I have been chasing footnotes again as I work on my new book. This time the trouble wasn’t as outrageous as it has been in the past.
I was researching the series of sightings at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. These were radar and visual sightings that took place on September 10 and 11, 1951. It all began when a student radar operator tracked an object at a speed faster than fighters at the time. Not much later, the pilot of a jet trainer saw an object that he believed to be a flying saucer. Other radars were involved, though one of those sightings on the tenth was clearly a balloon. The next day there were some additional sightings. For our purposes here, the details of the sightings aren’t all that important. It is the footnote.
As I always do, I check the skeptical side of the argument to see if there is a plausible answer. The skeptics are not always wrong. In Curtis Peebles Watch the Skies, I found an explanation for the sightings and he referenced Ed Ruppelt, one time chief of Project Blue Book and the author of The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects published in1956, as the source. Peebles, I have noticed, wrote as if there are no UFOs, meaning alien craft, and tended to ignore the situation if the explanation was shaky… sort of the opposite of the true believers who write as if nothing anomalous has an explanation.
Given how Peebles had footnoted his entry, I checked my copy of Ruppelt’s book. Peebles had been discussing how the transition from Project Grudge to Project Blue Book had been handled, the involvement Major General Cabell and his outrage when he learned that nothing was actually being done to investigation the sightings at Fort Monmouth and the appointment of Ruppelt to take over the project.
The pages Peebles cited, while talking about all that, and mentioning Fort Monmouth, didn’t offer the explanation for the sighting he cited. That was nowhere to be found there. But I remembered that Ruppelt had seemed to dwell on the Fort Monmouth sightings more than what was in the sections noted by Peebles, so I flipped through the rest of the book until I found Ruppelt’s explanation for the sightings, which matched what Peebles had written. So, he wasn’t wrong in suggesting the sightings were solved and citing Ruppelt as the source. He simple didn’t get the page numbers right (providing, of course, that the edition I used was the one he used. It’s difficult to say for certain because all of them have the same copyright date to add to the confusion).
The other thing that I did and I’m not sure that Peebles did, was search the Blue Book file on the Monmouth case. It is clear from some of the documentation that part of the purpose of their investigation was to mock those who had reported the UFO. It came in a climate in which the Air Force wasn’t taking UFO sightings seriously, which explains why no one had bothered to investigate until Cabell, or one of his aides, had a meltdown about the lack of investigation. If nothing else, they should have been concerned about something unidentified flying along the coastal defense zones of the United States. Such an attitude might have overlooked something more dangerous than a radar image traveling at high speed.
There is one other aspect to this. Ed Ruppelt’s papers were purchased long after his death. In those papers is a report of a wire recording made by Jerry Cummings, who, at one point in early 1950, was the ranking officer for the UFO investigation. Apparently the Fort Monmouth case isn’t quite as cut and dried as Ruppelt, and later Peebles, made it seem. And to add to the confusion, in Grudge Special Report No. 1, dated December 28, 1951, the T-33 sighting made by Lieutenant Wilbert S. Rogers was listed as “probably a balloon.” Later, in line with the Project Blue Book policy, the “probably” was dropped and it became a balloon though Rogers denied that he had been fooled by a balloon.
The real point here is that in chasing the footnotes, I discovered a minor error in Peebles’ book that is easily correctable. All he needed was to add an additional page number. He did, however, point to Ruppelt’s book as his source and with that I was able to verify that he had quoted the material correctly. That it partially disagrees with the Blue Book information that is buried under a pile of rhetoric, changing investigative policy and a desire to eliminate all the unidentified cases is really a minor point. It’s just that sometimes you have to look beyond the answer you want to hear to the one that complicates everything ever more.