Maury Island: The Government's Alien Artifacts
Skeptoid listeners may recall episode #486 on the history of flying saucers, which opened with the tale of Kenneth Arnold, a private pilot who reported a string of nine saucer-like objects near Mt. Rainer in Washington state in 1947. Famously, it was the first time they were called "flying saucers" in print. Arnold had his 15 minutes of fame and was well known in the nation's newspapers as the pilot who saw the flying saucers. And those 15 minutes are usually where Arnold's story ends; but if we dig a little bit deeper into UFO mythology, we find that it has a lesser-known chapter two. For, just a few short weeks later while his flame of UFO celebrity was still burning hot, Arnold found himself thrust into the middle of a totally different UFO encounter. And that event had ties to today's UFO news. While today's alien visitation enthusiasts salivate over Pentagon UFO offices and claims of long-overdue technical analysis of recovered alien materials, we find that among the materials mentioned are some that Kenneth Arnold personally handled and examined so many decades ago. So now that things are coming full circle, let's take a closer look at this second chapter of Arnold's life among the UFOs.
Maury Island is one of many in Puget Sound, off the coast of Tacoma but accessible only by private boat or by ferry from Seattle. It's green and beautiful and relatively sparsely populated with waterfront homes. In 1947, residents appreciated the services of a private security company that sent a small patrol boat along the coast, keeping an eye on the homes. According to the story, this patrol boat was being driven by Harold Dahl. He had a couple of buddies and his son and their dog on board. Here is how what happened next was recounted by UFO author Gray Barker in his 1956 book They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers:
Dahl told what happened to his boss, Fred Crisman, and the two of them went back there and collected some "mysterious white metal that accompanied the fall." Crisman stated that while he was picking through some twenty tons of material that had fallen onto the shoreline, one of the UFOs returned and circled the bay.
Shortly afterwards, Kenneth Arnold received a letter from Raymond Palmer, the editor of the pulp magazine Amazing Stories in Chicago. Palmer had heard about the Maury Island incident, and knowing Arnold from all his recent publicity around his Mt. Rainier sighting, wanted to know if Arnold would go to Tacoma, meet with Dahl and Crisman, and report back. Arnold agreed when Palmer wired him $200 in advance to cover expenses, with the expectation that Arnold would write an article about the event.
And so for a couple of days, Arnold's hotel room in Tacoma was quite the busy little conference room. In addition to Dahl and Crisman, Arnold invited his friend Capt. Emil Smith, a United Airlines pilot who had also recently reported a UFO. Crisman showed the white metal fragments to Arnold and Smith. Arnold described the experience in his 1952 book The Coming of the Saucers:
Despite being less than impressed by the alien artifacts, Arnold saw no reason not to bring in some more heads. As a result of his own highly publicized sighting, he'd gotten to know two Air Force investigators, Lt. Frank Brown and Capt. William Davidson, who were based at Hamilton Field in California, about 1,000 km south. Brown and Davidson jumped into a B-25 and flew themselves straight up to Tacoma, landing at McChord Field. Brown and Davidson interviewed Dahl and Crisman and collected some of the debris to take back with them.
And that is where the story likely would have ended — except that fate was about to deal it a very unfortunate hand.
At 2:12am on August 1, Brown and Davidson took off in their B-25 to return to Hamilton Field. Eighteen minutes later, the left engine caught fire and filled the cabin with smoke. Two other men on board, the crew chief Sgt. Mathews and an Army man hitching a ride, bailed out safely with parachutes, but Brown and Davidson were not so lucky. The burning wing separated and the plane crashed at 2:50am, near Kelso, Washington, killing both men.
The plane crash made the news that same day. Arnold decided immediately he wanted nothing further to do with this story, and called Palmer to tell him he wouldn't be writing any article about it. Later that evening, Ted Morello, a United Press and local radio reporter in Tacoma, received an anonymous call stating that the plane had been carrying saucer fragments, and that it had been shot down from the air with a 20mm cannon — an odd claim, as with a few very oddball exceptions, American aircraft of the day did not carry 20mm cannons. The caller gave Brown and Davidson's names, which had not yet been released to the public, to prove that his information was valid. Five calls in all were made.
Arnold stayed around long enough for Crisman to fulfill one final promise, to show him and Smith the patrol boat that had been so heavily damaged by the tons of falling debris, and also show them photos he claimed Dahl had taken of the six big UFOs. Crisman said he couldn't find the photos and that he must have "taken them up to his mountain cabin." Arrived at the boat, Arnold and Smith were shown a small gray fishing boat completely unlike the patrol boat Crisman had described. It did appear to have a few small surface patches, but again, nothing like the dog-killing destruction given in the story. And, predictably, they couldn't go out in it because Crisman's mechanic was having trouble with the engine. Arnold and Smith, both pilots with plenty of experience inspecting engines, weren't buying it. Arnold wrote:
And with that, the men all parted ways. It seemed clear that everything about Dahl and Crisman's story was either unevidenced or supported by apparently fabricated evidence.
But the heat was about to be turned up. Due to the deaths of the two Air Force officers, the FBI investigated. Today these case files are publicly available in the UFO section of the FBI's Vault website. Although most of the names are redacted, it's fairly easy to match up the people and events from other sources. One interview, which appears to have been of Dahl at his home, was terminated early by the agent when Dahl's wife came in "in a considerable rage" and demanded that he "admit the entire story was a plain fantasy which he had dreamed up." The agent actually wrote that Dahl was "a mental case."
The FBI also found that neither Dahl nor Crisman worked for any company that patrolled Maury Island. All they had was an old beat-up boat or two that they used to salvage floating lumber.
The FBI also asserted that while they had no proof, the anonymous caller was "probably most likely" a redacted name with the same number of letters as Fred Crisman. We know that Crisman had met with Brown and Davidson and so knew their names and was able to provide them to Morello, and today even many UFOlogists consider Crisman the primary creator and driver of this story. According to the FBI, Crisman's plan was to profitably sell the story to Ziff-Davis, the Chicago publisher of Amazing Stories that Raymond Palmer edited.
And it was really this that brought the Maury Island incident full circle. Kenneth Arnold had been brought into the mess by Raymond Palmer, who had been told about it by — you guessed it — Fred Crisman. They already knew each other. Crisman had been on quite a roll with Amazing Stories. As recently as a month before, they published a series of letters from him in which he recounted his hair-raising adventures after being shot down in Burma in World War II (Crisman had actually been a fighter pilot). He and a companion found themselves in a cave armed with submachine guns, and doing battle with strange, invisible creatures. In later years, Crisman hosted a late-night conspiracy theory radio program in Tacoma, and floated enough claims about having connections to the JFK assassination that he was actually subpoenaed in the trial of Clay Shaw, who was charged with conspiring in the assassination.
It was even Crisman who had suggested to Palmer that they bring in Kenneth Arnold, whose celebrity would lend tremendous publicity value to their story.
We'll leave the final word on the Maury Island Incident to Edward J. Ruppelt, the Air Force officer who had been the head of Project Blue Book. Upon his retirement from the program, he wrote a 1956 book titled The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects in which he called this case "The first, possibly the second-best, and the dirtiest hoax in the UFO history." Ruppelt had been able to add one final detail that many other writers hadn't been privy to. When Brown and Davidson returned to McChord Field to head home, they met with the intelligence officer at McChord. They told him they left so soon because they had quickly determined the entire thing was a hoax. Ruppelt also revealed that the government had been very close to prosecuting Dahl and Crisman for the false report and its disastrous consequences; the only reason they didn't is that they'd done nothing more than try to prank a UFO publisher, and it wasn't their fault that Arnold had called in the Air Force and the guys died in a crash.
And so we are still left without any alien artifacts to test. Maybe we will one day, but history tells us it's very unlikely to come to us via the UFO community.
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