A Pentagon report is coming out, due this month, so that means this is serious. And “60 Minutes” a couple weeks ago aired a nearly 14-minute story, which is about forever for TV airtime. All the sudden buzz is for something — or somethings — that don’t buzz at all. They’re usually silent, according to those who say they’ve seen them.
UFOs: Unidentified Flying Objects. Or, for those up on the latest government jargon, UAP: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.
Whatever alphabet-soup combination you use to refer to the unexplained blips, flashes, and other oddities spotted in our night skies, they’ve always been the stuff of sci-fi fantasy — or the twisted tellings of conspiracy theorists, or worse. Which is why the attention now is so interesting. It’s offering something new: legitimacy. Even if the U.S. government's acknowledgment of UFOs is “grudging,” as “60 Minutes” characterized it.
Regardless, the Duluth area has always had its share of true believers. I interviewed a bunch of them as a reporter nearly two decades ago, which, as it turns out, was a decidedly more skeptical time. Re-reading their tales now, considering the current climate, maybe they weren’t so wacky. These days, what’s out there maybe isn’t so “out there.”
What's more, as I wrote in 2002, “Duluth's tales of UFOs, especially when viewed through the filter of time, share a chilling similarity. Nearly every one has a nuance, a curiosity, or something that just can't be explained. The freaky.”
Re-read these stories from the 1950s and 60s. See if you don't come up with a similar word. Then see if you don't take a glance heavenward.
'Definitely something . . . I don't know what'
The Date: Early 1950s
The Incident: Retired Maj. Gen. Wayne Gatlin of Duluth's Air National Guard base was flying a routine training mission when he and another fighter pilot saw something that furrowed their brows.
"A light. A super bright light,'' Gatlin recalled half a century later. "We were on this side of (Lake Superior). It was on the other side. We took off after it.''
Gatlin knows many UFO sightings are actually meteors, the planet Venus, weather balloons, satellites, and other things. But he flew fighter jets long enough to know the difference, he said.
"That thing wasn't a star or a meteor or anything,'' Gatlin said. "It was just this big bright light. It started to move away from us when we gave chase. It was definitely something. I don't know what.''
The Freaky: "We never could catch it,'' said Gatlin, who was flying an F-51D Mustang, one of the fastest aircraft of its era. "We didn't tell anyone what happened for the longest time afterward, either. We figured they'd think we were crazy. I probably shouldn't even be talking about it now.''
'Weird Calls Plague Area'
The Date: July 13, 1961
The Incident: Telephones rang across Duluth and at the offices of the News-Tribune and Herald. Beeps and high-pitched sounds were heard on the other end of the line. There also was a lone voice with an eerie message.
"On July 14 at 9:30 p.m.,'' the voice droned, "we will land our spaceship on (U.S.) Highway 2 about seven miles west of Proctor. If you understand this message, repeat it.''
Folks repeated the message. Baffled telephone-company officials launched an investigation. And the morning newspaper carried a story under the headline, "Weird Calls Plague Area Residents.''
The Freaky: Precisely seven miles west of Proctor on U.S. Highway 2 sits Munger Tavern. There's no evidence there that any spaceship ever landed. And 41 years later, to the day, patrons remained baffled. "Some of the people in here are probably from that spaceship,'' joked the tavern owner in 2002, Cyndy Liupakka.
'Bright Flash … Proves Puzzler'
The Date: Sept. 17, 1961
The Incident: A blinding bluish flash filled the skies over Duluth, touching off speculation an aircraft exploded in flight. Duluth Air Guard officials quickly discounted the speculation, leaving witnesses to wonder just what they had seen.
Picnickers near Lake Superior and others reported an object in the sky in the wake of the flash. It soared to the northwest, then made two right-angle turns, first to the southwest and then to the southeast. David Claypool of Duluth told a newspaper reporter the resulting vapor trail formed a "kind of square C in the sky.'' And Roy Peterson of the Morris Thomas Road said the initial flash was so bright he was forced to slow down his car.
Frank Halstead, the longtime curator of Duluth’s Darling Observatory, quickly discounted notions the flash was caused by a meteor. A meteor wouldn't move in a C-shape, he said. And the flash's blue-white color indicated a high rate of speed.
"The descriptions of the object by persons to whom I talked has convinced me, without a doubt, that the object was either controlled by intelligent beings within the craft or by remote control,'' Halstead said in a News-Tribune story headlined, "Bright Flash in Sky Proves Puzzler.'' Halstead was a member of the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena.
The Freaky: Similar blinding bluish flashes were reported at the exact same moment in Chicago and in Fort Wayne, Indiana, but in no other cities in between. Skies over all three locations were clear that day.
UFO about 100 feet across
The Date: Feb. 13, 1965
The Incident: University of Minnesota Duluth instructors Donald Jackson and Bill McEwen, as well as McEwen's wife, were on their way to the state curling matches in Hibbing when they spotted something in the night sky. About 100 feet across and descending, the object was about five miles east of the Hibbing-Chisholm municipal airport, off Minnesota Highway 37. The Duluthians reported what they saw to the airport's flight service station, which notified the air base in Duluth.
The Freaky: A highway patrol officer from Walker reported a similar object within half a minute of the instructors' report.
Boy spots buzzing red ball
The Date: Aug. 4, 1965
The Incident: Already in bed, 8-year-old Dennis Johnson of Duluth suddenly bolted upright at the sound of a loud buzzing.
"I went to the window and saw a red ball-like thing over the neighbor's house,'' the boy told a News-Tribune reporter. The object made a whirring sound and headed toward Superior Street.
"On the back of the red ball was a flap-like tail that was silver and glowed,'' the boy said.
The Freaky: More than 50 Minneapolis police and Hennepin County sheriff's officers reported UFOs over the Twin Cities the same night, according to Associated Press reports. The next day, an Air Force spokesman in Washington, D.C., said a variety of meteoric showers were probably to blame for the rash of sightings.
An official denial
The Date: Aug. 5, 1965
The Incident: Duluth Air Base officials publicly denied their planes had taken off to look for flying saucers.
The Freaky: Although sightings had been reported in the Midwest and in the Southwest, reports of UFOs in the Duluth area hadn't been recorded until after the air base's official public statement.
Retired Brig. Gen. Raymond T. Klosowski, the former commander of Duluth's 148th Fighter Wing, said in 2002 that such denials were common for the air base back then.
"There was no standard policy, but it happened often enough,'' he said.
Aircraft from the base were scrambled, or sent into the air, on UFO calls one or two times every three or four years, Klosowski said.
"Most of the time the calls could be explained,'' he said. "One time we chased a weather balloon. The sun was reflecting off it. But it was moving so slow, it was easy to catch. … I only had one scramble like that myself. That turned out to be a goofy reflection off a lighthouse in Ashland. A lot of pilots, when they went on calls like that, they were real reluctant to get into the newspaper. No one wants to be in the paper for something like that.''
'UFO Terrifies Duluthians'
The Date: Aug. 17, 1966
The Incident: A light in the sky looked like a small moon at first, or perhaps like the spotlights on the front of an airplane. It dimmed but remained visible, as Jimmy Luhm and three passengers turned off Minnesota Highway 61 and onto Lakewood Road toward home.
"I think 'The Blob' is going to get us,'' Luhm later recalled joking, a reference to a classic horror film of the time.
But the light turned out to be no joke.
"I'm driving along and I'm looking at that thing and all of a sudden it jumps like a basketball and then it comes down toward the Earth like it was shooting down a ski hill,'' Luhm said. "It was about the size of a football field. It hovered right over our car and caused so much wind and it lit up the sky like daytime.''
His windows steaming up inexplicably, Luhm slammed the car in reverse and fled.
"I must have set speed records for driving backwards,'' he said. "The thing started to spin and then it took off over the lake toward Two Harbors. All it left was a vapor trail. That thing looked just like a moon on fire. You never forget something like that.''
Luhm said he saw blue, green and faint red whirling lights on the object. When it drew closer, it gave off a blue-green hue.
The Freaky: Luhm immediately called authorities. But while his report was the only one in the Duluth area that night, it wasn't the only one in Minnesota. Not by a long shot. Similar glowing objects were reported in the Minnesota cities of Plymouth, Crystal, Coon Rapids, Waconia, and Ponsford. Twin Cities radio stations and the Twin Cities weather bureau took more than 75 overnight calls about sightings, according to the Associated Press.
At the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, control-tower employees reported a glowing object. At the Flying Cloud Airport southwest of Minneapolis, pilots said a glowing object settled down on an east-west runway that night before it zoomed up and away.
A UFO expert read about the sighting — "UFO Terrifies Duluthians,'' the headline read the next morning — and called Luhm for an interview. After an hour of questioning, the expert determined Luhm had seen static from power lines.
"Boy, that teed me off,'' said Luhm. "There were no power lines around there back then.''
Chuck Frederick is the News Tribune’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 218-723-5316.