The Balloon Episode: Adventure in the Skies And Death From Above

 On This Episode, casualties mount in the early space race as the United States and other nations struggle to regain the record for the highest altitude reached from the fledgling Soviet Union.  But the US finds a secret weapon, a canyon in the Black Hills of South Dakota.  And then, The Empire of the Rising Sun attempts to reign fire and death from above on the Sioux Empire.

Voice Actors:  Adam Wells, Brett Stolz, Amanda Mehling, Leah Simmons, Levi Hanson, Luke Johnson, Malia Lukomski, and Nathan Hults.

Produced and Written by Robert Mehling

Before we get started a little business this month, If you like the podcast please tell your friends about this podcast. If you really really like us, consider supporting us on Patreon and getting access to sweet behind the scenes show notes, photos, and more. Patrons like Kristin I and Anchor Supporter Deborah M help make this podcast possible, Thank you. A special thank you to the Siouxland Libraries of Sioux Falls. *** Body Stratobowl The race for space started long before the first Russian satellite entered the outer sphere in 1959 or before the United States placed man’s first footstep on the moon in 1969. In the early 1930s the race for space was global. Entrepreneurs, private citizens, and governments were all vying to be the first to fly the highest in the atmosphere. Many succeeded… some perished. All who ventured aloft were voyagers with the same idea…to fly the highest and use the data in order to study what we could not see or touch…the stratosphere. These people were visionaries and explorers, pilots and scientists, men of means and of the press who had the vision that space was (to coin a phrase) our final frontier. Gas ballooning to the atmosphere was always a dream for the early Aeronauts. On July 18, 1803, French Physicist Etienne Gaspar Robertson and music teacher Lhoest launched their gas balloon at Hamburg, Germany to 23,900 feet (7,285 meters). In 1839, English Aeronaut Charles Green and astronomer Spencer Rush rose to 25,918 feet (7,900 meters). On September 5, 1862 English aeronaut Henry Tracey Coxwell and English meteorologist Dr. James Glaisher (known for his publication of the dew point tables for the measurement of humidity) rose to 39,000 feet (11,887 meters) before losing consciousness due to low air pressure and cold temperatures of -11 degrees Celsius (12 degrees Fahrenheit). Dr. Glaisher became insensible due to lack of oxygen during the flight and Mr. Coxwell was unable to use his frost-bitten hands and had to open the gas valve with his teeth in order to descend, although rapidly, back to earth. In April 1875, Frenchmen Gaston Tissandier, Joseph Croce-Spinelli, and Theodore Sivel reached 28,215 feet (8,600 meters). Both of his companions died from breathing the thin air. Tissandier survived, but became deaf. On March 9, 1927 Captain Hawthorne C. Gray, of the U.S. Army Air Corps, ventured aloft in his 70,000 cubic foot single ply, rubberized silk envelope . He set the first U.S. altitude record at 29,000 feet (8,839 meters) on the first of his three flights into the stratosphere. On May 4, 1927, he attained the altitude of 42,470 feet (12,945 meters) on his second flight, but this was not officially recorded since he had to parachute from his gondola to save himself. On November 27, 1927, Captain Gray's third attempt into the stratosphere gave him the opportunity to test high-altitude clothing, oxygen systems, and instruments as well as set a new record. He reached 42,000 feet again, but ran out of oxygen on the descent. He arrived on the ground with his balloon, but he was dead. It was the last high-altitude flight in an open basket. This led to the enclosed gondola introduced by leading cosmic ray investigator and Swiss Professor Auguste Piccard. Professor Piccard designed a gondola sphere which weighed 300 pounds, was 82" in diameter gondola, and built to keep two people alive for up to 10 hours above 40,000 feet. The apparatus designed to release pure oxygen into the cabin while scrubbing and recirculating cabin air by filtering it through alkali was fashioned after the German invention. Professor Piccard also solved the problem of the hydrogen leaking while expanding during ascent. He surmised an envelope five times larger would allow the expanding gases to remain inside the envelope as it reached the stratosphere. This would also allow the two aeronauts to return safely to earth as the gas cooled at night. He then built a 500,000 cubic foot hydrogen filled envelope. This envelope allowed the lifting gas to remain inside the balloon envelope as it expanded, giving the balloon enough buoyancy to return safely to Earth as the gas cooled at night. On May 27, 1931 Swiss Professor Auguste Piccard and Paul Kipfer flew their pressurized capsule and 494,400 cubic foot envelope from Ausburg, Germany and reached a world record altitude of 51,783 feet (15,787 meters). Unfortunately, the balloon landed on a glacier where it was left for nearly a year. this project was funded by the FNRS (Funds National Research Scientific) and King of Belgium who was the foundation's patron. In 1932, Professor Auguste Piccard and Max Cosyns reached 53,152 (16,200 meters) feet into the stratosphere. Now the race for space began to heat up as each country had a viable vehicle to travel to the stars. Yes, it was still with risk but the success ratio was now much higher with the invention of the enclosed gondola. The Soviet Union invested the most time and energy to the discovery of the stratosphere. Since the idea first arose in 1932 by Vladimir Chizhevsky, many gas balloon attempts and actual flights continued until 1940, most under the leadership of Georgy (Yegor/George) Alekseyevich Prokofiev. On September 24, 1933, the Soviet Union, inspired by Professor Piccard's success and under the command of Georgy Prokofiev, widely publicized the maiden flight of USSR-1 which ended in failure. First, the bottom of the envelope twined itself with ropes during inflation. A volunteer named Fyodor Tereschenko untied the knots, and the balloon was cleared to launch. However, it failed to lift off due to moisture build up in the foggy weather. On September 30, 1933, the Soviet Union launched USSR-1 once again under the command of Georgy Prokofiev, Konstantin Godunov, and co-pilot/radio operator Ernst Birnbaum. This was the largest balloon built to date at 860,000 cubic feet and the three man crew reached an unofficial record 62,336 feet (19,000 meters). Later that same day, Osoaviakhim-1 was being prepared to launch. However, strong ground winds at the time of launch cancelled the second balloon launch which was rescheduled for January that next year. On November 20, 1933, the U.S. team of Lt. Commander G.W. Settle (US Navy) and Major Chester L. Fordny (US Marine Corp.) flew the Century of Progress (a 60,000 cubic foot hydrogen-filled balloon built by the Goodyear Company) to an altitude of 61,237 feet. Rumor was that Josef Stalin, apparently irked by the Settle-Fordny achievement, allegedly would order three Soviet balloonists into the air and to their deaths in an attempt to break the American­held record. And on January 30, 1934 a Soviet Union three man team launched their balloon Osoaviakhim-1 and attained an altitude of 72,200 feet (22,006 meters), beating all high altitude records. Unfortunately, the balloon lost its bouyancy during the descent, plunged into an uncontrolled fall, and disintegrated in the lower atmosphere. The three crew members, probably incapacitated by high g-forces produced by the rapidly rotating gondola, failed to parachute to safety and were killed when the capsule impacted the earth. In May of 1934, USSR-2 with a 984,252 cubic foot envelope was designed for a two man team. The envelope material was changed to a parachute grade silk in which Prokofiev and Godunov where to fly. On September 4-5, 1934, the filling of hydrogen into the silk fabric caused a static spark and an explosion and fire commensed. No fatalities resulted from the event, but it did shelve the project indefinitely for this type of fabric. In 1935 USSR-1 Bis was built to replace the failed flight of Osoaviakhim-1. Because the lines failed at an altitude where parachuting to safety was not feasible, the gondola was engineered to more stringent safety precautions. The designers focused on assuring crew survival above 26,246 feet (8,000 meters). USSR-1 was re-fitted with new suspension with a quick release latch that enabled instant separation of the gondola from the envelope, and a large parachute (1,000 square meters, 34 meters diameter) capable of stabilizing the fall at safe speeds. This upgraded aircraft was renamed USSR-1 Bis. With military flight commander Christian Zille, co-pilot Yury Prilutsky, and science officer Professor Alexander Verigo, the balloon launched on June 26, 1935 and flew to 52,493 feet (16,000 meters). Prokofiev was in charge of ground control. A faulty valve produced an unexpected descent. When the vertical speed passed the safety limits producing a likelihood of a crash similar to the previous Osoaviakhim-1, ballast was jettisoned in order to slow the descent rate. This lasted for a short time when the speed picked up again. Zille ordered both Prilutsky and Verigo to parachute to safety. He stayed onboard to lighten the load and brought the balloon to a soft and safe landing. The next development by the Russian team was USSR-3 with a 515,092 cubic foot envelope. By now, it was noted that weather played a significant part at the time of launch. This was solved by the American teams who were using deep canyons (Stratobowl, SD) and mining pits (Crosby, Minnesota) to stem the flow of wind over the balloon, especially during hydrogen inflation. Because the lines were tangling with the balloon envelope prior to launch, Prokofiev designed a "double launch" sequence. The first test pilot was killed and later it was discovered this would be the traditional problem with subsequent balloon flights. On September 18, 1937 the newly redesigned USSR-3 launched with Prokofiev, Krikun, and Semyonov using the double cable launch process. The balloon rose to 2,297 feet (700 meters) when the ropes failed to become disentangled and damaged the gas release valve. The balloon rapidly descended and the three man crew had no time to parachute to safety and suffered internal injuries on ground impact. On March 16, 1939, the last flight of USSR-3 ended the same. Plaqued with the line entanglement issue, the ground team failed to release the balloon from the safety net. Two cloudhopper balloonists (single seat balloons) rose on lines to untangle the net. At 3,937 feet (1,200 meters) the valve opened once again, causing the balloon to crash in the woods nearby. The three man crew survived with serious injuries. While Semyonov and Prilutsky bailed from the gondola, Prokofiev stood on the open top hatch to the end. He was at first reported uninjured. However, examination revealed two shattered vertebrae, feet, and intestinal injuries. It was a surprise when, after Prokofiev was planning on future record flights for May of 1939, that he fatally shot himself. In 1933, Goodyear and Dow Chemical sponsored Dr. Jean Piccard's Century of Progress gas balloon design. The new magnesium and aluminum alloy made the gondola lighter but fragile. Now the U.S. was back in the race. However, due to Dr. Piccard's lack of a pilot certificate, Lt. Commander G.W. Settle of the U.S. Navy was scheduled to operate the aircraft to the stratosphere with Dr. Jean Piccard as science officer. As with all races, this one was filled with political agendas and since Settle was the Navy Inspector for Goodyear, rumor is he convinced the board to dispense with Dr. Piccard on the flight and fly alone. As history has shown us, a gas balloon of this magnitude, with instrumentation for scientific exploration, is a two person endeavor. With 7 hours of ceremonies and parades presented by the Centennial Commission and U.S. Navy for a crowd of 40,000, Lt. Commander Settle launched the 15 stories tall, 600,000 cubic foot Century of Progress from Soldier Field in Chicago, IL on the dawn of August 4-5, 1933. This was to be the first of three stratospheric attempts by the Century of Progress. Ten minutes into the flight, a leaky valve began to release hydrogen from the envelope. This was due in part from issues pertaining to the weight of the valve cord and the bottom part of the fabric. After a short flight to 5,000 feet (1,524 meters) Lt. Commander Settle landed in a local railroad yard, surrounded by a crowd of hundreds. It was reported the large, riotous crowd hampered with authorities in safeguarding the aircraft with one bystander critically injured. This included people smoking on and around the partially filled hydrogen gas bag. With a call from the U.S. Navy to retrieve their balloon, the Piccards assembled a group to pack the balloon and gondola and transfer them to a local auditorium to dry. Later, Lt. Commander Settle would be loaned the use of the Piccard's Century of Progress for his second attempt at breaking the altitude record. On November 20, 1933 Lt. Commander G.W. Settle (U.S. Navy) and Major Chester L. Fordny (U.S. Marine Corp.) flew the Century of Progress to an altitude of 61,237 feet (18,665 meters). Headed once again by Dr. Jean Piccard, it carried two instruments to measure how gas conducted cosmic rays, a cosmic ray telescope, a polariscope to study the polarization of light at high altitudes, fruit flies to study genetic mutations for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and an infrared camera to study the ozone layer. It was understood by many that Commander Settle was highly motivated to bring the world altitude record back to U.S. soil and pushed the limits in order to achieve this goal. Unfortunately, ballast was deployed and most of the scientific instruments ended into the Delaware river in order to control the rate of descent. The Century of Progress was once again returned to the Piccards who flew it for its third and final voyage to the stars. On October 23, 1934, a crowd of 45,000 watched the Century of Progress take it's third voyage out of Deerborn, Michigan to the stratosphere with husband/wife team of Dr. Jean Piccard and Dr. Jeannette Piccard. Jeannette who was the first licensed female NAA (National Aeronautics Association) balloon pilot in the U.S. Since Jean Piccard was still without his pilot's certificate, Jeannette received training from Ed Hill and became the first woman to pilot to the stratosphere. Together they reached a height of 57,579 feet (17,550 meters). After noticing that the oxygen failed to vaporize on descent after the cabin doors were opened from previous flights, Dr. Jean Piccard created the liquid oxygen converter. This oxygen system was used on WWII aircraft. He also developed a frost-free window for the flight which was later used by the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force in the B-24 Liberator or B-26 Marauder. Jean also discovered a use for blasting caps and TNT for releasing the balloon at launch and for remote release of external ballast from inside the sealed cabin. This was the first use of pyrotechnics for remote-controlled actuating devices in aircraft, an unpopular however revolutionary idea at the time. The instruments lost in the Delaware were replaced so that scientific studies could be conducted including studies on the use of atomic physics in conjunction with cosmic rays by Dr. Robert Millikan. [SD Story Starts] On October 23, 1924, Captain Albert W. Stevens (a US Army Air Corps photographer and discoverer) penned a six page proposal to his superiors during a trip to Northern Brazil as part of the Alexander Hamilton Rice Expedition. It was the first expedition to use aerial photography and shortwave radio for mapping. While under the directorship of Rice, the Institute for Geographical Exploration became a major center for the science of photogrammetry or map making from aerial photography. Stevens wrote his proposal from a tent along the Rio Branco near Boa Vista while surveying the Rio Negro as well as the Rio Branco. In his proposal, Stevens wrote to the USAAC (United States Army Air Corp) that the United States could be the first to attain the privilege of reaching the highest altitude…to the stratosphere. The flight mission was to collect scientific data on the composition of air, wind direction and velocity, temperature, pressure, cosmic rays, solar spectrum and the effects of altitude on radio transmissions. The USAAC agreed, but refused funding the project. Who would be able to fund such a mission? Captain Stevens then contacted the National Geographic Society and requested they fund the balloon, gondola, instruments, and fuel while the manpower would be supplied by the USAAC. They, in turn, agreed. And so the NGS teamed up with the USAAC and began the journey. This journey was not for the light hearted for it was a dangerous mission. [1934] Major William Kepner and Captain Orville Anderson, experienced balloonists, were in charge of locating a suitable launch site. According to Kepner, an ideal site would be a crater or canyon, a clear grassy valley encircled with rocky ridges high enough to shield the tall balloon from any wind. Ideally, the launch site it would have a high-voltage electric line, road and rail access, "and a trout stream". Kepner and Anderson eventually located their dream canyon near Rapid City, South Dakota. City officials, fascinated by the expected publicity campaign, agreed to build a road and electric line. Anderson directed construction of a temporary village, housing over a 100 people, with the help of the South Dakota National Guard and the army's 4th Cavalry Regiment. The central pad, 200 feet (61 m) in diameter, was cushioned with sawdust to protect the fabric of the balloon as it was spread on the ground prior to inflation. The first flight out of the Stratobowl was a small gas balloon test flight by Kepner and Anderson on July 7th 1934. Explorer lifted off at 6:45, July 28, 1934, an event broadcast live over the radio and watched by 30,000 spectators on site. After seven hours in flight the pilots noticed holes torn in the bottom of the gas bag; quickly losing gas, the balloon plunged into an uncontrolled dive, its gas bag disintegrating as the balloon picked up vertical speed. At 5,000 feet (1,500 m) the remaining hydrogen exploded, sending the gondola in a free fall. According to Ryan, the pilots managed to bail out after the explosion, Kepner at an altitude of barely 500 feet (150 m); according to Shayler, they bailed out before the explosion. Explorer I crashed, destroying most of the remaining equipment onboard (some scientific equipment was parachuted to safety in order to save the data from space) while Major William Kepner, Captain Orville Anderson, and Captain Albert Stevens parachuted to safety. Later it turned out that the Explorer missed a world record by 624 feet (190 m). Explorer An extensive inquiry was conducted after the crash of Explorer I to determine what was needed for a successful mission on the next balloon. It was concluded the balloon envelope needed to be larger, the gas needed to be non-combustible, the porthole on the gondola needed to be larger, and the payload needed to be lighter. The accident was linked to folds in the balloon's fabric that put it under extreme stress as the balloon expanded in the stratosphere. So, an additional 700,000 cubic feet was added to the 3 million cubic foot Explorer II. Helium was traded for hydrogen and instead of a three man crew, Captains Orville Anderson and Albert Stevens were awarded the positions of pilot and science officer, with Captain Randolph Williams as ground operations. On July 11, 1935, the new improved Explorer II was ready for flight after a night of inflating the helium into the 3,700,000 cubic foot balloon. Unfortunately, a seam pulled apart and the flight was aborted. Over the next several months repairs were made and climatological data from the expected flight region determined the next attempt for launch should be in October. However, the weather window was not to open until November 11, 1935 in which the world altitude record of 72,395 feet (22,066 meters) was achieved. Space was conquered by Stevens and Anderson on this last mission to the stars. From the Explorer Mission the first photograph of the stratosphere was taken almost 14 miles above earth’s surface. The flight mission collected scientific data on the composition of air, wind direction and velocity, temperature, pressure, cosmic rays, solar spectrum and the effects of altitude on radio transmissions. This data produced advances in the use of magnesium alloys, pressurization techniques, and personal equipment such as the heated flying suit. The expedition learned much about the concentration of ozone, the ability for living organisms to survive exposure to stratospheric conditions, and unexpected changes in the radio waves we use to communicate to others. All of this later played an important part in giving American airmen superiority in the skies over Berlin and Tokyo. On October 14, 1938 The Star of Poland was preparing to fly with the Polish crew of Captain Zbigniew Burznyski and Dr. Konstanty Jodko-Narkiewicz. Technical assistance was provided by Captain Albert Stevens of the successful Explorer Expedition, who traveled to Poland and Professor Auguste Piccard of Switzerland. Weather played a disastrous part with high winds and several attempts to fly. Around 4 AM the hydrogen filled balloon burst into flames from a witnessed spark on top of the stiff fabric buffeted by the winds. Fortunately, the balloon caught fire less than 100 feet above the ground and the gondola and persons on board were spared. This gave the Polish scientists hope for one last attempt to fly into the stratosphere. In September 1939, the Polish team tried one last time to fly to the stars. Due to the explosive nature of hydrogen, the Americans supplied the team with helium. However, the German and Soviet attack on Poland made this final flight impossible as WWII was just beginning. The final gas balloon attempt took place in June of 1940. The Soviet Union improved on safety devices and attempted to once again to launch a manned high-altitude balloon. However, the program was marked with accidents and failures and terminated after the Osoaviakhim-2 launch failure. And, so, the race for space was officially ended. The 1961 Stratolab was an evolutionary stepping stone to space flight which retained the design of the Explorer gondola thus bridging the gap between pressurized capsule and the modern spacecraft helping bring about man's first walk on the moon 34 years after it was deemed an "impossibility". We thank Captain Stevens for proposing and organizing a mission to space in collaboration with the US Army Air Corps and the National Geographic Society. His pursuit to rise to man’s highest altitude was successfully achieved along with Captain Armstrong, Captain Williams, Major Kepner who commanded the flight of Explorer I, and a host of almost 3,000 scientists, crew, and volunteers. They challenged the skies and succeeded. After a year long tour and numerous medals and honors to all three Aeronauts, World War II broke out and their accomplishments were quickly forgotten by the masses. On September 24, 2010, after months of preparation and a special invitation by the local Tomovich landowners, the 75th Anniversary was celebrated at the Stratobowl by ten balloons piloted and crewed by a small group of hot air balloonists from 6 states who flew in order to recreate a tremendous achievement into the heavens. As the dawn slowly awoke, we stood in the freezing fog 400' below the Black Hills rim with a "peace" sign mowed into the 4 acre grassy field. With surviving members who witnessed the Explorer Mission, the surrounding public, as well as local media, the balloons lifted gently from the Stratobowl floor. [Quote] “We were honored to fly from this historic site which to some was a great accomplishment, to others a chance to be a part of history, and to me a chance to feel closer to a grandfather I never met. A grandfather who stood in the Stratobowl, helping with the inflation of Explorer I and Explorer II, felt the lead pellets as they cascaded from the balloon and rose into the dawn sky, and who also became a part of history himself. We take the time now to honor the Explorer Expedition of 1935 and their strength and accomplishment on November 11, 2010 on this their 75th Anniversary. Thanks to all who made my dream come true.” Japanese Balloon Bombs In late 1944, reports of mysterious and slow-moving flying objects began cropping up across the Pacific Northwest in the United States. The sightings were often followed by a whistling sound and unexplained explosions. It was a puzzle for local authorities, who initially feared that Japanese aircraft were somehow reaching the U.S. mainland and dropping bombs with parachutes. As to why the Japanese were targeting random forests was not known. It was not until one of these unusual objects came crashing down intact that the U.S. military finally understood what they were up against. The device was a new kind of weapon, sent all the way from Japan. It was a discovery so startling at the time, that the U.S. government asked American news not to report it to the public… The end of the war was increasingly tough on the Japanese, particularly for its Imperial Navy. The morale among the citizens was exceptionally low following the American Doolittle Raid, an attack on Tokyo in April of 1942. Although the American bombers had done little damage to the city, it had left citizens feeling vulnerable. The Imperial Navy decided to explore balloon bombs, charging Technical Lieutenant Commander Kiyoshi Tanaka to work on a prototype under the Army’s 9th Military Technical Research Institute. Although materials were scarce, he managed to design a working model. By 1944 he had constructed a 29.5 feet balloon with rubber covered panels of silk. The fabric lets the balloon be flexible enough to withstand expansion and contraction led by varying air pressure while making it durable and leak-proof. The Imperial Army separately developed another balloon, which would be more commonly used. It was made of paper, which made it less expensive, although less reliably durable. Even so, the paper balloons could carry more weight and measured 32.8 feet in diameter. To keep the paper together, the makers used an adhesive made from the root of arums. The balloons were made waterproof through a lacquer-like coat made from fermented green persimmons. Tanaka’s rubber balloons were only used to collect data. Thirty-four were sent and none with explosives. Only the paper balloons were used to bomb the enemy. Four incendiary bombs of modest size would be placed inside each paper balloon along with a 33-pound anti-personnel cluster munition bomb that would instantly explode upon arrival and release shrapnel with a reach of up to 300 feet. The idea of using balloon bombs can be traced back to the occupation of Manchuria in the 1930s. During the conflict, the Japanese wanted to attack the Siberian Soviets on the other side of the Amur River.They planned on doing so by sending balloons with propaganda leaflets. The idea was never executed, but Japan’s military scientists still collected data and made valuable assessments about flying balloons over long distances. Later on, the Japanese would reassess the technique when considering options for special troops transport and bombing. Their new version was almost exclusively used to bomb the United States in the 1940s. To get them to cross the Ocean, the Japanese relied on a brisk stream of air that moves eastward over the Pacific Ocean. In the early 1940s, the Japanese bought daily weather maps and reports from the U.S. Weather Bureau following the discovery of Pacific Ocean jetstream, which traveled at high altitude. Thanks to the jetstream, it was possible for a balloon to launch from Japan and fly 30,000 feet above the ocean for a couple of days, and then land in America. The U.S. would not learn about the jet stream until it began long-distance bombing campaigns towards the end of the war. Starting in the summer of 1942, the Japanese began toying with the idea of using balloon bombs on the island of Guadalcanal. One proposal was to attach grenades to piano wire held in the air by balloons so that U.S. Marine fighter aircraft would crash into them as they took off from airfields on the island. American dominance over the island beginning in September forced them to reconsider. The Japanese then decided on a transcontinental bombing route with two possible outcomes. One likely possibility was that incendiary bombs would cause fires in the forested areas of the Northwest. It was hoped that the explosions would bind military and civilian resources to America as well as creating millions of dollars in damage. The other possible outcome was to cause psychological distress to the United States. They named the project Fugo, which James M. Powles described for the 2003 issue of the World War II journal, saying [QUOTE] “called for sending bomb-carrying balloons from Japan to set fire to the vast forests of America, in particular those of the Pacific Northwest. It was hoped that the fires would create havoc, dampen American morale, and disrupt the U.S. war effort.” The paper balloons also carried sensors, triggering devices, and other mechanisms to ensure detonations would only take place on the American continent. On November 3d of 1944, the Japanese sent the first 6,000 balloon bombs across the ocean. While the weather was not ideal for starting a forest fire, they hoped that the public’s reaction would guide the continuation of the program. The Japanese hoped the panic would demoralize the citizens of the United States while inspiring their own soldiers. Estimates from expert historians and geographers have concluded that it took anywhere from 30 to 60 hours for a balloon bomb to travel from Japan to the West Coast. One of the main downsides to this contraption was the lack of certainty over speed and target by the variation in atmospheric conditions. Geosciences expert Dave Tewksbury from Hamilton College in New York expressed that: [QUOTE] “An awful lot of this was just ‘put them up there and see what happens.” On the other hand, this provided the apparent benefit for the Japanese that was keeping their soldiers out of harm’s way. When the balloons started raining upon America, those who encountered the explosions had no clue of where they came from. Through forensic geology, the American military was able to identify Japan as the culprit. It has been claimed that sand from one of the contraptions helped the U.S. Geological Survey assess their origin. [Nov 3rd 1944] Airborne balloon bombs began showing up throughout the western side of America at the end of 1944. The first attack was discovered on November 3d, near the coast of San Pedro, California. It was intercepted by a U.S. Navy Patrol. The device was one of the rubber Tanaka balloons with a radio transmitter. The first recorded explosion took place on December 6th, on the outskirts of Thermopolis, Wyoming. A local newspaper reported on it, believing the bomb had been dropped from a plane because witnesses reported observing a parachute with flares right before the explosion. The local authorities did not search for the parachute since they believed the witnesses had only seen a landing flare. Allegedly there were no injuries. Reports of the explosion primarily came from coal mine workers from the area. Only a couple of days later, a bomb was found by Kalispell in Montana. The local sheriff’s department assessed the device: a paper balloon with a gas relief valve, and an incendiary bomb. The authorities confiscated the equipment for review. The FBI, Army, and Navy, all had a chance to inspect the device, concluding it came from Japan but still unsure of how it arrived in the U.S. One of the balloons that managed to cause some harm fell on a power line in Washington state. It cut off the energy of Hanford Engineer Works, where the government was manufacturing plutonium for nukes. After the war ended, reported sightings and incidents with the balloon bombs kept popping up. Seven Nebraskan towns received at least one of them. One was found near Detroit and another by Grand Rapids. Reports of these in the national media gave some folks in the Watertown area “War Jitters” and as such the following was reported in the Argus Leader the day after Christmas in 1944. [Quote] Safety First FBI Races To Investigate Alleged Balloon Bomb Near Watertown Distrust of the treacherous Japanese, a case of Jumpy War nerves, and a floating balloon added up to a wild goose chase for local FBI officers over the weekend. The balloon was sighted early one morning by a farmer living near South Shore. His thoughts raced back to the news story the previous week he was sure the balloon carried some Infamous inflammatory weapon loosed by the enemy. The farmer carefully avoided approaching the dastardly invention heading for the nearest telephone. He notified Sheriff Andy Lynch of Watertown who in turn called Warner Hanni agent in charge of the FBI there. In a few moments FBI agents were speeding to the scene, Christmas preparations forgotten. The balloon? It was one of those small white variety loose daily by civil Aeronautics Administration to test wind direction and velocity. But South Dakota didn’t have to wait long for the real thing. On Friday, 20 March 1945, at 6:50 p.m., mountain war time, a large balloon descended toward the Cheyenne Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The bag was about thirty-two feet in diameter and made of smooth pliable paper. A metal gas relief valve covered a hole at the bottom from which nineteen forty-foot shrouds connected the envelope with a mass of ballast gear. The silvery sphere, blown gently by a slight northeasterly breeze, landed in tall grass and bounced along until the equipment caught in a washout. Several persons from a nearby ranch walked to the scene. What they found puzzled them. They had never seen anything quite like it before. After considerable discussion, they decided it was a weather balloon of no great importance. Determining that the balloon could still float, they grabbed the shrouds and led the entire contraption back to the ranch. There, firmly tied to a fence post, the bag swayed gently through the night hours. The following morning, a report of the incident resulted in a flurry of long-distance telephone calls and other activity at the office of the Cheyenne River Agency. Range Supervisor John P. Drissen drove to the ranch, arriving early in the afternoon. By then, numerous people had come to see the balloon. This upset the range supervisor, so he assumed jurisdiction and warned those present that spreading information about the unusual occurrence could lead to prosecution for espionage. He then examined the landing site and took nine photographs of the balloon. When a rising wind tore the envelope of the balloon, he collected some of the escaping gas in two borrowed fruit jars. Soon, an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and several army security men appeared. They took custody of the film and fruit jars, made arrangements to keep the story out of the local papers, loaded the deflated bag and the gear onto a truck, and left for their respective headquarters. The range supervisor went back to the agency, and life on the ranch returned to normal. This was only one of several balloon incidents that occurred in South Dakota during the first half of 1945. Ranchers found fragments of envelopes near Buffalo, Kadoka, Marcus, and Wolsey. Authorities recovered a balloon in the Red Elm vicinity, and a farm hand found a bomb that probably came from a balloon near Madison. Another balloon exploded in the middle of March in broad daylight in the sky north of Custer. Many persons reported the incident, just as others did another balloon sighting a few days later. Appearing over Belle Fourche in early afternoon, a balloon drifted southward at an estimated altitude of three thousand to four thousand feet. A civilian pilot who pursued the object reported: [Quote] "Catching the late afternoon rays of the sun, the balloon appeared in the sky as a perfect silvery sphere which could be seen only if the observer was in line with the reflection. At times it disappeared in the blue haze and near Piedmont a squadron of flying fortresses from the local air base passed within a quarter of a mile of it without noticing." The following day, farmers discovered the balloon dangling from a barbed wire fence not far from Chadron, Nebraska. Balloons continued to drift over South Dakota into the summer, and at least one landed and exploded in the state. While the balloons appeared harmless —one South Dakotan unknowingly carried a balloon bomb many miles over bumpy back roads in the trunk of his car, and another allowed his children to use a balloon bag for a doll house —they could be very deadly. The charge from one, exploded with a dynamite cap by an army intelligence officer at Rapid City, tore a hole in the ground three feet deep and five feet in diameter. Of course, this was what the balloons were designed to do: blow up on American soil. They were actually military weapons. The following account comes from Scott Heidepriem writing about the balloon that landed in Hand County South Dakota: [Quote] Robert Campbell Waring and his wife Wilda Arbogast Waring played host to an uninvited guest in March of 1945. A Strange Bamboo contraception fell into the Waring’s Glendale Township pasture that month, and they baby-sat it for two months before discovering it’s history or purpose. The existence of balloon bomb warfare was unknown to them and as a consequence they had no knowledge of how to react. They regarded the highly explosive device as a child might regard a novelty, but a novelty set to explode on impact. Ron lugged the huge bomb into the kitchen on his shoulder, plopped it down, and with the assistance of some neighbors, promptly set about reconstructing the odd mechanism. Word spread quickly about the mysterious fallen object in the Waring’s possession. Charlie Gardner, then editor of the Miller Gazette, went out to the Waring place to get the scoop. When he was ready to go to press with news, the FBI stepped in, told him the story could not be printed, and impressed Charlie with the importance of not frightening the populace at that particular time. Charlie sat on the story. Two months after the bomb’s arrival the Warings were still in the dark as to its purpose. Finally, they contacted the Attorney General’s office and a man came out promptly. He was horrified to see a live Japanese Bomb in the home, completely reconstructed and ready to do it’s duty. He notified the Warings of the object’s contents. They were not particularly surprised. Being well versed in mechanics, they surmised the contraption was some sort of bomb with a firing mechanism. A special detail was called from Pierre, the bomb was disarmed, and shipped off to Pierre. This is the Ballon that today can be viewed at the Museum of the South Dakota State Historical Society. Final Tally of where balloons and parts were found in South Dakota as of today. February 12th, 1945 in Nowlin an unexplained incendiary-bomb explosion happened. On March 6th in Buffalo, Shroud lines and several balloon fragments were found. March 22nd an intact balloon is found in Ree Heights. On March 26 as mentioned, fragments were found in Kadoka. On March 30th the drop apparatus and balloon parts were found in Red Elm. Just a day later on March 31st a bomb from a balloon was found in Marcus. On April 13th a large Balloon fragment was found in Wolsey. That’s 10 min away from where I grew up. I feel attacked now. On May 26th an Unexploded 5kg incendiary bomb was found in Madison. The whole business was very weird, having overtones of science fiction. In fact, it was not until 30 April 1945, close to six months after the first balloons reached American shores, that the FBI in Sioux Falls confidentially informed law enforcement officers inSouth Dakota that the balloons were part of a [Quote] "purely military operation" and that all jurisdiction had been transferred to the War Department." Several balloons had reached South Dakota, forcing inclusion of the state into defense plans designed to keep incidents secret, alert civilians to the threat, and protect forests. Back in January 1945 South Dakota newspaper editors, at the request of the army and navy, attended a confidential conference in Denver. There, Brigadier General P. X. English and Colonel Robert W. Reed, either wittingly or unwittingly, lied to the press in order to justify censorship. At a time when there had been relatively few landings or sightings, the officers stated that "vast numbers" of balloons had reached the western portions of the United States. Far from admitting that the purpose of the balloons remained unknown, they boldly declared that they were [Quote] "known to be scientific experiments for something infinitely bigger." Against that background, the army men claimed that published reports of specific incidents would "get back to Japan by secret radio within a couple of hours." At the conclusion of the briefing, the journalists readily accepted self-imposed censorship, accepting the premise that balloon stories in the Sioux Falls Argus-Leader, the Mitchell Daily Republic, and the Rapid City Daily Journal would pose a threat to national security. They agreed to print no information about the balloons and to attribute any fires or deaths caused by them to an "explosion of undetermined origin." However, the wide dissemination of information by other means gradually undermined the censorship arrangements. In May, after a pastor's wife and five children attending a church picnic were killed in an Oregon forest when a balloon bomb they found exploded, the government made the decision to inform the general population in affected areas about the danger. Governor M, Q, Sharpe of South Dakota issued Order No. 19 to all state employees, asking them to publicize the contents of a classified federal document, "Japanese Balloon Information Bulletin No. 1," which described the balloons, speculated about their purpose, and told how to report incidents to local authorities. The governor suggested that state workers contact and request the help of sheriffs, state's attorneys, county agents, social security employees, American Legionnaires, Veterans of Foreign Wars, patriotic organizations, boy and girl scout troops, and 4-H clubs. However, he warned that anyone who told the news media would be in violation of the Espionage Act. [Quote ] "The press and radio have all been contacted and will cooperate in the matter, but it is required that before reading this or the attached bulletin to any meeting, you must request the local press not to mention it and caution the people as above set forth," he asserted. "What we wish to do is to spread this information by a word of mouth campaign among our people as rapidly as possible and have them cooperate in keeping any of the information from reaching the enemy."" Under the circumstances, press censorship appeared increasingly unnecessary. Presumably, spies, unlike journalists, could hear the contents of the classified balloon bulletin. Major Charles D. Frierson, Jr., the intelligence officer responsible for balloon cases in South Dakota, commented in a May 1945 telephone conversation, [Quote] "Some of the newspapermen are getting a little more resentful now, and I don't blame them." He supported continued censorship of balloon landings and sightings, contending, "It is highly desirable for nothing to get in the papers about them otherwise it could be known. False rumors and strange things go on."' However, higher authorities believed the time had come to modify the policy. On 22 May, the War Department issued a general press release about the balloon threat, accompanied by a confidential covering memo requesting that the press and radio refrain from reporting specific incidents. Many editors declined to publish the general account, even though Japanese propaganda broadcasts reported the contents. In South Dakota, nothing about the balloons appeared in the newspapers until after the war. The censorship was in part imposed in order to defend North American forests. In the spring of 1945, representatives of the army and Forest Service held meetings to plan cooperative action. Out of these evolved Operation Fire Fly, which the Forest Service incorporated into official 1945 fire control plans. Three hundred black paratroopers would receive training as smoke jumpers. This was a dangerous and highly skilled occupation, and Forest Service officials expected only two hundred "effective jumpers" to complete the course. During the summer, these survivors would literally leap into fires and try to stem the flames until the arrival of white support troops. In addition, the Western Defense Command started the Sunset Project, designed to use radar to find the balloons and direct interceptor aircraft to them. The planes were to avoid the use of tracers and to observe "no shoot" zones over designated forested areas. These precautions proved unnecessary; radar operators never spotted a balloon.'' Forest Service officials responsible for stopping fires in South Dakota attempted to augment Fire Fly and Sunset through arrangements with regional military authorities. Rapid City Army Air Force Base representatives refused to sign a contract to furnish men and materials to fight fires in the Black Hills and Harney National Forests, but the Forest Service went ahead with plans, assuming that the base would help if a fire occurred. A meeting held at Fort Warren, Wyoming, on 13 June 1945 had somewhat more productive results after a bad start. The officers present claimed that training and rotation requirements prevented the commitment of vast numbers of soldiers to combat any blazes, let alone those caused by armed balloons. Indeed, they expressed concern about sending troops into wooded areas to possibly perish in booby traps dropped from balloons. Following a lengthy discussion, the base commander finally agreed verbally to allow the Forest Service to train no more than twenty-five officers and men in fire suppression and to field up to five hundred "limited service" personnel on fifteen minutes' notice to counter those emergencies within 210 miles of Fort Warren. These troops would return to the post at night as a precaution against their destroying and looting civilian property. The number of men agreed upon was far short of the thousands needed to battle a major fire. Fortunately, in 1945 no serious conflagrations swept South Dakota woodlands. [1953] In the years that followed, they kept being randomly found. Towards the end of 1953, one of the balloon bombs was located and exploded by the Army in Edmonton, Alberta. One of the balloon bombs was found in Alaska in 1955. In the mid-1980s, author and researcher Bert Webber set out to trace as many of these explosive devices as possible. He found 25 in California, 28 in Washington, 37 in Alaska, and 45 in Oregon. The bombs kept popping up, as recently as 2014, when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police received reports of one of them in British Columbia. They used C-4 explosives to destroy it. The FBI, the United States Forest Service, and the Department of Agriculture all mobilized to help recover the balloons or residual material, which were then sent to Cal-Tech University of the Naval Research Laboratory. The FBI feared that Japan might use the balloons to commence a biological attack. Although understandable on the American side, Japan never actually considered such a thing. To protect American’s from the strange, randomized attacks, the Western Defense Command sent planes to supervise the coast and around 2,700 troops to critical points for fire fighting. Still, the most crucial front on the balloon war may have been the media. The Japanese, who had to fuel their propaganda machine, published stories of massive fires and high death tolls from their balloon attacks. Most of these stories were fake or embellished beyond the point of even slightly resembling reality. The Japanese high command didn’t know much about the fate of their balloons until the war ended. The balloon attacks ended on May 1st, 1945. There are two prevalent theories as to why the Japanese canceled the Fugo project. The first theory holds that the Japanese high command was under the impression that none or few of the balloon bombs were landing on America due to the lack of news reports on the subject. The second theory holds that the continued American air raids of Japan could have interfered with the manufacture of balloon bombs. Similarly, disruptions to railroads may have made it complicated, if not impossible, to distribute the materials used to make the balloons. In total, the Japanese Imperial Army launched over 6,000 balloon bombs. Hundreds were seen flying above or were found on the ground in the United States. To this day, only a couple hundred of the contraptions have been found, with the majority unaccounted for. Since America silenced the detonations by silencing the media, the true extent of Japan’s balloon raid may never be known… *** End I really hope you enjoy this episode. If you want to do your own research or dig deeper into the sources used in this episode the full works cited for each episode is available to patreon supporters of the show. Your donations help me access more books, research databases and other resources that I couldn’t access otherwise and that helps keep the show going. Donations are accepted through Venmo, Patreon, or Anchor. If you like the show you’d be doing me a huge favor if you shared the show on social media, left a five star review, or just told a friend about the show. Thank you Sioux Empire!


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