DETROIT – In 1966, a string of seemingly odd occurrences in Washtenaw County drew the attention of the entire country.
The events centered on a sudden wave of UFO sightings, with reports by police and citizens in March 1966.
It began on March 14, 1966, when Washtenaw County officers spotted lights in the sky, moving at high speeds over Lima Township.
The same lights were spotted by officers in Ohio, just across the Michigan border, and by observers at Selfridge Air Force Base.
The sightings triggered investigations by the Civil Defense and U.S. Air Force.
A few days following the first reports, the lights were spotted again at various locations around Washtenaw County, with one deputy reporting something floating in the sky - described as looking like a "child's top."
March 20, 1966
On Sunday, March 20, 1966, the sheriff's office received reports of a UFO landing in a wooded, swamp area of Dexter Township. Police spoke to Frank Mannor, a truck driver who had gone into the swamp with his son. Here's what Mannor told police:
"We got to about 500 yards of the thing,” Mannor told interviewers. “It was sort of shaped like a pyramid, with a blue-green light on the right-hand side and on the left, a white light. I didn’t see no antenna or porthole. The body was like a yellowish coral rock and looked like it had holes in it—sort of like if you took a piece of cardboard box and split it open. You couldn’t see it too good because it was surrounded with heat waves, like you see on the desert. The white light turned to a blood red as we got close to it and Ron said, ‘Look at that horrible thing.’”
Here's the report from the NICAP: Frank Mannor and his son, Ronald [plus 40-60 others including 12 policemen ?] saw hovering over a swamp about 1,500 ft away a brown luminous car sized object, with a "scaly" or "waffled" surface, cone-shaped on top, flat on bottom, or football shaped, and 2 bluish-green lights on right and left edges that turned bright red and helped illuminate object in between. Lights blinked out and object reappeared instantly across the swamp 1,500 ft away. The whole object lit up with a yellowish glow at one point and also rose up 500 ft then descended again. After 2-3 minutes of viewing, when 2 flashlights appeared in the distance the object seemed to respond by flying away at high speed directly over the witnesses with a whistling sound like a rifle bullet ricocheting. Object remained in the swamp area for 1/2 hr.
The report gained national attention. More than 40 officers joined a search of the swamp. Odd sightings continued, with officers spotting red and white lights in the sky, flying back and forth and then disappearing.
The next night, more than 80 students at Hillsdale College reported seeing lights in a nearby swamp.
The UFO craze took over, and reports from all around the Ann Arbor area, as well as surrounding areas in Michigan, started pouring in.
Here come the investigators
Michigan congressman Weston Vivian requested that the U.S. Air Force send an investigator from Project Blue Book, the agency that studied UFOs.
Dr. J. Allen Hynek, an astronomer from Northwestern, was tasked with the investigation.
Hynek arrived on March 23, touring the areas of sightings himself. What he found was something he called "near hysteria."
“It’s like reports from people who witness a fire,” Hynek told the press at the time. “You get as many different facts as you get people who saw the fire. So far, all I’ve been able to come up with is reports of a variety of lights.”
Under pressure for an explanation, Hynek told reporters during a press conference on March 25 that the sightings were simply mistaken observations of the moon and stars, and the Dexter UFO was just swamp gas.
Wait, swamp gas?
The swamp gas theory didn't go over so well. Many thought it was a huge cover-up. Several publications accused the government of hiding evidence.
Here was the actual explanation from Project Blue Book:
A swamp Is a place of rotting vegetation and decomposition. Swamps are not a province of astronomers. Yet,the famous Dutch astronomer, Ninnaert, in his book, Light and Colour in the Open Air, describes lights that have been seen In swamps by the astronomer Bessel and other excellent observers. The lights resemble tiny flames some times seen right on the ground and sometimes rising and floating above it. The flames go out in one place and suddenly appear in another, giving the Illusion of motion. The colors are sometimes yellow, some times red, and sometimes blue-green. No heat is felt, and the lights do not burn or char the ground. They can appear for hours at a stretch and sometimes for a whole night. Generally, there Is no smell and no sound except for the popping sound of little explosions such as when a gas burner ignites.
Congressman (and future President) Gerald Ford called for a congressional investigation.
During all of this, UFO sightings continued pouring in from all over Michigan, and around the country.
UFO frenzy dies down, but mystery remains
By April 1966, the UFO frenzy had died down in Michigan, but the swamp gas explanation is still talked about to this day.
Thirty years later, Douglas Harvey, Washtenaw County sheriff at the time of the original sightings told The Ann Arbor News he and Dr. Hynek were talking in the sheriff’s office and the scientist admitted he didn’t know what the witnesses had seen, but felt it was worthy of further investigation.
"He was on the phone for quite a while, which I found very enlightening,'' Harvey said. "He came out and I said, 'Well, Dr. Hynek. What do you think?' He said, 'It's swamp gas.' He tells me one minute he has no idea what it is. And then he makes one phone call to Washington and comes out and gives a statement that it's swamp gas. Very strange.''
"They did see something,'' he said. "I'll believe this to the day I die. Somebody has kept something quiet, and nothing more ever materialized. So we don't know if it was the government experimenting, or was it really a UFO. I don't know.''
Sources: Ann Arbor New, Ann Arbor Public Library, Michigan Today/UMich.