Larry "Buzz" Bailey never thought in a million years he'd ever again see the Fu-Go balloon he and two other boys found in North Dorr, Mich., in 1945, but fate had a different plan for both the balloon and for Buzz.
On Wednesday, Buzz was invited by Theresa Kiel, curator of the Byron Township Museum, to come see the balloon.
"I can't believe it's here," said Bailey, 81, who now lives in Newaygo County. "It's right back where we found it, and that's certainly something special."
When Bailey arrived at the museum, he was immediately led to a large drum which contained the balloon. The drum was opened, and Bailey's eyes widened with excitement as he laid eyes on that balloon for the first time since he found it laying in a field off to the side of 21st Street in Dorr in 1945.
"Welcome," Bailey said to the balloon, as though he were being reacquainted with an old friend after several years. "Seventy-two years again since I last saw you."
"I wish the other two boys were here to see this. They're probably looking down and saying, 'Buzz, what took you so long to find it.'"
Bailey hovered over the balloon for several minutes, feeling it and reminiscing about that February day in 1945.
"This is the one we found," Bailey said. "I don't think anybody would have ever imagined we'd find the actual balloon that came down in Dorr."
On Feb. 23, 1945, Bailey, along with brothers Bob and Ken Fein were playing outside at the Fein's Farm when they looked to the skies and saw what appeared to be a giant jellyfish descending. The three boys watched in awe as the object continued to float over top of them, then disappeared behind some of the hilly terrain.
The boys knew that whatever it was had landed somewhere nearby, so they asked a family friend to drive them in his pickup truck so they could find it.
Once they turned down 21st Street, they saw the object spread across a piece of farmland, large ropes everywhere, and the envelope was flapping in the strong wind.
The three boys loaded the balloon into the back of the pickup truck and they brought it back to the Fein Farm. Once there, they stuffed it into the basement, then called the Kent County Sheriff's. Deputies arrived and had no idea what the object was.
They checked to see if any weather balloons had been launched in the area, but none had been.
Twenty-four hours after the boys made their discovery, members of the federal government showed up unannounced at the Fein Farm, confiscated the balloon from the basement and told everybody to not mention anything about the balloon.
It would take close to 20 years before enough information was declassified by the FBI. That's when the boys realized that the object they had discovered was a Japanese Fu-Go balloon bomb, which was launched in Honshu, Japan, and managed to travel across the Pacific Ocean, then across the United States before it landed in Dorr.
WZZM did a story in February 2017 entitled, "When the War Came to Dorr," which featured the historical significance of the Japanese balloon campaign as well as Bailey's primary-source account of the balloon's discovery.
During the research of that story, WZZM discovered that soon after the FBI confiscated the Dorr balloon from the Fein Farm, it ended up in New Jersey and in the hands of a name named Don Piccard, who happened to serve as a balloon and airship rigger in the United States Navy during World War II. Piccard was in charge of all the Japanese Fu-Go balloons that had been secretly recovered around the country.
When the war ended, he was advised to destroy all the Fu-Go balloons. He asked for permission to keep one for himself, and the one he selected happened to be the balloon that landed in Dorr.
In 1947, Piccard used the envelope of the Dorr balloon to perform his first solo balloon flight over downtown Minneapolis.
The balloon had been on display a few times during the past 70 years, but its primary home has been safely stored inside a huge drum in Piccard's garage.
Soon after the WZZM story aired in February, members of the Byron Center Historical Society called an impromptu meeting to see if they could generate any ideas of how to bring that balloon back to Dorr.
Piccard told the Historical Society that he'd sell the balloon for $10,000.
Members spent two and a half months trying to raise the funds, but donations were sparse. On Friday, May 19, an anonymous donor came forward, notifying the Historical Society members that it would underwrite the cost to bring the balloon home.
Theresa Kiel, along with three others, traveled to Minneapolis on Thursday, May 25, and bought the balloon from Piccard.
Six days later, Bailey got his chance to see it once again.
"I wish the rest of the gang were here to see this with me," Bailey said, referring to his buddies Bob and Ken Fein who both passed away several years ago. "Seeing this makes me feel like we found it yesterday."
Kiel has commissioned local historian, Valerie van Heest to help put together an exhibit with the balloon.
"I'll be glad to see the balloon out," Bailey said. "I want to see it spread out, because that's the way I remember it when we first saw it laying in that field."
Kiel says she and van Heest are in the process of putting together a plan for the exhibit, and if all goes well, it will be open for public viewing sometime in the spring of 2018.
"Look at all the benefit this is going to do for people," said Bailey, still staring at the balloon. "People will get to come to this museum and get a chance to get up close and personal to some real history.
"Gee wiz, what a memory.
"Who would have ever thought it would come home."
If you have a story idea that would make a good "Our Michigan Life" feature, email Brent Ashcroft: firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow Brent on Twitter: @brentashcroft
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