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History Detectives: WPA Mural Studies, George Washington Miniature, Japanese Balloon Bomb

Airs Monday, August 24, 2009 at 10 p.m. on KPBS TV

Credit: Larry Johnson

Above: Five of Thelma Johnson Streat’s paintings. The color illustrations depict contributions of African Americans in the fields of medicine, transportation and industry. The family believes the WPA commissioned these mural studies in the 1930s and 1940s.

"WPA Mural Studies" – When a Bend, Oregon, woman inherited six large paintings created by her aunt, Thelma Johnson Streat, she believed she’d been given a special window into American history. She believes they were mural studies commissioned by the WPA in the 1930s or 1940s. The color illustrations depict contributions of African Americans in the fields of medicine, transportation and industry. The contributor thinks they could have been intended for school walls. "History Detectives" host Elyse Luray travels to Oregon, San Francisco and Chicago to find out whether any of these studies became murals and if any of Streat’s murals still exist.

"George Washington Miniature" – A Greenville, Ohio, man was sorting through documents stored above one of Manhattan’s first taverns when he stumbled across a miniature color painting of a man in profile labeled “G. Washington.” On the back of the portrait, he found the inscription, “Property of White Matlack. New York, 1790.” The historic tavern and museum sits just steps away from the old City Hall building on Wall Street where George Washington took his oath of office in 1789. "History Detectives" host Wes Cowan sets out to discover whether the artist painted this portrait of Washington from life, and to uncover its surprising connection to the little-known abolitionists and patriot White Matlack.

"Japanese Balloon Bomb" – The granddaughter of a World War II veteran from Austin, Texas, has a wartime memento with a note claiming it’s a piece of Japanese balloon that floated across the Pacific Ocean in 1945. The alleged balloon scrap could be evidence of a unique weapon in modern warfare: the Japanese balloon bomb.

More than 9,000 of these incendiary weapons were launched from Japan during the war via the jet stream with the intention of causing mass disruption and forest fires in the American West. The existence and purpose of the balloon bombs were kept secret from the American public for security reasons, until a tragic accident forced a change in policy. The balloon bombs caused the only fatalities on the U.S. mainland due to enemy action during World War II. "History Detectives" host Tukufu Zuberi travels to Austin, Texas and to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, to learn whether this souvenir is a missing piece of a secret weapon.

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