Boise businessman Ken Arnold had no idea he would change the world when he told reporters in Pendleton he saw nine strange objects flying along the Cascades.
But 70 years ago June 25, that’s what he did.
East Oregonian reporter Bill Bequette and editor Nolan Skiff didn’t figure the 191-word story they banged out that Wednesday just in time for the evening paper and The Associated Press noon wire would take off, well, like a flying saucer.
But it captured the attention of the nation.
The headline at the bottom of the front page of the EO for June 25, 1947, reads: “Impossible! Maybe, But Seein’ Is Believin’, Says Flyer.” And in the seven sentences that followed, Bequette and Skiff reported Arnold’s claims that on the day before he saw “nine saucer-like aircraft flying in formation” at an altitude between 9,500 and 10,000 feet between Mount Rainer and Mount Adams moving at “the amazing speed of about 1,200 miles an hour.”
That would make them faster than any aircraft the U.S. or any other nation had back then.
While the imagery was there, the EO never used the phrase “flying saucer” in its reporting, contrary to plenty of reports.
Within days of the EO breaking the story, some bright newspaper writer elsewhere coined “flying saucer.” The term stuck in the lexicon and the American psyche.
A daughter remembers
Kim Arnold, 63, of Meridian, Idaho, said her father was not seeking publicity when he told his story. The objects scared and baffled him, she said, and he wanted to know what they were.
“It didn’t make sense to him how fast they flew,” she said. “My father was a real nuts-and-bolts realist. He really believed there were explanations for things.”
Ken Arnold was 32 at the time of the sighting. He and his wife, Doris, lived in Boise, and had two little girls. He had a reputation as a respected businessman selling fire suppression equipment. Kim came along in 1954 and another daughter followed a few years later. Of the four siblings, Kim Arnold said she knows the most about her father and what happened.
She said the only reason her father said anything about the sighting was out of fear that Russians had developed a craft capable of flying faster than anything the U.S. was flying, and could use that for a nuclear advantage. The U.S. unleashed the terrifying power of atomic weapons less than two years earlier to end World War II. The Soviet Union, our ally in the war, was now our enemy with impressive military might.
“He believed that our military would come forth and tell everyone what these strange things really were,” she said. “And it never happened.”
Instead, she said her parents received 10,000 letters after the story went international, and their home phone rang off the hook.
“My father became the most famous man in the world practically overnight,” she said. “It really disrupted their life.”
The sighting also launched the UFO wave of 1947, with flying saucer stories grabbing hundreds of newspaper headlines. The county music duo The Buchanan Brothers in mid-July even released the tune “(When You See) Those Flying Saucers.”
Yet no subsequent sighting caught the attention of the public the way Arnold’s did.
Skiff died in 1970, Arnold in 1984 and Bequette in 2011. Bequette in interviews about the sighting reported Arnold came off as honest, level headed and credible. By all accounts, Arnold, 6 feet tall, 200 pounds, an Eagle Scout and all-state football player in high school, had a reputation as solid as his shoulders were wide.
After the EO’s first story — not much more than a blurb, really — Bequette interviewed Arnold at length and churned out a feature for the June 26 paper.
Here’s what he reported: Arnold was flying from Chehalis, Washington, to Yakima in his single-engine CallAir A-2 when he took a detour around Mount Rainer to look for the wreckage of a Curtis Commando R5C transport plane that crashed Dec. 10, 1946, with 32 Marines aboard. Finding the plane meant a $5,000 reward.
He estimated he was 25-28 miles from Rainier and climbed to 9,200 feet and saw to his left a chain of objects, he said, that looked like the “tail of a Chinese kite.”
Arnold considered they could be geese, but they were flying south in summer and too high. He wrote off new jet planes because “their motion was wrong for jet jobs.” He opened his window in case they were reflections and still saw the objects.
Arnold said they were as “big as a four-engine airplane” and “flat like a pie-pan, and somewhat bat-shaped” and flashed bright enough to temporarily blind him. They were “saucer-like” he said, and moved “like a fish flipping in the sun” and appeared to thread their way along the Cascade peaks.
He told Bequette he timed how fast they flew between Mount Rainer and Mount Adams and came up with 1,200 mph. He added he could have been off by 200-300 mph, but “they were still the fastest things I ever saw.”
Later news sources reported he actually clocked the speed at 1,700 mph, which Kim Arnold also confirmed.
The EO ran front page follow-ups June 27, 28 and 30 (June 29 was a Sunday, and the EO did not publish on Sundays), some with witnesses corroborating Arnold’s account. “Flying disc” appears in the June 27 Associated Press story, and Bequette uses it in his story of June 28, but the phrase each time is in quotes without attribution.
The term “flying saucers” finally shows up on June 30 in a short AP story about a La Grande reverend declaring the end of the world was “imminent” after residents there reported UFOs. The “strange zooming objects” according to Rev. Lester Carlson, were “the signs of the second coming of Christ.”
Peter Davenport is the director of the National UFO Reporting Center, located in rural northeastern Washington. He said he wonders whether the work the EO did covering the Arnold sighting may have been the pinnacle of press coverage of the UFO phenomenon, and whether the coverage has been in decline ever since. He called today’s press coverage of UFOs “lamentable.”
“For the life of me, I cannot understand why members of the press are not clamoring for information about the UFO issue,” he stressed in an email, adding the disinterest of the press, in his judgment, “is even more interesting than the apparent presence on our planet of the UFOs themselves.”
Some UFOs make the news, some don’t
Arnold’s sighting was the first to gain nationwide attention, but it was far from the first unusual flying object to receive press coverage.
Mystery or phantom airships in the late 19th and early 20th centuries captured headlines from the California Bay Area to the Midwest and in New England, Europe and New Zealand. Stories about “foo fighters” — bright, sometimes fiery balls of red, orange or white light — chasing Allied aircraft in Europe made news stories in 1944 and ’45.
Other UFO reports from that era would not see the light of day for decades.
Robert Hastings of Colorado is a regular speaker at the annual UFOfest in McMinnville and has worked more than 40 years researching UFOs and their interactions with nuclear weapons. UFOs in January 1945, he said, buzzed the Hanford plutonium production site in Pasco on three separate nights.
The area was top secret, of course, for making the plutonium that would go into the atomic bombs the U.S. dropped months later on Japan to end World War II.
Hastings in his research found base personnel saw the objects, which also appeared on military radar, and one night an F6F Hellcat fighter pilot tried to intercept whatever was flying over the site.
Clarence R. “Bud” Clem was a lieutenant junior grade in U.S. Naval Reserves at the time, and at 84 years of age told Hastings in 2009 how he was in the flight tower and assisted with communications between radar operators and the pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Richard Brown.
Brown reported chasing a bright ball of fire, according to Clem’s account, but could never catch the thing, which after a few moments zoomed toward Seattle and off radar.
Hastings said the story was one thing, but documents in The National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., confirmed Clem’s report of “bogies” over Hanford. The things raised such a concern, Hastings said, the military considered bringing in a special night squad of fighter planes to protect Hanford.
He also said he was not surprised the story never made it to the public in 1945. Even today, he said, what government official would want to admit objects were zipping over U.S. military bases and no one could do a thing to stop them?
He saw much more
Arnold investigated subsequent UFO sightings and people who claimed that they had contact with aliens. Kim Arnold said her mother put her foot down and had her father stop because it cost too much money and took up too much time.
She said her father also believed he was supposed to talk about what he had seen and share it with other people, she said. He decided to do speeches and sell a self-published booklet he called, “The Flying Saucer As I Saw It.”
“Government men,” she claims, immediately stopped the speeches.
She also said her father’s sighting that summer day in 1947 was the first of eight during his life. While she has never seen one, she said people who have one sighting often end up seeing others.
“It just seems to kind of follow you,” she said.
A sighting he had with others from the ground in Idaho Falls also made news, and one of his sightings changed his perception of the objects.
He was flying over Susanville, California, when two saucers passed under his plane. The first was “as solid as a Chevrolet car,” she said, but he saw pine trees through the center of the second. She said her father compared that to jellyfish that appear solid one minute and transparent the next. Her father concluded the saucers could change density.
“He never believed that the flying saucers were mechanical in any way at all,” she said, “but some kind of living organism.”
In his later years, she said her parents believed flying saucers were the connection between the living and the dead.
“It gave them hope of the reality of other dimensions,” Kim Arnold said, “and perhaps death was not the end but a new beginning that we live on into other worlds full of all kinds of activity.”
UFOs pose big riddles
Davenport posited a more concrete hypothesis about the nature of UFOs.
“My suspicion is, we are being visited routinely, probably daily, by these objects we call UFOs,” he said. “We presume they are alien spacecraft.”
But what, he said, could the relationship be between those craft — and presumably the creatures inside — and human beings?
“I suspect there is some fundamental relationship between us and them,” he said. “We just don’t know what it is.”
Kim Arnold is retired. She was 30 when her dad died at the age of 68. She said in some respects she has taken on the mantle of protecting her father’s legacy.
“He was an ordinary man who had an extraordinary experience,” she said. “Whatever happened on June 24, 1947, was an elaborate show for him.”
That first sighting then raised the question that remains unanswered: Why was it Ken Arnold?
Editor’s note: Kim Arnold agreed to participate in an interview for this story if the East Oregonian provided her 10 copies of the paper the story appeared in. The EO agreed to the unusual request.