of a hoax
Cover for April 30, 1949 Saturday Evening Post with article "What You Can Believe About Flying Saucers" by Sidney Shalett.
IF IN 1949 THE PUBLIC was highly confused by what the government knew or was doing about "flying saucers", it had every right to be.
For a year and a half -- from the time of the first wave of sighting reports in early summer 1947 through the end of 1948 -- there had been three fairly consistent messages coming out of Washington. The first was that the saucers showed no sign of hostility. The second was that the reports were likely all misidentifications of conventional aircraft and natural phenomena. And the third was that the Air Force would continue to keep a careful eye on the situation.
But come 1949, the consistency of the Air Force messaging would vary wildly and dramatically.
And that was because in the months leading up to 1949 -- behind the scenes -- a fierce internal Air Force battle had been raging.
Headlines in the Lowell Sun (Massachusetts), Amarillo Daily News (Texas) and the Hamilton Journal (Ohio) between July 5 and July 7, 1947.
THE INTERNAL WAR of 1948 within the Air Force had its origins in the first official Air Force investigation into reports of flying discs, known as Project Sign.
In his 1956 book, The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, Captain Ed Ruppelt -- who himself headed a subsequent investigation known as Project Blue Book -- told the inside story of Project Sign...
On September 23, 1947, the chief of the Air Technical Intelligence Center, one of the Air Force's most highly specialized intelligence units, sent a letter to the Commanding General of the then Army Air Forces.
The letter was in answer to the Commanding General's verbal request to make a preliminary study of the reports of unidentified flying objects. The letter said that after a preliminary study of UFO reports, ATIC concluded that, to quote from the letter, "the reported phenomena were real." The letter strongly urged that a permanent project be established at ATIC to investigate and analyze future UFO reports. It requested a priority for the project, a registered code name, and an over-all security classification. ATIC's request was granted and Project Sign, the forerunner of Project Grudge and Project Blue Book, was launched...
The letter to the Commanding General of the Army Air Forces from the chief of ATIC had used the word "phenomena." History has shown that this was not a too well-chosen word. But on September 23, 1947, when the letter was written, ATIC's intelligence specialists were confident that within a few months or a year they would have the answer to the question, "What are UFO's?" The question, "Do UFO's exist?" was never mentioned. The only problem that confronted the people at ATIC was, "Were the UFO's of Russian or interplanetary origin?" Either case called for a serious, secrecy-shrouded project. Only top people at ATIC were assigned to Project Sign...
As 1947 drew to a close, the Air Force's Project Sign had outgrown its initial panic and had settled down to a routine operation. Every intelligence report dealing with the Germans' World War II aeronautical research had been studied to find out if the Russians could have developed any of the late German designs into flying saucers. Aerodynamicists at ATIC and at Wright Field's Aircraft Laboratory computed the maximum performance that could be expected from the German designs. The designers of the aircraft themselves were contacted. "Could the Russians develop a flying saucer from their designs?" The answer was, "No, there was no conceivable way any aircraft could perform that would match the reported maneuvers of the UFO's." The Air Force's Aeromedical Laboratory concurred. If the aircraft could be built, the human body couldn't stand the violent maneuvers that were reported. The aircraft-structures people seconded this, no material known could stand the loads of the reported maneuvers and heat of the high speeds.
Still convinced that the UFO's were real objects, the people at ATIC began to change their thinking. Those who were convinced that the UFO's were of Soviet origin now began to eye outer space, not because there was any evidence that the UFO's did come from outer space but because they were convinced that UFO's existed and only some unknown race with a highly developed state of technology could build such vehicles. As far as the effect on the human body was concerned, why couldn't these people, whoever they might be, stand these horrible maneuver forces? Why judge them by earthly standards? I found a memo to this effect was in the old Project Sign files...
In intelligence, if you have something to say about some vital problem you write a report that is known as an "Estimate of the Situation." A few days after the DC-3 was buzzed, the people at ATIC decided that the time had arrived to make an Estimate of the Situation. The situation was the UFO's; the estimate was that they were interplanetary!
It was a rather thick document with a black cover and it was printed on legal-sized paper. Stamped across the front were the words TOP SECRET.
It contained the Air Force's analysis of many of the incidents I have told you about plus many similar ones. All of them had come from scientists, pilots, and other equally credible observers, and each one was an unknown...
When the estimate was completed, typed, and approved, it started up through channels to higher-command echelons. It drew considerable comment but no one stopped it on its way up...
It got to the late General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, then Chief of Staff, before it was batted back down. The general wouldn't buy interplanetary vehicles. The report lacked proof. A group from ATIC went to the Pentagon to bolster their position but had no luck, the Chief of Staff just couldn't be convinced.
The estimate died a quick death. Some months later it was completely declassified and relegated to the incinerator. A few copies, one of which I saw, were kept as mementos of the golden days of the UFO's...
By the end of 1948, Project Sign had received several hundred UFO reports. Of these, 167 had been saved as good reports. About three dozen were "Unknown." Even though the UFO reports were getting better and more numerous, the enthusiasm over the interplanetary idea was cooling off. The same people who had fought to go to Godman AFB to talk to Colonel Hix and his UFO observers in January now had to be prodded when a sighting needed investigating. More and more work was being pushed off onto the other investigative organization that was helping ATIC. The kickback on the Top Secret Estimate of the Situation was beginning to dampen a lot of enthusiasms. It was definitely a bear market for UFO's.
And at the beginning of 1949, Project Sign would become Project Grudge, and staffed by those with an entirely new mission -- end the flying disc talk forever.
Above: First pages of April, 1949 two-part article by Sidney Shalett for The Saturday Evening Post.
IT WAS WITH the change to Project Grudge that in 1949 the public's confusion about what the government knew or was doing about "flying saucers" would reach full boil.
In a chapter titled "The Dark Ages", Captain Ruppelt describes the difference in the Project Grudge approach compared to what had gone before...
The order of February 11, 1949, that changed the name of Project Sign to Project Grudge had not directed any change in the operating policy of the project. It had, in fact, pointed out that the project was to continue to investigate and evaluate reports of sightings of unidentified flying objects. In doing this, standard intelligence procedures would be used. This normally means the unbiased evaluation of intelligence data. But it doesn't take a great deal of study of the old UFO files to see that standard intelligence procedures were no longer being used by Project Grudge. Everything was being evaluated on the premise that UFO's couldn't exist. No matter what you see or hear, don't believe it.
New people took over Project Grudge. ATIC's top intelligence specialists who had been so eager to work on Project Sign were no longer working on Project Grudge. Some of them had drastically and hurriedly changed their minds about UFO's when they thought that the Pentagon was no longer sympathetic to the UFO cause. They were now directing their talents toward more socially acceptable projects. Other charter members of Project Sign had been "purged." These were the people who had refused to change their original opinions about UFO's.
With the new name and the new personnel came the new objective, get rid of the UFO's. It was never specified this way in writing but it didn't take much effort to see that this was the goal of Project Grudge. This unwritten objective was reflected in every memo, report, and directive.
To reach their objective Project Grudge launched into a campaign that opened a new age in the history of the UFO. If a comparative age in world history can be chosen, the Dark Ages would be most appropriate. Webster's Dictionary defines the Dark Ages as a period of "intellectual stagnation."
To one who is intimately familiar with UFO history it is clear that Project Grudge had a two-phase program of UFO annihilation. The first phase consisted of explaining every UFO report. The second phase was to tell the public how the Air Force had solved all the sightings. This, Project Grudge reasoned, would put an end to UFO reports.
The first salvo would come within days of the official name change, and the national press -- which had informally been given background information by the Air Force for news stories -- suddenly found itself completely frozen out. From a March, 1949, Associated Press national wire story:
Remember the flying saucers? For what it may be worth, the armed services won't talk about them any more. Any information on investigations of reports concerning them is now "classified" along with information on atomic bombs and guided missiles.
Few here know what to make of this, if anything...
The short-sightedness of this change in policy soon made itself manifest when the nationally influential columnist and broadcaster Walter Winchell announced on his radio program on April 3, 1949...
This will not be confirmed by anyone in authority in Washington at this time, but if anybody denies it the denier will be a liar. The flying saucers, never explained by anyone in authority are now definitely known to have been guided missiles shot all the way from Russia.
Reaction to the national broadcast was fast and furious, and on April 8, 1949, the Air Force issued a statement. From the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Gazette...
Air Force Isn't Committing Self On Flying Disks
WASHINGTON (INS) -- The air force disclosed Thursday that secrecy restrictions have been clamped on certain incidents connected with the mysterious flying saucers.
At the same time, it admitted that it is impossible to "deny categorically" that the weird objects originated in Russia or some other foreign nation.
A statement said some incidents linked with the flying saucers "still are unexplained." A spokesman said some of the "inexplicable" incidents have been placed in the classified category, denied to all persons except authorized military personnel.
The statement was issued as the air force continued to receive inquiries arising out of a Walter Winchell broadcast. The commentator said the saucers came from Russia. The air force said:
"To date there has been no tangible evidence which would support a theory that any of the incidents are attributable to activity of a foreign nation. On the other hand, there is no evidence to deny categorically such a possibility.
"Many of the reported incidents have definitely been determined to be meteorological balloons or natural celestial phenomena. However, there are some incidents reported by reliable and competent observers which are still unexplained."
And so the public -- having heard for almost two years that the discs weren't Russian and weren't hostile -- was suddenly being told that maybe they were. And the report that "some of the 'inexplicable' incidents have been placed in the classified category, denied to all persons except authorized military personnel" certainly did nothing to ease public fears on this point.
Following which the events of two to three weeks later certainly only added to the confusion of the public. Ruppelt tells what happened next...
For many months reporters and writers had been trying to reach behind the security wall and get the UFO story from the horse's mouth, but no luck. Some of them were still trying but they were having no success because they were making the mistake of letting it slip that they didn't believe that airline pilots, military pilots, scientists, and just all around solid citizens were having "hallucinations," perpetrating "hoaxes," or being deceived by the "misidentification of common objects." The people of Project Grudge weren't looking for this type of writer, they wanted a writer who would listen to them and write their story. As a public relations officer later told me, "We had a devil of a time. All of the writers who were after saucer stories had made their own investigations of sightings and we couldn't convince them they were wrong."
Before long, however, the right man came along. He was Sidney Shallet [sic throughout, should be Shalett], a writer for The Saturday Evening Post. He seemed to have the prerequisites that were desired, so his visit to ATIC was cleared through the Pentagon. Harry Haberer, a crack Air Force public relations man, was assigned the job of seeing that Shallet got his story. I have heard many times, from both military personnel and civilians, that the Air Force told Shallet exactly what to say in his article -- play down the UFO's -- don't write anything that even hints that there might be something foreign in our skies. I don't believe that this is the case. I think that he just wrote the UFO story as it was told to him, told to him by Project Grudge.
Shallet's article, which appeared in two parts in the April 30 and May 7, 1949, issues of The Saturday Evening Post, is important in the history of the UFO and in understanding the UFO problem because it had considerable effect on public opinion. Many people had, with varying degrees of interest, been wondering about the UFO's for over a year and a half. Very few had any definite opinions one way or the other. The feeling seemed to be that the Air Force is working on the problem and when they get the answer we'll know. There had been a few brief, ambiguous press releases from the Air Force but these meant nothing. Consequently when Shallet's article appeared in the Post it was widely read. It contained facts, and the facts had come from Air Force Intelligence. This was the Air Force officially reporting on UFO's for the first time.
The article was typical of the many flying saucer stories that were to follow in the later years of UFO history, all written from material obtained from the Air Force. Shallet's article casually admitted that a few UFO sightings couldn't be explained, but the reader didn't have much chance to think about this fact because 99 per cent of the story was devoted to the anti-saucer side of the problem. It was the typical negative approach. I know that the negative approach is typical of the way that material is handed out by the Air Force because I was continually being told to "tell them about the sighting reports we've solved -- don't mention the unknowns." I was never ordered to tell this, but it was a strong suggestion and in the military when higher headquarters suggests, you do.
Shallet's article started out by psychologically conditioning the reader by using such phrases as "the great flying saucer scare," "rich, full-blown screwiness," "fearsome freaks," and so forth. By the time the reader gets to the meat of the article he feels like a rich, full-blown jerk for even thinking about UFO's.
He pointed out how the "furor" about UFO reports got so great that the Air Force was "forced" to investigate the reports reluctantly. He didn't mention that two months after the first UFO report ATIC had asked for Project Sign since they believed that UFO's did exist. Nor did it mention the once Top Secret Estimate of the Situation that also concluded that UFO's were real. In no way did the article reflect the excitement and anxiety of the age of Project Sign when secret conferences preceded and followed every trip to investigate a UFO report. This was the Air Force being "forced" into reluctantly investigating the UFO reports.
Laced through the story were the details of several UFO sightings; some new and some old, as far as the public was concerned. The original UFO report by Kenneth Arnold couldn't be explained. Arnold, however, had sold his story to Fate magazine and in the same issue of Fate were stories with such titles as "Behind the Etheric Veil" and "Invisible Beings Walk the Earth," suggesting that Arnold's story might fall into the same category. The sightings where the Air Force had the answer had detailed explanations. The ones that were unknowns were mentioned, but only in passing.
Many famous names were quoted. The late General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, then Chief of Staff of the Air Force, had seen a flying saucer but it was just a reflection on the windshield of his B-17. General Lauris Norstad's UFO was a reflection of a star on a cloud, and General Curtis E. Le May found out that one out of six UFO's was a balloon; Colonel McCoy, then chief of ATIC, had seen lots of UFO's. All were reflections from distant airplanes. In other words, nobody who is anybody in the Air Force believes in flying saucers.
Figures in the top echelons of the military had spoken.
A few hoaxes and crackpot reports rounded out Mr. Shallet's article.
The article had not only been shepherded by the Air Force, but undoubtedly submitted by The Saturday Evening Post for Air Force review prior to publication -- if only to catch inadvertent errors in fact before going to press (such a review was the normal practice of responsible journalists and publications of the day). But if there was any glee at Project Grudge that this major article in one of the nation's most widely read magazines would be a major step towards its goal of quashing the saucer talk, they were soon to be disabused of that notion...
The reaction to the article wasn't what the Air Force and ATIC expected. They had thought that the public would read the article and toss it, and all thoughts of UFO's, into the trash can. But they didn't. Within a few days the frequency of UFO reports hit an all-time high. People, both military and civilian, evidently didn't much care what Generals Vandenberg, Norstad, Le May, or Colonel McCoy thought; they didn't believe what they were seeing were hallucinations, reflections, or balloons. What they were seeing were UFO's, whatever UFO's might be.
I heard many times from ex-Project Grudge people that Shallet had "crossed" them, he'd vaguely mentioned that there might be a case for the UFO. This made him pro-saucer.
And it only added to the woes of Grudge that at the exact same time the Sidney Shalett article was making its appearance on the newsstands, the Air Force itself issued an official 22-page report seemingly contradicting the Saturday Evening Post piece.
The report -- given out in the form of a press release -- had been in the works for weeks, ordered by General Charles Cabell, the head of Air Force Intelligence, as a response to the Walter Winchell announcement that the saucers were Soviet aircraft. Needing content, its preparers had turned to a former Project Sign summary, which treated the reported phenomenon seriously.
The first to release word of the Air Force report was the Dayton, Ohio Journal-Herald -- the major local newspaper for Wright-Patterson AFB where Project Grudge operated -- and the Journal-Herald April 26, 1949 report on the press release became the basis for a national newswire report. From the April 27, 1949 edition of the Walla Walla, Washington Union-Bulletin...
Flying Discs Declared To Be 'No Joke'
DAYTON, Ohio (AP) -- The Dayton Journal-Herald said Tuesday night that the air force, after an extensive investigation, has decided that flying saucers "are not a joke."
The paper said its story was based on a report now in the files at Wright-Patterson air force base here. The report stresses that the flying saucers are not "a cause for alarm to the population," the paper added.
The air force, it was learned, still is receiving about 12 reports a month from persons sighting flying discs. The technical intelligence section of the air materiel command is continuing the investigation.
So far, the Journal-Herald reported, 240 domestic and 30 foreign reports of flying saucers have been probed.
Intelligence section officers said 30 per cent of the reports have been due to conventional aerial objects such as weather and cosmic ray research balloons. Commonplace answers are expected to be found for another 30 per cent. But 40 per cent remain a mystery.
The evaluation teams, in commenting on the mystery saucers, reported, "we can't prove or disprove the existence of some of the remaining unidentified objects as real aircraft of unconventional design."
In its probe, the air force even has considered that flying saucers may be visitations from other planets such as Mars, where it is believed human life may exist. This theory, however, has been discounted.
The Journal-Herald also quotes one technical report at the field:
"The possibility that the saucers are foreign aircraft also has been considered. But the reported performance of the discs is so superior to anything we have yet approached in this country that it is not considered any other nation of the earth could have knowledge so far above ours."
For a long time the air force refused to admit an investigation was being made. But, the Journal-Herald said, repeated reports of flying saucers from competent observers made an intelligence investigation necessary.
The day following the Journal-Herald report -- after the major news organizations received their own copies of the newly released Air Force report -- similar stories followed nationwide. From the April 27, 1950 edition of the Brainerd, Minnesota Daily Dispatch...
Air Force Declares Flying Saucers Are 'No Joke'
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The air force said officially today the Flying Saucers "are not a joke."
But in the same breath, the air force said it is convinced from nearly two years of careful study that there are "no alarming probabilities" in the mysterious aerial manifestations.
On-the-spot inquiries and sober findings have shown simple explanations for many of the things people saw or thought they saw in the sky.
Nevertheless, a paper prepared by the intelligence division of the air materiel command at Wright-Patterson Field, Ohio, declares:
"The saucers are not a joke. Neither are they cause for alarm to the population.
"Many of the incidents already have answers -- meteors, balloons,
falling stars, birds in flight, testing devices, etc. Some of them still end in question marks."
The paper added that the "correct tagging of the remaining percentage is still the job of "Project 'Saucer' of the intelligence division."
The paper, based on the long air force study, became available today. It reviews, in detail, many of the hundreds of reports of strange flying discs and other objects.
It notes that, directly or indirectly, three persons investigating flying saucer reports have died in aircraft accidents. Two were killed in the crash of a plane carrying what later proved to be scraps of material used in a hoax.
The third, a National Guard pilot flying over Kentucky, pursued to a high altitude what he described on his radio as an object "round like a tear drop" and flying fast and high. His body was found later in the wreckage of his plane. The air force decided he had collapsed from lack of oxygen and died before his plane crashed to the earth.
The paper said the possibilities that the saucers are foreign aircraft have been considered.
"But," it adds, "the reported performance of the discs is so superior to anything we have yet approached in this country that it is considered only an accidental discovery of 'a degree of novelty never before achieved' could suffice to explain such devices."
And it was the just-released Air Force report -- not the Shalett attack piece -- which garnered attention in newspaper editorials. From the April 30, 1949 edition of the Reno, Nevada Evening Gazette...
Flying Saucers Not a Myth
FLYING SAUCERS, those mysterious discs which many persons have seen whirling through the skies in the last few years, are not treated lightly by the air force. While the air officers can find no logical explanation for some of the saucers, they also say that they are no cause for alarm.
Checking 240 reports from widespread sections of the United States and 30 from overseas, the airmen said 30 per cent were finally identified as birds, balloons or airplanes. Thirty per cent were "astronomical phenomena," such as meteorites.
And the other 40 per cent? That is the mystery. The saucers are not a joke, the air force said. There's little likelihood that they are space ships from another planet. Another theory that the saucers are strange war missiles developed secretly by another country is hardly tenable.
Still, these flying discs are not the result of imagination, the air force declares, but no one can give a clear answer to the puzzle.
The public -- in a matter of mere weeks -- had been variously told that the saucers were Soviet (Winchell, April 3rd), that there was no evidence to the contrary to Winchell's Soviet assertion (Air Force, April 8th), that some reports were "inexplicable" and were now classified (Air Force, April 8th), that reports were not to be taken seriously (Shalett, April 30th and May 7th), that the reports were to be taken very seriously (Air Force, April 26th) but that "no other nation of the earth could have knowledge so far above ours" (Air Force, April 26th), that three men had died in the attempt to identify them (Air Force, April 26th) and that there were still 40 percent of the reports which remained unexplained (Air Force, April 26th).
Nor was Walter Winchell bowed. From his national column as published in the May 19, 1949 edition of the Wilmington, North Carolina News...
The N.Y. World-Telegram on Saturday confirmed this reporter's exclusive report of several weeks before -- which newspapermen have denied -- about the Flying Saucers . . . Said the front page in the W-T: "Air Force people are convinced the flying disk is real. The clincher came when the Air Force got a picture recently of three disks flying in formation over Stephensville, Newfoundland. They out-distanced our fastest ships. Some air force men believe the discs are a new type flying machine utilizing gyroscopic principles" . . . At the time we added that the reality of the flying discs or saucers could not be denied truthfully.
All in all, it had not been -- to put it mildly -- a smooth transition from Project Sign to Project Grudge.
But things were about to get bumpier still.
Above: Beginning of second installment of Sidney Shalett article for The Saturday Evening Post, published May 7, 1949.
APRIL'S ROLLER COASTER RIDE of opinion produced yet another undesirable side effect for Project Grudge -- as Captain Ruppelt would later report...
The one thing that Shallet's article accomplished was to plant a seed of doubt in many people's minds. Was the Air Force telling the truth about UFO's? The public and a large percentage of the military didn't know what was going on behind ATIC's barbed-wire fence but they did know that a lot of reliable people had seen UFO's. Airline pilots are considered responsible people -- airline pilots had seen UFO's. Experienced military pilots and ground officers are responsible people --they'd seen UFO's. Scientists, doctors, lawyers, merchants, and plain old Joe Doakes had seen UFO's, and their friends knew that they were responsible people. Somehow these facts and the tone of the Post article didn't quite jibe, and when things don't jibe, people get suspicious.
But it was with another segment of the populace -- the reporters -- that the Project Grudge's shepherding of the Shalett piece had its most drastic unintended consequence...
In those people who had a good idea of what was going on behind ATIC's barbed wire, the newspaper reporters and writers with the "usually reliable sources," the Post article planted a bigger seed of doubt. Why the sudden change in policy they wondered? If UFO's were so serious a few months ago, why the sudden debunking? Maybe Shallet's story was a put-up job for the Air Force. Maybe the security had been tightened. Their sources of information were reporting that many people in the military did not quite buy the Shallet article. The seed of doubt began to grow, and some of these writers began to start "independent investigations" to get the "true" story. Research takes time, so during the summer and fall of 1949 there wasn't much apparent UFO activity.
As the writers began to poke around for their own facts, Project Grudge lapsed more and more into a period of almost complete inactivity. Good UFO reports continued to come in at the rate of about ten per month but they weren't being verified or investigated. Most of them were being discarded. There are few, if any, UFO reports for the middle and latter part of 1949 in the ATIC files. Only the logbook, showing incoming reports, gives any idea of the activity of this period. The meager effort that was being made was going into a report that evaluated old UFO reports, those received prior to the spring of 1949. Project Grudge thought that they were writing a final report on the UFO's.
From the small bits of correspondence and memos that were in the ATIC files, it was apparent that Project Grudge thought that the UFO was on its way out... There was no more to say.
But reporters, like nature, abhor a vacuum. And the silence emanating from the Air Force -- which in reporters' eyes smacked of the smug attitude that the Air Force controlled and was final arbiter of the story -- only encouraged the reporters to dig harder, and deeper...
Project Grudge thought they were winning the UFO battle; the writers thought that they were covering up a terrific news story -- the story that the Air Force knew what flying saucers were and weren't telling.
By late fall 1949 the material for several UFO stories had been collected by writers who had been traveling all over the United States talking to people who had seen UFO's. By early winter the material had been worked up into UFO stories. In December the presses began to roll. True magazine "scooped" the world with their story that UFO's were from outer space.
The True article, entitled, "The Flying Saucers Are Real," was written by Donald Keyhoe. The article opened with a hard punch. In the first paragraph Keyhoe concluded that after eight months of extensive research he had found evidence that the earth was being closely scrutinized by intelligent beings. Their vehicles were the so-called flying saucers. Then he proceeded to prove his point. His argument was built around the three classics: the Mantell, the Chiles-Whitted, and the Gorman incidents. He took each sighting, detailed the "facts," ripped the official Air Force conclusions to shreds, and presented his own analysis. He threw in a varied assortment of technical facts that gave the article a distinct, authoritative flavor. This, combined with the fact that True had the name for printing the truth, hit the reading public like an 8-inch howitzer. Hours after it appeared in subscribers' mailboxes and on the newsstands, radio and TV commentators and newspapers were giving it a big play. UFO's were back in business, to stay. True was in business too. It is rumored among magazine publishers that Don Keyhoe's article in True was one of the most widely read and widely discussed magazine articles in history.
Newspaper and radio reports on Keyhoe's article began appearing nationwide on the day of its release -- December 26, 1949. Although taken totally by surprise, the Air Force reacted quickly -- completely contradicting itself from its pronouncements of April 26. From the December 28, 1949 edition of the Ogden, Utah Standard Examiner...
Air Force Checks 375 Rumors, Explodes 'Flying Saucer' Myth
WASHINGTON, Dec. 28 (AP) -- After checking up on 375 rumors of weird and wondrous sights in the sky, the air force has concluded that there aren't any "flying saucers."
It took two years, a special team from the USAF's science staff, and help from university consultants to track down the rumors of strange discs whizzing through the air.
Last night the air force said "project flying saucer" -- the investigation started by the air materiel command at Wright Base, Dayton, Ohio, on January 22, 1948 -- has been ordered ended because there is nothing to show that the reports were "not the results of natural phenomena."
All evidence, it added, points to three factors -- "misinterpretation of various conventional objects; a mild form of mass hysteria; or hoaxes" -- as the origin of the flying saucer reports.
Under air force definition, "various conventional objects" include such things as meteors, balloons, birds in flight or just ordinary optical illusions.
Denies Magazine Story
The effect of last night's air force announcement was to deny a story appearing in the current, edition of the magazine "True"...
And so the end of 1949 left the public as confused as at the year's beginning -- a confusion which began to harden into suspicion in the first weeks of 1950.
Newspaper serialization of Keyhoe's article in the January 1, 1950 edition of the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Gazette.
JUST AT THE TIME the Air Force announced it was withdrawing from the investigation of saucers, Keyhoe's article began reaching the public not only through the pages of True, but in syndication in edited form in newspapers across the country -- and as Ruppelt stated, everything about it suggested legitimacy.
The author was a former major in the Marines, and one-time aide to aviation legend Charles Lindbergh. And when in addition to the article Major Keyhoe began appearing on national broadcast programs, his calm demeanor and informed manner did much to impress. The end result was that large numbers of the public began to feel that at last someone was being straight-forward with them about what had been happening in American skies -- and that someone wasn't the Air Force.
But the announced Air Force withdrawal of interest in the subject also left a vacuum for other tales to flourish. And unintentionally abetted by the popularity of Keyhoe's True magazine piece, wilder tales almost immediately began to emerge.
One of these would be the tales of crashed discs -- and the dead "little men" who had been their pilots -- which percolated through various newspaper accounts. One such had been a lengthy article in the Wyandotte, Kansas Echo during the first week of January, 1950, which told the tale of Rudy Fick, a local businessman. Fick claimed he had been told by someone in the know that the government possessed both the discs -- dozens of them -- and their dead pilots (or at least four), and all had come from Venus.
The Echo piece was syndicated word for word to other newspapers and republished -- or sometimes even repurposed, as in the January 23, 1950 edition of the Burlington, Iowa Hawkeye Gazette...
Those Flying Saucers Are From Venus With Little Men in 'em -- Oh Yeah?
Have you heard the latest one about flying saucers, those celestial discs that have been winging around over Iowa and most of the other states off and on for a year or so? Well, we can let you in on the lowdown now but first, pull down the curtains, send the children upstairs to bed and pull up close. It's too awesome to be spoken aloud so we'll have to whisper. Can you hear all right, grandpa, where you're sitting?
Well, sir, folks, here it is, just as the man told it. It seems a friend of a friend of his had heard it at the Elks where a fellow who had been down in Kansas City met a man who knew another fellow that had heard Rudy Fick, a Kansas City automobile dealer, tell what George Coulter, a Denver engineer, told Jack Murphy, a Denver automobile dealer, who had told it to Fick. Is everything clear up to now? Well, grip your chairs and listen.
By the way, what's that strange noise outside the door? Pull back the shades, Uncle Dan, and look out. There's strange goings on about if this story's true. Oh, just the storm window rattling? Mother, you were supposed to have fixed that window before you put them up last fall. Just like a woman, letting things go around the house when a man's busy every minute trying to make a living for a big and extravagant family. Not extravagant, maybe, but it costs a lot of dough around this house these days. Now where were we?
Oh, yes. About Rudy Fick and what he heard Jack Murphy tell him that George Coulter had told him. By the way, folks, this is very confidential. Fick hasn't told only a few of his selected friends, perhaps 30 or 60 of them at a tea party where everybody was pledged to secrecy. And you know nobody would tell anybody else anything under circumstances like that.
Now for the story. Fick, it seems, had been out to Ogden, Utah. Maybe he has an automobile business out there. Anyhow, he's a big shot and has automobile agencies a little bit of everywhere. When he got back to Denver on his way home to Kaycee, he had a 8-hour layover. That was because he had got tired riding the choo-choo train and had decided to take a plane home to Denver. It's just a pitch and a putt from Denver to Kaycee by plane.
Well, he, that's Fick, looked up his old friend Murphy. Ford cars are Murphy's business. Oh, yes, forgot to mention it but Fick sells Fords, too. Well, sir, they were sitting there in Jack's office ... that's Murphy ... when the telephone ups and rings.
Jack seems a bit startled as he talks and Fick wonders what's upsetting him. When he ... that's Murphy ... gets through, he's whiter than a sheet and kinda nervous. "Rudy," says he, "here's one for the book", or maybe he said, "I'm going to let you in on the most fantastic story you ever heard".
Anyhow it was something like that which he said. Well, sir, as we've already told you, Jack ... that's Murphy ... has a friend named Coulter ... George Coulter, that is. Jack and Rudy met Coulter. Jack says, "Rudy, meet George", and they met.
"Is Rudy all right to tell this to?", asks George and Jack says, "Rudy's right as rain." Maybe that ain't exactly what they said but that's the way we heard it. "OK", says George...
Well, sir, what do you think, folks? Those flying discs aren't discs at all. They're not saucers, either. But they do fly. They're gyroscopes. At least that's what they look like. Each one of them is surrounded by an 18-foot ring and the center is a globular thing that has a 6-foot cabin inside it.
But wait! Wait! You ain't heard nothing yet. Listen to this. Those thingamajigs are not perpetual motion or robot machines. There's men in 'em ... little men not more than 3 feet tall. They're blonde and don't have no whiskers but they look just like anybody else ... like that midget at the carnival last summer, maybe.
These little men are dressed in something like aviator's clothes. The cloth was blue, sorta wiry like, and the pants fit just as tight as skin. They had tape on their bodies, probably to reduce the friction of flying through vast space. By the way, these little men had teeth, too, but they didn't have fillings or cavities in them like some of you have. They weren't store teeth, either. Them teeth growed.
There wasn't much else except some funny looking pills or tablets. Oh yes, there were some small brown cubes, too. After they found the wreckage of one of these gyroscope things down there in the mountains near the Arizona-New Mexico border, they dropped some of the pills, or maybe it was the cubes, in some water to see what would happen. Well, sir you've never seen a can of hot beer or a bottle of fizz water with a stuck cap fizz any fizzier than that stuff did. That's about all there is to it.
Coulter told Murphy and Fick, so the story goes, he had seen some of the remains of 2 of the flying gyroscopes down New Mexico way. One of them was all shot to h... shot to pieces, that is, and the 2 little guys inside were so badly charred up you couldn't make head or hair out of them, hardly. But the other 2 fared better except they were dead, too.
Now ain't that a story for your whiskers, folks? The friends Fick told it to back in Kansas City respected his confidence completely but it wasn't more than 24 hours before everybody in Kaycee was talking about it. The Kansas City Star and Times began to get telephone calls. Radio stations were bristling with hush-hush. The manager of a looky-looky outfit was trying to figure out how he could put it on TV.
Friends of Fick's friends told their friends and the first thing you know, the story was being bandied around in Burlington, too. A Hawk-Eye Gazette reporter who once got as far away from home as Danville was completely awed and asked his boss if the paper would underwrite his expenses to go out to Kaycee to interview Fick and then on to New Mexico to look around for a few more remains of little men. He added, naively, that Tia Juana wasn't far from there, either. But the boss, being an old seasoned traveler but tight-fisted, said he'd put up a nickle and a postage stamp for the newsman to send out to Kansas City to get a copy of anything the KC Star or Times had printed, and this morning the results came in.
Last Thursday and Friday the Star and Times carried a story that said: "The little men in space ships sail back to fiction's limbo" and then it told how Fick had met Murphy and Coulter out in Denver and had heard the story. Oh yes, we almost forgot. Fick had told his friends, so friends of his friends say, that the government knew all about the space ships but was letting the information out only to a few selected and highly reputable individuals at a time because Uncle Sam didn't want to throw the whole country into a dither like what happened when Orson Welles made that famous broadcast years ago or when some radio announcer said during the holidays that Santa Claus had been shot.
When that story about Santa first came on the air 15 new-dealers in Jersey City had heart attacks. Uncle Sam didn't want anything like that to happen, not even like it to happen, not even to Iowa where they've been seeing flying saucers, catamounts and panthers for the last year or so. Well, that's about it...
But as it would turn out, that wasn't "it" -- that wasn't "it" at all.
For it was not only 1950 -- nor even the decade itself -- that was just at its merest beginnings...
1. The stories of Project Sign and Project Grudge will be the subject of several series in the future.
2. Sidney Shalett's Saturday Evening Post article, What You Can Believe About Flying Saucers, is available through the "UFO Magazine Articles" section in the Library portal of this site.
3. The official Air Force report stating that flying saucers were "no joke" was dated April 27, 1949. The Dayton, Ohio, Journal-Herald story of April 26 referenced in the Walla Walla, Washington, Union-Bulletin story of April 27, 1949 was apparently based on a preview of the report. The 22-page Air Force report is available through the "Research, Reports, And Official Documents" section of "UFO Specialty Publications" in the Library portal of this site.
4. The two men who "were killed in the crash of a plane carrying what later proved to be scraps of material used in a hoax" were Lt. Frank M. Brown and Capt. William L. Davidson from Hamilton Field in California. The story of their deaths, and of the "Maury Island Hoax", can be read in the 10-part series The Positively True Story of Kenneth Arnold available through the "Past Weeks" portal of this site.
5. The "National Guard pilot flying over Kentucky" who was killed while pursuing an unidentified object was Captain Thomas Mantell, who will be the subject of a series in the future.
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