During the Autumn of 1947, the air was still fresh with news of “flying saucers” that many in the United States—including military personnel—were claiming to have seen.
Although many in officialdom remained skeptical, there nonetheless remained a level of concern within the United States Government regarding the origins of the saucers; were all of these witnesses just mistaken, or could the Soviets have a new aerial capability that seemed to surpass anything we had here at home?
The Army Air Forces naturally became tasked with looking into the matter, and occasionally aiding their inquiries were field agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, when requested. However, by September of that year, things had begun to grow sour in terms of the level of cooperation between the agencies. How cooperation between the Army Air Force and the FBI related to UFOs fell apart is one of the many interesting historical footnotes in the more than seven decades of U.S. government involvement with the subject.
One Air Defense Command Headquarters memo dated September 3, 1947, titled “Cooperation of FBI with AAF on Investigations of ‘Flying Disc’ Incidents,” might be seen as the catalyst for the breakup. It was delivered to Command Generals with the First, Second, Fourth, Tenth, Eleventh and Fourteenth Air Forces, and came directly from Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence Colonel R. H. Smith at Headquarters of Air Defense Command, Mitchel Field, New York. In it, Smith outlined the problems that had begun to appear between the agencies, along with his own apparent flippancy toward the flying saucer reports.
“The Federal Bureau of Investigation has agreed to assist Air Force Intelligence personnel in the investigation of 'flying disc' incidents in order to quickly and effectively rule out what are pranks and to concentrate on what appears to be a genuine incident,” the memo stated, adding that the original arrangement had been that the FBI “would investigate incidents of so-called "discs" being found on the ground” and that the Bureau’s services “were enlisted in order to relieve the numbered Air Forces of the task of tracking down all the many instances which turned out to be ash can covers, toilet seats, and whatnot.”
The memo’s dismissive tone regarding “ash can covers” and “toilet seats” mistaken for fallen saucers hadn’t gone unnoticed. In fact, one field agent with the FBI’s San Francisco office became particularly irked by the Colonel Smith’s tone, firing back a few choice words in a memorandum of his own, dated September 19, 1947.
“It is my understanding from recent Bureau instructions that we are to assist the Air Force Intelligence personnel in the investigation of flying disc incidents,” wrote Harry M. Kimball, Special Agent in Charge, in the late September memo.
In his retort, Kimball wrote that “the attention of the Bureau is respectfully called to paragraph two of this letter and to the last sentence therein which states, ‘The services of the FBI were enlisted in order to relieve the numbered Air Forces of the task of tracking down all the many instances which turned out to be ash can covers, toilet seats, and whatnot.’
While Kimball primarily took issue with instructions contained in Smith’s September 3 memo which, in his view, would have a limiting effect on the investigations conducted by the FBI, he also took notice of Smith’s sarcasm, stating that “it appears to me the wording of the last sentence in the second paragraph mentioned above is cloaked in entirely uncalled-for language tending to indicate the Bureau will be asked to conduct investigations only in those cases which are not important and which are almost, in fact, ridiculous.
“The thought has occurred to me the Bureau might desire to discuss this matter further with the Army Air Forces,” Kimball wrote, “both as to the type of investigations which we will conduct and also to object to the scurrilous wordage which, to say the least, is insulting to the Bureau in the last sentence of paragraph two.”
On September 26, Kimball’s initial letter received a response from Assistant Director Ladd, who wrote in a memorandum of his own that “It is recommended that the Bureau protest vigorously to the Assistant Chief of Air Staff-2,” further recommending that the FBI “discontinue all activity in this field and that the Bureau Field Offices be advised to discontinue all investigations and to refer all complaints received to the Air Forces.” With the help of Ladd’s response, Kimball’s initial complaint with the Army Air Force and, more specifically, Colonel Smith’s “uncalled-for language” went all the way up to Director J. Edgar Hoover, who upon reading it, fired off a memo of his own directly to Major General George MacDonald, Assistant Chief of Air Staff.
“The Federal Bureau of Investigation has been requested by your office to assist in the investigation of reported sightings of flying discs,” Hoover’s memorandum led off. My attention has been called to instructions disseminated by the Air Forces relative to this matter.”
However, things went downhill from here, as Hoover’s dissatisfaction quickly became reflected in the further wording of the memorandum to General MacDonald.
“I have been advised that these instructions indicate that the Air Forces would interview responsible observers while the FBI would investigate incidents of discs found on the ground, thereby relieving the Air Force of running down incidents which in many cases turned out to be ‘ash can covers, toilet seats, and whatnot.’
“In view of the apparent understanding by the Air Forces of the position of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in this matter,” Hoover steamed, “I cannot permit the personnel and time of this organization to be dissipated in this manner. I am advising the Field Divisions of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to discontinue all investigative activity regarding the reported sightings of flying discs, and am instructing them to refer all complaints received to the appropriate Air Force representative in their area.
Hoover’s stormy reply to the Army Air Force was followed by an additional Bureau Bulletin, which was sent out on October 1, stating that “Effective immediately, the Bureau has discontinued its investigative activities,” and that “All future reports connected with flying discs should be referred to the Air Forces and no investigative action should be taken by Bureau Agents.”
Thus ended the cooperation between the Army Air Force and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI on the investigation of UFOs, and within months of the story of “flying saucers” first coming to public attention in the summer of 1947. One can’t help but wonder whether things might have played out differently, had the Assistant Chief of Air Staff-2, Colonel Smith, not felt it appropriate to inject his own cynicism into the matter.
Nonetheless, the resulting document trail marks the beginning of a pattern involving uncooperative exchanges between government agencies on the UFO issue… a pattern that after more than seven decades, continues even into the present day.