Thursday, April 21, 2022

UFO Patterns: Signals in the Noise

Hearing an unbelievable or absurd flying saucer yarn, Gray Barker would often respond with an enigmatic smile and say, “It all fits the pattern.” It was a private joke, since much of popular UFO lore was invented or circulated by Barker himself.

The human mind is always trying to find patterns. Most people are familiar with pareidolia, which Merriam-Webster defines as “the tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern.” Pareidolia applies to visual stimulus, but it’s a type of apophenia, “the tendency to perceive a connection or meaningful pattern between unrelated or random things (such as objects or ideas).” 

From A Popular Handbook and Atlas of Astronomy, by William Peck, 1891

Apophenia is finding false signals in the noise. Confirmation bias can play a role as well, and once we’ve adopted a hypothesis, we favor that which seems to fit with, or support our view. An example of that is when Italian astronomer Giovani Schiaparelli detected lines on the surface of Mars, he interpreted them as canals, proof of construction by intelligent inhabitants. When flying saucers came along, it had people making all kinds of mental connections in trying to solve the mystery.

As early as 1947 the Air Force was looking at UFO sightings to determine some actionable data. The idea was that if UFOs were under intelligent control, some evidence of that should be found by identifying repetitions of some characteristics, such as shape, performance, behavior, and locations observed. In March 1953, Project Blue Book head Edward J. Ruppelt gave a “Briefing for Air Defense Command,” where he stated:

“We have made a statistical study of the data that we have collected in order to attempt to determine whether or not there is any common pattern in the sightings but we have had no success in finding any such pattern.”

Copy from The San Bernardino Sun, May 1, 1967

Dr. J. Allen Hynek was an astronomer who worked a side gig as a consultant to the Air Force. In the mid-1960s Project Blue Book had authorized Hynek to recruit assistance from colleagues in analyzing and processing UFO reports. Jacques Vallee, a young French ufologist who was pursuing his Ph.D. and working as a computer programmer, was brought in chiefly to assist in data management. Vallee was always looking for messages in the data, and in his 1965 book, Anatomy of a Phenomenon, frequently mentioned patterns and pattern-analysis:

“If new phenomena are present in the set of patterns that constitutes the UFO problem, there is a possibility that these phenomena may lie outside the scope of any one of the specialties recognized today by science, and still be discernible to the mathematical mind.” 

Hynek was influenced by Vallee and searched for common features or patterns in UFO reports. 

Hynek’s Observables 

The San Bernardino Sun, May 1, 1967, ran an article, “It's Easy to Be Ufologist -- Just Read Below” by Karl R. Edgerton. Dr. Hynek was quoted, saying the "more impressive cases" among the unexplained sightings "fit into a pattern." He listed five common characteristics.

  • The UFOs had a bright red glow.
  • They hovered a few feet off the ground.
  • They emitted a "high-pitched whine."
  • Animals in the vicinity were terrified, often before the UFOs became visible to the people who later reported them.
  • When the objects at last began to disappear, they vanished in seconds.

The next year (Amarillo Daily News, Feb. 15, 1968,) Hynek was asked about the Carroll Wayne Watts case and Texas UFO flap, and he was supportive. “He said many facets of the sightings at Wellington ‘fit the pattern’.” Unfortunately, the Watts case turned out to be hoax, a pastiche based on the alien encounter stories from Dan Fry and Barney and Betty Hill. Watts’ yarn fit the pattern through counterfeiting and mimicry.

Post-Blue Book   

After the closure of Project Blue Book, Hynek wrote a book in 1972, The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry. In it he used the word “pattern” 343 times, most often in this context, “UFOs in general, have been reported from many parts of the world, and a definite pattern is evident.” Discussing the 1961 Hill abduction story, Hynek said, “If we discount entirely the account revealed only under hypnosis, the first portion fits the pattern.” Hynek talked about how conventional items mistaken for phenomena did not typically generate reports of high strangeness.

“An aircraft fuselage glistening in the sun, reported by some untutored person as a UFO, is not reported to rush away at incredible speeds. Flares dropped from airplanes (which have often given rise to UFO reports) are not reported as having stopped cars, frightened animals, or cavorted about the sky; nor do the reports contain reference to 'occupants' or to oval-shaped craft hovering six feet off the ground.” 

Jacques Vallee, and J. Allen Hynek wrote in their 1975 book, The Edge of Reality: A Progress Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, “definite patterns of appearance and behavior” repeat in cases throughout the decades:

“One would expect that if UFOs had no substance in fact but were entirely the products of human imagination, there would be considerably greater variety in UFO reports. It does not say much for human imagination to report the same old (but incredible) stories; over some three decades one would imagine that story tellers as well as out and out hoaxsters would bring some variety into their productions!”

On Geraldo Rivera’s ABC talk show Good Night America on June 9th, 1977, Dr. Hynek was asked about the Travis Walton story, and he was supportive of it.

“It fits a pattern… we have some two dozen similar abduction cases currently being studied. Something is going on!”

One of Hynek’s last interviews was in Omni magazine Feb. 1985, and he was asked about his Center for UFO Studies. “What was the understanding that began to emerge from your work?” Dr. Hynek replied: 

“I realized that we don't have UFOs, only UFO reports. I defined the UFO phenomenon, then, as the continual flow of strange sightings and reports from all over the world. The patterns and contents of these reports constitute the UFO phenomenon. The phenomenon says nothing whatsoever about origin, nothing about little green men. The question about whether you do or don't believe in UFOs is irrelevant. If you define the UFO as the UFO report and its consistent contents, then the phenomenon is there.”

Ufologist and saucer satirist Gray Barker died on Dec. 6, 1984.

J. Allen Hynek died on April 27, 1986, so in that sense, Dr. Hynek had the last laugh. 

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Early Accounts of Alien Abductions

Notions of alien abductions were circulating long before the 1961 Betty and Barney Hill case, even before anyone had heard of flying saucers. Charles Fort’s 1919, The Book of the Damned discussed the possibility of extraterrestrial visitors, and he speculated that someone up there likes us - as in the way we taste.
“And I have data that, in this book, I can't take up at all — mysterious disappearances. I think we're fished for.”
The Fortean journal, Doubt # 13, 1945 had a short article that played off this notion, supposing that the missing crew of a German ship might have become a meal for Martians.

Doubt # 13, 1945

Science Fiction Kidnappers

“Earth Slaves to Space” by Richard Shaver, Amazing Stories Sept. 1946

Ray Palmer published the stories of Richard Shaver as nonfiction as in Amazing Stories, tales of an ancient extraterrestrials, the Atlans and Titans. Carrying a cover date of June 1947 but published at least a month earlier, Palmer put out a special all-Shaver Mystery issue, and his editorial stated:
“…Mr. Shaver declared that Titans, living far away in space, or other people like them, still visit earth in space ships, kidnap people, raid the caves for valuable equipment, and, in general, supply the basis for all the weird stories that are so numerous (see Charles Fort's books) of space ships, beings in the sky, etc.”

Science fiction and fantasy stories frequently featured stories of monsters or aliens abducting humans for examination or worse. When the flying saucers appeared, that sort of thing was mentioned, but only as a joke. On July 7, 1947, newspaper columnist Hal Boyle’s a silly piece about being abducted by a spaceman in a flying saucer was published. His alien abductor was a big green man, Balminston X-Ray O’Rune from Mars, “some eight feet tall, covered with thick green hair, with one eye like a hardboiled egg in the center of his forehead, and no visible mouth at all. He was naked, his hands were three-clawed.”

More seriously, John W. Campbell's editorial in the October 1947 issue of Astounding Science Fiction was titled, “Flying Somethings,” where he speculated that UFOs were extraterrestrial scout vehicles, and he discussed how they might abduct specimens for study. He wrote about it from flipped point of view, as if we were the explorers of another planet:

"For several months, our investigation would be conducted by noncontact observation; until we know much more about the people, we'll do well to stay clear of them. After some weeks though, a stealthy raid might kidnap a few inhabitants for general questioning and investigation. In this, we'd be very smart not to damage the kidnaped parties; the resentment of a technically civilized race can be distinctly unwelcome even to a more powerfully technical people. Investigation of local animals can give all the necessary basic biological science for preliminary understanding of the local race.”
(See pages 71-72 of this PDF for 
Campbell's full article: UFOs: A History, Supplemental Notes August 1—December 31 by Loren E. Gross.) 

Comics are often a good indicator of how a topic has penetrated the public’s consciousness, but occasionally they have been ahead of trends. An alien abduction kicked off the story in the Sunday Superman newspaper comic strip from May 2 to July 18, 1948. Superman and Lois Lane were captured by a scouting party for invaders from Mars and taken aboard their spherical Martian spaceship. 

The Martians wanted to conquer Earth to solve their water shortage, and the two were taken as test subjects to be taken to Mars and examined to see if earthlings could resist the Martians’ weapons.

(Reprinted in Superman: The Golden Age Sundays 1946–1949 by IDW Publishing, 2014.)

In the episodes that followed, it became a farce with the ugly Martian queen trying to marry Superman, but he solved their problem and helped her find a husband. Therefore, the invasion was prevented.

Into the 1950s...   

Dennis Wheatley's 1952 book, Star of Ill-Omen, was a tale of Martians kidnapping people to learn humanity’s nuclear secrets, in order to use atomic bombs in warfare on their own planet.

The notion of flying saucer abductions came up now and then, but not in reputable places. The October 1953 issue of Man to Man magazine featured the article by Leroy Thorp, “Are the Flying Saucers Kidnapping Humans?” It was not based on contemporary accounts, just an undated recycling of a mysterious disappearance supposedly taken from one of Charles Fort’s books.

Harold T. Wilkins wrote a book released in the U.S. as Flying Saucers on the Attack in July 1954. It included several stories about the unexplained loss of people, planes, and ships, and he suggested alien abduction as the solution:
“One wonders how many cases of mysterious disappearances of men and women in 1948 – 1952 might be explained as ‘TAKEN ABOARD A FLYING SAUCER IN A LONELY PLACE’?”

A Saucer-Related Disappearance Makes News

Two men took off in a plane searching for saucers, and they were never seen again. From the Los Angeles Mirror, Nov. 18, 1953, as reprinted in UFO Crash Secrets at Wright Patterson Air Force Base by James W. Moseley, 1992.

George Hunt Williamson’s summary from Other Tongues - Other Flesh, 1953:
“On November 18, 1953, the Los Angeles Mirror reported that two missing electricians may have been kidnapped by interplanetary invaders in a Flying Saucer. The two Saucer enthusiasts were Karl Hunrath and Wilbur J. Wilkinson. They had taken off in a rented airplane from Gardena Airport on November 11th with a three-hour gas supply. Despite widespread search, no trace of the plane or its occupants has been seen. The rumor that the plane was found dismantled on the top of a California mountain with no sign of the two men is unfounded. Officials claim that nothing has turned up in the case as yet.”

Vanished in Vermont

Rev. O. L. Jaggers had been lecturing on flying saucers since 1952, and asked, “From whence do they come? …Russia or some enemy nation? Are they interplanetary…?” Jaggers gave a lecture in San Francisco on August 22, 1954, on “How Flying Saucers are Kidnapping Human Beings from the Earth.” The lecture advertised that it would present: “Names and addresses of people kidnapped by Flying Saucers!”

Odessa American Sept. 9, 1955

From the looks of the article below in the New Castle News, September 2, 1954, one audience member tried to verify some of the details about the alleged flying saucer abductions. 
(Full text follows the blurry clipping.)

New Castle News, September 2, 1954

Missing Vermont Folk Not Whisked Off by Saucers
The town of Bennington, Vt., doesn't know what did happen to three persons who have vanished mysteriously in the last eight years but it is quite sure they were not picked up by a flying saucer and whisked off to Russia. It will so inform a San Francisco, Calif., clergyman who yesterday asked the Bennington Chamber of Commerce if that had really happened. Wrote Rev. Harold DeRoo, pastor of the Miraloma Community church in the west coast city:

"I am endeavoring to verify some information recently presented by an itinerant speaker who came to this city. His topic was flying saucers. In the course of the address he related the alleged fact that five men of Bennington, Vt., were literally drawn up from the face of the earth and have never been heard of. According to the accounts these saucers originated in Russia which has devised a magnet to draw people from this country. I should appreciate very much if you could either verify or nullify the account."

Bennington officials said they don't have the answer to the disappearance of Paula Weldon, Bennington college student who never returned from an off-campus stroll; Middie Rivers, a Bennington woodchopper who vanished a short time later, or a boy named Jepson who disappeared from his father's car at the town dump as the father was pouring food into a nearby pigsty. But they were sure there were no Soviet saucers involved in these cases and that there was no mass evanishment by a quintet of citizens.

The 1960s: Alien Abductions Become Mainstream

In 1966, the Betty and Barney Hill story was published in John Fuller’s bestselling book, The Interrupted Journey, and it had an enormous cultural impact. The book also led to the popularization and acceptance of the alien abduction concept.

The Des Moines Register Sept. 30,1966 and the Minneapolis Star Oct. 6, 1966

Jet magazine, Oct. 20, 1966

The Hills’ story was serialized in many newspapers and in Look magazine.

The Hill case became the industry standard, and the basis for comparison for all the many reports of alien abductions that have surfaced in the decades since.

. . .

We've just hit some highlights here. For more information on pre-saucer abductions, see:

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

How the Battle of Los Angeles Became a UFO Story


Before the Roswell incident, there was “the Battle of Los Angeles,” and both were big 1940s military-related newspaper stories later resurrected as major UFO cases. Our examination is not about primarily about what was in the California night skies in February 1942. Rather, we ask:

How, when, and why did this incident become associated with UFOs?

The Battle

The basic story is that during the early days of World War II, the “battle,” started with a plane being detected by radar off the coast of California, and the city of Los Angeles being blacked out. There was a very real fear that a second attack from Japan was coming, and it caused a panic. Searchlights roamed the sky while anti-aircraft artillery shells were fired at flying phantoms. The events were covered by the Los Angeles Times, Feb. 26, 1942:

"SEEKING OUT OBJECT - Scores of searchlights built a wigwam of light beams over Los Angeles early yesterday morning during the alarm. This picture was taken during blackout; shows nine beams converging on an object in sky in Culver City area. The blobs of light which show at apex of beam angles were made by anti-aircraft shells.”
Witnesses described seeing many things; blimps, balloons, strange lights, squadrons of planes in formation, while others saw nothing besides the searchlights.

A less dramatic photo appeared in
Life magazine March 9, 1942, in the article, “Japanese Carry War to California Coast.”

No Japanese aircraft were found to be involved, so in the aftermath of the battle, there was a controversy due to the uproar and damage caused by firing the artillery shells. People wanted to know: What was the Army shooting at, and if nothing, why? No one seemed to want to take responsibility for the mistake, and in that sense, maybe there was a coverup. In any case, the Martians were not suspected – yet.


Spaceships and Saucers

Spaceship in searchlights from Astounding, May 1940.

Ray Palmer was the editor of the science fiction and fantasy magazine, Amazing Stories, where he published the stories of Richard Shaver as nonfiction. Billed as the “Shaver Mystery,” the tales revolved around ancient spacefaring extraterrestrials, the Atlans, Titans, and “the deros,” their degenerate devilish descendants who lived in subterranean caverns beneath the earth.

Amazing Stories Feb. 1946 had a cover illustration reminiscent of the Battle of Los Angeles photo. Editor Ray Palmer, and AS June 1947

Carrying a cover date of June 1947, Palmer put out a special all-Shaver Mystery issue, released weeks ahead of the flying saucer sightings of Kenneth Arnold. In his editorial, Palmer presented the 1942 Los Angeles incident as sightings of spaceships, evidence in support of Shaver’s tales:
“Communication between these underground races (because they have the mechanical means to do so) and peoples who travel space in space ships, and sometimes venture near a sun-planet for raiding purposes (to steal ancient machines and supplies and to procure slaves), is postulated by Mr. Shaver, and borne out by the incredible number of reports we have and have had in the past, of visiting ‘ships’ in the sky (such as the mysterious ‘air raid’ suffered by Los Angeles during the war, and which the army now reveals has never been explained, except that it was no private or military plane of our own, and none of the Japs or any foreign power, but was certainly tracked by radar, and observed by many people to ‘appear to be rocket ships’ from three to five in number).”
The flying saucers sightings began shortly afterwards. Covering the controversy, the Los Angeles Times, July 8, 1947, ran an editorial article, “Have You Reported Your Flying Disk?” It skeptically suggested that UFOs sightings might be caused by disintegrating meteorites or a quirk of reflected light, and “From then on, autosuggestion is sufficient to carry it, as was the case with the 1942 ‘Battle of Los Angeles,’ when anti-aircraft bursts caught in searchlight beams were magnified into 27 twin-engined Japanese bombers, majestically flying in formation.”

Los Angeles Times, July 8, 1947

Into the 1950s

Ray Palmer left Amazing, but he launched a new similar magazine. Other Worlds Science Stories, January 1951 featured cover art by by James Settles for "Courtesy Call" by Roger P. Graham, writing under the house name, A. R. Steber. It was a first contact story, where a signal from space heralded the arrival of an extraterrestrial ship. 

A delegation of US authorities gathered on the coastline to meet the visitors, and the narrator said:
“I got out of the car and looked over the water. Here and there broad pillars of light climbed upward into the sky, searchlights seeking for the first glimpse of the space ships. Even as I looked the first beam caught one of them. At once a dozen of them swung over to fix it and follow it in its lazy downward swoop. It seemed cigar shaped, a typical science fiction conception of a space ship with its large stern rockets, until it banked. Then its full proportions were revealed, a gigantic discus that could have perched over the financial district, resting on the spires of skyscrapers.”
Its cover illustration was evocative of the Battle of 1942, but in this instance, there were only spotlights aimed at the skies, not artillery shells.

LIFE magazine May 21, 1951 featured a long article by Winthrop Sargeant that seriously discussed Science Fiction, but also discussed the trashy side, things like Bug-Eyed Monsters and the Shaver Mystery. Describing Ray Palmer’s publication of the Shaver tales, Life said:
“The deros were responsible for much of the evil in the world… [behind] virtually every mysterious or unexplained occurrence reported in the news. They were held responsible for the disappearance of Justice Crater, for the mysterious ‘air raid’ over California just after Pearl Harbor, for the reports of flying saucers.”

The 1942 shelling and the topic of saucers were mentioned together again, in the Los Angeles Times, Aug. 1, 1952, but as an argument against the reality of UFOs. Veteran columnist Bill Henry referred to "the great ‘Battle of Los Angeles’ of 1942 in which something resembling a flying saucer — it was really an errant weather balloon — touched off the gosh-durndest artillery barrage that our community has witnessed before or since."

Los Angeles Times, Aug. 1, 1952

The Air Force files of Project Blue Book contains letters received with reports of flying saucers, both new and old, but none of them mentioned the Los Angeles events. It wasn’t part of UFO history.

The 1960s: The Battle Enters UFO Lore

Ray Palmer had tried to bring spaceships into the story, but it didn’t take. About 25 years later, the Battle was finally adopted by ufology. The 1960s saw a resurgence of public interest in flying saucers and several authors were looking at old wonders in the sky to present as UFO cases. That may have prompted the rebirth of the Los Angeles story.

The first known direct association of the 1942 incident with UFOs comes from M. A. McCartney’s letter to National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP) dated Jan. 10, 1966. McCartney had been a 23-year-old air-raid warden, and he reported seeing a brightly glowing, spherical red object over Hawthorne (southwest of L.A.) As quoted in The UFO Encyclopedia Volume 2 by Jerome Clark, 1992: 
“It traveled horizontally a short distance very slowly and then made an abrupt 90-degree [turn] rising abruptly,” he said. “Again it stopped and remained motionless.” 
Summarizing McCartney’s account, Clark wrote, “After a few minutes it flew away and was lost in the distance.” NICAP did not publish the letter at the time, so it didn’t play a public role in popularizing the story. However other people were on the verge of making the connection to UFOs.

Kenneth Larson wrote about the 1942 incident and published “The Los Angeles UFO’s” in the fanzine, Saucer Scoop Dec. 1966, while it didn’t include a photo, but mentioned it:
“The next morning, the Los Angeles Times printed several articles on the matter and even displayed a photograph showing the unidentified flying object in the sky. The article said that the Army’s Western Defense command insisted the blackout was the result of unidentified aircraft sighted over the city."
Only a few buffs read it, but in 1967, a new 5-page article by Kenneth Larson, “First Authentic Flying Saucer Photo” appeared in Flying Saucers Pictorial - The world's largest collection of UFO Photographs!, a magazine format volume edited and published by Max Miller. It was carried in newsstands and reached a general audience. It was the first presentation of the 1942 picture as something anomalous, and Larson concluded that since what was fired at could not be shot down, “It seems obvious that these objects that flew over Los Angeles in 1942 were UFO’s.”

Flying Saucers Pictorial

More exposure came when Brad Steiger and Joan Whritenour picked up on Larson’s story in Saucer Scoop and summarized it in their 1967 book, Flying Saucers are Hostile. (No photo was included.)
John P. Bessor (originator of the 1947 hypotheses that UFOs are celestial animals), had a letter published in Fate magazine April 1967, warning against the cruelty of exorcising of ghosts, since they might be banished into space and bothered by things like satellites and UFOs. He closed with a tangential question:
“Incidentally, has anyone the full story on the torpedo-shaped objects that hovered for more than an hour over Los Angeles one night in January or February, 1942 — drawing considerable anti-aircraft fire? — J. Bessor, Pittsburgh, Pa.”
Gordon Lore and Harold Deneault of NICAP focused on pre-1947 UFO events in their 1968 book, Mysteries of the Skies: UFOs in Perspective. Chapter 6 (pages 74-87) was titled “The Battle of Los Angeles,” and their primary source was “Raymond Angier, an aircraft worker who did double duty as an air raid warden.

Angier provided extensive notes he had compiled after the sighting and told the story behind the story of February 25, 1942.” Their examination was of the reports of the “unidentified lights” and the “flares and blinking lights” described as hovering near defense plants that night. The famous searchlights photo was not discussed or reproduced. The authors concluded, “Although it cannot be proved beyond a doubt that no planes were over Los Angeles on the morning of February 25, the evidence is more in favor of unidentified flying objects.”

“The UFOs of 1942” by Paul T. Collins appeared in Exploring the Unknown, September 1968, and later reprinted in Flying Saucer Digest No. 19 in 1972. Collins included his personal testimony, over 25 years after the events, saying he: “noticed a strange pattern of movement in certain bright red spots of light in the sky over Long Beach. It was a pattern which could not possibly have been made by any man-made object, or by beams of light, either from the ground or from aircraft.”

NICAP issued a UFO calendar in 1972 of historical highlights, and for Feb. 24, it featured the “Battle of Los Angeles.”

Ralph and Judy Blum mentioned the story in their 1974 book, Beyond Earth: Man’s Contact with UFOs, chiefly from the perspective of Ralph’s childhood memories of the shelling incident.

The Rest is History

The Battle of Los Angeles gradually was cited more frequently in books and magazines as an early flying saucer case, and it slowly entered the UFO canon. Above Top Secret by Timothy Good, 1987, featured a section, “The Los Angeles Air Raid, 1942,” and the books’ illustrations included the photo.

Exposure peaked around 2010 due to the exploitation of the 1942 story and photo in the marketing of the 2011 Columbia Pictures science fiction movie, Battle: Los Angeles. The promotion of the film was aided and abetted by several ufologists, cementing the UFO connection in popular culture.

It was also around this time that it was revealed that the flying saucer ufologists were seeing in the convergence of the searchlights in the LA Times photo was man-made. In 2011, Reporter Larry Harnisch located the print used in the Times and said,
“much of what you see in this photo is painted: The beams from the searchlights are airbrushed. The supposed bursts of antiaircraft shells are blobs of paint… [the] darkened skyline, is a combination of black paint outlined with the faintest edge of airbrushing.”

Los Angeles Times file photo

Tim Printy wrote a skeptical examination of the photo and story as UFO evidence in his online magazine see SUNlite vol. 1, “The Battle of LA UFO story.” Printy also located The Antiaircraft Journal, Volume 92, Number 3, May-June 1949, which featured “Activities of the Ninth Army AAA” by Col. John G. Murphy, CAC.

“L.A. ‘Attacked,’" was Murphy’s eyewitness testimony and explanation of the events:
“Roughly about half the witnesses were sure they saw planes in the sky. One flier vividly described 10 planes in V formation. The other half saw nothing. … Once the firing started, imagination created all kinds of targets in the sky and everyone joined in. Well after all these years, the true story can be told. One of the AA Regiments (we still had Regiments) sent up a meteorological balloon about 1:00 AM. That was the balloon that started all the shooting! When quiet had settled down on the ‘embattled’ City of the Angels, a different regiment… sent up a balloon, and hell broke loose again. (Note: Both balloons, as I remember, floated away majestically and safely.)”

"Necessity is the Mother of Invention”

Ray Palmer got there first, and he knew something about how to attract readers, and he certainly helped get the UFO business rolling. Since 1947, there has been a public appetite for new UFO cases, one that can’t be satisfied by the pace of genuine sightings. By mining historical events, enterprising ufologists can discover or manufacture “new” UFO cases for their audiences.
(Spurious ufologist illustration)

Particularly rich ore can be found in the ambiguity of events clouded with confusion and contradictory witness testimony. With some selective editing, old stories can be recast into something phenomenal.

. . .


For Further Reading 

To go beyond our summary of the incident, see the original news coverage at the Los Angeles Times.

The Battle of Los Angeles at Saturday Night Uforia, is an excellent resource for anyone wanting to examine the events and what followed.

Another good collection of photos and information is The Battle of L.A., 1942 by Scott Harrison at Los Angeles

Thanks to Vicente-Juan Ballester Olmos, Isaac Koi, and Tim Printy for research materials and resources used in this article.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Project Saucer: The Movie

There was a great UFO movie from the early 1950s that was never made – until the 1960s. The story centered on the capture of a flying saucer and the exploitation of its technology – the intriguing concept behind the Roswell crash story and many other UFO legends. 

The investigation of unidentified flying objects by the United States Air Force was officially known a Project: Sign, then Grudge, then Blue Book, but originally more famous under the nickname of Project Saucer. One Hollywood producer thought that’d make a catchy name for a motion picture. Box Office magazine, September 16, 1950, carried an announcement for a new movie on page 28:
Jerry Fairbanks Plans Flying Disc Subject

“Better move over, Buck Rogers… Hollywood’s filmmakers are adding space sagas to their dockets. Latest of the movie moguls to probe an explanatory finger into the subject is Jerry Fairbanks, producer of commercial and industrial subjects and video films, who is planning Project Saucer as a feature length entry for theatrical release. He has booked Rip Van Ronkel (who scripted Destination Moon to prepare the storyline and will shoot the opus in color starting this winter, with distribution arrangements yet to be set. Data to be incorporated in the film, Fairbanks said, has been compiled by his research department for the past three years.” 

Another mention came in the Oct. 13 column by Dick Williams in the Los Angeles Mirror:

“Jerry Fairbanks is planning ‘Project Saucer’ based on the official Air Force investigation group (which persistent reports indicate is still busy at work at Wright Field, Dayton, O., under Central Intelligence). Variety says Warner Bros. is interested in ‘Behind the Flying Saucers.’ Republic will start work on ‘Flying [Disc] Men from Mars’ next month.”

The project stalled, but another attempt at making the film was announced in Broadcasting Telecasting, April 5, 1954: 

Broadcasting Telecasting, April 5, 1954

Catalog of Copyright Entries, Jan-June 1954

The timing or the money wasn’t right, and it stalled again. In 1964 Jerry Fairbanks revived Project Saucer, but it took two years to get the cameras rolling. Fairbanks was quoted promoting it in an April 11, 1966, Daily Variety, stating that the script for Project Saucer was written by Rip Van Ronkel “over a decade ago when flying saucers first became the rage in the U.S.” (Sadly, Van Ronkel had died the year before at the age of 56.)
The screenplay was submitted to the U.S. Department of Defense, but they objected to how the Air Force and the CIA were portrayed, and they requested a few changes. See the letter to Jerry Fairbanks dated 12 April 1966 in the CIA files.

As a result of the negative reaction from the DOD, Fairbanks, director Frank Telford and “a new team of writers” updated the screenplay, changing the story away from being a Project Blue Book investigation. As it was retooled, the Vietnam-era anti-war sentiment influenced the script and probably the location of the action. The organization sponsoring the UFO retrieval was not named as the CIA. Also, the role of the Air Force was virtually eliminated from the story and more of the characters were changed to civilian specialists.

From the revised screenplay

To save on the budget, the movie was set to be filmed in Spain, but Fairbanks was able to strike deals to make it for the same cost and began production in Hollywood in the fall of 1966 with National Telefilm Associates (NTA). When completed, Project Saucer sat on the shelf for over a year until a distributor could be found, finally released in early 1968 as The Bamboo Saucer. The title was a play on the Cold War phrase, “Bamboo Curtain,” itself a variant of “Iron Curtain” for the demarcation between the Communist and capitalist states of East Asia, particularly the People's Republic of China.

The plot of the movie was slightly similar to Mikel Conrad’s 1950 film, The Flying Saucer, with rival teams from the US and Soviets out to capture a flying saucer for their nation. The 1950 film was about a secret terrestrial weapon but this time, the saucer was of extraterrestrial origin. Otherwise, there were no science fiction elements, the story was based on UFO lore from the genuine – the saucer-related death of Captain Thomas F. Mantell on January 7, 1948, to the fantastic - Frank Scully’s magnetic spaceships from Behind the Flying Saucers.

In advance of its release, The Bamboo Saucer was promoted via the flyer pictured above at George van Tassel’s famous flying saucer Contactee convention in October 1967: 

“N.T.A. salutes the 14th annual Spacecraft Convention at Giant Rock, and respectfully directs your attention to the exciting new motion picture…” 

The copy teased the story:

“From deep inside Red China a peasant’s drawing of a terrifying object from outer space spurs a dramatic search with international significance, terminating in an incredible flight through infinity!”

 The actual theatrical movie poster for The Bamboo Saucer said:

"’IT LANDED HERE...IN RED CHINA!’ These words trigger the most incredible life-and-death struggle between RUSSIA and the UNITED STATES...who would be first to find this fantastic machine from outer space and unlock its awesome secrets!”


The Depiction of UFO Concepts in the Movie

Our summary of the film skips many of the plot elements and drama to focus on the UFO aspects of the story. If you wish to watch the movie before reading, I can be viewed on YouTube

While flying the experimental X-109, test pilot Fred Norwood encounters a UFO, a large blue disc with a domed top, no ports or windows. The saucer does not rotate, but pulsing lights around seem to spin around its rim. It flies with great speed and makes erratic turns and maneuvers. The title and the opening credits roll, then this text introduction appears on the screen:

“Grateful acknowledgement is made to all the nationally recognized organizations and publications whose research and records have formed the basis for this story. To the more than 5,000,000 persons who claim to have actually seen Unidentified Flying Objects, no explanation is necessary. To all others no explanation is possible. 

When Norwood lands, he describes the saucer to the flight control as, “Disk-like maybe 40 feet in diameter. Shiny, metallic.” However, there’s no proof; the UFO disabled ground radar, and they tell him all he saw was an illusion caused by a temperature inversion. Norwood is fired from the project, but tries to pursue the UFO independently, and it results in his friend being killed in a crash reminiscent of the tragic incident with Captain Mantell. We aren’t told that the UFO is hostile, but both incidents depicted show the saucer interfere with the flight of our aircraft, the second time with deadly results.

Sometime later, Norwood is summoned to the Washington, D.C. to meet Mr. Hank Peters of an unnamed US government agency with an office door marked, “Security Personnel Only.” Peters shows him a sketch that matches Norwood’s saucer and tells him it’s of a UFO was that was recovered in Red China and hidden in an abandoned church:
“It landed there… the bodies of two – uh – creatures were found nearby, human-like and yet different… The remains decayed very rapidly, and the peasants cremated what was left. …that thing could be so scientifically advanced as to make our technology obsolete and if the Red Chinese get their hands on it, the free world is obsolete.”

Peters recruits Norwood and two other civilians for the US team, and they parachute into China with the mission to clandestinely evade the Chinese Army to capture or destroy the saucer. On the way to the UFO’s location, they encounter their counterparts, a team from the Soviet Union and they face each other with guns drawn.

Both teams are composed of scientists and technical experts but led by government men with a military agenda. It turns out the Soviets are also operating in secret, and the two teams reluctantly agree to work together for mutual survival, and to prevent the Chinese government from getting the saucer.

Cast from left to right: Bernard Fox (as metallurgist Dave Ephram), Bob Hastings (as electronics wizard Jack Garson), Lois Nettleton (as USSR electronics engineer Anna Karachev), Vincent Beck (as USSR metallurgist Zagorsky), Rico Cattani (as Comrade Dubovsky, Soviet team leader), Dan Duryea (as Hank Peters, USA team leader), and John Ericson (as test pilot Fred Norwood).

When they finally find the saucer, the scientists determine it is made from an unknown metal stronger than anything known. Entering the cabin, they find it full of consoles, screens, and instruments designed to be operated by human-like beings.

Portions of the dome are transparent, like four one-way windows, undetectable from the outside. There are no seats or restraints, and they decide the ship produces its own gravity field which allows the occupants to withstand the extreme maneuvers the craft performs. They briefly activate the propulsion and determine its technology operates by “universal lines of magnetic force.” The Russian metallurgist Zagorsky says:
“If we could utilize this principle, we could exploit literally limitless fields of energy. We could irrigate deserts, desalt oceans, increase production of food, of everything, one-hundred-fold.” 
Norwood, replies, “We could also manufacture one hell of a super-weapon.”

The Chinese army discovers their location and each team’s hawkish leader takes their men to (G-rated) war. Three of the teams’ members narrowly manage to escape with the saucer, but they lose control, and it flies into space. 

As it approaches light speed and heads for a crash into Saturn, working together they literally turn things around and return to earth, deciding no one nation should be given such power.

They head for neutral territory, and on the way, Fred Norton delivers the moral of the story:
“You know, when the world sees this ship, everybody's gonna have to realize there are other intelligent beings in the universe. They will have to meet them face to face one day. All the nations of this earth better be ready to stand together.”

The story was influenced by Silas Newton’s Aztec yarn depicted in Behind the Flying Saucers by Frank Scully, where landed saucers and dead crewmen were captured by the US military. 

Frank Scully and Silas Newton (seated).

Another element from Scully’s book is the magnetic powers source which can be used to provided free energy or used as a lethal weapon. The screenplay eliminates the aliens from the story and only the saucer itself is left as a technological mystery and prize for the nation who captures it. The final message is similar to that of the Contactees like George Adamski, that Earth’s nations should unite in brotherhood.

The Crash of a Flying Saucer Film

 The Bamboo Saucer is a little-known film that it was overshadowed by the release of two science fiction classics the same year, Planet of the Apes and 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film was produced by a minor studio, a low-budget B-feature exhibited mostly at drive-in theaters. While

The Bamboo Saucer has its flaws, it is worthwhile for how it examines some UFO concepts. It might be regarded as a classic if it had been completed in the 1950s alongside The Thing from Another World and The Day the Earth Stood Still. The screenplay was ahead of its time, but by the time it was filmed a decade and a half later, even television had been churning out saucer and alien stories for years.

The Bamboo Saucer was translated and issued abroad. In 1969 it was re-released, cut from 103 to 90 minutes under title Collision Course and later televised under that name.

The end of the 60s were bad for the UFO business in fact and fiction. On television, Star Trek was cancelled on Feb. 18, 1969, and months later Project Blue Book closed shop on investigating UFOs. Except for the Planet of the Apes franchise, not much was happening for science fiction and space films in the cinemas. It wasn’t until the mid-1970s, when a sf resurgence led to mainstream blockbusters like Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The Bamboo Saucer was either behind or ahead of the times. It’s worth picturing it as an anachronism, and with a healthy sense of wonder and imagination - for what might have been.

The original theatrical version can be seen at the Internet Archive or watched on YouTube.


The Bamboo Saucer

A Jerry Fairbanks Production

Writer/Director: Frank Telford

Original Story: Rip Van Ronkel, John P. Fulton

Photography: Hal Mohr

Special Effects: John P. Fulton, Glen Robinson, Deon Hanson

Music: Edward Paul

The American Film Institute site reports that one contributor died shortly before movie and another shortly after its release. “On 1 Jul 1966, in the midst of pre-production, writer and special effects man John Fulton died of a blood condition... The Bamboo Saucer also marked the final feature film role for Dan Duryea, who died of cancer on 7 Jun 1968.”

. . .

Special thanks to Ricky Poole for introducing me to this The Bamboo Saucer and the story behind it.

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