Thursday, May 2, 2024

Forgotten Ufologist: Journalist James Phelan

 In the series, The Ufologists That Time Forgot, we focus on obscure figures in flying saucer history. The subject of this article is famous for his involvement in the conspiracy theories about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and for exposing the hoaxed autobiography of Howard Hughes. He also played a major supporting role in a few UFO stories.

James R. Phelan (July 31, 1912 – Sept. 8, 1997) was born in Alton, Ill., and began his writing career at The Alton Evening Telegraph, then moved to the West Coast in 1947 to work for newspapers in Long Beach, California. Phelan’s 1982 book, Scandals, Scamps and Scoundrels: The Casebook of an Investigative Reporter, carried a short biography:

“He was a staff writer for the Saturday Evening Post for six years and has contributed to dozens of other magazines, including Forbes, Fortune, Playboy, Penthouse, The Reporter, True, Paris Match, The New York Times Sunday magazine, Cosmopolitan, Parade, and the Columbia Journalism Review. …He resides in Long Beach CA, with his wife, Amalie, a clinical psychologist, and has two daughters.” 

The Coming of the Saucer Investigator

Capt. Edward J. Ruppelt was the first director of Project Blue Book. He moved to Long Beach, California, in 1953 after retiring from the Air Force. If Jim Phelan had any interest in flying saucers before he met Ed Ruppelt, nothing made it into print. There were a lot of UFO-related things happening nearby, though. “The World's First Flying Saucer Convention” was held by Flying Saucers International on August 16-18, 1953, at the Hollywood Hotel, in Hollywood, California. Phelan would soon enter the saucer world. 

In Long Beach, Ruppelt became a neighbor and friend to Jim Phelan, and the reporter wrote an article about Ruppelt’s Project Blue Book UFO investigations in the Independent Press-Telegram, Oct. 9, 1953 (page 53), “U.S. Saucer Expert Debunks ‘Em.” Summarizing Ruppelt’s views, Phelan wrote:

“He believes that many of the thousands of people who have reported seeing saucers actually saw something. But he is firm in his conviction that it was no weird spaceship from Mars - or any other point in outer space. ...He concedes a small portion of the reports were evaluated as ‘unknown origin’ after intense investigation. He maintains that this is because the saucer sleuths had insufficient information.”

(Note: At the end, there’s a link to a PDF collection of Phelan’s 1950s UFO articles.) 

True - The Man's Magazine had launched Donald Keyhoe’s flying saucer career, and they must have noticed the piece on Ruppelt. That month they approached him to write a lengthy article for them on UFOs. On Nov. 9, 1953, associate editor John DuBarry wrote Ruppelt saying:

“I had occasion to phone Jim Phelan… and heard from him that he is the man you’d contacted for help on your Project Bluebook story… we're glad to know that it's him you chose — you couldn't be in better hands.”

Researching the article, Phelan traveled to Mt. Palomar to interview the hottest ticket in UFO show business, George Adamski, author of a newly published book about his contact with a space man. (He wasn’t mentioned, but it’s likely Ed Ruppelt may have come along for the ride.)

Independent Press-Telegram, Nov. 15, 1953, “’Prof’ Claims Ships Landing From Venus”

A few weeks afterwards, novice ufologist Jim Moseley was conducting interviews for a proposed book on flying saucers. In December, he sought out Phelan, who’d recently interviewed Adamski. Phelan  spoke candidly about his view that Adamski was a hoaxer. From Moseley’s unpublished book notes (Phelan’s name was misspelled as “Phalen” throughout).

Interview with Jim Phalen… Re Adamski

In Long Beach, California, I talked to a reporter on the Long Beach Telegram. He has interviewed George Adamski more than once, and part of one of his stories of Adamski was quoted in Case 57. He does not believe in flying saucers, and most assuredly does not believe Adamski’s story. He discounts the possibility that Adamski may be having delusions as to his alleged contacts; Phalen says that Adamski would have to consciously fake the pictures, and therefore Adamski's story must either be true or a hoax. There is no other possibility. - Phalen pointed out to me two flaws in Adamski's story, as related in "FSHL", which I had not noticed myself. For one thing, if a saucer can hover at will, and can even hover a few inches off the ground with no trouble, why does it need a landing gear such as Adamski describes? This is a valid point; there certainly seems to be no need for such a landing gear - For another thing, Adamski's contact was in an area of California in which there had been no rain in that particular region for a period of several months, according to Phalen. The contact was in the fall of 1952, and there had been no rain since March. Therefore, how did the space-man's footprints show up so well, even well enough to make a plaster cast of them? Adamski's answer to this was that a particular section there had been bulldozed and was therefore soft, but Phalen said (to me), that even so, the ground would be too dry and powdery for footprints to show up so well. - Phalen said that I can quote any non-libelous statement in regard to his opinion of Adamski, though his actual opinion of Adamski is libelous, since he considers Adamski a fraud.

A later entry discussed Moseley’s visit to the Pentagon:

“At the Press Desk I picked up the following bits of information; It is true (as Jim Phalen of Long Beach Calif. told me) that there is a secret psycho report on DesVerges of West Palm Beach.” [This relates to  the Aug. 18, 1952, UFO claims of Dunham Sanborn "Sonny" Desvergersthe "Florida Scoutmaster."]

Jim Moseley did publish some of the UFO information he got from talking to Phelan in the article,  “Two Men from Venus,” in Gray Barker’s  The Saucerian Vol.2, #2, Sept. 1954, in the section, “The Mysterious Saucer Film.”

Desperately Seeking Saucers

Phelan’s beat was not normally the fashion scene, but he made a notable exception for a Hollywood star. Gloria Swanson was in Long Beach appearing at department stores to promote her line of dresses. She arrived carrying a copy of Donald Keyhoe’s Flying Saucers from Outer Space. Asked about her view on flying saucers, she said, "Of course I believe in them." Her goal was a close encounter. "I want to see one," she sighed wistfully. "Better yet, I want to ride on one." 

Phelan’s article appeared in The Long Beach Independent March 6, 1954, “Space Junket on Flying Saucer Gloria Swanson’s New Ambition.” Ed Ruppelt’s UFO papers contain a backstage scene from the interview, about how she received an advance look at their True magazine article.

“Jim Phelan went to interview Gloria.Swanson on the fashion show and found her reading Don Keyhoe’s book. They got into a big red hot discussion on saucers and Jim told her about our story. She wanted to see the manuscript so Jim got it for her. She also wanted Al Chop's telephone number. She called Al and said she had read the story but said ‘I don't like that Capt. Ruppelt, he doesn't believe in flying saucers’.”

The next month, Phelan travelled to Giant Rock to attend George Van Tassel’s first outdoor Contactee convention, published as: Independent Press-Telegram, April 5, 1954, “Saucer-Eyed Believers; 4000 Show Up – No Venusians”

“GIANT ROCK Calif. — Four thousand hopeful flying saucer fans gathered Sunday in the broiling sun at this remote Mojave desert spot for the “First Interplanetary Spacecraft Convention” but not a single little man from Venus showed up. George Wellington Van Tassel who has his headquarters under a huge rock here and claims to be in frequent contact with the saucers by mental telepathy played host to the convention. …

Another UFO-related story by Phelan appeared in The Independent, April 14, 1954, one on the mysterious epidemic of damaged windshields, which some speculated were caused by flying saucers.


Ruppelt's Historic True Magazine Article

Ruppelt had an article printed in the magazine that had launched Donald Keyhoe’s saucer career, True - The Man's Magazine, May 1954, “What Our Air Force Found Out About Flying Saucers.” He’d written it with the help of his neighbor in Long Beach, newspaperman Jim Phelan. True paid them $2000 for the article.

The success of Ruppelt’s True magazine article prompted him to write more. Ruppelt’s The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects was published in Jan. 1956, and favorably reviewed by both UFO advocates and skeptics. 

In chapter 4, “Green Fireballs, Project Twinkle, Little Lights, and Grudge, Phelan’s name was misspelled, a clue he wasn’t a significant collaborator with Ruppelt on the book, but the passage shows how they continued to swap information on UFOs. 

“At exactly midnight on September 18, 1954, my telephone rang. It was Jim Phalen, a friend of mine from the Long Beach Press-Telegram, and he had a ‘good flying saucer report,’ hot off the wires.” 

Jim Phelan played only a minor role in it, but he shamelessly helped his friend promote the book. “Jets Fired at Saucer, AF Investigator Says” by Jim Phelan, Independent Press-Telegram, Sunday, January 15, 1956, page 1. The sensational headline and illustration was based on a “never before disclosed” Air Force incident, told Ruppelt in his book, to be released the next week.

“Ruppelt, who is now a research engineer for Northrup Aviation Co., relates scores of other saucer incidents in the book. He debunks, some of' the "classic" accounts—such as the Florida scoutmaster who claimed to have been burned by a hovering saucer.

But in dozens of cases, he confesses that intense investigation could come up with no reasonable explanation for saucer sightings.” Ruppelt is quoted in what seems to be a statement promoting UFOs as truly anomalous:  "We have no aircraft on this earth that can at will so handily outdistance our latest jets." 

Given what we know about both Ruppelt and Phelan, they seemed to be putting aside their skepticism to help sell the book.

After that, Phelan had little or nothing else to say about UFOs, but the exception was in 1960, when the second edition of Ruppelt’s book was published.

Independent Press-TelegramJan. 12, 1960

Sadly, Phelan lost a friend on Sept. 19, 1960, when Ed Ruppelt died of a heart attack.


Writing for Major Magazines

Phelan’s career was on the upswing in the early 1960s. He left newspaper reporting and began writing for major national magazines, most often about crime. Here’s a sampling of some of his most famous articles:

In “Innocent’s Grim Ordeal,” The Saturday Evening Post Feb. 2, 1963, Phelan wrote about how airman Gerald M. Anderson had been compelled to give a false confession to a double murder by interrogators from the Air Force Office of Special Investigations.

While examining L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology in "Have You Ever Been a Boo-Hoo?” for The Saturday Evening Post March 21, 1964, Phelan got within a hair’s breadth to the writing about UFOs and aliens again.

Phelan was drawn into the John F. Kennedy assassination controversy, exposing the falsehoods and inaccuracies in the conspiracy theories of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison. See "A Plot to Kill Kennedy? Rush to Judgment in New Orleans," from the Saturday Evening Post, May 6, 1967.

On June 16, 1967, NBC aired “The JFK Conspiracy: The Case of Jim Garrison,” which included Phelan summarizing his investigation.

In 1970, Noah Dietrich, the former chief executive officer of Howard Hughes business empire, hired Phelan to ghostwrite his memoirs, which included many inside stories about Hughes himself. Phelan had nearly completed the manuscript when Dietrich decided to go with another writer instead. About two years later, Clifford Irving was brokering the autobiography of Howard Hughes himself, which was making big news. Phelan was called in to evaluate the authenticity of the book, but its credibility crumbled when he recognized large passages lifted from the manuscript he’d written for Deitrich. Irving had gotten hold of a copy and crafted a fake Hughes autobiography around it. Phelan’s reporting on the fraud was the cover story for Time Feb. 21, 1972, “The Fabulous Hoax of Clifford Irving”

The New York Times assigned Phelan a UFO story in 1976, about “The Two,” Bo and Peep, leaders of the Human Individual Metamorphosis (HIM) movement. He opened by saying:

Flying saucer tales long ago ceased to be news. Just when the great U.F.O. fever began to wane cannot be pinpointed precisely, but it was somewhere around the time when a West Coast housewife told an inquiring reporter: ‘I don't understand all this excitement about flying saucers. Why, they come through our backyard all the time.’”

Somehow, the NYT gave him the wrong initial, “James S. Phelan”
 “Looking For: The Next World,”

New York Times Magazine, February 29, 1976

HIM had come under scrutiny as a cult for luring people to leave their families, give up their possessions, and prepare for their transformation into a cosmic beings. Phelan described their members:

“…one common denominator among almost all the converts. Almost all are seekers . . . They have spent years, in the trite phase, ‘trying to find themselves.’ Many have tried Scientology, yoga, Zen, offbeat cults, hallucinogens, hypnosis, tarot cards and astrology. Almost all believe in psychic phenomena.

The Two were Marshall Herff Applewhite, and Bonnie Lu Nettles, and their cult, later renamed Heaven’s Gate. Phelan foreshadowed it, but the group eventually came to a very bad end. (For more on their story,  see: UFOs: Going to the Next Level

The Bestseller

Phelan’s biggest success was the 1977 bestselling biography, Howard Hughes: The Hidden Years, based on his years of research and testimonies shared by Hughes’ aides, Gordon Margulis and Mel Stewart. Shortly before publication, excerpts from the book were the cover story for Time magazine, Dec. 13, 1976, “The Nation: Scenes from the Hidden Years,”

Phelan’s 1982 book, Scandals, Scamps and Scoundrels: The Casebook of an Investigative Reporter, was a retrospective of the big stories of his career and the reporting that went into them. In his forward, Phelan reflected on the changes in investigative journalism:

“The rise of television withered the magazines. One by one, the national giants died... After foreclosing on the magazine homes of investigative reporters, television gave few of us shelter. Television seems to fear the complexities of such reporting, and distrusts itself to cope with them.”

Phelan also had some pointed criticism about the use and abuse of anonymous sources:

“There… have been campaigns… to protect the identities of anonymous sources. Not all journalists support such legislation. Shield laws collide head on with the venerable rights of the accused to face his accuser. They also tempt reporters to manufacture quotations that fit the otherwise legitimate thrust of a story.”

The book covered how he’d reported on crime and con men, but he closed things with a UFO story. Phelan He began with George Van Tassel’s first convention at Giant Rock and the Contactees, then fast forwarded to the 1970s and meeting with Bo and Peep. “The Two” taught their followers they’d be killed by disbelievers, but that would rise from the dead and take their faithful to Heaven in a spaceship. He quoted Bo (Marshall Applewhite) as saying many seekers lack direction. "Some people are like lemmings, who rush in a pack into the sea and drown themselves… They join any movement… Some people will try anything.”


Working in Retirement

By the 1990s, Phelan was semi-retired, living in Temecula, California. He was suffering from lung cancer but continued to write. On March 26, 1997, less than 40 miles away, in Rancho Santa Fe, Marshall Applewhite and 38 of his Heaven’s Gate followers were found dead from a mass suicide. I’ve not found any published comments by Phelan on what he thought about the fate of the group. 

Phelan died of his lung cancer at his Temecula home on September 8, 1997. Many national magazines and major newspapers noted his passing, including The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times, who said, “James Phelan, a crusty investigative reporter who played significant roles in uncovering some of the biggest stories of the last four decades and wrote the first major biography of Howard Hughes, has died at the age of 85.”

Chicago Tribune, Sept 12, 1997

Two weeks later, his final book was published, The Money: The Battle for Howard Hughes's Billions by James Phelan and Lewis Chester. 

While he only published a handful of UFO-related articles, Jim Phelan left a lasting impact on the topic. Without Phelan as a writing partner, Ed Ruppelt’s flying saucer article in True magazine might not have been a hit. Furthermore, the influential classic, The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, might never have come to be. 

. . .


For Further Reading

The Fiction Mags Index: Magazine articles written By James R. Phelan.

For more on Phelan’s involvement in the JFK assassination conspiracy drama, see False Witness: The Real Story of Jim Garrison's Investigation and Oliver Stone's Film JFK  by Patrcia Lambert.


Thursday, April 4, 2024

UFO Lecturer, Ed Ruppelt of Project Blue Book

Flying Saucers: “I realize this is a big thing. I never, even while I was working in the Air Force, I never realized what a big, big thing this was, and the interest in it. It just never fails to amaze me.”

 Ed Ruppelt at the Giant Rock Spacecraft Convention, 1955 

In the series, The Ufologists That Time Forgot, we focus on obscure figures in flying saucer history. However, the subject of this article is among the most famous in ufology, Captain Edward J. Ruppelt, the head of Project Blue Book, and the author of The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects. Instead of his Air Force career, we examine his work as a writer and lecturer capitalizing on the UFO topic. 

Project Blue Book and Beyond

Edward James Ruppelt was born on July 17, 1923, in Grundy Center, Iowa. After flying with distinction as a bombardier in World War II, he continued to serve in the military reserves while resuming his college education. Ruppelt graduated in 1951, with a Bachelor of Science degree in aeronautical engineering. Months later, he was called back to active duty as a technical intelligence specialist, assigned to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, at the Air Technical Intelligence Center. He was 28 years old, married to his college sweetheart, Elizabeth Ann Clay (Liz), with a baby daughter on the way (Kristine Ann, born August 20, 1951). That’s when he was given the task of organizing and directing the Air Force’s investigation of flying saucers. Under his watch, it was renamed Project Blue Book. 

Ruppelt from The Sun (Sydney, New South Wales, Australia) July 13, 1952

UFO historians consider Ruppelt’s tenure as the golden age of Project Blue Book, a time when it was most robust, actively investigating aerial phenomena during a dense period of high-profile flying saucer incidents.


“They’re Still Chasing Flying Saucers” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 8, 1953
Includes photos of Ruppelt, Lt. Anderson G. Flues, and Max Futch,

Ruppelt left the Air Force in 1953, and moved to Long Beach, California, taking a job as a research engineer at Northrop Aircraft Co. He became neighbors and friends with James R. Phelan, a writer for The Long Beach Independent. It led to an article, “U.S. Saucer Expert Debunks ‘Em,” where Ruppelt began to tell the story of the U.S. government’s UFO investigations.

 The Long Beach Independent, Oct. 9, 1953, by Jim Phelan

The magazine that had launched Donald Keyhoe’s flying saucer career, True - The Man's Magazine, must have noticed. We don’t have a record of their first contact, but on Oct. 23, 1953, associate editor John DuBarry wrote Ruppelt saying he'd talked to Jim Phelan, “and heard from him that he is the man you’d contacted for help on your Project Bluebook story… we're glad to know that it's him you chose — you couldn't be in better hands.” 

On Dec. 16, 1953, Jim Moseley was out west and interviewed Ed Ruppelt and Al Chop (formerly in charge of the Pentagon’s press desk for UFOs) together, a summary of which was published in Gray Barker’s The Saucerian, Sept. 1954. Ruppelt didn’t let it slip that he was working on a major UFO article for True. Moseley found it interesting how these friends held opposite views:

“One of these men [Chop] believed that saucers might well be interplanetary space ships, whereas the other [Ruppelt] did not. …both had had access to much the same information, some of it classified… On some of the cases they could agree, but on most of them they disagreed heartily. It all boiled down to a difference of interpretation of the available evidence.”


1954: The UFO Business 

Ruppelt frequently corresponded and “talked shop” with retired Marine Major Maj. Donald E. Keyhoe, author of the first non-fiction book on UFOs, The Flying Saucers Are Real.

 Donald Keyhoe, replying to a letter from to Ruppelt, March 11, 1954:

“You mentioned the idea of turning some of your knowledge into cash. It’s possible you could do a book, but having gone on record with the True piece, you’d have to follow that theme. I'd be glad to talk it over with you — the writing possibilities, I mean, even though we do seem on the opposite sides.” 

Keyhoe to Ruppelt, March 11, 1954

A Movie Deal

Movie producer Clarence Greene became interested in UFOs after his 1952 sighting, persuading his partner, Russell Rouse, to make a film examining the topic. In the press for the film, Greene wrote how they got started in 1954:

“I learned that Albert M. Chop, who had been the Press Information Specialist for the Pentagon, handling all flying saucer news, was on the West Coast. I had several meetings with him. … Through Chop and certain newspapermen, a meeting was arranged with Captain Edward J. Ruppelt, USAF Reserve, former director of Project Bluebook. Together, we went into a lengthy and exhaustive study…”

Keyhoe correspondence indicates Ruppelt was negotiating a contract for technical advisor in the spring of 1954, eventually signed. The screenplay for UFO by Francis Martin shaped the movie as a docu-drama factually covering flying saucer events and investigation, using the story of Al Chop’s transition from skeptic to believer as a narrative device. Work on the film continued, and we’ll see more on it later.

True - The Man's Magazine, May 1954

True - The Man's Magazine, May 1954, issue featured Ruppelt’s article, “What Our Air Force Found Out About Flying Saucers.” It was an overview of his experiences in Blue Book, with examples from notable cases and incidents, written in a candid personal tone. Ruppelt divulged two UFO sightings of his own during World War II:

"Twice over Japan I'd seen strange objects in the sky. One was an orange-yellow light that followed our B-29 for awhile and then suddenly winked out. The consensus was that it was a ‘foo fighter’ – the strange light spotted dozens of times over Europe and Japan.

The theory was that it was a static-electricity phenomenon. Another time, flying home with jumpy nerves after a rough mission, I cut loose with six .50-caliber guns at a bright object just about dawn. After getting the crew in an uproar, I suddenly realized I was shooting at the planet Venus.”

He was sympathetic to witnesses, saying, "Most of the people we talked to tried earnestly to tell us exactly what they had seen. But human beings are imperfect observers." However, he was rough on phonies and hucksters:

“Obscured by the hoaxes, distorted by the literary charlatans who hail every vagrant light as a verified space ship, the case of the flying saucer rests on the inexplicable instances that have cropped up year after year since 1947.” 

One passage reflected on the potential for profit in the UFO business:

“A few months ago, in Hollywood, I talked to Frank Scully, whose book Behind the Flying Saucer[s] went through ten editions and sent a shining, silvery chain of disk-shaped dollars spinning at supersonic speeds into Scully's bank account.” 

According to John DuBarry of True, the original ending was “on a note of complete skepticism,” but he’d persuaded Ruppelt to tone it down, to allow the “possibility” of an extraterrestrial origin instead. He’d written it with the help of his neighbor in Long Beach, newspaperman Jim Phelan. True paid them $2000 for the article.

Ruppelt got a taste of lecturing on UFOs for the Long Beach Chamber of Commerce.

Chambergram (Newsletter for the Long Beach Chamber of Commerce) June 11, 1954

Independent Press-Telegram, June 13, 1954

The Long Beach Independent, June 17, 1954

Wilmington Press-Journal, Aug. 11, 1954

Based on the success of his article, Ruppelt was considering writing a book and giving lectures. He consulted an expert, and Donald Keyhoe replied to Ruppelt’s request for advice on June 28, 1954: 

“You asked about lectures... don't sign up unless you get a good offer, better than the one I had. My outfit took 40% of the gross and I had to pay my own expenses. I wouldn't agree to less than a 70-30 split if I talked next season, and I'd try for 75-25%. You should be able to get some paid engagements out in your area, I think; I don’t know any California bureaus, but your movie company people should know some names. You could arrange for evening talks, so they wouldn’t interfere with your work — or Saturday and Sunday appearances, before clubs, etc. Regular bureaus often get $250 for a luncheon engagement from the bigger luncheon clubs, Ad, Rotary, etc.

If you didn’t have to travel out of your area, you would make some money. They’d want about a 30-minute talk, for noonday clubs; 45 minutes to an hour for evening talks. My trouble was that I

was scheduled for isolated talks involving expensive travel — to Milwaukee, Kansas City, Buffalo, etc. Considering the lost time, plus expenses, I figure I barely broke even; however, I did it at first in order to get more people talking about my book. I learned later that one good TV program, on a network, is worth twenty such lectures, probably worth a hundred of them.”

Ruppelt scored with a major publisher, Doubleday. While Jim Phelan had helped write the article for True magazine, Ruppelt tackled the book alone, and by the end of the year, he had finished seven chapters.


1955: Countdown to Publication

In his January 25, 1955, letter to Captain Robert C. White, of the Pentagon’s Air Force Press Desk, Ruppelt told him what he was doing and asked for some case files. 

“Dear Capt White,

I understand from friends at ATIC, in Dayton, that you have the dubious honor of handling UFO inquiries for the OPI. As you may know I sold a magazine article to True Magazine last year and it was published in the May 1954 issue. The article caused a great deal of interest especially after Time (October 25, 1954) credited it with being "The most complete deflation of the flying saucer delusion.” Since this time I have received several offers to expand the article into a book and I have accepted one of these offers, from Doubleday and Company. I am now in the process of writing a book. The book will follow the theme of the True article to a great extent--flying saucers are real interesting but don’t prove a thing. It will put Keyhoe in his proper perspective, and undertake to scuttle all these characters who have talked to, ridden with or are space men.”

In a Feb. 21, 1955, letter to Dr. J. Allen Hynek:

“Not to be outdone by Frank Scully, Donald Keyhoe or George Adamski, I have signed a contract with Doubleday and Company to write my flying saucer memoirs.” 

Contact in the Desert

In preparation for his book, Ruppelt set out to gather more information on the Contactee scene. In a Feb. 21, 1955, letter to Capt. Charles Hardin, he shared his plans to attend George Van Tassel’s second annual Spacecraft Convention at Giant Rock on March 13, 1955. “A friend of mine from the Long Beach paper and I are going down.” The friend was Jim Phelan, who’d attended the year before. (Ruppelt’s notes mention his wife Liz going, but not Jim). There, Ruppelt interviewed Van Tassel and several other Contactees, recording the conversations for potential book material. 

George Adamski

Ruppelt also spoke to George Adamski for over an hour, asking a few questions but mostly listening to the "professor" without challenging his yarns, just saying, things like, “I see,” and “uh huh.” About an hour into the tape, Ruppelt remarked on the worldwide popularity of the UFO topic. “I realize this is a big thing. I never, even while I was working in the Air Force, I never realized what a big, big thing this was, and the interest in it. It just never fails to amaze me.”

Ruppelt wrote an article about his trip to Giant Rock (unpublished until decades later in International UFO Reporter Vol. 19 No. 4, July-Aug. 1994), and it ended on a curiously indecisive note:

“There was no money motive — all of those involved are scrounging for money to eat and build more equipment. Psychos — who knows? Columbus, Robert Fulton, the Wrights, and a lot of others were ‘nuts.’ Maybe someday I’ll be eating this magazine, ads and all, but I just can't believe it.” 

Ruppelt Goes Back to Work

 Aviation News columnist Tom Towers wrote in the Los Angeles County Daily Breeze, May 8, 1955:

SAUCER MAN. Ed Ruppelt, 33, former Air Force captain who headed Project Bluebook (the AF’s flying saucer inquiry) for more than two years, is back at his engineering desk at Northrop after a 90-day leave. He took the time off to finish a book dealing with his investigation of the sightings. The book, which will be previewed by the Air Force, will be published in the fall. Ruppelt, who says he is always ‘amazed’ at the doings of the Giant Rock saucer enthusiasts, is regarded as the nation's top man in the field of unidentified flying objects.”

Once Ruppelt’s book was nearing publication, he wrote The Leigh Bureau of Lectures and Entertainments October 27, 1955, “regarding the possibility of a lecture series about Unidentified Flying Objects.” In the 2-page letter, Ruppelt provided a short biography and C.V., then turned to "what possibilities might exist for a lecture tour." He said:

"I am not sure that I would want to undertake such a venture but I am most anxious to find out more details. Since I have become a civilian I have had a number of requests to speak In various cities but I've had to turn them down since It wouldn't be at all profitable to travel any distance for just one lecture. I have spoken to a few local groups and judging from the attendance there was a considerable amount of interest aroused, but again I had to start declining requests because it was taking up too much of my time and I wasn't charging any fee.

I have no Idea how profitable a lecture tour could be. I do know that others have spoken on the subject and have been fairly successful.

I would like to point out that the majority of those people who have gone on tours, have played on the sensational angle, claiming to have flown in UFO’s or that they have talked to space people, etc. …definitely not the approach that I would take. In previous lectures I have minimized any personal opinions and just recount the interesting and provocative facts about what I found out while I was chief of the Air Force's UFO project. I think one reason that the few lectures that I have given have created interest is that I can give people the authoritative facts.”

Things didn’t work out with the Leigh agency, but Ruppelt connected with another lecture manager and over the next year spoke to audiences on both coasts of the USA and points in between. Around the same time, Ruppelt was considering another possibility, a change of location and employers. He wrote to the Glenn L. Martin Company, seeking employment at their new facility in Denver, Colorado. The reply was polite, but negative. 


1956: The Book, the Movie, the Baby, and More

A week before The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects was released, Ruppelt’s friend Jim Phelan gave it some shameless promotion in Long Beach, a front page story for the Independent Press-Telegram, January 15, 1956, “Jets Fired at Saucer, AF Investigator Says.”

The sensational headline and illustration were based on a “never before disclosed” Air Force incident, as described by Ruppelt in his book, to be released the next week.

“Ruppelt, who is now a research engineer for Northrop Aviation Co., relates scores of other saucer incidents in the book. He debunks, some of' the ‘classic’ accounts—such as the Florida scoutmaster who claimed to have been burned by a hovering saucer. But in dozens of cases, he confesses that intense investigation could come up with no reasonable explanation for saucer sightings.”

Ruppelt is quoted in what seems to be a statement promoting UFOs as truly anomalous: "We have no aircraft on this earth that can at will so handily outdistance our latest jets." Given what we know about both Ruppelt and Phelan, they seemed to be putting aside their skepticism to help sell the book. 

The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects

Ruppelt’s book was published in Jan. 1956, and was the subject of much attention in the press. Much new information was revealed about UFO cases and the Air Force policies towards the topic, and a wealth of backstage drama. It was favorably reviewed by both UFO advocates and skeptics.

Ruppelt appeared on Offbeat, a Washington D.C., radio talk show to promote his book.

February – Doubleday sent copies of the book to California radio stations to suggest Ruppelt as a guest for interviews. Ads appeared, like this one from Astounding Science Fiction April 1956.

An excerpt from the book appeared in Science Digest, April 1956, as the cover story, “Inside Story of the Saucers.”

Lecture: Lakewood Country Club, April 18, 1956

Ruppelt still had his day job but was frequently in the press and making public appearances to promote the book. Then came the movie release.


 The UFO Movie

Unidentified Flying Objects: The True Story of Flying Saucers was previewed for the press in April, followed by theatrical release in May 1956.

Lobby card - UFO Producer Clarence Greene with radar consultant Wendell Swanson and Edward J. Ruppelt.

Associated Press article, April 24, 1956

Al Chop and Ruppelt were technical advisors and script consultants, but they did not receive screen credit, only mentions in the press. Both appeared as characters in the movie, Chop played by a non-actor, aviation writer Tom Towers, while Ruppelt was played by actor Robert Phillips. Ruppelt received some press coverage (often reporting erroneously that he “portrayed himself in the film”).

Robert Phillips as Ruppelt in UFO.

Unfortunately, despite its many virtues, the low-key approach of the film just didn’t resonate with theater audiences. (For more on the story of the movie, see Project Blue Book: UFO, the Motion Picture.)

Ruppelt’s book was still “new,” and he continued to make public appearances to promote it, sometimes in connection with the movie. Paul Coates Confidential File was a syndicated tabloid style television series that focused on sensational or controversial topics. Ed Ruppelt and al Chop were guests on the episode, “Flying Saucers – Real or Hoax?”

The Los Angeles Times, May 6, 1956

Ruppelt agreed to lecture on May 20, 1956, for Laura Marxer’s Interplanetary Foundation flying saucer club in Detroit, Michigan. $500 was paid for his appearance and travel, with the group also covering his meals, lodging and “local expenses.” 

Ruppelt wrote to her discussing potential TV and radio interviews, adding, “By now you have possibly heard of the United Artists movie, Unidentified Flying Objects... It may even be in the Detroit area by the 20th. I hope that my part in this movie will help with your promotion.” It must not have helped much, the event was reported to be “a financial flop, with only 200-or less people showing up.” Marxer said, "the people like the philosophical better than the factual aspects."

Shortly afterwards, Ruppelt spoke for a writer’s group in the Los Angeles County area, the Southwest Manuscripters.

The Daily Breeze, June 21, 1956

There’s almost zero documentation on what else Ruppelt was up to that year, but there were two big events. He and his wife were expecting a second child, and Patricia Kay was born on Nov. 3, 1956. 

The other event was less pleasant. Sometime late in the year, Ed Ruppelt suffered a heart attack. He recovered, but it caused him to reduce and limit his activities. In his April 30, 1957,letter to Donald Keyhoe, he wrote, “I’ve been trying to cut down on the work I'm doing, although heart-attack wise, I’m completely O.K. I just don’t want to repeat it.”

1957: Still in Print

Ruppelt was congratulated on the success of his book by his employer, in a company memorandum on March 29, 1957, from Northrop Aircraft Inc.

“As a result of over 1,000 favorable reviews (as against an estimated six unfavorable), Mr. Ruppelt has served as guest lecturer at numerous dinners and luncheons (including most of the industrial management clubs in this area) and has served as technical consultant on the recent United Artists motion picture, "Unidentified Flying Objects. " He also has been technical consultant for several television productions, and has appeared as guest on the ‘Paul Coates Show.’”

The movie Unidentified Flying Objects was not a success. About a year after its release, Keyhoe wrote to Ruppelt saying:

“Al [Chop] has written me that you both came out losers as far as the movie was concerned. I am sorry to hear it but there is the chance that you may still recover something. … [NICAP members and UFO clubs have requested] to have special showings... If we can get enough interest we shall be glad to try to make such an arrangement, with your producers.”

His book was still selling and reaching new readers. The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects was featured prominently in ads for the Science Fiction Book Club. About the same time, the paperback edition was released from Ace Books. 

Excerpts from the book were featured in the April and June 1957 editions of Fate magazine, and illustrations based on them appeared on the covers.

John G. Fuller of the CBS TV game show, I’ve Got a Secret, wrote to Ruppelt inviting him on a UFO episode. The show would pay for his travel and lodging. Fuller included a P.S. with an extra incentive, “We'll definitely plug the book on show - audience is about 40 million, coast to coast.”

Ruppelt appeared on the July 21, 1957, episode of I’ve Got a Secret. Donald Kehoe was also there, and later wrote to Ruppelt, saying, “…on the program… you said you were convinced the other men -- that is, Chiles, Whitted, Mayher, and others mentioned -- had actually seen something -- and you emphasized the fact that ATIC had been unable to explain 20 percent of sightings, which is of course the usual AF explanation.”

At that time, Ruppelt accepted Keyhoe’s invitation to serve as a special advisor and board member to NICAP. By August 3, 1957, Ruppelt had changed his mind, writing Keyhoe to say, “…I've decided to stay as far out of the UFO controversy as possible…” 

It’s hard to stay quit, though. In early Nov. 1957, following the UFO sightings in Levelland, Texas, the media requested Ruppelt comment on the flap. He was described in the Los Angeles Evening Citizen News, Nov 7, 1957, as finding the accounts “fascinating and intriguing,” He sounded supportive, saying the reports "by seemingly skilled observers should add a whole new dimension to the UFO investigation.”


1958: Down on UFOs

Ed Ruppelt was invited to appear on the CBS UFO special episode of Armstrong Circle Theater, “UFO: Enigma of the Skies,” on Jan. 22, 1958. However, Ruppelt declined, saying he was unable to take time off from work. In March, Ruppelt reiterated his position to Donald Keyhoe, “As I told you, I'm completely out of the UFO business.” Even so, the letters kept coming and Ruppelt answered many of them, letters from Leon Davidson, Richard Hall, and others, forwarded to him from Doubleday. Replying to inquiries from Bulkley Griffin, a Washington D.C. news correspondent, Ruppelt wrote on July 23, 1958:

“I never have believed that the reported UFO's were anything but a heterogeneous collection of reports of misidentified, common everyday objects. This would include balloons, aircraft, astronomical bodies etc. The reason they were reported as UFO's is because they were viewed under conditions to which the observer was unaccustomed.

…As far as the Air Force's statements that an added effort on the UFO project would be a waste of time, I concur. …I'm sure that if we are ever invaded from outer space or if the Russians run in some new secret weapon, the existence or non-existence of a Project Blue Book wouldn't make any difference."

Addressing speculation that he’d been “silenced” or forced to change his position:

“In your research you've probably run across the rumor that I've been ‘muzzled’, ‘threatened’ or ‘intimidated’ in some other way. I can assure you this is not the truth. In the past I've been hesitant to express my opinion because it is only a personal opinion. I'm more convinced than ever that I'm right now, however, because five years have passed since I left Blue Book and nothing new has been discovered.”

Donald Keyhoe received a copy of a similar letter where Ruppelt had come down hard against UFOs, and wrote to him asking why he’d changed his position. On July 30, 1958, Ruppelt replied

“I was surprised to know that you weren't aware of my personal opinions regarding the UFO's. I have always been convinced that UFO's were nothing more than reports of airplanes, balloons, astronomical phenomena, etc. I'm sure that anyone who worked on Project Blue Book with me will confirm this.

…My absolute refusal to become embroiled in any UFO controversy is not because of anyone trying to intimidate me. It's simply a matter of not being interested. To be very frank, I'm too busy with other things. In addition, I do not condone any attempt to get Congress mixed up In UFO's. They have too many more important problems to solve. Regarding my book, I had my choice of injecting my own personal opinions or writing a straight, factual account of what I knew about UFO history.”


1959 & 1960: The Expanded Edition and the Final Chapter

Done with UFOs, Ed Ruppelt was working on a new book, corresponding with aviators to collect “original narratives from pioneers” about the early history of the U.S. Mail Service. His brother Jim, described the topic as “the history of the airlines.” Ruppelt was still in touch with Doubleday, and his UFO book was still selling. He probably hoped they would publish his aviation history book. There’s a gap in the documentation, so we don’t know exactly why or how it was initiated, but early in 1959, Doubleday authorized a new, “enlarged edition” of his saucer book.

Ruppelt had said he was done, but once more, he was back in the UFO business. In the spring, he began gathering new material, and he wrote to Project Blue Book and former colleagues asking for quotes and data on UFO matters to bring things up to date. The manuscript was completed by July, sent to the USAF Book Program, and cleared for publication.

The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, Brand New Enlarged Edition

The text of the book was the same as the original until it came to three new concluding chapters:

Chapter 18: “And They’re Still Flying” – Summarizing newer UFO cases.

Chapter 19: “Off They Go into the Wild Blue Yonder” – On George Adamski and the other Contactees.

Chapter 20: “Do They or Don’t They?” – Ruppelt’s personal views, which to the shock of some readers, were negative. He characterized UFOs as a “Space Age Myth.” 

Jim Phelan plugging Ruppelt’s 2nd ed., Independent Press-Telegram, Jan. 12, 1960. 

The new hardcover edition went on sale during the winter of 1959-60 without any fanfare from Doubleday. UFO proponents saw the book as a betrayal of what they perceived as Ruppelt’s earlier pro-saucer position. 
Isabel Davis (Secretary of CSI New York) describing Ruppelt’s new chapters in her Nov. 16, 1959, letter to colleagues:

“The first of the three describes several sightings since the last ones mentioned in the first book; the second chapter is about the crackpots [Contactees]; and the final one… says he doesn't believe in UFOs, and 'the UFO is doomed'- chiefly because satellite observations haven't produced any UFO observations.”

Donald Keyhoe and the crew at NICAP continued to speculate that Ruppelt had been pressured by the U.S. Air Force to change his position for the book.

NICAP’s UFO Investigator, March 1960

There’s not much documentation about the next few months, no records of Ruppelt making appearances to promote the second edition of the book. Sadly, Ed Ruppelt suffered a second heart attack on September 15, 1960, and died at the age of 37.

Long Beach Independent, Sept. 23, 1960

In The UFO Controversy in AmericaDavid Jacobs cites an interview with Mrs. Ruppelt from Jan. 4, January 1974, writing:

“…his wife stated years later that the constant agitation of the contactees and their followers, along with lack of proof for the extraterrestrial hypothesis, contributed to Ruppelt's reversal.” 

But it wasn't a reversal. As we have seen, Ruppelt usually adopted a neutral position in public. He had already concluded years before writing his book that UFOs may be real, but found nothing to show they were anything alien.

. . .

Additional Reading

Captain Edward J. Ruppelt: Summer of the Saucers by Michael Hall and Wendy Connors, 2000

The Forgotten Correspondence of Edward J. Ruppelt by Michael Hall and Wendy Connors.

Ed Ruppelt’s draft of a UFO article intended for the August 1952 Air Intelligence Digest.


Ruppelt Audio

Recordings of Edward Ruppelt from Wendy Connors’ “Faded Discs” project archiving rare UFO-related recordings. (The descriptions below are the originals by Connors.) 

(1955) George Adamski has a conversation with Captain Edward J. Ruppelt, former head of the USAF's Project Blue Book, in 1955. Ruppelt was researching his book, The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects (Doubleday - 1956), during his visit to the Giant Rock Spacecraft Convention. This recording is interesting from the standpoint that Adamski disagrees with many of Van Tassel's beliefs and they discuss various contactees such as, George Hunt Williamson, Richard Miller, John Otto, etc. 85:15 

(1955?) Captain Edward J. Ruppelt recollects his visit to Giant Rock in 195[5] to see the Contactees. 38:00

(1956) Captain Edward J. Ruppelt, first director of Project Blue Book, is interviewed on an unknown radio station in 1956. 07:45

(1957) Captain Edward J. Ruppelt radio interview during the flap of 1957. 03:00

(1957) Captain Edward J. Ruppelt radio interview during the flap of 1957. 02:45

The Professor's Message from Space

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