True ‘Foo Fighters’ spotted on television

Posted Aug. 13, 2010, at 7:22 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:46 p.m.

For reasons that remain unclear to me, I am fascinated with World War II. When the Cobb Manor high-definition television blinks on in the morning, the first chore is to review the latest news from ESPN. Then, I must turn to the Military Channel, then to the History Channel to see if there is some “news” on Iwo Jima or D-Day.

I cannot explain it, but 65 years after the events, the channels keep coming up with more grainy black-and-white films that I have not seen before. I cannot imagine where these films are coming from.

But I must watch.

I do not know the tail numbers of each RAF and Luftwaffe aircraft, like some I could mention, but I am fascinated nonetheless. I had several hero uncles who participated in the war. Maybe that’s it.

But this week, I almost fell off my well-worn couch when WWII bomber pilots started talking about “Foo Fighters,” or UFOs, they saw during bombing runs over Germany. I know, you thought Foo Fighters was just the name of a rock band.

But no.

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, news reports indicated.

For your information, the nonsense word “foo” was coined by cartoonist Bill Holman in his strip “Smokey Stover.” It was first adopted by radar operator Donald J. Meiers of the 415th Night Fighter Squadron. Meiers was from Chicago and was an avid reader of Bill Holman’s strip, which appeared daily in the Chicago Tribune.

When he saw red balls of fire chase the planes through a series of high-speed maneuvers, he dubbed them “Foo Fighters.” The term stuck.

According to wire service reports at the time, pilots and aircrew reported that the objects flew in 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 military took the sightings seriously, suspecting the mysterious objects might be secret German weapons, but further investigation revealed that German and Japanese pilots had reported similar sightings.

The phenomena were well covered.

In its January 1945 edition, Time magazine carried a story titled “Foo-Fighter,” in which it reported that the “balls of fire” had been following night fighters for more than a month, and that the pilots had named it the “foo-fighter.”

According to Time, descriptions of the phenomena varied, but the pilots agreed the mysterious lights followed their aircrafts closely at high speed. Some scientists at the time rationalized the sightings as an illusion most likely caused by after-images of dazzle caused by flak bursts, while others suggested St. Elmo’s fire as an explanation.

It wasn’t confined to Europe.

The “balls of fire” phenomenon reported from the Pacific Theater of Operations involved a 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 onto buildings below and set them on fire.

A postwar panel investigated the “Foo Fighter” reports, noting that their behavior did not appear to be threatening, and mentioning possible explanations, including electrostatic phenomena similar to St. Elmo’s fire, or simply reflections of light from ice crystals.

The phenomenon was never fully explained. Most of the information about the issue has never been released by military intelligence, even today.

Why have I never heard of this before? What else are they keeping from me? I must go back to the Military Channel to find out.

Send complaints and compliments to Emmet Meara at emmetmeara@msn.com.

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