Most students of the history of UFOs are familiar with the famous Ubatuba, Brazil case of 1957, in which metallic debris obtained from the explosion of a UFO was determined to be magnesium metal of unusual composition. Few researchers are probably aware of another, surprisingly similar incident that occurred in the US at the dawn of the modern UFO phenomenon. This incident directly or indirectly involved a host of people and organizations that were later to have a major impact on the study of UFOs in the United States, and points out that there is still much to be learned concerning the early investigation of the phenomenon by the military, the intelligence community and even the corporate world.
Just after 5:00 on the afternoon of July 9, 1947, a forty-five year old electrician named Raymond Lane and his wife were picking huckleberries near Midland, Michigan, when they suddenly heard a strange sizzling noise. Looking around, they saw a bizarre mass of bright white, fiery sparks hovering about a foot above the ground and about a hundred feet away. It reminded them of a Fourth of July sparkler, but it was much bigger, the size of a bushel basket. The fireball burned brilliantly for about fifteen seconds before dying out. When the smoke drifted away, there was nothing left except some hot, light-and-dark-colored metallic-looking debris on the sandy soil. Lane collected fragments of the material in a tin can and considered whom to tell.
The mysterious fireball had picked an auspicious site for its appearance. Midland happened to be the home of one of America's most well-equipped materials analysis facilities: the laboratories of Dow Chemical company, well known for its metallurgical expertise and a world leader in magnesium technology.
Shortly after World War I, Dow metallurgists had developed an alloy that the company called "Dowmetal" -- refined magnesium to which was added about six percent aluminum and one-half percent manganese.
Dowmetal was widely promoted for automotive and aviation uses and was highly profitable for the company, eventually giving it a virtual monopoly on magnesium production in the US. In 1933 the company was approached by Belgian scientist Jean Piccard with a request to design and build a Dowmetal cabin for a record-setting high-altitude balloon flight. The design was highly successful and eventually enabled flights to over 70,000 feet. During World War II Dow's extremely lightweight, strong magnesium alloys became an indispensable ingredient of aircraft and missile structures.
One of the most significant figures behind Dow's success was a chemist named John Josef Grebe [pronounced "gree-bee"].
Born Hans Josef Grebe in Uerzig, Germany in 1900, he emigrated to Ohio in 1914 and became a US citizen in 1921. Grebe graduated from the Case School of Applied Science in 1924 and was immediately hired by Dow. Grebe was considered a genius by his colleagues and was called the "Idea Man." Given free reign to work on projects of his own devising, Grebe established the company's Physical Research Laboratory, an organization that produced a steady stream of valuable inventions, particularly in the field of plastics. Chemists under his direction were responsible for the discovery of several now-universally used plastics, such as styrene, Styrofoam, and polyvinyl chloride, and developed a synthetic rubber that was vital to the US military in World War II. Grebe even perfected a method of extracting magnesium from seawater, a process that became Dow's main source of the metal. After VJ day Grebe was assigned to work with the Oak Ridge nuclear laboratory, and in 1946 he was an observer at the Operation Crossroads nuclear tests. He also worked closely with the US Army's Chemical Corps on the company's highly classified toxicological warfare effort (in fact, by 1948, Grebe would be named the Chemical Corps' chief technical advisor).
The morning after the fireball incident, Lane took his can of sandy debris to Robert S. Spencer, a senior researcher in Grebe's laboratory, whom Lane had met when he was a Dow employee some years before. Spencer contacted Edward Fales, the company's internal security chief, and together the men went to the site to investigate. Lane told the Dow officials that he thought the object had been a flying saucer, or possibly a meteorite, and that some small lumps of silvery metal in the debris he had scooped up might be platinum. Spencer immediately arranged to have the material analyzed. The Spectroscopy Laboratory quickly reported that the shiny pellets in the material were largely silver mixed with a few percent silicon, which probably came from the sand on which the molten material had solidified. The sample was checked for radioactivity, but did not blacken photographic plates. According to a report by Fales:
Preliminary tests of the material show the contents to be as follows: ordinary sand, not radio active [sic], but giving off an ammonia gas. A silver nugget, almost pure except for sand mixed in it, not radio active. Melted or fused sand which gives off ammonia, has little droplets of silver melted in the sand and some other material which is not radio active. The fused sand has some characteristics of the Los Alamos sand [i.e., the glassy material created by the Trinity nuclear explosion - JC] but is not believed to be the same.
By the end of September the Lab had run more spectrographic tests on a small quantity of a fine, light, ash-like powder laboriously sifted from the debris. The powder turned out to be a material called thorite, which was discovered to be somewhat radioactive. The remaining portion of the debris yielded traces of iron, aluminum, magnesium, and other metals. There was also evidence of a significant amount of magnesium hydroxide, which some analysts took to be the remains of the combustion of a sizable amount of magnesium.
Interestingly, Dow handled the case as a purely internal matter at first. Fales' inquiries concerning Lane led him to conclude that he was a somewhat peculiar individual who was known to have basic technical expertise. On balance, the incident seemed likely to be the result of some kind of home-made fireworks experiment. The FBI was eventually contacted and an agent conducted a basic inquiry. As will be seen, there was no Air Force involvement with the case in 1947.
Activity surrounding the Midland fireball incident became dormant by the autumn of 1947 but was revived dramatically a year later, when on September 17, 1948, Grebe, then working with the Chemical Corps at Edgewood Arsenal, Maryland, requested an update on the investigation from Dow. An examination of Fales' dossier set him to speculating. In an October 11 memo to one of his Army superiors, he wrote that:
The only technical point that would tend to discredit the report in a very slight way is that the particular spectrum analysis that was made of the sand that was supposed to have been picked up with the sample of the fused mineral matter, which contained nuggets of silver, had a different analysis from the sand picked up in the general area. It had rained, however, in the meantime, which would remove any magnesium hydroxide that might have been around.
As a whole, it would appear to me that, every bit of evidence found should be considered seriously as an indication that a self-consuming missile capable of producing a considerable amount of smoke and fire and leaving behind only the minimum residue required to produce a battery and radio transmitter is feasible and was probably observed.
This concept -- that the small Midland fireball had represented the self-destruction of some kind of instrumented vehicle -- marked a drastic change in the official approach to the incident. It is not apparent from the available source material exactly why Grebe chose this juncture to reopen the case, but there are indications that similar studies were being performed at the time on other samples of apparent UFO debris that were considered to be possibly the remains of missiles.
For example, on November 26, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover sent a memo to the Air Force's Director of Special Investigations (IG), concerning a case similar to the Midland incident. Just two days before Lane's experience, a group of people near the hamlet of West Rindge, New Hampshire had been surprised by the sudden appearance of wisps of smoke and flame rising from nearby lawns and fields. Many small burned areas were discovered to be scattered in a 200-foot diameter circle and seemed to have been caused by hot fragments of metal that had apparently fallen from the sky. The principle witness turned several of the fragments over to a Professor Rentges of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for analysis. Rentges expressed the opinion that the material, which had obviously been subjected to "terrific heat," resembled the lining of the rocket engines of German V-2 ballistic missiles he had seen in New Mexico. Four of the collected fragments, when pieced together, appeared to have been part of a hollow cylinder eight inches in diameter and having a wall thickness of three- sixteenths of an inch. The West Rindge material had been subjected to spectrographic analysis recently, Hoover reported, and was determined to be ordinary cast iron that "had been subjected to a very high degree of heat."
Additionally, in a letter titled "Flying Object Incidents in the United States", dated November 3, Col. Howard McCoy of Air Material Command's Technical Intelligence Division informed Chief of Staff General Hoyt Vandenberg that his flying saucer analysts had interviewed Dr Irving Langmuir of General Electric concerning the possible origin of the objects, and that "it is planned to have another interview with Dr. Langmuir in the near future to review all the data now available, and it is hoped that he will be able to present some opinion as to the nature of the unidentified objects, particularly those described as ‘balls of light.'" Study of this particular type of flying object -- apparently a tiny, remote-controlled or self-guided probe -- had gained urgency after the October 1 incident in which an Air National Guard pilot had engaged in a long nighttime dogfight over Fargo, North Dakota with a small, fast-moving blinking light that was apparently under intelligent control.
It seems probable that this effort to carefully analyze fragments of suspected flying saucers was part of the escalating attempt to establish whether there was any credible evidence of a foreign terrestrial origin of the objects – an approach that achieved its highest expression with the publication, on December 10, 1948, of the Top Secret Air Intelligence Division Study 203, "Analysis of Flying Object Incidents in the US". This study examined the possibility that flying objects reported over the continental US represented Soviet reconnaissance, training or provocation missions.
Meanwhile, Grebe had taken his theory to the highest levels of Army missile research. In the middle of October, while on a trip to the southwest, he met with Col. Holger Toftoy, Army Ordnance, the commander of Project Hermes, the Army's multifaceted ballistic missile program based at White Sands. Shortly after the Nazi surrender, Toftoy had supervised the removal of some one hundred V-2 missiles from underground factories and had them transported to White Sands. Under Project Paperclip, the German rocket engineers who had created the V-2, including Wernher von Braun, were moved to Fort Bliss to work with Toftoy and General Electric, the contractor for Project Hermes, in reconstructing the missiles. By 1948 the von Braun's team had left White Sands, but Toftoy continued so oversee the ongoing V-2 research program.
Toftoy's log for October 18, 1948, though replete with stenographic errors, clearly records Grebe's surprising presentation:
Conference attended by Cols Toftoy, Roberts & Bainbridge (CC), Maj J.F. Gay & Dr. J. J. Grebe, (Chemical Corps), and Dr. Mugson. Chemical Corps reported analysis of fragments picked up from '"flying saucer" which vanished with a brilliant flash and bang near Midlin [sic], Michigan. Sand and clinker recovered from the locality contained nuggets of fairly pure silver and some thorium. The thorium was sufficient to give radio activity [sic] approximately 10 times natural background which could possibly be ascribed to thorium coated filaments in electronic equipment, although the quantity seems excessive. There was evidence also of mechanism [magnesium] which had been completely oxidized.
Dr. Grebe advanced his hypothesis that small missiles of the order of 1 to 3 feet in diameter might be responsible, coming from distant sources. He considered that a rapidly rotating disc of mechanism [magnesium] and/or aluminum might have enough energy if properly utilized to propel the disc several thousand miles, and might be completely destroyed by burning in air. Remaining traces of silver and thorium might be ascribed to electronic control system.
After discussion, it was agreed that Col Roberts should request the Bur of Standards group to investigate some of the mechanisms which might conceivably propel discs of this general type and TU will keep in close touch with these calculations (CMH). A meeting next Monday, 25 Oct, can be arranged with Dr. Grebe if indications are favorable.
Dr. Grebe also briefly described a theory of his that a fish-shaped object with a modified tear-drop cross section would take off along the long axis and change position in flight to fly at an angle more like a flying wing. No wings or other aerodynamic surfaces that produce drag would be required.
Grebe clearly envisioned the Midland object as a small, unmanned vehicle containing vacuum-tube-based electronic equipment, and undoubtedly he believed that its source was the Soviet Union. The intriguing vision of a fast-spinning, flywheel-like object that would destroy itself at the end of its trajectory was novel, to say the least, but Grebe had a good reason for this unlikely idea. One of Dow's most secret and most vital wartime projects had been the development of a structural matrix for the miniature radio transmitter that formed the heart of the supersecret "VT" -- the Proximity Fuse.
The function of the radarlike VT fuse was to detonate an artillery shell at the exact moment that it passed within lethal range of its target, such as an aircraft or missile - or in anti-personnel applications, just as it descended to within a few yards of the ground. To do so, it had to incorporate a tiny radio transmitter and receiver built from highly miniaturized and ruggedized vacuum tubes. These tubes had to survive shock and acceleration amounting to thousands of g's when fired from a heavy gun, as well as the enormous centrifugal force of the shell's stabilizing spin. Dow's contribution was the design and production of a special plastic housing for the tiny tubes, and the project was carried out in such secrecy that most of the technicians on the project only learned of its exact function at the end of the war, a fact that made a strong impression on many of them. (The Proximity Fuse design effort was primarily based at the Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland and was directed by Merle Tuve. Tuve's administrative assistant was an astronomer named Josef Allen Hynek.)
Grebe's saucer concept amounted to something much like an artillery shell, possibly combined with an aerodynamic shape that would allow a degree of flight after the device arrived in the vicinity of its target. The VT shell had incorporated a novel battery that was energized when its chemicals mixed due to the shock of launching; possibly the disc-missiles used something similar. Presumably the self-destructing feature would prevent US analysts from recovering intact specimens of the vehicle.
The "Bur of Standards group" referred to in the memo was the National Bureau of Standards' Ordnance Development Department, a secret guided missile research establishment operating within the innocuous weights-and- measures agency, which had worked closely with the Army during the war under the direction of Harry Diamond. The Ordnance Department's first products were highly classified miniature radio components for the Proximity Fuse. Diamond's group, along with Hugh Dryden, from the Bureau's Mechanics and Sound Division, also developed some of America's first "smart weapons" during the war, including the Robin, a television-guided bomb, the Pelican, a passive-radar-homing glide bomb, and the Bat, a 1,000-pound radar-guided anti-ship glide weapon. To help pack more and more electronic components into missiles, the Bureau had perfected increasingly miniaturized vacuum tubes, and by the end of the war, its technicians helped invent a process for literally painting circuitry onto insulating substrates, the forerunner of now-universally utilized printed circuits.
The Director of the Bureau of Standards since November 1945 was Edward U. Condon. The New Mexico-born physicist had been J. Robert Oppenheimer's roommate at the University of Göttingen, Germany, in the 1920s. He co-founded the MIT Radiation Laboratories and did fundamental work on radar theory and application at Westinghouse. When General Leslie Groves set up the Los Alamos laboratory of the Manhattan Project in 1943, he had asked Condon to be associate director under Oppenheimer. Later Condon had been a member of the executive committee of the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), the forerunner of NASA.
Evidence that Bureau of Standards actually assisted in the analysis of the Midland saucer debris and theorized about saucer propulsion systems remains elusive, but in light of Condon's subsequent involvement in UFO research the possibility is highly intriguing. Grebe's theory did, however, make enough of an impression at senior levels that a report soon reached General Vandenberg's office. Vandenberg cabled Project Sign on December 2 inquiring about Sign's investigation of the case. Project Sign admitted in a December 21 teletype that it had no details on the Midland incident and sheepishly requested copies of Grebe's report from the Chief of Staff.
(Interestingly, there is some evidence that the Bureau of Standards was involved with yet another case concerning magnesium from a UFO. In 1952, five NBS scientists allegedly analyzed a fragment of metal supplied by Cdr. Alvin Moore, USN, who said that it had fallen on his property during the July 1952 "Washington, DC Invasion". The scientists subjected the material to a battery of tests, including spectrographic analysis, and concluded that it was an artificially produced artifact. It was composed mostly of magnesium, had a specific gravity of 3.48 and was filled with millions of microscopic iron particles. Like the West Rindge fragments, it appeared to be a section of a cylinder, which when complete would have been 10.4 inches in diameter. Cdr. Moore decided that Project Blue Book should know about the discovery. He mailed it to Captain Edward Ruppelt, who sent it on to the Battelle Memorial Institute, where Howard Cross gave it a cursory examination.)
Dow's 1947 analysis of magnesium debris from a suspected UFO crash near its own headquarters is a fascinating foreshadowing of the company's involvement with the far more famous Ubatuba material. As most UFO researchers are aware, this material first surfaced in September 1957, when it was mailed anonymously to a reporter for a Rio de Janeiro newspaper, who in turn passed the fragments to Dr Olavo Fontes, the Brazilian representative of the Aerial Phenomena Research Organization (APRO). Coral and Jim Lorenzen, APRO's directors, were impressed by an analysis performed at a laboratory in Brazil, and upon obtaining the samples, Coral Lorenzen arranged to have Dow's magnesium experts study them.
In 1967, under the auspices of the Air Force-sponsored UFO study based at Colorado University and headed by Edward Condon, Dr. Roy Craig obtained a portion of one of the Ubatuba fragments in order to subject it to neutron activation analysis. Since a Brazilian analysis of the material in 1957 had indicated that the material was extremely pure magnesium – purer than terrestrial technology could produce, according to APRO – Craig contacted Dr. R. S. Busk, head of Dow's Metal Products Department. During World War II, Dow had developed a process called "triple sublimation" under which magnesium was heated to vapor and recondensed in a vacuum chamber. After three such cycles, the material, for all practical purposes, was pure magnesium with only the most minute residue of other elements. Busk supplied Craig with triply-sublimed material as a reference sample, and while doing so, mentioned Dow's earlier test of the Ubatuba material. In a letter to the author, Craig recalled that
"[P]ersonnel at the Dow laboratories were interested in UFO-related materials. They were most cooperative in furnishing pure magnesium samples and doing whatever analytical work I requested relating to the Ubatuba magnesium samples. I was surprised to learn that, years previously [in 1958], they had done metallographic studies of the very samples of Ubatuba magnesium I was then asking them to analyze. They showed me the results of their earlier work, which they still had on file, and repeated the work for me.
Interestingly, Craig himself had worked for Dow for eight years at the Atomic Energy Commission's Rocky Flats Weapons Plant in Colorado, which was a Dow-managed facility that Grebe had helped establish. Craig did not know Grebe, but they had mutual friends. He had never heard of the Midland case, and, perhaps not surprisingly, has no recollection of Condon describing any earlier involvement with UFOs.
The neutron activation analysis Craig oversaw showed that, in contradiction to the Brazilian claims, the Ubatuba sample contained more impurities than the triply-sublimed sample, and hence could in fact have been made by terrestrial technology. Controversy over the significance of the particular constituents of the Ubatuba sample continues, as does analysis of the material using the latest techniques.
Grebe continued to work on nuclear projects at Dow until he retired. He died in Sun City, Arizona in 1984. His younger brother Carl, a scientist himself, recalls discussing flying saucers with John in the 1940s, and though they never discussed the Midland incident in detail, he agrees with John's former Dow colleagues that the spinning, self-destructing missile described in the Toftoy memo is exactly the kind of idea that Grebe's fertile mind would produce.
The similarity between the Midland and Ubatuba incidents, separated by a decade and by thousands of miles, continues to fascinate. Were the objects secret weapons, hoaxes, or genuine extraterrestrial artifacts? Even Dr. Olavo Fontes observed, in his report on the Brazilian analysis of the Ubatuba fragments, that:
"The mystery of that sudden explosion probably will never be solved. It may have been produced by the release of some self-destructing mechanism to prevent the machine from falling into our hands, and thus giving us the chance to learn its secrets."