One evening in November 1944, when World War 2 was drawing to an end, airmen from 415th Night Fighter Squadron reported some glowing, orb-like objects tailing their aircraft as they were flying along German-occupied Rhine Valley.
Pilot Lt. Edward Schlueter, intelligence officer Lt. Fred Ringwald, and radar observer Lt. Donald J. Meiers were scared and uncertain of what they saw.
They thought of another dogfight, an inevitable war ahead.
As the unknown objects in fiery orange, red, or green color were following their aircraft at 200 mph, the crew found out that the objects never showed up in the airborne radar and the ground control.
For them, what they saw was one of the strangest things on Earth. The airmen saw eight to 10 bright orange lights flying through the air at high speed, sometimes outmaneuvering the plane.
As the chase continued, the airmen reported that light appeared farther away for several minutes and disappeared.
Meiers said he had “horrible thought that a German on the ground was ready to press a button and explode them.”
“But they don’t explode or attack us. They just seem to follow us like will-o’-the wisps,” said Meiers when he first saw the objects off their wingtips.
Meiers, a fan of American cartoonist Bill Holman, called the glowing objects “foo fighters” based on nonsense word uttered by characters in the popular firefighter cartoon strip “Smokey Stover”.
The speculation and the story of the newly coined word “foo fighters” eventually spread and made it on the front page of The New York Times dated January 2, 1945. It was written by Robert Wilson, a war correspondent with the Associated Press.
In his article titled “Balls of Fire Stalk U.S. Fighters In Night Assaults Over Germany,” Wilson wrote about the first-hand accounts of the U.S. airmen after he spent a New Year’s Eve celebration with the 415th.
The article also brought speculations that it was a man-made weapon developed by the German Nazis.
The consistency and the impact of the sightings with the 415th crew members finally prompted investigations into the unknown, glowing orb-like things.
What did the historians, scientists, and conspiracy theorists say about the objects?
“The pilots were very professional. They gave the report, talked about the lights, but didn’t speculate about them,” said Richard Ziebart, a historian for the 417th Night Fighter Squadron.
“I think the foo fighters didn’t show up on the radar because they were plain light,” added the historian.
“Radar had to have a solid object. If there was any bogey out there, the pilots would absolutely be able to tell,” said Ziebert, who did not explain the phenomenon.
An investigation by the officers from Army Air Command yielded no official result after their research was reportedly lost after World War 2.
In 1953, the CIA directed a panel of six scientists, led by Caltech physicist Howard P. Robertson, to shed light on the issue of whether lights could pose as a national security threat.
The scientists, who were familiar with experimental aviation technology, were not able to offer an official conclusion, as well.
Conspiracy theorists, aspiring psychologists, and aviation aficionados came forward and made some explanations on the sightings. They said the objects were weather balloons or flares.
Others theorized that the sightings were St. Elmo’s Fire, a discharge of light that comes out on the tips of objects in electrical fields. But the airmen didn’t believe in these because weather balloons and flares can’t follow an aircraft movement like how these glowing orb-like things could. The St. Elmo’s Fire theory was also rejected because they said they could distinguish it. Calling it the St. Elmo’s Fire was farfetched because the objects showed such extreme maneuverability.
Another outrageous claim was that the airmen were hallucinating due to combat fatigue or war stress. But this was debunked by an American Legion Magazine reporter who was able to talk and interview the squadron.
The reporter described the crew members as “very normal airmen, whose primary interest was combat, and after that came pin-up girls, poker, doughnuts and the derivatives of the grape.”
The theory on German military secret weapons was also rejected because the lights did not cause any damage to the aircraft.
Interestingly, more sightings were reported after November 1944.
A pilot also saw “5 or 6 flashing red and green lights in ’T’ shape” while he was flying at approximately 800 feet along Breisach, Germany on December 17, 1944.
He said the lights seemed to close in “to about 8 o’clock and 1,000 ft” before it disappeared.
On December 22, two more airmen sighted the glowing objects.
A crew said he saw two large orange lights, following the aircraft “for approximately two minutes.”
The orange lights also “peel off and turn away, fly along level for a few minutes and then go out. They appear to be under perfect control at all times.”
Was German-born rocket scientist Wernher von Braun behind the strange, glowing sightings?
Pointing fingers to the Nazi astrophysicists Wernher von Braun seemed a plausible idea after the 32-year-old rocket scientist helped the German military develop the long-range guided ballistic missile called V-2 rocket that was used by Nazi leader Adolf Hitler against Belgium and other Allied countries in Europe in 1944.
Not to mention, the sightings happened mostly in Nazi-occupied territories in Europe. After Germany was defeated, the sightings also disappeared.
Interestingly, the U.S. brought Von Braun to the States to work for the U.S. Army instead of facing war crimes after World War 2.
As part of the clandestine Operation Paperclip, von Braun, along with some 1,600 other scientists, reinvented himself as an American patriot and eventually became part of NASA.
As the chief architect on Saturn V, the German-born scientist helped sent Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 crew to the moon in 1969. For more than 40 years, the U.S. government kept the fact about the aerospace engineer’s past life with the Nazis.
Since Von Braun’s life and works were whitewashed, the unexplained sightings during World War 2 remain to be shroud in mystery.
“The fantasy is that 100 years after the war, the U.S. or Soviets will release information about what they captured, and it’ll blow all our minds. But I think they would’ve capitalized on it by this point or weaponized it,” said Nicholas Veronico, a renowned author of military aviation history books.