Based on Arnold’s description, headline writers coined the phrase “flying saucers” for the new phenomenon, heralding the story in newspapers across the country in the days following.2 In the 1960s, researcher Ted Bloecher traveled the country searching the 1947 newspaper files of local libraries for press accounts of UFOs. He surveyed newspapers representing over 90 cities and towns in 49 states, the District of Columbia, and Canada. Remarkably, in more than 140 newspapers examined, the wire service account of Arnold’s sighting appeared in nearly all—often as a front-page feature.3
The repercussions opened a floodgate, encouraging other citizens to come forth with their own reports of puzzling things seen in the sky—many before Arnold’s account. Bloecher’s survey uncovered 29 such sighting reports for June, in which several of the witnesses stated they were initially reticent to report unusual sightings “until others were reporting the same thing.”4 In effect, “Flying Saucers” created a new category in which seemingly inexplicable observations could be identified, often broadly, without regard to specific details and exceptions, and from each perspective—with more than one explanation. For example, on 27 June the San Francisco Chronicle published a roundup of explanations for Arnold’s sighting. A United Air Lines pilot believed that Arnold had seen reflections of his instrument panel. A meteorologist suggested that Arnold had encountered a slight touch of snow blindness; and a University of Oregon astronomer said that Arnold’s sighting was a result of persistence of vision, often experienced after staring at the sun for long periods of time. As historian David Jacobs notes, “this urge to explain, as it may be called, became an integral part of the UFO controversy.” Instead of attempting to discover whether any of the observations could be anomalous phenomenon, scientists and other professionals simply categorically ignored the possibility, and many denied that witnesses had seen anything at all. These explanations by “experts” were readily accepted, while “the urge to explain became a severely limiting factor in the study of unidentifed flying objects.”5
In the first week of July 1947, an intense wave of saucer reports from people in all walks of life descended in newspapers across the nation. Bloecher’s survey uncovered more than 850 original sighting reports for June and July 1947. During the Fourth of July weekend more than 300 were published, culminating in the crest on 7 July with more than 160 sighting accounts from 37 states.6
Over the weekend, and into the following week, people spent hours watching the skies. In Connecticut, on 9 July the Hartford Times reported that the mayor encountered a number of city employees on the steps of city hall scanning the sky for flying saucers. He told the press it was time for everyone to get back to work. In the Pacific Northwest, private pilots and several Air National Guard units equipped with cameras, patrolled the skies in search of flying saucers. But without success, only chance observations by unprepared observers seemed to confirm a growing suspicion that there had been nothing in the air to begin with.
Though the press had been impartially reporting the facts, by the end of the weekend an air of skepticism was pervading news coverage, and in many cases outright ridicule of those who reported them. Sensational, even tongue-and-cheek stories began to appear. A midwestern newspaper offered $3,000 to anyone who could prove the existence of flying saucers, prompting hoaxers and practical jokers to make matters worse. A steady stream of often absurd explanations, and contradictory official statements fueled the fact that no one had found a flying saucer, or could offer any evidence that such things existed. Adding to this, reports were summarily dismissed by most experts, without the slightest degree of scientific curiosity about what this new phenomenon might be.7
On Sunday, at a convention held at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, a number of astronomers made their opinions known. Dr. Harlow Shapley, director of Harvard College Observatory, said that unless he saw a disc himself, he had absolutely nothing to say. Dr. Charles P. Olivier, president of the American Meteor Society, told reporters that while reports did not appear to resemble meteors, sightings might be expected to increase toward the end of July, when the Delta Aquarids made their annual appearance. Dr. Roy Marshall, of the Fels Planetarium wrote off all reports as "plain hysteria." [He commented] unless he saw one himself, he wouldn’t comment.8
Into this milieu, “the many rumors regarding the flying discs became a reality yesterday when…”
RAAF Captures Flying Saucer On Ranch in Roswell Region
ROSWELL, N.M., July 8 (AP)—The intelligence office of the 509th Bombardment group at Roswell Army Air Field announced at noon today, that the field has come into possession of a flying saucer.
According to information released by the department, over authority of Maj. J. A. Marcel, intelligence officer, the disk was recovered on a ranch in the Roswell vicinity, after an unidentified rancher had notified sheriff Geo. Wilcox, here, that he had found the instrument on his premises.
Major Marcel and a detail from his department went to the ranch and recovered the disk, it was stated. After the intelligence office here had inspected the instrument it was flown to "higher headquarters".
The intelligence office stated that no details of the saucer's construction or its appearance had been revealed.9
National and international media interest was overwhelming, and soon Roswell AAF public relations, the local newspapers, Sheriff Wilcox’s office, and the local radio station that broke the story, were swamped with calls.10
Later that day, Major Marcel, along with some of the debris recovered from the ranch near Roswell, were flown to Fort Worth, TX, for a meeting in the office of Brig. General Roger M. Ramey, commanding general of the Eighth Air Force. Marcel showed Ramey the material he had brought from New Mexico. Then, purportedly, the material was replaced with the remnants of a neoprene weather balloon. Later, Marcel, Ramey, and Colonel Thomas DuBose, Ramey’s chief of staff, were photographed with the weather balloon for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Following, the base weather officer, Warrant Officer Irving Newton, informed the press that the debris spread out on the floor was unquestionably the remains of a balloon and battered radar target. Ramey then issued a statement to the press declaring the Roswell “saucer” had been positively identified as fragments of a weather balloon and its radar target.
More than four decades later, retired Brig. General Thomas DuBose straightforwardly admitted “the weather balloon explanation for the material was a cover story to divert the attention of the press,” and that the material photographed in Ramey’s office was not what was found at Roswell.11 Regardless, the press widely published the story—witnesses had simply misidentified conventional phenomenon.
Reports of Flying Saucers Dwindle; New Mexico 'Disc' is Only Weather Balloon
SACRAMENTO, CA., 9 July (UP)—Reports of flying saucers whizzing through the sky fell off sharply today as the Army and Navy began a concentrated campaign to stop the rumors. One by one, persons who thought they had their hands on the $3,000 offered for a genuine flying saucer found their hands full of nothing. Headquarters of the 8th army at Fort Worth, Tex., announced that the wreckage of a tin-foil covered object found on a New Mexico ranch was nothing more than the remnants of a weather balloon.12
Immediately following the announcement, numerous military-related demonstrations of weather balloons, particularly with radar targets, were staged for the press and public as the explanation for the nationwide flying saucer reports. Researcher David Rudiak has documented at least nine military balloon demonstrations in various parts of the country.13 The first wave of flying saucer reports quietly subsided, and few, if any stories were carried by the national wire services after 10 July. Though local newspapers published some reports, the intial wave of sighting reports would not be equaled until the summer of 1952, when an unprecedented tidal wave swept the nation. In the meantime, by 21 July Newsweek sought to write an early end to the phenomenon:
Where the flying saucers had gone, no one knew last week and few cared. Saucer-eyed scientists blamed the whirling phenomena on (1) optical illusions followed by (2) mass suggestion. As quickly as they had arrived, the saucers disappeared into the limbo of all good hot-weather headlines.14