It has been over two years since the puzzling death of Captain Thomas Mantell.
Mantell died mysteriously in the skies south of Fort Knox. But before his radio went silent, he sent a strange message to Godman Air Force Base. The men who heard it will never forget it.
It was January 7, 1948.
Crowded into the Godman Field Tower, a group of Air Force officers stared up at the afternoon sky. For just an instant, something gleamed through the broken clouds south of the base.
High above the field, three P-51 fighters climbed with swift urgency. Heading south, they quickly vanished. The clock in the tower read 2:45.
Colonel Guy Hix, the C.O., slowly put down his binoculars. If the thing was still there, the clouds now hid it All they could do was wait.
The first alarm had come from Fort Knox, when Army M.P.'s had relayed a state police warning. A huge gleaming object had been seen in the sky, moving toward Godman Field. Hundreds of startled people had seen, it , at Madisonville, ninety miles away.
Thirty minutes later, it had zoomed up over the base.
Colonel Hix glanced around at the rest of the men in tower. They all had a dazed look. Every man there had seen the thing, as it barreled south of the field. Even through the thin clouds, its intermittent red glow had hinted at some mysterious source of power. Something outside their understanding.
It was Woods, the exec, who had estimated its size. Hix shook his head. That was unbelievable. But something had hung over Godman Field for almost an hour. The C.O. turned quickly as the loud-speaker, tuned to the P-51's, suddenly came to life.
"Captain Mantell to Godman Tower . . . Mantell to
The flight leader's voice had a strained tone.
"I've sighted the thing!" he said. "It looks metallic- and it's tremendous in size!"
The C.O. and Woods stared at each other. No one spoke.
"The thing's starting to climb," Mantell said swiftly. "It's at twelve o'clock high, making half my speed. I'll try to close in."
In five minutes, Mantell reported again. The strange metallic object had speeded up, was now making 360 or more.
At 3:08, Mantell's wingman called in. Both he and the other pilot had seen the weird object. But Mantell had out climbed them and was lost in the clouds.
Seven minutes dragged by. The men in the tower sweated out the silence. Then, at 3:15, Mantell made a hasty contact.
"It's still above me, making my speed or better. I'm going up to twenty thousand feet. If I'm no closer, I'll abandon chase."
It was his last report.
Minutes later, his fighter disintegrated with terrific force. The falling wreckage was scattered for thousands of feet.
When Mantell failed to answer the tower, one of his pilots began a search. Climbing to 33,000 feet, he flew a hundred miles to the south.
But the thing that lured Mantell to his death had vanished from the sky.
Ten days after Mantell was killed, I learned of a curious sequel to the Godman affair.
An A.P. account in the New York Times had caught my attention. The story, released at Fort Knox, admitted Mantell had died while chasing a flying saucer. Colonel Hix was quoted as having watched the object, which was still unidentified. But there was no mention of Mantell's radio messages - no hint of the thing's tremendous size.
Though I knew the lid was probably on, I went to the Pentagon. When the scare had first broken, in the summer of '47' I had talked with Captain Tom Brown, who was handling saucer inquiries. But by now Brown had been
shifted, and no one in the Press Branch would admit knowing the details of the Mantell saucer chase.
"We just don't know the answer," a security officer me.
"There's a rumor," I said, "it's a secret Air Force missile that sometimes goes out of control."
"Good God, man!" he exploded. "If it was, do you think we'd be ordering pilots to chase the things?"
"No - and I didn't say I believed it." I waited until he cooled down. "This order you mentioned - is it for all Air Force pilots, or special fighter units?"
"I didn't say it was a special order," he answered quickly. "All pilots have routine instructions to report unusual items."
"They had fighters alerted on the Coast, when the scare first broke," I reminded him. "Are those orders still in force?"
He shook his head. "No, not that I know of." After a moment he added, "All I can tell you is that the Air Force is still investigating. We honestly don't know the answer."
As I went out the Mall entrance, I ran into Jack Daly, one of Washington's veteran newsmen. Before the war, Jack and I had done magazine pieces together, usually on Axis espionage and communist activity. I told him I was trying to find the answer to Mantell's death.
"You heard anything?" I asked him.
"Only what was in the A.P. story," said Jack. "But an I.N.S. man told me they had a saucer story from Columbus, Ohio - and it might have been the same one they saw at Fort Knox."
"I missed that. What was it?"
"They sighted the thing at the Air Force field outside of Columbus. It was around sundown, about two after that pilot was killed in Kentucky."
"Anybody chase it?" I asked.
"No. They didn't have time to take off, I guess. This I.N.S. guy said it was going like hell. Fast as a jet, anyway."
"Did he say what it looked like?"
"The Air Force boys said it was as big as a C-47," said Jack. "Maybe bigger. It had a reddish-orange exhaust streaming out behind. They could see it for miles."
"If you hear any more, let me know," I said. Jack promised he would.
"What do you think they are?" he asked me.
"It's got me stumped. Russia wouldn't be testing missiles over here. Anyway, I can't believe they've got anything like that. And I can't see the Air Force letting pilots get killed to hide something we've got."
One week later, I heard that a top-secret unit had been set up at Wright Field to investigate all saucer reports. When I called the Pentagon, they admitted this much, and that was all.
In the next few months, other flying disk stories hit the front pages. Two Eastern Airline pilots reported a double-decked mystery ship sighted near Montgomery, Alabama. I learned of two other sightings, one over the Pacific Ocean and one in California. The second one, seen through field glasses, was described as rocket-shaped, as large as a B-29. There were also rumors of disks being tracked by radar, but it was almost a year before I confirmed these reports.
When Purdy wired me, early in May of '49, I had half forgotten the disks. It had been months since any important sightings had been reported. But his message quickly revived my curiosity. If he thought the subject was hot, I knew he must have reasons. When I walked into his office at 67 West 44th, Purdy stubbed out his cigarette and shook hands. He looked at me through his glasses for a moment. Then he said abruptly:
"You know anything about the disks?"
"If you mean what they are - no."
He motioned for me to sit down. Then he swiveled his chair around, his shoulders hunched forward, and frowned out the window.
"Have you seen the Post this week?"
I told him no.
"There's something damned queer going on. For fifteen months, Project 'Saucer' is buttoned up tight. Top secret. Then suddenly, Forrestal gets the Saturday Evening Post
to run two articles, brushing the whole thing off. The first piece hits the stands - and then what happens?"
Purdy swung around, jabbed his finger at a document on his desk.
"That same day, the Air Force rushes out this Project Saucer report. It admits they haven't identified the disks in any important cases. They say it's still serious enough - wait a minute-" he thumbed through the stapled papers - " 'to require constant vigilance by Project "Saucer" personnel and the civilian population.' "
"You'd think the Post would make a public kick," I said
"I don't mean it's an out-and-out denial," said Purdy. "It doesn't mention the Post- just contradicts it. In fact, the report contradicts itself. It looks as if they're trying to warn people and yet they're scared to say too much."
I looked at the title on the report: "A Digest of Preliminary Studies by the Air Materiel Command, Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio, on 'Flying Saucers' ''.
"Have the papers caught it yet?" I asked Purdy.
"You mean it's contradicting the Post?" He shook his head. "No, the Pentagon press release didn't get much space. How many editors would wade through a six-thousand-word government report? Even if they did, they'd have to compare it, item for item, with the Post piece."
"Who wrote the Post story?"
Purdy lit a cigarette and frowned out again at the sky scrapers.
"Sidney Shallett - and he's careful. He had Forrestal's backing. The Air Force flew him around, arranged interviews, supposedly gave him inside stuff. He spent two months on it. They O.K.'d his script, which practically says the saucers are bunk. Then they reneged on it."
"Maybe some top brass suddenly decided it was the wrong policy to brush it off," I suggested.
"Why the quick change?" demanded Purdy. "Let's say they sold the Post on covering up the truth, in the interests of security. It's possible, though I don't believe it - they could simply have fed them a fake story. Either
way, why did they rush this contradiction the minute the Post hit the stands?"
"Something serious happened," I said, "after the Post went to press."
"Yes, but what?" Purdy said impatiently. "That's what we ve got to find out."
"Does Shallett's first piece mention Mantell's death?"
"Explains it perfectly. You know what Mantell was casing? The planet Venus!"
That's the Post's answer?" I said, incredulously.
It's what the Air Force contract astronomer told Shallett. I' ve checked with two astronomers here. They say that even when Venus is at full magnitude you can hardly see it in the daytime even when you're looking for it. It was only half magnitude that day, so it 'was practically invisible."
"How'd the Air Force expect anybody to believe that answer?" I said.
Purdy shrugged. "They deny it was Venus in this report. Rut that's what they told Shallett - that all those Air Force officers, the pilots, the Kentucky state police, and several hundred people at Madisonville mistook Venus for a metallic disk several hundred feet in diameter."
"It's a wonder Shallett believed it."
"I don't think he did. He says if it wasn't Venus it must have been a balloon."
"What's the Air Force answer?" I asked Purdy.
"Look in the report. They say whatever Mantell chased - they call it a 'mysterious object' - is still unidentified."
I glanced through the case report, on page five. It quoted Mantell's radio report that the thing was metallic and tremendous in size. Linked with the death of Mantell was the Lockbourne, Ohio, report, which tied in with what Jack Daly had told me, over a year before. I read the report:
"On the same day, about two hours later, a sky phenomenon was observed by several watchers over Lockbourne Air Force Base, Columbus, Ohio. It was described as 'round or oval, larger than a C-47, and traveling in level
flight faster than 500 miles per hour.' The object was from the Lockbourne observation tower for more than 20 minutes. Observers said it glowed from white, to amber, leaving an amber exhaust trail five times its own length. It made motions like an elevator and at one time appeared to touch the ground. No sound was heard. Finally, the object faded and lowered toward the horizon."
Purdy buzzed for his secretary, and she brought me a copy of the first Post article.
You can get a copy of this Air Force report in Washington," Purdy told me. "This is the only one I have. But you'll find the same answer for most of the important cases - the sightings at Muroc Air Base, the airline pilots' reports, the disks Kenneth Arnold saw - they're all unidentified."
"I remember the Arnold case. That was the first sighting."
"You've got contacts in Washington," Purdy went on. "Start at the Pentagon first. They know we're working on it. Sam Boal, the first man on this job, was down there for a day or two."
"What did he find out?"
"Symington told him the saucers were bunk. Secretary Johnson admitted they had some pictures - we'd heard about a secret photograph taken at Harmon Field, Newfoundland. The tip said this saucer scared hell out of some pilots and Air Force men up there.
"A major took Boal to some Air Force colonel and Boal asked to see the pictures. The colonel said they didn't have any. He turned red when the major said Symington had told Boal about the pictures."
"Did Boal get to see them?" I said.
"No," grunted Purdy, "and I'll bet twenty bucks you won't, either. But try, anyway. And check on a rumor that they've tracked some disks with radar. One case was supposed to be at an Air Force base in Japan."
As I was leaving, Purdy gave me a summary of sighting reports.
"Some of these were published, some we dug up ourselves," he said. "We got some confidential stuff from
airline pilots, It's pretty obvious the Air Force has tried to keep them quiet."
"All right," I said. "I'll get started. Maybe things aren't sewed up so tightly, now this report is out."
"We've found out some things about Project 'Saucer,' " said Purdy. "Whether it's a cover-up or a real investigation, there's a lot of hush-hush business to it. They've got astronomers and astrophysicists working for them, also rocket expects, technical analysts, and Air Force Special Intelligence. We've been told they can call on any government agency for help and I know they're using the F.B.I."
It was building up bigger than I had thought.
"If national security is involved," I told Purdy, "they can shut us up in a hurry."
"If they tell me so, O.K.," said Purdy. He added grimly, "But I think they're making a bad mistake. They probably think they're doing what's right. But the truth might come out the wrong way."
"It is possible," I thought, "that the saucers belong to Russia."
"If it turns out to be a Soviet missile, count me out," said. "We'd have the Pentagon and the F.B.I. on our necks."
"All right, if that's the answer." He chuckled. "But you may be in for a jolt."