Historic Balloon to Become Museum Exhibit in Michigan (Part 2 of 2)
On February 23, 1945, three preteen boys, Larry Bailey and brothers Ken and Bob Fein, were playing in North Dorr, Michigan, near the Fein’s house. All of a sudden, a mysterious object appeared floating overhead and descend at a 45° angle. The boys knew that it was about to land close by. “We were so excited, we got a family friend Joe Wolf to come with us in his pickup truck, and we tracked it,” said Bailey, at a presentation of the Byron Center Historical Society on April 21st, 2017. They found it on 21st street, 50 yards off the road on Basil Stein’s farmland. Its huge fabric flapped in the wind and it had burned ropes and some sort of platform that was charred black. “We bundled it up and dragged it on a snowy road and put it in the basement of the Fein’s farmhouse,” said 81-year-old Bailey. At that time, he was nine, and Ken and Bob were 10 and 11.
“Nobody knew what it was; we called everybody,” continued Bailey. “But somebody knew what it was, because the next morning it disappeared from the Fein’s farmhouse.”
Genevieve Fein, Bob and Ken’s mother had asked the family priest, Father Walters, to make sense of the discovery, but the priest was at a loss and suggested that they call the authorities. Deputies from the Kent County Sheriff’s Department arrived. They thought it was a weather balloon but the weather bureau said that there were no weather balloons launched that day, so they called the FBI, who came the next morning when the boys were at school.
“The FBI confiscated everything and told the family to be quiet—as if they had found nothing,” said Michael Unsworth, World War II researcher and writer, and former history librarian at the Michigan State University. Unsworth was invited to give a presentation at the Byron Center Historical Society entitled, “The North Dorr Fu-go Balloon.”
The mystery of that balloon continued until the information about the Japanese intercontinental bombing campaign, to attack US mainland, became public on August 15, 1945. Bailey recalls talking to Bob and Ken about the strange object they had brought home and they discussed how lucky they had been. “I’m glad that the bomb had exploded in the air because we would have gone after it anyway, and we would have had a short term,” Bailey said to an audience that burst into laughter.
In the early 1980s, Michael Unsworth started writing about FU-GO balloons. Unsworth, used to live in Fort Collins, Colorado, where a FU-GO balloon had landed, which sparked his interest. “In the mid-1980s, I visited the Feins and chatted with them. Ken started remembering about the balloon. I had also gone to the National Archives and gotten the report from the Army and the FBI about the North Dorr balloon and gave copies to them,” he said in an interview.
His articles revived the story of the local FU-GO landing. In the 1980s, Theresa Kiel, board member of the Byron Museum and Historical Society also discovered something. “I knew Ken Fein and another town hall official who knew that the balloon had landed on my grandfather’s property. Ken Fein helped me with the FBI report and different newspaper articles,” Kiel said. The brothers Ken and Bob Fein have since passed away.
While the FU-GO landing has been a topic of conversation in North Dorr, there were hardly any reports in the media. Then, last December, somebody e-mailed Brent Ashcroft of WZZM-13 TV to do a story. “When I read it, I was like– is this for real?” said Ashcroft in an interview. “I was born and raised in West Michigan and had no idea that this had happened. I googled it and found out that the last time a West Michigan press outlet reported it, it was in 1991. So, I thought there’s an entire generation that has grown up and does not even know about this,” said Ashcroft, who decided to tell the same story that was told 25 years ago. He had never imagined that the dramatic chain of events that would unfold will bring to light FU-GO’s interesting journey in the United States and will also take it on a future course toward a new home.
Like Ashcroft, many people are intrigued by the Japanese balloon bomb. What fascinates people is the FUGO balloon’s eerie crossing, 34,000 feet above the Pacific, covering 6000-7000 miles from Japan to USA, and its unique mechanism designed to keep it afloat for a specific duration. “The Japanese had a very active meteorological research program and they did a lot of experimentation in the pre-war era, which was military directed,” said Unsworth. “They discovered that jet stream [river of air] between 30,000-and 38,000 feet going from east to west, and launched the balloons from Honshu to rise into that jet stream–which was a big surprise to the Americans,” said Unsworth. “When our B-29s flew to attack Japan, they did not know about this jet stream that was going against them. They did not know if they would make it back to their base in the Mariana Islands, but, of course, when they turned around to go back instead of having a headwind of 120 miles per hour, they had a tailwind of 120 miles per hour.”
The Japanese launched their “windship weapons” from November 1944 through April 1945. Each war weapon consisted of a balloon envelope 30 feet in diameter, weighing 150 pounds, and a volume of 19,000 cubic feet. Filled with hydrogen gas, the balloon’s payload carried two incendiary bombs (11 or 26 pounds) and one 33 pound antipersonnel bomb. It had an altitude control mechanism. If the balloon dropped to 20,000 feet, that would trigger the release of two sandbags, making it lighter and allowing the balloon to regain altitude and rejoin the jet stream above. About 32 paper sandbags were released by small explosive charges. If a balloon successfully crossed the Pacific and made it over North America, the same procedure would drop any remaining sandpaper bags and then release the bombs. According to Don Piccard and Michael Unsworth, the balloon fabric was sturdy and water-resistant, like soft raincoat cloth or a Japanese paper umbrella. But this altitude control mechanism did not work well, in most balloon bombs, as the battery that powered the sequence froze up due to inadequate anti-freeze protection, and they fell harmlessly in the Pacific Ocean.
During the war, 285 FU-GOs were recovered in North America. Two landed in Mexico, seventy-eight in Canada, and 205 in the U.S. The “American” balloons, including the Dorr one, were sent to the Naval Technical Air Intelligence Center in Anacostia, District of Columbia. From there, they were shipped to the US Naval Air Station in New Jersey, where Donald Piccard worked as a navy balloon and airship rigger.
In 1945, after the navy had finished testing, it began destroying all the balloons, and Piccard was asked to throw them on the dump. Coming from a family of balloonists involved in great ballooning adventures as well as pioneering stratospheric ascents, he could not help asking his senior officer if he could take one balloon and was granted official permission and ownership.
Ashcroft learned from Unsworth that Piccard flew that balloon over Minneapolis in 1947 and had written about the flight in the 2001 issue of Air and Space Magazine. Then, FU-GO’s trail seemed to reach a dead-end. In an effort to confirm that this particular balloon was the one Piccard received in New Jersey, Ashcroft searched for Piccard and found him on Facebook. “Piccard said that the balloon he received was found in Flint, Michigan, and I told him that it was actually found in Dorr, Michigan.”
According to Unsworth, “Of the two balloons that landed in Michigan, one balloon landed on a county line between Kent and Allegan County, and that area is referred to as North Dorr or Byron Center. This one had an envelope,” said Unsworth. “A charred Japanese incendiary bomb was discovered in the Detroit suburb of Farmington. No other parts of the balloon were found.”
Piccard, however, was not aware of all the details or the local story until he was contacted by Ashcroft in February 2017. He told Ashcroft that he still had that FU-GO balloon preserved in a drum in his garage for 72 years!
Theresa Kiel and others were surprised to know that the balloon still existed. “What are the chances of getting that balloon to the Byron Center?” Kiel asked Ashcroft, and they contacted Piccard about it.
“I begged him to donate the balloon, but he didn’t feel comfortable doing that. He asked for $10,000 and we started a campaign in February. On May 19th, a donor came forward with a $10,000 check. We were thrilled,” said Kiel.
After preserving it for 72 years, Piccard handed FU-GO to Theresa Kiel and three others who visited him in Minneapolis on May 25th. “It will be hard to see the balloon leave my driveway,” Piccard had said earlier, but he was glad that the balloon had found a good home.
The following day, in an interview with The Balloon Journal, Piccard said, “Well, I think it’s nice that the balloon is going to help the museum and they will be using it for educational purposes.” Even though the fuses were mediocre which rendered many bombs useless, the envelopes were sturdy, said Piccard. “All the Japanese paper balloons looked alike. They were very well made. The workmanship, craftsmanship, and the design of the FU-GO was top-notch,” said Piccard.
On her way back to Michigan, with the balloon, Kiel sounded excited. “We decided not to take the balloon out of the barrel because we wouldn’t have been able to put it back,” she said. “The balloon itself is 40 by 50 feet and looks like it’s in excellent condition.”
Kiel said that being a board member with the Byron Center Historical Society is not the reason why she wanted the balloon back in Michigan. “I pursued it because it landed on my grandpa’s property. I was just determined that the balloon should come back to us and not be in Minnesota.”
She said that they will have additional expenses to make it into a museum exhibit and has commissioned local historian Valerie van Heest to do the display. “We’re going to make a smaller replica of it for the exhibit, which will cost money,” she said. If everything goes by plan, the exhibit will be ready for public viewing in early 2018.
Asked if he would go to the museum for the inaugural display, Piccard replied, “I don’t know. If they need help with the display, I would be glad to help them.”
Only a few FU-GOs exist, said Unsworth. “The Smithsonian has two or three and the Canadian War Museum has a couple of samples.” According to an expert, the FU-GO envelope can be preserved well with a minimum effort if stored in a climate controlled area. The Japanese made 15,000 balloon envelopes but launched 9,300 and stopped, as the North American news blackout led them to believe that their bombing mission had failed. The Japanese museums do not even have a single FU-GO balloon.
In Michigan and Minnesota (Piccard’s home state), most people learned that the North Dorr FU-GO balloon is not only a part of World War II history but also, along with its pilot Don Piccard, a major part of US ballooning history.
On May 31st, Larry Bailey was invited to the Byron Township Museum for a reunion with the balloon, he and his friends had spotted. “Welcome,” Bailey said, as he gently touched the balloon’s fabric. To Bailey, the only surviving eyewitness of the FU-GO landing, the picture of the balloon coming down slow at an angle across the Fein farm is so clear, as if it happened yesterday. Overcome with emotions, he told WZZM-13 TV, “I wish the other two boys were here to see this. They are probably looking down and saying, ‘Buzz, what took you so long to find it?”
Almost all of the 300 war weapons were destroyed, but the one that Piccard brought home, adapted for a peaceful and remarkable flight mission, and preserved for 72 years was also the one whose “landfall” story was unwittingly kept alive by locals. One wonders what would’ve happened if Piccard had thrown away the balloon on the dump; on the other hand, what if Bailey, Unsworth, Kiel, and Ashcroft had not pursued this FU-GO balloon’s journey.
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