the foo fighters
of world war II
PART ONE OF THREE PARTS
BEFORE JULY 4TH, 1995, when Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl released his newly-formed band's first album, few people had ever heard the phrase 'foo fighters'.
But the term had actually originated more than half a century before with a comic strip popular in the 1930s and 1940s, and the character of Smokey Stover -- a screwball firefighter who referred to fire as 'foo' (and who called himself a 'foo fighter' as he drove around in his 'foo mobile').
And there it might have stayed except for the events of December, 1944, as Allied forces pushed through France and Belgium towards a crossing of the Rhine and the final thrust into Germany, when "foo fighter" took on a new -- and baffling -- meaning.
The Allied (in blue) and Axis (in red) positions in western Europe as of December 15, 1944. The base of operations for the 415th Night Fighter Squadron is marked by a yellow square.
WHAT IS PERHAPS most remarkable about the official December 1944 War Diary of the 415th Night Fighter Squadron at Ochey Air Base in Nancy, France is what it treats as unremarkable. Amongst its daily entries, much is mundane:
December 1: Our tent area is in a piney wood. Besides their esthetic value, the trees also shield us from the wind.
December 7: We turned one of our blankets in to Squadron supply and received a sleeping bag in return - a very good deal in this frigid climate.
December 12: When on Pass the boys are finding Nancy an interesting metropolis with nothing off limits, a good Red Cross and a huge, heated indoor swimming pool.
December 14: Ol' Man Winter has finally laid General Mud, blanketing him with an inch of snow.
December 25: We had a turkey dinner to-day.
But mixed in with the mundane, and reported without comment:
December 15: The following is an excerpt from the operations report: "Saw a brilliant red light at 2000 feet going E at 200 MPH in the vicinity of Erstein. Due to AI failure could not pick up contact but followed it by sight until it went out. Could not get close enough to identify object before it went out."
December 18: I quote from the operations report: "In Rastatt area sighted five or six red and green lights in a 'T' shape which followed A/C thru turns and closed to 1000 feet. Lights followed for several miles then went out. Our pilots have named these mysterious [Illegible] which they encounter over Germany at night "Foo-Fighters."
December 23: More Foo-Fighters were in the air last night. The Ops. Report says: "In vicinity of Hagenau Saw 2 lights coming Toward A/C from ground. After reaching the altitude of the A/C they leveled off and flew on the tail of Beau for 2 minutes And they peeled up and turned away. 8th mission - sighted 2 orange lights. One light sighted at 10,000 the other climbed until it disappeared.
December 24: The officer's bar had its usual gala opening. The Foo-Fighters were active again according to the pilots report:- "Observed a glowing red object shooting straight up. It changed suddenly to a plan view of an A/C doing a wing-over and going into a dive and disappearing."
December 28: We have only seven operational aircraft now as replacements are snow-bound at Setif, North Africa. The Ops. Report says: "1st patrol saw 2 sets of 3 red and white lights. One appeared on port side, the other on starboard at 1,000 to 2,000 feet to rear and closing in. Beau went out, nothing on GCI [Illegible] at the time." And then again: Observed lights suspended in air, moving slowly in no general direction and then disappeared. Lights were orange, and appeared singly and in pairs. These lights were observed 4 or 5 times throughout the period."
That the Nazi's might throw a strange new weapon into the skies was not in itself surprising. German technology had frog-leaped in many areas, and produced such awe-stirring wonders as the V-1 flying rocket bomb and the V-2 ballistic missile.
But each such prior wonder weapon had carried aloft with it a clear and lethal intent which was immediately apparent. And what was most disconcerting to the pilots confronted by this strange phenomenon was the simple fact that these colored lights -- sometimes arranged in baffling patterns -- soared, closed in, followed and then veered away or seemingly extinguished themselves without any apparent military purpose or intent at all.
Left: The mascot insignia of the 415th Night Fighter squadron featured Donald Duck on a night mission of his own. Many American units in World War II adopted such cartoon emblems, though they remained 'unofficial' designators.
SURPRISINGLY, REPORTS OF a new aerial phenomenon sighted in the skies was allowed by the war censors to be revealed in newspaper accounts almost immediately. But the phenomenon reported in the papers did not match the oddly maneuvering colored lights noted in the War Diary of the 415th, but instead spoke of bright silver or transparent spheres seen simply floating or hanging in the air. From the December 13, 1944 edition of the Eugene Register Guard:
Floating Silver Balls Latest Nazi Weapons
Paris Dec. 13, (AP) -- As the Allied armies ground out new gains on the western front today, the Germans were disclosed to have thrown a new "device" into the war -- mysterious silvery balls which float in the air.
Pilots report seeing these objects, both individually and in clusters, during forays over the Reich.
(The purpose of the floaters was not immediately evident. It is possible that they represent a new anti-aircraft defense instrument or weapon.)
(This dispatch was heavily censored at supreme headquarters.)
The concurrent report from International News Service, however, gave a slightly different description. From the December 14, 1944 edition of the Twin Falls Telegram:
Secret Weapon Resembles Yule Decoration
PARIS (INS) -- The Germans on the western front have produced a "secret" weapon in keeping with the Christmas season, it was disclosed officially Wednesday.
The new device, apparently an air defense weapon, resembles the huge glass balls which adorn Christmas trees.
They hang in the air sometimes singly, sometimes in clusters. They are colored silver and other shades and are apparently transparent.
No information was available as to what holds them up like stars In the sky, what is in them, or to their purpose.
Lately, they have been seen several times floating over German territory.
Two days later, the development -- as described in the news accounts -- received some public analysis. From the December 15, 1944 edition of the Youngstown Vindicator...
Silver Balls in Reich May Block Radio Signals
By C.E. Butterfield
(Associated Press Radio Editor)
New York, Dec. 15, -- It could be that those floating silver balls encountered by American airmen in raids over the Reich are another German attempt to create interference for radio communication and detection signals.
Dispatches from the front have been heavily censored, but the fact that the balls are described as silver in color would indicate that they are of a metallic nature, and thus would react on any type of electronic emission. That is, they would mess up the signals.
In previous attempts at creating interference, particularly anti-radar, the Germans were reported to have used lightweight, tin-foil like strips of material which they loosed in the air. Apparently, these were not too satisfactory as gravity soon drew them to earth.
The silver balls, particularly if made of some light material, would have greater buoyancy and thus stay aloft longer and maintain a more extended interference period.
Why these reports of "silver balls" floating or hanging in the air did not match the description given by the airmen of the 415th is unknown. If the news accounts were describing some other equally anomalous sightings occurring at the same time, then their sources and the details of those events have never come to light. For though reports of silver balls hanging in the sky had been filed, they had in fact occurred ten months earlier.
On February 4, 1944, in a raid over Frankfurt, an air crew at 22,000 feet reported that for five minutes they had observed a "stationary ball" estimated to be 10 miles distant and which "appeared to be a shiny silver ball of several feet in diameter and shining by its own incandescence."
Four days later, on February 8, 1944, a report was filed of another crew's experience:
AAF STATION NO. 106
Office of the Intelligence Officer
8 February 1944.
SUBJECT: Unusual Tactics of E/A or AA Gun Fire.
TO: A-2 Section
1. No attacks made on our formation today.
2. Ball like object, appeared silvery, hung in air at 30,000 feet. No chute was observed to be attached to the object, and it remained under observation for approximately fifteen (15) minutes by the crew while in the target area. The crew did not see the object fired from the ground.
Major, Air Corps,
Station S-2 Officer.
There would be many more pilot encounters with unusual objects in the air in the intervening months between the February "hanging silver ball" events and the aerial lights dogging the 415th eight months later (as will be covered further on) but with the exception of a lone night fighter flight over Italy on December 2, 1944 -- which involved a pilot seeing "a steady seemingly hanging light" -- there were no fresh reports, so far as is known, of the hanging or floating silver balls reported in the December, 1944 newspaper accounts.
As such, the best clue for the discrepancy between what was sighted and what was reported probably lies in the notation that the news accounts were 'heavily censored', and it may well be that the odd behavior of the lights was considered too sensitive to be allowed to be publicly detailed in war time.
The reasons for such censorship are many, and include depriving enemy intelligence from gauging the effectiveness of their weapons. Equally important, however, was tamping down fear or uncertainty on the home front. Germany's deadly V-1 rocket bomb had just launched into the skies six months earlier, in June, 1944. Three months later, in September, 1944, Germany began launching the even deadlier V-2 ballistic missile. Both were technological marvels of the time, and seemed to live up to Hitler's promise of "wonder weapons" which could change the course of the war.
There was one saving grace to all this in the public's eyes. Though their bombs were capable of massive destruction, the V-1 and the V-2 were both imprecise, and could only be targeted towards general areas. But the behavior of the 'foo fighters' -- if they were indeed the result of German technology -- indicated a stunning technological advance in guidance control, with the deadliest of implications.
And so it is possible that the more placid story of silver balls simply floating or hanging in the air was all that was permitted to be published.
Or it may even have been that military press officers fed the adulterated version of events to the press -- who may well have heard rumors of disturbing aerial sightings -- in hopes of keeping a cap on the mystery. And if that was the intent, it worked.
For the time being, at least.
Night fighter squadron members in "rec room" at temporary base in France.
THAT A MORE COMPLETE STORY would come out just weeks later would be -- as are so many key events in the midst of the tumult of war -- a matter of serendipity, in this case involving a rising war correspondent, a cancelled mission, and copious amounts of cognac.
Twenty-nine year old Vermont native Robert C. Wilson had joined the Associated Press in 1941 after a career spent kicking around in various newspapers in Vermont and Massachusetts. In May, 1944, he was sent overseas on assignment as a war correspondent, based in London. His career from there had taken him to the beaches of Normandy just after D-Day. Embedded with the Canadian First Army, he shared the daily mortal danger as he covered the months-long Normandy campaign finally leading to the Normandy "breakout" at the end of July.
Continuing on with the Canadian First across France through August, Wilson sent back dispatches on the fierce fighting and slow gains. But come September the Canadian First -- which had been advancing only two or three miles at a time in August -- was advancing 30 miles in a day, with the German forces in France in complete disarray. From the September 2, 1944 edition of the Alberta, Canada Lethbridge Herald...
ADVANCE AT WILL
By ROBERT C. WILSON
(Associated Press War Correspondent)
WITH THE 1ST CANADIAN ARMY IN FRANCE, Sept. 2 (AP) -- Canadian armor reached the Somme a few miles south of Abbeville today, as Lt.-Gen. Crerar's troops probed almost at will throughout the front in pursuit of the mass of German stragglers, hitch-hiking their way back to the Siegfried Line.
These sorry elements of the once proud Wehrmacht have no food or gasoline, and little or no available transportation.
They are living off the land as they tramp back to Germany.
But though the "Battle of France" was coming to an end, the war continued savagely in other areas of Europe, and by the end of September Wilson made his way to be with U.S. Airborne troops in Holland, filing detailed accounts of bloody battles and hand-to-hand combat. By November Wilson had moved on to the newly-created Sixth Army Group -- a combined French and American force fighting on the front lines -- as they battled crack German mountain troops in the Maritime Alps bordering Italy in conditions so cold that it froze the water in GI's canteens.
Exactly when Wilson moved on from covering the Sixth Army Group is not known, nor are his movements in December. But it was on December 31, 1944, that Robert C. Wilson would learn of the "foo fighters" and write the only contemporaneous account of the mystery.
Reportedly, Wilson had gone to the 415th intending to write a story with a unique new year's perspective, hoping to actually be in the air with a crew over Germany at precisely midnight. Bad weather intervened, and instead Wilson found himself talking -- and sharing cognac -- with the air crews through New Year's eve until nearly dawn of the following morning. Almost immediately thereafter he filed his startling report which was sent out as a wire story to newspapers nationwide. From the January 2, 1945 edition of the Lubbock, Texas Morning Avalanche...
Eerie German "Foo-Fighter" Stalks Yanks Over Naziland
By ROBERT WILSON
Associated Press Staff Writer
A U.S. NIGHT FIGHTER BASE, France, Jan. 1. -- (AP) The Nazis have thrown something new into the night skies over Germany - the weird, mysterious "Foo-fighters," balls of fire which race alongside the wings of American Beaufighters flying intruder missions over the Reich.
U.S. pilots have been encountering the eerie "foo-fighter" for more than a month in their night flights. No one apparently knows exactly what this sky weapon is.
The balls of fire appear suddenly and accompany the planes for miles. They appear to be radio-controlled from the ground and manage to keep up with planes flying 300 miles an hour official intelligence reports reveal.
"There are three kinds of these lights we call 'foo-fighters,'" said Lt. Donald Meiers, of Chicago., Ill. "One is red balls of fire which appear off our wing tips and fly along with us, the second is a vertical row of three balls of fire which fly in front of us and the third is a group of about 15 lights which appear off in the distance -- like a Christmas tree up in the air -- and flicker on and off."
The pilots of this night fighter squadron -- in operation since September, 1943 -- find these fiery balls the weirdest thing they have as yet encountered. They are convinced that the "foo-fighter" is designed to be a psychological weapon as well as military although it is not the nature of the fire balls to attack planes.
"A 'foo-fighter' picked me up recently at 700 feet and chased me 20 miles down the Rhine valley," Meiers said. "I turned to starboard and two balls of fire turned with me. I turned to the port side and they turned with me. We were going 260 miles an hour and the balls were keeping right up with us."
"On another occasion when a 'foo-fighter' picked us up, I dove at 360 miles per hour. It kept right off our wing tips for a while and then zoomed up into the sky.
"When I first saw the things off my wing tips I had the horrible thought that a German on the ground was ready to press a button and explode them. But they don't explode or attack us. They just seem to follow us like will-o'-the- wisps."
But being a national wire story, Associated Press had apparently included additional information (sometimes done so that names of local interest could be included, or stories lengthened as needed). And so the following addendum was included in the story as carried in the January 2, 1945 edition of the Chicago Tribune which, for reasons unknown characterized the 'foo fighters' as flares...
"Looked Like Shooting Stars."
Lt. Wallace Gould of Silver Creek, N.Y., said the lights followed his wing tips for a while and then, in a few seconds, zoomed 20,000 feet into the air out of sight.
Lt. Edward Schlater of Oshkosh, Wis., said he had seen the "Foo-Fighter" on two occasions and it "looked like shooting stars."
Pilots agreed that the balls of fire were more numerous over large German cities. None saw any structure on the fire balls.
Other pilots at this base who have encountered "Foo-Fighters" include Lieutenants Henry Bockstige, Evansville, Ind. and Chester Bouscio, 9752 Avenue M, Chicago; Radio Navigators Lieutenants Anderson Henshaw, Carrier Mills, Ill., and Richard Early, Kalamazoo, Mich.
Many Encounter Flares
Among other flyers who have reported encountering the flares were Lieutenants Garland Moore, Charleston, W. Va., Hubert Moore, Greenwood, Miss., Austin Tetry, York, Pa., Warren Rodich, New Orleans, La., Frank Sardon, El Segundo, Cal, and Flight Officers Murphy Painter, Gonzales, La., Razomond Meyer, Middletown, Conn., and Lt. Richard Urich, Trenton, N.J.
Others included Capt. Charles Horne, Doerun, Ga.; Lieutenants Richard Wanda, Cleveland, O.; Charles Tournier, Lewiston, Me.; Henry Giblin, Santa Rosa, Cal.; Owen Davis, St. Petersburg, Fla.; Charles Ingraham, Waynesburg, Pa.; George Schroch, Willoughby, Ol., and William Flanagan, Meridien, Miss.
The addendum (which misspelled the name of Lt. Edward Schlueter) revealed that all told, the 'foo fighters' had been encountered by at least two dozen members of the 415th.
Which in itself was most likely the impetus for the following message sent by the 415th to Tactical Air Command...
We have encountered a phenomenon which we cannot explain; crews have been followed by lights that blink on and off changing colors, etc. The lights come very close and fly formation with our planes. They are agitating and keep the crews on edge when they encounter them, mainly because they cannot explain them. It is requested further information be furnished on this subject, such as similar experience of other night units.
By the time the story hit the States, Wilson had already moved on to cover the 7th Army in northern France, and its battles against the massive German counteroffensive which had begun in the Ardennes in mid-December. And except for possible "explanations" -- static or St. Elmo's fire -- published in the next few days and based solely on Wilson's story, no further mention would be found in the press for the duration of the war.
Above: A Bristol Beaufighter of the 416th Night Fighter Squadron at an airfield near Grottaglie, Italy, in November 1943. Left: Armorers load ammunition for the wing guns. The Beaufighter carried two .303-cal. machine guns in the left wing and four in the right wing. The Beaufighter was of British manufacture, but was also used by the Americans in their first night fighter squadrons, including the 415th. Designed for a two-man crew, with the pilot in the cockpit and the observer in a 360-degree view bubble on the top of the fuselage just behind the wings, the Beaufighter stood 16 feet tall, with a length of 41 feet and a wingspan of 48 feet. It was rated for a top speed of 320 miles per hour and a range of 1,750 miles.
THE EXPERIENCES OF THE 415th would be revisited just after the war by journalist Jo Chamberlin in a piece in the December, 1945 issue of American Legion Magazine, entitled The Foo Fighter Mystery...
At ten o'clock of a November evening, in late 1944, Lt. Ed Schlueter took off in his night fighter from Dijon, France, on what he thought would be a routine mission for the 415th Night Fighter Squadron.
Lt. Schlueter is a tall, competent young pilot from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, whose hazardous job was to search the night sky for German planes and shoot them down. He had done just this several times and had been decorated for it. As one of our best night fighters, he was used to handling all sorts of emergencies. With him as radar observer was Lt. Donald J. Meiers, and Lt. Fred Ringwald, intelligence officer of the 415th, who flew as an observer.
The trio began their search pattern, roaming the night skies on either side of the Rhine River north of Strasbourg -- for centuries the abode of sirens, dwarfs, gnomes, and other supernatural characters that appealed strongly to the dramatic sense of the late A. Hitler. However, at this stage of the European war, the Rhine was no stage but a grim battleground, where the Germans were making their last great stand.
The night was reasonably clear, with some clouds and a quarter moon. There was fair visibility.
In some respects, a night fighter plane operates like a champion boxer whose eyesight isn't very good; he must rely on other senses to guide him to his opponent. The U.S. Army has ground radar stations, which track all planes across the sky, and tell the night fighter the whereabouts of any plane. The night fighter flies there, closes in by means of his own radar until usually he can see the enemy, and if the plane doesn't identify itself as friendly, he shoots it down.
Or, gets shot down himself, for the Germans operate their aircraft in much same way we did, and so did the Japanese.
Lt. Schlueter was flying low enough that he could detect the white steam of a blacked-out locomotive or the sinister bulk of a motor convoy, but he had to avoid smokestacks, barrage balloons, enemy searchlights, and flak batteries. He and Ringwald were on the alert, for there were mountains nearby. The inside of the plane was dark, for good night vision.
Lt. Ringwald said, "I wonder what those lights are, over there in the hills."
"Probably stars," said Schlueter, knowing from long experience that the size and character of lights are hard to estimate at night.
"No, I don't think so."
"Are you sure it's no reflection from us?"
Then Ringwald remembered -- there weren't any hills over there. Yet the "lights" were still glowing -- eight or ten of them in a row -- orange balls of fire moving through the air at a terrific speed.
Then Schlueter saw them far off his left wing. Were enemy fighters pursuing him? He immediately checked by radio with Allied ground radar stations.
"Nobody up there but yourself." they reported. "Are you crazy?"
And no enemy plane showed in Lt. Meiers' radar.
Lt. Schlueter didn't know what he was facing -- possibly some new and lethal German weapon -- but he turned into the lights, ready for action. The lights disappeared -- then reappeared far off. Five minutes later they went into a flat glide and vanished.
The puzzled airmen continued on their mission, and destroyed seven freight trains behind German lines. When they landed back at Dijon, they decided to do what any other prudent soldier would do -- keep quiet for the moment. If you tried to explain everything strange that happened in a war, you'd do nothing else. Further, Schlueter and Meiers had nearly completed their required missions, and didn't want to chance being grounded by some skeptical flight surgeon for "combat fatigue."
Maybe they had been "seeing things."
But a few nights later, Lt. Henry Giblin, of Santa Rosa, California, pilot, and Lt. Walter Cleary, of Worcester, Massachusetts, radar-observer, were flying at 1,000 feet altitude when they saw a huge red light 1,000 feet above them, moving at 200 miles per hour. As the observation was made on an early winter evening, the men decided that perhaps they had eaten something at chow that didn't agree with them and did not rush to report their experience.
On December 22-23, 1944, another 415th night fighter squadron pilot and radar-observer were flying at 10,000 feet altitude near Hagenau. "At 0600 hours we saw two lights climbing toward us from the ground. Upon reaching our altitude, they leveled off and stayed on my tail. The lights appeared to be large orange glows. After staying with the plane for two minutes, they peeled off and turned away, flying under perfect control, and then went out."
The next night the same two men, flying at 10,000 feet, observed a single red flame. Lt. David L. McFalls, of Cliffside, N.C., pilot, and Lt. Ned Baker of Hemet, California, radar-observer, also saw: "A glowing red object shooting straight up, which suddenly changed to a view of an aircraft doing a wing-over, going into a dive and disappearing." This was the first and only suggestion of a controlled flying device.
By this time, the lights were reported by all members of the 415th who saw them. Most men poked fun at the observers, until they saw for themselves. Although confronted with a baffling situation, and one with lethal potentialities, the 415th continued its remarkable combat record. When the writer of this article visited and talked with them in Germany, he was impressed with the obvious fact that the 415th fliers were very normal airmen, whose primary interest was combat, and after that came pin-up girls, poker, doughnuts, and the derivatives of the grape.
The 415th had a splendid record.
The whole outfit took the mysterious lights or balls of fire with a sense of humor. Their reports were received in some higher quarters with smiles: "Sure, you must have seen something, and have you been getting enough sleep?" One day at chow a 415th pilot suggested that they give the lights a name. A reader of the comic strip "Smokey Stover" suggested that they be called "foo-fighters," since it was frequently and irrefutably stated in that strip that "Where there's foo, there's fire."
The name stuck.
What the 415th saw at night was borne out in part by day. West of Neustadt, a P-47 pilot saw "a gold-colored ball, with a metallic finish, which appeared to be moving slowly through the air. As the sun was low, it was impossible to tell whether the sun reflected off it, or the light came from within." Another P-47 pilot reported "a phosphorescent golden sphere, 3 to 5 feet in diameter, flying at 2,000 feet."
Meanwhile, official reports of the "foo-fighters" had gone to group headquarters and were "noted." Now in the Army, when you "note" anything it means that you neither agree nor disagree, nor do you intend to do anything about it. It covers everything. Various explanations were offered for the phenomena -- none of them satisfactory, and most of them irritating to the 415th.
It was said that the foo-fighters might be a new kind of flare.
A flare, said the 415th, does not dive, peel off, or turn.
Were they to frighten or confuse Allied pilots?
Well, if so, they were not succeeding -- and yet the lights continued to appear.
Eighth Air Force bomber crews had reported seeing silver-colored spheres resembling huge Christmas tree ornaments in the sky -- what about them?
Well, the silver spheres usually floated, and never followed a plane. They were presumably some idea the Germans tried in the unsuccessful effort to confuse our pilots or hinder our radar bombing devices.
What about jet planes?
No, the Germans had jet planes all right, but they didn't have an exhaust flame visible at any distance.
Could they be flying bombs of some sort, either with or without a pilot? Presumably not -- with but one exception no one thought he observed a wing or fuselage.
No, the 415th was well aware of their behavior. They ascended almost vertically, and eventually burst.
Could the lights or balls of fire be the red, blue, and orange colored flak bursts that Eighth Air Force bomber crews had reported?
It was a nice idea, said the 415th, but there was no correlation between the foo-fighters they observed and the flak they encountered. And night flak was usually directed by German radar, not visually.
In short, no explanation stood up.
On Dec. 31, 1944, AP reporter Bob Wilson, was with the 415th and heard about the foo-fighters. He questioned the men until 4 a.m. in the best newspaper tradition until he got all the facts. His story passed the censors, and appeared in American newspapers on January 1, 1945, just in time to meet the customary crop of annual hangovers.
Some scientists in New York decided, apparently by remote control, that what the airmen had seen in Germany was St. Elmo's light -- a well-known electrical phenomenon appearing like light or flame during stormy weather at the tips of church steeples, ships' masts, and tall trees. Being in the nature of an electrical discharge, St. Elmo's fire is reddish when positive, and blueish when negative.
The 415th blew up. It was thoroughly acquainted with St. Elmo's fire. The men snorted, "Just let the sons come over and fly a mission with us. We'll show em."
Through January, 1945, the 415th continued to see the "foo-fighters," and their conduct became increasingly mysterious. One aircrew observed lights, moving both singly and in pairs. On another occasion, three sets of lights, this time red and white in color, followed a plane, and when the plane suddenly pulled up, the lights continued on in the same direction, as though caught napping, and then sheepishly pulled up to follow.
The pilot checked with ground radar -- he was alone in the sky.
This was true in every instance foo-fighters were observed.
The first real clue came with the last appearance of the exasperating and potentially deadly lights. They never kept 415th from fulfilling its missions, but they certainly were unnerving. The last time the foo-fighters appeared, the pilot turned into them at the earliest possible moment -- and the lights disappeared. The pilot was sure that he felt prop wash, but when he checked with ground radar, there was no other airplane.
The pilot continued on his way, perturbed, even angry -- when he noticed lights far to the rear. The night was clear and the pilot was approaching a huge cloud. Once in the cloud, he dropped down two thousand feet and made a 30 degree left turn. Just a few seconds later be emerged from the cloud -- with his eye peeled to rear. Sure enough, coming out of the cloud in the same relative position was the foo-fighter, as though to thumb its nose at the pilot, and then disappear.
This was the last time the foo-fighters were seen in Germany, although it would have seemed fitting, if the lights had made one last gesture, grouping themselves so as to spell "Guess What" in the sky, and vanishing forever.
But they didn't.
The foo-fighters simply disappeared when Allied ground forces captured the area East of the Rhine. This was known to be the location of many German experimental stations. Since V-E day our Intelligence officers have put many such installations under guard. From them we hope to get valuable research information -- including the solution to the foo-fighter mystery, but it has not appeared yet. It may be successfully hidden for years to come, possibly forever.
The members of the 415th hope Army Intelligence will find the answer. If it turns out that the Germans never had anything airborne in the area, they say, "We'll be all set for Section Eight psychiatric discharges."
But what the members of the 415th didn't know -- or at least weren't revealing to American Legion magazine -- was that sights of strangely maneuvering lights, and other exotic aerial contrivances, had been reported for some time before the 'foo fighters' first came their way.
Left: December 14 1943, flight log entry by RAF Squadron Leader P. Wells reads 'Screaming Dog-fight with the light'.
MUCH EARLIER, BRITISH FLYERS had reportedly also encountered unexplained phenomena of their own.
In May of 2008, Britain's National Archives released the first of previously secret Ministry of Defense files on UFOs. The release only dated back to 1978, but included in its official 'background briefing' was this review of the experiences of the Royal Air Force (RAF) in World War II:
More sightings of aerial phenomena were made during the Second World War by RAF aircrew. These included balls of fire and mysterious moving lights that appeared to pursue Allied aircraft operating over occupied Europe. American pilots dubbed these UFOs 'foo-fighters', from a character in a comic strip whose catch phrase was 'where there's foo there's fire.' Although the foo-fighters did not appear to be hostile the sightings alarmed air intelligence branches of the Air Ministry and US Army Air Force as they prepared for the invasion of France. The RAF began to collect reports of 'night phenomena' from 1942 and later in the war, the Air Ministry shared intelligence on the subject with the US authorities. They assumed the phenomena were German secret weapons, such as the Me262 jet fighter. At the end of the war no traces of advanced aircraft or weapons that could explain the 'foo fighters' were found by the Allied occupying forces. In addition, intelligence officers such as Dr RV Jones discovered that German pilots had observed similar unexplained aerial phenomena...
Air Ministry reports on 'night phenomena' are at AIR 2/5070 while reports from aircrew with Bomber Command's 115 Squadron in December 1943 can be found in AIR 14/2800.
The Air Ministry report with the file number AIR 2/5070 is not available online, but Britain's National Archives describes it as a series of documents from 1940 through 1942, identifying it as Phenomena connected with enemy night defensive tactics: Bomber Command reports. Obviously it is a wide-ranging area covering many topics, with most of them being far-removed from the subject at hand. But some of the reports from that time are both known and pertinent.
The earliest is an August, 11, 1940 report with the subject Phenomena Connected With Enemy Night Tactics, and describes the problems with deriving solid intelligence from "peculiar incidents reported by pilots"...
It is difficult to assess the degree of accuracy of some of the reports, where enemy aircraft have not attacked, or have not approached close enough to be identified with certainty, and where the reports have not been substantiated by more than one member of the crew.
The strain upon a member of the crew maintaining a vigilant look out for long periods of time is intense, and, under such conditions, the stories of shadowing are apt to stimulate the very natural tendency to think that any unidentified shape seen, or imagined in the sky, is an enemy aircraft. In this connection it is interesting to note that, except on occasions when fire ensued, only one report of the 92 considered can be definitely confirmed by more than one member of the crew. It is appreciated that the reason for this is probably the limited view from crew positions, but it is, nevertheless, not without interest.
It is quite a well known practice for the Germans to test experimental apparatus under active service conditions and it appears highly probable that some of the peculiar incidents reported by pilots have been due to some new detection device or searchlight installed for experimental purposes.
It would prove to be not only a succinct summation of the situation as it existed in August, 1940 as Britain made its first tentative aerial attacks on German territory -- the United States would not enter the war for another 15 months -- but it would also represent a prescient forecast of the difficulties in identifying aerial phenomena reported by both British and American pilots as the air war intensified, and indeed, for researchers today.
But just as big a hurdle would be the labeling of the various phenomena found in air crew reports, which was wide and varied, and undoubtedly included much legitimate anti-aircraft activity. This labeling difficulty is exemplified in a September 25, 1942 report by the Operational Research Section of the British Air Ministry entitled A Note On Recent Enemy Pyrotechnic Activity Over Germany.
The report began with an overview of the Operational Research Section's task...
Crews have reported encountering various strange pyrotechnic devices recently over Germany. An investigation covering No. 3 and 5 Groups was undertaken in collaboration with the Flak Liaison Officer of No. 5 Group, in an endeavor to determine the probable purpose of these devices. M.I.14(e) is also looking into the matter in other Groups and a further report will be issued later.
The results of the investigation resulted in identifying at least two different types of "pyrotechnics", which they labeled "Phenomenon 1" and "Phenomenon 2", first dealing with "Phenomenon 1"...
These objects are undoubtedly shot up from the ground, either by a rocket with damping to render its trail invisible or by some form of mortar. It is possible that they are projected by heavy flak guns but unlikely owing to the size of the resulting object.
The object first makes its appearance in the sky as an orange red ball of fire and its arrival is definitely not accompanied by any blast in its vicinity. It persists as a "ball of fire" about 50 to 60 feet in diameter for a period of about 5-10 seconds after which period it begins to "drip" multicolored fragments which fall for about 150 feet before burning out. This cascade continues for about half a minute or a little longer, after which the whole thing appears to burn out.
Most aircraft report that they are shot up to the height at which they are flying although some crews have seen them both below and above them, up to 19000 feet. The enemy does not seem to use them in the very early stages of an attack but waits until it is well developed and then shoots them up to the height at which the majority of aircraft are flying, and it is unusual to see more than one in the sky at once. No cases are known in which an aircraft has been attacked by or has seen an enemy fighter either immediately before or after seeing one of these firework displays.
Aircraft have been very close to them (150-200 yards) when they have appeared and no ill effects at all were noticed. At a distance they are reported to look very similar to aircraft falling in flames and it is thought that they are intended to give crews the impression that a large number of aircraft are being shot down in flames and that the defenses are stronger than they really are.
It is almost certain that these devices are used purely as a deterrent and not intended to be lethal although, of course, if an aircraft happened to collide with one it might be lethal. This view is supported by the fact that the Germans have always placed great value on horrific devices. However, the deterrent value of such devices is much reduced and even destroyed once it is realized that they are practically harmless.
These objects have been described by some stations as "aerial minefields", but it is very misleading as it appears that they are certainly not mines, since (a) no aircraft is known to have sustained damage from them and (b) it is thought that the whole object of an aerial mine would be defeated if its position were indicated by such a luminous object.
The report then proceeds on to an analysis of "Phenomena 2"...
These flares have been seen both over this country and over enemy territory and it therefore seems probable that they are always dropped from aircraft. They are a form of multiple flare, usually a minimum of 3 or 4 in number which give out a large amount of light and are probably designed to assist fighter attack. It is not known whether they are all fixed together on a cable support by a parachute or whether each flare drifts down independently after being ejected from some form of container."
Then came a third and fourth reported phenomenon, with the fourth given a name...
There appear to be track indicating flares which may either be on the ground or be projected up to moderate heights and also small colored balls which are reported to come up slowly to heights of 6 or 7 thousand feet. The latter are in all probability light flak tracers. Several references have recently been made to 'Flashless Flak' and this subject was also investigated.
Finally, came a summation...
Phenomenon 1 is probably purely a 'scarecrow' and is not lethal. Phenomenon 2 is probably a flare to assist enemy fighters. 'Flashless flak' if it exists exhibits all the normal characteristics of flak except the brilliance of the flash. None of the above mentioned phenomena are considered to be in any way connected with aerial mines. It is suggested that suitable names should be bestowed on 'Phenomena 1 and 2' to facilitate reporting and an attempt to do so will be made in a [Illegible] report shortly to be published jointly by M.I.14(e) and this section.
The promised report, dated December, 1942, by MI14 -- the "Germany Desk" of the British Directorate of Military Intelligence -- revealed its own confoundment, despite MI14's stellar reputation for expertise and analysis...
Reports of various types of phenomenon are frequently received from aircrews operating over enemy territory. Many are only reported on isolated occasions and in default of satisfactory information, have to be discounted as "freaks."
There can be little doubt that not only were most such reports but an overwhelmingly significant majority truly described conventional German anti-aircraft technology. Others may have arisen from misinterpretation of natural phenomenon. But were any reports from that time similar to the 'foo fighters'? Unfortunately, aside from the tantalizing intimations found in the above British intelligence analyses, there is very little documentation of the initial pilot reports available, and most of what is told of pilot experiences with the unconventional comes from news stories or personal interviews given long after the fact.
One of the best known is said to be the experience of RAF pilot B.C. Lumsden, who in 1943 reportedly encountered two lights, amber and orange, slowly approaching his Hurricane fighter from below and then flying level with him at his altitude of 7,000 feet. Unfortunately the source for this appears to be a copy of a piece penned by him and entitled Wartime Experience. But it is said to be undated and the publication it appears in goes unnamed. Aside from the episode, it purportedly contains the following pertinent quote:
I found it hard to make other members of the squadron believe me when I told my story, but the following night one of the squadron flight commanders in the same area had a similar experience with a green light.
The other well-known British account given long after the fact comes from an RAF flight leader by the name of P. Wells. This at least is sourced to British researcher Andy Roberts and correspondence he had with Wells in the 1980s. The incident concerned a single light following Wells' Beaufighter but outside of that there is not much detail. Wells, at least, was able to provide a copy of his flight log which he had kept, with the notation 'Screaming Dog-fight with the light'.
Most of the other accounts from British aircrews are likewise obscure, many taken long after the events by researchers from BUFORA (British UFO Research Association) and most with witnesses requesting to remain anonymous. Unfortunately these 'records' have not been made generally available for public review, and almost universally their contents are paraphrased in books and articles covering the subject, denying the careful reader the opportunity to judge each tale independently.
There are however some reports from the time which raise intriguing questions as well as illustrate both the difficulty aircrews had in describing phenomena and the problems intelligence officers faced when interpreting them. For instance, in a 1943 report, subject: Flak Liaison Officer Report, No. 161, 30 May, 1943...
On 12/13 May one aircrew reported that when flying at 20,000 feet just after leaving Duisburg they saw a "meteor" traveling from North of the target in a southerly direction about 16,000 feet. The object was reddish-orange in colour, and three times during the observation, it was said to have emitted a burst giving off a green star. It disappeared from view when it had lost height to about 12,000 feet.
The report was vague in its details, and left many questions unanswered. The description of a 'meteor' implies a fast-moving light, but how fast? What size did it appear? How bright was it? How long was it in view? Was it in a constant descent or did it appear at any time to fly level? Were there any flames or smoke trails? Other such flak reports of the time included such details, and their omission here is baffling, to say the least.
But the British were not alone in this. The U.S. Eighth Air Force, based in England and responsible for daylight bombing raids against Germany, issued a report in August, 1943, reviewing the difficulties it had faced...
Most of our crews were at best relatively inexperienced. They early learned to identify the most obvious forms of conventional flak and cannon bursts but many of them from the first insisted they had seen multi-colored explosions of one kind and another. These observations were greeted with skepticism if not derision at first. It is likely that many valuable reports were lost by the crew members' reluctance to report such strange things as they knew they had seen. These men had little general knowledge of ordnance and usually their observations were only fleeting glimpses caught in the heat of battle. "Pink Flak" became a joke long before it was a well-understood phenomenon.
The report went on to comment on the reaction of intelligence officers back at base...
To compound the difficulty interrogating intelligence officers were new to their business and no better acquainted with the galaxy of ordnance devices than the crews. At first, they had no personal estimate of the relative reliability of individual crew members. And finally all crew interrogation was performed against an set time limit.
But even with all the above, the situation remains that lost in the brawl and bedlam of war much of the detail of events during 1942 and 1943 for both British and American air crews -- with the exception of P. Wells' flight log and an incident given later -- were not recorded contemporaneously with the alleged events, the result being that they amount to little more than conjecture, rumor and undocumentable claims.
A situation which would change, come 1944.
1. For purposes of readability, the entries for the War Diary of the 415th Night Fighter Squadron have the full month and day for each entry followed by a colon (e.g., "December 1:") whereas the actual entries are simply numbered according to the date ("1").
2. The entries from the War Diary of the 415th Night Fighter Squadron comes from the collection of researcher Barry Greenwood, and can be found at CUFON.
3. The February 4, 1944 report of a silver ball shining by its own incandescence during a raid on Frankfurt comes from Keith Chester's book Strange Company, which gives as its source 92nd Bomb Group, Confidential report to: A-2, First Bombardment Division and 41st Combat Wing Command, 4 February 1944.
4. The December 2, 1944 report of a light seemingly hanging during a raid over Italy comes from Keith Chester's book Strange Company, which gives as its source 414th Night Fighter Squadron, Operations Report, Mission 108, 2 December, 1944, by First Lt. Wallace H. Geisz, S-2.
5. Robert C. Wilson's motivation for visiting the 415th for a new year's story as well as the bad weather preventing the flight is reported in Keith Chester's book Strange Company, which gives a personal telephone conversation with one of the airmen Wilson was to fly with as its source.
6. The December, 1945 American Legion magazine story, "The Foo Fighter Mystery", is reprinted in full at Project 1947.
7. In the December, 1945 American Legion magazine story Jo Chamberlin states that the "silver balls" hanging or floating in the sky were from reports made by bomber crews of the 8th Air Force. If those reports were made near the time of the experiences of the 415th, they have never been made public, with the exception of the two February, 1944 reports noted above.
8. The complete briefing document accompanying the National Archives UK release of Ministry of Defense files including its description of RAF experiences in World War II can be found here.
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