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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Flying Saucers Over Milwaukee!

UFO mania in the summer of 1947

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Sixty-five years ago this summer, Americans looking to the night skies began to see fantastic things. It began over Mount Rainier in Washington state, where a local pilot reported he had seen nine “pie-pan” shaped objects, glowing and traveling alongside his plane at a terrific speed. While people had been reporting strange sights in the sky for hundreds of years, the Mount Rainier case touched a nerve in the Atomic Age of postwar America. Within a week of the incident, the newspapers dubbed the objects “flying saucers” and the pilot began speculating that what he had seen was not of Earthly origin.

Almost overnight, the nation was rapt with “saucer mania.” Hundreds of reports of unidentifiable aircraft flooded government and police offices in every corner of the nation, including several near Milwaukee. All at once, it seemed that the skies above the Cream City were full of strange lights, dashing orbs and hovering discs. Father Joseph Brasky of St. Joseph's Church in Grafton reported that a disc had clipped the top of his church's steeple and crashed in the parish yard. Father Brasky recovered the disc, which was 19 inches in diameter with “gadgets and wires” attached, and told the papers he planned to keep it until the FBI instructed him to do otherwise.

The same evening in '47 as the Brasky sighting, several people reported seeing saucers over Billy Mitchell Field, their erratic flight habits unlike anything anyone had ever observed. The Milwaukee police received a call about an airship that had crashed near Pulaski High School at South 27th and Oklahoma. It was “definitely not an airplane,” the panicked caller reported. The coming days saw reports of 15 saucers canvassing Milwaukee's South Side in a “U” formation and a stunning claim that described a fleet of three fireballs soaring over Lake Michigan. Several North Side residents, including an off-duty firefighter, reported a silver disc dashing over the city, changing color as it traveled. Near Lake Geneva, a Cub plane gave chase to a “dinner plate”-sized object that moved too fast for them to catch.

While the Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wis., dismissed the claims as “a lot of hokum,” other offices took the claims far more seriously. The Wisconsin Civil Air Patrol ordered a massive patrol of the skies after several pilots had reported sightings. Statewide, 150 planes were put at the ready to hunt the mysterious objects. The FBI's Milwaukee office also took note. They opened a file on the Father Brasky incident, eventually concluding that the object was a saw blade with radio tubes attached and that the Father had been “drinking quite heavily” the evening of the sighting. The office also looked into a reported crash of a saucer near Black River Falls, Wis., but closed the case when the “craft” was found to be made of cardboard and tinfoil.

Despite doubts about the legitimacy of the bulk of the Milwaukee saucer sightings, local newspapers ran with the newfound explosion in sightings. On July 8, 1947—just days after the term had been coined—the Milwaukee Sentinel's headline blared “STATE CAP TO HUNT DISCS,” detailing the Civil Air Patrol's sweep. That afternoon's edition of the Milwaukee Journal contained no fewer than eight articles on saucer sightings on its first two pages. The edition also ran an article about a 39-year-old Appleton bricklayer named Ed Rammer, who claimed it was he, not extraterrestrials, who was responsible for the recent rash of sightings. Rammer claimed he had invented a ray gun some 15 years prior that—when fired into the sky—had the ability to change the weather and cause volcanoes to erupt. The discs, he said, were no more than “flattened out” rays from his gun. Rammer told a Journal reporter that he had been firing his gun at Japan and that this was most likely the cause of most of the saucer reports. When the Journal asked him about people who claimed sightings on nights when he had not been firing his gun toward Japan, Rammer replied, “Most of those people must be nuts.”

In its final edition for July 8, 1947, the Journal printed the most sensational of all the saucer tales. They reported the U.S. Army had recovered a crashed flying saucer just outside of Roswell, N.M. The report was retracted the next morning by the Sentinel, which claimed the craft was no more than a weather balloon. With the government dismissal of the Roswell crash, people saw less and less in the evening sky and “saucer mania” began to ebb. It would not be until more than a year after the incident that people would begin to claim that alien beings had actually been inside of these mysterious crafts. Nearly three decades would pass before the conspiracy theories about Roswell would emerge. But for a few high-pitched weeks in the summer of '47, the sky was the limit for what Milwaukeeans saw above themselves, as mystery ran deep and the contents of the heavens were only limited by the imagination of the viewer.

Matthew J. Prigge is a freelance author and historian from Milwaukee. You can catch him this summer as the historical narrator aboard the Milwaukee Boat Line's daily sightseeing tours of the city (mkeboat.com).