It was spring of 1942. World War II was forging ahead, as Japan continued to seize islands in the south Pacific.
At the time, the United States was reeling along with its allies, Great Britain and France.
“President Franklin Roosevelt decided that America needs a propaganda victory,” said Michael Unsworth, retired MSU history librarian. “He decided on an attack called the Doolittle Raid.”
In April 1942, the United States sent B-25 bombers from aircraft carriers, commanded by General James Doolittle, and bombed Tokyo.
“The Doolittle Raid didn’t do much damage, but it was an actual attack on the Japanese homeland, forcing their military to scramble,” said Unsworth. “Cosmetically, the attack gave the United States the boost of morale it needed.”
The Japanese were embarrassed by the attack and felt honor-bound to retaliate against the United States.
“Losing at Midway made it impossible for Japan to retaliate using their military, and they didn’t have long-range bombers,” said Unsworth. “They had to decide on alternative means.”
Japanese scientists began studying and investigating weather patterns.
“They discovered the jet stream,” added Unsworth. “Finding a way to leverage the big river of air high in the sky became Japan’s method of retaliation.
“They started to think about launching balloons up in that river of air, with bombs attached to them, and hope they can drift to the United States.”
The balloons could be designed to automatically drop firebombs into the forests of the Pacific Northwest, which would divert the U.S. war effort and likely cause panic.
“The Noborito researchers took two years to translate their theory into a functioning weapon,” said Unsworth. “Instead of using a propane torch to keep the paper envelopes inflated, each weapon utilized 19,000 cubic feet of hydrogen.”
Each balloon had a metal gondola hanging from ropes from the envelope that carried bombs. It was operated by an altitude control mechanism that was supposed to keep the balloons afloat between 30,000 and 38,000 feet (where the strongest winds of the jet stream exist).
“By late fall of 1944, the Japanese FU-GO balloon campaign was ready to begin,” said Unsworth. “The Japanese made close to 10,000 FU-GO balloons, and launched 9,300 of them from the island of Honshu.
“They looked like giant jellyfish as they rose and drifted away from the Japanese mainland.”
It took a couple months, but some of the balloons made it to the Unites States, but the majority of them failed and fell into the Pacific Ocean.
“300 of the FU-GO balloons were confirmed to have landed in the United States,” said Unsworth. “Most of them were discovered in Washington, Oregon and northern California; several others drifted further inland and were found in Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska.”
“When the balloons were discovered, the Federal Government chose to employ a news blackout because they didn’t want word to get back to the Japanese that the campaign was working,” said Unsworth. “The Japanese thought that Americans were gossipy and they’d get feedback so they could fine-tune the attack.
“They never received any feedback, so they shut down the campaign in April of 1945.”
The campaign may have ended, but several of the balloons continued to make their way east across the United States. Only two of them made it east of the Mississippi River – both landing in Michigan. One in Farmington Hills, which is near Detroit, and the other in the small community of North Dorr, which is located in northern Allegan County, about 25 miles south of Grand Rapids.
Feb. 23, 1945 was a crisp, snowy day in North Dorr, Michigan. Brothers Bob and Ken Fein, along with their best friend, Larry “Buzz” Bailey, were playing outside at the Fein’s house.
All of the sudden, the three pre-teen boys were distracted by what appeared to be a big blob floating overhead.
“I don’t remember which one of us looked up and saw it first,” said Bailey, 81, who now lives in Newaygo, Michigan. “We were sure excited because none of us had seen anything like that before.
“It was about a half-mile up, and was floating downward at a 45-degree angle.
“We knew it was going to land close by.”
A family friend of the Feins named Joe Wolf happened to be visiting at the time and offered to take the boys in his pickup truck to look for the object.
“We hopped into the truck and Joe drove about a mile east,” Bailey said. “We turned right on 21st Street and there it was lying about 50 yards off the road on Basil Stein’s farmland.”
Wolf and the boys assumed it was a balloon because of the huge envelope and the numerous ropes that were hanging from it.
“When we got up close to it, we saw there was some sort or platform attached to it,” said Bailey. “The platform was charred black.”
Wolf and the three boys decided to drag the object to the road, load it into the back of the pickup truck, and take it to the Fein’s house.
“When we got it to the house, we crammed it through the back door and down into the basement,” said Bailey. “The thing was so huge it spread from one end of the basement to the other.”
Genevieve Fein, the mother of Bob and Ken, immediately called the family priest to come to the house and examine the discovery. The priest advised the Feins to call the authorities.
“Genevieve then called the Kent County Sheriff’s Department,” said Bailey. “It didn’t take long for some deputies to show up at the door.
“Their first thought was that it was a weather balloon, but after a call to the local weather bureau, the deputies were told that there were no weather balloons in use that day.”
The sheriff then called the FBI to come look at it.
Photos: Japanese FU-GO balloon
“The balloon stayed in the Fein’s basement overnight,” Bailey remembered. “The next day, while Bob, Ken and I were at school, more members of the Federal Government arrived at the Fein’s house and confiscated the balloon.
“The Feds told us to never speak of seeing this balloon, and to go about life as though finding it had never happened.”
Larry Bailey and the Fein boys never knew what they had truly discovered on that cold February day until 15 years later when most of the declassified information about the Japanese balloon bomb campaign became public.
Photos: Japanese FU-GO balloon FBI documents
“When we found out what it was, I remember talking with Bob and Ken about how glad we were that the bomb dropped and detonated somewhere before we found it,” said Bailey. “If we had found it still loaded with explosives, and started dragging it through the field like we did, I may not be here to tell the story all these years later.”
It was later learned that the Japanese FU-GO balloon found in Dorr was sent to the Naval Technical Air Intelligence Center in Anacostia, District of Columbia, for laboratory evaluation. After that, the balloon was shipped to a research center in New Jersey, where it fell into possession of Don Piccard, who was an employee at the center.
Ironically, Piccard was born into a family of balloonists, and he was allowed to keep the Dorr Balloon. Two years later, Piccard used the balloon to make a historic flight over downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Piccard told WZZM that he still has the balloon. It’s being preserved in a drum in his garage in Minneapolis.
It hasn’t seen the light of day for decades.
“I will never forget that day,” said Bailey. “I can still see that thing floating over the fields.
“It will always be remembered as the day the Japanese attacked North Dorr.”
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