed in Dorr, MI, dawned cold in Minneapolis as the flight crew began their preparations. Five thousand on-lookers were on hand to watch the spectacle and at 1:15 pm, Piccard’s FUGO balloon was airborne. The flight lasted a little over two hours when the balloon landed on a farm in Bear Lake, MN. It was Piccard’s first solo flight and it allowed him to earn his Free Balloon Pilot Certificate issued by the Civil Aviation Agency, now the Federal Aviation Administration, the first person ever to do so. The FUGO never flew again but had come a long way from the beaches of Japan, to a farm field in central Michigan and flying again in Minnesota.

Pictures from the Minneapolis Daily Times. The color photo is from the National Balloon Museum and Hall of Fame, in Indianola, Iowa and is a framed piece of Piccard's FUGO balloon. I believe the caption to be mistaken as it says the balloon landed near Flint, MI. To my knowledge, the two incidents listed here are the only two FUGO landings in Michigan. If Piccard's balloon did come from a Michigan landing, it had to have been the Dorr landing, as you will soon see.

Mrs. Hedt sat in her living room in Farmington Hills, MI on a Sunday afternoon in late March when she heard a small report like that of a pistol. When she went to the window she could see what looked to be a small bonfire burning in a neighbor’s field. Mr. Hedt, a sergeant with the Michigan State Police, also observed the fire and thought he’d seen sparking similar to a magnesium fire. The blaze soon extinguished itself and the two thought nothing of it. A week later, their neighbor John Cook was preparing his garden for planting when his rake hit a tin can which he absent-mindedly tossed aside. Two months later he’d read an article that made him think twice about that can in the garden. Due to the voluntary press censorship and its subsequent lifting in May of 1945 (referred to above), a press release detailing the Dorr incident was printed on June 6th; this is likely the article that Cook read. He went out to his junk pile and found the “can” and, after examination, found it to be suspicious. He reported it to his neighbor, Sergeant Hedt, who then remembered the “bonfire” he and his wife had seen. Things were starting to add up. United States Army intelligence soon verified that the can was indeed part of a Japanese incendiary bomb.

After the war ended, State Civil Defense Director and Michigan State Police Captain Donald Leonard, officially confirmed the two balloon bomb incidents and alluded to another unconfirmed sighting. A Navy plane over Sault Saint Marie, MI was scrambled to shoot down a balloon but it had disappeared into a cloud formation before it could be contacted. He also suggested that the forests of northern Michigan had experienced an increase in forest fires that summer. To date neither of these last two facts have been verified.

Kinross Army Airfield (the now defunct Kincheloe Air Force Base) 20 miles south of Sault Saint Marie was commissioned to protect the Soo shipping Locks but by 1945 it was essentially a stopover refueling point for Alaska bound aircraft. It did not have a dedicated fighter squadron stationed there and it was specifically reported as a Navy plane not an Army plane.

Balloon Bomb remnants in Michigan

Someone looking for remaining evidence of the FU-GO balloon campaign in Michigan today will have to overcome some very steep obstacles.

Firstly, how to find likely locations? Having lived in Michigan most of my life, I know that the months of November – April (time frame when the Japanese were releasing the balloons) do not produce the optimal forest fire inducing weather conditions. It is possible for the bombs to have been tangled in the tree canopy, and not fallen to the ground for months, or even years after the fact.  I therefore, thought that it would still be possible for the incendiaries to start forest fires in the summer of 1945 and possibly through 1955. That is the last year that a viable incendiary bomb from a Japanese balloon has been found. Not to say that there aren’t more still out there. I know that today, forest fire experts are able to determine ignition sources and locations fairly reliably but don’t know what records were kept back in those days. However, I have yet to find a government agency (state of Federal) or university department that has forest fire data for that far back.

Secondly, very simple math would indicate that, at most, ten balloons made it as far as Michigan. Published media estimates are that only 1,000 out of the 9,300 balloons made landfall but with no rationale for how that number was derived. The fact that the balloons were supposed to self-destruct but many were found in recognizable pieces indicates that the design was flawed and they did not work as planned. But the estimated number of 1,000 seems low to me.

Thirdly, there just weren’t that many materials on a balloon that could withstand 66 years of exposure to the elements. Those that could were not very large. It would definitely be a needle in a haystack! I have read a source likening the accidental finding of any remnants to winning the lottery on a two dollar bet.

People still win lotteries on two dollar bets and if I can find some forest fire records dating back far enough, I will be trying to locate these artifacts, not just accidentally discovering them!