U.F.O.s — unidentified flying objects — are in the news once again, with a new TV series revealing once-classified Navy video footage of these elusive chimeras off the East Coast. Remarkable as the claims of top-gun pilots may be, however, U.F.O. sightings are nothing new for residents of the East End.
In fact, “UFO Sightings Desk Reference,” a county-by-county compilation of saucer sightings in all 50 states, ranked Suffolk County as number one, with 554 U.F.O.s reported from 2001 to 2015. Easily ridiculed, sighting-report clusters (or “flaps,” as they’re known) preoccupy the media every few decades, as my file of yellowing East Hampton Star clippings suggests.
The latter half of the 1960s was a time when the entire nation seemed rife with saucer reports, from the fevered deserts of Indio, Calif., to the glowing swamp gases of Ann Arbor, Mich., to alleged fairy lights above Wanaque Reservoir, N.J. United Nations Secretary General U Thant was even quoted by the columnist Drew Pearson as saying that U.F.O.s were “the most important problem facing the U.N. next to the war in Vietnam.”
Closer to home, The Star’s April 7, 1966, edition featured a front-page story proclaiming “Saucer Is Reported at Napeague Beach.” The accompanying article described an East Hampton resident’s truck inexplicably stalling on the evening of Wednesday, March 30, near the 400-foot-tall Mackay radio tower on Napeague. The motorist opened his hood to inspect his engine when “a brilliant white light in the shape of a 50-to-75-foot-long torpedo appeared overhead. It hovered for a while and then took off ‘faster than a jet’ toward Gardiner’s Island.” There was no noise. The truck reportedly restarted once the U.F.O. vanished, with its driver speeding to police headquarters to report what he’d seen.
The same article also noted that a couple on Abraham’s Path reported a similar light just after 9 that same night near Three Mile Harbor Road. This sighting was said to have caused static on their radio and barking by neighborhood dogs. It alternately appeared as a large blue “very funny light” that was “glowing brightly” but later varied in intensity before turning into a “black bulk in the sky” that hovered over a South Fork Cablevision tower and then “flashed light upwards and started to move.” It then “swept across the sky,” circled over Three Mile Harbor, and headed toward East Hampton, by which time it was “oval and had a yellowish, reddish tinge.”
The article added that the couple reported their story about this busy object to local reps for the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena, which is still in operation today (www.nicap.org).
The Star’s May 12, 1966, edition added another incident to the East End flap with an account of another nighttime sighting, this time by a young couple near Indian Wells Beach in Amagansett. The story caught the attention of Irving A. Greenfield, a paperback writer whose interest in U.F.O.s was piqued after being told of a roaring red saucer seen by the children of a motel owner in Sag Harbor a month earlier. The object allegedly caused the family dog to “whine and bark.” Greenfield’s interview with that family appeared in his paperback “The U.F.O. Report” (Lancer, 1967), one of dozens of U.F.O. books on sale at Montauk’s White’s Drug Store at the time.
A teenager interviewed by Greenfield described an “oval-shaped, grayish glowing object hovering over the top of the bathhouse” at Indian Wells. Her description included “two hatch-like windows in its bottom. Both windows were lighted. There were two white lights on each end of the oval and a red flashing light on its top.” She said her boyfriend then switched on his car’s headlights, and the U.F.O. “rose quickly and headed west.”
Interestingly, Greenfield added that the girl said her boyfriend was later “questioned by two men” after their story appeared in The Star. She said she “didn’t know where the men were from,” and added that her boyfriend was “reluctant to talk about that meeting.” Whether these were the fabled “men in black” who allegedly discouraged U.F.O. eyewitnesses from talking about their sightings (and inspired the “Men in Black” movies) is unknown.
Added to The Star’s U.F.O. sightings for the spring of 1966 was a subsequent report of “two orange saucers clamped together with a black square in the middle” over the ocean south of Hither Hills in Montauk and another U.F.O. over Main Beach in East Hampton two days later. A recap of East End U.F.O. sightings published by The Star nearly 30 years later, on July 3, 1997 (timed to coincide with national media coverage of the 50th anniversary of the alleged Roswell, N.M., saucer crash), quoted a NICAP official as saying he’d heard about 12 different U.F.O. reports on the East End over the course of six weeks during the spring of 1966.
U.F.O. reports for the East End dropped off significantly in the early 1970s. The Star’s 1997 recap relates that U.F.O. reports here ended until November of 1973, when the paper ran the headline “U.F.O.s Back From Vacation” above a story about an East Hampton High School student seeing “a fast-moving red dot over Main Beach.”
The few reports that followed included a 1989 story about fishermen off Shagwong Point in Montauk seeing “a strange bright light above the water” with no aircraft sound, and a Christmas 1994 report about an East Hampton woman seeing a U.F.O. on three occasions during the early-morning hours. She used her camcorder to capture its image, which a Hofstra University expert later described as “something that is not normal.”
The Star wasn’t the only local newspaper to have published occasional U.F.O. reports. The Montauk Pioneer’s Sept. 18, 1998, edition described the sighting of a “lop-sided starfish . . . about six times the size of a large star” emitting “a soft candlelike glow” in the night sky above Ditch Plain Beach in Montauk. After about 10 minutes the object “suddenly started to move backwards . . . at a very fast pace until it disappeared.”
Although the article appears to be a serious news account, The Pioneer was famous for publishing such items as a summer 1975 plea for readers to donate meat to deter hungry sharks from prowling area beaches during the height of public hysteria over the first “Jaws” movie. Amazingly, a few tourists actually complied.
If ever there was “serious” confirmation of the East End’s reputation as a U.F.O. hot spot, however, it was provided by no less an expert than Woody Allen. “The UFO Menace,” which Allen wrote for The New Yorker’s June 13, 1977, edition, included a mention of “a man on Montauk Point, in Long Island,” who had his midnight snack (two pieces of chicken) snatched away from him by “a large mechanical claw” extending from a “gigantic cigar-shaped aircraft” hovering outside his kitchen window. Dissatisfied by the official explanation of this close encounter (“a flock of birds”), Allen added that the Air Force promised to return the man’s snack but provided “only one piece” of chicken.
That laughter should be a natural response to U.F.O. reports is understandable. Such stories are so far out of the realm of normal experience that ridicule is often a logical — and perhaps reassuring — reaction. “High strangeness” is how law enforcement agencies describe such reports.
That term is credited to the late Dr. J. Allen Hynek, an astronomy professor at Northwestern University hired by the Air Force in 1948 to review eyewitness accounts. After decades of immersion in these reports, Hynek concluded that some U.F.O. reports did seem to constitute a range of potentially unknown phenomena worthy of study.
He addressed the United Nations on the topic of U.F.O.s on Nov. 27, 1978, stating, “It is a phenomenon so strange and foreign to our daily terrestrial mode of thought that it is frequently met by ridicule and derision by persons and organizations unacquainted with the facts.” Hynek also coined the “close encounter” terminology adapted by the “Jaws” director (and now East Hampton resident) Steven Spielberg for the title of his 1977 movie thriller.
This tendency toward ridicule no doubt discourages many eyewitnesses from reporting what they’ve seen, so newspaper accounts may represent only a fraction of actual sightings. Also, some U.F.O. sightings were later found to have factual explanations, including advanced military aircraft such as the SR-71 Blackbird, a spy plane kept secret for many years.
Small wonder, then, that The New York Times disclosed on Jan. 14, 1979, that the C.I.A. had long been involved in monitoring U.F.O. reports. The article added that part of the agency’s interest stemmed from its concern that such sightings might mask Russian air attacks or be used for psychological warfare. Although news media interest in U.F.O.s eventually flagged, sightings continued.
“The phenomenon persists,” Hynek told the U.N. back in 1978. “It has not faded away as many of us expected it would when, years ago, we regarded it as a passing fad or whimsy. Instead, it has touched on the lives of an increasing number of people around the world.”
Any discussion of U.F.O.s over the East End would be incomplete without mentioning something called “The Montauk Project.” Widely publicized on the web and in a series of books, it alleges secret government saucer experiments at the now-decommissioned Camp Hero Air Force station near Montauk Point. Do a Google search and decide for yourself.
The Hamptons’ wide-open skies are great for stargazing, but whether they’re also a magnet for interplanetary visitors is yet to be determined. Toy drones and nighttime sky lanterns are likely explanations for more recent sightings. Or perhaps it’s just intergalactic chicken thieves.
Gerard Pomeroy is the pen name of a Montauk summer resident long fascinated by U.F.O.s.