The term foo fighter was used by Allied aircraft pilots in World War II to describe various UFOs or mysterious aerial phenomena seen in the skies over both the European and Pacific theaters of operations.
Though "foo fighter" initially described a type of UFO reported and named by the U.S. 415th Night Fighter Squadron, the term was also commonly used to mean any UFO sighting from that period. Formally reported from November 1944 onwards, witnesses often assumed that the foo fighters were secret weapons employed by the enemy.
The Robertson Panel explored possible explanations, for instance that they were electrostatic phenomena similar to St. Elmo's fire, electromagnetic phenomena, or simply reflections of light from ice crystals.
The nonsense word "foo" emerged in popular culture during the early 1930s, first being used by cartoonist Bill Holman who peppered his Smokey Stover fireman cartoon strips with "foo" signs and puns.
The term foo was borrowed from Bill Holman's Smokey Stover by a radar operator in the 415th Night Fighter Squadron, Donald J. Meiers, who it is agreed by most 415th members gave the foo fighters their name. Meiers was from Chicago and was an avid reader of Bill Holman's strip which was run daily in the Chicago Tribune. Smokey Stover's catch phrase was "where there's foo, there's fire". In a mission debriefing on the evening November 27, 1944, Fritz Ringwald, the unit's S-2 Intelligence Officer, stated that Meiers and Ed Schleuter had sighted a red ball of fire that appeared to chase them through a variety of high-speed maneuvers. Fritz said that Meiers was extremely agitated and had a copy of the comic strip tucked in his back pocket. He pulled it out and slammed it down on Fritz's desk and said, "... it was another one of those fuckin' foo fighters!" and stormed out of the debriefing room.
According to Fritz Ringwald, because of the lack of a better name, it stuck. And this was originally what the men of the 415th started calling these incidents: "Fuckin' Foo Fighters." In December 1944, a press correspondent from the Associated Press in Paris, Bob Wilson, was sent to the 415th at their base outside of Dijon, France to investigate this story. It was at this time that the term was cleaned up to just "foo fighters". The unit commander, Capt. Harold Augsperger, also decided to shorten the term to foo fighters in the unit's historical data.
The first sightings occurred in November 1944, when pilots flying over Germany by night reported seeing fast-moving round glowing objects following their aircraft. The objects were variously described as fiery, and glowing red, white, or orange. Some pilots described them as resembling Christmas tree lights and reported that they seemed to toy with the aircraft, making wild turns before simply vanishing. Pilots and aircrew reported that the objects flew formation with their aircraft and behaved as if under intelligent control, but never displayed hostile behavior. However, they could not be outmaneuvered or shot down. The phenomenon was so widespread that the lights earned a name – in the European Theater of Operations they were often called "kraut fireballs" but for the most part called "foo-fighters". The military took the sightings seriously, suspecting that the mysterious sightings might be secret German weapons, but further investigation revealed that German and Japanese pilots had reported similar sightings.
On 13 December 1944, the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force in Paris issued a press release, which was featured in the New York Times the next day, officially describing the phenomenon as a "new German weapon". Follow-up stories, using the term "Foo Fighters", appeared in the New York Herald Tribune and the British Daily Telegraph.
In its 15 January 1945 edition Time magazine carried a story entitled "Foo-Fighter", in which it reported that the "balls of fire" had been following USAAF night fighters for over a month, and that the pilots had named it the "foo-fighter". According to Time, descriptions of the phenomena varied, but the pilots agreed that the mysterious lights followed their aircraft closely at high speed. Some scientists at the time rationalized the sightings as an illusion probably caused by afterimages of dazzle caused by flak bursts, while others suggested St. Elmo's Fire as an explanation.
The "balls of fire" phenomenon reported from the Pacific Theater of Operations differed somewhat from the foo fighters reported from Europe; the "ball of fire" resembled a large burning sphere which "just hung in the sky", though it was reported to sometimes follow aircraft. On one occasion, the gunner of a B-29 aircraft managed to hit one with gunfire, causing it to break up into several large pieces which fell on buildings below and set them on fire. There was speculation that the phenomena could be related to the Japanese fire balloons' campaign. As with the European foo fighters, no aircraft was reported as having been attacked by a "ball of fire"
The postwar Robertson Panel cited foo fighter reports, noting that their behavior did not appear to be threatening, and mentioned possible explanations, for instance that they were electrostatic phenomena similar to St. Elmo's fire, electromagnetic phenomena, or simply reflections of light from ice crystals. The Panel's report suggested that "If the term "flying saucers" had been popular in 1943–1945, these objects would have been so labeled."
Foo fighters were reported on many occasions from around the world; a few examples are noted below.
- Sighting from September 1941 in the Indian Ocean was similar to some later foo fighter reports. From the deck of the S.S. Pułaski (a Polish merchant vessel transporting British troops), two sailors reported a "strange globe glowing with greenish light, about half the size of the full moon as it appears to us." They alerted a British officer, who watched the object's movements with them for over an hour.
- Charles R. Bastien of the Eighth Air Force reported one of the first encounters with foo fighters over the Belgium/Netherlands area; he described them as "two fog lights flying at high rates of speed that could change direction rapidly". During debriefing, his intelligence officer told him that two RAF night fighters had reported the same thing, and it was later reported in British newspapers.
- Career U.S. Air Force pilot Duane Adams often related that he had witnessed two occurrences of a bright light which paced his aircraft for about half an hour and then rapidly ascended into the sky. Both incidents occurred at night, both over the South Pacific, and both were witnessed by the entire aircraft crew. The first sighting occurred shortly after the end of World War II while Adams piloted a B-25 bomber. The second sighting occurred in the early 1960s when Adams was piloting a KC-135 tanker.
Explanations and theories
Author Renato Vesco revived the wartime theory that the foo fighters were a Nazi secret weapon in his work 'Intercept UFO', reprinted in a revised English edition as 'Man-Made UFOs: 50 Years Of Suppression' in 1994. Vesco claims that the foo fighters were in fact a form of ground-launched automatically guided jet-propelled flak mine called the Feuerball (Fireball). The device, operated by special SS units, supposedly resembled a tortoise shell in shape, and flew by means of gas jets that spun like a Catherine wheel around the fuselage. Miniature klystron tubes inside the device, in combination with the gas jets, created the foo fighters' characteristic glowing spheroid appearance. A crude form of collision avoidance radar ensured the craft would not crash into another airborne object, and an onboard sensor mechanism would even instruct the machine to depart swiftly if it was fired upon. The purpose of the Feuerball, according to Vesco, was two-fold. The appearance of this weird device inside a bomber stream would (and indeed did) have a distracting and disruptive effect on the bomber pilots; and Vesco alleges that the devices were also intended to have an offensive capability. Electrostatic discharges from the klystron tubes would, he states, interfere with the ignition systems of the bombers' engines, causing the planes to crash. Although there is no hard evidence to support the reality of the Feuerball drone, this theory has been taken up by other aviation/ufology authors, and has even been cited as the most likely explanation for the phenomena in at least one recent television documentary on Nazi secret weapons.
A type of electrical discharge from airplanes' wings (see St. Elmo's Fire) has been suggested as an explanation, since it has been known to appear at the wingtips of aircraft. It has also been pointed out that some of the descriptions of foo fighters closely resemble those of ball lightning.
During April 1945, the US Navy began to experiment on visual illusions as experienced by night time aviators. This work began the US Navy's Bureau of Medicine (BUMED) project X-148-AV-4-3. This project pioneered the study of aviators' vertigo and was initiated because a wide variety of anomalous events were being reported by night time aviators. Dr. Edgar Vinacke, who was the premier flight psychologist on this project, summarized the need for a cohesive and systemic outline of the epidemiology of aviator's vertigo as,
"Pilots do not have sufficient information about phenomena of disorientation, and, as a corollary, are given considerable disorganized, incomplete, and inaccurate information. They are largely dependent upon their own experience, which must supplement and interpret the traditions about 'vertigo' which are passed on to them. When a concept thus grows out of anecdotes cemented together with practical necessity, it is bound to acquire elements of mystery. So far as 'vertigo' is concerned, no one really knows more than a small part of the facts, but a great deal of the peril. Since aviators are not skilled observers of human behavior, they usually have only the vaguest understanding of their own feelings. Like other naive persons, therefore, they have simply adopted a term to cover a multitude of otherwise inexplicable events."
- Toomey, Vurlee A. (2002). Let Us Not Forget: A Tribute to America's 20th Century Veterans. iUniverse. p. 71. ISBN 0-595-23823-8.
- Report of Scientific Advisory Panel on Unidentifed Flying Objects convened by Office of Scientific Intelligence, CIA January 14–18, 1953
- See for instance;
Holman, "Smokey Stover – A Dead Ringer", Daily News, 21 November 1938, retrieved 6 Feb 2009 or,
Holman, "Smokey Stover – Movie Idle", Daily News, 23 November 1938, retrieved 6 Feb 2009
- Moira Davison Reynolds, Comic Strip Artists in American Newspapers, 1945–1980, p94, McFarland, 2003 ISBN 0-7864-1551-7.
- Coulton Waugh, The Comics, p316, Univ. Press of Mississippi, 1991 ISBN 0-87805-499-5 (modern reprint first published 1947).
- RFC3092 – Etymology of "Foo", Internet Society, 2001
- Jeffery A Lindell, 1991. "Interviews with Harold Augspurger, Commander 415th Night Fighter Squadron; Frederic Ringwald, S-2 Intelligence Officer, 415th Night Fighter Squadron
- New York Times. "Balls of Fire Stalk U.S. Fighters in Night Assaults Over Germany." (A.P.) 2 Jan.1945. p.1, 4.
- Lucanio, Patrick; Gary Coville (2002). Smokin' Rockets: The Romance of Technology in American Film, Radio and Television, 1945–1962. McFarland. pp. 16–17. ISBN 0-7864-1233-X.
- Hayward, James (2003). Myths and Legends of the Second World War. Isis. pp. 343–344. ISBN 0-7531-5664-4.
- "Foo-Fighter". Time. 15 Jan 1945.
- Robertson, Jr., Gordon Bennett (2006). Bringing the Thunder: The Missions of a World War II B-29 Pilot in the Pacific. Stackpole Books. pp. 183–185. ISBN 0-8117-3333-5.
- Clark 1998 p 230
- Bastien, Charles R. (2004). 32 Copilots. Trafford Publishing. p. 205. ISBN 1-4120-1729-7.
- Renato Vesco, David Hatcher Childress, Man-made UFOs 1944–1994: 50 years of suppression, Adventures Unlimited Press, 1994 ISBN 0-932813-23-2.
- Renato Vesco, Intercept UFO, Pinnacle Books, 1974 ISBN 0-523-00840-6.
- Stenhoff, Mark (1999). Ball Lightning: An Unsolved Problem in Atmospheric Physics. Springer. p. 112. ISBN 0-306-46150-1.
- "The Real Foo Fighters - A Historical and Physiological Perspective on a World War II Aviation Mystery" Skeptic Magazine, vol. 17, n. 2 (pp. 38-43)
- Vinacke, Edgar. 8 May 1946. "The Concept of Aviator's 'Vertigo.'" Report No.#7. U.S. Naval School of Aviation Medicine, Project (X-148-Av-4-3). Reprinted in Journal of Aviation Medicine. 1948. 19:158–190
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- The Foo Fighters of World War II – Saturday Night Uforia
- Foo Fighter Documents – Computer UFO Network
- "A Historical and Physiological Perspective of the Foo Fighters of World War Two." By Jeff Lindell, Folklorist & WW2 Aviation Historian. Composite Bibliography October 2013 revision: Revised Foo Fighter doc An inventory of 68 (90-minute tape recordings) of interviews concerning sightings of Foo Fighters, etc., Foo Fighter Archive
- GERMAN DISCS: UFO in the Third Reich Takes on claims of the German Reich having developed and flown high-performance flying discs, declaring them "unlikely" (with footnotes)
- Foo Fighters of WWII by Jerome Clark and Lucius Farish: A widely reproduced essay describing many wartime sightings (including those in above article) from 1941 to 1947 and onward