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Photos of the Fu-Go

Monday, March 09, 2015 - 01:25 PM


While the US government managed to restrict reporting about the Japanese balloon bombs appearing over the mainland US in 1944, they did not stop photographers from capturing what they looked like. Below are images, taken by both the Japanese and Americans, of the bombs. 














The consequence of loose lips and stray talk was also reinforced by Allied Propaganda  





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Comments [49]

Dan Kahn from England

Fascinating this feature.

Not a lot of you may know about the strangely similar debate over the fanciful Nazi 'super weapon' programme known as 'DIE GLOCKE' OR 'THE BELL' which some cranks believe was a Nazi flying saucer project. Clearly the Nazis were not capable of building flying saucers or any other such exotic weapons; their most advanced technology was the V1 and V2 jet/rocket bombs which has a spectacularly high failure rate. The most likely explanation for 'Die Glocke' was a high-capacity Nazi balloon bomb which was to be launched on prevailing westerly winds from its base in Eastern Europe towards invading Russian forces. The flared shape of the bell-shaped 'glocke' gondola on the balloons was a perfect shape to direct a lethal high explosive blast downwards at tanks and infantry from a height of say 100 feet up. The 'Flytrap' concrete circular structure found at the launch site for 'die Glocke' is also the perfect shape to accommodate the safe inflation and launch of very large hydrogen filled balloons with very large explosive devices in the gondola beneath.

May. 09 2017 07:09 PM
David from Work

Another fantastic story. Thank you.

Jun. 04 2015 12:36 PM
Evan Downie

Great story, but it left open a question regarding the fate of the innocent Japanese woman and child. Were they stoned to death, what was the result?
I am left to think the worst, as it appeared no one wanted to remark on the attack past the initial description. I’m not trying to be morbid, however it is a relevant detail to the story.

May. 28 2015 09:59 AM
Hak Hakanson from Chiang Mai

Doug Collins recommends an interactive map of pictures and bomb landing locations in Alaska. On it, the largest concentration of 'locations' seems to have been around Bethel, on the Kuskokwin River. That concentration was probably the result of the presence along the river of residents and travelers who could report parachute bomb incidents; the lack of 'locations' outside that river area was probably the result of a lack of residents and travelers needed to report. Point being: if the same concentration along the Kuskokwin were applied to the large, empty areas of the map, say for example between the Kuskokwin and Kashunuk on the coast, there are probably many, many more undiscovered sites, of both unexploded apparatus and bomb craters. And that same logic would apply to the other smattering of discoveries recorded.

May. 28 2015 01:16 AM
Lisa from Sacramento, CA

The first time I heard about the balloon bombs was in a history class in high school. The teacher was talking about various tactics used to target civilian populations during World War II, such as bat bombs and fire bombings. The teacher mentioned that a family was killed in Oregon by one of the balloon bombs, but I didn't know that the balloons made it so far into the US or that there were so many of them. Thanks for another great story.

May. 13 2015 02:55 PM
Mike from Honolulu

Yet another great story! Thanks Radiolab crew!! I'm sending this to my Japanese friends here too!

May. 09 2015 04:58 PM
Ed from Sloatsburg, NY

Hi, Had heard about these balloons many years ago from my dad who had been in the Navy during WWII. I have just a couple of questions about the photos of the balloons.
One is labeled Balloon Over The Pacific. That balloon looks like a weather balloon and not the same design as the Japanese balloons.

Another is labeled Fuse with measuring tape. That portion of the balloon actually looks like it would be the bungee section between the two metal couplings.

May. 09 2015 11:44 AM


Apr. 22 2015 10:19 PM
MWinchell from California

Enjoyed the story, heard about the balloon bombs, but 9,000 launched and so little destruction, we were lucky. I'm sure the East Coast has many stories about German U Boats that we haven't heard about here on the West Coast. My sister in Saratoga Springs turned me on to Radio Lab, thanks Kay!

Apr. 22 2015 12:30 AM
Paul from Albany, NY

Fascinating story! My late grandfather was part of the Signal Corp stationed up in Alaska during WWII that might have dealt with some of these balloons; I wish he was still around to pick his brain on whether or not he had ever come across any of them.

Also, according to the Wikipedia page, one of the balloons "descended in the vicinity of the Manhattan Project's production facility at the Hanford Site. This balloon caused a short circuit in the power lines supplying electricity for the nuclear reactor cooling pumps, but backup safety devices restored power almost immediately." Could possibly be the last photo of the balloon on the power lines with location marked as unknown?

Apr. 20 2015 08:14 PM
Fredo from U.S.

Mike -- that photo was taken at Moffett Airfield in California. It's a balloon that landed intact and was re-inflated by the U.S. military. The caption does not say it was from Japan. RadioLab did not make a mistake.

Apr. 20 2015 10:53 AM
Mike from New Orleans

I love radiolab and even radiolab might have occasion to make a mistake here and there....You may want to check your fourth photograph in from the top. I am not sure it is Japanese in origin. The back ground looks more western and the planes in the far distant right corner appear to resemble B-29's. Of course the Japanese did not have anything approaching the size of even a B-17 by war's end. I wonder, can you identify the type aircraft in the photograph?

Apr. 19 2015 09:29 PM

I love radiolab and even radiolab might have occasion to make a mistake here and there....You may want to check your fourth photograph in from the top. I am not sure it is Japanese in origin. The back ground looks more western and the planes in the far distant right corner appear to resemble B-29's. Of course the Japanese did not have anything approaching the size of even a B-17 by war's end. I wonder, can you identify the type aircraft in the photograph?

Apr. 19 2015 08:11 PM
BAS from United States

I love Radiolab, but it seems like recent episodes, like this and "A new 60 words", are more of a history dissection than science stories. They might be interesting stories, but it crosses over into "This American Life" territory. With the new podcast, Invisibilia, taking on Radiolab-style topics, it seems like there should be more of a distinction in content to differentiate your shows.

Apr. 13 2015 06:39 PM
Erica from Northern Wisconsin

This story rang a bell for me, so I called my father. My grandfather was a WWII bombardier and pilot who trained in Alaska before heading to the European theater. My father remembers his dad talking about these, but that the idea had been to start forest fires which would draw manpower back to the homefront and away from the front lines of the war. Hence the "incendiary" bombs/devices, rather than outright bombs. The Japanese would've known how remote western North America was, and what few chances they had of causing direct casualties. (This would corroborate the "Triple Nickle" comment below.)

Apr. 05 2015 11:05 PM
Diana Gordon

Don't know if this was ever reported, but when I was young, about 1964(?) I picked up an unexploded incendiary bomb while hiking in the woods on one of the Gulf Islands in British Columbia, only miles from the American border. It was cushioned by deep, deep moss and looked like a small rusted torpedo. My father was with me and, as an ex-Navy pilot, recognized it. We gave it to the Canadian Coast Guard to dispose.

Mar. 31 2015 10:37 PM
Enrique from Cranberry PA

I've been listening to your podcasts while I train for a marathon; I look forward to my long runs so I can listen to your episodes. I like the fact that you try to render all the sides of a story and you cover aspects that I had not even considered. Great job guys, gracias! muchas gracias!

Mar. 30 2015 09:14 AM
Katniss K. Bond from Florida

Perfect example of censorship in the USA. The idea behind the posters at the bottom about "careless talk" is terrifying.

Mar. 29 2015 12:16 PM
Staffan from Sweden

Nice images. I do however believe that the image labeled as: "fuse with measuring tape" is actually the suspension chock absorber that is described as "bungee shock cord" in the overview illustration. The black strands bunched together would be the rubber and the bundle of regular rope the stroke limiter.

Mar. 23 2015 11:58 AM
Jason from Japan

I absolutlely love RadioLab! As an American who lives in Japan and commutes on trains that to this day occasionally have their schedules adjusted to allow for bomb removal when an undetonated bomb is discovered on a building site, this is a fascinating story. Keep up the fabulous work.

Mar. 23 2015 07:45 AM
Joseph Wallner from Sturgeon Bay

As a retired chemical microscopist I learned about the Japanese bomb balloons
from the fact that the sand ballast used in the balloons to change altitude
was collected and examined by several U.S.geologists. The sand contained an
unusual # of minerals, maybe up to eight, and from this the site of the factory
making the balloons was identified and bombed successfully.

Mar. 22 2015 03:22 PM
Monte Hand from Montana

How is it "no one heard of this story?" I remember watching a movie on TV. Just search the web. I thought there was one about 20 years ago, but all I am finding (and I did find it...) is from 2006; it is listed on IMDB:

Target America

"The Japanese launched more than a thousand 30 foot diameter hydrogen filled balloons across the Pacific Ocean carrying bombs designed to start massive forest fires. Due to weather conditions, none of the balloon bombs started forest fires. However, one balloon did land in Bly, Oregon killing a minister, his wife and several children who were on a picnic."

Then again, as many comments note, I am also in the West and I recall hearing about it long before seeing that movie.

Mar. 20 2015 12:37 PM
Darcy Phillips from Chicago

Great story, thanks for sharing.

Mar. 20 2015 11:01 AM
Doug Collins from Ridgefield, CT

Listened to the podcast on my way to work this morning. Great story as always!

For a really cool interactive map of pictures and bomb landing locations in Alaska see:

This was done for the Alaska Veterans Museum.

Mar. 20 2015 08:17 AM
Amanda Rothstein from Los Angeles

Really beautiful marriage of reporting and storytelling in this one. The story of the sheriff wrangling the stray balloon had a sci-fi element of disbelief to it, which only served to reinforce the incredible reality of the story to come.

Thanks for making my morning walks the most powerful part of my day!

Mar. 19 2015 08:17 PM
s ramsey from Kalamazoo, MI

And John McPhee had an article on this in the New Yorker in 1996 which was then collected in Irons in the Fire. A pleasure to hear your story, but sorry not to hear McPhee mentioned, especially to the fellow whining "why haven't we heard about this?"

Mar. 18 2015 03:17 PM
Simon Bowler

....on the other hand I love the opening melange of sound and voices

Mar. 18 2015 06:54 AM
Andrea from Portland, OR

You guys mentioned that you had never heard of this story. I'm wondering if that's because you're on the East Coast. I'm 30 and was born and raised in Oregon, and I have heard of these balloons many times. I wonder if people in the Northwest are more familiar with the stories. Still so fascinating, and I loved the details about how the balloon systems worked using sand bags and the jet stream.

Mar. 17 2015 05:12 PM

Great podcast. I just did a quick search of what happened to Archie Mitchell after the Bly tragedy. It appears he was kidnapped by the Viet Cong (he and his 2nd wife and children were missionaries living in Vietnam) in 1962. And he was never found since. So sad.

Mar. 17 2015 02:08 PM
Applegene from Nyc

Great story. I wonder if someone has done some reserch on the possible relation between the Japanese balloons and the Roswell weather ballon that was mistaken by as a UFO.

Mar. 17 2015 12:51 PM
Jim from Oregon

Have know about this for about 35 years now. I grew up in Oregon and worked in Bly, Oregon for 10 years. Have been to Mitchell Monument many times

Mar. 16 2015 01:29 PM
Tyco from Canada

Great story. Makes me wonder if the so called Battle of Los Angeles on Feb. 25, 1942 could have been related to these balloons, certainly the secrecy surrounding that event fits with what you described in your story. Again very enjoyable story, presented in a pleasant, intimate, conversational style. Felt as friends were relating the story to me.

Mar. 15 2015 03:45 PM
Chad from United States

This story sure brought back memories and filled in a lot of details! In the late 80s as a kid who would go hiking in Pacific Northwest I had heard rumors of such things. Was told if I found a big balloon or parachute to stay away bacause there could be a bomb from the war. Fortunately I never found anything, though no idea what the bomb would actually looked like. In my mind as a kid I expected it to look like a traditional bomb we see on TV, these pictures are amazing.

Mar. 15 2015 09:16 AM
Affan from Pakistan

Really liked the podcast. I really admire your efforts to bring such kind of relatively unknown topics out in open.

Mar. 15 2015 07:51 AM

Great story' TImely for me, as I was just in Tokyo recently, and they have a model of these at the Edo Tokyo museum, and when I read the caption it blew my mind.. You guys managed to flesh the story out more, and now more Americans know about it!

Mar. 15 2015 05:13 AM
Haole from Hawaii

Great story but I'm BEGGING you to change the opening of your show. When the woman says "ang NPR" I feel like I'm going to go insane! Why does she say ANG? How do you turn "and" into "ang?"

Stop the madness.


Mar. 15 2015 01:29 AM
Rich from Chumstick, WA

Highly recommend that as a follow-up Radio Lab (or anyone else) look into the history of the "Triple Nickels," an all-black paratrooper / smokejumper platoon that was stationed in the Pacific Northwest specifically to deal with the Fu-Go bombs. The story of the Triple Nickels is an amazing and complex one of military history, racism, and dedication to duty that goes well beyond their connection to the Fu-Go.

Mar. 14 2015 09:52 PM
Scott V from Augusta, GA, USA

Wow. What a great story today guys. I mean they are all great. Love the podcast.

Mar. 13 2015 08:36 PM
Pete from Connecticut

fellas, great story. a piece of ww2 history i never heard, so thank you for the knowledge. keep up the good work!

Mar. 13 2015 10:03 AM
James from Chicopee, MA

You say that no one knows this story. Don't know were I read about it but I certainly knew that Japan had tried this. As I recall, it was presented in the context of how desperate the Japanese government had become, even as early as 1943. Still, I had never heard the story presented as more than a footnote. Nice piece, as usual. Keep 'em coming!

Mar. 13 2015 09:16 AM
Yorudan from Utah

Thank you for this, RadioLab crew. I will write a song about this.

Mar. 13 2015 12:19 AM
Jamie from Terrace, BC

I have worked in the forest near Lumby. Saw a grizzly bear but no balloon bombs. Great episode.

Mar. 12 2015 08:35 PM
Tim Manzer from United States

I have become a faithful RadioLab listener in the last few months. I enjoy the humor and the random joy found in your stories. This last one was amazing! Fu-Go was so very interesting to me. A story from WW2 that I had never heard about. Thanks for adding a intelligent voice of delightful curiosity in my life.

Mar. 12 2015 06:33 PM
Duane Loucks from Aurora CO

Your presentation on the Fu-Go balloons was specially interesting to me. At this time I was 13 years old, growing up in Sheridan WY, which is just across the Big Horn mountains from Thermopolis. My first thought was that if the balloon had drifted just a few minutes longer it would have landed in my "back yard". In line with your comments on the security clamp down your broadcast was the first I had heard of these balloons. We had heard stories of a few fire balloons landing in the northwestern US forests, but they were passed off as unimportant. Sort of a sample of how desperate the Japanese had become.

Mar. 12 2015 02:44 AM
Andy Utech from Tokyo

About 20 years ago the woman who I later married took me to on a date day-trip to Ōkunoshima. There I learned about the balloon bombs - some of which were made there - as well as the poison gas plants on the island. Apparently the manufacture and use of the gas was a war crime so the government did their best to hide the place and what had happened there. This led to the island being abandoned and some horrible health problems being left untreated. The abandoned island became populated with many, many rabbits before the government reversed their policy, people came back and a museum was constructed. Today many people visit to see the ruins of war factories, stay in a nice hotel, think about the horrors of war - and be surrounded by dozens and dozens of friendly rabbits who will eat right out of your hand.

Mar. 12 2015 12:53 AM
Tokyo Edo Museum from Tokyo

There have been scale models of the balloon bombs at the Tokyo Edo Museum for the last 20 years or so.

Mar. 12 2015 12:06 AM
Rick Newell from United States

I was so excited to hear the story because I heard it 15 years ago, when I was in sixth grade and was never able to corroborate it. The interesting thing about the story though, when I heard it, was that the US government had created a campaign, that we now know as smoky the bear to alert the government of fires created by these bombs. I'm interested to know if anyone else knows about that. Anyways it was a great story and I was surprised that 80% of what I was told of the story was so close to correct.

Thanks, great work as always!

Mar. 11 2015 10:42 PM

Very interesting story. Did want to make a comment on the "Japanese" that had rocks thrown at them that were being taken to Tule Lake a "Japanese internment camps". The US had banned all immigration from asia 20+ years prior to these bombings and therefore the majority of the people in the camps were native born Americans. The Boy would have been American and likely the mother too. The internment camps were american camps that imprisoned mainly Americans of Japanese descent. Minor distinction on the surface but as someone who's grandfather was imprisoned at Tule Lake it is a noteworthy distinction.

Mar. 11 2015 05:40 PM
John Mason-Smith from United States

Neato, but a few of these images have "Add Caption Here" typed underneath. :)

Mar. 11 2015 04:50 PM

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