How Washington gave the world flying saucers and 'men in black'

On this episode of Mossback's Northwest, a look at what happened on June 24, 1947, when a pilot flew near Mount Rainier.

On June 24, 1947, an event in Washington changed the modern world and unleashed a phenomenon and memes that continue to this day.

On that date, a pilot and salesman from Boise, Idaho, named Kenneth Arnold was flying near Mount Rainier when he saw what he later described as discs traveling at high speed — 1,000 miles per hour or more —through the Cascades between Rainier and Mount Adams. On landing in Oregon, he described them moving like “a saucer if you skip it across water.” A new term entered our language: “flying saucer,” and suddenly saucers exploded into public consciousness.

Within days of Arnold’s report, people everywhere began seeing and reporting discs in the skies. At first, the idea wasn’t so much that they were extraterrestrial. This was the Cold War era, when new technologies were being unleashed — jet planes, missiles, atomic bombs. An Oregon congressman claimed the saucers were Russian rockets. Others figured they were some new atomic-related technology.

Some people dismissed the sightings as atmospheric conditions, lenticular clouds, meteors, planets or the product of too much drink. The United Press International ran a story spoofing the craze with a bylined column from its “Sea Monster and Saucer Correspondent.”

Just days after Arnold’s report, a minister in La Grande, Oregon, said they were signs of the second coming of Christ. Arnold said he received a call from an unknown preacher in Texas who said he was getting his flock “ready for the end of the world.” A woman expressed worry to Arnold that she’d have to protect her children from “men from Mars."

Military officials said they would look into it, and eventually authorities settled on the term “UFO” — “unidentified flying object” — as a more objective term than “flying saucer,” since not everything sighted was saucer-shaped, and UFO sounded less crackpot.

As the years went by and sightings continued, the state of Washington created a special form for UFO-sighting reports. These were taken from around the region by Civil Defense authorities and the Washington State Patrol, and often sent on to the U.S. Air Force. The form asked people for the color, shape, speed and location of the “UFOBs.” As to size, it asked witnesses to give this highly specific measurement: “The approximate size of the object as compared to a garden pea held at arms [sic] length.” Pea, baseball, even egg yolk were some of the size descriptions that flowed in.

The involvement of authorities investigating the phenomenon became suspect early on, especially as many people believed flying saucers were possibly top secret government projects, and that they might cover up the truth.

Within days of Arnold’s 1947 sighting, this idea was codified by another event alleged to have occurred, one that resulted in a powerful meme more popular than ever today. This was the so-called Maury Island incident where a man from Tacoma named Harold Dahl claimed that one of several doughnut-shaped UFOs had dropped debris that damaged his boat and killed his dog while he was off Maury Island, near Vashon Island. Arnold and others investigated, and it was determined to be a hoax, though some claimed the investigation was a cover-up. In the Maury Island case, Dahl said he told his story to a mysterious visitor, a man in a black suit, who warned him not to speak of it. Two of the incident investigators were killed in a plane crash while returning home. This appears to be the genesis of the “men in black” (MIB) meme and within a few years the MIB became cemented into UFO lore.

The Pacific Northwest has contributed a great deal to the Jet Age and Space Age, and those contributions continue with companies like Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, which recently announced its timetable for putting people on the moon again and hopes for colonizing Mars.

But our earliest and most enduring contribution was to ignite the world’s interest in the possibilities and mysteries that skipped like saucers through the sky.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.

Stephen Hegg

Stephen Hegg

Stephen is formerly a senior video producer at Crosscut and KCTS 9. He specialized in arts and culture.