A Round Loaf of Flying Fire
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Flying Saucers Over Deer Park, Washington
© Wally Lee Parker
The following article was first published in the April, 2016, issue of the Clayton/Deer Park Historical Society’s newsletter, the Mortarboard.
It was the early 1950s. The Cold War’s version of the Ground Observer Corps was just being put into operation (the first version — that from a very hot Second World War — had been disbanded in 1944). And, as happenstance would have it, the skies this new, postwar crop of civilian volunteers spent largely uneventful days and assumedly sleepless nights scanning appear to have been filled — at least according to the nation’s newspapers — with a bewildering assortment of unidentified flying objects.So it wasn’t all that surprising when, on the 28th of August, 1952, local residents unfolded their copies of the Deer Park Union and found this particular note in William C. Roll’s weekly “Shavings from the Mill” column.
“While they were sky watching Tuesday night, Fred Roberts and Doug King say that at 12:30 they saw a flying saucer in a direction southeast of the school. They say it appeared like a large, round loaf of flying fire.”
The first question that comes to mind is what, if anything did these gentlemen report to Spokane’s Air Defense Filter Center. From the description, it’s fairly obvious they saw a meteor. But still — even though the Air Force’s Aircraft Recognition for the Ground Observer manual (#355-10) is more than a little vague on how to classify novelistic airborne objects — they should have telephoned in some kind of report as a matter of protocol.
That said, we don’t know if the two observers would have — or in fact did — use the term “flying saucer” when talking to the filter center — or when talking to anyone else for that matter. Or if that particular descriptive is nothing more than just a bit of creative narrative added by someone else on the story’s journey to the tip of Bill Roll’s pen. After all, it was the ongoing flow of gossipy observations that gave the long-running “Shavings from the Mill” its front-page popularity.
If Mr. Roll did add that term to the description himself, we need to give him a pass. All he was doing was using that era’s vernacular for what is now, more often than not, called a UFO — an unidentified flying object — with UFO tending to be a much better descriptive for the wide variety of airborne objects reported over the years.
As for the original germ of the term flying saucer — that bit of cultural history is rooted right here in Washington State.
On Thursday, June 26th, 1947, an article on the front page of the morning edition of the Spokesman-Review was headlined “Sights ‘Saucers’ Flitting in Air.” Carrying the dateline “Pendleton, Ore., June 25,” the Associated Press piece that followed stated that Kenneth Arnold, a civilian pilot from Boise, Idaho, had reported sighting “Nine bright, saucer-like objects … flying between Mount Rainer and Mount Adams” on the afternoon of June 24th.
Historians now suggest it’s quite possible that the first recorded use of the term flying saucer also occurred on June 26th, when the Chicago Sun printed its account of Arnold’s sighting under the banner “Supersonic Flying Saucers Sighted by Idaho Pilot.”
None of this is to suggest that sightings of flying objects are anything new. Accounts of strange aerial craft are as old as written history. But this time something caught fire, causing a rash of similar stories to ignite. This journalistic frenzy became so hot that within just a few weeks of the Mount Rainier incident, the most infamous UFO event of all time transpired.
On July 8th, 1947, bold type stretching across the face of the Spokane Daily Chronicle’s final edition blared “Flying Disk is Found.” A good portion of the nation’s other newspapers released the same Associated Press article. Though attempts quickly ensued to curb what has since proven to be a mass of misinformation, the damage was done. And as a result, the obscure little town of Roswell, New Mexico, has become the center of a conspiracy theory enduring to this day.
The Pacific Northwest was not quiescent during all this. On the same day the Chronicle was announcing the Roswell crash, the Spokesman-Review carried a front page article detailing the search for “eight or more ‘flying saucers’ … reported to have landed on a mountainside near St. Maries, Idaho.” Or more precisely, “near Butler’s bay on the St. Joe River six miles west of St. Maries.” This sighting was reported by a vacationing “Mrs. Walter Johnson” of Dishman, Washington.
Arguably, one of the most interesting local sightings — the crash of a round, flat, mirror like object into Long Lake — occurred the year after Roswell. A trace of this incident is found in the August 23rd, 1965, edition of the Spokesman-Review, under the headline “Flying Saucers, Fiery Balls Claimed Seen by UFO Buffs.” The author of the piece, staff writer Jerry Wigin, stated that “In July, 1948, a woman from Tum Tum, Wash., wrote a letter to the Spokesman-Review” describing the Long Lake incident. So far we’ve been unable to locate the assumedly published missive. If anyone can recall the name of the above noted “woman,” or any other information regarding this specific tale, such might prove useful in locating the original account.
In 1952 — the same year Fred and Doug sighted the “round loaf of flying fire” — the September 4th edition of the Spokane Daily Chronicle quoted Mr. J. M. Stork of Spokane as saying “Four of us were on a boat in Coeur d’Alene Lake last evening. There was another boat with us with four more people on it. It was about 10:30 or 11 when we saw three distinctive balls of greenish hue and very bright low on the horizon in the east. We were sure they were not falling stars because they were traveling in a level or perhaps slightly upward direction. They were moving very fast, and the whole appearance probably lasted only three seconds.”
Again, the most logical explanation — despite an appearance of upward movement — meteors.
There have been any number of theories regarding the identity of UFOs. Some explanations were at least rational; among them that they were common objects such as floating dandelion seedpods, ice crystals, swamp gas, conventional aircraft misidentified, or the above noted meteors — these in all colors, including “greenish.” There were the usual psychological explanations; among them publicity seeking fabrications, hallucinations, delusions induced by mass hysteria or alcohol, and, of course, the ever popular secret government experiments to study the effects of panic on the population. But it appears the most enduring theories ascribe the sighting to highly advanced aircraft — either ours or theirs (with the “theirs” more than likely meaning Russian) — or to extraterrestrial visitations (which has always been my personal favorite).
Regarding the last of these theories, Hollywood, as ever, did its part muddying the waters. In 1950 it was the less than excellent movie, “The Flying Saucer.” In 1951 it was “The Thing from Another World” (with James Arness, the future Marshall Matt Dillon, playing the part of the green skinned, vegetable based saucer pilot). And then there was the classic “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Though 1952 was a little slack for extraterrestrial attacks, 1953 bit back with “Invaders from Mars” and “War of the Worlds” — among others.
Even the worst of these movies tended to play well in an era of Cold War dread — said dread clearly reflected in the government sponsored reemergence of the Ground Observer Corps.
UFOs aren’t quite as popular as they once were. One reason — we’ve entered an age when most everyone is carrying a cellphone capable of taking high quality photos. As a result, people just aren’t as willing to accept reports of close encounters of the third kind without at least a few human/alien selfies for collaboration.
That’s not to say UFOs aren’t still being seen in Washington State. For example, a report filed with the National UFO Reporting Center(1) stated that on the evening of December 13th, 2015, at 08:00 PM, nine bright orange lights were seen maneuvering over the small town of Deer Park.(2) The objects, in two groups, haltingly approached the town from the southwest, hovered, then moved off in different directions before fading from view.
What would our two Ground Observers from 1952 have made of that?
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Report on Deer Park UFO Sighting, December 13th, 2015.
(1) National UFO Reporting Center website:
(2) NUFORC report page, Deer Park Sighting: http://www.nuforc.org/webreports/124/S124651.html