Summer of the Saucers

2022 is the 75th anniversary of the biggest UFO year ever. 1947 gave us so much more than just flying saucers. That summer came complete with many hundreds of legitimate sightings by excellent witnesses, classified memos admitting something strange was actually going on, a governmental reorganization to confront future existential threats, and even a public admission of some kind of crash wreckage retrieval, followed by a retraction.

Looking back now, have any lessons actually been learned?

The Pentagon’s Historical Amnesia

On May 17, 2022, the House Intelligence Counterterrorism, Counterintelligence and Counterproliferation Subcommittee called two witnesses from the Department of Defense to testify before it about UAP or Unidentified Aerial Phenomena. It was the first congressional hearing in 54 years, going back to a similar one-day event back in 1968 that came and went with no public impact.

The headline from the 2022 hearing was that both Ronald Moultrie, the Pentagon’s top intelligence official, and Scott Bray, the deputy director of Naval Intelligence, seemed to be suffering complete amnesia about the history of the Phenomenon. To hear them tell it, they might have known a thing or two about Project Blue Book but anything before or after just never seemed to register. For them, the entire matter of UAP seemed to start, oh, sometime around 2004 with the now-famous Nimitz incident.

It was probably intentional that they were so clueless. After all, if they knew nothing about the history of the issue, they could have plausible deniability if asked any tough questions. Which they were — questions about the Wilson-Davis Memo, the Malmstrom Air Force Base nuclear shutdown and even a softball question like what other investigations DoD had even done on the UFO subject. They claimed to have no knowledge of any of it. They were “unaware.”

Well, as Spanish philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Yet that would allow us to think about their lapse as faulty memory, not the purposeful obfuscation it clearly was.

The quote we should really savor comes from William Shakespeare, who wrote in The Tempest, “What’s past is prologue.” The irony is that this line of memorable dialogue, engraved on the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., is often used by the military when they teach about similarities between various wars fought throughout history. If you want to understand the future, start with learning about the past.

So, for the benefit of Moultrie and Bray and any other hapless Department of Defense insiders who will be called to testify at future hearings, let’s start their education with the basics.

The World of 1947

As the only nuclear-armed superpower, the United States had come out of the Second World War stronger, more powerful, and more secure than ever before in history. Yet even with this strategic advantage, 1947 was still the year that the Cold War with the Soviet Union got kicked into high gear with the announcement of the Truman Doctrine in March. This was also the origin year for the famous Doomsday Clock initiated by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to sound the alarm about the likelihood of nuclear war.

Europe was still an incredible disaster area. The famous Marshall Plan to rebuild the nations devastated by Hitler’s rampage and the Allies’ relentless and destructive counter-attack would not become law until nearly a year later. U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall, however, made the pitch on June 5th, 1947, in a speech at Harvard University.

This was the year that Chuck Yeager would make that first supersonic flight, the one made famous in the book and film, The Right Stuff. Sadly, it was also the year that America suffered its greatest commercial aviation disasters on back-to-back days on May 29 and May 30, 1947, losing 42 and 53 lives respectively.

The big news out of Washington, D.C. on the third day of summer in 1947, June 23rd, was that the Taft-Hartley Act went into effect in the United States when the Senate overrode President Truman’s veto by a vote of 68–25. With political division on the front pages, no one was thinking about “flying saucers” or expecting news about such matters to come from the other Washington, the state on the opposite side of the country.

What a difference a day makes.

Kenneth Arnold’s Strange Flight

On Tuesday, June 24th, an experienced civilian pilot named Kenneth Arnold, flying a small CallAir A-2 plane on the way to an air show, was over twenty miles from Mount Rainier, a volcano in Washington State. It was a glorious day for flying as the air was calm and the sky was clear.

Arnold sold and installed fire suppression systems, a job that took him around the Pacific Northwest and explains why he was such an experienced pilot with several thousand hours of flying time. He was also a modern-day treasure hunter that day. A Marine Corps C-46 transport airplane had crashed in the area recently, and there was a $5,000 reward for the person who found the wreckage. Even with today’s inflation, that’s a lot of money. In 1947, it was a small fortune.

A portion of the drawing that Kenneth Arnold provided to the Air force of the flying objects he observed (Wikimedia Commons).

Arnold was then startled by a flash of light on his airplane that was so intense it lit up his cockpit. Looking for the source, he scanned the sky and saw them to his left. It was, as Arnold would soon tell the world, a fleet of unknown craft flying in “a diagonally stepped-down, echelon formation.” Each one was repeatedly flashing bright lights.

And that began a three-minute observation that would change the world. His case took America by storm. Flying saucers became such a big thing that stories about them generated as much news coverage as had Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color line a few months earlier.

Arnold was flying at an altitude of 9,200 feet when he saw those nine blue, glowing objects flying fast. He did something then that few observers would do even today — he measured their speed by using his plane’s clock and observing how long it took them to travel about fifty miles south, something he could do because he knew the terrain well.

He came up with an estimated speed of 1,700 m.p.h. Given that Yeager’s X-1 was still four months away from managing 662 m.p.h. it was enough to blow Arnold’s mind. He checked his work later using a map when he landed and put in lower numbers. He still came up with a speed in excess of 1,200 m.p.h.

It wasn’t just their speed and size that astonished him. It was the fact that he saw no wings, fuselage, tails, vertical stabilizers, or engines. He first believed the objects to be some sort of new military aircraft, but the military confirmed they were conducting no tests in the area that day. Here’s a condensed run of some of his interviews:

“They didn’t fly like any aircraft I had seen before… they flew in a definite formation, but erratically… like speed boats on rough water… they fluttered and sailed… emitting very bright blue-white flashes from their surfaces… I kept looking for tails and they didn’t have any tails. They seemed to flip and flash in the sun just like a mirror.”

Somewhere in that awestruck word salad, Arnold described the crafts’ motion as similar to “a saucer if you skip it across water.” The media coined the catchy phrase “flying saucer,” and it stuck.

Although it is remembered for ushering in the modern UFO age, the case had no radar confirmation, no photos, and no supporting witnesses. What it had, however, was a pilot of excellent reputation describing something that, while extraordinary, would soon be far more common than anyone might imagine.

Except Kenneth Arnold Really Wasn’t the First

While UFO/UAP reality may trace back deep into ancient prehistory, there had been, in the years before Arnold, constant “foo fighter” sightings by both Allied and Axis pilots in 1945, the final year of World War II. That mystery continued in 1946 with the “ghost rockets” in Scandanavia, particularly vexing Sweden.

In fact, there had already been multiple sightings of anomalous objects in 1947 before the Arnold case caught the public fancy. Lake Mead, Nevada. Weiser, Idaho. Spokane, Washington. Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Bakersfield, California. And there were many more. As it turns out, many people were seeing unidentified objects in the sky, but with no point of reference, they tended to keep them to themselves.

Forty-nine sightings were reported to have happened in the period between June 1st and June 24th. There are even six reports in the Air Force files for this period. In 1967, researcher Ted Bloecher wrote a definitive account, “Report on the UFO Wave of 1947,” that’s worth reading in its own right and also contains a compelling introduction by Dr. James McDonald. You can download a copy for yourself here.

The point is only that the Arnold sighting, historically important as it turned out to be, was no one-off. His candor did allow some of those earlier reluctant witnesses to come forward. Based on its sensational details and media coverage, and the date itself, however, the Arnold case was definitely the starter’s gun for the 1947 Summer of the Saucers.

Over the next days, literally hundreds of sightings occurred across the United States and flying saucers became the subject of intense interest. While there were some reported cases elsewhere around the globe, the phenomenon did seem to be centered in the United States. And so, ironically, it was during the July 4th holiday that the entire affair deepened further. As the Bloecher report states:

“Reports of sightings, coming almost simultaneously from hundreds of bewildered citizens, were made to newspapers and police stations all over the country, and adjacent areas as well, from Southern California to New Brunswick, and from Louisiana to North Dakota. People everywhere were experiencing the beginning of one of the most massive waves of UFO sightings on record. Reports came from all kinds of observers: from picnickers and holiday crowds, from policemen and public officials, and from pilots, farmers, professional men, housewives and bus drivers.”

The sightings were, at first, treated respectfully in most of the press that reported on them. These were good stories relayed by reliable people, often locals, including many officials from politics, law enforcement, government and the military. As the wave crescendoed through the holiday, the tide began to turn. By mid-July, as if recovering from a hangover, the coverage took on an air of ridicule, something that continues to this very day.

While the report cited above makes for some good reading, making clear that these are not easily dismissed cases, it’s impossible to summarize or break them down in an article of this scope. There are, however, two key cases that came out of the Summer of the Saucers — United Airlines Flight 105 and, of course, the Roswell crash.

United Airlines Flight 105

On July 4th, just eleven days after Kenneth Arnold’s sighting, a United Air Lines DC-3 crew, led by Captain Emil J. Smith, took off from Boise, Idaho, at just after 9:00 pm, and almost immediately sighted two separate formations of wingless discs.

The irony is that in the aftermath of Arnold’s sighting, Captain Smith had been asked for his opinion by reporters about the flying saucers being seen over the northwest, an area where he regularly flew. He told reporters: “I’ve never seen anything like that (Arnold’s flying saucers) and the boys (other pilots) say they haven’t either. . .what that other fellow (Arnold) probably saw was the reflection of his own instrument panel.”

Just over a week later, on the evening of July 4th, as Smith was boarding his aircraft, he told another reporter, “I’ll believe in those discs when I see them.” He didn’t have to wait long.

Just eight minutes into their flight, in clear weather, UAL 105 saw five disc-like objects, one larger than the rest, heading straight for the DC-3. Smith and co-pilot Ralph Stevens observed the objects reverse direction and take up a course literally parallel to their own. They got a good look, too. Studying them against the twilight sky, Smith and Stevens soon realized that neither wings nor tails were visible on the five objects tracking with them. They appeared “flat on the bottom, rounded on top” with a perceptible “roughness” top-side.

Smith, Stevens, and the airliner’s stewardess, Marty Morrow, all were able to keep the objects in their view for about twelve minutes!

The objects clearly demonstrated intelligent control. When co-pilot Stevens, thinking the objects were aircraft, flashed the airliner’s landing lights, they responded by changing formation from a very tight cluster to a more open one. The cluster of discs then began to open and repeatedly close before settling down into a loose formation.

Almost immediately after they lost sight of the first five, a second formation of four (three in line and a fourth off to the side) moved in ahead of their position, again traveling westward but at a somewhat higher altitude than the DC-3’s 8000 ft. These passed quickly out of sight to the west at speeds that the pilots felt surpassed any conventional speeds. They had the general impression that these disc-like crafts were appreciably larger than ordinary aircraft.

Smith talked to reporters at their next scheduled stop in Pendleton, Oregon, and told them about what Flight 105 had just encountered. The United Airlines incident was picked up by Reuters News Service and sent around the world. It got a lot of ink in the papers, like the Arnold sighting, but four days later, it would be pushed aside by an even more alarming story.

The Roswell Crash

If the UFO cover-up has an original sin, it may be what happened in Roswell, New Mexico, over the July 4th holidays. It was during this time that rancher Mac Brazel discovered a collection of strange debris scattered across his employer’s land southeast of Corona, New Mexico. He drove some of it into town, primarily to complain to the local Army base, thinking they had crashed one of their secret planes.

One of the first to investigate was Major Jesse Marcel, who, as an intelligence officer, immediately assessed this was not military property but something stranger. The Roswell Army Air Force base outside of town responded vigorously, cleaning up the rancher’s site and another one. In addition to debris, the rumors started that they found a craft and bodies at a second site. Many of the locals, including future Apollo 14 pilot and Roswell resident Edgar Mitchell, said this publicly.

In the immediate aftermath, Colonel William Blanchard, base commander, instructed Lieutenant Walter Haut to release a hastily drafted press release describing the wreckage as a “flying disk.” The local paper headlined their own story with “RAAF Captures Flying Saucer on Ranch in Roswell Region.”

The front page of the Roswell Daily Record, July 8, 1947 (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons).

That news ricocheted around the world at record speed. After all, this was not even two weeks after Kenneth Arnold’s story had done the same.

The statement was quickly retracted. Major Marcel was ordered to pose for reporters next to some tin foil and balsa wood. It was, they now said, a misidentified weather balloon. This is particularly unconvincing given that Roswell Army Air Base was the only nuclear bomber base in the U.S. arsenal at the time. In other words, the public was now being told that these people out in the New Mexico desert of 1947 who were trusted with the nation’s nuclear weapons got it all wrong and misidentified a weather balloon, something they dealt with every day.

It allows one nagging question to remain burrowed in your consciousness: What if the government accidentally told the truth that first day?

The National Security Act

The National Security Act of 1947 enacted a major restructuring of the United States government’s military and intelligence agencies following World War II. The majority of the provisions of the act took effect on September 18, 1947, the day after the Senate confirmed James Forrestal as the first secretary of defense and, yes, places it firmly into our Summer of the Saucers chronology.

The act merged the Army, Navy, and the newly established Air Force into the National Military Establishment run by a Secretary of Defense. Aside from the unification of the three military departments, the act established the Central Intelligence Agency.

The legislation was signed into law by President Truman on July 26, 1947.

It’s also worth noting that the Air Force, which had been part of the Army during World War II, was now an independent service branch that would be given responsibility for flying saucer investigations. It created Project Blue Book in 1952 and disbanded it in 1969, although before, during, and after, it continued to study unidentified flying objects while denying to the public that this was the case. Such misrepresentations were largely revealed by classified documents released as part of the new Freedom of Information Act in the 1970s.

The reputation of the Air Force has not improved. It’s been called out in extraordinary detail by intelligence insider Christopher Mellon for not being responsive to congressional calls for data and for basically saying it has no good cases to look at when the Navy has forwarded hundreds of them.

As for the CIA, it kept its powder dry for five years, letting the Air Force ride shotgun on the UFO issue. In 1952, however, the CIA formed a special study group to review the situation. The group reported that most UFO sightings could be easily explained but also urged that the CIA conceal its interest from the media and the public to avoid alarming the public.

This duck-and-cover from the Central Intelligence Agency continued with the Robertson Panel, which concluded unanimously that there was no evidence of a direct threat to national security or evidence that the objects might be ETs. It worried that potential U.S. adversaries might exploit the UFO phenomena and use them to disrupt air defenses. It recommended debunking UFO reports and suggested using the mass media, advertising, business clubs, schools, and even the Disney corporation to get the message across.

By most accounts, the CIA has had a lot more interest in UFOs than it has ever admitted publicly, although FOIA requests and a director-ordered document dump both leave the impression that the CIA has been content to watch others investigate than do it for itself.

In any case, by August of 1947, the flying saucer wave was history. Captain Edward Ruppelt, who ran Project Blue Book for several years and wrote a powerful book about the experience, put it this way:

“By the end of July 1947 the security lid was down tight. The few members of the press who did inquire about what the Air Force was doing got the same treatment you would get today if you inquired about the number of thermonuclear weapons stock-piled in the U.S.’s atomic arsenal.”

Still, there was one final goodbye to the Summer of the Saucers, a memo that had been written that summer, completed two days into fall, and not discovered until the 1970s.

The Twining Memo

United States Air Force General Nathan Farragut Twining was a very big deal. During World War II, he was considered an outstanding commander of bombing operations in both the European and Pacific theaters. After the war, then Lieutenant General Twining was named Commanding General of the military’s Air Materiel Command, working with the Air Technical Intelligence Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. It was in this esteemed capacity that he was asked to write a secret memo about UFOs in 1947 for Brigadier General George Schulgen, Chief of the Air Intelligence Requirements Division at the Pentagon.

Twining put his name to a high-level “coordinated” memo from extremely in-the-know officers and scientists on September 23rd, 1947, in which he stated his considered opinion (and theirs) that UFOs were real and had capabilities he did not believe the U.S. had yet achieved. For context, this memo came just three months after the Kenneth Arnold sightings, two months after the Roswell crash, and just five days after the U.S. Air Force was officially created as its own entity.

The entire memo is a barn-burner, not just for its time but for our time. It starts out with a single sentence, under Section 2, which reads:

“It is the opinion that the phenomenon is something real and not visionary or fictitious.”

In further clear language, it goes on with specificity to state what these devices could do —

“The reported operating characteristics such as extreme rates of climb, maneuverability (particularly in roll), and action which must be considered evasive when sighted … lend belief to the possibility that some of the objects are controlled either manually, automatically, or remotely.”

Yes, that does sound like a few of Lue Elizondo’s so-called “Five Observables.” Only it was being put in writing some 70 years before we ever heard of Elizondo or read the New York Times story about his Pentagon gig and the Nimitz case.

Twining listed several common descriptions of UFOs. They generally were silent, had a metallic or light reflecting surface, no trail, were circular or elliptical in shape, and often flat on the bottom. Many descriptions indicated a dome on top. Several reports indicated they flew in formation.

Importantly, such statements did not hurt Twining’s career, given that he was subsequently made Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force from 1953 until 1957 and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1957 to 1960, being the first member of the Air Force to serve as Chairman, let alone become a key advisor to the President of the United States Dwight Eisenhower.

The takeaway is that Twining was hardly ridden out of military service for advancing crazy ideas. That, of course, is what makes the memo he wrote so damned interesting.

As an addendum to tie some of these elements together, on July 8, 1947, the exact same day that the Roswell Air Base put out its press release saying that they had a flying saucer in their possession, Twining canceled a scheduled trip to the West Coast. He did so, as he told others, “due to a very important and sudden matter.” It appears that while it was thought he was in Washington, D.C., travel records show he actually made a trip to New Mexico, where he remained until July 10.

Lessons Learned

To the extent that the government of the United States and the citizens of the country were aware of the flying saucer controversy in the Summer of the Saucers, it seems reasonable to assume that few of them could have believed we would remain as ignorant of this subject as we appear to be today.

The majority of journalists continue to treat UFO stories as human interest pieces, and the people who report them as not exactly credible. The government, based on these latest hearings in Washington, seems not yet ready to level with the people about what it has learned in studying the Phenomenon for nearly eight decades. Some scientists are starting to take the subject seriously, but most of the scientific community treats the topic as one that is not the subject of serious research and can only harm careers.

And yet…

There are also signs everywhere that a critical shift in perspective is underway. The government has at least confirmed in public what it had only said before in classified memos — that the Phenomenon is real and that not only are citizens seeing these objects but so are the military’s pilots and data collection devices. The hearing, while frustrating, still managed to put the idea before the public and show that representatives were capable of asking pointed questions of the Department of Defense. And while scientists who took the subject seriously in the early days were practically non-existent, some are now openly visible, even if in the minority.

It now seems clear that we will not go another 75 years without some kind of answer. In fact, there are moments where it even seems possible we may not have to wait another 75 days, before we finally get a more complete picture of what this phenomenon might entail.

In a world of pandemics, politics, war, and economic insecurity, we seem to be moving toward some kind of new status on this subject. Maybe there is room for a surprising message of hope amid all the gloom and doom of today’s chaotic world. A message that says maybe–just maybe–the “War of the Worlds” is really just a way to end the War Among Ourselves, to unify humanity, and brighten the skies that have often seemed so dark.

The people who had the courage to speak up in 1947 may someday soon be names found in history books that tell a story about how it all began.

Bryce Zabel co-hosts the podcast Need to Know with Coulthart and Zabel — a concise analysis of news, research and history related to the UAP/UFO issue. He is the creator of five produced one-hour TV drama series, screenwriter on multiple features and limited series and winner the Writers Guild award. He has been a CNN correspondent, PBS investigative reporter, CEO of the TV Academy and adjunct professor at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. He is the author of three award-winning books. Follow him on Twitter @HollywoodUFOs. His professional credits can be found on LinkedIn.