Fu-Go, The Japanese’s best kept secret weapon of WWII

One of my absolute favorite things of late is listening to awesome podcasts like Radiolab and This American Life. I love stories, and these guys consistently tell some of the coolest ones around.

On this recent Radiolab podcast I heard the story about the Japanese secret weapon, the Fu-Go. I’m a big WWII buff and I’d never heard the story and was captivated by the sheer creativity involved.

Flummoxed by the Doolittle Raid on their homeland, the Japanese created and floated some estimated 9,000 paper balloons equipped with fire bombs towards the U.S., taking advantage of the eastwardly flowing jet stream.  The vast majority didn’t make the voyage and most of the remaining came down in sparsely inhabited areas and didn’t explode.

A map of Fu-Go landings and known explosions.

A map of Fu-Go landings and known explosions.

These things landed all over the Pacific Northwest and a few even made it to British Columbia and even to outside Detroit. Thankfully, they had virtually no real impact for the volume that were sent and only lead to a few deaths – which are really tragic to hear about.

The military kept the whole thing secret to avoid panic and the media at the time willfully complied as patriotic supporters of the war effort.

Model of the complex mechanisms used to allow the Fu-Go to travel over 5,000 miles - 10x what a typical balloon of that size could travel.

Model of the complex mechanisms used to allow the Fu-Go to travel over 5,000 miles – 10x what a typical balloon of that size could travel.

As the balloon needed to travel at 30,000 feet to take advantage of the fast moving jet stream, the biggest obstacle was the gas condensing during the nighttime. In order to keep it aloft, an altimeter would ignite a fuse, dislodging a sandbag hung from the bottom of the balloon which would shoot it back into the jet stream. The Fu-Go contained 30 of these sandbags to help it bob up and down all the way from Japan to the mainland of the United States.

The creativity involved to solve an insurmountable problem with the minimum of expense or effort would be just awe-inspiring, were the pursuit not so heinous in nature.

If you’ve got an iphone, go to the podcast icon on your phone and search for Radiolab – it’s completely free and new episodes come out weekly. Plus, there’s an absolute trove of back episodes you can download and listen to anywhere.

1996 Rears Its Head…

1996 Rears Its Head…

Back in 1996 (the year I graduated High School, btw) NPR started airing a segment by Radio Diaries, called “Teenage Diaries” which gave recording equipment to teenagers around the country to record their lives and thoughts for a year.

Recently, they’ve been doing follow ups with the initial participants as it’s been 17 years since they were 17 themselves. Obviously, when you hear of the existence of an audio time capsule dating to the same age you were at the time, you can’t help but be intrigued.

One of the teenagers, Melissa, had a baby that year which mirrors a friend of mine at the time. Actually, a few friends at the time, sadly. Listening to the recordings immediately takes me back to that time and place and reminds me of the feelings of uncertainty and confusion. What would their lives be like? What would the kids be like when they reached the same age? What the hell were we all thinking?

The most unsettling thing – or rather, the least expected – is how young they all sound. Despite the best attempts at appearing “grown up” they all come across as inherently uncertain and… very much like children, really.

Funny. Because growing up, I don’t think many of us thought of ourselves like children. We couldn’t wait to be adults and we thought we had a good handle on how to act that way. Perhaps “act” is the giveaway in that last sentence.

Personally, I have video recordings of my friends and I from various parties, and about 700 pages of notes collected from them during my High School years. In fact, a year ago when I moved, I took the time to organize them in chronological order. It’s all there: Loves lost and loves dreamt of that never happened, petty slights and minutiae of all sorts that are hard to recall. In a very real way, I have my own “Teenage Diaries” but it’s from all of my friends and what they were thinking; hopes, fears, posturing, pretending, achieving, regretting. So much weight for young minds and young hearts.

I’ve always been a fan of history since I was young, and maybe that’s why I’m drawn to this series, and why I kept all of that stuff in the first place. Notes between classes were always supposed to be throw away stuff – everyone else threw my notes away after all. Except for one ex-girlfriend who ceremoniously burned them in her fire place after some falling out. Friends would ask me why I kept them and I never had a great answer. “Maybe they’ll be important someday” or, “We’ll all want to read these!” but those were hopeful answers.

I now know the reason I kept all that stuff was to better understand myself and to hopefully understand “us” as a loose collection of friends. We’ve all grown up and out and rarely talk anymore, but I’m happy to report, we still talk. Those that matter most (and you never know who that is at the time) will always be there, time and time again. And it’s fun to share that history and look back and realize we didn’t have a clue. Not a real one anyway. We thought we knew who’d we become and what our lives would be like and virtually all of those predictions turned out wrong.

Rob, Chris, Tracy

Rob, Chris, Tracy

It’s an important lesson now to remember, as we look at the next 17 years. Who will we be at 51? As confident as we were then, I think it’s important to be reminded of the outcomes of our previous predictions as we make the next big decisions in our lives.

So, what’s the big take away? For me, it would be this: Beware hubris. Seek continuously to look at yourself through an honest lens. Don’t forget who you wanted to be and can still become. If that’s all I learned from this, then it’s an absolute fortune.

Oh, and one more thing: Don’t break up with an amazing young lady two days before prom – no matter the circumstances surrounding your own life situation.

The Secret of Life?

I read a story today about an ad that proclaimed to offer the “Secret of life” for the low price of 25 shillings. Intrigued, the author wrote a letter and included the price asked in the ad. A short time later he received an answer that stated simply “If you believe the Secret of Life would be available for a mere 25 shillings, you don’t deserve it. Please send 50 shillings to receive the Secret of Life.”

You have to love the chutzpah.



It got me thinking, how many are doing the same thing today? Maybe not so brazenly, but certainly in the same vein: “Secret to weight loss, Secret to Business Success, Secret to meeting the love of your life, etc…” Everyone has a hole they’re looking to fill in their lives and for each one, there are hundreds looking to fill it for them. 

For the less mature among you, this is a good place to pause for jokes.

I thought for a moment about setting up a site with a simple shopping cart and offering the “Secret of Life” for a dollar. Then, after people paid, I’d send them some fortune cookie quote that would purport to be the secret. Like, “Love is all you need” or some other platitude from the Beatles. Ugh. 

I couldn’t do it though. Not only for the technical barriers, but the idea of being one more jackanape preying on the weaknesses of well intentioned people was just too much. Afterall, someone already wrote “The Secret” which was about as bad as it gets. Cashing in on such garbage isn’t something I’d like to be involved in but I recognize it does sell. And maybe that’s what’s so sad about the whole thing.

Remember, if you see someone selling the Secret of Life for a pittance, you’re guaranteed of two things:

1. You get what you pay for. 

2. It wasn’t me.