Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Summer of Flying Saucers

This was the summer of flying saucers. On June 24, 1947, Kenneth Arnold, a private pilot out of Boise, Idaho, saw nine bright, shining aircraft in formation near Mount Rainier, Washington. He was not able to identify the aircraft. He could see only that each was shaped something like a flying wing, that they flew at tremendous speed, and that their individual motion was like that of a saucer skipped across the water. Upon landing his Call-Air A2 at Yakima, Washington, Arnold told a number of other pilots what he had seen. The story soon got out to the press, and within days, saucer mania was sweeping the nation.

At about the same time, Mac Brazel, a New Mexico rancher, found and recovered, with his family, the wreckage of what he assumed to be a weather balloon near their home in Corona. They reported their findings to the Lincoln County sheriff. Soon men from Roswell Army Air Field were on the case. On July 8, 1947, the story went out from the airfield that the U.S. Army Air Force had recovered the remains of a "flying disk." The next day the story went bust when the "disk" turned out to be nothing more than a wrecked weather balloon, just as Brazel had originally thought. That didn't stop later theorizers from contending that the debris was actually from a flying saucer, that the U.S. government had recovered and spirited away the saucer and its occupants, and that it had covered up the whole thing. That story of conspiracy and coverup was still years in the future, however.

Sometime around July 15, Kenneth Arnold received a letter from The Venture Press of Chicago. The author of the letter wanted to know about Arnold's experience of three weeks before. After some hesitation, Arnold wrote back to him, and within a few days, the men were corresponding by mail. Then the man from Venture proposed that Arnold investigate a purported sighting of flying saucers in Tacoma, Washington. And it wasn't just a sighting. In fact, the incident at Tacoma combined the best of Kenneth Arnold's original sighting of June 24 with the supposed crashdown near Roswell, for there was supposed to be physical evidence involved. And it was supposed to have taken place on June 21, giving the incident precedence over Arnold's own sighting. Kenneth Arnold's Chicago correspondent, by the way, was Raymond A. Palmer, editor of Amazing Stories, a science fiction magazine that had lately been publishing tales of the Shaver Mystery. As the summer of 1947 went on, Palmer must have seen flying saucers as the next big thing. 

The sighting in Tacoma, now called the Maury Island Incident, turned out to be a hoax, but Kenneth Arnold didn't know that at the time. He knew only feelings of unease, fear, and paranoia over the course of his investigation. Those feelings began when he found upon arriving in Tacoma that some unknown person had reserved a hotel room for him. Arnold had told no one of his trip. An unknown informant seemed to know everything that went on in his hotel room. He and another pilot searched the room for listening devices and found nothing. A house in Tacoma that he visited early in the investigation was empty on his second visit. Spider webs had been spun across the doorway. No one was around. In addition, the two men involved in the sighting, Harold A. Dahl and Fred L. Crisman, were secretive, evasive. They had misplaced important evidence and documentation. There was something amiss in their tale. They spoke of a mysterious and menacing man in black who knew everything about what they had seen and warned them against telling. Arnold never met the man. He did, however, meet two air force officers, Captain William L. Davidson and First Lieutenant Frank M. Brown, who arrived to investigate the incident. The two were killed in a plane crash on the way back to their base, and the physical evidence they had collected was presumably lost or destroyed. They were the first casualties of the flying saucer era. By the way again, Fred L. Crisman, who took part in the Maury Island Incident, had earlier written to Amazing Stories about a strange and frightening experience he supposedly had in Burma during World War II. His letter, published in the magazine in June 1946, was a warning not to pursue further investigations into the Shaver Mystery.

Kenneth Arnold departed from Tacoma on August 3, 1947. Less than two weeks later, on August 14, the first alien encounter of the new era occurred--or so the man said. His name was Rapuzzi Johannis--or so he said--and on that date, he claimed to have been searching for geological specimens in the Dolomite Mountains of Italy when he ran across two little green men and the spacecraft in which they had arrived on Earth. They shot him with a ray, paralyzing him, before fleeing in their ship. Being Italian aliens, they were stylishly dressed. Being Italian, they were probably enjoying the Ferragosto holiday when they were so rudely interrupted by an impertinent Earthman. Johannis didn't tell his story until a decade and a half had passed. In the meantime, he went to the United States, supposedly became acquainted with Raymond Palmer, and returned to his native country to write science fiction stories. Again, here was a witness claiming precedence, in this case as the first person in the flying saucer era to encounter space aliens.

Finally, to round out the summer of flying saucers, the National Security Act of 1947 went into effect on September 18, providing for the creation of the national security apparatus of the Department of Defense, the National Security Agency, and the Central Intelligence Agency. The creation of the U.S. Air Force, later the official governmental investigator of the flying saucer phenomenon, was also a result of the act. The mind of the conspiracy theorist boggles at the implications of the events that began and ended the summer of 1947.

So in the course of one season--Kenneth Arnold's original sighting took place two days after the summer solstice, and the National Security Act took effect five days before the autumnal equinox--much of the mythology for the flying saucer era was established (though most of this was done retroactively by writers and conspiracy theorists). In addition to sightings of flying saucers, there were reports--contemporaneous or not--of: crashdowns; recoveries of physical evidence, including alien bodies; the removal of alien bodies to secret government installations; encounters with live aliens; seizures and thefts of physical evidence; the involvement of government agencies in the flying saucer phenomenon; official secrecy, coverups, and conspiracies; and encounters with mysterious men in black. There were also the first official investigations; the first photographs of flying saucers; the first flying saucer hoaxes and pranks; the first flying saucer fads, crazes, merchandise, and culture; and the first flying saucer flap. Significantly, there were also the opposites of feeling when it comes to flying saucers: On one side, mystery, awe, wonder, hope, expectancy. On the other, fear, dread, anxiety, paranoia. The contactee and abductee phenomena were not fully formed in 1947, but as we'll see, those were and are late-stage developments, if not the very last stages of the flying saucer phenomenon, which has, at this late date, more or less reached its end.

Copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley


  1. Nice piece, but I think there's one clunker in there. In Two Irish Authors from April 30, 2016, you say,
    "In the early 1960s, Rapuzzi Johannis, an Italian artist and author, claimed to have encountered a little green man in the Dolomite Mountains of his home country in August 1947, the first summer of the flying saucer era."
    If that's correct, Johannis' controversial contact claim was retconned into 1947. If mentioned at all, it should be noted that if surfaced many years later.

    By the way, "The Saucers That Time Forgot" is a new blog looking at stories UFO historians either missed or would rather keep buried. http://thesaucersthattimeforgot.blogspot.com/

  2. Curt,

    I wrote later in the paragraph above: "Johannis didn't tell his story until a decade and a half had passed." Maybe I should have made that clear earlier in the paragraph, and maybe I should have made the point more forcefully.

    I tried to make it clear that in almost every case, the stories these people told were retroactive: the crash down at Roswell, complete with alien bodies, was a creation of the 1970s and after; the Maury Island Incident was a hoax backdated to June 21, 1947; Rapuzzi Johannis seems to have first published his account in 1964; and the formation of conspiracy theories about the U.S. government's involvement in flying saucers didn't occur until later. For example, the MJ-12 story, another hoax, is from the 1980s. The only thing that was documented in real time was the Kenneth Arnold story, without which there would not have been a flying saucer era.

    I hope to make a larger point of all this in the continuation of this series.

    Thanks for writing. Your comments help to keep me on the straight and narrow. Best wishes for your new blog.