Thursday, November 19, 2020

The September 1962 UFO Flap of New Jersey


Flying saucers didn't seem to be a topic of interest in Oradell (NJ) at the end of the summer of 1962. The Record, a daily newspaper based in Hackensack and serving Bergen County, had published only two flying saucers articles that year: one about the recently formed New Jersey Association of Aerial Phenomena (NJAAP), and another on the 15-year anniversary of Kenneth Arnold's famous sighting.

But the testimonies of three Oradell teens in mid-September would cause a local sensation. Their UFO report mobilized police and USAF resources, brought together a crowd of a hundred one evening to wait for an apparition, and seemingly generated a spate of saucer reports in the area. All of this before some anonymous Bergen teens issued a belated anonymous confession, alleging that everything stemmed from a hoax.

Space had been in the news that week, but it was centered around NASA, particularly on a local boy headed for orbit. Wally Schirra, who was scheduled to liftoff on Sept. 28, had been born in Hackensack and grown up in Oradell.  On Sept. 13th, the Mercury astronaut was the subject of a CBS special hosted by Walter Cronkite, "Our Next Man in Space."

The Sighting That Launched the Flap

Shortly before 8:00 P.M. on Saturday 15, 1962, David Finley and Steve Nagy, both age 13 of Oradell, and Robert Decker, 15, of Emerson saw a UFO. The three were on the Oradell Ave. bridge overlooking the reservoir when they saw a bright object about 3/4 of a mile away over the water. The UFO hovered close to the dam, splash-landed into the water, and then swiftly flew away with out a sound. The three boys ran to the nearby police station to breathlessly report what they'd seen. Project Blue Book files show the Oradell police took a report, sent officers to investigate, and had the boys make sketches of the object. The Record said, “The boys described the object as an oval with a band around the middle and spots on the upper half. A fin was drawn protruding from the lower half.”

UFO sketches by the original 3 witnesses, David Finley, Steve Nagy, and Robert Decker

Key locations in the saga of the Oradell sighting.

The Record, Sept. 17, 1962

The next night, Sunday 16, David Finley went back with two other friends and the trio also saw a UFO. “We didn’t believe Finley till we saw it,” one boy said. Drawings from the new witnesses were also collected by the police.

UFO sketches by Paul Bitetti and Ed Lombi.

The Record reported on Tuesday 18 that two more witnesses emerged to the first sighting, the Saturday UFO “splash,” both 16-year olds from the nearby borough of Emerson, William Cooper and Alfred Tauss. The paper said Cooper described the UFO as a light, “many times brighter than a star, that moved quickly back and forth over the pines.”

The Record, Tuesday, 18, 1962

The second article was pivotal in turning the story into a UFO flap, by treating the Emerson boys' story as corroboration of the first. The Record stated the boys' report raised the number of witnesses to eight "who saw something land in reservoir." No, only the three original witnesses reported seeing a possible landing. The adult man mentioned in the first article said he saw nothing, that he'd only heard a large splash. The various testimonies of seven boys were lumped together as if it was objectively one single incident. The two new witnesses were more than 6000 feet away from the Oradell Ave, bridge when they saw a bright light and heard a noise. Only one teen was heard from - and his mother - not the second witness. 

The story was reported as if verified fact; nothing was questioned. The newspaper accounts also omit the detail that police questioned two other boys present at the time of the sighting. They were fishing from the south side of the bridge, but “These boys reported seeing no flying object.”

The media attention fueled the saucer fever, but it also spread by word of mouth. The original witnesses probably all attended River Dell High School. Between the newspaper coverage and the kids spreading the word at school, there was a crowd gathered Tuesday night to see a saucer.

A similar scene from Close Encounters of the third Kind

Tuesday evening about 100 people, mostly teenagers, gathered on the Oradell Ave. bridge. The Record, Wed. Sept. 19 reported the crowd saw nothing, but there were several accounts of other sightings in the area, including that of two sets of police officers who had seen something in the early morning that one said, “ might have been a searchlight.” The story stated that the local police chiefs were skeptical and that “Oradell Chief George Brugnoli guessed that the boys Saturday and Sunday saw a bird on his way south for the winter. He said birds with 4-foot wing spans stop off at the reservoir every year on their way south.”

The Record, Sept. 19, 1962

The Record on Sept. 20 reported the varied UFO sightings as if they were a single object lurking in the locale: “20 persons waited in vain for the flying saucer reportedly seen in the area every night since Saturday.” However, they reported that, “Sightings… have been reported now by about a dozen persons, including police in Westwood and Oradell.”  

Meanwhile, saucer fever had spread to the nearby borough of Hawthorne. Paterson Evening News reported the Hawthorne reports as if they were a continuation of the UFO “sighted early this week throughout the state.” The Oradell and stories from Hawthorne and other parts got conflated as a Jersey “flap,” but they were really several distinctly different events.

Paterson Evening News, Sept. 21, 1962

At least one local businesses tried to cash in on the flap. The Lucky Strike Lanes invited spacemen to come bowl with them.

The Record, Sept. 24, 1962

The Confession of “The Bergenfield Pranksters”

On the 25th, some cold water was thrown on the UFO business. “The Bergenfield Pranksters” sent a letter to Oradell police, claiming, “Our flying saucer was made of a balsa wood frame filled with helium balloons for natural buoyancy. Power was supplied by a radio controlled by a 1/8-horsepower model airplane with a variable-pitch propeller.” Apparently a small group of teenage boys, the group seemed to claim causing only the Saturday and Sunday incidents, saying, “Please do not think the boys that reported this were involved, because to them, it was a flying saucer.” If a hoax, that left a lot of other reports at different times and locations unexplained. However, there were a lot of inexperienced observers out, and the local press was portraying every report of stray shape or light in the sky as a UFO sighting.

The Record, Sept. 25, 1962

The newspapers had already caused a lot of confusion by lumping reporting every sighting as connected and of equal value. At least one Hawthorne sighting had been conclusively explained as the rocket stage of the TIROS 6 satellite launch from Cape Canaveral on Sept. 18. Some of the early morning sightings sound very much like planets seen before dawn, and some of the other accounts were likely from excitable teens mistaking airplane lights for a saucer.

The Bergenfield Pranksters’ letter might explain the original weekend incidents, but not all that followed over in several surrounding towns. Philip J. Del Vecchio’s article in Paterson Evening News, Sept. 28, 1962, rejected the confession as explaining the sightings in Hawthorne. The two boroughs are about 11 miles away from one another, and he stated the speed, brilliance, or performance of the UFOs, “could not have been produced by amateurs.”

Paterson Evening News, Sept. 28, 1962

The Project Blue Book Non-Investigation

Project Blue Book had separate files for Oradell and Hawthorne incidents. Their conclusion of the original sighting based on the limited data available: “misidentification of a bird.” It appears their information was limited to data from the Oradell police investigation. The file stated, “No attempt at analysis of many other reptd sightings.” 

The Hawthorne file merely contains two news saucer magazine clippings and a letter from a citizen asking about the UFO reports. The Air Force replied, “The [Hawthorne] sightings… have never been officially reported… Therefore, we are not able to effect an evaluation”

Project Blue Book: Oradell, NJ,  Sept. 15 - 24, 1962 (23 pages).

Project Blue Book: Hawthorne, NJ, Sept. 13 - 24, 1962 (4 pages).

Project Blue Book: Newark, NJ, Sept. 21, 1962 (13 pages).

The Saucer Organization and Magazine Coverage

Saucer clubs and magazines were happy to have a slug of new stories to discuss. Most merely summarized the newspaper coverage, but a few added some rumors and sensational details.

The NJAAP Bulletin, Sept. - Oct. 1962, “UFO Lands in Reservoir Climax to N.J. ‘Flap,’” reported that, “the parents of the witnesses were called up by local police and told that their sons should refrain from speaking about the matter "since the government requested a secrecy policy." Another tidbit about the Sept. 19th saucer watch at the bridge: “The heavy rain dampened the spirits of many yet 20 people still turned out… Nothing was seen save the rumor that Oradell police shot at a 14-foot man with shotguns.” John Nove was following the story and provided most of the information used in presenting the NJAAP report.

NICAP’s UFO Investigator, Oct. – Nov. 1962, “Disc Landing reported in New Jersey,” included some details from a about the Hawthorne sighting of Sept. 21. “Officer George Jediny, in a report to NICAP, said the UFO – which he sketched as a disk – seemed to revolve.” They dismissed any suggestion that the cases were explained as a hoax, rejecting the confession letter from the “The Bergenfield Pranksters.”

Saucer News, Dec. 1962, “Saucer ‘Flap’ in Northern New Jersey,” a summary provided by Edward J. Babcock, Jr., of the NJAAP. It concluded by saying of the confession: "It seems impossible that this explanation could account for all the sightings described above.” (Clipped in Project Blue Book files.)

Saucers, Space & Science, Dec. 1962, “The Oradell, New Jersey Incident of September, 1962,” a story drawn from the report by The NJAAP Bulletin.

The NJAAP Bulletin, Feb. 1963, “New Jersey UFO Flap,” covered and updated the story to cover events not included in their original report.

APRO Bulletin, May 1963, "Saucer Dunks In Reservoir,” was late to the party, but provided a good summary. They rejected the confession letter, and said, “There is more to this than meets the eye, especially when we consider the other sightings of objects in the vicinity of water deposits during 1962.”

The 1964 NICAP book edited by Richard Hall, The UFO Evidence, presented the New Jersey flap and the kitchen sink.

The UFO Evidence, 1964

In Fate magazine, April 1967, Timothy Green Beckley wrote in discussing the 1966 Wanaque flap saying, “New Jersey seems to seethe with UFO activity. The nearby town of Oradell (about 15 miles from Wanaque) saw a gigantic flap in September, 1962. At that time more than 25 witnesses saw a craft dive into the Oradell Reservoir and emerge sometime later.” He concludes by saying, that perhaps, “conjecture that the UFOs may be draining water from the Reservoir is not so bold after all.”


 The Rest is History

The press, for the most part, was satisfied with the confession letter from “The Bergenfield Pranksters,” so the New Jersey flap seemed to end as it had begun, with some boys telling a story about UFOs. 

The Record, Sept. 29, 1962

For whatever reason, the saucer fever and sightings in Oradell died down before Wally Schirra’s space launch on Oct.3.

The Oradell bridge in 2019.

The local media rode the saucer story. The police were annoyed by it. The Air Force dismissed it. The saucer fiends seized on it, and the incidents went down in UFO history as a major local flap.


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