Fun and Games
“We know now that after 1947 a UFO witness might be afraid to report a sighting publicly for fear of ridicule and intimidation,” writes Ted Bloecher. “But in 1947 there were no precedents to create this type of fear…no policies by either press or public, or any official agencies.”
This period of openness lasted less than three weeks.
Monday, July 7, 1947
Over the Fourth of July weekend, 28 states reported sightings on Saturday, 37 on Sunday. During the “July 4 Deluge,” stories jumped from the back pages to the front, heralded by banner headlines. There were so many that Louis E. Starr, national commander-in-chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said that “too little is being told to the people of this country” about the “fleets of flying saucers.”
On July 6, Kenneth Arnold, who had reported the original sighting on June 24, bought a movie camera, just in case. He’d received numerous letters and phone calls. Most were positive. To those who thought the craft were from outer space, he wrote: “I hope these devices are really the work of the U.S. Army.” If they were from somewhere else, though, “they aren’t harming anyone, and I think it would be the wrong thing to shoot one of them down — even if it can be done.”
The San Diego Tribune-Sun claimed that Vernon Baird, a pilot from Los Angeles, already had. On July 6, Baird and his photographer, George Suttin, were flying a P-38 over the Tobacco Root Mountains in Western Montana. They reached 32,000 feet in blustery air and began photographing the area between Yellowstone and Helena for Fairchild Engineers Co. About 100 yards behind them and coming up fast, Suttin noticed a “pearl-gray clam-shaped airplane with a Plexiglas dome on top.” The strange craft bobbed up and down “like a yo-yo,” even as its speed increased.
Baird took evasive action. The “yo-yo got caught in my prop wash,” he said, “and came apart like a clamshell. The two pieces spiraled down someplace in the Madison range.”
Other yo-yos appeared and dashed “around like a batch of molecules doing the rumba.” Suttin claimed he and Baird were so engrossed, he didn’t think to take a photo.
The story ran on July 7. Fairchild received so many calls that Baird’s boss, J.J. Archer, called the report “just the result of some wild talk.”
It was. Baird later confessed: “Three or four of us were sitting around the hangar gassing. We made it up. Somebody must have heard it and spread the word.” Unlike future hoaxers, Baird said he didn’t want his name in the paper; he just did it for fun.
On July 7, so many strange craft soared above San Diego that people said it felt like a scene from War of the Worlds. Around noon, under cloudy skies, Bob Wickham, 16, and Pat Curren, 14, saw a “saucer-shaped, silver object the size of an airplane flying south” over Mission Beach, “just above the horizon.”
When he heard the news, feeling free to talk once others had spoken up, W.R. Wisdom, a San Marcos rancher, recalled having seen a similar disk the day before, but his “left a trail of vapor behind it.”
Zack Moxley, a clerk at a grocery store on Pacific Coast Highway, noticed a formation of small, 12- to 15-inch disks just off-shore and heading toward Tijuana. “They went into the clouds soon after I spotted them and then appeared for about 22 seconds before going into another cloud. They were silvery and reflected the sun.”
The switchboards of newspapers, radio stations, and the weather service blinked nonstop: calls came in about a “huge silver saucer circling over Mission Hills at 500 miles an hour,” a woman told the Union.
“Looks like it wants to land at Lindbergh Field,” a man warned the Weather Bureau. Another asked if low-flying meteors could float or freeze in the air. And change direction?
“Shoppers and businessmen lined downtown streets peering intently at the sky,” wrote the Union. “Shouts of ‘there it is’ and ‘look, a flying saucer’ were heard as people gazed skyward at a round silvery object speeding aimlessly…upward above the city.”
The object rose, then halted, then slid to the right. The sun’s rays, glinting off its surface, would change its shape: at times it was a round, “blazing sphere”; at others, flat, saucer-like, or oval. Eventually it shrunk to a small, luminous pinprick, like a faraway star, and vanished aloft.
That same day, a man in East County swore he saw four saucers. They resembled chrome hubcaps, with each “flying an American flag.” But don’t fall for the stars and stripes, he cautioned, “they’re Russian saucers trying to fool us.”
At 5:20 p.m., bits of metallic paper rained down on East San Diego, El Cajon Boulevard around 54th in particular. Thousands of tiny strips like shredded tinfoil glittered on roofs and lawns. Students at Hoover High wondered if a flying saucer had disintegrated. The strips looked like foil-backed paper and fell from the sky like confetti. Can we touch them? Are they radioactive?
Or could they, as a policeman from the East County station suggested, be the “kind of stuff dropped from planes during the war to jam enemy radar”?
Called “radar windows” or “chaff,” military pilots had used small bits of aluminum as a countermeasure in World War II, creating clusters of targets on a radar screen.
The 11th Naval District denied any knowledge of the foil, adding that the electronics units at Ream Field — the Naval Outlying Field at Imperial Beach — always released theirs out at sea.
On July 10, the Navy announced a solution: an Army B-29 was using the “windows” to test radar equipment at Fort Rosecrans. The plane had come from Tucson and apparently mistook El Cajon Boulevard for the fort by the bay. The explanation came with a problem, however: the day before, an “aerial prankster” had bragged that he poured them from a Piper Cub as a joke.
Read more: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 4