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Look Back:  UFO sightings, 1947

Students from Centenary College in Shreveport, La., ham it up for the new flying saucer craze on July 6, 1947. The reports inspired fervent believers, skeptics and pranksters. (AP)

ST. LOUIS COUNTY • Nova Hart and his father-in-law, J.H. Jackson, saw the mysterious thing soaring noiselessly over their July 4th picnic near Creve Coeur Lake, in what is now Maryland Heights. Hart said it was silver-gray and round.

"Our wives saw it too, and so did some people in an automobile who stopped when they saw us looking up," said Hart, then of 3969A St. Ferdinand Avenue in St. Louis. "I can say it certainly was strange, and none of us drinks a drop."

Hart and Jackson were the first St. Louisans to report one of the flying saucers that suddenly were all over the American sky in the summer of 1947. Some newspapers called them "flying discs." Eventually, the accepted term became unidentified flying object, or UFOs.

The first sighting was made June 25, 1947, by a private pilot, Kenneth Arnold, who said he saw nine saucers zipping at 1,200 mph east of Seattle. Another aviator spotted them over Bakersfield, Calif. Sightings poured in from Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Idaho and Kentucky. Among the witnesses were the Idaho lieutenant governor and a Weather Bureau meteorologist. Thus began an enduring national craze.

Military brass scoffed, then dispatched fighter planes to search for saucers. "If some foreign power is sending flying discs over the United States, it is our responsibility to know about it," an Army Air Forces spokesman said.

The wave hit St. Louis on July 5, when Hart told his story. One evening later, Dr. Walter Hoefer, 23 Black Creek Lane in Ladue, saw six saucers flying southeast in formation. People in Shrewsbury, Webster Groves and south St. Louis also saw them. George Malcolm of 5632 Tholozan Avenue described the six as 'silver streaks floating in the air. ... They were round and made no noise."

Reports came from 38 states and Canada. Newspapers dutifully contacted scientists, who suggested weather balloons, reflections from searchlights, vivid imaginations and generalized fear of a world in peril. One California physicist cited the "transmutation of atomic energy."

There already was enough serious news in 1947 to keep Americans on edge. The Iron Curtain ran across eastern Europe. The Soviets coveted the atomic bomb. Communists were gaining in China. Could a visit from outer space be so unlikely, or unwelcome?

Many people got their notions of space travel from "Flash Gordon" movies and radio shows. American rocketry, still barely off the ground, practiced with surplus German V-2s.

Inevitably, reports trailed off, undone by mockery and pranksters. On July 9, nearly 100 people called the Post-Dispatch to report discs plunging from the sky. It turned out that three pilots had dropped them in a publicity stunt for their flying school near Fenton.

But UFOs, or at least sightings, never went away.