UFOs in the 1950s: The Caribbean Crisis
UFOs in the 1950s: The Caribbean Crisis
By Scott Corrales- INEXPLICATA
A great deal of UFO scholarship is concentrated on the time period that spans the Truman and Eisenhower administrations – the period known as “The Fifties”, even when its cultural borders do not exactly match the chronological ones. A culture of large cars, fear of juvenile delinquency, terrified by the Red Menace and disquieted by flying saucers. Interestingly enough, the cultural construct of the “The Fifties” does not truly exist beyond the U.S.A and perhaps Canada. The decade of abundance and rock and roll meant little to a Europe slowly emerging from the ravages of a world war; Central and South America went on much the same as they had a decade earlier. No sock-hops there, either. But the presence of “flying saucers” became a common denominator worldwide as a citizenry pushed unwillingly into the Nuclear Age -- and beguiled by the promise of the incipient Space Age -- began to show interest in the strange things happening in the skies overhead.
Reports of unusual objects in the sky were not unknown in the Spanish-speaking Americas. As has been written elsewhere, the first “UFO flap” can be dated back to the Aztec era in Mexico, and South America and The Caribbean had filed away sightings of oddities as prodigios (prodigies or miracles) contained in sea captain’s logs and the formal reports made by government ministers to higher-ups. Religious significance was attached to some of them, especially if the sighting coincided with a religious holiday. Early on, nocturnal lights had been considered a welcome phenomenon, as they reputedly marked the location of buried treasure, thus sending locals on digging sprees. In the 1970s, few UFO books could go by without mentioning the objects seen “against the disk of the sun” by astronomer José Bonilla in Mexico a century earlier.
But the mid-20th century was different. Science fiction had already made inroads on the popular imagination and thoughts of venusinos and marcianos –whether courtesy of comic books or Flash Gordon serials dubbed into Spanish – raised the intriguing possibility that sentient beings, either much like ourselves or wholly monstrous, occupied these distant yet somehow familiar orbs. The platillo volador even became commonplace in movies, particularly comedies. World politics served to further rarify the atmosphere, as nuke-toting superpowers glared at each other from opposing hemispheres. Thoughts of benevolent space aliens bent on keeping humanity from annihilation filled the minds of many.
Puerto Rico, for instance, had emerged from over half a century of post-colonial mismanagement, natural disasters and starvation to become a self-governing commonwealth under the U.S. flag in 1952. That very same year, the old Borinquen Army Air Field in the island’s northwestern tip welcomed the arrival of the Strategic Air Command’s 72nd Bombardment Wing and its B-36’s, placing the island in harm’s way in the extent of any East-West hostilities. The jitters probably got worse when Statofortresses were stationed at the end of the decade (the reader will allow a brief digression at this point: the Borinquen Air Field was renamed Ramey Air Force Base in honor of Gen. Howard Ramey, a casualty of World War II, and not after Brig. Gen Roger Ramey of the 8th Army Air Force – one of the main players in the Roswell controversy). The wish for a saucer-enforced Pax Intergalactica in those troubled times tinted the messages of the active contactee communities of the period.
Puerto Rico’s Saucer Scenario
UFO activity over the Puerto Rico was commonplace in 1952. Cases were being reported from one part of the island to another, mentioning specific locations that would become familiar “hot spots” later in the century. The turbulent waters of the Mona Passage, separating Puerto Rico from the island of Hispaniola, were a particularly rich source of sightings. On May 13, 1952 at seven o’clock in the evening, prominent politician Miguel Angel Garcia was spending time with his family at their home in the city of Mayaguez, commanding a view of the city and its bay from a considerable elevation. García, his wife, daughter and son-in-law interrupted their conversation to look at two orange disks—one larger than the other-- flying high over the Mona Passage. The politician promptly went inside for his field glasses and returned to study the unusual objects. The larger of the disks had “the apparent size of the sun, according to Garcia, and was static while the smaller one maneuvered around, switching positions with each other. García’s daughter Fredita managed to photograph the strange aerial ballet between the orange disks but nothing appeared on the film due to shortcomings in the Verichrome film employed. Other residents of Mayaguez also saw the disks, but believed them to be military devices undergoing flight tests out of Ramey AFB – in an age of technical wonders, it seemed like a perfectly reasonable possibility.
On August 3rd of that year, guests and staff at San Juan’s Caribe Hilton hotel reportedly saw a pair of saucer-shaped objects flying at a considerable height over the ocean. The staff members – Dominic Tutela and Ramón Rodriguez – said that they had looked out over one the ballroom terraces facing the sea at 7:45 that evening and saw the two discs, flying in a north-northeast direction high above the water. The Hilton experience is not without humor, as one of the guests who shared the sighting with the hotel workers believed the objects to be “giant butterflies with extremely bright bodies,” and had to be reassured that there were no giant butterflies to be found on the island. On August 8th , Robert Daly, a weights-and-measures inspector, reported seeing two disks over San Juan at four thirty in the morning.
Naysayers abounded, following the lead of Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg’s rebuttal of the existence of flying saucers. Dr. F. Bueso, chair of Natural Sciences of the University of Puerto Rico, told the press that “all that has been said about flying saucers amounts to lies and tall-tales. It would not be surprising if someone should suddenly report seeing brightly colored macaws singing La Borinqueña (Puerto Rico’s national anthem).” (El Mundo, 09.05.52)
Dr. Bueso’s brightly colored macaws may have been practicing their scales even as a new sighting occurred. On October 6, 1952, photographer Frank McFerran and his wife beheld a brilliant light near Mayaguez as they drove along the road in the early evening. The object began changing colors and casting reflections on the sea surface. The McFerrans parked their vehicle at Punta Guanajibo and believed the object to be near the Cabo Rojo lighthouse. After twenty minutes of changing colors, the object vanished, prompting the witnesses to speculate that it had plunged into the ocean.
A few days later, reports of strange lights would come from Puerto Rico’s mountainous interior: Jaime Báez, a local merchant, was stunned by an object described as “a flying saucer of considerable size and unexpected brightness.” So bright, in fact, that another witness, schoolteacher Aida Reyes, had to close her eyes, comparing its brilliance with that of the sun.
Writing in his landmark book Manifiesto Ovni, Sebastián Robiou mentions cases involving multiple witnesses in the suburbs of San Juan. A circular, yellowish orb of light that was believed at first to be a balloon stunned residents of the Santa Rita urbanization with its repeated orbits of their development. The object had the apparent size of a dime, and Robiou provides the witnesses’ names, all living on the same street.
The last case of this early Fifties saucer wave over Puerto Rico also occurred over an urban area: a “flying saucer” flew so low over the Floral Park area of Hato Rey that people were able to hear what they took to be its engine, causing confusion. Between seven and eight in the evening on October 23rd, Mr. Buenaventura Quiñones and his wife Sylvia reported a glowing disk that made a buzzing sound similar to that of an electric motor. It would later turn out that their neighbors had seen the same object on previous evenings and at the same time of night.
At this point, it is interesting to note that the late Morris K. Jessup, tragic protagonist of the legendary “Varo Papers” incident, published a supplement to his The Case for the UFO which bore the title “The UFO Reporter”. This six-page document mentions a mini-flap taking place in Florida, specifically centered around Miami.
“South Florida and the neighboring oceanic areas of the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean Region of the Bahamas have long been a theatre of mystery, particularly with regard to such phenomena as have been attributed to UFO in The Case for the UFO,” writes Jessup in his addendum. “When the UFO were plaguing Washington, D.C. in the summer of 1952, there was a veritable rash of UFO phenomena centered around Miami, Florida!”
Jessup enumerates thirty-one entries in which objects resembling parallelograms, yellow-orange objects, moon-like phenomena and balls of fire are reported between July and September 1952, with some later dates added in. Entry #25 reads: “There were many reports from Cuba during this period. They are well documented in the Spanish-language press of Havana.” Dr. Jessup was not exaggerating, and we shall see some of these cases later on.
Another writer of the times, Harold T. Wilkins, was moved to say the following about these years in the pages of his Flying Saucers on the Attack (NY: Ace, 1954): “...some types of the flying saucers follow a curious pattern in flight. These objects rise slowly and vertically from the surface of the earth, then move for a short way in a horizontal line, again rise vertically, and in a series of steps, reach the desired altitude, and finally accelerate in a tremendous burst of speed.” The vertical ascents and rapid accelerations were clearly present in the Caribbean cases.
Aviation and Explosions
A four-year hiatus ensued after this early wave of sightings in Puerto Rico. Perhaps the unknown objects had learned all there was to know about humanity, or had else despaired from imposing peace upon bellicose mankind.
On March 11, 1957 Pan Am Airlines Flight 257 from New York to San Juan, Puerto Rico, had a brush with the unknown: at four thirty in the morning, while passengers slept or engaged in quiet conversation with each other, the pilot, Captain Matthew Van Winkle, was forced to make a violent evasive maneuver to avoid a collision with a strange bolide that was heading right toward the airliner. Passengers and flight attendants – except for those who had wisely never unfastened their seatbelts – flew out of their seats and crashed into the bulkheads. According to reports, the pilot had seen an object described as having "a shiny greenish core and an outer ring that reflected the inner glow." Frantically executing an evasive maneuver, Van Winkle climbed 1500 feet above the object in a matter of seconds. According to San Juan’s El Mundo newspaper, Van Winkle’s initial impression was that he was seeing the burning exhaust gases of a rocket airplane, followed by a glowing light. Pilots from other airlines two to three hundred miles away, flying the same route toward Puerto Rico, reportedly saw the same object. John Walsh, a pilot with TransCaribbean Airways, very much doubted that “he’d seen a meteorite.”
Airplanes had always been a source of curiosity to the unknown objects along the decade, and Captain Van Winkle was hardly an exception. A few months after his experience, a Brazilian pilot would have a similar encounter on the Rio-to-Victoria route: after following the airliner at a distance, a round object emitting light from its upper and lower sections entered a cloud formation, enabling the plane’s passengers and crew to make out “illuminated portholes or windows” on the object’s structure. When the intruder exited the cloud, it no longer showed any lights, vanishing in the general vicinity of Guaraparí.
The summer of ’57 would bring more UFO activity to the Caribbean Basin and beyond. On June 4th at around seven o’clock in the morning, a tremendous luminous object crossed the skies over Venezuela, flying over the Sierra de Coro before the eyes of many witnesses as the local airport. An hour later, a deafening explosion caused by a luminous, Sun-sized orb shook the ground near Arapuey, prompting many to wonder if the nuclear holocaust had already begun, engulfing their unimportant mountain hamlets. Venezuela would continue to report significant activity for weeks, ranging from gigantic disks hovering over cement factories, cigarette-shaped craft speeding by at remarkable speeds, and even more explosions of unknown origin (EUOs?) like the ones that shook the city of Carora on June 3-4, 1957, felt over a thousand-kilometer radius.
The Cuban Cases
Information has emerged in recent years on Cuba’s UFO sightings in the 1950s. One would think that with all the excitement on the ground in pre-Revolutionary days, few would be inclined to look up. And in fact, the earliest UFO report from the largest island in the Caribbean comes not from terrestrial onlookers but from a pilot: On March 16, 1950, Captain Miguel Murciano of the Compañía de Aviación Cubana reported having timed the progress of an unknown object over Antilla airport on the island’s eastern edge. The strange object, he said, was traveling at extraordinary speeds at an altitude in excess of five thousand feet “covering eight degrees in sixteen minutes” – a measurement aided by a theodolite. According to Captain Murciano, he first saw the object at ten fifteen a.m. during a routine flight from Santiago de Cuba to Antilla. All crewmembers and passengers saw the object due to the excellent visual conditions, agreeing that whatever it was, it wasn’t an airplane.
Dr. Sergio Cervera of the Comisión Investigadora de Fenómenos Aéreos (CIFA) compiled a list of significant UFO-related cases in Cuba going as far back as the 1930s. Dr. Cervera’s notes for the year 1952 include a sighting by some fifty witnesses in the village of Candonga, Palma Soriano Municipality, in Oriente Province. A very bright light appeared over the community, remained suspended, and then began zigzagging, engaging in a “cosmic ballet” that mesmerized onlookers for nearly an hour.
In 1953, Mr. Waldo Martinez, a former lieutenant in the Cuban army, was driving a military jeep toward a hospital in the city of Trinidad when his vehicle’s engine shut down after taking a hairpin curve. It was then he noticed a powerful green light flying past his jeep, landing some 200 meters away. According to the Cervera archives, the object’s lights dimmed as the jeep regained its power and Mr. Martinez and his passengers resumed their journey. This CE-2 included the discovery of a burned circle on the ground, measuring some sixty feet across.
Researcher Orestes Girbau mentions an unusual event that took place on July 5, 1959 in the Bay of Matanzas on the island of Cuba. A group of Boy Scouts and their troop leaders had gone out on a hike along the coast, setting out from the Versalles district of the city. The time was nine thirty in the morning under clear, sunny skies. The thirty or so people involved had no idea that they would soon be going down in history as part of one of the Caribbean’s most intriguing cases of that decade.
“Unexpectedly,” writes Girbau in Nuestros Foráneos, “shouts were heard from the scoutmasters, saying: look at that! as the entire formation broke ranks and ran toward the beach. Impressed, they watched an object which, according to the first of that number to see it, had emerged from the sea and was balancing gently only a few meters over the surface. The object was oval-shaped, although some insisted it was shaped like a top and yet others described it as a disk. Seconds later, the glowing disk leveled off, parallel with the sea, and rose straight up at an astonishing rate of speed, vanishing into the blue in less than 15 seconds.”
Once settled down, the witnesses agreed that the object was metallic in appearance and silver in color. Corroboration for the large group’s experience came from a nearby boat with two fishermen who bemusedly watched the phenomenon. The device, writes Girbau, was wingless and between 20 and 26 feet in diameter, noiseless and lacking any manner of exhaust.
On July 6, 1959, the Adelante newspaper ran a headline reading: “Strange Machine in the Bay of Matanzas”, claiming that the exact nature of the object remained unclear “in spite of the investigations conducted...with the inevitable speculation as to whether it was a flying saucer or another of object of the kind that flies through space.”
The fishermen who witnessed the Bay of Matanzas incident were not the only ones treated to a UFO sighting. Also in 1959, but with no specific date given, Pablo Rodriguez had been fishing off the Havana coast early in the morning, accompanied by a friend. All of a sudden, the waters near the fishing boat began to bubble intensely as a massive silvery disk emerged from the depths, hanging in mid-air and dripping seawater before taking off at great speed. As if that experience had not been shocking enough, Rodriguez claimed seeing “some figures clad in black, like undersea fishermen” swimming only a few meters from his boat. A USO and CE-3 event, all in one.
This Cuban mini-flap continued into the early years of the following decade. In 1960, Henry R. Gallart reported a UFO over the Sierra Maestra late one evening in January as he spoke to a group of soldiers on his property. In mid-discussion, they were interrupted by the arrival of a large fireball that passed silently overhead at less than a thousand feet over their heads. According to Gallart, visibility was optimal in the starry, tropical night. The UFO left a wake of multicolored sparks before vanishing. In early May 1961, Gallart would also be treated to a second sighting over the Texaco Oil Refinery at the edge of the Bay of Santiago, this time at 10:45 a.m. – the object resembled a rugby ball, by his own description (although other texts have described it as a “metallic sphere”) and engaged in a “falling leaf” motion. The sighting was corroborated by other office and field workers at the refinery.
The 1959-60 saucer wave spilled over into English-speaking Jamaica. The late Antonio Ribera included an interesting early case in his OVNIS en Iberoamerica y España (Barcelona: Plaza y Janés, 1980). On August 12, 1960, writes Ribera, Karl Rhoden, a provisional court clerk reported seeing two brilliant objects resembling inverted “letter Ys” flying single file and around 20 miles an hour over the Halfmoon Hotel. The objects were headed seaward from land, and suddenly the first object, at an estimated ten miles over the ground, increased its speed and vanished. The second object appeared to be engaged in some kind of reconnoitering activity and stayed behind before following suit. Mr. Rhoden told the Daily Gleaner newspaper that he believed the objects not to be terrestrial, but rather mechanical devices. He added that other local residents saw them as well. (Daily Gleaner, 08.16.60)
For information on 1950s “saucer activity” over Hispaniola, we must turn again to Sebastián Robiou, who went to great lengths to document activity on the second largest of the Greater Antilles.
On November 3, 1957, Santo Domingo’s El Caribe newspaper ran a story concerning the remarkable sighting of four unknown objects “resembling flying saucers” over the city over the Barahona coffee factory. According to journalist Julio Lembert, “the strange and unexpected apparition of the strange devices, which came within 100 meters of the facility, caused tremendous surprise among the factory workers who saw them at 6:30 in the morning yesterday (Nov. 1). According to statements made by Messrs. Amador Ponds and Negro Reyes, the first to see the strange craft, these approached at low altitude and remained motionless when they reached a concrete structure used to dry out the coffee. They remained there for two minutes.”
One might be tempted to believe, half-humorously, that alien pilots needed a coffee-break as much a trucker might. But Lembert’s narrative continues: “Eyewitnesses to the odd manifestations say that the objects were round and had a sort of gyrating dome at the in the middle. They flew in tight formation, imitating a “letter Y” (the reader will recall the Jamaican case) and their low altitude enabled the factory workers to get a good look. While we were unable to see any portholes or occupants—they said—we understand that the height of domes would allow a man of normal height to sit within them. In Ponds and Reyes’s opinion, as well as that of other employees, the size of the objects was about six feet in diameter. After remaining over the factory for the indicated period of time, the four objects headed east at dizzying speed, without making the least sound, vanishing from sight in seconds.”
El Caribe’s edition for the following day understandably remarks that the unexpected visit from the inquisitive objects has become “the talk of the town” and that locals are suffering from neck strain from looking up at the sky so much. Other workers – whose names are given in the newspaper – stepped forward to add their names to the original witnesses. Weeks later, an “elongated, grayish object with an intense glow in its forward section” was seen after midnight on November 15 in Baní, witnessed by Francisco Fuertes, a deputy Municipal union worker. The object vanished behind a cloud and did not emerge again.
UFOs took an interest in the Dominican Republic’s hydroelectric works during this period. A strange blue glow, as bright as a welder’s arc, emerged from an unknown object that flew over the Jimenoa Hydroelectric Plant on November 16 and 17th in the early evening. Witnesses Manuel Crune and Luis Padilla described it as resembling a very bright Christmas ornament, moving slowly fron south to north.
Activity in the Caribbean Basin may not have been as spectacular as elsewhere on the continent, but these cases provide signs of a progression toward conceivably more important events, such as the landings and close encounters that characterized the ‘60s and ‘70s in the region. No substantial literature emerged at this time beyond newspaper reports and the inevitable denials by officialdom. A number of contactee tracts circulated at the time, colored by doses of Kardecian spiritism, providing dire warnings about the end of the world and of course, the deus ex machina of salvation by the ever watchful saucerians.