Post by Graveyardbride on Sept 3, 2019 20:47:29 GMT -5
September 3, 1965: Incident at Exeter
It started early on the morning of Friday, September 3, 1965, in southeastern New Hampshire, not far from the state’s tiny share of the Atlantic shore. Norman J. Muscarello, 18, was hitchhiking to his home in the small town of Exeter from Amesbury, Mass., around 12 miles south. He had sold his car because he had just enlisted in the navy and was preparing to leave for basic training. It was after midnight and few vehicles were traveling that remote part of Route 150 and the teenager had to walk most of the way, but it was a clear night and he didn’t really mind. The boy was on the final stretch with approximately two miles to go when he saw it.
An enormous sphere arose like a red moon from behind some trees. But it was no moon. It pitched forward and hovered over a nearby house belonging to Clyde Russell, bathing the entire structure and surroundings in brilliant crimson. Muscarello estimated the thing was 80- or 90-feet-long, much larger than the Russell home, and there was a belt of blinking red lights around the outer perimeter. He had no idea what it was, but knew it was no ordinary aircraft, for it yawed and careened clumsily and made no noise whatsoever. Suddenly, the thing appeared to lurch toward him and Muscarello dived into the ditch for cover. Then the craft, or whatever it was, disappeared behind the trees.
He got up, sprinted to the Russell house and pounded frantically on the door, yelling for help, but there was no response. He didn’t know it at the time, but the Russells weren’t at home. Then he saw the headlights of a car and dashed out into the road and flagged it down. The driver stopped and the couple gave him a ride into Exeter. At 2:26 a.m., a badly-shaken Muscarello stumbled into the Exeter police station babbling about having seen a UFO.
Reginald “Scratch” Toland, the officer at the desk, listened as the teen recounted a discombobulated tale. At the age of 55, he’d heard all sorts of wild stories and immediately dismissed the young man’s account of a big space ship with flashing red lights and asked how many beers he’d had that night. “Look,” Muscarello, who had calmed down somewhat, said, “I know you don’t believe me. I don’t blame you. But you got to send somebody back out there with me!” Toland still placed no stock in the story, but could see the boy was genuinely scared and Muscarello was a former Boy Scout who had earned the Order of Arrow and as such, probably wasn’t given to flights of fancy. Besides, it was a slow night, so Toland thought, “What the heck,” and called in a patrol unit.
Minutes later, Officer Eugene F. Bertrand Jr., 32, arrived at the station and Toland was surprised when his fellow officer informed him there had been at least one other sighting of the unidentified flying object. While patrolling the outskirts of Exeter, Bertrand had spotted a car parked on the shoulder of the highway and when he walked up to the vehicle, discovered a frightened woman too distraught to drive because, she claimed, a glowing red object had followed her all the way from Epping, a distance of around 12 miles. She said it had hovered over her car until she reached Exeter, then shot straight up and vanished in the night sky. Though the lady wasn’t inebriated, Bertrand nevertheless dismissed her preposterous tale and didn’t even bother reporting it to the station. Now, here was another citizen insisting he had encountered the same flying object.
Bertrand and Muscarello drove to the location where the boy allegedly saw the UFO. The moon had set before midnight, there was very little wind and the stars twinkled in the inky darkness. Bertrand parked the cruiser near a telephone pole not far from the Russell house and though his passenger was still visibly upset, the officer didn’t see anything unusual. Nevertheless, the two got out and walked across a field owned by Carl Dining toward the woods. When they reached a fenced area where there were some horses, Bertrand shined his flashlight about while attempting to persuade Muscarello he had probably seen a helicopter. After all, Pease Air Force Base was a scant 10 miles to the northeast. But the teen was having none of it. He was familiar with various aircraft he told the older man, knew a helicopter when he saw one, and what he’d seen was no helicopter. By this time, Bertrand was convinced they were wasting their time and was about to suggest they return to the cruiser when something disturbed the horses. They began pawing and whinnying and dogs in nearby yards commenced howling. Suddenly, Muscarello cried, “I see it! I see it!”
And there it was. Bertrand couldn’t believe his eyes as he stood mesmerized, watching a brilliant oval object rise from behind the trees. Silently, it wobbled toward them much as a leaf flutters from a tree, illuminating the landscape in scarlet. Bertrand, an air force veteran, was familiar with U.S. aircraft and couldn’t help thinking what he was looking at was not of this world. Terrified, he drew his weapon, though what good it would do against beings from outer space was something he didn’t want to consider. Still he was about to fire when he thought better of it and hurried after Muscarello, who seemed intent upon putting as much distance between himself and the red thing as possible.
“My God!” Bertrand yelled into his radio when the got back to the cruiser, “I see the damn thing myself!” Then he and Muscarello watched, enthralled, as the object, some 300 feet away, hovered at what they estimated to be around a hundred feet in the air. It rocked silently back and forth, as brilliant red lights flashed sequentially. They were so bright, Bertrand later recalled, that he could not determine the exact shape of the object. It was, he said, “like trying to describe a car with its headlights coming at you.”
Another police officer, 26-year-old David R. Hunt, had been listening to the radio transmissions and decided to have a look. He pulled up, exited his vehicle and couldn’t believe his eyes. “I could see those pulsating lights,” he later remembered. “I could hear those horses kicking out in the barn there. Those dogs were really howling. Then it started moving, slow-like, across the tops of the trees, just above the trees. It was rocking when it did this. A creepy type of look. Airplanes don’t do this.”
Still, Bertrand didn’t want to believe what he was seeing. “Your mind is telling you this can’t be true and yet you’re seeing it,” he explained. “I kept telling Dave, What is that, Dave? What do you think? He’d say, ‘I don’t know. I have never seen an aircraft like that before, and I know damn well they haven’t changed that much since I was in the service.’”
The object finally moved out toward the ocean. “We waited a while,” Hunt said in his report. “A B-47 came over. You could tell the difference. There was no comparison.”
Shortly after Bertrand’s hysterical message, Toland received another call, this one from a night telephone operator in Exeter. “Some man had just called her,” Toland reported later, “and he was so hysterical he could hardly talk straight. He told her that a flying saucer came right at him, but before he could finish, he was cut off.” The caller had been at a pay phone in Hampton, about seven miles east of Exeter. Toland notified the Hampton police and Pease Air Force Base. The distressed caller was never located, but that night and for several nights thereafter, there were reports of similar sightings.
The following day, two tight-lipped air force officers interviewed Muscarello, Bertrand and Hunt, then returned to the base. Air force regulations required that all official comments be issued by the Secretary of the Air Force in Washington and no one knew when such would be forthcoming. In the meantime, when questioned, air force personnel resorted to that old standby: “We can neither confirm nor deny ....”
Nevertheless, because of the number of witnesses involved, their credibility and the convincing details of their reports, the story could not be ignored. It was picked up by the national news services and among those intrigued by the reports was John Fuller, a columnist for The Saturday Review. Fuller published his own carefully-researched version of what came to be known as the “Exeter Incident,” after which he launched an even more thorough investigation.
In the photo above, (left to right) are Muscarello, Hunt and Bertrand. Toland is seated.
Fuller wasn’t alone. The National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP), headquartered in Washington, had already assigned an investigator to the case. Despite its lofty name, NICAP had no official status; it was nothing more than an organization of private citizens who were convinced UFO sightings were not being property studied. Raymond E. Fowler, a volunteer NICAP investigator from Massachusetts, visited Exeter, collected signed statements from witnesses and compiled a thorough 18-page report. Fowler was impressed by the quality of the reports of the sighting and told Fuller “both the officers are intelligent, capable and seem to know what they’re talking about.”
Others were less impressed. A local reporter who knew a pilot who often flew around the Exeter area towing an illuminated advertising sign suggested this was what everyone had been seeing. Aside from the fact there was no similarity between the sign and the descriptions of the UFO, it was later confirmed the aircraft and sign had been on the ground when the sightings occurred.
Then there was the air force with its usual pseudo-apathetic stance, in spite of the proximity of the reported aerial phenomena to Pease Air Force Base, a Strategic Air Command bomber base boasting both B-47s and B-52s. Several witnesses reported having observed – in addition to the big red UFO – a number of fighter jets in the sky that night. Area residents were accustomed to seeing bombers, but not fighters and the presence of interceptors suggested the aircraft had been scrambled from other bases to investigate the UFOs. Of course, the air force emphatically denied this.
There was other evidence, however, indicating the air force was intensely interested in the incident at Exeter. For some time thereafter, air force officers were observed prowling the roads where the sightings had taken place. Two of them – a colonel and major – engaged in an angry exchange with some local citizens when the colonel insisted that what everyone had taken for a UFO was just the glare of landing lights at the base. In the face of vociferous denials, the colonel sent the major off to have the runway marker lights and approach strokes (which provide visual assistance to pilots in all weather conditions) turned on and off for a 15-minute period of time. Neither the colonel nor anyone else present saw a thing.
In due course, the air force issued its official pronouncement on the Exeter sightings. The October 27, 1965, statement from the Pentagon offered several explanations, all of which were attributed to what one might call “natural causes” and none of which was satisfactory. To begin with, an air force spokesman claimed multiple aircraft had been flying in the area because of a Strategic Air Command training exercise. Moreover, there had been a weather inversion in which cold air is trapped between warm layers of air, causing stars and planets to “dance and twinkle.” In conclusion, he said, “We believe what the people saw that night were stars and planets in unusual formations.” He offered no specifics concerning these so-called unusual formations.
Later it was discovered the training exercise had been conducted by Westover Air Force Base in Springfield, Mass., in excess of 130 flight miles southwest of Exeter, and it was over by 2 a.m., well before Officers Bertrand and Hunt observed the UFO. As to the dancing planets in unusual formations, there was nothing to check.
Bertrand and Hunt, embarrassed by the disparaging official explanation of their frightening experience, wrote a letter of protest to the air force. Approximately three months later, they received an apology of sorts. Signed by a lieutenant colonel in an air force public information office, it said, “Based on additional information you submitted to our UFO investigation office at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, we have been unable to identify the object you observed on September 3, 1965.” But, the letter continued, saying virtually all such reports in the past had turned out to be manmade objects, or the product of atmospheric conditions, or meteors. The letter ended with: “Thank you for reporting your observation to the Air Force.”
John Fuller’s book, Incident at Exeter, stimulated a third and more serious attempt to explain what happened in southern New Hampshire. The book was read carefully by, among many others, Philip J. Klass, an electrical engineer and senior editor at Aviation Week & Space Technology. He was preparing to debunk UFOs at a 1966 symposium sponsored by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. The engineer was struck by several themes in the Exeter sightings, which he attributed to ball lightning, one example of what physicists call a plasma – a region of ionized gas (in this case, air) created by a strong electrical charge. Klass extended his study to 746 other sightings documented by NICAP, but received scant encouragement from the scientific community. Traditional scientists had little reason to pursue his hypothesis and despite his extensive work, Klass had failed to answer all the questions concerning the Exeter incident, which to this day, remains unexplained.
But as outlandish as Klass’s theory was, it wasn’t as ridiculous as that published in the November/December 2011 issue of The Skeptical Inquirer, wherein James McGaha and Joe Nickell claimed what the witnesses saw that night was an Air Force KC-97 refueling plane.
The refueling claim was disputed by many who witnessed the phenomenon on successive nights. For example, two women driving from New York to New Hampshire on the night of Saturday, September 4, reported seeing a flying object with a band of flashing red lights that were so bright the ladies missed their turnoff and as a consequence, became hopelessly lost in the countryside.
* * *
Shortly after the UFO hoopla, Muscarello left for basic training, after which he was assigned to USS Boston. He served three tours of duty in Vietnam before leaving the navy and returning to Exeter. He died at his home following a short illness on February 23, 2003. He was only 55-years-old. He is buried in Exeter Cemetery
The three police officers involved in the sighting are also dead: Scratch Toland, the desk officer, died in November 1994; Eugene Bertrand in October 1998; and David Hunt passed away in January 2011. Like Muscarello, they, too, were laid to rest in Exeter Cemetery.
* * *
It’s been more than a half-century since Officer Reginald Toland took the report of a terrified teenager, who insisted he’d seen a UFO and the incident is now a major part of the New Hampshire coast’s rich history of strangeness. Over the years, there have been countless sightings of unidentified flying objects, close encounters with ghosts, alien abductions – the September 1961 Betty and Barney Hill abduction occurred in New Hampshire – and other unexplained phenomena. There was a time when communities ignored, or attempted to suppress, such accounts, but in the 21st century, people are more likely to embrace these mysteries and turn them into profitable endeavors. Just this past weekend, visitors from far and wide flocked to the area for the Exeter UFO Festival, a celebration of the “visitation” of 1965. And last April, just eight miles north of Exeter, the town of Stratham, N.H., hosted the New England Para-Fest.
“We’re only aware of such a tiny little piece of what’s around us,” said Dean Merchant, who organized the first Exeter UFO Festival in 2011. “It’s part of that bigger mystery. I think that it’s fun for people; it makes us think there is something more out there, and we ask, ‘What is it?’”
Sources: The UFO Phenomenon, Time-Life Books, 1987; Cherise Leclerc, WMUR, August 31, 2019; Larry Clow, Portsmouth.com, September 2, 2015; Colleen Lint, UFO Casebook, March 2, 2003; Maria Clark; Find-a-Grave; and James McGaha and Joe Nickell, The Skeptical Inquirer, November/December 2011.