The strangest UFO encounter… or a hoax?

In 1947, strange events occurred in Maury Island, Washington. Two men reported a UFO and afterwards went to great lengths to ridicule their own story. Did they receive the help of the intelligence community?

Philip Coppens

The UFO phenomenon was launched on June 24, 1947, by Kenneth Arnold. Though he was not the first to report unexplained phenomena in the sky, his account made it in newspapers across the US, if not the world. But the story at the centre of this story, is an event that allegedly occurred on June 21, 1947, in the American state of Washington, in Maury Island. Harbour master Harold Dahl had spotted six UFOs from his patrol boat. During their flight, they covered the boat in metal fragments. Dahl reported the incident to his supervisor, Fred Lee Crisman, who made sure that some pieces of the metal were preserved. They also decided to report the incident to a magazine, Amazing Stories, a pseudo-scientific magazine that was a popular outlet for the paranormal and generally weird.
Crisman was already known to its editor, Ray Palmer. Shortly after the Second World War, the magazine had run a series of articles on Richard Shaver, who claimed that he had found traces of an underground civilisation, which consisted of a race that he had labelled the “Deros”. They lived in a system of caves and were in the possession of knowledge that was not shared with us other mortals. In June 1946, Crisman wrote a letter to the magazine, stating that during the War, he had a Deros cave in Kashmir. The magazine published the letter, and in May of 1947, Crisman followed the story up with a new allegation, namely that together with an individual named “Dick” he had travelled to Alaska, where he had discovered a cave of the Deros. Dick had reportedly died during this expedition.

When Crisman reported the UFO phenomenon, the first letter was notorious for its absence of any reference to the UFO itself. The story he reported was solely about the strange type of metal he had found on Dahl’s boat. Palmer then phoned Crisman, with the question whether or not UFOs may have anything to do with the incident. Crisman said this was possible. Palmer then decided that it would be a good idea to involve Kenneth Arnold in the investigation, and he accepted.
Arnold arrived in Tacoma, the town near Maury Island, noting that someone had been informed of his arrival, even though he was largely unknown and no-one had told anyone in town that he would be visiting. Nevertheless, he found that someone had booked him a room in the town’s most exclusive hotel.

Kenneth Arnold

Arnold was accompanied by a friend, Smith, a pilot who had decided he was so intrigued by this account that he had taken a holiday. Upon their arrival, they decided to immediately interview Dahl and Crisman. During this meeting, Dahl related that he had been warned, by an individual completely dressed in black, not to tell his story to anyone. Otherwise, “something” would happen to him. Dahl believed that he had witnessed something that he was not supposed to see. Since that moment in time, everything in his life seemed to have gone wrong. “This flying saucer business is the most complicated thing you will ever get yourself involved with”, is what Dahl apparently told the investigators.
During their meetings with Dahl and Crisman, Smith and Arnold were repeatedly interrupted when a local reporter, Ted Morello, phoned them. Morello himself stated that someone was phoning him, informing him precisely of all the details that were occurring in the room where the four of them were meeting. At first, they believed that Dahl or Crisman had phoned the local newspaper after the meeting, but the following day, this possibility turned out to be impossible. Morello stated that his source was on another telephone line; were all four people in the room? If so, it was generally very weird, as his source was relating word for word what was being said in the room. Arnold concluded the contact could thus not be Crisman or Dahl. But who? It suggested that the room was bugged, but an inspection of the room, which they described as “detailed”, did not reveal any listening devices. What Arnold does not seem to have realised at the time is that the mysterious source who had booked the room, had also “prepared” it – and perhaps the eavesdropping occurred from a neighbouring room…

Arnold and Smith had their doubts about the account Dahl and Crisman were telling them. At first, they were unwilling to show the pieces of metal and when they were finally revealed to them, they were not impressed. They looked like normal metal debris, though Arnold also said that it looked like lava. At the tip of the island was the Tacoma Smelting Company, covered in piles of black slag and obviously the most logical origin of the debris. They also always seemed to have an excuse which made it impossible to bring Arnold and Smith to Maury Island, where the incident had occurred. Dahl allegedly had photographed the incident, but no photographs were ever shown to back this claim.
The story was so bizarre that Arnold decided to contact Military Intelligence. In fact, it is less known that on July 25, 1947, Arnold had been visited at his home in Boise by two Army Air Force Intelligence agents, Lt. Frank Brown and Capt. William Davidson and felt that he should investigate the Maury Island case, though were unable to convince him. The meeting was amicable and it ended with given him their contact details, stating he could always contact them if he wanted to know more about UFOs. When they learned about the events at Maury Island from Arnold on July 31, Brown and Davidson immediately left Hamilton Field in California, to Tacoma, but Dahl refused to speak to the intelligence officers; Crisman was less reluctant. They listened and felt that this was a hoax. They told Arnold and Smith that they had to return to their base that same night, and had to leave; the plane was expected to make an appearance in a parade the following morning. Arnold and Smith felt that leaving this late was a bad idea; the pair was obviously tired, but the two officers did not listen. Shortly after take-off, the plane ran intro trouble and crashed.
Both officers died, though a soldier that had hitched a ride was able to save himself with a parachute. He stated that he could not understand why the officers had not called for help. He further stated that there was ample time to call for help and jump out of the plane.

Morello contacted Arnold, relating even more spectacular stories. The B-25 that was used for the officers’ transport had apparently been kept under armed guard throughout its stay on the tarmac that day. There was even a rumour stating that the plane had contained the remains of a crashed UFO. One intelligence officer stationed at the airport then confirmed that there was “classified material” on board the plane. The man added that it was “rather secret material”. Further details were not forthcoming. Morello stated that he felt worried about the safety of the two investigators and stated that he felt they should leave town.
Meanwhile, Arnold and Smith were fed up from the series of stories that were either without foundation or could not be validated. Smith furthermore had to return to work. They had a final meeting with an intelligence officer of McChord Field, who collected all the metal pieces and took them with him. When they told him that they wanted to keep some pieces for further reference, the officer told them he was instructed to take all material with him. Still, he stated that in his opinion the metal was without any value and did not at all seem to have an extra-terrestrial origin.
Next, Dahl told them that Crisman had left for Alaska, on board of a special military plane. This left everyone flabbergasted. Arnold and Smith were so taken in, that they decided to stay on; they would meet Dahl, who had told them that he could be found by his secretary, whose offices they had seen and visited when they had arrived in town; both remembered where it was. But when they arrived at the house, they found it completely abandoned. There were dust and cobwebs everywhere, the furniture was gone… it was clear that the house had not been lived in for several months. Nevertheless, Arnold was totally convinced that this was the house they had visited some days before.

In the 1970s, UFO researcher Tom Adams asked the Department of Energy whether they had any documentation on Crisman. They had. In the summer of 1947, Crisman had applied for a job, as a security guard in Los Alamos, in New Mexico. Los Alamos was one of the most notorious installations in the United States; it was the site where the atomic bomb was developed; the facility was still the centre of various top secret research. It is a remarkable series of facts: a man who has been declared a lunatic for his accounts in Amazing Stories, who then gets involved in one of the earliest and strangest UFO encounters, and who at the same time has been cleared as a security guard for America’s most secret facility.
Interestingly, one of the theories as to what happened at Maury Island is that the "incident" was manufactured as a cover story for the illegal dumping of nuclear waste in Puget Sound. Though there is no evidence for this, it is nevertheless interesting that Crisman, the primary "trickster" in this incident, would coincidentally become employed in the nuclear industry as a security guard. Coincidence, or evidence?
At the end of August, the FBI stated that Crisman was no longer interested in the job and had moved to Oregon, where his wife was working in a school. Crisman still lived there in 1958, when he was arrested for threatening a police officer with a weapon. In July of the same year, a short article appeared on Maury Island. One “Eldon K. Everett”, possibly a pseudonym Crisman used, stated that he had visited Maury Island in the first half of the 1950s. He had observed that the site of the incident had been fenced off with barbed wire and armed guards in uniform were patrolling the site. Kalani Hanohano, however, has stated that Everett is nevertheless a real person: “I personally met with Eldon K. Everett on two occasions in the mid-1970s. He was then living in a one bedroom apartment in downtown Seattle, Washington. I remember these visits to him because on one occasion I packed all the issues of Flying Saucer Review (British) that I had in order to show them to him. He was a very pleasant man, very giving, and turned over to me a large number of now very rare issues of publications having to do with HP Lovecraft, and a very large number of 8 mm films of early collectible American shows. He was very interested in the Maury Island mystery and wrote his famous article in an early issue of Palmer´s Flying Saucer magazine.”

Ray Palmer

In the 1960s, Crisman’s career entered even darker waters. When the DA of New Orleans, Jim Garrison, decided to open an investigation into the Kennedy assassination, Crisman made sure that certain key witnesses were “relocated” outside of the state, so that Garrison could not interview them. As a result, Crisman’s name was listed as one of the potential suspects. Crisman’s reputation became even worse shortly after his death, when the House Select Committee on Assassinations thought there was a resemblance between Crisman and one of three tramps that had been arrested in the immediate aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. When the arrest records of the three tramps were rediscovered, it became clear that this conclusion was erroneous; Crisman was not one of the three tramps.
Throughout his life, Crisman continued his interest in UFOs. He attended a conference in 1967, where he gave Dahl’s alleged address to a researcher. Dahl had previously completely disappeared. When Arnold tried to contact the man after his investigation, directory enquiries told him there was no Harold Dahl in Tacoma – nor had there ever been one. It seemed as if he had never existed. Apart from giving out an address for Dahl, he also wrote certain letters to UFO researchers, using the pseudonym “F. Lee”. He told them that Fred Lee Crisman was, in his opinion, the most knowledgeable person in the United States on the subject of UFOs. The FBI was apparently aware of this “fact”.
“F. Lee” also added that Crisman had been used as the inspiration for the main character in the series The Invaders – a popular television series. “Lee” also stated that since 1947, nothing had grown on the location where the metal had crashed to the ground. Furthermore, Crisman had apparently been recalled into the Air Force and had served in Alaska, Panama and Greenland. He ended by stating that all letters that had been addressed to Dahl, had been answered by Crisman. Further analysis did indeed reveal that any correspondence allegedly from Dahl had indeed been signed for by Crisman. Finally, “Lee” stated that the B-25 that the two intelligence officers had used, had been damaged by thousands of small holes, “comparable to what we nowadays know are the effects of a laser.” The plane had apparently not burnt out, even though the pilot, who had been belted into his seat, had been totally burnt.

Crisman had started to work for Boeing, in 1960. He was responsible for the resignation of several senior managers. According to the rumours that Crisman himself spread out, the reason for their demise was the fact that they had been homosexuals.
With such statements, it should not come a surprise that people considered him to be a wheeler dealer. Two years later, he resigned and went to Washington DC. The same year, he returned to Tacoma, to teach in the local school. He felt that the system was too relaxed; for Crisman, the reason had to do with the local education officer, whom he labelled a communist.

Fred Lee Crisman fits the profile of an “agent provocateur”: someone hired to bring about certain allegations, certain claims, which can consequently be used to a desired effect. It should therefore perhaps not come as a surprise that in the 1970s, the so-called “Easy Papers” Crisman name crops up. The mysterious document allegedly originated from the CIA office in Davenport, Iowa. The document, dated September 13, 1969, relates about a CIA Disruption and Control Agent, working for the Internal Security Section 4250 ece. The agent in question was Crisman.
The report stated that Crisman was one part in a greater plan, which itself was unknown to the authors of the report. Crisman was apparently hired by the OSS, the CIA’s predecessor during World War II. After the war, Crisman had apparently received additional training in 1946, so that he could excel in his task.
The allegations made in the document confirm statements made by Crisman himself. After his death, a friend of him stated that Crisman had “no reason to lie or brag about his visit to the Pentagon and the headquarters of the Air Force. He had been shown three different documents that spoke about UFOs. The first one was for important people, the second for less important people and the third version for the ordinary citizen. The latter two documents were watered down versions of the first.”

In 1958, Palmer, the man who had decided to investigate the Maury Island incident, wrote that in his opinion, the entire incident had been a hoax. Palmer also believed that he knew who Crisman really was: “he definitely was not the person he then claimed to be.” This statement has made UFO researchers conclude that Palmer knew much more than he let out.
Palmer and Crisman have been remembered as the key figures of the Maury Island saga. But who was Dahl? And who was the person phoning Morello, relating word for word the conversations that Arnold and Smith were having with the two “witnesses”? Fifty years have passed, but there is still no answer to these questions. In the end, it was Arnold who concluded that “certain people” had gone very far to influence him and his colleague. However, he did not know the identity of these people. As to their purpose: he believed they wanted to paint the UFO phenomenon into a complex and mysterious phenomenon; a puzzle that would leave everyone confounded. In the case of Maury Island, they definitely succeeded in this endeavour.

This article originally appeared in Frontier Magazine 3.3 (1997)