My Weekly Reader stirred flying-saucer controversyThe specter of alien spacecraft hovering over the United States became almost a national obsession in 1947.
By Larry Hall
Richmond Times Dispatch
By Larry Hall
Richmond Times Dispatch
That was the year the Air Force announced it had retrieved a crashed "flying disc" near Roswell, N.M., only to retract the statement hours later, saying the object really was a high-altitude weather balloon.
Official denials of the presence of strange aircraft did not stop a growing epidemic of UFO (unidentified flying object) sightings in the United States, however. And with the advent of the Atomic Age and the Cold War, newspapers around the country treated the subject with more seriousness than amusement.
In 1950, an unlikely source tried to solve the flying-saucer mystery. My Weekly Reader, a current-events publication used as an educational supplement in many elementary schools, explained what UFOs were in terms that young readers could understand and assured youngsters they had no reason to fear flying saucers.
According to reports that year from The Times-Dispatch and The Richmond News Leader, fourth- and fifth-graders in the area had learned from My Weekly Reader that flying saucers were real and easy to recognize.
"Some are raised in the middle like a pie. Others turn up around the edge like a saucer," My Weekly Reader said. They varied greatly in size, from a few inches to several city blocks, and produced no noise or fumes.
Some were built of a substance that dissolved slowly with exposure to Earth's atmosphere. "For this reason, the saucers disappear soon after they hit the ground. You probably will never find one."
But in case one remained intact long enough to be discovered, it carried a label: "Military secret of the United States of America Air Forces." Flying saucers, My Weekly Reader said, were made in the United States.
Introduced in 1928, My Weekly Reader had such a reputation for truth and accuracy that a fifth-grade teacher at a Richmond school told The Times-Dispatch that her students accepted everything in the article as fact, as did she. The teacher said she "read it with her pupils, and . . . anything My Weekly Reader said must be true."
The author of the article was identified only by the pen name Tom Trott. The Richmond teacher said Trott's travel features were a favorite of her students, and in Trott's first article of the school year he had informed his young readers that he would be "going on a secret mission for the government."
In the flying-saucer report, Trott said he had visited a major airport somewhere on the East Coast.
"The most exciting thing we have seen is 'flying saucers,'" Trott told the students. "For several years people in many parts of our country have claimed to have seen flying saucers. The government proved that some of these people were imagining things. However, I am now allowed to tell you that some flying saucers are real. They belong to our Air Force. They will some day be a big help to our country."
Eleanor Johnson, managing editor of elementary school publications for American Education Press, the company that published My Weekly Reader, defended the article.
"Our correspondent had one thought in mind, and that thought was to calm any hysterical fears some children might have built up from hearing too much talk about mysterious flying objects from other planets or deadly flying weapons of our enemies. . . . We are in sympathy with Mr. Trott's motive to overcome a deluge of humbuggery afloat in our land," Johnson said.
Johnson added that My Weekly Reader did not lie. "The staff is convinced that flying saucers most certainly are among this nation's experimental aircraft," she said.
Johnson referred to "similar reports on the so-called saucers printed in various periodicals over the last six months," but she did not cite specifics.
One reputable source that published a report on experimental U.S. aircraft six months before the My Weekly Reader article appeared was the news magazine U.S. News and World Report. Its April 7, 1950, edition included news of the secret development by the military of a disc-shaped aircraft that could hover like a helicopter and accelerate like a jet.
The magazine said the aircraft had been built in 1942 at the Langley Field Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia.
Although military officials denied that such a craft ever had gone beyond the model stage, the magazine disagreed. "Top Air Force officials know where the saucers originate and are not concerned about them," U.S. News and World Report said.
In reporting My Weekly Reader's contention that flying saucers were real, The News Leader said the Air Force's official position continued to be that no UFO sightings it had investigated provided proof of anything unknown that posed a threat to national security.
The Air Force did not end its official investigation of UFOs until 1969, when it reached the same conclusion after examining more than 12,000 sightings.
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