June 21 is the 75th anniversary of the Maury Island Incident (MII), Maury Island’s very unusual introduction to the world.
The Maury Island Incident was a reported encounter with a UFO (Unidentified Flying Object) off the southeast shore of Maury Island that played an early part in the UFO craze that still fuels our imaginations, our media reporting and recently has been renamed a UAP – Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.
On June 21, 1947, Harold Dahl encountered six large circular flying objects that appeared over his boat just off Maury Island near Sandy Shores and Summerhurst. One of the craft descended to lower elevation over Dahl’s boat, appeared to be unstable in the air, and began to eject “lava-like” hot debris, some of which landed on Dahl’s boat.
Dahl described the damage to the boat, the burn injuries to his son’s arm and the debris that hit and killed their dog. As the one craft struggled, another came down and touched it, and the struggling craft stopped dropping hot debris, regained its stability, and they all rose together and headed off at incredibly high speed.
Dahl and Fred Crisman had a contract with the Port of Tacoma to round up logs that had broken loose from log-rafts being towed into lumber plants in Tacoma. When Dahl returned to Tacoma, the story got out and spread quickly.
Crisman said he went out the next morning and saw another UFO in the same area as Dahl had reported. He also gathered some debris that might have fallen from the struggling UFO the day before.
There have been reports of sightings of extraordinary flying objects for centuries. During World War II, there were thousands of reports by pilots, but they were largely kept secret.
Then, on June 24, 1947, UFOs became a public phenomenon when American aviator Kenneth Arnold startled the world with his account of sighting nine UFOs near Mt. Rainier, traveling in formation in excess of 1,200 miles per hour.
Because Arnold was an experienced pilot and a credible businessman, the story went viral, setting loose an avalanche of stories and musings about UFO sightings and space aliens, and the dangers they might pose to America and human civilization.
As UFO stories multiplied and spread, the summer of 1947 became known as “The Summer of the Saucers” because of a number of other compelling UFO incidents that included the Roswell Incident, where a flying saucer crash was supposedly covered up by the government. All of this took place two years after the end of World War II.
The Cold War was beginning, and there was widespread concern and anxiety about the Soviet Union. Americans worried whether Russia also had developed an atomic bomb and other advanced weapons developed by captured German scientists. The United States had captured the German scientist Wernher Von Braun, who helped America develop its rocket program that would culminate in the 1969 landing on the Moon.
Among those drawn to Arnold’s story was Ray Palmer, a publisher whose magazine, Amazing Stories, specialized in fantastic tales of other-worldly alien civilizations, their highly advanced technologies, and their visits to Earth. Stories like these tapped into deeper human fears and imaginations of attacks both from Russia and from outer space aliens.
The American military also responded to the growing number of UFO accounts. The concerns were that these incidents could pose a real danger to the United States, that they could be Russian experimental aircraft, or that they could be aliens from outer space.
The U.S. Air Force, which was newly formed in 1947, began investigating the UFO phenomenon. That effort was pursued by a series of top-secret projects: Project Sign in 1947, Project Grudge in 1948, and in 1952, Project Bluebook, which lasted until 1968 and investigated almost 20,000 incidents of UFO sightings and alien encounters.
Most sightings and encounters were explained as mass hysteria, presumably seeded by the Russians, mistaken identity, or hoaxes. But some remain unexplained. The effort to investigate UFOs continues today in both private and government circles.
The stories also captured the attention of J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the FBI. Hoover took a direct interest in the Maury Island Incident and had a definitive report on it prepared.
Although Hoover pulled the FBI back from the UFO investigations, because of a military intelligence document that seemed to relegate the FBI to investigating incidents that “turned out to be ash can covers, toilet seats, and whatnot.” However, Hoover maintained an active interest and was kept apprised of developments including the famous Roswell Incident.
On July 31, 1947, Arnold, at the prompting of Palmer and in cooperation with the U.S. Army Air Force (the U.S. Air Force did not become a separate branch until September 1947), organized a special meeting at the Winthrop Hotel in Tacoma to hear and consider the remarkable story told by Dahl and Crisman.
The invitees included E.J. Smith, a United Airlines pilot who had observed a UFO near Boise, Idaho, on July 4, Arnold, and two U.S. Army Air Force investigating officers, Lt. Frank Brown and Cpt. William L. Davidson.
A newspaper reporter had gone to Dahl’s house soon after the story began to spread and witnessed a heated argument between Dahl and his wife, who told him he should denounce the whole story as a hoax. The reporter decided that was likely the case and warned his and other newspapers the story was probably a hoax and to not bother investigating it. But the story was already out.
The next day, a mysterious visitor drove up to Dahl’s house, dressed all in black, driving a new black Buick. He declined to say who he was or who he represented but warned Dahl that they knew all about the report, and Dahl was not to say anything more to anyone. The visitor hinted there would be severe consequences if he did talk. Dahl was deeply shaken by the encounter from this first reported incident of the “Men in Black.”
At the July 31 meeting at the Winthrop Hotel in downtown Tacoma, Dahl and Crisman told their stories but said they had received so much grief and trouble over it they just wanted out and would claim it was all a hoax. They even signed a statement for the Air Force Investigators saying the debris Crisman had gathered was not from a UFO. Privately, they said it all was true.
The Army Air Force investigating officers needed to return to their home base in California. They left at 2:30 a.m. the next morning from McChord Army Air Force Base (now Joint Base Lewis-McCord) flying a B25 light bomber.
En route, the plane caught fire just east of Kelso, Washington, and crashed in a fiery wreck killing both Air Force investigators and destroying their notes and samples of Crisman’s alleged UFO debris.
That next day, three leaked telephone calls made to McChord claimed the plane was carrying UFO material, and had been intentionally shot down to hide the UFO evidence. The leaked calls caused an uproar and spawned claims the government was hiding the truth in a cover-up.
Both the Air Force and the FBI prepared comprehensive reports on the Maury UFO incident. They cited numerous loose ends in the story and determined that Dahl and Crisman’s claims were likely a hoax perpetrated by Crisman to sell lurid UFO articles to Palmer’s magazine.
The Maury Island Incident, though discredited by authorities, had already become part of the earliest lore surrounding and fueling the UFO and Men in Black phenomenon.
The Maury Island Incident introduced the world to Maury Island. The mystique of the Maury Island Incident continued with a 2014 film, “The Maury Island Incident,” screened at the Vashon Island Theatre; a 2017 Washington State Senate resolution recognizing the 70th anniversary of the incident; and a continuing keen interest by islanders about our own part in helping create the UFO craze.
Bruce Haulman is an island historian. Cyrus Anderson lives in Gold Beach and has researched the MII. Terry Donnelly is an island photographer.