The Mystery of December 6, 1950
by Bruce Maccabee
(This article was presented at the Symposium of the MUTUAL UFO
NETWORK in July, 1999. The information presented here is also presented
in somewhat different format in the book, THE UFO-FBI CONNECTION, by
Bruce Maccabee, (Llewellyn Pub., 2000)
PART 1: NATIONAL EMERGENCY
LOCATION: WHITE HOUSE, WASHINGTON, D.C,
(The President is preparing for a conference with British Prime Minister Clement Attlee. The secure phone rings. It is the Undersecretary of Defense Robert Lovett.)
Mr. President. I don't know whether this is related to the war in Korea, but it might be. Our northern tier radars have picked up a flight of several dozen aircraft approaching our east coast. They are unidentified and do not respond to our signaling. They could be Russian bombers. If they proceed on the present course they will be over Washington D.C. in several hours, having passed over major cities along the East Coast. The Continental Air Command has scrambled and is on high alert. We have begun preparations for a National Emergency and handling of the press. I suggest you take any precautions you think necessary in the event that this is an attack. I'll keep you informed. After I hang up all civilian communications with the Pentagon will be cut off.. I will keep you informed as the situation develops. Good-bye.
Shock! Could this be the realization of his worst nightmare? By resisting the North Korean aggression had President Truman brought on the most-feared consequence, nuclear war with the Soviet Union? Were these Soviet bombers loaded with atomic bombs to drop on Boston, New York and Washington, D.C.? Impossible, he thought as he placed the phone in its cradle. I don't believe it. The CIA has not reported any troop movements or aircraft activity that would suggest the Russians were preparing to attack. And yet, the radar had detected something. It must have been something big to cause this much activity by the Continental Air Command. Despite his apprehension he proceeded to the meeting with Mr. Clement Atlee as if nothing were happening. But, in the back of his mind he knew that some objects were approaching the United States. What were they?
What you have just read is partly fiction and partly fact.
Something DID happen that morning, something that has been glossed over in the history books as an accident of the radar. But was it? Read on. What follows is NOT fiction.
PART 2: IMMEDIATE HIGH ALERT FOR FLYING SAUCERS
URGENT. DECEMBER 8. RE: FLYING
The above teletype message is contained in file 62-83894, the flying disc file of the FBI, the REAL X-Files! (The Truth is In Here!)
How very strange for the Army's Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) to be put on immediate high alert for any data regarding objects/phenomena/craft which the U. S. Air Force had publicly and repeatedly claimed can all be explained and are no threat to the security of the United States! Are we to presume the CIC has nothing better to do than to run around chasing will o the wisps and similar ethereal things of no consequence to national defense? Of course not! We may imagine that Air Force Intelligence, headquartered in the Pentagon, requested the immediate high alert because something had happened, something related to flying saucers that demanded immediate attention. Evidently whatever had happened was so serious a matter that the CIC was not told the reason for the high alert. Not only that but the high alert condition was confidential and not to be disseminated which suggests that the CIC agent broke security by telling the FBI agent in Richmond.
What had happened? Even today we don't know ... but based on other information we can make a guess.
PART 3: THE COLONELS STORY
In 1977 Retired Air Force Col. Robert Willingham filed a report with NICAP regarding his observation of what he believed to be a Crashed Saucer.
Did he say a Crashed Saucer?
Yes, he did. And here is what happened, according to the
affidavit he filed with the National Investigations Committee on Aerial
Phenomena (NICAP) and now in the file of the Center for UFO Studies
(CUFOS). (NICAP was a civilian UFO research group founded in the
latter half of the 1950s. It was the largest such group in the 1960s
but it closed in the late 1970s. CUFOS, founded in the early 1970s,
still exists in Chicago.) The complete affidavit is presented
in A History of UFO Crashes by Kevin Randle (Avon Books, NY,
1995). Supplemental information is in parentheses:
According to Willingham, some time later he took the metal to the Marine Corps testing lab in Hagarstown, MD and gave it to some person for testing. When he returned for the results a few days later he was told there was no such person working there. Later was told never to talk about the incident. He signed a secrecy oath (which he apparently broke in 1977).
Todd Zechel, who was active in UFO research in the latter 1970s, investigated Willingham's story. In the middle 1980s Zechel told me some of the information he had learned from his investigation. According to Zechel this crash occurred between Dec. 5 and Dec. 8, 1950. (Randle lists the date as December 6.) It was Zechel's opinion based on Willingham's story and a document (discussed below) that the crash occurred on December 5, the recovery occurred on December 6, a general alert to counterintelligence was sent out on December 7, and the FBI learned about it on December 8. Zechel told this author that in 1978 he and a Japanese TV documentary team chartered a plane and flew, with Col. Willingham, to the location of the crash. It was roughly in the vicinity of Del Rio, Texas (Zechel did not tell me the exact location.). Del Rio is about 230 air miles from Abilene.
According to Zechel, Willingham said that the UFO was at an altitude of about 50,000 ft (nearly the maximum altitude of the F-94) and traveling 3 to 4 times faster than the jet, i.e., several times the speed of sound. It did a right angle turn, then slowed and started wobbling. Then it dropped downward continuously and went out of the pilots sight. Radar in Texas tracked the object until it went off the screen in a manner which suggested a crash. Willingham and the copilot returned to Dyess AFB, landed and got a small civil air patrol plane and flew to the border area where they thought it had crashed. (Depending upon the speed of the small aircraft and the exact location along the border, it could have taken two hours or more from the time the object appeared to crash until Willingham reached the site.) Willingham said that the Mexican military had reached the site before he got there. The Mexican military cordoned off the area and waited for US Air Force personnel to arrive
Zechel further told me that in 1975 he was fortunate to obtain a declassified but formerly Top Secret document which stated that Carswell Air Force Base, Fort Worth, Texas, had recovered some foreign object on December 6 or 7. He said the document referred to a high alert status because of the nature of the recovery, but the document did not specify what had been recovered. (Zechel did not provide me with a copy of this document.)
(For what its worth, the controversial Eisenhower Briefing Document released in 1987 by Timothy Goode and, independently, by William Moore, also claims a crash near the Texas-Mexico border on December 6. )
There is a discrepancy in Willingham's story which probably is a result of faulty memory. He said that the UFO was detected by the radar control station on the DEW (Distant Early Warning) line (NORAD - North American Defense Command) and that the DEW radar kept following it and they claimed that it crashed somewhere off between Texas and the Mexico border. The DEW line was not established until late 1953 and it was located in Alaska and northern Canada, so it could not possibly have tracked an object over Texas. The closest Air Defense Command radar at the time was at Walker AFB at Roswell, NM. However, this was also too far away. On the other hand there were Air Force bases in Texas which probably had radar installations that could have tracked the object reported by Willingham. Dyess AFB at Abilene is more than 200 miles from the Del Rio area of Texas. This is beyond the range of typical radar installations of the time (see discussion below) and so a radar at Dyess would not have been able to determine that an object went below the radar horizon or crashed at the distance of Del Rio. However, a radar installation at Kelly AFB, Brooks AFB or Randolph AFB, all near San Antonio, could have tracked an object to the vicinity of Del Rio without exceeding the range of the radar
PART 4: DISCONNECTED EVENTS?
So far we have three seemingly disconnected events: a documentable (see below) national emergency by the Defense Department on December 6, 1950, a documentable immediate high alert for saucer related information on December 8 and witness testimony about a flying saucer crash near the Texas-Mexico border on or about December 6, 1950. Could these be related?
The existence of the FBI teletype message raises (at least) two related questions: why an immediate high alert, and why on December 8? Neither of these questions can be definitely answered at the present time because the CIC and Air Force records relating to this simply have not been found, even after a search, at my request, of CIC records by the Army Security agency. However, I can speculate that if a saucer had crashed on December 6 and been retrieved on the 6th or 7th, the Air Force intelligence may well have issued requests for immediate information in order to find out if any sightings had been made or if any other saucers had crashed. The high alert condition could then have been communicated to the FBI in a confidential way a day or so later (i.e., Dec. 8).
Whether the Air Force intelligence or the CIC received any special UFO information is not known. However, there were sightings on December 6 which are in the Blue Book file: one at West Springfield, Massachusetts (near Westover AFB) at 8:16 AM (one object, half-moon shaped, fast, flying in a southerly direction) and one at Fort Myers, Florida at 5 PM (a former aircraft purchasing agent and four boys, using 10-power binoculars, saw a 75' object, 3-4' thick with a bubble on top, silver colored with a red rim and having two white and two orange jets along the side; the center revolved when the object hovered and then it flew away very fast). The first object was identified as a aircraft by Project Blue Book; the second was unidentified. (The next sighting listed in the Blue Book file was in London, England, on December 9. Another of the only about 700 unidentified sightings in the Blue Book collection occurred on December 11 in Alaska.)
PART V: A RADAR EMERGENCY
So, what really happened on December 6 that nearly caused a national emergency?. The full story is not known, but the available information is intriguing. As you read the following discussion keep in mind that the global political situation was hot. There were two wars and two races: a Cold War between the USA and the Soviet Union and a Hot War in Korea, a missile race and an atomic bomb race. Russia and China were becoming potent Communist adversaries of the capitalist democracies. Their states purpose was to overthrow the capitalism. They were investing major portions of their country's resources into armaments and armies. The war in Korea was viewed as the first real military contest between communism and capitalism, and it was not going well for the USA and South Korea. Ever since the beginning of the war in June, 1950, the U. S. government had been worried about the Chinese response to the attempt of the United Nations to preserve the independence of South Korea. These worries increased after General MacArthur landed at Inchon in September and succeeded in driving the North Korean army back across the 38th parallel (the agreed-upon northern boundary of South Korea). In October and November U. N. troops pushed into North Korea under MacArthur's orders to destroy the North Korean army. Finally on November 25 the Chinese counterattacked with about 200,000 men, a number which doubled over the next month. U.N. forces, numbered at about one half the Chinese force, were once again in danger of complete defeat. This was causing a near panic situation in the USA. President Truman was worried about the possibility that the war would widen, even bringing on World War III, which could necessitate a nuclear response and nuclear armageddon. The Joint Chiefs of Staff (the top brass of all the armed services) had sent a warning to U. S. forces commanders throughout the world of a heightened possibility for world war. It was against this background of war jitters that a large group of unidentified aircraft was suddenly detected approaching the USA from the north, from the general direction of the Soviet Union! Was this the feared attack? Some important people were afraid it was!
There are three published versions of what happened during the morning of December 6. The version presented here first comes from the autobiography of Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, Present at the Creation (W.W. Norton Pub., NY; pages 479-480). The second version, published in The Wise Men by Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas (Simon and Shuster, NY; 1986; pages 544-545) is based in an interview with Mr. Acheson. It differs slightly from Mr. Acheson's own version. The third is in Memoirs of Harry S. Truman: Years of Trial and Hope 1946-1952 (Vol. 2, page 405 ).
Looking first at Secretary Acheson's autobiography we find
There are several important points to keep in mind as you read the following versions of what happened. Acheson said that early warning radar in Canada had detected formations (plural) of unidentified objects, presumably aircraft which were headed southeast in a direction that could put them over Washington, DC in 2 to 3 hours. Using an estimated top speed of 300 mph for Soviet bombers, this would put them a mere 600 - 900 miles from Washington. Acheson's story indicates that President Truman already knew about the unidentified aircraft and wanted Acheson to inform the British ambassador. Acheson ended his story by saying that, after he arrived at the White House, that is, at about 11:30 AM, Defense Undersecretary Lovett told him he guessed that the objects were geese.
The next version of the story, told in The Wise Men, is based on an interview with Mr. Acheson:
For a moment on the morning of December 6, he thought his nightmare (of world war) had come true. At 10:30 AM Bob Lovett called him from the Pentagon and abruptly informed him in his laconic voice: When I finish talking to you, you cannot reach me again. All incoming calls will be stopped. A national emergency is about to be proclaimed. We are informed that there is flying over Alaska at the present moment a formation of Russian planes heading southeast. The President wishes the British ambassador to be informed of this and be told that Mr. Attlee should take whatever measures are proper for Mr. Attlee's safety. I've now finished my message and I'm going to ring off. Acheson cut in, Now wait a minute, Bob, do you believe this? No, Lovett replied, and hung up. Acheson sat in his office and waited. The Air Force scrambled. A senior official burst in asking permission to telephone his wife to get out of town and wondering if he should begin moving files to the basement. Acheson tried to soothe him. A few minutes later Lovett calmly called back. The radar blips were not Soviet bombers after all. They were flocks of geese.
This version makes it seem that the alert period was very short, only a few minutes. However, by combining the information in this version about the beginning time, 10:30 AM, with the information in Acheson's biography about the ending time (after Acheson arrived at the White House), about 11:30 AM, we find that the alert lasted about an hour. This version is more specific as to where the objects were: they were detected over Alaska, which is over 3,000 miles from Washington, D. C. If that were true it would have taken not just two to three hours but much more than 10 hours for the planes to arrive over Washington.
President Truman wrote about the same episode:
President Truman's version of the event suggests that the objects may have been detected north of the eastern United States rather than over Alaska. The fact that fighter aircraft were scrambled indicates that this alert was treated as a serious event by the Continental Air Command. Truman's explanation is somewhat different from Acheson's. Here we learn that the radar detections were caused by some sort of atmospheric disturbance.
An unpublished version of this event is found in the official
transcript of the meeting between Truman and Atlee which is preserved
at the Truman library:
This version, based on notes made at the time rather than upon memories years afterward, says the unidentified objects were approaching the northeast coast of the United States, clearly contradicting Acheson's assertion that they were detected over Alaska, unless, of course, there were two groups of objects. Furthermore, this version indicates Lovett was the source of the atmospheric effects explanation mentioned by President Truman. But Lovett was also the source of the geese explanation reported by Acheson. So, which explanation was right? Or was neither correct?
A report carried by the International News Service reported yet another explanation:
Washington D.C., 6 December 1950 (INS):
This report, supposedly based on an Air Force statement, says the radar target was from a single C-47 (capable of up to 220 mph at altitudes up to 24,000 ft) approaching from Goose Bay, Labrador, a location about 500 miles north-northeast of the northeastern top of Maine. It says nothing about unknown aircraft over Alaska. Detection of planes near or over northeastern Maine (coming from the direction of Goose Bay) would be more compatible with the claim in Acheson's autobiography that the planes were several hours from reaching Washington, DC (the northeastern corner of Maine is about 700 miles from Washington, D.C., 2 1/3 hours at 300 mph).
It appears that this supposed attack did have repercussions in Alaska. The New York Times published a story with a December 7, Anchorage Alaska, dateline which said that All military personnel in Alaska were called on alert tonight (i.e., Dec. 6), but Air Force officials said that the order was purely a precautionary measure. Military police rounded up soldiers and theaters and radio stations made special announcements that troops were to return to their posts. Within a few hours there were no military personnel to be seen on Anchorage streets. Officials at Elmendorf Air Force Base said the alert had been in effect since the outbreak of the fighting in Korea. But they added that the AirFforce had increased its vigilance here in recent days.
Further evidence of the official jitters is in the statement in the Washington Post on December 10 that President Truman is seriously considering declaration of national emergency which could lead to an immediate all-out mobilization.
Over Alaska? Over Labrador? Flocks of Geese? Arctic atmospheric effects? A single C-47 aircraft? Or something else? Not until 1987 was further information on this event released by the Air Force, and sparse information at that! What follows was found by Don Berliner by accident during a search of declassified files of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Record group 330, July 1, 1950 to December, 1951 (at the National Archives).
THE COLONEL'S MEMORANDUM
On December 6, Air Force Colonel Charles Winkle, Assistant
Executive in the Directorate for Plans, wrote a memorandum for
Secretary of Defense George Marshall about this event. It
confirms the alert:
PART VI: RADAR ANALYSIS
The technical information in this document is sparse, but there are details which, when combined with the known capabilities of radar, call into question all of the previous explanations. In order to understand why, one must learn about the capabilities and locations of early warning radar installations in Maine.
By the beginning of WWII radar technology had developed to the point that aircraft detections at 150 miles were common. After the Japanese attack in December, 1941, the Army deployed, along the east and west coasts of the US, radar sets capable of detecting aircraft at 150 mile range at 20,000 ft elevation. By the late 1940s there were radar sets capable of a 200 mile range at 40,000 ft. The question now becomes, what were the capabilities and locations of the long-range search radar installations in Maine?
A valuable reference in this regard is Searching the Skies; The Legacy of the United States Cold war Defense Radar Program published by the USAF Air Combat Command (David Winkler, June, 1997) which recounts the history of the early warning radar that was set up by the Air Defense Command. These radar installations were dedicated to the detection of incursions into US airspace from the north. Generally they were located at sites where there already were radar installations used for other purposes such as air traffic control of military and civilian aircraft. Of course, there were also search radar installations at civilian airports and Air Force bases. One of these probably was at Loring AFB at Limestone, Maine, or at Presque Isle AFB at Presque Isle, Maine.
According to Searching the Skies,, in December, 1950 there was an AN/CPS-5 and also an AN/TPS-10A radar at Dow AFB near Bangor, Maine. These are Army/Navy (AN) search radars. The CPS-5 was a search radar and the TPS-10A was a height finder. The combination of these radars gave a solid search of up to 60 miles at 40,000 ft but often had success tracking aircraft as far as 210 miles away.
By combining the known radar capabilities with the information in Winkles document one can make a crude estimate of the speed of the objects. If we assume that the initial detection (10:30 AM) was made by the radar at Bangor, at the limit of its detection range, then at that time the objects were about 200 miles north-northeast of Bangor. About 10 minutes later (10:40 AM) the objects were in the vicinity of (over?) Limestone, Maine, which is about 150 miles north-northeast of Bangor. Hence these objects would have traveled about 50 miles in 10 minutes corresponding to a speed of 300 mph, the upper limit for long range bomber aircraft in 1950, but easily attained by fighter aircraft.
This speed calculation is based on the assumption that the initial detection was not made by radar installations that were closer to the northern border of Maine. The only reason for making this assumption is that the existence of a long range radar at Dow AFB is documented. I have no documentation on long range radar installations that may have been at Loring AFB, or at the nearby Presque Isle AFB, both of which are near the northeastern border of Maine. The capabilities of these assumed radars are unknown. However, according to Searching the Skies, there was an AN/TPS-1B long range search radar that came on line at Loring AFB for use by the Air Defense Command or by ConAC in February, 1951. It is quite likely that this radar or one like it was already operating as an air traffic control radar at the Air Force Base in December, 1950. This type of radar had a capability of detecting aircraft at altitudes up to 10,000 ft at a range of 120 miles. At closer ranges it could detect aircraft at higher altitudes.
If we assume that a radar such as this made the initial detection then the estimated speed will be considerably larger than the 300 mph calculated above. Assume that at the initial detection was made about 100 miles from Loring AFB at Limestone. Then, ten minutes later the objects were in the vicinity of Limestone. Maine. That would mean they had traveled nearly 100 miles in 10 minutes for a speed of 500 - 600 mph, far in excess of anything but the fastest fighter jets of the time. Similarly, if the detection had been made from Loring AFB by a radar with a range of 200 miles, then the initial detection could have occurred when the objects were about 200 miles from Limestone. To travel 200 miles in 10 minutes requires a speed of 1,200 mph.
SNAFU OR SAUCERS? (SNAFU: situation normal, all fouled
The radar operators tracked the objects for ten minutes and determined that there were 40 objects (aircraft) flying at a rather high altitude (32,000 ft) and traveling south-southwestward (a course of 200 degrees). This course would take them over the eastern USA, roughly toward Washington, D.C.
The fact that the Air Force bases scrambled aircraft to intercept and identify the intruders means the radar images were so good that the operators were certain that these objects were real, unidentifiable yet solid targets, presumably aircraft, and not accidents of the radar. This is decidedly different from what the operators would have concluded had the radar showed relatively slow moving geese or atmospheric effects such as a radar mirage due to temperature inversion. Geese and atmospheric effects don't travel at hundreds of miles per hour along continuous tracks for many minutes.
The statement that there was no reason to believe the aircraft were friendly means that the Continental Air Command radar operators were not able to identify the aircraft from a known flight plan, nor were they able to communicate with the aircraft by radio. Had the aircraft been a single C-47 they certainly could have identified it as friendly since it would have responded to the numerous requests to identify itself. Furthermore, it would not have been as high as 32,000 ft, flying as fast as 300 mph and there likely would have been a flight plan. The intruders, on the other hand, were flying high, fast and were radio-silent.
According to Winkles document the radar track faded out at 11:04 AM, or about 24 minutes after the objects were near Limestone. If the objects had continued on the 200 degree course at a speed of 300 mph they would have traveled about 100 miles from Limestone and would have been nearing the limit of a 120 mile radar range. If they had been traveling at 600 mph, they would have been beyond the range of the of Limestone radar which would explain the fading of the track. (One would expect, however, that they would have been tracked by the Dow AFB radar as they continued southward.)
The strangest statement in the document is: it appears that the flight as originally identified is a friendly flight. What does that mean, it appears? Didn't they know for certain? Didn't they track the friendly aircraft until they were positive? Are we to believe that the Continental Air Command scrambled aircraft and put the USA into a state of immediate high alert and then weren't able to positively identify the aircraft?
One would expect if there had been upwards of forty friendly
aircraft coming from the north toward the USA border someone would have
been aware of it. There would have been a flight plan. At
the very least these aircraft would have acknowledged the attempts to
contact them by radio, attempts which must have been made numerous
times starting with the first detection by radar. Either the
flight plan or the radio identification would have been passed to the
local commanders of the Continental Air Command aircraft to
prevent needless scrambling of
If these intruders were group of friendly aircraft why did Undersecretary of Defense Robert Lovett tell Dean Acheson that flocks of geese flying over Alaska caused the radar targets? Why did Undersecretary Lovett tell the President that arctic atmospheric conditions caused the radar targets? Why did the Air Force tell the press that a single C-47 caused the alert?
Presumably these were the explanations offered by the Top Brass after being told the details by the people who were directly involved with the radar detections and the scramble. Were the Top Brass embarrassed by the initial misidentification of a friendly flight and afraid to admit it? (I doubt that. They admitted to the press that it was a single C-47.) Or did the Top Brass, for whatever reason, not tell the President and the Undersecretary of Defense what these targets really were? Or were these people told but, when writing about it years later, they could not recall or could not reveal the exact nature of these objects to anyone else?
There must be other Air Force documents not yet released which clarify this situation. However, based on the information available in this document combined with the fact that CIC was put on immediate high alert for flying saucer information only two days later, I can suggest another explanation: perhaps the radar targets were flying saucers!
Perhaps one of them caused the 5 PM sighting in Ft. Myers, Florida.
And perhaps one of them flew somewhat erratically over Texas and crashed in Mexico. Perhaps. Will we ever know?