UFOs of the Air War
|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.
|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.
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.
|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 German 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.
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 Germans 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.
|A V2 ballistic missile.|
The Germans 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 German scientists were decades ahead of the Allies in several high technology areas that were very noticeable. To ordinary grunts, the German "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 Germans 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.
|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.
|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.
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.
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."
|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
|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.
|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 Germans 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.
|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:
- Pure Innocence
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.
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.
|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.
|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 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.
|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.