Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Revising UFO History

I was reading a new book the other day, Strange Company by Keith Chester (seen here), and realized a couple of things. First, we’re going to have to change the history of the UFO phenomenon. Until this book came out, we all dated the "modern" era from the Kenneth Arnold sighting of June 24, 1947. It is now clear that the modern era began during the Second World War.

Let me explain that quickly. Chester’s book is about the foo fighters that we’ve all heard about. I believed that these were balls of light, maybe St. Elmo’s Fire or the like, that followed Allied aircraft on their missions during the war. I had thought of them as indistinct, small, glowing orbs of ionized air and that while some pilots thought of them as possible enemy weapons, there wasn’t much to them.

Chester, in his book details hundreds of sightings, many of them suggesting large, solid objects. Chester, using the style of the 1960s UFO books, gives us many sightings, but he includes the names of the witnesses and often the documents, once classified, but now housed in the National Archives that provide the details.

He also tells us of a coordinated effort on the part of Allied intelligence to identify the objects, believing them to be either new German weapons, or in the Pacific, new Japanese weapons. Our aircraft fired on them more than once, but there seems to have been no retaliation and while the capabilities of these objects worried the Allied powers at the highest levels, there seemed to be no actual indications that they were any sort of enemy technological break through.

There was a large intelligence effort to solve the riddle of the foo fighters with many believing that at the end of the war they would learn the truth. That didn’t happen, but with so many of the sightings classified, no one really talked about them. True, some of the high ranking officers or scientists on the other side were interviewed, but they were as confused as those on the Allied side. Only once in a great while would something appear about the foo fighters, but my impression, and I’m sure that of others was that, from a ufological point of view, there was nothing much to them.

The modern era, then, begins not in June, 1947, but during the war... and I haven’t even approached the idea of the Ghost Rockets seen in Europe in the summer of 1946. This was a series of sightings that mirrored those that would be reported here in 1947. We basically ignored it because the sightings were limited in scope and many believed them to be the result of hysteria that survived the war. (And yes, I know that US government sent Jimmy Doolittle to investigate, but that really is a subject for another posting).

Now, all of this is very interesting, but there are a couple of names that surface in Chester’s book that I found just as interesting. One of them is Colonel Howard McCoy. Many inside the UFO field don’t know who he was, but in 1947 and later, he held an important intelligence post. He was the chief of T-2 of the Air Materiel Command’s intelligence division that included oversight of Project Sign, the original UFO investigation.

Given the interest in the flying saucers (a term in widespread use in 1947 contrary to the opinions of a few in the UFO field) the Air Force created a science advisory board chaired by rocket expert Theodore von Karman. They held their first important meeting in March, 1948 and in attendance was McCoy. The minutes of that meeting were declassified in 1996.

During that March meeting, as McCoy briefed the scientists about the intelligence mission, McCoy said, "We have a new project - Project Sign - which may surprise you as a development from the so-called mass hysteria of the past Summer when we had all the unidentified flying objects or discs. This can’t be laughed off... We are running down every report. I can’t tell you how much we would give to have one of those crash in an area so that we could recover whatever they are."

(Yes, I know this is an important statement for the skeptics of the Roswell case, but that’s not the point of this posting... we’ll look at it in a later report.)

McCoy, then, had been charged, indirectly, with the investigation of the flying saucers. If this was his first brush with that, we could make a number of arguments but those simply won’t fly when we examine the information that comes from Chester’s book (seen below).

We learn that in August, 1944, the Allies created the Combined Intelligence Objectives Subcommittee (CIOS) which was charged, in part, with the problem of the foo fighters. They held their first meeting in London on September 6, 1944, and what is interesting is some of the representatives who are there... one, Commander Ian Fleming, I mention simply because he would write the James Bond novels, but two of the others are Howard Robertson of the 1953 Robertson Panel on UFOs and another is Colonel Howard McCoy.

That’s the same McCoy who would find himself charged with the first official investigation of UFOs in 1948 known as Project Sign (and called Project Saucer in the public arena for those who didn’t think they used the term then).

But what is interesting here is that we find that reports about the foo fighters have ended up like those of UFOs. Those in a position to know what was happening produced classified documents that have now disappeared. A great deal of data had been gathered and while it seems that many believed the foo fighters to be enemy weapons, that certainly wasn’t the case. Interrogations of high-ranking officers and captured scientists, after the war, showed that they knew no more about the foo fighters than did the Allies. All sides seemed to believe that the foo fighters belonged to the other.

When we reach 1947, McCoy found himself in the same place he had been during the war. Reports of strange objects in the sky, not just bright lights or balls of fire, but of solid, metallic craft coming from trained pilots. True, there were more reports from civilians and it’s probably true that the military didn’t care about those, but they were getting reports from both military and civilian pilots. Those couldn’t be ignored.

McCoy still had no answer. All he knew was that something that had appeared during the war that had seemed to be confined to the combat arenas in Europe and the South Pacific were now over the United States. He still didn’t know what they were, and that might have colored his thinking.

After the sightings over Washington, D.C. in the summer of 1952, the president wanted some answers. One of the things done was the creation of a scientific panel to study the UFOs, using the best of the cases from what was then known as Project Blue Book [which had superceded Project Grudge which had superceded Project Sign]. This panel was sponsored by the CIA and who chaired it? Howard Robertson, the same guy who had worked with McCoy during the war.

Other members of the panel was Luis Alverez and Samuel A. Goudsmit, who were both involved in the investigation of the foo fighters. About the only person missing from the list was Howard McCoy, but then, McCoy did have representatives there in the guise of the Project Blue Book officers whose role was to provide information for the panel.

Their conclusions, which were probably influenced by their investigations of the foo fighters, was that the flying saucers posed no threat to national security. If we count the foo fighters in the UFO mix, then these things had been around for more than a decade and there were no reports of flying saucers damaging our national security at that time.

The Second name that caught my attention was William Blanchard. In 1947 Blanchard was the commanding officer in Roswell but during the war he commanded the 40th Bomb Group. I wouldn’t mention this, except that during the October 25, 1944 mission, three of his B-29 crews reported high-altitude balloons on three separate occasions. About three years later, a high altitude balloon called Mogul would allegedly fool Blanchard’s intelligence officer and Blanchard himself. He would order then Lieutenant Walter Haut to issue a press release saying they had captured one of the flying saucers. Makes you wonder what it is about Blanchard and high altitude balloons that kept him, or members of his unit, from identifying them.

What this shows is that the all the early UFO phenomena is interconnected with the same names popping up in the early history. Those who investigated the foo fighters, those who saw and reported foo fighters were those who reported flying saucers and who investigated them.

The one common element in all of this is secrecy. First a secrecy borne in the necessity of the war and later a secrecy that is the natural outgrowth of high level military and scientific thinking. But it is a secrecy that has inhibited UFO research from the very beginning and it is a secrecy that is only now being lifted so that we can glimpse the truth.

For more information, see:


RRRGroup said...


The term "flying saucers" wasn't in use before Ken Arnold's sighting, June 1947, so with only six months left in 1947, it's a stretch to say that "flying saucer" was the argot for the things being spotted in all of 1947.

Moreover, the term was lightly used by media for the rest of the year, with flying disks or discs being the general term for the phenomena.

Flying saucer was, as we note elsewhere, a code-word for the military, indicating something of a metallic structure that seemed to be other-worldly.

Marcel's use of the word during the Roswell incident was a kind of wink that he saw evidence of a metallic vehicle that seemed alien to him.

Everyone else, including the Haut press release (and Ramey's telegram, if Rudiak is right) used the term flying disk.

Flying saucer, as a term, wasn't used as prominently as you suggest.

While by 1948 "flying saucer" was in wide-spread use, it wasn't so in 1947 until later in the year.

And that meeting you cite in March 1948, where McCoy uses the term "unidentified flying objects" to define the pehenomena, seems anachronistic, as Ruppelt hadn't coined the term UFO before 1951 if I remember correctly.


starman said...

I was well aware that some flying saucers were seen in WWII. IIRC a GI saw a bunch of them over Guadalcanal, and a pilot had a scary encounter with a UFO. Sightings weren't limited to foo fighters. Still, there were also UFOs in 1909, and based on artwork etc, possibly for centuries prior to that. The WWII sightings were relatively limited in scope and they did no mark the start of a continuous phenomenon, which began in '47. So I'd stick with the latter date as the start of the modern era.

KRandle said...

All you need to do is look at the newspapers of 1947 to see that flying saucer was a term used interchangeably with flying disk. There are those who suggest that it wasn't used in 1947 and those people are wrong. Now we're arguing over semantics but if you review the newspapers in 1947, you'll find the term used frequently.

If you review the document cited which is the Scientific Adviosry Board meeting minutes, a document for which we have a provanance, you'll see the term used there.

In the Project Blue Book files, on roll 85, Administration Files: Box 1, you'll find, for example, "Technical Report, "Unidentified Flying Objects, Project GRUDGE," Aug. 1949: 408 pp. So, while Ruppelt takes the credit for originating the term, it's clear that others had used it prior to his selecting it for "official use." I guess this is something like Donald Trump trying to copyright the term, "You're fired." Others used it before him.

It might be that Ruppelt began using UFO as shorthand for unidentified flying object, but knowing the military, he might have just as easily called it a Uniflob.


KRandle said...

My point here is that the sightings of the foo fighters is much more widespread than we thought, thanks to the work of Keith Chester. We learn of all sorts of studies and formerly classified reports that shows us all of this. Prior to Chester's book, the perception had been of a limited number of sightings of balls of light. After Chester, we see that it was a widespread phenomenon that was worldwide in scope but it was the secrecy of the time that limited our knowledge of it. Take a look at Chester's book and see if you don't change your mind on this.

Jerry Clark said...

I'm glad you're giving Chester's fine book the attention it deserves. As I wrote in the foreward, "Keith Chester challenges decades of conventional wisdom about the UFO phenomenon.... The persistent (as opposed to occasional) UFO phenomenon, in just about all of its varieties, arrived during World War II, not in 1947." And of course, you're right that "flying saucer" and "flying disc" were used interchangeably in the early weeks and months of the UFO controversy.

Another point: As editor and grammarian I am puzzled by your use of the ungrammatical "the UFO phenomena." It's "the UFO phenomenon." You can say "UFO phenomena" (no "the") as long as you follow it with a plural verb, just as we speak of "UFO sightings" but not "the UFO sightings." Phenomenon is singular. Phenomena is plural.

cda said...

I don't see any need for revising UFO history because of the foo fighters. These were known about in the early 1950s as a result of Keyhoe's books. It was the term 'flying saucer' that started in 1947, but we all know that sightings of strange aerial objects began long before then. Look at Charles Fort. It does not surprise me in the least that some of the people involved in the early UFO investigations were the same as those involved in the foo fighter problem. As for what constitutes the 'modern era' people can make their own choice over this. Some include the 1896-97 airship wave and the 1909-13 Europe (and New Zealand) flap. See ALIEN CONTACT by Bartholomew & Howard.

RRRGroup said...


I use "phenomena" as a singularity, comprising many things but representing one, UFO.

For me, it's like The Holy Trinity -- three persons in one God.

(You're familiar with the concept, I know.)

I use media as a singularity also, which makes reporters and editors crazy when we (The RRRGroup, also a singularity of sorts) attack the whole media panoply as one thing (because of the liberal mind-set I suppose).

Yes, I know it's a Humpty-Dumpty way of using the language, and just as grammatically fragile.

So forgive the eccentricity....but UFOs are phenomena, and not just one kind of thing.


Randel Smith said...

Hi Kevin,

In case you were not aware, Dr. Luis Alvarez was a close associate of Dr. Ernest O. Lawrence, inventor of the cyclotron and a co-founder of Lawrence Livermore National Lab. He was naturally a key figure in the Manhatten Project.

Randel Smith

Terry's Bazaar said...

I have not read Keith Chester's book Strange Encounters re foo fighters in World War II. The intelligence community interest in these, the subsequent ''ghost rockets'' over northern Europe post WW II, and the collection and analysis of UFO reports globally from Roswell onwards is of interest to me as a former special communications operator. I saw several special handling caveats in the ''ghost rockets'' reports and then the gradual compartmentation between front channel and back channel handling starting in the mid-1950s. This is seen in the use of plain language addresses such as SSO ATIC WPAFB OH in several teletype messages and the introduction of the 4602nd Air Intelligence Service Squadron for analysis of reports. The open source collection continues. For example the DOS (Dept. of State) collects publicized reports by cable (messages) under the TAGS/Terms of TSPA. This is defined here: . It is evident to me that back channel comms has collected UFO reports from early on and continues to do so today. The DOS TAGS/Terms handbook is here: .


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