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WHEN IS A HOAX NOT A HOAX? A 75th Anniversary Reassessment of the Maury Island Incident

Saucer shadow over boat

Preface: My Maury Island “Origin Story.”

I first heard about the Maury Island Incident on a Saturday, October 8, 2011. I recall this date clearly, because I’d watched the premiere of Ken Burns’ Prohibition documentary earlier in the week, and saw that a small piece of the story was about bootlegger Roy Olmstead’s final Prohibition-era arrest — an arrest that took place in my neighborhood at the old Woodmont Dock on Puget Sound, Washington.

And I had never heard the story.

My neighbor and I had met — as we always did — at a local coffee shop that Saturday, and we talked at length about this amazing lost piece of local history. While we were reveling in both our ignorance, and that “treasure hunt” adrenaline moment that discovering lost history can provide, another man in the coffees shop — that we did not know —  leaned toward us and said:

“You like local history? You must know about the Maury Island Incident, right? Like in the 1950s or something. A bunch of flying saucers? Right here out on Puget Sound!”

We did not know. I have lived in the Puget Sound region for nearly my entire life, and for the last twenty years my home has looked across the Sound to Maury Island, and I had never heard the story. We politely acknowledged the man (we have since privately, jokingly referred to him as our own hyper-local “Deep Throat” informant), and thanked him for his comments, but quickly returned to our private conversation — with slightly lowered voices. I was not particularly interested in UFOs, outside their frequent role in science fiction films. I’m a lawyer, indie filmmaker, and sometime local historian. I tend toward skepticism and deconstruction of wild tales. My legal training teaches me to challenge speculation. I live in the world of what is “admissible” and what can be “proven.” Candidly, the coffee-shop man’s story sounded exaggerated — it had to be — and I was happy that we could privately continue with our conversation without interruption.

When I went home, however, the idea of a wild UFO story just off our beach — that I didn’t know about — became irresistible. It was the local aspect that hooked me. True or not, it was piece of history that had been hidden, at least from me. It felt a bit like I’d been handed a piece of a treasure map.

I jumped on Google. I typed “maury island incident.” I went down the rabbit hole.

The Maury Island “Conventional Wisdom.”

I discovered on that first day that the Maury Island Incident story — even in short form — is epic. Confusing. Controversial. Disputed. Despised. Ignored. And, most of all, and deliciously for a lawyer and historian, Maury Island is incredibly well-documented.

I learned on that first day in the rabbit hole that Maury Island has long been dismissed as a hoax; this seemed to explain why I’d never heard of this story, and how the Roswell crash had so completely captured the world’s fascination. The disappearance of Maury Island into history’s dustbin made some sense. If a hoax is confessed, there is no point to forensic investigation. There is nothing to investigate. Fortunately, my curiosity was not quenched by the claim of hoax. In fact, as a writer and microhistorian, I was quite comfortable in seeking to understand the full story from the hoax perspective. For me — hoax or not, the story was immediately gripping. But in a strange reversal of the typical forensic investigation of a very strange tale — the story did not fall apart upon deeper and deeper review. Just the opposite. Everything evolved — narrative became stronger, the characters more dimensional, the politics more complex, the power struggles more bitter, the stakes escalated, and the convenient, conventional wisdom narrative — that Maury Island should be ignored because it was a confessed hoax — began to unravel.

The Maury Island Incident 101: The two days that launched the Summer of the Saucers.

The basic story is this:

On June 21, 1947, Tacoma’s Harold Dahl, his son Charles, two day-work crewmen, and the family dog left Tacoma in Dahl’s boat, the North Queen. They intended to scavenge drifting, rogue logs and resell them to lumber companies (an actual career at the time). They travelled approximately 3 miles North, until they were just off shore of the East Bay of Maury Island. According to Dahl, they saw six flying discs in the sky, hollow like donuts, a hundred feet in diameter.

One was lower than the others, appeared to be failing. It released a chaff, followed by an explosion. Fire and a molten material — referred to as slag — rained down onto the boat. The boat was damaged; Charles was struck on his arm and burned; Sparky, the family dog, was killed.

They were so afraid that they ran the North Queen aground on Maury Island and hid beneath the cliffs. The failing disc seemed to recover; then all six discs left.

They agreed to tell no one; what they’d seen was too strange and unbelievable.

But the “strange and unbelievable” was just beginning.

A warning from history’s first “Man in Black.”

The next morning, a man dressed in a black suit came to Dahl’s home. He wanted to discuss what had happened to Dahl on the water the day before. He requested that they go to a diner in Tacoma. At the diner, the man in black told Harold everything — the entire account — of what had happened to Harold. And then the man in black warned Harold that he shouldn’t tell anyone about what he saw, or bad things would happen, both to Harold and his family.

However, the history reveals that Dahl did talk. And certainly, he talked with his colleague, the infamous Fred Crisman. The two of them contacted Ray Palmer and Amazing Stories magazine. By this time, the 1947 “summer of the saucers” was underway. Kenneth Arnold had seen nine flying discs while flying near Mt. Rainier.

Many other flying disc sightings occurred throughout the Pacific Northwest, and sightings were spreading nationwide. In early July, the Army announced the crash of a UFO in the desert outside Roswell, New Mexico, and then retracted the story just three hours later.

Thousands of sightings were reported worldwide during the summer of 1947. And while it is hard to imagine today, our government institutions viewed the numerous flying disc sightings as a serious matter.

This was not likely based upon a concern about “little green men.” President Truman had just announced in May of 1947 his “Containment Doctrine” — because our nation had just entered the Cold War against a new enemy, the Soviet Union. The government was concerned about the possibility that what was happening in the skies might actually be overflights conducted by our new geopolitical adversary. The gravity of government concern even sparked a feud: the FBI, led by Director J. Edgar Hoover at the height of his post WWII powers, our Army, and newly formed CIA — actually fought over jurisdiction to investigate the UFO sightings in the summer of 1947. Hoover at one point railed in a memo that the FBI had exclusive jurisdiction over flying discs on the ground, bellowing that the Army Air Force was welcome to investigate any flying disc, but only if they could catch it in the sky. Not surprisingly, later that same summer, the mercurial Hoover fully reversed course and thereafter refused to allow a single FBI finger to be lifted to chase down flying disc sightings.

The first Maury Island investigations.

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