Behind the Scenes
During the past year, behind the scenes at the Pentagon, I have watched the Air Force struggle with an explosive problem:
What shall the public be told about the flying saucers?
Since 1951 a selected group of high government officials has been secretly briefed on the saucers by Air Force Intelligence. More than one former skeptic, after these closed-door sessions, has emerged badly jolted by the Intelligence officers' disclosures.
In the last nine months I have seen most of the evidence used in these secret briefings. Confidential sighting reports, by Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps pilots, have been cleared to me with the conclusions of Air Technical Intelligence. Other important clues, unknown to most Americans, have been released by Project Bluebook, the "saucer" investigating agency at Wright-Patterson Field. Little by little the curtain has been raised to reveal a sobering picture.
So far, there is no proof of hostility. But several times these weird machines have come dangerously close to planes—foreign as well as American. One such approach, the evidence shows, led to a tragic disaster.
The date was May 2, 1953. It was raining that night at
Calcutta, as a British Comet jet-liner, with 43 aboard, took off from Dum Dum Airport. With its jets spitting flame, the ship climbed up and quickly disappeared.
Six minutes later, up in that somber night, something hit the Comet. Bits of the shattered airliner came flaming down through the rain. When it was over, the wreckage lay strewn across five square miles of ground.
The Dum Dum Airport tower heard no distress call. Whatever happened, it came too swiftly for the pilot to flash a message.
Carefully, Civil Air Ministry investigators gathered up the broken fragments. For days experts analyzed the strangely battered wreckage. Then the Air Ministry gave out a guarded statement.
The Comet had been hit by an unidentified flying body.
(In the United States the official term for a flying saucer is "unidentified flying object.")
Disturbing as it is, the Comet crash does not prove a hostile purpose. The collision may have been an accident, caused by an ill-timed "observation" approach on that dark and rainy night. But it could have been a deliberate test-attack by a flying weapon under remote control.
From the sighting patterns, the long saucer reconnaissance is possibly nearing its climax. The final operation may be entirely peaceful; if so, it could be of benefit to everyone on earth. But there are possible dangers, including one peril suggested by an Air Force Intelligence colonel.
Like many Air Force officers, I believe the American people should be told all the facts. An official admission that the flying saucers are real will startle many Americans. If it shows the conclusions of certain Intelligence officers, it will probably cause hysteria, until the first shock subsides.
But sooner or later the evidence must be made public, if not the final answer. If a crisis should come, knowing the facts now will help us to be prepared. It will also help
us to avoid any hasty steps that might change a peaceful contact into sudden, worldwide tragedy.
On the night of December 4, 1952, a frightened Air Force pilot landed at Laredo, Texas. Since actual names are deleted, in clearing Intelligence reports, I have called him Lieutenant Earl Fogle.
Twelve miles from the field, Fogle told air base officers, a mysterious, blue-lighted object had almost crashed into his fighter. It had been no accident—the strange device had raced head-on at his lighted F-51. At the last instant it had flipped to one side, streaking by at terrific speed.
Badly shaken, Fogle watched it flash up in a vertical climb. After a moment the blue-lit object turned, circling back as if for another pass. Fogle hastily switched off his lights, nosed down in a steep spiral.
The unknown machine dived to 2,000 feet. Apparently missing Fogle's plane in the dark, it circled toward Laredo Air Force Base, then swiftly turned away. Again climbing straight upward, it disappeared in the night.
Three years before, many Air Force officers would have scoffed at Fogle's report. He was not ridiculed now. For two hours Intelligence officers grilled him on every detail.
Did the UFO (unidentified flying object) seem to be piloted or under remote control? What was its size and shape, its speed compared with a jet? Did it oscillate in flight, or flutter when it climbed? Did the blue light blink or pulsate?
On and on went the probing questions, worked out by the Air Technical Intelligence Center to identify UFO types. Then secret reports were put on the wires, for the ATIC at Dayton and Intelligence Headquarters in Washington.
Several weeks later I learned the full details of the Laredo encounter. The Intelligence report was cleared for me by Albert M. Chop, the Air Force civilian expert on UFO's. Two years before, as acting press chief at Dayton,
Chop had learned most of the flying saucer story from Project Intelligence officers. When he transferred to the Pentagon, he had become the Air Force press specialist on the flying saucers.
It was the latter part of January when I saw the Laredo report. About noon that day Chop phoned me from the Pentagon.
"Don, can you get in here by 2 o'clock?"
"Why, what's up?" I said.
"Intelligence is ready to screen that saucer film—"
"You mean the secret one?"
"No, that's still under wraps," he said quickly. "I meant the South Carolina pictures—the ones you got McLean to send in for analysis. It'll be a private screening—you'll be the only one outside of Defense people."
"OK, Al," I said. "I’ll be there by 2."
"You might drop in earlier," he suggested. "I've got some of those sightings you asked me to clear."
As I drove in to the Pentagon, I thought over the McLean report. The pictures had been taken near Landrum, South Carolina, on November 16, 1952. About 5 o'clock hundreds of people near Florence had seen a huge, gleaming disc traveling across the sky. An air-traffic controller at Florence Airport, who watched it through binoculars, reported the disc tilted up sharply before it climbed out of sight.
About six minutes later a group of round; glowing objects were sighted north of Landrum. Among those who saw them were; J. D. McLean, David S. Bunch, and their wives. Using an 8-mm. camera with a telephoto lens, Bunch took 40 feet of film before the strange objects disappeared in the west.
After the film was developed, Bunch had turned it over to McLean's son, the editor of the Ingalls Shipbuilding Corporation News. Later, young McLean had asked me about submitting it to the Air Force. At first he was afraid the film would be confiscated. But after I got him a promise
of extra copies, he sent in the original for ATIC analysis.
When I reached the Pentagon, Chop was away from his desk. It was 20 minutes before the screening, so I skimmed through the Intelligence reports which had just been cleared. With the sightings was an ATIC statement bluntly refuting the theories of Dr. Donald Menzel, a Harvard astronomer who had tried to debunk the saucers as mirages and other illusions.
Weeks before, I'd been told what most Air Force officers thought of Menzel's theories. But to make it official, I'd put some pointed questions to Project Bluebook. This was the ATIC answer.
"These explanations were known to the Project, and carefully considered, long before Menzel published his theories. They explain only a small per cent of the sightings ... At the request of ATIC, prominent scientists analyzed Menzel's claims. None of them accepted his answers . . . Dr. Menzel was invited by Project Bluebook to apply his theories to any or all of the unexplained sightings, using Project records cleared for this purpose. He has not availed himself of this offer.
There was a lot more, but that could wait. The new sightings looked important.
The first ATIC report was dated January 9, 1953. (As in all these official cases, witnesses' names have been changed in accordance with Air Force requirements.)
Early on the evening of the 9th, a B-29 bomber, with Captain George Madden at the controls, was flying over California on a routine mission. Lieutenant Frank Briggs, the copilot, had the right-hand seat.
It was a clear night. Looking down, they could see Santa Ana, some 16,000 feet below. Except for the B-29, the sky seemed to be empty.
Captain Madden was checking his instruments when a flash of blue light suddenly caught Briggs' eye. He stared out to the right. Coming toward them, at fantastic speed, was a V-formation of blue-lighted objects.
Briggs gave a shout of warning. Madden took one look, hurriedly swerved to the left. For a split second the strange craft seemed to hold their speed. Then they abruptly slowed down, the V-formation twisting as if a few of the machines had overshot. Banking away, they slanted upward and vanished.
The entire sighting had lasted only five seconds.
The captain and Briggs stared across at each other. Now that the formation was gone, the whole thing was like a dream. But whatever they were, the blue UFO's had been real.
Though Madden knew of no supersonic test plane that could make such speeds, he cut in his mike and called Air Traffic Control. In a few moments the answer came back. No experimental aircraft—no planes of any kind—were known to be in their area.
After landing, both pilots were cross-examined, separately and together. From the wording of the report, it was plain that Intelligence did not question the truth of their statements.
The next sighting had happened back in October. At 2 o'clock, on the morning of the 29th, Lieutenants Burt Deane and Ralph Corbett were on an intercept mission over Hempstead, Long Island. Both pilots were flying F-94 jets, with radar operators in the rear cockpits.
Suddenly a fast-moving object, showing a bright white light, appeared a few miles ahead. Because of its brilliance, the shape behind the light was hidden.
Deane, the flight leader, signaled Corbett to "lock on" by radar and follow. Then he tried to close in. He knew at once they had been spotted. Whipping into a tight circle, the UFO cut inside the pursuit curve he had set up. At full power, Deane tried to tighten up, almost blacking out from the high-g turn. But the saucer still turned inside his orbit.
For eight minutes Deane and Corbett vainly attempted to match the machine's amazing performance. Finally, as
if tired of the game, the UFO climbed away at supersonic speed.
Both pilots were convinced the saucer was some kind of revolutionary device.
"Based on my experience in fighter tactics," Lieutenant Deane told Intelligence, "it is my opinion that the object was controlled by something having visual contact with us. The power and acceleration were beyond the capability of any known U. S. aircraft."
Below this, the Wing Intelligence officer had added:
"It is believed this report is based on reliable and verifiable observations."
The third Intelligence report covered the Laredo action, but I had time for only a quick glance. I read over Fogle's description of the object he had encountered. Apparently the blue-lighted UFO's were on the increase. But at least two other types had been seen recently, as previous reports showed, not only in America but by our pilots all over the world.
Though few of these recent military sightings were known to the public, several saucers had been seen by civilians—near defense areas or over various cities. It could be the beginning of a new cycle.
If the public sightings kept on, the Air Force might be in for another tense period, trying to stop hysteria. Six months before, in July, a wave of published reports, topped by the eerie happenings at Washington Airport, had almost blown off the lid.
It had taken a special Air Force press conference to debunk the saucers and ward off the rising panic. Even then, it had been close. The memory still haunted more than one Intelligence officer who knew the inside story.
Just as I was starting for the projection room, Chop came in. A quiet, blue-eyed, serious-faced man in his mid-thirties, he sometimes had a dead-pan expression that told exactly nothing. But today he had a look of suppressed excitement.
"Something new?" I asked him.
He hesitated. "There's been another Intelligence conference on the 'U' pictures." This was the code letter for the secret saucer film. "I can't tell you anything definite-it's not settled yet."
That was all he would say. But I knew what the secret film showed, and what Intelligence was considering. If the plan went through, a lot of Americans were due for a big surprise.
"We'd better get upstairs," said Chop, "before they start that picture."
While we were climbing the stairs to the fifth floor, he told me he had a message from Captain Ed Ruppelt, the Intelligence officer of Project Bluebook.
"Ed's going to recommend that you go on active duty with the Project, for a couple of weeks anyway. You'd be able to see everything in their files, and it would save time clearing reports."
Three years ago this proposal would have amazed me. In 1949, after months of investigation, I wrote an article for True magazine, stating that the saucers were probably interplanetary machines. Within 24 hours the Air Force was swamped with demands for the truth. To end the uproar the Pentagon announced that the saucer project was closed. The saucers, the Air Force insisted, were hoaxes, hallucinations, or mistakes.
Later, in a book called The Flying Saucers Are Real, I repeated my belief that the Air Force was keeping the answer secret until the country could be prepared. Several times officers at the Pentagon tried to convince me I'd made a bad mistake. But when I asked them to prove it by showing me the secret sighting reports, I ran into a stone wall.
Then suddenly, in August of 1952, the Air Force had changed its Sphinx-like attitude. In the last six months I'd seen the most baffling cases in the ATIC's secret files.
At first I'd been suspicious of this sudden cooperation. But I thought I knew the reason now . . .
The Intelligence officers were just going in when we came to the projection room. Two of them were top UFO authorities—Colonel William A. Adams, a compact six-footer, and Colonel Wendell S. Smith, a solid-built officer with command-pilot wings above his rows of ribbons.
The rest of the group had already arrived. One was a former Naval Intelligence officer named Billingsley, now attached to the Office of Secretary of Defense. The others were PIO's—public information officers. I recognized Colonel James K. Dowling and Colonel William S. Boyd. Some months back Colonel Boyd and I had had a blunt discussion about keeping facts from the public. But since I'd seen the evidence, I realized the serious problem they faced.
On the first run of the McLean film the scene was blurred. When the screen was brought closer, five glowing oval shapes appeared against the clouds. It was a weird effect, especially on color film, but because of the fading daylight no details could be seen. The picture was run three times, the Intelligence men peering closely at the screen.
"That's enough, we don't want to scratch it," Colonel Adams said crisply. He turned to an Intelligence captain. "Have copies made as soon as you can, so we can start the analysis."
"How long will the analysis take?" I asked Colonel Adams.
"Weeks, maybe months, if they don't get an easy answer. Assuming the film's genuine, and I'm sure it is, those people certainly saw something queer. You can't tell much, though, until the prints are blown up and checked frame by frame. If they prove to be bona-fide UFO's—not some light phenomenon—then the hard work begins."
Someone called him aside, and I turned to Colonel Smith. We talked for a minute about the secret film.
"Of course, that's a lot different from this McLean film," I said, "especially the speeds and maneuvers."
Colonel Smith nodded.
"You think that film will ever be made public?" I asked.
"I believe so," he said slowly. "But when, I don't know."
"I wonder what the effect will be, if the Air Force puts out the analysis, too."
The Colonel soberly shook his head. "It's hard to say, but there's no—" he stopped as Chop came up. "Al will let you know the final decision on that. It shouldn't be too long."
Chop gave me a dry smile when we left the others.
"I wasn't trying to pump Colonel Smith," I said. "Unless you've been holding out, I already know everything about those pictures."
"You've got the works," Chop said. "But remember the film's still secret, even if we did confirm it for you."
On the way out of the Pentagon, I dropped in at the second-floor snack bar for a cup of coffee. A lanky Air Force captain with a lean, ironic face was just coming out. He looked familiar, but his black mustache stopped me. Then as he paused to light his pipe, he glanced up and I recognized Jim Riordan, a jet pilot I'd known for several years, along with his wife Sheila.
(At Jim's request I have changed his last name, though none of the information he gave me later was restricted in any way.)
"Are you stationed here, Jim?" I asked as we shook hands.
"No, thank God," Riordan said tartly. "I'd rather take the MIG's again than be stuck in this mausoleum. In fact, I'm out of the service. I just came over to see one of my old gang"
He saw me glance at his Distinguished Flying Cross and Silver Star ribbons.
"Haven't had time to get civilian clothes—only been out
a couple of days. The Air Force took so much fat off me my old civvies look like bags."
"When were you in Korea?" I said.
"Got back a couple of weeks ago. Why?"
"Did you see any saucers over there?"
He gave me a sidewise look.
"I heard about two or three sightings."
"Did you ever try to intercept a UFO?"
"I wouldn't tell you, of all people," growled Riordan. "The Air Force would hang me."
"Maybe not." I showed him the ATIC reports. Riordan's brows went up.
"What's the deal?" he said suspiciously. "After that book of yours, I thought you'd be pure poison to the Air Force."
"They've got a new policy. This thing may be out in the open before long."
"It's a little late," Riordan said grimly. "The way people are mixed up . . ."
He broke off, his black eyes flicking over the Santa Ana report. When he finished, he shook his head.
"Suppose the newspapers had got hold of that captain's story—you know some of them monitor airways frequencies, to get scoops on crashes. The way they'd have played it up, it would have scared a lot of people."
"They've been playing it down," I told him. "Probably they'd have tossed in one of the usual answers—like ground-light reflections on windshields."
"They must think pilots are fools," snapped Riordan. He hunted through the report, jabbed his finger at a paragraph. "See what this Intelligence officer says? 'Both pilots were familiar with the reflective characteristics of B-29 cockpits. These were checked to insure that the lights were not ground reflections.' That's the first thing we do if we see a strange light."
"Most people don't know that. If you're not a pilot, ground-light reflections sounds like a good answer."
"There've been too many good answers," Riordan retorted. "That's what makes it dangerous—people don't know what to believe. You remember that panic in '38, when Orson Welles put on a radio play about an invasion from Mars?"
I said I did; I didn't tell him the memory of that stampede still worried Defense officials.
"Well, people are more ripe for panic than they were then," said Riordan. "You take those blue saucers—suppose they'd swooped down over Los Angeles. Or make it right here. Just imagine what would happen if those things came streaking in over Washington, down low where everybody could see them. It'd make that Orson Welles deal look like a Sunday school picnic."
"I'm not so sure," I said. "Those people had it sprung on them cold, and the radio play built up the monster idea. Just seeing a saucer formation wouldn't necessarily cause a panic—"
"Unless somebody began yelling 'Invasion from Mars!' " Riordan said sardonically. "And you can bet some fool would."
He glanced at his wrist watch.
"I've got to run, but I'd like to hear more about this new setup. Let's get together."
"How about tomorrow night?"
"No, I'm meeting some of my old outfit—wait a minute, they'd like to be in on it, too. OK, let's say Bolling Field, around 7. These guys are flying in about then. Incidentally, I’ll give you a tip on a Japan sighting by a fighter wing commander. There was a little AP item on it, so I won't be breaking security."
We agreed to meet at the Officers' Club, and I went out to the Mall parking zone where I'd left my car.
There was one angle Riordan hadn't mentioned, though I was sure he knew it—the saucers' effect on our radar-warning system. In the last two years hundreds of fighters had been scrambled to intercept UFO's. Blips from these
mysterious machines had shown up on many radar screens, here and at foreign bases. Until the blips were tied to saucers, there was always a chance of a surprise attack by enemy aircraft.
Usually the saucers' high-speed maneuvers were easily recognized by trained radar operators. But sometimes lower UFO speeds made them harder to identify. If this happened at a time of enemy air attack, it could cause serious trouble. Fighters badly needed for defense might have to be diverted from enemy bombers, to make sure the saucers were not additional raiders.
When I got home, I read over the rest of the ATIC answers to Menzel's theories.
Several of Menzel's claims had startled me, in view of his scientific background. Most surprising of all were his easy solutions of the more baffling cases—sightings still unexplained by Air Technical Intelligence.
One of these was the puzzling case of Captain Thomas Mantell, who died when his fighter crashed during a saucer chase. The weird object he chased was also seen by thousands of people in Kentucky, including the commanding officer, several pilots, and the control tower operators at Godman Field.
Dr. Menzel's explanation was simple. Mantell, he said, was lured to his death by a "sundog"—a glowing mock sun caused by ice crystals in cirrus clouds. Though Menzel did not say so, he implied that all the other witnesses were likewise deluded.
Another unsolved Air Force case, which Menzel quickly explained, was the 1948 "space ship" sighting by Eastern Air Lines pilots. This strange-looking craft, which the pilots encountered near Montgomery, Alabama, was also seen earlier near Robbins Field, at Macon, Georgia.
Again, Menzel had an easy solution: All the witnesses were misled by a mirage caused by layers of hot and cold air.
A third sighting which Menzel quickly solved was the
case of Lieutenant George Gorman, who chased an oddly maneuvering light over Fargo, South Dakota. This, said the Harvard astronomer, was still another illusion. Gorman, he explained, had seen only a light reflection from a distance, caused by a whirlpool of air over the fighter's wingtip.
When I first saw Menzel's answers, I was frankly puzzled. Certainly he would not have tried to explain the sightings without all the Air Force records. But knowing the evidence in the three cases, I couldn't see how he could reach these remarkable conclusions.
To clear it up, I'd asked Project Bluebook several specific questions:
1. Question: "Does the ATIC accept Menzel's "sundog" explanation of the Mantell case?" Answer: "No."
2. Question: "Does the ATIC accept his explanation of the Eastern Air Lines sighting, in 1948, near Montgomery, Alabama?" Answer: "No."
3. Question: "In the case reported by Lieutenant George Gorman, does the ATIC accept Menzel's light-reflection solution?" Answer: "No."
4. Question: "Did Dr. Menzel obtain all available ATIC records in these three cases?" Answer: "He did not obtain this information. In answer to a query, he was offered all Project data on these and other cases, through usual channels. We have heard nothing further from Dr. Menzel in regard to this."
In view of this last answer, I was a trifle baffled by Dr. Menzel's complaint about Air Force cooperation:
"Scientists who might have easily provided the key that would unlock the secrets of the saucers did not receive detailed information necessary for a serious study of the whole problem."
There were a few other surprises in Menzel's book. One was a sarcastic jibe at science-fiction writers—Menzel himself turns out science fiction in his spare time at Harvard.
At another point the astronomer admitted he was mystified by two discs he'd seen in New Mexico.
"Both discs shone with a slightly bluish light," he said. "I have long wondered what it was that I actually saw."
But even though he could not explain it, he was positive this was only some natural phenomenon.
In the end Menzel seemed to reverse his field. Though he insisted the present saucers were illusions, he admitted that future saucers from other planets were not at all unlikely. As a final step he even suggested ways to communicate with our future visitors from space.
In spite of all this, I believe Menzel was sincere even if not too careful in his investigation. But most of the other debunkers also had been sincere, or apparently so: Dr. Urner Liddel, with his "sky hook" balloon answer, Henry J. Taylor and his "good news" secret-weapon story, and all the rest who had misled and confused the public in the last four years.
Probably none of them knew they were pushing the Air Force into a tight corner. Each time, in slapping down a debunking answer, the Air Force had to say publicly what the saucers are not. Each time it was pushed closer to the fateful admission of what the saucers are.
To some in the Pentagon, silence still seemed the only safe course, until there was absolute proof that the saucers were not hostile.
So far, they had won the argument.
But they couldn't walk that dangerous tightrope much longer.