Toward the end of World War 2, mission updates from the 415th Night Fighter Squadron took a mysterious turn. Along with details of dogfights over the German-occupied Rhine Valley, pilots began reporting inexplicable lights following their aircraft.
One night in November 1944, a Bristol Beaufighter crew—pilot Edward Schlueter, radar observer Donald J. Meiers, and intelligence officer Fred Ringwald—was flying along the Rhine north of Strasbourg. They described seeing “eight to 10 bright orange lights off the left wing…flying through the air at high speed.” Neither the airborne radar nor ground control registered anything nearby. “Schlueter turned toward the lights and they disappeared,” the report continued. “Later they appeared farther away. The display continued for several minutes and then disappeared.” Meiers gave these objects a name, taking a nonsense word used by characters in the popular “Smokey Stover” firefighter cartoon: “foo fighters.”
Reports kept coming in. The objects flew alongside aircraft at 200 mph; they were red, or orange, or green; they appeared singly or with as many as 10 others in formation; and they often out-maneuvered the airplanes they were chasing. They never showed up on radar.
Richard Ziebart, historian for the nearby 417th Night Fighter Squadron, heard many of the stories directly from the 415th crew members: “The pilots were very professional. They gave the report, talked about the lights, but didn’t speculate about them.” Still, the pilots found the sightings unnerving. “Scared shitless” was how a 415th pilot described feeling to Keith Chester, author of Strange Company: Military Encounters With UFO’s in World War II.
At the end of the year, an Associated Press war correspondent, Robert C. Wilson, celebrated New Year’s Eve with the 415th. The next day, his story on the foo fighters was featured on the front page of newspapers across the country. Other squadrons had seen them, but it was the number, consistency, and impact on the 415th crews—and the fact that a reporter listened to the airmen—that finally prompted investigations into the sightings.
Amateur psychologists, military aviation buffs, and conspiracy theorists offered explanations, but none that the airmen found credible. They didn’t believe they were hallucinating because of battle fatigue. And because the lights caused no damage, the pilots doubted they came from remote-controlled German secret weapons. St. Elmo’s fire, a discharge of light from sharp objects in electrical fields, seemed unlikely, since the foo fighters exhibited such extreme maneuverability.
Eventually the Army Air Command sent officers to investigate, but their research was lost after the war, Chester reported. In 1953, the CIA convened a panel of six top scientists familiar with experimental aviation technology to determine if the lights constituted a national security threat. The Robertson Panel, named for its chair, Caltech physicist Howard P. Robertson, offered no official conclusion.
Ziebart, the historian, offered no explanation either, only an insight. “I think the foo fighters didn’t show up on radar because they were plain light,” he said. “Radar had to have a solid object. If there was any bogey out there, the pilots would absolutely be able to tell.”