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The flying saucer symposium

Leave it to the Pacific Northwest to be first in the nation.

In the mid-afternoon of June 24, 1947, fire extinguisher salesman Kenneth Arnold was flying home to Boise, Idaho. If he had been able to locate a Marine Corps C-46 transport airplane that had crashed in Washington state, he would have collected a $5,000 reward. But, he failed.

Stopping in Pendleton, he told the local newspaper that he had seen nine strange lights in the sky flying over southwest Washington at about 10,000 feet and traveling at an unbelievable speed of 1,200 miles an hour.

“I clocked them with a stopwatch,” he said. “They were about 25 miles away from me and they were extremely shiny and shaped like saucers; so thin I could barely see them.”

Unwittingly, Arnold had not only inspired the phrase, “flying saucers,” he also ignited the first epidemic of flying saucer sightings since Orson Wells had terrified the nation in 1938 with his “War of the Worlds” radio play.

A week after Arnold’s story was printed, saucers and discs were suddenly appearing in six Western states. All were shiny and most were “traveling at great speed,” however, their shapes varied from “coffee can tops” to footballs, and some had even sprouted tails.

Just a day later, reports were pouring in from 31 states and, apparently, the saucers were moving into Canada.

Arthur Perry, Mail Tribune humor columnist, poked fun at experts who tried to explain the origin of these mystery objects. “It seems certain,” he said, “that no hostess of a stratospheric tea party got mad and started throwing dishes, without knowing her own strength.”

Then, July 8. A headline that spanned the width of the Mail Tribune’s front page and sat above the paper’s masthead — “Flying Saucers Reported Seen In Medford Region.”

Mr. Milner, manager of the Western Auto store, said he had seen as many as 15 shiny discs whirling close together below the crest of the mountains south of Medford.

Mrs. Leischner said, while driving near the airport with Mr. and Mrs. Canoose, they saw “a small, puff-like explosion in the air which threw off circles of silver smoke rings.” Mr. Canoose said the puffs were a dull red color and “certainly not fireworks.”

The Corey and Everett families were standing on the McKee Bridge in the Applegate when they saw a silvery object, traveling north at about 8,000 feet.

Farther down on that July 8 page was a story from Roswell, New Mexico. “Flying Saucer Reported Found.” Army officials had recovered a disc from a local farmer who, before notifying the local sheriff, had found the disc and stored it in his barn for a few days. Nearby residents confirmed that they had seen a strange blue light a few nights earlier. And so, the “Area 51” story had begun.

To some, the sightings were becoming a joke. As a recruitment stunt, the local National Guard dropped 500 “flying saucers,” aluminum-painted paper plates, from an airplane. Each bore the words, “Join the National Guard. The next ones could be real.”

In reporting a new sighting of a “silvery saucer” a few weeks later, the Mail Tribune headlined it as, “The latest entrant in the saucer symposium.”

Within the next three weeks, local sightings had disappeared. “The public eyesight and imagination is on the decline,” said Arthur Perry. “No ‘Flying Saucers’ have been reported for over a week.” A week later, he noted that “fewer ‘Flying Saucers’ were sighted locally last week than the number of fish that were caught.”

There would be the occasional local sighting over the next few years, but the 1947 edition of the “saucer symposium” was definitely out of session.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.