Apr 25, 2019


This week we’re going back to a favorite episode from 2015.

During World War II, something happened that nobody ever talks about. This is a tale of mysterious balloons, cowboy sheriffs, and young children caught up in the winds of war. And silence, the terror of silence.

Reporters Peter Lang-Stanton and Nick Farago tell us the story of a seemingly ridiculous, almost whimsical series of attacks on the US between November of 1944 and May of 1945. With the help of writer Ross Coen, geologist Elisa Bergslien, and professor Mike Sweeney, we uncover a national secret that led to tragedy in a sleepy logging town in south central Oregon.

 Check out pictures of the ghostly balloons here

Special thanks to Annie Patzke, Leda and Wayne Hunter, and Ilana Sol. Special thanks also for the use of their music to Jeff TaylorDavid Wingo for the use of "Opening" and "Doghouse" - from the Take Shelter soundtrack, Justin Walter's "Mind Shapes" from his album Lullabies and Nightmares, and Michael Manning for the use of "Save"

 Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate

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JAD: Today we wanted to bring back a story that's, I mean, one of my personal favorite stories that we've done. This particular story we aired in 2015, so a lot of you may not have heard it. And it goes like this.


JAD: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.


ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.


JAD: This is Radiolab. And today ...


PETER: My name is Peter Lang-Stanton.


NICK: My name's Nick Farago.


ROBERT: Well, we're gonna get a story from two reporters.


NICK: I'm a freelance filmmaker.


PETER: Freelance reporter.


NICK: Writer slash radio producer. Too many slashes.


JAD: It's a story that goes back about 70 years.


NICK:It all feels, like, unreal in some way.


JAD: But there's something about this story that just -- you hear it and you can't help but think about now.


ROBERT: Should we start with -- with air currents, or like with ...


NICK: I mean, I wanna start with -- could we got to Thermopolis, Wyoming? Because that was one of the first really well-documented landings.


ROBERT: Thermopolis, Wyoming.


ROSS COEN: It's the first week of December, 1944.


JAD: This is Ross Coen. He's a historian, and he wrote a book that's pretty much the definitive account of the story you're about to hear. Anyhow, Thermopolis Wyoming, December, 1944.


ROSS COEN: And there are three miners at a place called the Highline coal mine, which is outside of Thermopolis. They step outside the mine one evening, it's just about dusk. And just as they step out of the mine they hear this whistling sound over their heads. And then a moment later there's ...




ROSS COEN: ... a tremendous explosion. And they see this rising cloud of dust about a mile away across the valley. They turn and look -- it's dusk, and so in the fading twilight they can't be sure exactly what they're looking at.


NICK: But above them there's sort of this fluttering white circle.


PETER: Just floating there.


NICK: They made sense of it by thinking it was a parachutist.


ROSS COEN: They watched this parachute as it's drifting away from them. They get in their car and they chase after it, until eventually they lose sight of it in the darkness.


NICK: Right around that same time, about 500 miles away in Colorado ...


PETER: A boy and his dad are working in the barn ...


NICK: when ...




NICK: ... they hear an explosion.


PETER: They run outside, and in their yard there's just this smoldering crater.


ROSS COEN: In Wyoming, a nine-year-old boy, playing in his front yard, hears an explosion.


PETER: All throughout the winter of 1944 ...


ROSS COEN: In Burwell, Nebraska ...


PETER: These strange parachute things.


ROSS COEN: Native residents hear a loud explosion.


PETER: Just start appearing in the skies all over America.


NICK: Napa, California. Lame Deer, Montana. 20 or so miles from downtown Detroit.


PETER: Over farms.


NICK: Nogales, Arizona. And slipping behind hills.


PETER: Rigby, Idaho.


NICK: Everybody who sees these things ...


ROSS COEN: All of them have different explanations for what they think they're witnessing. They think it's a plane crash.


NICK: Or an oil tank exploding. The US military sends out an APB to local police stations, saying, "We need information. What are these things?"


REPORTER: Try again?


MARION HYDE: Testing, testing.


REPORTER: There we go, we fixed it.


MARION HYDE: Okay. Whoa.


PETER: Enter Sheriff Warren Hyde.


MARION HYDE: My name is Marion Hyde.


PETER: Warren Hyde actually died in 1989, so ...


MARION HYDE: I'm the oldest son of Sheriff Hyde.


PETER: We talked to his son.


MARION HYDE: He had a presence about him that -- he kind of commanded a room.


PETER: Sheriff Hyde was a big guy.


MARION HYDE: Black, wavy hair. Broad at the shoulder, narrow at the hips.


PETER: Stetson. Gun on his hip.


NICK: And one day, he's at his office north of Salt Lake City, when his phone rings.


MARION HYDE: From what I understand, a dry farmer called him.


PETER: Said there's this strange contraption in my field.


NICK: Some kind of balloon, parachute-looking thing floating around.


MARION HYDE: So he jumped in the car and went hellbent for leather out into the Blue Creek area.


NICK: There's this crazy story where he rushes out to this farm to investigate.


PETER: Hops out of his car.


NICK: Rips off his belt with his .38 pistol, because a man can't run with a .38 pistol on his waist.


MARION HYDE: And took off after the balloon.


NICK: Here's what he sees in that field. It was -- I mean, if you look at a picture of this thing, it's this huge globe. 30 feet in diameter.


ROBERT: Oh wow!


NICK: Paper white.


PETER: And then, coming down from this globe are these thick, 40-foot ropes. And at the bottom, attached to it, is a heavy metal chandelier with bombs hanging off the bottom. And Sheriff Hyde, he sees this thing, runs out into the field, grabs onto the ropes to maybe tie it down. But just as he grabs it ...


MARION HYDE: A gust of wind comes by.


NICK: Lifts him up off the ground.


MARION HYDE: Like he was a paper doll.


NICK: And so he's dangling from the ropes of this thing. The balloon is above him, the explosives are -- are below him. And it takes him across this canyon. And he's holding on, just dangling from it, still trying to wrangle it like some bucking bronco. He lands again, he tries to tie it to a juniper bush or something. But the wind catches it again and goes back over the canyon.


ROBERT: Back to the first side?


NICK: Back to the first side.


MARION HYDE: And they started to float around the field. He kept wrestling this balloon for a long time.


PETER: He's nauseous from being spun around on this balloon.


NICK: His vision's getting blurry.


PETER: His hands are becoming raw from the rope.


NICK: But he feels this, like, sense of duty.


MARION HYDE: He knew that the government wanted one of these balloons.


NICK: It's his territory, so he gotta take it down.


MARION HYDE: That's right.


NICK: He finally lets himself free fall, so he can grab it again. So his weight will jerk the balloon to the ground.




MARION HYDE: Then finally, the balloon came down in -- in kind of a little ravine, where sagebrush were growing. And a root had been exposed on the side of the ravine from a sagebrush.


PETER: And he hooks his arm around this root.


MARION HYDE: Then he was able to hold the balloon without being carried into the air.


JAD: So he actually captured the thing?


PETER: Yeah. J. Edgar Hoover wrote him a personal letter of thanks.


ROSS COEN: They end up shipping all of the evidence off to the Aberdeen military research facility.


PETER: Where they had gathered all this different evidence from all over the country.


NICK: And after looking at this stuff for a while, they were able to tell that ...


ROSS COEN: Apparently, this bomb was not of any particular American make, and matched known characteristics of Japanese bombs.


JAD: So it's Japanese.


PETER: Yeah.


NICK: But it's impossible to send a balloon across the Pacific Ocean at this point. I mean, it's never, never been done. I mean, it's basically an intercontinental ballistic missile.


PETER: So they're trying to figure out where it's coming from.


NICK: They thought maybe they were being launched from submarines. Maybe they were coming from beaches in North America, from saboteurs.


ROSS COEN: There was even speculation at one point that maybe they were coming from Japanese internment camps in North America.




PETER: Then ...


ROSS COEN: Two days before Christmas, 1944.


PETER: In Alaska, a native Alaskan trapper tracks one down.


ROSS COEN: And it has two sandbags still attached to the bottom-most ring.


NICK: And that turns out to be the key to the mystery.


JAD: Sand?


NICK: Yeah.


ELISA BERGSLIEN: Well, it's not just sand. There's a lot in there. My name is Elisa Bergslien, and I am a forensic geologist.


NICK: We called up Elisa to help us understand this next part. What happened was the sand from the balloons was sent to Washington, DC, to some scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey.


ELISA BERGSLIEN: Right away ...


ROSS COEN: They discover that there's no coral.


ELISA BERGSLIEN: So finding no coral, you know, you're talking cold water now.


ROSS COEN: They look at the diatoms.


ELISA BERGSLIEN: Marine bivalves.


ROSS COEN: Microscopic fossils.


ELISA BERGSLIEN: Mollusks, minerals.


ROSS COEN: By compiling all of these different characteristics ...


ELISA BERGSLIEN: Put that all together, where would you find these diatoms, these minerals, that you wouldn't find coral, all those different pieces of information.


NICK: All together.


ROSS COEN: The geologists are able to determine that there are two or perhaps three beaches in the world.


ELISA BERGSLIEN: That fit all of these qualifications.


ROSS COEN: Where they believe this sand could've come from. And all of which are on the east coast of Honshu, the largest of Japan's four main islands.


JAD: You can get that kind of specific from sand?


ELISA BERGSLIEN: Yup. That kind of specific.


PETER: Pretty incredible.


JAD: All right. So they came all the way from these particular beaches on the coast of Japan.


NICK: Yeah.


JAD: That's, like, thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean.


ROBERT: And why would the Japanese choose to -- to deliver bomb payloads by balloon? It's a strange choice.


JAD: Particularly after Pearl Harbor. You know, it's like, we already know they can do planes, right?


ROBERT: Yeah, they got planes.


JAD: Yeah, why balloons?


ROSS COEN: Well ...


[CLIP NEWSCASTER: Now it can be told. History in the making.]


ROSS COEN: It grew directly out of the Doolittle raid.


PETER: Back in April of 1942.


[CLIP NEWSCASTER: The United States Navy aircraft carrier, Hornet, steams westward across the Pacific.]


ROSS COEN: Jimmy Doolittle and his raiders ...


PETER: Took off from an aircraft carrier, deep in the western Pacific.


ROSS COEN: And dropped bombs on Tokyo and Yokohama and Kobe, and a number of other cities across Japan.


[CLIP NEWSCASTER: The greatest surprise raid in the history of aerial warfare.]


PETER: Now, they didn't do a lot of damage physically.


ROSS COEN: But it was such a shock to the Japanese, to think that their homeland could be invaded, that these planes could actually fly over the Imperial Palace, the home of the Emperor. And it could not go unchallenged.


ROBERT: Doolittle went over the palace? I didn't realize that.




ROBERT: He went all the way downtown in Tokyo.


ROSS COEN: Oh yeah, right over the city. And so immediately after the Doolittle raid, an order went out, it was just, "Find a way to bomb America."


NICK: Now, Japan's navy is stretched so thin at this point in the war, there's no way they pull off something like the Doolittle raid. They didn't have aircraft carriers that could get their planes close enough to the U.S. mainland. But what they did have was the wind.


ROSS COEN: Today we call this the jetstream. That name didn't come along until after the war.


PETER: At that point we barely knew about the jetstream.


ROSS COEN: But prior to and during the war, the Japanese did extensive research into these winds.


PETER: Okay, so in 1924 there's this meteorologist named Wasuboro Oishi. And he goes to the top of a mountain and he releases a bunch of these little paper weather balloons. And he discovers that, at about 30 thousand feet up, there's this river of fast-moving air. Speeds up to 175 miles an hour, carrying anything in its midst -- pollen, insects -- all the way to North America within days.


NICK: And after the Doolittle raid, they thought maybe if we were to release a bunch of balloons in just the right place at just the right time ...


PETER: Maybe this jet stream of air could ...


ROSS COEN: Push these balloons across the Pacific Ocean.




NICK: So this is Tetsko Tanaka. She was interviewed in this independent documentary called On Paper Wings.


NICK: In 1944, she says she was a teenager when the Japanese military came to her school and basically turned it into a factory.




NICK: She and hundreds of other school children were conscripted to begin making this special kind of paper out of mulberry wood called ...


MAHO SHINA: Washi. Handmade Japanese traditional paper.


NICK: This is Maho Shina, who now works at the Noborito Institute in Japan.


MAHO SHINA: Huge amount of paper was required.


NICK: Maho says that girls would work 12-hour days making thousands, tens of thousands of these sheets and gluing them together.


ROBERT: Why didn't they have adults in the factories? They were all fighting the war, or what?


MAHO SHINA: Young girls' hands is very good for building the bomb.


NICK: The girls had a certain dexterity for the paper-making?


PETER: The nimble fingers. I think I read that somewhere.


ROBERT: Oh, wow. Okay.


PETER: And after they finished producing the balloons, and after the balloons were strapped with bombs, they were shipped off to those beaches and just let go.


NICK: People from the Japanese side watching them take off said they looked like huge jellyfish swimming through a pale blue sky.


ROSS COEN: These perfectly silent vehicles. The only sound was the rustling of the paper as they took off.


ROBERT: But how many were launched?


ROSS COEN: From November 1944 to April 1945, they launched 9,000 balloons.


JAD: Wow!


ROSS COEN: Now, the engineers in Japan who designed this faced a very serious problem.


NICK: Once they got the balloons up into the jetstream and they were cruising along ...


PETER: They're floating at speeds from 50 to 100 miles an hour.


NICK: But every night ...


ROSS COEN: Temperatures are gonna fall to -40 centigrade. And the fixed volume of hydrogen inside that envelope is going to contract, the balloon is going to lose altitude, drop out of the jetstream, and down into the ocean all together.


NICK: So to solve this, says Ross, they -- what they did was this. They took 32 sand bags, hung them on the balloon, and then connected those sandbags to an altimeter.


ROSS COEN: Set to a preset minimum, such as 30,000 feet. In the night time, when the balloon loses altitude, the altimeter ...


PETER: Will engage. Trigger a fuse. Which cuts off one of those sandbags, and drops it into the ocean.


ROSS COEN: And now, the vehicle will re-ascend back into the jet stream.


ROBERT: Because it's lighter.


ROSS COEN: Because it's lighter.


NICK: So these balloons, they're riding the jetstream. And then every night, they'd start to descend. But then, off would go a sandbag and they'd go back up. And whenever they'd cooled off enough to drop, same thing. Drop, then rise, drop then rise. Over and over. 32 times until every sandbag was gone.


ROSS COEN: Once all the sandbags have been dropped, now you have only the bombs remaining. And the bombs are held in place with the exact same mechanism as the sandbags. And now, by the very same system, the bombs are the last to go. And presumably, the balloon is now somewhere over North America.


ROBERT: Oh, I see. So it's a sandbag countdown. 30, 29, 28, 4, 3, 2, 1. I hope I'm in Oregon.




PETER: And when it was in Oregon or wherever, the idea was that it would drop its last bomb, float away, and basically self-destruct.


ROSS COEN: They, I guess, figured it would be -- it would be more terrifying to have bombs raining down silently from above with no calling card at all, than with a Japanese calling card.


[CLIP FROM NAVY VIDEO: And as the last sandbag is dropped, now only the central payload is left.]


NICK: This is audio from a declassified Navy instructional video made about these balloon bombs in 1945.


[CLIP FROM NAVY VIDEO: In the event one of these units is found, do these two things to render it harmless.]


NICK: It explains to soldiers how to -- what to do if they find one of these bombs, and how to defuse the bomb. But I think the most interesting thing about the video is this text that's written in huge block letters right at the bottom of the screen. It says, "Do not aid the enemy by publishing, or broadcasting, or discussing information."


MIKE SWEENEY: Information can be a powerful tool. It can be a powerful tool for good, and a powerful tool for evil.


NICK: This is professor Mike Sweeney.


MIKE SWEENEY: And I'm a historian of wartime censorship.


NICK: And he says that immediately after those first balloons landed ...


MIKE SWEENEY: There are a few stories that appear in the local newspapers in the far west. Stories about a Japanese attack on the mainland of the United States.


NICK: Time and Newsweek even picked it up.


MIKE SWEENEY: Saying, we're not sure what these are but, you know, are these Japanese spies coming in on these balloons?


NICK: Is this a large scale attack?


MIKE SWEENEY: What is going on?


NICK: And then ...


MIKE SWEENEY: Very shortly thereafter ...


PETER: Just three days after those Time and Newsweek articles.


NICK: The Office of Censorship initiated a press blackout.


MIKE SWEENEY: This blackout on news.


PETER: They sent out memos and telegraphs to all the major wire services.


MIKE SWEENEY: The UPD, AP and the INS, saying ...


NICK: Keep any news of these Japanese balloons off the wires and out of print.


MIKE SWEENEY: Any stories about these bombs will have to be approved by the appropriate authority of the U.S. Army if you wish to publish or broadcast news about them.


JAD: And why would they want to keep this secret?


MIKE SWEENEY: So the government's ideas about why balloon bombs should be censored, and particularly the Army's ideas, were number one to avoid panic.


NICK: These things are instruments of terror, right? You can't be afraid of something you don't know exists.


MIKE SWEENEY: Number two, is avoid helping Japan. It was thought then, that if we printed exact coordinates of particular bomb landings, that this would help Japan better target the bombs.


JAD: And what did the reporters think about this?


MIKE SWEENEY: They grumbled sometimes, but they complied.


ROBERT: Really?


MIKE SWEENEY: Yep. Everyone in the news industry was as patriotic as the rest of the country. That is, the vast majority of journalists supported the war. And of course, if you screwed up and you sent out a story that got American lives killed, you could be prosecuted under the Espionage Act. Furthermore, can you imagine what your listeners would do if you were the radio station identified as killing 100 American sailors?


PETER: So the newspapers and radio stations kept their mouths shut, which meant that most Americans never even heard this was happening. And more importantly, the Japanese weren't really hearing about whether their bombs made it or not. So they probably concluded that it was basically a failed experiment, which largely it was. Of the 9,000 released, virtually none caused any damage, and certainly not any terror. Except for this one balloon.


JAD: That's coming up.


[WILL: Hi. This is Will calling from Northumberland, England. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org.]




JAD: Hey I'm Jad Abumrad.


ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.


JAD: This is Radiolab. We continue now with our story from reporters Peter Lang-Stanton and Nick Farago about the 9,000 or so balloon bombs that Japan sent to America in 1944 and '45 that rained down on American soil and created nothing, really. Nothing happened. No damage, no terror, nothing.


NICK: But then we get to this tiny little town called Bly.


CORA CONNER: To me, there's no place like old Bly.


NICK: Bly is this sleepy little logging town at the base of Gearhart mountain in south-central Oregon.


CORA CONNER: There's a lot of pretty scenery.


NICK: And Cora Conner, who you just heard, was born and raised there.


CORA CONNER: You know everybody, and they're just like a big family out there.


NICK: In the '40s when Cora was a young girl, there were about 700 people living there.


CORA CONNER: Yeah, but we did all kinds of fun things. We had a fish fry up at Dog Lake. Huge catfish fry up there. The whole town stayed all night, went back home the next day. In the winter, the canals would freeze over and we'd have bonfire and ice-skating parties, and it was a fun place to live.


PETER: Can you tell me about the morning, was it a Sunday?


CORA CONNER: Let's see, what happened? I'm trying to think. Saturday, I think. May 5th is all I can remember. Yep, that was May 5th.


NICK: May 5, 1945.


CORA CONNER: It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining bright.


NICK: And the Reverend Archie Mitchell and his wife Elsie, who was five months pregnant with her first child ...


CORA CONNER: Knew them very well. Sunday school. I went to church occasionally up there.


NICK: They took their Sunday school class out for a picnic. There were five children that went along on that trip, ages 11 to 14.


PETER: And one of the kids ...


CORA CONNER: We called him Dickie. He had a crush on my sister who was a little younger than me. And they wanted her to come on this picnic, so they came by and stopped -- the Pastor and his wife stopped, and the kids all piled out.


PETER: They stopped before they went up?


CORA CONNER: Yeah, trying to talk -- convince my mom to let my sister go, or both of us, or whatever. But mom didn't want us to go because Saturday was our chore day. And my day to work the switchboard, which usually made me pretty angry. But that was my job. And she said, "No. No way." Well, my sister didn't really want to go because she really wasn't encouraging this relationship too much.


PETER: With Dickie?


CORA CONNER: Yeah, Dickie. yeah.


NICK: She didn't want to lead him on?




NICK: So Archie and Elsie and the five kids get back into the car ...


ROSS COEN: And they drove up to Gearhart mountain.


PETER: A couple miles up a logging road, they pass some Forest Service guys working on the road. They go a little further, to where the road comes near a creek.


ROSS COEN: And Archie pulled the car around and parked. The kids jumped out of the car, and started running down toward the creek. Elsie, who was pregnant as I mentioned, and she was feeling a bit carsick, she jumped out to get some fresh air, and to chase after the kids while Archie went around to the trunk of the car to get out the fishing poles and the picnic baskets et cetera. One of the children saw something on the ground, a large canvas white-gray balloon of some kind spread out on the ground. Called to the other children to come have a look. The children and Elsie apparently gathered in a tight circle around the balloon. Archie later reported that while he was getting the picnic basket out of the trunk, his wife called to him, "Honey, come look at what we found." He turned and just took a few steps toward them, and at that moment -- we'll never know exactly what happened, but apparently one of the children reached down to pick up the device. The bomb detonated. All five children, and Elsie Mitchell were killed instantly.


NICK: The Forest Service guys down the road were close enough to hear the blast.


ROSS COEN: They come running when they hear the explosion, and they see Archie Mitchell has run to the site, and his wife's clothes were ablaze. And Archie was kneeling over his prostrate wife beating out the fire with his bare hands.


JAD: Hmm.


NICK: There's no wind.


PETER: On our last day in Bly, we went to visit the site where the bomb went off.


PETER: It's in the middle of nowhere. It's just a chain -- it's this little fenced-off area, like a little pen.


PETER: And there are these tall pine trees.


NICK: There's these huge cuts in the tree.


JAD: Those are shrapnel cuts in the tree?


NICK: Yeah.


PETER: Yeah they still -- this hasn't -- has not healed.


NICK: Eerie place.


CORA CONNER: Of course I didn't know -- didn't know what was going on.


NICK: This is Cora Conner again. At the time, she was at her job watching the switchboard, when ...


CORA CONNER: The guy that was working up there for the Forest Service come rushing into the telephone office, and I mean he was scared. Pure white and scared. And I thought, "My God, what's going on? What's happening?" And he came in and made the call to Lakeview.


NICK: The naval base in Lakeview. And about a half an hour later this, you know, big imposing military guy comes in.


CORA CONNER: He was all medals and all. In full uniform, you know? And he must have made it, it seemed like in the blink of an eye. And I thought, "My God, what has happened?" And then when he talked over the phone I knew what was going on. He said they'd had a bomb explode up there with -- with casualties. And then he talked to me. He said, "Do not talk to anybody about anything that you've heard here. Not your mother, not anybody." He says, "Now, you're not to leave this office." By then, I was just jelly I was so terrified.


NICK: He leaves, and the word is trickling around, spreading around town.


CORA CONNER: They knew something had gone wrong. And they gathered at the phone office because the phone office knows everything in the whole valley. And they knew I knew what was going on. And that's when it all hit.


NICK: Pretty soon there was a crowd outside.


CORA CONNER: Screaming and yelling at me.


NICK: At you?


CORA CONNER: Yeah. "We know you know what's going on. You better come out and tell us. We're coming in there, and you're going to tell us what's happened." And ...


NICK: And these people are -- are your neighbors and things like that?


CORA CONNER: People -- yeah.


NICK: That know you, and they're saying that?


CORA CONNER: They know, yeah. Because Bly is a very tiny place. I probably knew every one of them. I was about -- you can imagine the state I was in. And Mr. Patsky ...


NICK: Dickie's father. Dickie was the boy who had a crush on Cora's sister.


CORA CONNER: I can tell you exactly how he was dressed that day. He had on a red and black checkered hunting shirt, and his red hunting cap.


PETER: At the time, all he knew was that his son was missing.


CORA CONNER: He stood out there and he shook his fist and he yelled, and he scared me half the death, threatening to come in and all that. He says, "You know what's happening. Let us know what's happening." And I couldn't do anything. I sat there, all day.


NICK: How old were you?


CORA CONNER: 16. You know, it really, really tore me apart. I was just in a complete fog for days. I never talked too much about it.


NICK: Really?




NICK: Within a day or so, the military told most of the town what actually happened that day.


CORA CONNER: And then a short time after that, a big army truck -- well, there was two big army trucks, and they stopped right out in front of our house. We wondered what was going on. You know, your little town like that, anything different everybody goes to the window and takes a look. And here come -- okay, this is awfully hard for me. A woman and a little kid jumped out of the back of that truck. She was Japanese. They were on their way to the Tule Lake.


NICK: The Japanese internment camp nearby.


CORA CONNER: And she's screaming and crying and praying. "Please, we need water. We need water." It was hot. It was really hot that day, and they were in a canvas-covered truck, jammed in there. And I grabbed a pitcher, a bucket, or whatever was there in the kitchen, filled it with water, and started out the door. By that time, they were throwing rocks at that lady and her kid. People in that town were so terribly upset, and they were throwing rocks at her. And Mom wouldn't let me go, and I screamed and cried at my mother because she wouldn't let me go. She says, "You can't go out there. They'll throw rocks at you. I won't let you go." And to this day, that picture is in my mind. And I've prayed to the Lord to forgive the people that were doing that, and to try to -- I can't accept it. There's no -- nothing can make me accept what happened. I thought that was the most horrible thing in the world people could do. A woman and child, they had nothing to do with the bomb, nothing to do with the war, nothing. It's still hard. How can people be that way? It upset me so horribly bad. I didn't want to talk about it. I couldn't talk for 40 years.


JAD: It's weird. Like, there's a kind of weird, scary symmetry to this whole thing. Like, the Japanese military was trying to create terror, right?


ROBERT: Mm-hmm.


JAD: Like what they felt after Doolittle. And so they wanted to make this situation where, like, bombs were falling silently from the sky. We couldn't even tell where they were coming from. Almost like the gods were dropping them. But we kept it quiet, so nobody panicked. Except by not saying anything, at least in this one small instance, it created exactly the situation that the Japanese military wanted. I mean, not on the scale that they wanted, but, like, in its effect. It's like a concentrated version of the thing that they were trying to create.


ROBERT: Right, but that's the ...


JAD: That's the problem.


ROBERT: That's not a problem. Five is -- five is a sacrifice in war. What is it, five, six people?


JAD: Yeah.


ROBERT: There were 125 million people in America then.


JAD: Hmm. I think there actually might have been a little bit more than that.


ROBERT: Well you can see what it would have been like listening to this story. You can see what it would have been like if this story had been well-known and had been told from person to person. If everybody was looking up and wondering where the next strange thing was coming from.


JAD: Well they wouldn't -- there might have been panic, but those kids wouldn't have tugged on the balloon.


ROBERT: That's the choice.


JAD: Because they would have known, yeah.


ANDY MILLS: Hey I'm sorry to jump in here. I just know that we don't have Ross much longer, and I want to respect your time.


JAD: This is our producer Andy Mills, who worked with Nick and Peter on this story.


ANDY MILLS: Before they kick you out, the only last question that I kind of had on my list is, like, why is it that we don't know about this? Like, I've never heard of this before. I don't know if Robert, if you've heard of this before.


ROBERT: Never.


ANDY MILLS: Why the hell is this not a thing we know?


ROSS COEN: I think it's directly an outgrowth of that censorship policy. At the end of the war, the war department destroyed all of the evidence. They didn't want any evidence of these balloons just out there in general circulation.




ROSS COEN: This is one of those footnotes to the war that, you know, at the end of the war just never -- people forgot about something that they didn't know about anyway.




ANDY MILLS: Ross, are there any more out there?


ROSS COEN: That is a very interesting question. It's estimated by the War Department that of the 9,000 released, they thought that maybe seven to ten percent of the total would have survived the trans-oceanic crossing and arrived in North America. That's 900. 300 are confirmed as having arrived in North America. So that means there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, that arrived in North America but were never accounted for. In the 10 or 12 years immediately after the end of World War II, a couple dozen of these things were found. Several in Oregon in 1948. One in Alaska in 1955. One in Idaho in the early 1960s. And then the recoveries stopped.


ROBERT: Were they live, like the one in Oregon? If you touched them would they blow up?


ROSS COEN: Some of them were. Some of them were.




ROSS COEN: Some of them were. Now here's the fascinating part. Last October -- October of 2014, I kid you not.


BRAD SIMLINGER: Dave was ahead of me, and he stopped and said, "I think I saw the bomb."


ROSS COEN: A couple of loggers ...


BRAD SIMLINGER: Yeah, my name's Brad Simlinger.


DAVE BRIDGEMAN: My name's Dave Bridgeman.


ROSS COEN: In Lumby, British Columbia, who were doing some survey work.


DAVE BRIDGEMAN: You know, this is the middle of nowhere.


ROSS COEN: Found the remnants of a Japanese balloon that had been on the ground for 70 years.


DAVE BRIDGEMAN: And we definitely worked in remote areas, and in general we don't see much except trees and rocks. But, you know, there are those odd special days where you see things that no one else gets to see.


ROSS COEN: This happened just a few months ago.




ROSS COEN: I tell you, if you're hiking, if you're out in the woods in the Pacific Northwest, watch where you step.


ROSS COEN: By the way Fugo, F-U-G-O, that's the codename in Japan for these weapons. They were called Fugo, F-U-G-O.


JAD: It's also the name of Ross Coen's book.


ROSS COEN: The curious history of Japan's balloon bomb attack on America.


ROBERT: Thank you to Peter Lang-Stanton and to Nick Farago for their reporting, and extensive reporting of this.


ANDY MILLS: Yeah, big thanks to them. Big thanks to them.


PETER: Also thanks to Ilana Sol whose documentary On Paper Wings was a big source for us.


NICK: You heard those Japanese voices in the middle of the story. That came from her documentary. Also, we have original music this hour from a couple of folks, Jeff Taylor, Michael Manning, David Wingo, Justin Walter.


PETER: We had production support from Andy Mills and Damiano Marchetti. And if you want to see these balloon bombs, we have some incredible pictures on our website radiolab.org.


JAD: One more thing. Since this episode first aired, we -- we got some sad news. Cora Conner, the woman you heard telling the story of, you know, being 16 and operating a switchboard at the Bly telephone office, well she passed away in December 2016 at the age of 87. She was a member of the Klamath County Historical Society in Oregon, and she continued telling the story of the Bly balloon bomb throughout her life.


JAD: I'm Jad Abumrad.


ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.


JAD: Thanks for listening.


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ALYSSA BELLA-FEINBERG: Hi. This is Alyssa Bella-Feinberg, calling from Factory. Home of the Ruth Bader-Ginsburg action figure in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad, and is produced by Soren Wheeler. Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design. Suzie Lechtenberg is our executive producer. Our staff includes Simon Adler, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, David Gebel, Bethel Habte, Tracie Hunte, Nora Keller, Matt Kielty, Robert Krulwich, Annie McEwen, Latif Nasser, Malissa O'Donnell, Sarah Qari, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster. With help from Shima Oliaee, Audrey Quinn, and Neil Denesha. Our fact-checker is Michelle Harris. Bye-bye.


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