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Sunday, December 4, 2016

Ilse Werner: Nazi Whistling Superstar

World's First Television Star: Ilse Werner

Ilse Werner

So, who's the most famous whistler in music history? How about the first television star? I bet your answer isn't someone named Ilse Werner, who you likely have never heard of. However, there is a good possibility that you, sitting there reading this, have heard and enjoyed Ilse's whistling - and never knew it. And, when you did, you unknowingly showed your appreciation for the talents of one of the Third Reich's top stars.

If you haven't heard of Ilse Werner, that's perfectly normal: unless you're German or a big fan of German pop culture, there's no reason that you should. Werner is virtually unknown outside Germany. In brief, Ilse Werner was a stunning multi-talented entertainment star who excelled at just about everything that she tried. She reached her peak during the Nazi years. To fully understand the reality of Germany during the war and after, Ilse Werner and her career are worth knowing about.

But, first things first: let's find out who Ilse Werner was; we'll get to your possible connection to her toward the end.


Ilse Werner was born Ilse Charlotte Still to O.E.G. Still, a Dutch trader/plantation owner, and German mother Lilly Werner on 11 July 1921, in Batavia, Dutch East Indies. She lived there until 1931, when her family moved to Germany. Ilse attended school in Frankfurt, then a few years later moved again to Vienna. She evidently had developed an interest in acting by this time, for instead of enrolling again in an ordinary curriculum she joined the Max Reinhardt Seminar (which still operates, incidentally). Reinhardt at this time was one of the world's most prominent directors (his 1935 "A Midsummer Night's Dream" starred James Cagney, Mickey Rooney and Olivia de Havilland). The school itself held classes at the Schönbrunner Schlosstheater, the imperial theatre in the Schönbrunn Palace. Obviously, it was a high honor for Ilse just to gain admittance.

Ilse Werner
German postcard by Ross, 1941-1944. Photo: Ufa / Baumann.

Ilse did well at the school, and in 1937 she appeared in her first public role at the Theater in der Josefstadt in the play "Glück" (Happiness). The following year Hitler invaded Austria, and Reinhardt fled overseas (he was Jewish). Ilse, however, persevered: around this time she simply changed her surname to her mother's maiden name, the very Germanic "Werner," and kept on working. Hungarian director Géza von Bolváry spotted her onstage and gave her a supporting role in his Austrian film "Finale/The Restless Girls" (1938). Somebody at powerhouse filmmaker Universal-Films AG (Ufa) saw Ilse's performance and decided to sign the perky ingenue.

Nazi Superstar

Just to be clear, Ilse was not a Nazi herself, just a performer in the Nazi state. There was a problem with her working in Germany: Ilse was Dutch due to her father's nationality (she did not become German until 1955). To be gainfully employed in the Reich, you needed to be German. However, Ilse projected the right image (a cheerful woman who can overcome anything), so the Nazis granted Ilse a special work permit (they could be very lenient toward actors for some reason). Ilse made a smooth transition to the German film industry, signing with Universal-Films AG (Ufa) and moving to Berlin, where Ufa had its studio.

Ilse Werner

Ufa knew a star when they found one, and they had a star in Ilse Werner. In her first few films she played a supporting role, but by 1939 she was the headliner. Her breakthrough came the following year, she starred in "Wunschkonzert," a tale surrounding a real German radio show in which Wehrmacht soldiers made song requests. Ilse played the center of a love triangle between two Luftwaffe flyers (naturally flying together in the same bomber) vying for her affections, with everybody putting duty above love and cheering the "beautiful future" in a very disciplined Germanic fashion. Modern viewers may view the film as turgid swill drained from the bottom of the Ministry of Propaganda, but contemporary German audiences loved it: the film became Ufa's highest-grossing film. The film also propelled the radio program to the top of the ratings in an early example of entertainment synergy.

Ilse Werner
Ilse Werner whistling in "We Make Music" (1942).

After that, Ilse was set: in her next role she gave a bravura performance as Swedish actress Jenny Lind (beau of Hans Christian Anderson) in "The Swedish Nightingale." It was another huge success. The fact that she had a slight foreign edge herself hidden behind her German name helped Ilse sell the role. Ilse also appeared regularly on radio, singing songs that included her specialty: whistling. While whistling is kind of an acquired taste, Ilse displayed a real flair for it, and worked her whistling into her songs in such a way that it appeared perfectly natural. Ilse acquired the nickname "Ein Frau mit Pfiff," which roughly translates as "Stylish Woman" but also has a secondary "punny" meaning of "Whistling Woman."

Ufa remained independent under the Nazis, but the war was the dominant topic of the day. Many (but not all) of its films unavoidably had wartime settings. One of Ilse's next films was obvious propaganda bait, "U-boat Westward!"; it actually has some merit as a drama, but there is no escaping that title. Ilse kept moving forward: she followed with another big success, "Wir machen Musik" (We Make Music) (1942), a musical which was good enough to get a US release a decade later.

Ilse Werner
French postcard by EPC, no. 190. Photo: ACE / Ufa.

Ilse had become one of Germany's top film stars - in fact, an international star - and was in demand. She skillfully split her time between radio, films and the stage, but she had talent to spare. In 1941, another venue came along that was perfect for her: television. While in its infancy, German wartime television (Fernsehsender "Paul Nipkow") was quite advanced for its time. There were very few viewing sets in Germany, only about 50, but virtually all were in war hospitals or government buildings with crowds of watchers. At times, the Germans also set up theater-sized viewing parlors and displayed television over cable. Ilse hosted one of the first variety shows, "Wir senden Frohsinn - Wir spenden Freude" (this one is tough, but a very rough translation: We Spread Happiness and Joy). Ilse Werner - not Ed Sullivan, not Jackie Gleason, not Steve Allen - was the world's first television headliner and first true television star.

Ilse Werner
German postcard of Ilse Werner by Film-Foto-Verlag, no. A 3732/2, 1941-1944. Photo: Quick / Ufa.

Her fame soaring, Ilse published an autobiography, "Ich über mich" (Me About Me) in 1941 - when still just a few years out of school. While at first her early roles were perky love interests, as the war ground along Ilse began taking on serious dramatic roles. There was no hiding the grim fact that the war wasn't going well, so heroic tales of U-boats turned into films like "Große Freiheit Nr. 7" (English title "Port of Freedom"), another love-triangle film. This one, however, didn't have brave Luftwaffe pilots sacrificing all for the state, but rather simple people going through serious emotions. Shot in new Agfacolor and containing beautiful songs, and with no references to politics at all, it was a stunning film. Helmut Käutner, Ilse and Hans Albers turned out one of the best films of the era under trying conditions. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, however, wasn't looking for a serious tale about love and loss, but instead for historical tales about defending cities from foreign invaders (such as "Kolberg" (1945)). The Nazis banned Ilse's film within Germany, but allowed it to appear in foreign markets (of which few remained for the Nazis). Ilse's final film released before the war ended in May 1945 was "Das seltsame Fräulein Sylvia" (The Odd Miss Sylvia), while "Sag' die Wahrheit" (Tell the Truth), in which Ilse just sings a song, was still filming as the Soviet tanks ground past the Ufa studios.


Having contrived by hook or by crook to be captured by the Americans (which must have taken some effort) and not the dreaded Soviets, Ilse hooked up with American journalist John de Forest - in that chaotic time, virtually any American was a catch for a refugee German girl - and eventually married him in 1948. They moved to Los Angeles, California, where Reinhardt also had fled, but he had passed away during the war. Temporarily banned from German films due to her films about U-boats and such (though she was never a Nazi per se), and unknown in the US market, Ilse was at loose ends. She turned to dubbing American films for the foreign market. Ilse became the German "voice" for Maureen O'Hara, for instance. Germans, of course, knew who was actually speaking, but to most Americans she was just another émigré voice actress. During this time, Ilse's singing - and whistling - became a major outlet.

Ilse Werner

After divorcing de Forest in 1953, Ilse released a string of moderately successful albums. She also did some successful stage work, but her films in West Germany were forgettable and could not compete with polished productions from Hollywood. By the mid-fifties, Ilse was appearing on television - again - as her film career dwindled, and during that era television was seen as the graveyard for actresses. Ilse's declining film career probably had mostly to do with her advancing years and her passing from ingenue roles to more mature parts, with which she fewer credentials and perhaps fewer skills. However, her celebrity during the Nazi years probably didn't help. Ilse's biggest post-war hit wasn't a film, but rather the single "Baciare" (Kiss, in Italian), which sold well in Europe during 1960.

Ilse Werner
Ilse Werner - Funk und Film Magazine Cover [West Germany] (5 October 1951).

After that, Ilse became a Grande Dame of German television, taking on character parts here and there while mostly singing as herself. She married a German, Josef Niessen, but that didn't last either. By the mid-60s, Ilse was divorced again and got her own show on German television, titled "Die Bräute meiner Söhne" (The Brides of My Sons). However, it only lasted the minimum 13 episodes. Ilse kept busy, though, because she could charm an audience like nobody else in Germany. She continued appearing as herself in television series, sometimes as a regular, but mostly in one-offs.

Ilse Werner
"Wir machen Musik" (1942) (photo: kpa).

Basically, from 1965 onwards, Ilse was a recurring presence on German television and the stage, with her starring roles mostly concentrated in the latter. Highlights included her lead stage roles in German productions of "The King and I" and Thornton Wilder's "Our Town." She received a special lifetime award from the German Film Festival, the "Filmband in Gold" (Golden Film Reel) in 1986, and an acting award from them in 1991 for her performance in "Die Hallo-Sisters" (The Hello Sisters). It's rare that an artist wins a competitive award after a lifetime achievement one, but Ilse pulled it off. Probably her most poignant lead role after that was in a television film based on herself "Eine Frau mit Pfiff" (1998), in which Ilse amply displayed her whistling talents once again.

Ilse Werner

Wind of Change

Ilse continued performing, mainly in musical performances as herself, right up until her death from pneumonia at a Lübeck retirement home on 8 August 2005. Along the way, though, there was one curious incident which has passed into legend. A West German rock group, Scorpions, had composed a song which began and ended with whistling segments. Lead singer and composer Klaus Meine was a brilliant rock musician - but whistling was not his thing. As legend has it, the Dutch Wisseloord Studios where they recorded tried everything to find a replacement for the whistling parts - but piano, guitar and many other instruments simply didn't match the whistling vibe. The band itself and everybody associated with it roundly denies it (they claim that the producers assembled the whistling parts from bits and pieces of Meine's numerous awkward attempts, which sounds quite difficult), but the persistent rumor is that the studio secretly got Ilse Werner herself to record the critical whistling segments. Who better?

Ilse Werner

Even if she didn't actually do the whistling (wait, let me say it for you cynics: "total myth"), whoever did the deed followed in the best traditions of German music - as established by the whistling Fräulein herself, Ilse Werner. Anyone in Germany with ears and a sense of history would recognize the covert allusion to World War II and Ilse's whistling, which also would soar over the head of outsiders. This, whether intentional or not, fit perfectly with the song's underlying theme of moving on from the past. With the whistling parts covered competently one way or another, Scorpions' 1990 "Wind of Change" became the most successful single by a German artist - in history.

Ilse Werner


Articles like this one about Ilse Werner don't involve great battles and bombing, so if that is how you think about war, apologies for not giving you what you sought. However, individual stories bring a sense of what was going on behind the lines, whether in Germany or elsewhere. They show how the war affected people both during it and long after. While many Americans may never have heard about Ilse Werner, it is a safe bet that most Germans would recognize the name instantly. Put simply, Ilse Werner was a talented performer whose work still enchants regardless of the politics surrounding her. Werner's is a tale that weaves together many unique strands behind the German war effort and shows how talent endures no matter its origination.

Ilse Werner

Below, Ilse at her adorable best.

Below is a video of Ilse during  her Los Angeles period.

Below (in my opinion) is one of Ilse's best performances, contained in a surviving reel from German wartime television. She demonstrates her whistling to perfection. Ilse appears beginning at 2:48. Amazing sound for a tv recording from circa 1943.

Ilse's big 1960 hit, Baciare (Kiss).


Saturday, November 12, 2016

Popeye Anti-Japanese Cartoons

Popeye cartoons propaganda

During the 1930s and 1940s, cartoons were serious business. While they have garnered the reputation over the years of being just for kids, cartoons were shown during evening shows down at the Bijou in between the newsreels and the main feature. Cartoons such as Popeye were directed at adults, not just children. Many servicemen had fond memories of watching Walt Disney's "Dumbo" before shipping out, for instance. Disney, incidentally, also produced cartoons to aid the war effort which many now would consider offensive. The Office of War Information coordinated these efforts and funded them - in fact, the money received helped to keep Walt Disney studios running after the financial disasters of Pinocchio and Fantasia.

Popeye cartoons propaganda

The Popeye franchise was fertile ground for pro-American propaganda due to the nature of the character. Invariably, Popeye gets beat up by the "yeller" enemy - just like the US Navy fleet at Pearl Harbor - and then eats his spinach and comes roaring back - just like Admirals Halsey and Nimitz.

Popeye cartoons propaganda

Those were different times, before the age of political correctness. Thus, stereotypes were rude and crude. The Japanese are portrayed as buck-toothed and wearing glasses. They also play on stereotypes of politeness masking evil intentions, conveying a sense of betrayal and deviousness about how the war began. The Japanese also were crafting anti-American cartoons about which I have posted previously, and long before American studios took up the theme, so this was not a one-way street. It is just the way it was.

Popeye cartoons propaganda

Remembering these cartoons is important because it helps to better understand the time period. Posting or watching them does not mean that we subscribe to anything in them. In fact, viewing them now is a good lesson in how far we have come. However, these cartoons are likely to offend some viewers. Discretion is advised.

Popeye cartoons propaganda

"You're a Sap, Mr. Jap" was a Paramount one-reeler in which Popeye defeats a Japanese battleship. Famous Studios had taken over the Popeye franchise from Fleischer Studios. Since there is no need for standard villains, and the interests to be protected are a given, Bluto and Olive Oyl are unnecessary and thus absent. The cartoon is based on a popular song of the era written by James Cavanaugh, John Redmond and Nat Simon. The director is Dan Gordon, animation is by Jim Tyer and George Germanetti, and Popeye is voiced by Jack Mercer. The release date, interestingly enough, was 7 August 1942 - the very day that US Marines waded ashore on Guadalcanal to begin the reconquest of the Pacific. Talk about fortuitous timing!

In "Scrap the Japs," Popeye redeems himself by defeating some Japanese sailors. The Paramount one-reeler, also created by Famous Studios, is directed by Seymour Kneitel, with animation by Tom Johnson and Ben Solomon. Jack Mercer once again does the voices, not that Popeye has much to say. This short was released on 20 November 1942, shortly after the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal in which a Japanese battleship, the Kirishima, was sunk. This cartoon would have been especially enjoyable to audiences of the day due to the first news from the war that the tide really was turning in the Pacific.

Popeye cartoons propaganda

Popeye cartoons propaganda


Sunday, October 30, 2016

Nazi Television

TV of the Third Reich

Nazi TV
The broadcast sign-on image for the German television network (1938).

"Alternate histories" are always popular. They usually have Hitler escaping to Argentina, or modern aircraft carriers transported back to Pearl Harbor (that theme actually has become very popular in Japan as well as the US), or Germany occupying England and sending Winston Churchill to the Tower of London. There are endless various that would "disturb the timeline." But what if the Third Reich had developed television? Honest-to-goodness Nazi TV, or NTV? I want my NTV! What on earth would that look like? Would it be full of "Heil Hitlers!" and stiff Wehrmacht boys recovering from wounds and young blonde maidens doing dances and even references to "the camps"?

German postal worker
The German postal service was responsible for promoting Nazi TV.

Well, in fact... yes, it would. Nazi TV would have all of those things. Actually, we don't have to guess, it actually did have all of those things. There was television during the Third Reich, and each of those things - the Heil Hitlers, the young blonde maidens, oblique references to the camps (in a joking fashion, if you can believe it), wounded warriors - appeared on it. Nazi television was not "like" television, it was television just like you would watch on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1965 or, for that matter, today, though of course in black and white. It was of quite good picture quality, too, almost up to the standards of contemporary films. There weren't a whole lot of television sets in existence - the few around were set up in "television parlors" and military hospitals - but for all intents and purposes the system worked just like network television does today.

Let's take a look at Nazi TV and see what it was all about.


There is a bit of a myth that television is a purely American invention. In fact, television was the result of work by scientists around the world. Its immediate ancestor was the fax machine, first developed by Italian priest Giovanni Caselli in 1856. That got people thinking about transmitting images, and wouldn't it be great if they moved? The key advance in the early days was made by Paul Julius Gottlieb Nipkow, a Pomeranian 23-year-old university student, in 1884. He developed what he called the "electric telescope." The key part of his invention was what later came to be called the Nipkow disk, a spinning disk with a pattern of holes which each could scan a single line of an image. It had 18 lines of resolution. Nipkow quickly patented the disk, German patent No. 30105, granted on 15th January 1885, retroactive to 6th January 1884. Nipkow got involved in other things and allowed the patent to lapse, but his contribution was not forgotten and became a source of German pride. Later inventors, such as Lee de Forest, built upon Nipkow's work, which was far ahead of its time in terms of technology available to make it do anything practical.

John Baird
John Logie Baird with his original experimental Baird television apparatus, September 1926. The Nipkow disk can be seen clearly.

Frenchmen Georges Rignoux and A. Fournier demonstrated instantaneous image transmission in 1909. It was only a 8x8 pixel resolution, but it could transmit several times a second and thus portray a moving image. Images transmitted over wires were shown by Boris Rosing in 1911. The next big advance, though, was made by Scotsman John Logie Baird on 25 March 1925, when he gave a public demonstration in London of televised silhouette images in motion. He gave a much better demonstration of a human face on 26 January 1926. Baird used the Nipkow disk and transmitted the moving image over AM radio waves. By 1928, Baird was able to broadcast one of his "moving images" across the Atlantic and from shore to ship. Others were right behind Baird, such as Charles Francis Jenkins in the United States and Herbert E. Ives and Frank Gray of Bell Telephone Laboratories in New York. The first television station, WRGB/W2XB, began operating from General Electric's plant in Schenectady, New York in 1928. That same year, Paul Nipkow himself saw television for the first time at a Berlin radio show. The world's first daily TV broadcasts, using Baird's 30 line low definition system, began on the BBC in 1932.

Baird television

The Nipkow Disk was extremely clever and got the ball rolling in terms of television development, but it was a bit impractical. It was the television equivalent of a pinhole camera - it worked, but was kind of a dead end for advanced transmission. Working in San Francisco, Philo Farnsworth, building on the work of others such as Kenjiro Takayanagi of Japan (as all scientists/engineers do), perfected an alternate transmission method. It was called "all-electronic" and had no mechanical parts. Farnsworth demonstrated it at the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia on August 25, 1934. This used a live camera and was much more practical than systems using the mechanical Nipkow disk. It was this huge advance that led to the misconception that television is an American invention, but television was developed by different men around the world. And Nazi Germany had a use for it.

Third Reich Television

Let's get the technical background out of the way first. German engineers were working hard on television in the 1920s and 1930s, just like their counterparts in other countries. The first electromechanical broadcasts there began in 1929, and they began transmitting sound as well in 1934. That's a pretty phenomenal achievement, considering that theatrical films had only begun adding sound in 1928.

Nazi TV
A television image produced by Manfred von Ardenne in December 1930.

Manfred von Ardenne was a brilliant young German scientist who used an inheritance to set up his own research lab in 1928, Forschungslaboratorium für Elektronenphysik. It was just the right time to make a difference in TV. Von Ardenne was one of the most brilliant (and most undeservedly forgotten) men of his time who dabbled in a lot of different areas (including later helping to develop the atom bomb for the USSR). He demonstrated television using CRT tubes at the Berlin Radio Show in August 1931, and transmitted improved television pictures on 24 December 1933.

Nazi TV
An image from Manfred von Ardenne's "flying spot film scanner" of April 1931. It has a 60-line picture with a horizontal scan rate of 1500 Hz and a vertical scan rate of 25 Hz.

Realizing the immense power of television - not everybody did, but we already said von Ardenne was a bright guy - he quickly began working on an experimental public television station. In honor of the German engineer who basically had invented television (at least in German eyes), he called it "The Paul Nipkow Television Station" (literally, Fernsehsender "Paul Nipkow" (TV Station Paul Nipkow)). Nipkow himself became honorary president of the "television council" of the Reich Broadcasting Chamber until he passed away on 24 August 1940.

Paul Nipkow, standing behind the microphone on the left, appearing on German television in 1937.

The first German public transmission of the new TV station was produced in the Kroll Opera House on April 18, 1934. On 22 March 1935, building on Farnsworth's work, von Ardenne started an electronically scanned television service called Deutscher Fernseh Rundfunk. The service had resolution of 180 lines and, during this transitional time, used a variety of transmission methods: Nipkow Disks, telecine film transmission, and the intermediate film system. Broadcasts were for 90 minutes, three times a week. On 15 January 1936, the system began using the iconoscope system. After that, von Ardenne moved on to other things (he lived until 1997), but he had set a giant boulder rolling down the hill for others to grab onto.

Nazi TV
The E1. You can see this at Rundfunkmuseum der Stadt Fürth, Kurgartenstraße 37, 90762 Fürth.

So, von Ardenne had the transmission angle figured out. The most important part of a television system, though, is the television set itself. You can have the best transmission facility in the world, but it is useless if people have nothing worthwhile to watch programs on. Farnsworth got bogged down in a patent dispute over a television receiver with another inventor, Vladimir Zworykin (RCA ultimately bought Farnsworth out). Two Germans, however,  had filed patents in their own country two years before Farnsworth for what ultimately became the industry standard. Called the image iconoscope (Superikonoskop), it was ready just in time for the August 1936 Berlin Olympic Games.

Nazi TV
Walter Bruch at the 1936 Olympics.

There were many important but largely forgotten people behind the quick rise of Nazi TV. Let's remember at least one. Walter Bruch presented a “people’s television receiver” in 1933 with a self-built telecine. He joined Fritz Schröter's Telefunken in 1935 as a technician in the Television and Physics research Department and worked on field tests of the first Iconoscope camera. Emil Mechau of Telefunken developed a special television camera for the 1936 Summer Olympics which Bruch put to good use. In 1937, Bruch established the first all-electronic TV studio in Germany and, at the Paris International Exposition, he introduced an iconoscope television unit that he had designed. Bruch went on to become a major figure in the post-war development of television (especially color tv), and he is considered a legendary figure in German TV - which today has the most viewers of any country in Europe.

Third Reich Programming

The 1936 Berlin Olympic Games put Nazi television on the map. Two firms broadcast the Berlin Games - Telefunken and Fernseh, using RCA and Farnsworth equipment, respectively.

Nazi TV
Television cameras at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

The Berlin Olympic Games were the first sports events ever broadcast - over three years before the first broadcast football game in the United States in September 1939. The Games also, in the broader sense, constituted the first live transmission of any public event in real time. Broadcast via both all-electronic iconoscopic-based cameras and intermediate film cameras, transmissions went to "Public Television Offices" in Berlin/Potsdam and Hamburg. The Games introduced the first all-day television programming, as they were on the air for up to eight hours a day for a total 72 hours.

Nazi TV
A television viewing parlor in Berlin around the time of the Olympics. Admission was free.

Since very few individuals had television sets, 25-28 public television rooms or "parlors" (Fernsehstuben) were set up. They resembled movie theaters, with images transmitted by coaxial cable to projectors which displayed the images on 8 x 10 foot film screens (thus making this the first cable tv programming). Roughly 160,000 viewers saw the Olympic games this way, a phenomenal number for the day. The Games were a huge success and burnished Hitler's image as he presided over them every day from his prominent box seat. Most of the people in the stadiums had no idea what the huge telescope-like things were for.

Nazi TV
There were 21 television cameras used at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. This appears to be the Fernsehkanonen (television canon), which was 6 feet long. Three of these cameras were used at the Olympics.

The Germans thereafter upgraded their television technology. In February 1937, they introduced a 441-line system, which was slightly better than the British 405-line system at the time (which they had begun using in the fall of 1936). Virtually all German programming was done live, and it consisted primarily of Vaudeville-type acts and documentaries, with occasional political speeches. The project was "owned" by the Deutsche Reichspost, the Ministry of Aviation, and the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. In practice, the Post Office (Reichspost) was responsible for promoting the service, as they had the most daily contact with the public.

Nazi TV
Broadcasting the Olympics.

There were plans for a mass-produced television set to spread Nazi TV to the masses (much like the Volkswagen would provide cars to them). The Einheits-Fernseh-Empfänger E1 (Unitary-TV-receiver E1), also called Volksfernseher (People's TV) was a 441-line, 50 interlaced frames per second television set. The prototype was shown at the 16th Grosse Deutsche Funk- und Fernseh-Ausstellung (Greater Germany Radio and Television Exhibition) held in July/August 1939. Funkschau ("Radio Station") magazine in its 31 July 1939 (No. 31) issue, timed to coincide with the opening of the exhibit, reviewed the E1 (very loose translation):
The People's TV has a bright picture of deep contrast and sharpness without distortion. This results from its cutting-edge picture tube, which is rectangular with a flat fluorescent screen, preventing typical barrelling at the edges ("does not look like it was pulled over a roller").... [T]he dimensions of the screen are 19.5 cm x 22.5 cm with a diagonal of 30 cm.
The sets were highly advanced for the time, at least on a par with US sets of the 1950s. The physical display size was 7.68" × 8.86," and a color television version also was shown at the exhibit simply to demonstrate the technology (but was not going to be marketed). The sets could function solely as radios, too, which remained the main means of propaganda throughout the war on both sides. Production of the E1, despite its obvious allure, was cancelled in favor of war production after war broke out on 1 September 1939.

Occupied Paris
Wounded warriors watching television at the Berlin hospital. If you think that all they watched were Hitler speeches, think again: just like today, tv broadcast soccer (football) matches, variety acts and other popular things then and now. There was only one channel, so no fights over the dial!

Only about 50 E1 television sets were produced, and these were placed in government buildings and military hospitals. They were used throughout the war and proved popular with the patients at the hospitals. About ten of these units still exist, several completely original and functioning. Daily programming expanded with time.

Occupied Paris
The Nazis had a television broadcasting antenna on the Eiffel Tower, originally put there by the fledgling French television service.

After the capture of Paris, the Germans on 3 September 1940 seized the French television service, which had installed a television antenna on the Eiffel Tower. Eventually, the German Ministry of Post and Radiodiffusion Nationale resumed programming in Paris, broadcasting in both German and French (Fernsehsender Paris) from 7 May 1943. Among the more interested viewers were RAF and BBC engineers in southern England who learned what they could about the German homefront situation from the programs being broadcast.

Nazi TV

While most US programming from the 1950s and 1960s is lost forever because it was not recorded, significant portions of Nazi TV were recorded and survived the fall of the Reich. What survives shows a mix of programming that is not that dissimilar to what you find today when you roam around the channels: variety shows, documentaries, comic acts and the like. Much of the programming in the early years was a cross between Vaudeville and nightclubs. During the war, documentaries began appearing which are a bit odd to modern eyes but would have been appreciated by the audience (primarily wounded men in hospitals). For most of the war, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels left the broadcasts alone and Nazi TV was mindless entertainment - dancing girls, xylophone players, singers and the like. After Stalingrad, though, Goebbels began to see some political uses for it, and there were more documentaries about wounded soldiers recovering from horrible wounds and so forth. These included a documentary on how amputees could contribute to society and live happy lives after losing their legs.

Nazi TV
A talented singer on Nazi TV. Some of the acts were quite good.

Many top German directors of the day worked on Nazi television, and some big names got their start in it. The talent included director Carl Boese, whose career transcended the Third Reich, and his protégé Frank Wysbar, contributed content. Ilse Werner became the world's first television show, hosting a variety show. A special magazine, Fernsehen und Tonfilm ("Television and Sound film") chronicled cutting-edge developments in the area, and television listings appeared in the newspapers just as they did in the post-war world. Radio shows were adapted to the new medium and became known as "teleplays," better known as "movies of the week" in the 1970s and '80s. The overall strategy became known as "maximum entertainment" and revolved primarily around high-quality- stage acts. All of this paled beside the hugely popular Olympic broadcasts in 1936, of course, but those only lasted a couple of weeks and, as any TV programmer knows, you have to put something on the air aside from special events. Hitler wanted to host the Winter Olympics again in 1940, which might have been another good TV show, but the war intervened and they were cancelled. Incidentally, let's not romanticize or sanitize what was broadcast: there was a lot of blatant anti-Semitism and propaganda. The broadcasts were a reflection of the ruling culture, just as today's broadcasts are.

Nazi TV
This fellow delivers one of the creepiest monologues in television history.

The broadcasts lasted until late November 1943 in Berlin (when the antenna was destroyed in a British bombing raid). In Paris, the broadcasts lasted  5 1/4 hours per day until 16 August 1944, when the Allies were approaching Paris and the local authorities fled.  The entire project was dissolved on 18 October 1944. The Reich Radio Company produced and maintained 285 rolls of film of broadcasts (which were mostly live productions). These survived the war and passed to the East German State Film Archives, where they sat on a shelf for 50 years. They finally went to the Berlin Federal Film Archives after reunification in the early 1990s and have been digitized. These rolls of film are all that remains of Nazi television, and a fraction of it has been distributed on Youtube videos (see below). The videos make for interesting viewing even if you only have a passing interest in the subject.

Military Applications

The Nazi hierarchy might have viewed television as somewhat of a gimmick when the war began, but developments during the war made Nazi scientists give it a second look. The Luftwaffe developed wire-controlled missiles which proved effective, and even radio-controlled missiles. These all required visual observation of the missile from relatively close distances. But what if you could sit in your plane above the clouds - or over the horizon - and guide the missile with radio controls while watching its flight on a television screen? That would be a lot more effective, both for the crew of the plane controlling the missile and improving the chances of the missile hitting its target at all.

Television Remote Control

German World War II television remote control for missiles.

It turns out that the Germans indeed were busy making a television remote control system for their Mistel Bombers when the war ended. The Mistel set-up involved a fighter attached to an obsolete bomber which was packed full of explosives. The fighter would "ride" the bomber to the target, then release it at the last minute (literally) to produce a massive explosion. The basic configuration was proven to work, but the last few seconds of flight required perfect aim or the bomber would miss the target. A television control with radio guidance, though, would solve that problem and make the Mistel a much more effective and deadly weapon. In fact, if the television controls worked properly, the fighter could release the bomber miles away from the target and not be exposed to any danger whatsoever. This project remained in development as the war ended.

television Schmetterling
Henschel Hs 117 Schmetterling. 

Another plan was to use the television guidance on the Henschel Hs 117 Schmetterling ("Butterfly") surface-to-air and air-to-air missile. In the air-to-air version, this missile would be controlled by using a joystick - just like you could use on your 1990s Microsoft pc games like Flight Simulator. The Schmetterling project was promising, and obviously the concept was completely feasible; in fact, it is used today with drones.  Some say it is the future of all military planes in the 21st Century as pilots become redundant. However, neither the missile nor the guidance system was far enough along for it become operational during the war. Despite poor testing results, in January 1945, production of 3,000 missiles a month was proposed. However, on 6 February 1945, SS-Obergruppenführer Hans Kammler cancelled the project in order to focus on things that were of more immediate use. Under better circumstances, the Schmetterling with its joystick control that was decades ahead of its time might have become operational in 1946 or 1947.

Nazi TV
The A4/V2 launch pad at Peenemunde, 1943 (Ang, Federal Archive)

The remote control apparatus may not have made it into guided missiles used during the war, but it did prove useful elsewhere. Walter Bruch, mentioned earlier, graduated from his work on public Nazi TV to designing and operating a closed-circuit television system installed at the secret military rocket test site Peenemünde. Bruch used this system to control test A4 (V2) rocket launches from a safe distance within a bunker. This is considered the first CCTV system in history, built by Siemens to Bruch's specifications. Bruch also worked on TV transmission systems for planes and radar technology using the glass delay line patented by Telefunken in 1940 and used in the “Rehbock” distance control unit. Many people make up stuff about advanced Luftwaffe super-planes; but in the use of television, the Germans really were decades ahead. The Allies had nothing like any of this under development.


Nazi television lasted for about a decade. The clips that survive make for startling viewing. There are hints throughout the of the more brutal aspects of Nazi culture, presented in a way that is eerily reminiscent of modern television programs. There is a lesson for us there. When that attractive woman sitting behind the desk in front of the camera starts talking, remember that she is advancing an agenda today just as much as the Nazi presenters did during World War II. Learning about Nazi television helps to hammer home the point that technology itself is morally neutral; it is the people behind the scenes who decide whether it is used for good or evil.


Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Foo Fighters of World War II

UFOs of the Air War

Foo Fighters bomber stream
Ball Lightning? Photoshopping? Foo Fighters? Who knows.

"Foo Fighters" were UFOs spotted by numerous pilots on both sides during World War II. UFOs are Unidentified Flying Objects, a catch-all term for unexplained aerial sightings, and Foo Fighters meet the definition of UFOs: they were unidentified, they were flying, and they were objects. Or, at least there supposedly is eyewitness corroboration for each of those three prongs of the definition, though how solid that corroboration is can be debated up, down and sideways.

Foo Fighters
A photo supposedly taken of Foo Fighters over Italy in 1945.

The term "UFO" had not even been coined yet during World War II. It originated in the 1950s in a book by Marine Corps Major Donald Keyhoe (who may have gotten it from USAF officer Edward Ruppelt around that time). The term "Flying Saucer" was not used until 1947, when pilot Kenneth Arnold used it to describe what he had seen near Mount Rainier. Thus, there weren't even words to describe strange things that pilots were seeing during the war. Since those other terms later replaced "foo fighters" except in very restricted circumstances. we will take the term to refer only to the specific phenomenon usually seen by air force pilots and crew while in flight. Thus, we won't get into any general UFO chatter, at least in this article, fun though that may be.

Foo Fighters P-51 Mustang

There were too many reports of sightings of Foo Fighters to pretend they didn't exist and were just the result of a few too many down at the bar. The US Air Force took them seriously, and they were reported in the (presumably) legitimate press of the time. While many other UFO sightings have been debunked over the years, Foo Fighters remain unsolved. But, that doesn't mean we have to just accept these stories at face value, either.

My goal is to present the basic facts and draw some prudently skeptical conclusions from them. It is unavoidable to be selective in the facts examined in an article of this length, but I will try to be fair. This is intended as an introduction to the topic, not the "last word."

So, let's see what we can uncover about Foo Fighters.

Where the Foo Fighters Story Started

There have been reports of strange objects in the sky throughout recorded history, including the Bible (Ezekiel's Wheel). However, Foo Fighters are a distinct phenomenon, a well-defined subset of UFO reports, and their discovery has a precise starting point.

Arado Ar 234B
An Arado Ar 234B, operational by late 1944, after capture in US markings.

In late 1944, US Army Air Force Intelligence was worried about a resurgence in the Luftwaffe. The Me 262 fighter, Arado AR 234 bomber and other advanced Nazi jet planes were superior to the overwhelming bulk of Allied planes. The Germans also were building up their armored forces and seemed ready to make a stand at the German border, supported by rumored "wonder weapons" such as the V1 cruise missile and V2 ballistic missile. Into this tense atmosphere dropped a strange blurb in the 13 December 1944 New York Times. It summarized a bizarre news briefing given by Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) based in Paris.

Foo Fighters

The Times description (and different iterations in other newspapers) is notable for its weirdly precise detail. The "mystery balls" are not unexplained phenomena in this write-up. Instead, they are "German weapons." They also aren't fireballs, but "silver colored spheres" that can be "semi-translucent." Right from the start, we see that the report was feeding into the narrative that those evil Nazis must be up to something - which was going to keep the boys at the front from coming home before Christmas as many had been hoping for since D-Day in June. V-2
A V2 ballistic missile.

The Nazis indeed were up to something. They had jet fighters, rocket-powered planes and even were working on missiles guided to their targets by television monitors with joysticks. The Nazi scientists were decades ahead of the Allies in several high technology areas that were very noticeable. To ordinary grunts, the Nazi "Wonder Weapons" acquired an over-sized reputation that, even 70 years later, hasn't dissipated entirely. Which, of course, was part of the Germans' intent in developing these weapons, to keep their own soldiers at their guns with the promise of final victory and also intimidate the enemy.

A V-1 cruise missile.

The military scare passed quickly - the Nazis indeed had a lot of flashy and exotic stuff, though not nearly enough and of little practical benefit to their war effort - but the mystery about the "mystery balls" remained. The US military, as it was was to do many times over subsequent decades, took steps to figure out what was going on without really pinning it down, at least publicly.

Hap Arnold
General Henry H. 'Hap' Arnold.

Lieutenant Colonel Jo Chamberlin was an aide to "Hap" Arnold, the Commanding General of the US Army Air Forces since 1938 (when it was called the US Army Air Corps). Arnold sent Chamberlin to Europe in the spring of 1945 on a general fact-finding mission without a discernible purpose. Arnold was known to be interested in odd reports he was receiving from both the European and Pacific Theaters about these unexplained aerial phenomena (he even had a scientist on staff trying to figure it out). Chamberlin poked around the ETO, interviewed people, gathered some evidence, and finally reported back to Arnold. Chamberlin later wrote an article on some of the things he had discovered. After Air Force Intelligence reviewed and approved the article, Chamberlin submitted it to the American Legion Magazine for publication in December 1945. Chamberlin then pretty much disappeared from history.

Foo Fighters 415th Night Squadron
 The mascot insignia of the 415th Night Fighter squadron featured Donald Duck on a night mission. 

Chamberlin's article in the American Legion, entitled "The Foo-Fighter Mystery," is one of the first mainstream articles from an official source that directly addresses paranormal sightings. Apparently, he referred to classified documents while drafting it. The article sets forth where the stories about the "spheres" mentioned by SHAEF had come from. He begins with recent stories from the Pacific theater, but quickly circles back to the true beginning of the legends. He found during his investigation that the first reports had emanated from the USAAC 415th Night Fighter Squadron based in Dijon, France in late 1944.

Foo Fighters Smokey Stover
The Foo Fighter name derives from comic strip "Smokey Stover," the creation of cartoonist Bill Holman (1903-1987). Smokey was a crazed fireman who wore his helmet backwards, worked with Cecil Sizzlebritches at the False Alarm Fire Company, and drove the Foomobile, an egg-shaped, two-wheeled car with the letters "FOO-E-2-U" on the license plate. 

Specifically, Chamberlin pinpoints the start to three men in a night fighter "At ten o'clock of a November evening" (first sighting 26/27 November) who spot "some lights":
Yet the "lights" were still glowing – eight or ten of them in a row – orange balls of fire moving through the air at a terrific speed.
They did not report the sightings at first. However, that does not mean they did not tell their buddies in the unit about the "orange balls," who then went up looking for them. "A few nights later," two other men in the unit also reported seeing "a huge red light 1,000 feet above them, moving at 200 miles per hour." Then, on 22-23 December 1944, another crew from the same unit also reported seeing "large orange glows" that "leveled off and stayed on my tail," a sighting repeated by this same crew who this time described it as:
A glowing red object shooting straight up, which suddenly changed to a view of an aircraft doing a wing-over, going into a dive and disappearing.
Pretty soon, the sightings were extremely common in the 415th. One of the men in the original mission that spotted the lights, radar observer Lt. Donald J. Meiers, gave the phenomenon its moniker. A fan of Bill Holman's "Smokey Stover" comic strip - he carried around copies and actually had one in his pocket when he went to report the incident - he called the lights "F'ing Foo Fighters" (use your imagination). The word "foo" was a typical 1930's nonsense word (like boff or buck or dibs) from the comic strip. A newspaper reporter later took out the "F'ing," and the name stuck: Foo Fighters.

As the stories circulated (military guys read the Times and other papers), pilots in other units began describing similar sightings. They used various descriptive phrases, saw them under a variety of circumstances, and had a variety of experiences with them. The sightings spread throughout the air force, to other air forces, and around the world to the PTO. "Foo Fighters" became the shiznit.

Post-War Reports

The Foo Fighter narrative died down immediately after the war, but then occasionally erupted again. The "flying saucer" incident near Mount Rainier kept the idea of "strange phenomena" going in 1947, and on 21 July 1952 there was another flurry of sightings. An article in the New York Times, echoing many in other publications, described air force jets failing to catch "lights."

Foo Fighters 1952 clipping
July 1952 was a hot time for Foo Fighters.

This group of sightings closely followed the 28 September 1951 release of the Robert Wise "flying saucer" film "The Day the Earth Stood Still." Major General General John Samford of the US Air Force Director of Information gave a famous press conference in which he noted a "certain percentage of this volume of reports that have been made by credible observers of relatively incredible things." President Truman himself added fuel to the fire, saying he always would "discuss [flying saucers] at every conference we had with the military."

Gordon Cooper, one of the original NASA astronauts, later recalled his own experience around this time. He adds that later he was present when a "saucer" landed nearby, watched as a professional crew filmed it, and then watched it fly off. He looked at the film the crew had shot, then sent it off to D.C. and never heard another word about it. There were, of course, many other sightings of Foo Fighter-type UFOs during the decade, but then the subject died down again. Belief in UFOs has never gone away, however, but it has become a spectator sport from the ground filmed with cell phones, not observed from high-speed jets. Cooper believed it was from "somewhere else." It is worth observing that the object he described sounds somewhat similar to a modern drone, which is not that otherworldly but certainly would have seemed so then. However, Cooper saw what he saw and he explains what he saw quite well.

Anyway, everyone knows where the UFOlogy topic went from there. The literature on UFOs is abundant. But, the initial report - the Foo Fighter sightings - remain unchallenged.

So, What Was Going On

Foo Fighters RAF fighters
This photo is a normal shot of RAF fighters that is usually doctored to show Foo Fighters.

The problem with even discussing this topic is that you get tarred with the "paranormal freak" label. So much misinformation and outright fabrication has been slung both at and in support the entire UFO field that it is impossible to emerge free of taint. It is just too easy to fake these photos. But... let's talk about it anyway.

Foo Fighters
The doctored "Foo Fighter" version.

Let's rule out two possibilities as being extremely unlikely.

There is absolutely no evidence that, as described in the original news reports on 13 December 1944, Foo Fighters were any kind of Axis weapon. The Nazis had nothing even remotely similar to "glowing balls" that followed aircraft, nor did the Japanese. In fact, today, in the 21st Century, there is no known weapon that resembles a fireball and tracks planes from close at hand.

It also is unlikely that Foo Fighters are "natural phenomena" like St. Elmo's Fire, that is, natural fireballs that follow planes around. The Foo Fighter reports describe a phenomenon that should be seen with regularity every day if they are simply natural events. There should be sightings from commercial airliners by passengers looking out the window and seeing nearby patterns of fireballs trailing along nearby like friendly puppies on every shuttle flight from New York to D.C. While there might be rare sightings like that now and then, they are not nearly common enough to support the idea that the night fighter pilots flying out of Lyon would see them day after day on ordinary nights under average conditions.

Foo Fighters Concorde
This is a still from a film purporting to show a Foo Fighter following a Concorde.

So, what were they? As I see it, there are three ways to approach the Foo Fighters subject:

  • Aliens!
  • Pure Innocence
  • Healthy skepticism.

The first choice is self-evident. If you want to believe in aliens, and that Foo Fighters mark their presence, there is no proof you are wrong. It is somewhat comforting to think that our lives are so fascinating that creatures from Alpha Centauri or the year 3424 come to visit incognito, as it were. However, as Carl Sagan would say, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. There is no proof, let alone extraordinary proof that Foo Fighters arise from ... somewhere else. But faith in the unproven can be unshakeable.

The second choice above is probably the default for most people. Just take the whole issue innocently. There are reports of strange things by credible people, and no other real evidence either way about them. Simply accepting that there are unexplained events in the world shows an open mind and requires no deep thought. Basically, the attitude is, well, that's fine, so what, what difference is it to me? The only danger to watch out for with this attitude is that you do not cross the line into becoming gullible.

Foo Fighters clipping

The third choice, healthy skepticism, requires you to be a bit cynical and exert some brainpower. The bottom line on this avenue is that, sure, lots of people "saw Foo Fighters," but the whole topic may have decidedly earthly origins.

The first thing to note is that the entire topic appears to have arisen from one unit of the USAAC. A bunch of guys began seeing things, undoubtedly talking to each other about them, scaring each other and goading each other on. They then graduated to seeing more things, and on and on until word spread up the chain of command. With nerves on edge about the unknown German Wonder Weapons, no reports from the Front could be discounted without some sort of investigation. As I note elsewhere, SHAEF may have had its own motivations for publicizing the issue.

Next, the timing of the initial report in the press is a bit convenient for the military. The public had become convinced by the relative ease of the D-Day landings that the war would be over by Christmas. By mid-December, the military knew there was absolutely no hope of that, and, in fact, that the Wehrmacht was building up reserves. Only three days later, the Germans launched their last major offensive through the Ardennes. Preparing the public for unexpectedly strong German resistance with reports of "wonder weapons" and the like served a certain public relations use for SHAEF.

Foo Fighters Battle of Los Angeles
The famous "Battle of Los Angeles" of 24 February 1942 is cited by some as an earlier Foo Fighter appearance. The official explanation was... weather balloons.

Third, despite some later fabrications, there is no evidence of any sightings of Foo Fighters before those by the 415th, at least in the mass media. There was a later claim that Foo Fighters had been observed during one of the Regensburg raids in 1943, but that was debunked (the Commanding General himself denied ever hearing anything of the sort, and no official document supporting it has been found). The Foo Fighter sightings just started suddenly all of a sudden in late November 1944, and as soon as the military acknowledged them, they spread around the world like wildfire. Why the phenomena, whatever it was, would just "begin" at a random time is as much a mystery as everything else. Even if there were some earlier sightings, it was the publication of the November 1944 incident in the New York Times that seemed to set off a sudden avalanche of similar sightings.

Foo Fighters LA Times
The US military has a long history of digging a hole for itself, then spending eternity trying to fill it in again. Incidentally, the "alien ouster" mentioned in the sub-headline are not, you know, those kinds of aliens. 

Fourth, the Foo Fighter incident is interesting because it reflected an odd military tendency of the time. The US military would make some fantastic claim with alarming implications in an oddly casual way, then quickly retract or at least not follow up on it. The Foo Fighter incident was just one in a pattern. It was repeated with the infamous 1947 Roswell, New Mexico UFO incident, when a local military official practically swore that space aliens were involved, then quickly backed down. The patter became rather common in the 1950s (in numerous "fighters chasing UFOs" accounts). Why the military might engage in such a pattern is unclear, but odd patterns are worth noting. Nowadays, the military pretty much refrains from any claims, having learned from bitter experience it will only wind up spending decades retracting them.

Beaufighter Night Fighters
Beaufighter Mark IF night fighters of No. 600 Squadron RAF based at Colerne.

There also are some peculiarities about the initial sightings. The first sighting mentioned in Chamberlin's account states that there were three men were in the aircraft. However, they were flying a Beaufighter, a two-seater airplane. While an observer could be crammed into the small space behind the two seats, he would have been able to see next to nothing. There also would have been no reason to bring along an observer on an ordinary flight... unless you wanted an extra witness for something unusual. Subsequent research shows that Meiers had reported a couple of nights earlier seeing "a red light through area about 35 miles ENE of point A. Came in to about 2000 feet off starboard and then it disappeared in a long red streak." Apparently, he had a tendency to see strange things that had eluded the rest of the air forces of both sides. The regularity with which the unit began suddenly seeing these "glows" is suspicious, suggesting that it either was some sort of prank or perhaps a local condition.

Foo Fighters
This is one of the more venerable photos in the field. Nobody is sure when it was taken or even what types of planes are shown. Could be altered, too.

As for later sightings during the war by others, for example in the Pacific Theater, they may have resulted from the desire for a "shared experience." Air crews heard about the strange sightings over Germany and wanted to become part of the story, of the narrative of strange events in the sky. There were lots of strange items floating in the air during world War II, including balloons, radar chaff, debris from bombed cities, ice crystals, electromagnetic phenomena and the like. Flying at all hours of the day and night can create optical illusions, refractions of light through dirty canopies that can resemble real objects.This is much like camera film that gets double exposures creating odd images (another common source of supposed "paranormal incidents"). It is not a question of air crews fabricating or hallucinating, but of quickly assigning odd (but otherwise explainable) events of their own experience under the broad and sexy "Foo Fighter" category.

However, no matter how you explain away the initial sightings, later sightings are much trickier to explain. Personally, I tend to straddle the second third categories. I combine an open mind with an edge of skepticism. Perhaps there was something odd going on... but the evidence certainly doesn't prove it.


Foo Fighters were unexplained aerial phenomena during World War II and thereafter which resembled fireballs and acted in unnatural ways. Their nature remains a mystery. The sightings have become intertwined with broader subject of UFOlogy and, in fact, helped to spawn that topic, but that does not mean there was anything "otherworldly" about them. While there are possible explanations for Foo Fighters, different people can draw widely varying conclusions based upon the evidence. However, it requires quite a leap of faith to assume they were a paranormal phenomenon. The subject remains open along with the broader topic of UFOs.