By Amelia HeagertyRoswell, once just a military base in the New Mexican desert, is known today as the site of the United States’ most high-profile and controversial UFO sighting and crash. But few Islanders know that Maury Island was home to the first alleged UFO sighting in U.S. history, and it took place weeks before two crafts fell from the sky in Roswell.
The Beach Comber
The Beach Comber
Tomorrow marks the 60th anniversary of the Maury Island Incident, as it was later dubbed in books and newspaper articles. It took place in June 1947, two years after World War II ended. The nation was abuzz with paranoia and suspicion, and it was in this atmosphere that first one, then two, then hundreds of Americans reported seeing strange, unidentifiable, usually saucer-shaped, objects whizzing through the sky.
These were the incidents that triggered UFO hysteria, which gripped the nation for decades and spawned countless movies and books. But it all started with one close encounter. One X file. It all started with Maury Island.
“I consider (the Maury Island Incident) the most complex mystery in Washington,” said Charlette LeFevre, co-director of the Seattle Museum of the Mysteries, the state’s only paranormal science museum. “It wasn’t as well promoted as Roswell, but it was the beginning of modern UFOlogy.”
While no one can say for sure what happened that afternoon in the Puget Sound, after cobbling together the various eyewitness, secondary, government and media accounts, a story with a life of its own emerges:
At 2 p.m. on June 21, 1947, Tacoma seaman Harold Dahl was trolling the waters just east of Maury Island, looking for loose logs, which he collected and sold for profit.
“As I looked up from the wheel on my boat I noticed six very large donut-shaped aircraft,” Dahl later told one of the investigators of the incident. “I would judge they were about 2,000 feet above the water and almost directly overhead.”
He said the ships were 100 feet in diameter, had no “visible signs of propulsion” and made no noise.
One craft wobbled and dipped to about 500 feet, he told investigators. It then spewed what Dahl described as thin sheets of white metal and several tons of hot lava-like rocks or slag. As the slag rained down on Dahl, his son and his dog, it punched holes in the vessel, burned Dahl’s son on the arm and killed the family dog.
Another of the six saucers seemed to come to the assistance of the ship in distress, “jump-starting” it, according to Dahl. Then the crafts took off. Dahl gathered samples of the rocks and the white metal and went home for the night, shaken.
The next morning he had what modern UFOlogists refer to as the first encounter with a “Man in Black” — an ominous individual who warned Dahl his family would be in danger if he went public with his story, according to Kenn Thomas, who wrote the book “Maury Island UFO.” Although Dahl had not yet told anyone about his UFO sighting, the man in black knew many details of the incident, he later reported. Dahl said he suspected the man was a government official.
Later that day, Dahl told his supervisor Fred Crisman about his UFO sighting. Crisman, dubious, visited Maury and collected his own samples of the slag. He then contacted Ray Palmer, an adventure magazine publisher, to see if Dahl’s story was fodder for his magazine.
The next day, three days after Dahl’s sighting, UFOs went from obscurity to front-page news. On June 24, 1947, U.S. Forest Service employee and pilot Kenneth Arnold reported seeing nine “saucer-like” objects flying in formation at speeds of up to 1,200 miles per hour near Mount Rainier. Arnold contacted the press immediately, and the tale spread like wildfire. Soon, U.S. media were saturated with reports of Americans spotting UFOs, almost always saucer-shaped. “Flying saucer” became a household term.
Because Arnold had the eye of a highly trained pilot, his story became big news. Dahl’s story, however, remained obscure until Arnold was dispatched by Palmer to investigate just what it was Dahl saw off the shores of Maury.
Arnold flew to Tacoma in July 1947 and rented a room in the Winthrop Hotel, where, according to FBI reports, Arnold met with Dahl, decided the sighting was authentic and called two U.S. intelligence officers to tell them the news. The men, Capt. William Davidson and Lt. Frank Brown, became the first two Army officers to investigate UFOs, Arnold said in a book he later wrote.
After Arnold phoned Davidson and Brown on July 31, 1947, they flew to Tacoma within an hour, gathering in Arnold’s hotel room where they pored over the details of the incident and collected samples of the slag and white metal, according to Arnold.
The officers’ plane was due back the following morning for inaugural Air Force Day ceremonies, marking the separation of the Air Force from the Army. So, although it was after midnight, they returned to their plane, allegedly carrying UFO slag and metal, and headed for Hamilton Air Force Base in California. Twenty minutes into the flight, their engine caught fire, igniting the left wing. The two crew members aboard the plane with Davidson and Brown parachuted to safety. But neither intelligence officer jumped nor radioed distress, according to news reports. Instead, both died when their B-25 plane crashed near Kelso, Wash.
“Why didn’t they call in to land?” LeFevre said. “It was like they made up their minds they were going to go down with the plane.”
The military promptly sealed off the crash site and cleaned up the rubble from the U.S. Air Force’s first accident. But they left some of it behind.
Only a few locals knew the location of the crash, and none investigated it fully, LeFevre said. But in April 2007, now-owner of the site Bob Greear visited it, accompanied by LeFevre and Philip Lipson, co-directors of the Seattle Museum for the Mysteries.
The three retrieved a blackened, lava-like rock from the site, which now sits in their museum, as well as mangled pieces of the B-25 that went down that night.
Bill Beaty, a research engineer at the University of Washington and a member of the museum’s board, analyzed the rock and found that it was “almost certainly an Earth rock.” But more analysis should be done before writing the specimen off, he said.
After the fatal accident, the government staunchly denied any classified material had been on board the B-25.
But the media knew the names and mission of the deceased officers before the military released them. An anonymous caller contacted various Washington dailies on July 31 through Aug. 3, 1947. The caller gave such intimate details of the conversations that took place in Arnold’s hotel room that Arnold thought the room was bugged. The identity of the caller remains unknown.
While newspapers differed on details, they were in agreement on one thing — the government wasn’t telling the whole truth.
The U.S. military cited Dahl and Crisman’s signed confession that the Maury Island Incident was a hoax. But upon government questioning, the two said they had only sworn their story was a fabrication to protect their families.
It wasn’t until 1979 that the government declassified the FBI files admitting Davidson and Brown had been investigating the Maury Island flying discs at the time of their deaths.
“It didn’t start with Roswell. It started here in the Pacific Northwest,” LeFevre said of UFOlogy. “People should be aware of that.”