World War II gave rise to the modern fascination with unidentified flying objects.
the original Foo Fighters
It was during World War II that aerial warfare became closer to what we know it today. Planes were stronger and faster than WWI as well as carried heavier weaponry. Aerial warfare became a critical tactical component to the overall war effort on both sides.
In November of 1944 the American 415th Special Operations Squadron started reporting fast-moving glowing objects in the skies following their planes. Balls of light/fire would appear, move around them, and eventually just vanish. Donald Meiers, a radar operator in the 415th Night Fighter Squadron, is credited with naming this phenomenon. Meiers borrowed a nonsense phrase from the Smokey Stover fireman comic strip. “Where there’s foo, there’s fire” was Smokey’s catch phrase. “Fuckin’ foo fighters” was how Meiers described these sightings. Eventually this was shortened to just foo fighters and came to refer to any unidentified flying object (UFO) during the war. The term UFO wasn’t created until 1953 by the American Air Force.
While foo fighters were first thought to be a German weapon of some kind it was later revealed that German pilots also noticed this unexplained phenomenon. This strange occurrence was also noticed in the Pacific theater by both the Japanese as well as Allied pilots.
While never definitively explained one of the best scientific explanations was that some sort of electromagnetic energy caused the light, similar to St. Elmo’s Fire. Named for the patron saint of sailors (where the phenomenon was seen at the top of ship masts), St. Elmo’s Fire is when a plasma is generated by taking a gas (in this care air molecules) and subjecting it to an electromagnetic field. Like the northern & southern lights, as well as neon signs, the types of gases being ionized determines what color of light is produced.
The source of the electromagnetic energy in this case may have been the planes themselves as similar phenomenon can still be seen sometimes on modern aircraft. You can have a plane is flying in an electrically charged atmosphere (such as around a thunderstorm), a charge builds up on some portion of the plane, it discharges and ionizes the gas near it creating a plasma which glows, and eventually dissipates.
This is perhaps the most plausible explanation. That or some sort of occult inspired mercury fueled Nazi Alien hybrid weapon, if you were to believe the History channel.
Many years later, Dave Grohl was reading books on UFOs and came across this World War II term for unidentified flying objects and named his band after them. He did however later comment, “Had I actually considered this to be a career, I probably would have called it something else, because it’s the stupidest fucking band name in the world.”
Meanwhile, in the Pacific theater, a different aerial based activity was also taking place. Between November of 1944 and April of 1945 the Japanese launched over 9,000 balloon bombs with the intent of terrorizing the United States. These fire balloons, or fu-go, were about 30 feet in diameter, filled with hydrogen, carried multiple bombs, and were designed to release their payload after about 3 days when they should have arrived at North America. The secret to their rapid pace across the Pacific was that the Japanese knew about, and harnessed, the jet streams. They released the balloons from the East coast of Japan to rise high up and travel in the easterly moving jet stream. As demonstrated in this US Navy training film, the balloons were designed to systematically release sandbags of ballast based on altitude so the balloon would continue to be light enough to reach North America. From there they would drop their payload pretty much anywhere destroying anything around them.
The Fu-Go was the first intercontinental weapon ever used but were pretty ineffective. The problem was that after they were released, the balloons were uncontrollable. Many never reached North America at all, which the Japanese expected, but of the ones that did only one was effective. On May 5th of 1945 a pregnant Elsie Winters Mitchell and 5 Sunday school children were out for a picnic in Bly, Oregon and saw one of the balloons laying in a field. It is thought that someone kicked one of the bombs and it detonated.
One of the main reasons the Japanese stopped the program was because of how ineffective it was. There was little evidence at all of the balloons doing any damage anywhere. This was partially because the balloons really were ineffective but also because the US government hushed it up.
The US Office of Censorship, which existed between 1941 and 1945, stepped in to put a blackout on any mention in the press of the mystery balloons. If word got out that the balloons were reaching North America then the Japanese may have been encouraged to continue. Discussing the mystery balloons might also have created panic among Americans.
In July of 1947, on a ranch outside Roswell New Mexico, a large balloon crashed down. The US Army informed the press that one of their weather balloons had crashed and they had recovered the wreckage. Some have described this balloon as being a more advanced design, but similar to, the Japanese fu-go from a few years earlier. Rumors began to spread and soon civilians were talking about UFOs, aliens, and what the government was hiding. Years later in the 1990s the military said this balloon was part of Project Mogul, which was a top-secret cold-war project to launch devices into high-altitudes and spy on the Soviets by listening for long-range sounds of atomic bomb testing. The “flying saucer” was the portion of the device connected below the balloon which housed the audio equipment.
In the meantime though conspiracy theories abounded and developed over the following decades. Perhaps the Japanese Fu-Go inspired US Military devices of similar design that unintentionally started the UFO alien craze. Or, like the foo fighters, the truth is still out there.