BYRON TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Lawrence “Buzz” Baily was 9 years old and headed to a local sledding hill with two friends when they noticed a large balloon descending over a North Dorr farm field near the Kent-Allegan county line.
It was Feb. 23, 1945.
“Coming down real slow because there was just a little breeze. Just on a little angle. It went a half a mile before it hit the ground,” Bailey recalled that day nearly 80 years ago.
What he didn’t know at the time was that the balloon was a weapon of war. Fortunately for Bailey and his friends, bombs that were tied to the balloon had exploded before it hit the ground.
“You could tell by the damage of the balloon that an explosion had taken place,” Bailey said.
He and his sledding buddies folded up the now deflated balloon and took the friend’s house. The next day, the government came knocking.
“They took that balloon and you couldn’t get one bit of information out of them, and they advised everybody do not talk about this balloon at all,” Bailey said.
Little did he know at the time that he had stumbled on a piece of World War II history few know about.
People are still talking about last week’s downing of the Chinese spy balloon off the South Carolina coast. It’s not the first time a foreign government floated across the U.S. with ill intent.
“We thought of that, too. We were talking about that the other day,” the Byron Center Museum and Historical Society’s Kay Kiel said.
Evidence of when the war came to Dorr is now in a large wooden box at the Byron Center Historical Museum. A few years ago, the society found the balloon and was able to purchase it for the museum.
They don’t take it out much. It takes several people to unfurl the 30-foot diameter balloon and pump it up.
“It’s a footnote in the second Word War. Not many people know about it,” Ross Coen said.
A history professor at the University of Washington, Coen wrote a book on the Japanese World War II plan code named Operation Fu-Go.
In 1944, the Japanese, still dealing with the shock of the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in 1942, wanted to hit Americans on their own soil. So they devised a plan that would put large, explosive ladened balloons into the jet stream, which would carry them into the skies across the U.S. The Japanese wanted to cause large forest fires in the West and widespread panic across the country.
“The Japanese hoped that with these balloons silently raining fire from the sky above that Americans would panic, that American’s resolve in the war would be weakened,” Coen said.
The problem is that the jet stream is strongest in the winter, but the winter also made it too wet to set the fires.
About 9,000 of the bombs were launched.
“Roughly 300 of these balloons arrived in North America during the course of the war,” Coen said.
At first, the U.S. government kept the Japanese scheme quiet to avoid setting off panic. But after a Sunday school teacher and five children were killed by one of the balloon bombs, the government changed their tactics, telling citizens to, among other things, keep buckets of sand handy in case the incendiary bombs set off fire.
Memories of Operation Fu-Go have faded over the nearly eight decades since the plan was launched. Last week’s shooting down of the Chinese spy balloon has raised interest in that piece of history.
Coen said that while the Chinese balloon may seem like a novel idea, history says otherwise.
“The use of balloons in warfare and for strategic geopolitical purposes. It goes back to the very invention of lighter-than-air balloons in the 18th century,” Coen said.
The Byron Center Historical Society would like to find a permanent place to display the balloon. You can go to its website to learn more.