Japanese Fu-Go Balloon found in Dorr unfurled in field; exhibit coming in 2018

When you get something new, often times you can't wait to open it up and check it out.

BYRON CENTER, MICH. - When you get something new, often times you can't wait to open it up and check it out.

That was the case Tuesday morning in Byron Center, Mich., where an extremely rare World War II artifact saw the light of day for the first time in decades.

Theresa Kiel, the curator at the Byron Township Museum, her husband, Keith, along with several other Byron Center residents, gathered in the open field behind St. Sebastian's Catholic Church to unfurl the Japanese Fu-Go Balloon they acquired last month.

"I can't believe this day has finally come," said Kiel, who traveled to Minnesota in May to purchase the balloon. "It's mind-boggling to me that we actually brought the balloon back home and now we get to see it after all these years."

The balloon had been packed tightly inside a drum for the better part of the last 20 years, so it took a while to get it out. Once it was free of the drum, the delicate process began to pull it apart and spread it out across the field.

"To think we have the only in-tact Fu-Go Balloon in the world is amazing to me," said Kiel, as she watched the balloon stretch wider and wider on the field. "What great history for Byron Center."

As a handful of people were slowly spreading the balloon out, a car drove up, and out popped a man by the name of Larry "Buzz" Bailey, who found the balloon in North Dorr, Mich., 72 years ago. Bailey walked across the field with a smile on his face and didn't waste any time in offering a hand in helping.

"I took a double take when I saw it again," said Bailey who, as a 9-year old, discovered the balloon, along with his buddies Bob and Ken Fein. "I couldn't wait to touch it again."

Bailey grabbed onto a section of the balloon, and helped pull it gently, just as he did 72 years ago when he found it on the cold, snowy afternoon.

"I felt like I was ten years old again," Bailey joked. "All those memories came flooding back.

"Who'd have thought that balloon would come full circle and I would have had the chance to see and touch it again.

"I really wish the other two boys were still alive to take part in this moment with me."

As the balloon got bigger and bigger, nearly covering the entire field, Theresa stood in awe and was filled with pride.

"Just look at how it was put together," she said. "Look at all those squares that were made of several layers of paper, and glued together with potato paste.

"And to think this thing landed in my grandfather's farmland in 1945."

The story of the balloon's landing in Dorr has long been a topic of conversation and a significant piece of West Michigan history. On Feb. 23, 1945, three pre-teen boys were playing outside near north Dorr. Brothers Bob and Ken Fein, along with their best friend, Larry "Buzz" Bailey, looked up in the sky and saw what appeared to be a giant jellyfish floating overhead. The boys kept watching it as it descended at a rapid rate, then disappeared over the hilly terrain.

The boys knew whatever it was, it had landed not too far from where they were. They went looking for it, and eventually saw it flapping in the wind, laying on some farmland, just off 21st Street.

The Fein brothers and Bailey managed to get the balloon back to the Fein farm and stored it in the basement of the house. Kent County Sheriff deputies were called out to check it out, but they had no idea what it was.

Less than 24 hours later, members of the Federal Government showed up at the Fein farm, went into the basement, confiscated the balloon, and told the family to never mention anything about having seen it.

World War II ended six months later, but it took 15 years for information about the Japanese Fu-Go balloon bomb attack to become declassified. That's how long it took for the boys (who had since become grown men in their late 20s) to find out the truth about what they had discovered that day.

WZZM produced and aired a story in February 2017 entitled, "When the War Came to Dorr." The piece documented the history of the Japanese balloon bomb campaign, and also detailed the incident that occurred in Dorr. During research for the piece, it was discovered that the Dorr balloon still existed and was in the possession of a man named Don Piccard.

"I watched the WZZM story and couldn't believe what I saw at the end," Kiel said. "The second I learned that balloon still existed, I knew I needed to figure out a way to get it to the [Byron Area Historic] Museum to be displayed."

Kiel called an emergency meeting with members of the Byron Center Historical Society two days after the WZZM story aired. It was unanimous amongst the members that they wanted to get the balloon but were concerned the cost to bring it back was too steep.

"Don Piccard told me he'd sell us the balloon for $10,000," Kiel said. "I knew immediately that if this was ever going to happen, a donor would likely have to come forward with the funds."

Board members tried for more than two months to secure a donor but none came forward until Friday, May 19, when an anonymous donor sent Kiel an email saying they'd cover the cost of the balloon.

"I was so excited, and called Don Piccard right away," Kiel said. "He told me he'd honor his promise sell us the balloon."

Don Piccard served as a balloon and airship rigger in the Navy during World War II. He was put in charge of all the Fu-Go balloons that were recovered. When the war was over, he was asked to destroy all the Fu-Go balloons, but was given permission to keep one.

The one he kept happened to be the one that landed in Dorr.

Piccard is a descendant from a family of balloonists. While he was a student at the University of Minnesota, he became one of the driving forces behind the revival of hot air ballooning in the United States.

In 1947, he used the Dorr Fu-Go balloon to perform his first solo flight over downtown Minneapolis. In the seven decades since, the balloon has primarily been in storage -- stuffed inside a drum inside his garage.

Piccard, 91, wasn't sure what would eventually happen to the balloon. In recent years, he says he's received mild interest from a balloon museum in New Mexico, but that never materialized.

In February, he took a phone call from Kiel, and the three month odyssey to bring the balloon back to Dorr began.

"It has to go somewhere," Piccard said. "It can't go with me [after i die]."

Soon after Kiel and her group arrived at Piccard's home in Minneapolis, they went inside his garage and wheeled the balloon out into the yard.

"If this balloon could talk, it would really tell quite a story," said Kiel, soon after she laid eyes on the balloon and began inspecting it. "I'm overwhelmed and excited that we're here to being this home."

The balloon remained inside the drum at the museum for a month until it was taken out and examined Tuesday morning.

"This is an extraordinary artifact," said Valerie van Heest, a Holland-based maritime author and historian, who was on hand Tuesday to see the balloon in person. "Since we learned of the balloon's existence, I knew there would be something special about this, being the most preserved Fu-Go balloon known."

Kiel has commissioned van Heest to create an exhibit around the balloon that will be based at the museum.

"I think when the exhibit is completed, people are going to be drawn from all over the country to Byron Center to see one of the most extraordinary World War II artifacts that still exists," added van Heest.

The examination of the balloon lasted a little over an hour. The drum was destroyed, so residents on hand rolled it up, wrapped it in a tarp, loaded it into the back of Keith Kiel's pickup truck and drove it back to the museum.

"We got the balloon back, said Bailey. "What a piece of history.

"It's like the last chapter [of the story] is now complete."

Now that the balloon has been removed from the drum, its preservation will be paramount while ideas are bantered about as to how the museum exhibit will be built.

Valerie van Heest says she has reached out to the Smithsonian Institute, hoping to get help from one of their paper conservators to insure that the balloon doesn't deteriorate in any way over the next several months. 

Meantime, the plan is for the Fu-Go Balloon exhibit to be finished and ready for public viewing at the Byron Area Historical Museum by the spring of 2018.

If you know of a story that should be featured on "Our Michigan Life", send an email to Brent Ashcroft: brentashcroft@wzzm13.com

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