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Why 1947 is known as the 'Summer of the Flying Saucer'

What exactly was in the air that summer? Reports of “flying saucers” -- a new term -- flooded into police stations and newspapers all over the U.S., including in the Upper Midwest, 75 years ago this summer.

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In the summer of 1947, North Dakotans reported seeing "flying saucers" on farms, cities and towns and a few people decided they'd have a little fun playing tricks on their neighbors.
Golden Family Foto / Getty Images / iStockphoto
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FARGO — I can only imagine what it would have been like to live through the summer of 1947, when people kept an eye on the sky wondering what they might see next. A bird? A plane? Superman? Nope. In 1947, it was all about the flying saucer.

This past month marked the 75th anniversary of the Roswell incident — when rancher William Brazel found the wreckage of an unidentified flying object on a ranch north of Roswell, N.M. Just two weeks earlier, private pilot Kenneth Arnold saw what he described as a “flying saucer” while flying past Mt. Rainier in Washington state. In fact, Arnold is credited with coining the phrase.

What exactly was in the air that summer?

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Nearly 50 years before Scully or Mulder uttered it on “The X-Files,” some people in 1947 clearly believed that “we are not alone.”

Reports of “flying saucers” flooded into police stations and newspapers all over the U.S., including in the Upper Midwest. I’ve combed through the archives and pulled just a few of the stories from that summer from The Fargo Forum and The Bismarck Tribune.

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These are the actual reports that appeared in the paper during that out-of-this-world, wild summer:

Navy vet spots green saucer; Farmer spies shiny object

Virgil Been of Elliott, N.D. reported he saw an object about the size and shape of a dinner plate, but green in color, early Friday evening above his mother’s farm, 1 ½ miles northeast of Elliott, Ransom County. His mother, Mrs. Glen Been and his brother, Willard, also saw the object which passed close to the trio not more than 30 or 40 feet from the ground. Been said the disc appeared to be traveling south "at a high rate of speed." He said there was no possibility of the disc being from some form of fireworks. A navy veteran, Been could not recall anything he had seen in the service that resembled the object.

Meantime, Farmer Leslie Miller and his wife saw a “circular, bright and shiny object” traveling at a high rate of speed near their home in Delamere in Sargent County.

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From July to around September 1947, North Dakota newspapers shared the stories of residents' run-ins with flying saucers.
Forum archives

Grand Forks looms as flying saucer center

Grand Forks may be on its way to becoming "saucer center" with several sightings reported over the last several days. Mr. and Mrs. E.O. Borchers reported seeing between 12 and 15 swiftly moving silver discs on July 12. Mrs. Bert Nordby saw just one disc around that same time. She said it revolved over and over as it sped across the sky. Two young girls reported seeing them above the skies as they swam at Riverside pool.

Fakers gonna fake

A flying saucer reportedly found on the Alvin Johnson farm near Manvel Monday afternoon was investigated and found to resemble an automobile hubcap with two spark plugs welded to the inside. The plugs were connected by wire to a small electric motor to which an automobile light bulb was fastened.

A flying saucer found in Woodworth, N.D. turned out to be a hoax. Five men admitted they built the "saucer" and planted it on Bert Miller’s lawn. They said they "just wanted to see what happened."
The saucer, made from an old wash basin, was so convincing, curiosity seekers flocked to the Miller farm to see it around the same time authorities from Washington, D.C. placed a call to the home to investigate.

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Gladys Miller, in a newspaper clipping from July 1947, seemed to have a good sense of humor about the the fake flying saucer landing on her farm in Woodworth, N.D. Hundreds from the area stopped by to see it before five local men admitted to making it just for fun.
Forum archives

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Promotional tool, anyone?

Flying Saucers are good for something. One thousand of them, looking suspiciously like paper plates were pitched out of an airplane in this vicinity. They are good for free admission to a dance near the Garrison dam site Saturday. Vernon Overlee, who has what he calls “the longest bar in the Northwest” at Gate City, did the pitching.

“Flying saucers” were dropped over towns in the Fessendon and Rugby communities this week to publicize concerts by the Nordic Chorus of Bismarck.

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While none of the newspaper reports on the North Dakota sightings included photographs, what the witnesses described seeing over their farms and homes in the summer of 1947 is similar to this photo taken in Riverside, Calif., around the same time period.
Contributed / National Archives

Flying saucer reports fade

While 1947 proved to be the height of flying saucer mania, reports of what, by 1953, we would start to call UFOs (unidentified flying objects) kept pouring in. It’s estimated that there were at least 6,500 reported sightings in the U.S. from 1947 to 1960.

You might remember a story we did a couple of years ago about a pretty credible sighting by a military pilot over an NDSU football game in 1948.

Other stories on UFO sightings
As the NDAC (now NDSU) Bison took on the Augustana Vikings on a crisp fall evening in 1948, if fans looked up, they might have caught a glimpse of an even-more spectacular show in the nightime sky — a dogfight between a former WWII fighter pilot and an unidentified flying object that would go down as one of the most credible accounts of UFO activity in the country. What exactly happened and did any Bison football fans see it?

So what do we know now?

At first, authorities appeared to be confirming that what crashed in Roswell and helped create flying saucer summer might really have been extraterrestrial. On July 8, the local newspaper reported that the 509th Bombardment Group at Roswell Army Air Field announced it had, indeed, come into possession of a flying saucer.

The story made headlines around the world. But less than 24 hours later, the Army said the debris was actually a high-altitude weather balloon. End of story? For some. But others never bought it — and they got satisfaction in 1978, when an aging intelligence officer who worked on the Roswell case said the wreckage was “not of this world” and he had been ordered to keep quiet.

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By 1994, a bigger bombshell — the U.S. Army came clean and said the wreckage was not a weather balloon like they had told the public for more than 50 years. They now say the debris was part of Project Mogul, a military program designed to intercept Russian radio messages via high-altitude balloons, which would eventually deflate and fall to the Earth.

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Huge balloons developed by Seyfang Laboratories were used during Project Mogul, according to a U.S. government report issued in 1994. Their metallic exterior coating meant they were often mistaken for flying saucers.
Contributed / Library of Congress

But is the debate settled? Hardly. Sightings continued even after the end of Project Mogul.

We’ll just have to keep our eyes to the skies for clues.

Related Topics: HISTORYNORTH DAKOTA
Tracy Briggs is a News, Lifestyle and History reporter with Forum Communications with more than 30 years of experience, in broadcast, print and digital journalism.
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