The word ‘foo-fighter’ is instantly recognised by rock fans and ufologists alike, and most forteans are aware of World War II stories of the balls of fire and other extraordinary phenomena that paced, buzzed and pursued warplanes over the European and Pacific theatres of conflict. Foo-fighters are frequently mentioned in early UFO literature, but little was known about the origins of the mystery until recently.
An account by the late UFO researcher Len Stringfield of his sighting of three teardrop-shaped, wingless objects during the summer of 1945 piqued the interest of filmmaker and UFO researcher Keith Chester, leading him to write this book. Stringfield, then a sergeant in the US 5th Air Force Intelligence Corps, was a passenger on a C-46 flying near the Japanese islands when the objects came into view, an appearance which coincided with engine trouble. His plane made it to dry land and Stringfield was at a loss to explain what he saw as enemy aircraft. (The war was over: Berlin had fallen and Japan had capitulated.)
There have been frequent rumours that the US and British governments investigated these phenomena. Until recently, little research had been done into the extensive wartime archives, but this has changed over the past two decades with the release of formerly secret intelligence files. Evidence of the RAF’s inquiries into what they called “night phenomena” came to light during my own research with Andy Roberts into British government files at the UK National Archives for our book Out of the Shadows (2002). These limited investigations concluded that some sightings by aircrew could be accounted for as misperceptions of rockets, flak and natural phenomena by aircrew under extreme combat stress. Others remained unknown, a conclusion which neatly reflects that of post-war official studies of flying saucers and UFOs.
Possibly the most intriguing revelations in this book are the results of Keith Chester’s inquiries at the US National Archives, which threw up references to a joint US–British foo-fighter investigation later in the war, and a direct link with post-war UFO studies by the intelligence services. Most important of all was the involvement in wartime investigations of Bob Robertson, the US physicist who presided over a scientific panel that reviewed the UFO evidence for the CIA in 1953. What Robertson and his team concluded is unclear, as Chester’s trail went cold.
What emerges from this data is that the traditional idea of modern ufology having its origins in 1947 with Kenneth Arnold’s sighting is wrong. As Jerry Clark notes in the foreword to this, the first in-depth study of WWII UFOs, it is now clear that the genesis of the phenomenon – and official concern about it – can be traced back to the middle of WWII. Strange Company makes clear for the first time just how frequent the wartime sightings were and the concern they created within the Allied military, who seriously feared they could be advanced secret weapons developed by the Axis forces. This gave rise to the persistent myth that foo-fighters were highly advanced flying saucers created by Nazi scientists, whose designs were later captured and developed in secrecy by the Americans. The proponents of this bizarre theory will find little to support their claims in this sensible, sober book, which largely sticks to primary source material apart from a few unfortunate lapses. It demonstrates clearly how the phenomena lumped together under the catch-all label ‘foo fighters’ included not only nebulous lights but also objects of all conceivable shapes and sizes, seen at night and during daylight both from the air and ground, including craft-like objects that appeared to aircrew to be under some form of intelligent control.
The etymology of ‘foo (or phoo) fighters’ remains something of an enigma and is touched upon only briefly in Chester’s book. Andy Roberts, in a survey carried out for the Fund for UFO Research during the 80s, discovered the phrase was not recognised by RAF aircrew, who referred to the UFOs they saw during WWII as ‘the Light’, ‘The Thing’ and ‘balls of fire’. Strange Company traces the American usage to the ‘foo mobile’, a truck used by madcap fireman Smokey Stover, a character in a wartime comic strip popular with US servicemen. His catch-phrase, “where there’s foo there’s fire” was seemingly adopted by aircrew serving with the USAAF’s 415th Night Fighter Squadron to describe the many strange sightings they made during intruder missions over Nazi Germany in 1944–45. The fact that the Allies used a different nomenclature to describe the weird things in the sky underlines the confusion that reigned in the military hierarchy which struggled to account for them.
Apart from a vague reference to the effect that while war was raging “there appeared to be someone, or some-thing from somewhere else, watching us” Keith Chester steers clear of speculation or elaborate theories. The implication is that he feels an extraterrestrial explanation is the only viable option for some of the more baffling encounters reported by aircrew. In fact, a whole range of alternative explanations for the individual sightings described in this book could have been explored. Its value, ultimately, lies in its usefulness as a source of original data, much of which has not seen the light of day before. Unfortunately, in his attempt to write a comprehensive introduction, Chester included a survey of pre-WWII sightings which draws on some less than reliable sources. He describes a 1933 story as “the first officially acknowledged UFO sighting by a unit of the British RAF”. It describes how a flight of Hawker Furies encountered a brilliant light over Sussex which stalled engines and left one pilot with burns. The source for this ‘encounter’ – a 1947 book on the history of 3 Squadron – does not exist, nor do the pilots named in the account, who appear in neither the squadron operations record books nor the Air Force list. Some mysteries, it seems, are easier to resolve than others.