THE BEST HOAX IN UFO HISTORY?
Karl T. Pflock
Copyright © 1997, Karl T. Pflock
A much shorter version of this paper--drastically edited due to space constraints and thus lacking important new facts and insights and all source notes--appears in UFOs 1947-1997: Fifty Years of Flying Saucers, Hilary Evans and Dennis Stacy, editors (London: John Brown, 1997), pages 44-52. I'm continuing my investigation of this case and expect to have some interesting new information to impart during my talk at the 35th annual National UFO Conference convention in November (Bordontown, N.J., November 7-8; for details, call 609-883-6921 or 305-294-1873 or e-mail <firstname.lastname@example.org>.]
Headlines shouted, "Scoutmaster Tells of Finding Disc in Everglades: Fired on From 'Saucer'." Putting a somewhat different spin on things, Project Blue Book chief Captain Edward J. Ruppelt, the U.S. Air Force's lead UFO hunter, labeled the man's story "the best hoax in UFO history."
But was it? A hoax, that is. Much has been written about what may be the strangest of many strange and intriguing cases of the flying saucer summer of 1952, a good deal of it wrong or incomplete, some of it "tweaked" for reasons obscure. Here is the full story, with all known pertinent dates, people, events, and facts correct and in their proper places, so far as is possible 45 years later.
About 10 p.m. on the muggy, moonless night of Tuesday, August 19, 1952, Palm Beach County, Florida, Deputy Sheriff Mott N. Partin received an urgent call. The Florida Highway Patrol had just been contacted by a farmer who lived about 12 miles southwest of West Palm Beach on Military Trail, a rural highway running north-south roughly parallel to and about 10 miles inland from Florida's Atlantic coast. The highway patrol was handing the matter over to the sheriff.
It seemed the farmer and his wife had three frantic boy scouts in their living room. The boys' scoutmaster was in some sort of fix. Joined by Lake Worth Constable Louis Carroll, who followed in a separate vehicle, Partin hurried to the scene.
About 10:20, Partin and Carroll pulled up to the farmhouse. There they found the worried farm couple and the three scouts, Bobby Ruffing, 12, David Rowan, 11, and Charles "Chuck" Stevens, 10. The boys said their scoutmaster, hardware clerk and ex-U.S. Marine D. S. (Dunham Sanborn) "Sonny" Desvergers, 30, had gone into the scrub pine and palmetto just off Military Trail to investigate some odd lights. Moments later, the boys saw red, flare-like lights in the area where Desvergers had gone. Badly frightened, they ran to the farmhouse for help.
Taking the boys, the lawmen drove to Desvergers' car, parked about three-quarters of a mile south on the east shoulder of the road. Deputy Partin pulled over a few yards north of Desvergers' vehicle at about 10:30, Carroll drawing up behind. As the officers considered the situation, a man emerged from the palmettos about 75 feet from the road. He was waving a machete and shouting repeatedly, "I'm coming, here I am!" He looked, said Partin, "like a wild man" as he struggled up the highway embankment, babbling incoherently. It was Desvergers, white-faced, shaking. Quoting Partin, "In all my 19 years of law enforcement work, I've never seen anyone as terrified as he was."
With some reluctance, Partin and Carroll followed the scoutmaster back through the woods. In a small clearing, they found Desvergers' large, multi-cell flashlight resting lens-down in the grass, still on. Close by, the sparse grass was flattened as though someone had been lying on it. A search turned up nothing else unusual. Partin marked the locations of the flashlight and crushed grass with twigs, and the three men trekked back to the road.
As Partin and Carroll drove Desvergers and the boys to the Palm Beach County Sheriff's office, Desvergers said the hair on his forearms was singed and the skin burned. At the sheriff's office, Desvergers and the boys were re-questioned, and Partin examined Desvergers arms and found the hair singed and the skin of one arm reddened. He also noted three tiny holes burned in the scoutmaster's billed cap.
The burns were real, but of greater interest was their alleged cause: Desvergers claimed he had been attacked by a flying saucer.
Partin telephoned the U.S. Air Force Military Air Transport Service unit at West Palm Beach International Airport. He was put in touch with a Captain Carney, intelligence officer of the 1707th Air Base Wing. Carney talked with both Partin and Desvergers and, it appears from the record, followed up during the next two days with interviews of both men and the scouts.
After his preliminary investigation, Carney filed a formal report in accordance with established Air Force procedure on claimed sightings of "unidentified aerial objects." At 3:50 p.m. local time (8:50 p.m. "Zulu," or Greenwich Mean Time), Wednesday, August 20, he sent a Teletype message to the Air Force Directorate of Intelligence in the Pentagon, Project Blue Book in the Air Technical Intelligence Center (ATIC) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio, and to other required addressees. By the time Carney's unclassified message had been processed at the ATIC message center, Blue Book chief Ruppelt and his staff had left for the evening. Thus it was not until 8:40 a.m. the following morning, August 21, Ruppelt learned of "one of the weirdest UFO reports that I came up against."
According to an undated memorandum for the record in the Blue Book file on the Desvergers incident, Ruppelt's Thursday had barely begun when he received a call from Washington. It was Major Dewey Fournet, Project Blue Book monitor in the intelligence directorate. Fournet wanted to know "whether or not we had received a wire from West Palm Beach, Florida." When Ruppelt told him no, Fournet said "he could not read the report over the phone" and asked for a field investigation and answers to some interesting questions, among them: "What was the chemical analysis of the cap and remains of the clothes ash?" "Is the scout master subject to fainting spells?" Fournet also told Ruppelt to "examine the forearm," "examine the ground with a geigercounter," and "reinterrogate the three boyscouts and determine the altitude at which they first saw the blob."
Fournet's refusal to read an unclassified message on the phone and, lacking context, cryptic directives claimed Ruppelt's undivided attention. At the ATIC message center, he picked up Carney's message, which read in part, "Desvergers.... Scoutmaster of good reputation. Est[imate] of reliability and experience, excellent. States he observed object hovered 10 ft repeat 10 ft above him.... Heard noise like ship's hatch opening, object shot blob reddish glowing material at his face. He threw up arms to protect face, hair on forearm singed off, burned holes in cap.... Boy scouts in observer[']s [car], saw red glow hit Desvergers...."
Now Fournet's strong interest made sense to Ruppelt, very good sense indeed. By 3 p.m., Ruppelt and Second Lieutenant Robert M. Olsson were winging their way to Florida aboard a B-25 bomber.
Meanwhile, Captain Carney continued his investigation, obtaining statements from Desvergers, the three scouts, and Deputy Partin. He also arranged for Desvergers to be examined by an Air Force doctor on the evening of August 21, forty-six hours after the incident and the same day it first hit the press (who had leaked it?).
The medic found Desvergers to be "normal physically. The hair on the back of his forearms was singed, but not badly. The skin on his forearms showed no signs of blisters, burns, or redness. He stated that if the skin had been burned it was very minor as there was [sic] absolutely no after-effects."
The doctor also noted "Mr. Desvergers stated that the hair in his nostrils had also been singed but that he had cut it out. There was no apparent evidence of this,... [and] the medical officer stated that he has some doubt as to several points in Desvergers' story."
Desvergers had told the doctor "he had received an 'Other Than Honorable' discharge from the Marines in 1944" because of a stolen-car incident in which the charges against him eventually were dropped. He also claimed an automobile had fallen on him, resulting in three months' hospitalization for diathermy treatment. The doctor found this "highly unlikely" since such treatment does not require hospitalization. Asked "if he had ever had nightmares," Desvergers answered the doctor with "a flat 'no', but said that once he did have a dream about a beautiful woman and was still looking for her." Ruppelt commented, "It was evident that there had been a personality clash between the medic and Mr. Desvergers. For some reason the medic took a 'dim view' of Desvergers." However, he did not dismiss the doctor's concerns entirely.
About the same time the doubting doctor was examining Desvergers, the B-25 carrying Ruppelt and Olsson touched down in West Palm Beach. Mechanical trouble delayed the plane's return to Dayton, so Ruppelt recruited the two pilots, Captains Bill Hoey and Douglas Davis, to help in his investigation.
The morning of Friday, August 22, the four officers met with Captain Carney. He showed them the statements of Desvergers, the three scouts, "and other possible witnesses to the incident" (presumably Deputy Partin and Constable Carroll). They then talked with the doctor who had examined Desvergers and, about noon, visited the scene of the incident, accompanied by Carney and an enlisted member of his staff, the doctor, Deputy Partin and Constable Carroll, and an airman staff-car driver.
There the lawmen gave their account of the incident, and the Air Force team searched "50 yards around the spot where the flashlight was found.... There was no above normal radiation, no burned foliage or grass, no broken or trampled foliage or trees (other than that damaged by the sheriff and the search party), no sign of debris such as flares." Also, grass specimens were collected, probably by Captain Carney or his staff assistant.
Next on Ruppelt's agenda was an interview with the eldest boy scout, Bobby Ruffing:
In the presence of his mother he stated that he had been riding with Desvergers and two other boyscouts. As they were passing the spot where Desvergers later entered the woods, Desvergers saw a light. They [the scouts] did not see it. Seconds later they all saw another light. One scout wanted to go on, but Desvergers turned around and went back to the spot and stopped. He instructed the scouts to wait 10 minutes and if he was not back to call for help. Ruffing stated that the boys observed Desvergers going through the palmettos because they could see his light. Then he said they could see a red light go toward him, saw him silhouetted in the red light and saw him fall. Then they ran up the road to a house that had a light to get help....At six o'clock that evening, Captain Carney had a staff car pick up Desvergers and bring him to the base to be interviewed. Ruppelt describes the scoutmaster as "very cooperative, he appeared to be normal, but just a shade on the 'ookey' side," noting the latter may have been simple nervousness.
Sitting in with Ruppelt were Olsson, Hoey, Davis, Carney, and one of Carney's sergeants. Ruppelt asked each to note an insignificant detail in Desvergers account and then ask him about it during follow-up questioning. If he were lying, he would forget the details or repeat them perfectly. He did neither.
Here is Desvergers' account as transcribed by Ruppelt; the parenthetical comments are Ruppelt's, those in brackets are the author's, and all emphases are in the original:
I was going south (along Military Trail) about 40 MPH fooling around with the kids (Boy Scouts) when I caught a flash of light out of the corner of my eye. I looked around and saw a series of fuzzy lights like the cabin windows of an airliner. They were headed down at about a 45û angle into the woods, then the kids saw it. I stopped and talked it over with the kids then went on. I stopped again because I thought if it were an aircraft that had crashed, I had better try to help. I turned around and went back. There was a radio program that had just come on, it was 9:45. I told the kids to estimate when the program was 2/3 over (10 minutes) and if I hadn't come out by that time to go for help as I would probably need it. I judged the lights were about two miles [!] from the road. I picked my way through the palmettos, looking at the stars to keep on a 90û track from the road and shining my light over the tops of the palmettos to find the easy path. [He carried a machete and a large flashlight, with a smaller light in a pants pocket.] I looked at my watch and noticed four minutes (time now 2149). Then I noticed an open spot ahead of me and stopped, thinking it might be a lake. It turned out to be a clearing. I saw no lights on the way in.Ruppelt then relates something which has an important bearing on subsequent developments: "Next Desvergers mentioned a dream that he had had the night before...in which he had jumped across the ditch into the clearing and was fighting with the 'ship' in the air."
Upon further questioning, Desvergers described the peculiar odor as "acute, sharp," like nothing he had smelled before. It was, he said, "sickening nauseating," and it made him "woozy," like being anesthetized. The heat, he said, was "like walking into an oven," and he heard a hissing sound the whole time he was in the clearing and conscious. He also recalled a "babbling" which he thought may have been the scouts.
Desvergers told the investigators he had already been approached by a scientist, university professors, print and broadcast reporters, and others, and had been offered money for his story. He said he refused to talk with any of them, and Ruppelt observed he seemed to be proud of this and "how important he was."
Desvergers asked what he should do about all these people, saying "he would be very glad to cooperate with the Air Force and not talk to anyone if he was not supposed to." Ruppelt told him he was free to talk to anyone he wished. Desvergers then announced "he would go home and call the newspapers and give them the story to 'get them off his neck.'" Ruppelt again told him he was free to do so.
The next day, Saturday, August 23, the wire services quoted Desvergers claiming he knew what he had seen, adding, "It's better for me not to go any further for the public good because it might cause panic." He was also quoted as saying, "It's not foolish to say that it will determine the future of all of us someday"; and, "the Army's [sic] theory and mine coincide"; and, "I'd like to get it all off my chest,...but I've told them I'd wait until they clear me from my security pledge." The stories also revealed Desvergers had hired a press agent and included a new claim by Deputy Sheriff Partin: He had found scorched grass at the encounter site.
The same day, Ruppelt and his team returned to Dayton, taking with them Desvergers' machete and burned cap for scientific examination. Somehow, they managed to leave the grass specimens behind.
When Ruppelt learned what the scoutmaster was telling the press, he telephoned Captain Carney, who told him he had talked to Desvergers and was told "the entire setup was that of his press agent to build the story up so that he could sell it." (After Carney's chat with Desvergers, the scoutmaster changed his tune, as in this from the Associated Press on August 27: "Desvergers...conceded he was free to talk...insofar as military authorities are concerned...[but]...'I feel I can make a little money out of this. That's why I want to keep quiet.'") Carney also advised that Desvergers claimed to have received several threatening telephone calls and had noticed "a large black automobile cruising around near his house."
Ruppelt and Carney seem not to have discussed Partin's surprising claim to have discovered scorched grass at the "attack" site. However, Carney did mention rumors that a local farmer "familiar with dehydrating hay believed that the grass was singed and...had supposedly taken samples of the grass and sent them to some research organization in St. Louis to be analyzed." This appears to have reminded Ruppelt of his grass specimens, which were forwarded from Carney's office on August 28 and sent to Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio, for examination and analysis by its agronomy laboratory. Battelle, a private scientific and technical research, development, and management organization, had a contract with the Air Force to provide support to Project Blue Book, under the code name Project Stork.
Meanwhile, Ruppelt's assistant, Lieutenant Olsson was busy. He had Desvergers' machete examined for radiation at the Wright Field Equipment Laboratory with negative results. He took the cap to the Clothing Research Division of the Wright Field Aeromedical Laboratory, which confirmed the three apparent burns were indeed what they seemed and that the bill and edges of the cap had been scorched, probably from exposure to high heat brief enough not to harm the wearer. Olsson then forwarded the cap to an FBI laboratory in Washington, D.C., for further examination.
The FBI lab reported it found no residue permitting identification of the cause of the burns. An additional "minute burned area" was discovered and considered "too small to have been intentionally caused but more likely by a small hot ember." The singing on the bill and edges of the cap were "not uniform as would be expected if it had been caused by a single flash of flame." Also noted was a lack of scorching under a fold which "'smoothes out' when the cap is placed on the head," suggesting it was not being worn when damaged. However, as UFO historian Loren E. Gross has pointed out, Desvergers said he threw up his hands to protect his face. This could have pushed back and flattened the cap. Moreover, the cap was new and seen to be undamaged at the scout meeting just before the incident.
Lieutenant Olsson also checked with the Flares and Signals Branch at Wright Field to see if it might be possible Desvergers and his cap had been burned by a flare. Olsson learned small molten particles dropped by flares could cause burns like those on the cap (but there would be residue, and the FBI found none) and a flare passing just over Desvergers' head would be capable of scorching. It was suggested a parachute flare could give the illusion of a ball of flame drifting toward the scoutmaster, and flare canisters smell of "rotten eggs" for some time after firing. However, as Olsson noted, it seemed "likely that if a flare was used in the incident..., a fire would have started in the dry grass. No evidence of a fire was present down there as far as we could see." Neither were there any remnants of flares discovered.
All in all, the physical evidence was at best inconclusive--so far.
Ruppelt seems to have left Florida inclined to accept Desvergers' story, if bothered by the man's exaggerations and efforts to promote himself and make a buck. Then a report on the ex-Marine's military record and brushes with the law revealed he had been discharged from the Marine Corps for being AWOL and stealing an automobile, and had been imprisoned in the federal reformatory at Chillicothe, Ohio. Ruppelt decided he and Olsson needed to make another visit to Florida to investigate further. (It appears there was an additional motivation for this trip. In an unpublished late-1953 interview, Ruppelt told James W. Moseley he and Olsson made two trips to Florida on this case because Olsson had a girlfriend in the West Palm Beach area.)
Arriving the evening of September 8, the two Blue Book officers met with Captain Carney the morning of the ninth. Carney told them he had advised Desvergers to go to the FBI about the alleged threatening phone calls. Desvergers claimed he had done so and been referred to the local police. The three also discussed the farmer who supposedly collected grass samples, and Ruppelt telephoned the man, who said it had rained before he was able to collect specimens, so he had dropped his project. Finally, Carney reported he had been visited by Art Kiel, Desvergers' press agent, who asked if the Air Force would do a background investigation on his client and if Carney believed Desvergers' story. Carney's response was "undoubtedly some Air Force Agency" would do such a check and it would be inappropriate for him to comment further.
The three officers then drove into West Palm Beach. There they had a fruitful conversation with Palm Beach County Deputy Sheriff C. B. Bowen, who had done some checking and learned of Desvergers' reformatory time and that his record in the county was "not exactly 'clean'," although he had no police record. Bowen also gave the officers several valuable leads and an important "bonus" concerning Constable Louis Carroll, who had accompanied Deputy Partin on August 19. He said Carroll was "not too reliable" and had told him "he would like to make a 'big deal' out of this sighting.... [H]e would take some pictures of the burned trees and the burned ground and would have half the Air Force from Washington down investigating.... ([Air Force] Comment: He would have to fake this because nothing appeared to be burned.)" Perhaps Deputy Partin's statements about burned grass were part of this scheme. Was the "interested farmer" in on it, too?
The Desvergers who emerged from two days' inquiries was quite different from the solid, if opportunistic, citizen he had seemed. The officers were told he was "a boy who never quite grew up," an "exhibitionist" prone to wild exaggerations and tall tales about himself and his background, showing off in his car, and "shady" dealings, including passing bad checks. (The latter practice seems to have gotten Desvergers into trouble a few years later. According to an unsourced news item in the May 1955 issue of James Moseley's flying saucer newsletter "Nexus," he was given seven years probation for passing a $350 bogus check.)
Two brothers who had known Desvergers for years said he "seemed to always have a story that would top one told by anybody else. They said he was very clever and that he always had a very convincing answer for everything." These men were very interested in flying saucers, but "put absolutely no faith in anything" Desvergers said.
On the evening of September 9, Captain Carney telephoned Art Kiel, Desvergers' press agent, and learned Kiel "had just...broken his contract with Desvergers" after the scoutmaster had told him about his background. Kiel told Desvergers that, "with such a background, no reputable editor...would ever touch the story" and advised him "to drop the whole business." Desvergers said he would try to sell the story on his own, and "when it came time to release the story, the Air Force would back him up 100 percent. (Comment: Where Desvergers got this idea is strictly unknown to the Air Force.)" (Emphasis in the original.)
Later that evening, Ruppelt and Carney attended a meeting of Desvergers' scout troop (Desvergers was not present) to interview the troop chairman and all three boys involved in the incident. The scouts, "rather excited and nervous," said Desvergers had agreed to drive them and another boy home after their August 19 troop meeting. On the way, they stopped for a drink. Then Desvergers drove toward a drive-in theater, but "something" happened, so instead they went to a stock-car speedway to "see how much water was on the track from the recent rain." Pressed about the reason for the change in plans, the boys "were very vague" and seemed "to be attempting to cover up." (A possibly relevant but completely unconfirmed allegation: In an unpublished 1954 manuscript, James Moseley reports someone at the Air Force press desk in Washington told him Desvergers had been involved in homosexual activities.)
Leaving the speedway, Desvergers dropped the fourth boy at home, then headed south on Military Trail. Nearing the site of the incident, Desvergers said he saw a light to the left, which none of the boys saw. Stopping the car, Desvergers "got out...and removed two machetes...and two flashlights from the trunk.... The boys asked him what he was going to do and he said he thought he had seen either an aircraft crack up or a flying saucer." (Emphasis in the original. This was the first mention of Desvergers saying anything about flying saucers before the alleged attack.) Afraid, the boys persuaded Desvergers to drive on.
The oldest boy, Bobby Ruffing, 12, who "seemed to be the leader of the group...anything he said was law," was "not too cooperative" with Ruppelt and Carney. When "pressed for an answer he would 'clam up'. He kept stating, 'Well that's what Sonny [Desvergers] said, so it must be the truth." However he did say that, soon after the first stop when Desvergers made the comment about flying saucers, he "saw a semi-circle of white lights about three inches in diameter" descending "at an angle of 45 degrees into the trees." Soon after Desvergers entered the woods, Ruffing said, he saw "a series of red lights in the clearing" and he watched "Sonny 'stiffen up' and fall."
When Ruffing finished his story, he was dismissed and, in the presence of the troop chairman, Ruppelt questioned David Rowan, 11, and Chuck Stevens, 10. Rowan "was rather silly about the whole thing," but Stevens seemed a "logical thinker and gave the straightest answers." Up to the point of Desvergers' trek into the woods, the boys' stories closely matched what Ruffing said, although Stevens said he, too, had seen a white light as they drove on after the first stop, but it "looked to him like it was a common, ordinary meteor."
Stevens and Rowan said they could see Desvergers going through the woods, "could see flashlights flashing on the trees and then he disappeared for a few seconds, at least the light disappeared. The next thing they saw was a series of red lights...a lot like flares.... It...seemed to be...six or eight red lights going in all directions." Then all three boys ran to the farmhouse to get help.
Clearly, there were important discrepancies in the scouts' recollections. Also, it is perhaps not insignificant that the oldest boy, obviously very loyal to Desvergers, was the only one of the three who recalled anything supporting the scoutmaster's claims of seeing strange airborne lights and being knocked unconscious.
In their discussion with the troop chairman, a medical doctor, the officers learned he had not known Desvergers until the latter had volunteered to serve as scoutmaster. His first inkling Desvergers might not be "exactly normal" was about three months before the saucer incident. Desvergers had claimed his four-month-old son could walk and talk and had several teeth. As a physician, the troop chairman considered this "rather absurd" and "couldn't figure out why Desvergers would tell such a story." Curious, he made a point of seeing the child, whom he found to be a "strictly normal" four month old.
The doctor also described an incident which took place at a scout meeting a few nights after Desvergers' alleged encounter. Many of the scouts' parents were there. "With no invitation," Desvergers "got up and said that since they were all interested in his experience...he would answer questions. When someone did...he stated...he couldn't answer it because of his 'secrecy agreement'. He also stated what he knew might create a panic." (The two brothers mentioned above told of witnessing similar incidents.)
Leaving the meeting, Ruppelt and Carney surely were certain they had a crackpot hoaxer on their hands, but they decided to visit the site of the incident that night, at about the same time and under lighting (no moon) and weather conditions similar to those on August 19. Joined by Lieutenant Olsson and Staff Sergeant Saeger of Carney's staff, they parked "in approximately the same spot as Desvergers' car was parked." Olsson and Saeger took a flashlight into the clearing where Desvergers said he was attacked. Ruppelt and Carney could see the light as the men moved through the woods (consistent with the scouts' accounts). However, when the men were in the clearing, their light could be seen only when Olsson held it "about 7 feet above the ground and shined it directly toward the road." From this Ruppelt and Carney concluded "a person in the clearing, holding a light at a normal level, could not be seen from the road." Photographs in the Blue Book file seem to support this conclusion, although retired Pan American Airways pilot William Nash recently told the author his examination of the site in 1954 later left no doubt a person in the clearing could be seen from the road.
Does this "reenactment" also invalidate the scouts' claim to have seen red lights in the clearing? As Loren Gross has pointed out, not necessarily. According to Desvergers, the ball of red flame was launched at him from the saucer hovering just above the trees, more than 15 feet above ground.
While at the scene, the Air Force team "noted that aircraft in the traffic pattern at the West Palm Beach Airport with landing lights on appeared to be white lights going down through the woods." Does this mean that, if Desvergers and Bobby Ruffing saw any lights in the sky at all, they were merely aircraft landing lights? Not necessarily. Captain Carney's August 20 message to Blue Book reveals he checked this possibility. He mentions only the landing of an SA-16 (Air Force air/sea rescue amphibian) at 5:23 p.m., local time, more than four hours before the Desvergers incident.
Based on Desvergers' checkered history, opportunism, and colorful reputation, Ruppelt was convinced his saucer-attack tale was a hoax. Over the next year, Desvergers' "improvements" on his story seemed to confirm this.
In February 1953 he told sympathetic American Weekly reporter Marta Robinet he had seen a strange creature in the saucer. About the same time, Desvergers told Donald Howell of Jacksonville, Florida, he had climbed on the edge of the saucer and fought with three "humanoids in greyish clothing" who had a "sweaty odor." The beings were weak, Desvergers said, so he was winning the battle when the saucer shifted and he lost his balance, falling to the ground. Then, in a fall 1953 interview with James Moseley, Desvergers claimed "he was not knocked out by the gassy substance...." Rather, "he was conscious the whole time that he was in contact with the saucer.... [T]here was a struggle of some sort.... [T]hen [he] was (from what I can gather) carried for a distance...by the saucer.... He says that this...was proved by the fact that there were no footprints of his for a certain distance, when he and others went back into the area...; i.e., the footprints abruptly ended and began again...further on."
But all this happened later. In mid-September 1952, Ruppelt was puzzling over how to write his report on the event, a report which is not in the Blue Book file (was it ever written?). He was sure Desvergers' tale was a tall one. Still, though he and his associates had "thought up dozens of ways" it could have been done, they hadn't made "step one in proving the incident to be a hoax," and they couldn't explain the burns in the scoutmaster's cap.
Then Ruppelt's telephone rang. It was the Battelle agronomy lab calling about the grass specimens. "How did the roots get charred?" he was asked. Ruppelt was stunned. His caller explained that, when the soil had been cleaned from the roots, they were found to be charred black. The above-ground portions of the plants were unharmed, except for the lowest leaves, which were slightly damaged. The only damaged specimens were those from the spot over which Desvergers said the saucer hovered. Those collected 50 and 75 yards distant were quite normal.
The lab had duplicated the charring by placing live grass clumps in a pan of sandy soil and heating it to about 300 degrees Fahrenheit. How such had been done in the Florida boondocks was anybody's guess.
Ruppelt checked a few possibilities. He found there was nothing at the site which would solve the mystery. Heating the soil to 300 degrees from below would require large, cumbersome equipment and leave telltale signs. Ruppelt was stumped, but he still considered the case a hoax.
Loren Gross suggests a theory which could account for the charred specimens, the claims of Deputy Partin and the farmer that grass at the incident site had been burned, and similar assertions by Constable Carroll. If a hoax were planned and one of the lawmen had access to the samples, he could have removed them from Carney's office secretly, "cooked" them, then slipped them back.
As Gross himself points out, this theory falls apart if the specimens were carried directly from the site to Carney's office and as closely controlled as Ruppelt believed they were: "Only a few people handled the grass specimens: the lab, the intelligence officer in Florida, and I. The lab wouldn't do it as a joke, then write an official report [see Battelle in "Sources" below], and I didn't do it. This leaves the intelligence officer; I'm positive that he wouldn't do it."
There is another possibility. Perhaps the hoaxers salted the site with patches of charred clumps, intending to "discover" them a day or two later after the blades had wilted, seemingly burned by the saucer or its weapon. Then the Air Force showed up and collected specimens, thwarting the hoaxers and setting the stage for one of the most enduring of UFO mysteries.
This, then, is the full story of the Florida saucer attack. Well, not quite... There are those other sightings in the area at the time, at least one of them, according to press reports, known to the Air Force while the Desvergers investigation was under way.
This sighting took place about 7:30 p.m. on August 29. A Mr. and Mrs. Wendell Wells, their 15-year-old niece, June Tent, and two infants were on their way to a drive-in theater when they noticed "a bright glow" in the sky. According to Tent, it first appeared to be "one big yellow-white light. It seemed to be drifting, slanting down. Then it got over the woods on the left side of the road and dropped straight down. When it got closer to the ground it looked like it had more lights. And right after it landed, we saw another light that seemed to hover over the spot." Tent said the object seemed the size of a large transport, but did not look like an airplane, instead resembling "the rim of a coin" with lights spaced around it. Mister Wells turned onto Military Trail, and a short drive brought the family abreast of a spot some distance into the woods illuminated by an eerie glow, and about eight miles south of the Desvergers site. Because he had a young girl and two infants in the car, Wells decided not to investigate more closely.
The Wellses reported their sighting to the press on September 4. When queried by a reporter, the Air Force said it was "investigating." Yet there is no record of the case in Blue Book files and Ruppelt seems not to have looked into or even been told about it during his second trip to Florida.
The National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP) file on the Desvergers case contains an October 28, 1968, letter from a Nellie M. Hahn, who writes that, on the night of August 19, 1952, as she was falling asleep in her mother's home in West Palm Beach, she observed to the east "what appeared to be a round orange balloon of gigantic size above the tree tops, in a stationary position.... It seemed to be luminous...[and] very 'orangey' in color." Hahn writes she forgot about the matter until a few days later on seeing a Tampa newspaper report about the Desvergers sighting. She concluded she may have seen whatever it was that attacked the scoutmaster.
In his investigation of the Desvergers case, William Nash interviewed Fred J. Brown, who worked at the Everglades Experimental Station, directly west of West Palm Beach. Brown reported seeing a low-flying, saucer-shaped object about 35 feet in diameter with red and yellow lights spaced around its lower rim. He said it passed very low over the station in the early morning hours of September 14, exuding a "bad odor," emitting a loud hum, and severely frightening a dairy herd.
Did any of these witnesses see Desvergers' hostile saucer, if there was such? At this late date, there is no way of telling, but it is at least curious that the Air Force seems to have dropped the ball on the Wells-Tent sighting.
In closing, let us consider one more explanation for the charred grass roots, which also could account for other key elements of Desvergers' story. It was offered by Ruppelt himself as "pure speculation" in his Report on Unidentified Flying Objects: induction heating, used in foundries to melt metals. Solid rods or ingots are subjected to an alternating magnetic current, setting up "eddy currents" in the metal and raising its temperature. Replace the solid metal with damp sand,
an electrical conductor, and assume that a something that was generating a powerful alternating magnetic field was hovering over the ground, and you can explain how the grass roots were charred. To get an alternating magnetic field, some type of electrical equipment was needed. Electricity--electrical sparks--the holes burned in the cap "by electric sparks."...Ruppelt presented his "speculation" to a RAND scientist, who "practically leaped at the idea." When Ruppelt explained he thought his theory "just happened to tie together the unanswered aspects" of the Desvergers case, the scientist replied in some exasperation, "What do you want? Does a UFO have to come in and land on your desk at ATIC?"
So, was this the best hoax in UFO history, or, as UFO historian Jerome Clark put it, "the ufologist's worst nightmare: a real experience which happened to an unreliable individual"? Hoax or?...
Battelle Memorial Institute, "Sixth Status Report on Contract AF-19741, PPS-100 [Project Stork]," October 10, 1952, originally classified Restricted, p. 3. This may be the official report to which Ruppelt refers. Neither it nor any reference to it is included in the Blue Book file on the Desvergers case. However, it and the other six Stork status reports are included in the Blue Book files in the National Archives (National Archives II, College Park, Md.). This is the entire text concerning Battelle's findings (emphasis added): "Regarding the 'Florida' samples, no difference was observed between the two samples of soil, but it was found that the root structure of the plants from the area in question was degenerated, apparently by heat, while the root structure of a control sample was undisturbed. In addition, the lower leaves, those nearest the ground under normal conditions, were slightly deteriorated, apparently by heat. No logical explanation is possible for this alteration of the first sample, beyond the suggestion that a high soil temperature around the plants could have been the cause. No radioactivity was found in any of these samples."
Clark, Jerome. The UFO Encyclopedia, vol. 2: The Emergence of a Phenomenon: UFOs from the Beginning through 1959. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1992. Pages 146-149.
Contemporaneous newspaper and wire-service accounts, August-September 1952. National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP) Desvergers case file. Center for UFO Studies, Chicago.
Federal Bureau of Investigation. Laboratory report on the scoutmaster's burned/singed cap (August 29, 1952). NICAP Desvergers case file. Center for UFO Studies, Chicago.
Gross, Loren E. UFOs: A History--1952: August. Fremont, Calif.: The author, 1986. Pages 51-55, 58-63, 65-66, 70-72, 75-76, 80.
______________. UFOs: A History--1952: September-October. Fremont, Calif.: The author, 1986. Pages 10, 19-24, 28-29, 34, 37, 53, 79, 88-89. On page 24, Gross provides this interesting footnote: "There is this note in the Grand Rapids, Michigan Astronomical Society Bulletin 52-1 of November 1, 1952, p. 2: 'A.S. has received the following report on the Florida-scoutmaster - burned clothing incident. The local power company states that at the place and time of incident a high voltage line and transformer were burned out and circuit control relay failed to operate to open circuit. It may be explanation of ball of fire, burned clothing and grass.'"
______________. UFOs: A History--1953: March-July. Fremont, Calif.: The author, 1989. Pages 36-37.
Hahn, Nellie M. Letter to the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (October 28, 1968). NICAP Desvergers case file. Center for UFO Studies, Chicago.
Keyhoe, Donald E. Flying Saucers from Outer Space. New York: Holt, 1953. Pages 113-115.
Lorenzen, Coral E. Flying Saucers: The Startling Evidence of the Invasion from Outer Space. New York: Signet/New American Library, 1966. Pages 40-42.
Moseley, James W. Unpublished manuscript, 1954 (copy in author's files).
______________, editor. "Nexus," May 1955. Page 8.
Nash, William B. Telephone interview with the author, January 10, 1997.
Project Blue Book. Desvergers case file (Letter, R. M. Olsson to Capt. Carney, August 25, 1952. Memoranda for the Record: Undated, pos. August 21, 1952; August 25 , 27 and 28, 1952; September 12 and 19, 1952. Photographs: Incident site and burned cap [17 total], August 22, 1952; grass specimens and cap as filed, dates unknown. Sketches by Desvergers: The saucer and map of incident site). National Archives II, College Park, Md.
Robinet, Marta. "Burned by a Flying Saucer." American Weekly (April 19, 1953). Pages 4ff.
Ruppelt, Edward J. The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1956. Pages 176-186.
_________________. "What Our Air Force Found Out About Flying Saucers." True, May 1954.
Story, Ronald D., ed. The Encyclopedia of UFOs. London: New English Library, 1980. Pages 128-131.
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