This week in July 1952 was filled with headlines about the strange phenomenon of so-called “flying saucers” or UFOs (unusual or unidentified flying objects). The term had been around since the summer of 1947 when hundreds of incidences of unexplained objects in the sky were reported, many observed by commercial and Air Force pilots.
The Air Force began an investigation, but by late 1947 had found nothing that could have caused these sightings. However, sightings continued despite government reports. Some of these sightings occurred around nuclear power or atomic energy facilities. Sightings continued and the Air Force re-opened the investigation in the fall of 1951. By March of 1952 the project was officially named “Blue Book”.
The Cold War was heating up and the undercurrent of concern regarding these unexplained sightings, coupled with Soviet aggression, propelled the investigation. The Soviet threat was very much on the minds of the military as well as the general populace. The unexplained phenomenon was further heightened because many of these sightings occurred on either the east or west coasts near atomic energy plants or testing facilities.
The April 7, 1952 issue of LIFE Magazine was eye-catching enough with Marilyn Monroe, “The Talk of Hollywood”, on its cover, but in the upper right-hand corner in large letters appeared:
THERE IS A CASE FOR INTERPLANETARY SAUCERS
According to H. B. Darrach, Jr. and Robert Ginna in their article entitled “Have We Visitors From Space?”, the Air Force was ready “to concede that many saucer and fireball sightings still defy explanation; here Life offers some scientific evidence that there is a real case for interplanetary flying saucers.” It should be noted that the Air Force hadn’t actually made any such official statements in regards to endorsement. In fact on April 30, Captain Ruppelt (in charge of Blue Book), clarified the Air Force’s position: “It should be noted here that the conclusions reached by LIFE are not those of the Air Force. No proof exists that these objects are from outer space.”
According to Bruce Maccabee1, Ruppelt should have said that his research staff didn’t endorse LIFE’s claims, since in 1956 Ruppelt wrote that some high-ranking Pentagon officials did endorse LIFE’s findings – high-ranking enough “that their personal opinion was almost policy” and had expressed as much to Ginna.
Over three hundred newspapers around the country mentioned the LIFE article and letters of concern were sent to both the editors and the Air Force. One would think with the heightened awareness and extensive press coverage there would have been an onslaught of sightings, but that didn’t happen – at least not right away. However, by the end of April, the rate of sightings had ticked up to 82. In May there were 79 and in June 148 sightings were reported. Curiously, many of the April sightings had actually been in Canada and seemed to work their way southward during June.
By July the rate of United States sightings had increased to more than twenty per day. In the span between the early morning hours of July 20 and midnight July 22, sightings were noted all across the country: New Jersey (7), Colorado (2), Illinois (2), Michigan (2), Pennsylvania (1), Kentucky (1), California (3), Texas (5), North Carolina (1), New Mexico (1), Alabama (1), Oregon (1), New Hampshire (1), South Dakota (1), New York (1), Maryland (2), Virginia (1) and Washington, D.C. (3).2 Fourteen of these sightings had been documented by military officials.
Why so many July sightings? Might it have been related to another major magazine (LOOK) publishing their own conclusions in early July, reversing a previous conclusion that the idea of flying saucers was preposterous? The article’s author, J. Robert Moskin, had interviewed the Blue Book staff following the LIFE article’s publication. Moskin concluded that the Air Force was committed to continue their investigation as long as these sightings were reported.
The sightings in Washington, D.C. near the National Airport were perhaps the most disturbing. Air traffic control officials, radar operators, pilots and stewardesses reported distinct objects in the skies above D.C. It appears that press coverage may have been suppressed immediately following the sightings but during the last few days of July, reports were leaked and articles began appearing around the country.
One Associate Press staff writer wrote: “Animal, vegetable or mineral, optical illusion, light reflection or actual substance, the phenomena known loosely as ‘flying saucers’ were as busy as the Democrats this week.”3 Saul Pett reported instances of radar technicians picking up unidentified “blips” on their screens, which could conceivably have been explained by some sort of electronic disturbance in the sky. However, two airline pilots had actually reported strange lights in the sky before their own eyes.
One pilot had seen seven objects, “moving at tremendous speed at times, hanging almost motionless at other times. He said they were like ‘falling stars without tails’ but he added he had never seen a shooting star move so fast.” The descriptions were as various as the sightings it seemed. Two women in Syracuse, New York made their own headlines:
THOSE DANG SAUCERS APPEAR EVERYWHERE
Two Syracuse area women have the most intimate report yet of a flying saucer or whatever it is that’s been buzzing around. They say one of the whatisits “buzzed” their car.
Mrs. Margaret Rebensky, 32-year-old housewife of nearby says that while she had her car stopped at a traffic signal in Syracuse, she and her mother, Mrs. Julie Lindsey, observed six blazing-white objects in the sky.
Then, she adds, one of the objects nosed-dived down, dipped to only inches over the hood of their car and then rose sharply and rejoined the formation. What did the object look like?
In Mrs. Rebensky’s words, it was “an object of intense white light like a neon sign, shaped like a quarter-moon about the size of a honeydew melon, with no noise I could hear above the car’s idling engine, and followed by a plume of smoke.”4
By the last few days of July reports were received in unprecedented numbers. To say there was somewhat of a panic might be an understatement, although the Air Force was trying to remain calm and reasoned, issuing statements to reassure the public that while they were still investigating flying saucer reports, “the saucers – whatever they are – don’t seem to be a menace to the United States.” Still, despite the flurry of reports, only about one-fifth of them were deemed worthy of further investigation. Every effort was being made to investigate the mysterious one-fifth. One Air Force strategy involved a newly-developed telescopic camera capable of photographing a 150-degree area of sky on one plate.
Sid Eubanks, a sixty year-old photographic supply salesman, reported to Enid, Oklahoma police how he “was almost swept from the highway last night by a huge ‘flying saucer’ which swooped low at terrific speed. He walked into the police station, trembling, with the account of a “yellow-green, then yellow-brown streak about 400 feet long.”5 Suddenly, the objects had swooped low over the highway, completely reversed directions and disappeared in just a few seconds. He claimed the “tremendous pressure” almost threw his automobile off the road.
Even Secretary of Defense Robert Lovett had seen his own “flying saucer”. While flying back to Washington from New York on July 27 fellow passengers insisted they’d seen a “white disc whirling along beside the plane.”6
Lovett, however, had a plausible explanation. “[H]e had been watching a searchlight playing into the clear, moonlit sky and at one point its cone of light caught and held a tuft of cumulus cloud, creating the impression of a circular body keeping pace with the plane.”7 In the words of one officer, “that’s how many a flying saucer gets born.”8
One July 28 one newspaper reported on the Air Force had given orders to shoot if necessary. However, by early August sightings began to taper off, even though newspapers were still publishing articles on the phenomenon (some in jest it appears).
Still, one has to wonder why the flurry of flying saucer sightings occurred during the last week of July. It’s quite likely the panic can be attributed to sensational newspaper reports, much like Orson Welles’ “The War of the Worlds” radio broadcast in 1938 which caused widespread panic. Hollywood may have contributed as well with movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Man from Planet X, The Thing, Invaders from Mars and more. It reminds me of the 1954 I Love Lucy episode when Lucy and Ethel dressed up as “women from Mars”.
Real or imagined, hallucinatory, animal, vegetable or mineral — those dang saucers were everywhere and it was definitely an interesting week back in July 1952!
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!
© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2015.
- Bruce Maccabee, 1952: The Year of the UFO
- Vernon Daily Record (Texas), 27 Jul 1952, p. 10
- Marysville Journal-Tribune (Ohio), 28 Jul 1952, p. 1
- Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, 30 Jul 1952, p. 13