by Paul B. Thompson
[It's been a few months since I've been able to continue my series of "UFO Cautionary Tales," due to the fact that I was under contract to finish a novel by August 15. The novel's been dispatched, and I hope to have more Cautionary Tales posted to Nebula in the following weeks.]
The facts in most UFO cases are pretty simple. The witness, or witnesses, see an aerial object they cannot explain. They report it, and no mundane explanation is found. The result, to put it rather redundantly, is an unidentified Unidentified Flying Object. These sort of reports constitute the bulk of UFO data, and they don't really prove much one way or another.
Rarely a UFO case comes along that has too much data, too many entanglements, and far too many weird associations to be easily categorized or digested. Such is the case with the Maury Island affair, which occurred very early in the modern UFO era, on June 21, 1947.
Two men described as 'harbor patrolmen,' Fred L. Crisman and Harold A. Dahl, operated a boat in Puget Sound. On June 21, Dahl was cruising near Maury Island. With him were two crewmen, Dahl's 15-year old son, and his son's dog. Around 2 p.m., six very large objects appeared overhead. They were identical round objects, with a hole in the center like an innertube or donut. The outer rim seemed to be lined with large portholes. Five of the objects circled the sixth, which apparently was experiencing difficulty in staying aloft. It sank toward the boat.
Understandably excited, Dahl ran the motorboat ashore on Maury Island and started snapping photos of the UFOs. One of the objects descended and touched rims with the ailing object in the center of the formation. The men reported hearing a loud thud, after which the distressed object began spewing hot debris over a wide area. The ejecta was of two types: lightweight shards of white metal, and darker, rock-like slag. The stuff was very hot, and the cabin of the boat was damaged by it. Dahl's son was hit on the arm and burned, and the dog was killed by falling debris.
Once the object had relieved itself of several tons of slag, it rejoined its comrades and all six objects flew away west, out to sea. Dahl tried to use his radio to call for help, but while the objects were overhead, the radio would not work. With considerable debris on his boat, Dahl went back to Tacoma, where his son was treated for burns. Dahl reported the incident to his boss, Fred L. Crisman. Crisman did not at first believe the fantastic tale.
The next day, Dahl had a visitor. A man knocked on his door and asked if he could talk to Dahl about the UFO incident. Dahl described the man as very imposing, six foot two and 200 pounds, and wearing the not-yet stereotypical black suit... He drove a brand new 1947 Buick sedan. They went to breakfast together. While dining at a waterfront cafe, Dahl and the Man in Black had a strange conversation. The stranger described the events at Maury Island as if he'd been a witness himself, then told Dahl "if he loved his family and didn't want anything to happen to his general welfare, he would not discuss his experience with anyone."
Even stranger, when Dahl had his photos developed, they were useless. The film was fogged beyond recognition, as if it had been exposed to radioactivity.
That same day, Fred Crisman decided to check out Dahl's story by visiting the scene of the sighting. He found the beach on Maury Island strewn with slag -- he estimated there was twenty tons of the stuff -- and while he was puzzling over this confirmation of Dahl's story, a round, donut-shaped object swooped out of the clouds. Needless to say, Crisman became a firm believer in Dahl's story.
This was still two days before Kenneth Arnold had his seminal sighting of crescent shaped objects near Mount Ranier, which newspapers would christen "flying saucers." Crisman and Dahl did not notify the authorities. In July, Crisman wrote to Ray Palmer, then editor of the science fiction magazine Amazing Stories, and told him the story. Palmer, who had previously made contact with Kenneth Arnold regarding his sighting, asked Arnold if he would investigate the Maury Island affair and write an article about for Palmer. He advanced Arnold $200 expense money, and Arnold flew to Washington on July 29 in his private plane. En route he had another UFO sighting, this time spotting a formation of small, brass colored objects while flying over LaGrande valley. Arnold gamely tried to chase the mini-saucers (he described them as being only about four feet in diameter), but his light plane could not keep up with the speedy UFOs. He eventually reached Tacoma without further incident and took a room at the Winthrop Hotel. He phoned Harold Dahl and found him reluctant to talk about the Maury Island incident. When Arnold explained he was the man everyone was talking about who'd spotted UFOs over the Cascades, Dahl relented.
Arnold described Dahl as "a great big burly lumberjack type," six foot six and 230 pounds. He recounted his experience to Arnold, explaining first that he was really a kind of marine junkman. He and Crisman salvaged floating lumber and other detritus of the sea from Puget Sound, keeping the waterways clear and earning a modest living by selling the salvaged materials. Dahl complained bitterly that since the sighting he'd had nothing but bad luck -- family illness, loss of a considerable quantity of salvaged lumber, engine trouble with his boat. He made Arnold think his bad luck was somehow related to the UFO sighting.
Fred Crisman also met with Arnold. He described Crisman as "short, stocky... dark-complexioned, with a happy-go-lucky, cheerful nature... he wanted to dominate the conversation." He told Arnold about finding tons of metal and slag on the beach at Maury Island, and assured Arnold he had a garage full of the stuff he'd collected.
As Arnold continued to investigate, odd things kept happening. Local newspapermen began calling him at the Winthrop, despite the fact he'd not told anyone but Dahl, Crisman, and airline pilot E. J. Smith he was in Tacoma. Arnold began to suspect something big was going on, and on the advice of his friend Smith, he called an Air Force A-2 (Intelligence) officer he'd met after reporting his own sighting, Lieutenant Frank M. Brown. Brown was stationed at Hamilton Field, California.
Arnold's sincerity impressed Brown, and he made immediate plans to fly to Tacoma with another officer, Captain William Davidson. Arnold says in less than an hour after calling Brown the two Air Force officers were on their way to McChord Field, Washington, in a B-25 bomber. Soon after that, UP wire service reporter Ted Morello called Arnold to ask him why the Air Force was coming to see him. Somebody was talking about the Maury Island case, and the leaks were constant. Morello would only said that he received a steady stream of mysterious tips by phone about the progress of Arnold's investigation. The only people Arnold told about calling Lt. Brown were Harold Dahl and Fred Crisman.
Brown and Davidson arrived at the Winthrop Hotel late on the afternoon of July 31. Dahl balked at meeting the Air Force men and did not show up for the arranged meeting. Crisman did come, and talked at length about the case. He also showed Brown and Davidson some of the metal and slag he'd collected, allegedly ejected from the malfunctioning UFO. He promised to return home and put together a box full of fragments for the Air Force men to take with them back to California.
When Crisman was gone, Arnold told Brown and Davidson he'd been to see Dahl's boat and found that while it was old and battered, it didn't really display the kind of damage from the falling slag Dahl claimed. That fact, and all the leaks to the press, made Arnold doubt the whole story. The Air Force officers were doubtful as well. The light metal fragments seemed to be ordinary aircraft aluminum. As Brown and Davidson prepared to leave at 11:30 p.m., they left Arnold with the distinct impression they thought the whole affair was a hoax.
Crisman returned just as Brown and Davidson were leaving. He put a large carton in the trunk of the military staff car that had come from McChord Field. Arnold said later: "We assumed it was the fragments." Davidson helped Crisman load the carton, and they departed.
The next day Arnold learned, to his horror, that the Air Force B-25 had crashed twenty minutes after takeoff. Lt. Brown and Captain Davidson were killed. The other crewmen and another passenger, an Army enlisted man, bailed out and survived. This man, Master Sergeant Elmer Taff, later told Kenneth Arnold he saw the pilot and co-pilot load a large carton into the plane. Fifteen minutes into the otherwise trouble-free flight, the left engine caught fire. Lt. Brown, acting as co-pilot, ordered the enlisted men to jump after an attempt to put out the fire with on-board extinguishers failed. Sgt. Taff and the flight engineer, Tech-4 Woodrow D. Mathews, promptly jumped. Neither Brown nor Davidson made it out. The B-25 crashed near Kelso, Washington.
Tech-4 Mathews later told investigators that from his parachute he saw "something" lift off the top of the plane. At the time he thought it was the parachute of Brown or Davidson, but neither man ever got out. The military cordoned off the site (Arnold says they secured an area of 150 acres around the point of impact) and did not allow civil aviation investigators near the wreck. The reason given was, the B-25 had been carrying classified material at the time of the crash.
Two weeks later, Tacoma reporter Paul Lance, who'd covered the story of the Maury Island sighting and the deaths of Lt. Brown and Captain Davidson, died suddenly of meningitis. He was already confined to wheelchair, but had seemed in good health otherwise.
On August 2, Arnold climbed back into his plane to fly back to Idaho. He was heartily sick of the Maury Island affair, and felt personally responsible for involving Davidson and Brown in an investigation which, one way or another, caused their deaths. Less than 200 feet off the ground, Arnold's engine suddenly quit, and only through skill and luck he set his dead-engined plane back down. When he checked the motor, he found the fuel line valve was closed. For years he insisted only he himself could have closed it.
As it stands, the Maury Island case has all the hallmarks of a good X Files episode, complete with men in black, evidence going astray, and people being silenced to preserve a secret too heinous for the public to know. But things were not that simple, and the whole case began to come apart like a cheap wristwatch.
Neither Dahl nor Crisman were who they pretended to be. Rather than 'harbor patrolmen,' with quasi-official status, they were scroungers who made their living salvaging junk floating in the sound. Crisman had written to Ray Palmer before with a wild story to tell. In the June 1946 issue of Amazing Stories (which was then deeply into the "true" hollow earth stories of Richard S. Shaver) Crisman wrote this letter, printed in the letters-to-the-editor column:
The "whole thing" Crisman is raving about is the Shaver Mystery, an outlandish literary fraud perpetrated by Ray Palmer in the mid-1940s. Shaver, a welder who'd spent time in a mental hospital because he heard voices coming out of his welding machine, wrote rambling letters to Palmer about his ideas about underground supercivilizations of deros ('detrimental robots') who plague mankind with weird rays. Palmer puffed up and polished Shaver's aberrant ramblings into the now-infamous Shaver Mystery. Though wildly popular for a time, Palmer's obsession with Shaver subjects would eventually cost him his job as editor of Amazing Stories. He went on, in 1948, to found FATE magazine with Curtis Fuller, and published some of the earliest accounts of UFO sightings, including Kenneth Arnold's "I Did See the Flying Disks!" in 1948.
In 1956, Captain Edward J. Ruppelt published his account of the early days of the Air Force's investigation of UFOs, The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects. Ruppelt says Dahl and Crisman confessed to Air Force investigators that the whole Maury Island story was a hoax:
Ruppelt added that the publisher who wanted Dahl and Crisman to say the rock came from a flying saucer was "the same one who paid [Kenneth Arnold] $200 to investigate the case."
Confused yet? Wait -- it gets even murkier.
The slag fragments were identified by experts as smelter refuse, simple furnace clinkers. The white metal was aircraft aluminum. Claims by Arnold and others that the slag returned by government analysts was not the same as the slag they sent were ignored. Ruppelt, quoting official Air Force reports, said Brown and Davidson were convinced when they left Tacoma that the whole thing was a fraud. The 'classified material' on the plane were files being sent to Hamilton Field, not the Maury Island slag.
The U.S. government apparently considered prosecuting Dahl and Crisman for the hoax that led to the death of two Air Force officers, but in the end, they decided the B-25 crash was just an accident, and no one would convict Dahl and Crisman in connection with it. The story faded as more sensational UFO reports surfaced, and a consensus verdict of fraud settled over the whole affair. Most UFO books of the 1950s and 60s either ignored Maury Island, or dismissed it as a hoax perpetrated for money.
The strangeness continued, however. Fred Crisman had served in the Army Air Force in World War II, and in 1947 found himself recalled to active duty. The story is, he was assigned first to Alaska, then to Greenland. Harold Dahl dropped out of sight. Efforts to find him by civilian UFO investigators in the 50s failed. In the meantime, Fred Crisman moved on to new adventures.
Jim Garrison, Distract Attorney of New Orleans, began his controversial inquiry into the death of President John F. Kennedy. His story is far too complex to go into here, but suffice it to say that in 1968, during his investigation, he issued a subpoena to Fred Lee Crisman of Tacoma, Washington. What did the old dero-fighter and UFO sighter have to do with the death of JFK?
The 1968 subpoena identified Crisman as a radio announcer in Tacoma, apparently with stated right-wing sympathies. Garrison's sources felt that Crisman might be one of the three "tramps" arrested on that November morning 1963 in Dallas, and Garrison called him before the grand jury to testify. Garrison's investigators further claimed that Crisman was either a member of the CIA, or was "engaged in undercover activity for a part of the industrial warfare complex." He allegedly worked under the cover occupation of preacher, and "was engaged in work to help Gypsies."(?) Because of the erratic nature of the Garrison investigation, many DAs and police authorities around the country tacitly refused to honor his subpoenas. In 1978, Garrison told the House Select Committee on Assassinations that his staff had once spent four hours interviewing Fred Crisman, but as far as I know, he was never compelled to travel to New Orleans or testify on the record. His alleged role in the JFK assassination, like his alleged dero and UFO sightings, remains purely speculative.
One last item. One of the oldest nuclear processing facilities in the country was the Hanford plant, located in Washington state. Here plutonium was manufactured for the Nagasaki "Fat Man" bomb, and for many years during the Cold War weapons-grade material was produced here for America's nuclear arsenal. When the plant was closed it was found to be in wretchedly contaminated condition.
Remember the slag and white metal Dahl and Crisman claimed fell from a UFO? Kenneth Arnold handled a piece of material supplied by the two men and described it thus:
Of the other metal, Arnold and his friend Smith decided it was nothing but aircraft alloy, but one detail puzzled them:
"There was only one unusual thing about this white metal that made us stop and wonder. On one piece that Crisman handed us we could plainly see that two parts of it had been riveted. I had never seen that type of rivet used in aircraft manufacture, and I don't think Smithy had either."
The rivet in question was square. All aircraft rivets are round.
Here's what I think happened in 1947: Dahl and Crisman found a dump of unusual looking metal and slag on Maury Island. There were an estimated 20 tons of the stuff lying around, far too much for just two men to have planted there. They concocted the flying donut UFO story for the benefit of Ray Palmer, thinking they could sell him their account of the sighting. The metal debris was a good circumstantial touch.
But there was a problem with the slag. It was radioactive. Remember Dahl's complaint that his pictures were fogged? Radiation does that. If Dahl took some phony UFO pictures, or even contemplated such a ploy, he was foiled when his film came out ruined. His son was burned on the arm and the boy's dog died -- from radiation? Maybe Dahl realized later what he and Crisman were fooling with, and this accounted for his reluctance to talk to Kenneth Arnold.
Arnold called in the Air Force. Brown and Davidson were curious about the report, then abruptly seemed to decide it was a hoax and hastily left Tacoma. They accepted a carton of fragments from Crisman; their plane crashed and the site was heavily cordoned off by the military. Because of secret files? Because of UFO debris? Or was it because the military was afraid of disclosing the fact that illegal radioactive waste from the Hanford Nuclear Plant had been dumped on Maury Island?
Dahl disappeared. Crisman was recalled to the Air Force and sent away to Greenland. Later, in a totally unrelated matter (Jim Garrison's JFK investigation), he's identified as a CIA agent or CIA asset. Was this his reward for dropping the Maury Island UFO story -- a lifelong stipend from the U.S. government?
All that remains of the Maury Island story is a lot of peculiar testimony and shady dealings. The affair reeks of fraud and cover-up, but not the usual sort of cover-up associated with UFO tales. Therein lies the cautionary part of our story: just because a UFO case is shrouded in secrecy and duplicity doesn't mean aliens are underfoot. It may just be some other nasty little secret someone doesn't want us to know.
Paris Flammonde, UFO Exist! Ballantine, 1976.
Curtis Fuller, Proceedings of the First International UFO Congress, Warner, 1980.
John A. Keel, Our Haunted Planet, Fawcett, 1971.
Curtis Peebles, Watch the Skies! Berkley, 1995.
Edward J. Ruppelt, The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, Doubleday, 1956.
Ted Schutlz, ed., The Fringes of Reason, Harmony Books, 1989.
© ParaScope, Inc. 1998