Friday, March 18, 2016

50th Anniversary: Swamp Gas & Dr. J. Allen Hynek


50 years ago this week, Michigan was a hotbed of UFO activity. Hundreds of people claimed they saw strange aircraft and lights in the sky. The government stated that the phenomenon was due to 'swamp gas.' In March 1966, the attention of the nation turned to southeast Michigan. The following is a brief summary by Dr. Harry Willnus of that well known case:

The great majority of younger Americans born after 1980 know very little about this UFO related event that held the attention of the nation for a period of time. The events which comprise this case made the front pages of newspapers across the nation for a time and even involved a future President becoming involved. It all happened in the spring of 1966, in Michigan. At that time the U.S. Air Force still investigated UFO reports (Project Blue Book). Their chief scientific consultant, Dr. Allen Hynek, was dispatched to Michigan in hopes of quieting the ruckus which reached a state of near panic. Hynek, an astronomer from Northwestern University, began his UFO career with the Air Force as a non believer. His basic job was to find a “natural”, down to earth explanation for UFO reports. The swamp gas event would be the low point in his UFO career as a consultant to Project Blue Book.

Over a period of some weeks UFOs were widely reported by the public and police in southeastern Michigan. Things came to a head on March 20 and 21, 1966, in Dexter and Hillsdale, Michigan. On the night of March 20, Frank Manor and his son saw a strange object from their farm house in a nearby swamp. Police and a number of locals gathered to watch a football shaped craft with multi-colored lights that appeared to be having trouble in lifting off. The object would rise in the air to about 500 feet then, “come down making a lot of noise.”

I was fortunate in obtaining a police report from the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Department which details what happened that night near Dexter. Over a dozen Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Department officers were eventually on the scene. When several officers made an attempt to go around the swamp area and approach from the back side the object took off. The police report reads: “The light from the object intensified, then went out, and a whistle similar to the sound of a rifle bullet ricochet was heard and the object passed over the heads of the Mannors in just an instant.”

The next night, March 21, strange lights were seen by dozens of coeds in a swampy area behind their dorm at Hillsdale College. The area Civil Defense Director was also a witness. The lights would move about, move towards the dorm, then retreat. Police were called but the lights would vanish when they arrived and return when they left. This happened several times over.

Dr. Hynek arrived on the scene several days later to investigate with instructions to release a statement about the cause of the sightings. Press coverage intensified. I was teaching high school at that time not far from the some of the reported UFO sightings. I recall an impromptu faculty meeting regarding a curriculum matter was called for after school. One of the staff promptly stood up and remarked, “You better get this meeting over real quick because it gets dark early. I’ve got a long drive home and I’m not hanging around here very long with this UFO stuff going on.” Many area residents were fearful.

I interviewed Washtenaw County Sheriff Doug Harvey about the Dexter event. Harvey related how he had taken Hynek to the Mannor farm where the professor sloshed about in the swamp and inspected the site. Harvey noted that they returned to the Sheriff’s office and Hynek admitted he had no idea what people had witnessed. “That’s when the phone call came in,” Harvey said. “What call?” I asked. Harvey said the dispatcher stepped into the room and told Hynek he had a call from Washington. Minutes later Hynek returned mumbling, “its swamp gas, its swamp gas they saw.” Over the years a number of stories have been put forward regarding just where Dr. Hynek had picked up on the swamp gas phenomenon. After interviewing Sheriff Harvey I’m convinced Hynek was directed from Washington as to what explanation he might offer up.

Swamp gas is a real but rare phenomenon. It is sometimes referred to as marsh gas, jack-o-lantern, will-o’-wisp, and fox fire. The cause is decaying vegetation creating methane which can ignite and float just above the surface sometimes creating crackling or popping noises. It is short lived and is not known to go but a few feet above swampy terrain.

Just five days after the Dexter event a press conference was held in Detroit. Hynek later noted that he was not prepared to face the press. He was met with a hoard of unruly reporters clamoring for a single explanation. Hynek described the properties of swamp gas and repeatedly stated that this was not, “a blanket statement to cover the UFO phenomenon,” and that he could not prove it in a court of law. As it was, a press conference was not a place for a scholarly discussion of the properties of swamp gas. Hynek later noted the press wanted, “little green men,” which, of course, they didn’t get.

The next day newspaper stories reported that swamp or marsh gas was the real culprit. The story was met with laughter, ridicule, and derisiveness and Hynek would leave Michigan as quickly as he could. Soon political cartoons appeared in papers across the country which poked fun at Hynek and swamp gas as being the culprit in the Michigan sightings.

Gerald Ford, then a Michigan Congressman, later to be President Ford, with other outraged citizens, demanded a Congressional hearing on UFOs. Ford criticized the USAFs’ handling of the investigation in his home state, saying that the public deserved a better explanation. On April 5, 1968, the first open Congressional hearing on UFOs was held before the House Armed Services Committee. It lasted only one day with only three witnesses being called, one being Allen Hynek. Hynek made a number of statements and suggested that the UFO phenomenon should be studied in a scientific fashion.

On April 1, 1968, Life Magazine published an eight page article titled “A Well-witnessed Invasion by Something”. This was less than two weeks after the Dexter swamp gas event. Unfortunately the flavor of the piece was to poke fun at the swamp gas events. An angry Frank Mannor was quoted as saying, “People are trying to make a fanatic out of me. They was tramping around here at 3o’clock this morning and look at them now. They say, ‘how much money are you going to make off this?’ That’s crazy. I don’t want no money. I didn’t want no publicity in the first place. I don’t want none now. I’m just a simple fellow. But I seen what I seen and nobody’s going to tell me different. This wasn’t no old foxfire or hullabilllusion. It was an object. Maybe it will come back if all these people would stay away and we could get a picture and have verication of it. Anybody wants to give me a lie-dector test I’ll take it.”

I did manage to engage Ron Mannor briefly in a phone conversation about the event. He was tight lipped about what happened but did tell me that on some nights cars were lined up on both sides of the dirt road for a quarter mile or more. Ron mentioned he took a good deal of ribbing in school and that it was very unpleasant. One night Ron and his father heard noises on the second story roof. Coming out of the farm house with a loaded shotgun, Frank Mannor caught two men attempting to get into a bedroom window. They were quickly run off.

After some weeks things settled down and life in the area returned to some degree of normalcy. Hynek would continue to work with Project Blue Book for another three years until the Air Force got out of the UFO business in 1969, something they had wanted to do for some years. Hynek, however, would go on to remain in the UFO business as he formed the Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS) in the early 1970s. I saw Hynek interviewed on the Dick Cavett show and he described that he was forming CUFOS to continue studying the UFO phenomenon and that he was looking for people to work with him. I immediately wrote Hynek and told him of my interest. It was a short time later that I was appointed as an investigator representing Michigan.

I heard Hynek speak on a number of occasions. I marveled at how he would often begin a talk by showing political cartoons which made fun of his 1966, swamp gas explanation. The audience was left howling with laughter. Then, getting serious, he would go on to discuss some of most perplexing cases that he investigated while with Blue Book.

I was truly impressed with Hynek as he was one of the very few scientists of that period to call for continued scientific investigation of the phenomenon. He had begun years earlier as a skeptic and a debunker but, over time, began to see that there was indeed something to UFOs and that they were not simply misidentified natural phenomenon. I’ve now been involved with the UFO phenomenon for over 50 years and I see Hynek as one of the grandfathers of ufology. He was a gentleman and always easy to talk with. I was greatly saddened at his passing in 1986.

Dr. Harry Willnus

Dr. Harry Willnus is a MUFON Consultant residing in Michigan. He researched the 1966 Dexter, Michigan UFO case which went on to be known as one of the “swamp gas” cases, perhaps one of the better known UFO cases in American history. His article, “Swamp Gas Revisited”, was published in UFO Magazine (UK edition) in February of 2004. You can read a 2015 article detailing Dr. Willnus' work. Thanks again to Dr. Harry Willnus for submitting this narrative...Lon

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