Thinking Flashes in the Sky (Part 3)

UFO vapor trails in San Marcos

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.

The silvery meteor hovering over Mission Hills? A “nine-foot helium-filled” balloon used for atmospheric forecasts, said Kurt Muerdter of the Weather Bureau. The bureau released one daily to record winds aloft. They rise “at the rate of 1000 feet a minute”; they “drift with the wind and rarely exceed 15 miles an hour. When they reach approximately 30,000 feet, they explode.”

Meade Lane, a student of parapsychology, offered a different explanation: “Flying saucers are now believed to be etheric constructions — i.e., constructed of etheric matter.” They materialize just as a dead person or a solid object is known to materialize under proper experimental conditions (séances).

“The disks can disappear by returning to the etheric level or vibratory state.” They show themselves “to attract attention to etheric worlds and life. They come in peace. They would like to try earth life for themselves.” Lane said his information came from a “hitherto dependable trance control.”

A United Press wire service story quoted Orson Welles. On October 30, 1938, Welles had done a radio broadcast of War of the Worlds on the Columbia Broadcasting System. The program began with soft dance music and a weather report. Then Welles said, “We interrupt this program…” He read a news flash: strange explosions on Mars. For the next 40 minutes Wells read urgent “news bulletins” about an invasion of Martians. He even gave emergency-response instructions for evacuation.

Thousands of panicked listeners phoned the CBS studio or the police, begging for more information. Some heard the broadcast in cars and drove mindlessly until they ran out of gas. A study said that, of an audience of six million people,1.7 million believed the broadcast to be true; 1.2 million were “genuinely frightened.” (It was even said that Adolf Hitler called the event “evidence of the decadence and corrupt condition of democracy.”)

Welles told the UP wire service he’d bet ten to one that the flying saucers of 1947 would “fizzle into fancy” the way his radio broadcast did in 1938. “I want everybody to know that I didn’t have anything to do with this saucer hoax…. I scared the shirts off Americans once. That was enough.”

Welles said that after the infamous airing, people began seeing strange objects in the skies — even armies of Martians. “People are imaginative and gullible.” But if these “saucers do turn out to be from Mars, I’ve been predicting that sort of thing for a long time.”

Welles added that he was currently filming Macbeth, starring himself, coming soon to a theater near you.

Earlier in the week, a scientist theorized that the strange craft might use a “transmutation of atomic energy.” Dr. Harold Urey, atomic scientist at the University of Chicago, replied: “You can transmute metals, not energy.” Urey said the phenomenon in general was “gibberish.”

Several organizations adopted a “put up or shut up” policy. The World Inventors Exposition in Los Angeles offered a $1000 reward for a saucer “in the next five days.” The Athletic Round Table, of Spokane, Washington, also offered $1000. A man in Chicago would pay $3000 for physical evidence. To which a Chicago paper replied: “A flying saucer in the hand was worth $3000 today, but those seen in the sky were still a dime a dozen.”

“Hoaxters and practical jokers made matters even worse,” wrote Ted Bloecher. “A number of financial rewards were offered by various individuals and organizations for the capture of a disk; these merely encouraged hoaxters and resulted in the exploitation of many false reports.”

Tuesday, July 8, 1947
The San Diego Evening Tribune-Sun reported that in the previous week there had been sightings in most of the 48 states, in Canada, and in Mexico. One of the few states that had no reports: Kansas — because, a wag boasted, “we’re a dry state.”

The story also claimed that “the Army Air and Ground Forces announced they were investigating the reported cloud-hopping disks with an open mind. But privately, high-ranking Army officers said they believed the saucers were a hoax, and some persons were the victims of hysteria.”

The Army also said that it was “significant that none of the disks had yet registered on Army radar.”

But beginning on July 1, trackers at the Roswell Army Air Force base had been following an unidentified blip. It puzzled them because it did things no known — or even experimental — plane could do. Trackers paid special attention because Roswell’s 509th was the only base in America with the atomic bomb. On July 4, the blip disappeared somewhere north of the town.

On July 6, Mac Brazel brought samples of something that had crashed on his ranch to Roswell sheriff George Wilcox. The sheriff could not identify the strange fragments — light as a feather yet bulletproof — and phoned Major Jesse Marcel, intelligence officer of Roswell’s 509th Bomb Group. Marcel visited the site, showed the samples to Walter Haut, the 509th’s press agent, and that afternoon Haut sent a press release to the wire services. The Roswell Daily Record broke the story: “RAAF CAPTURES FLYING SAUCER ON RANCH IN ROSWELL REGION.”

Next time: The Rise of Ridicule.

QUOTATIONS

  1. Detroit meteorologist (quoted in the Tribune-Sun): “Flying disks may be signals from Mars…. I admit it’s an unusual theory, but have you got a better one?”
  2. Wen-Gwang, Bang, Chinese Academy of Science (in Berliner): “In this field, prejudice will take you farther from the truth than ignorance.”
  3. Donald Keyhoe: “The more I learned about flying saucers, the less I knew.”

SOURCES
Berliner, Don, UFO Briefing Document, New York, 1995.

Bloecher, Ted, Report on the UFO Wave of 1947, NICAP, 1967.

Keyhoe, Donald, The Flying Saucers Are Real, New York, 1950.

McAndrew, Captain James, The Roswell Report: Case Closed, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1997.

Ruppelt, Edward J., The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, New York, 1956.

Vallee, Jacques, UFO’s in Space: Anatomy of a Phenomenon, New York, 1965.

Project 1947, “UFO Reports,” project1947.com.

Articles in various newspapers.

Read more: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 4

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