Reminisce: UFOs seen over Ottawa in 1958

As a volunteer with the Cold War-era Ground Observer Corps (GOC), Maynard Macke was trained to identify anything that passed overhead. Macke could not identify what he saw in the sky over Putnam County on a spring evening 66 years ago.

“Two unidentified flying objects were reported seen over Ottawa in Putnam County Friday night by at least half a dozen reputable citizens,” the Lima Citizen wrote April 26, 1958. “They were low-flying and ‘tremendously fast.’”

The first object, witnesses told the newspaper, was “round or flattish,” cast off a brilliant light, and hovered almost motionless west of the village for 15 to 20 minutes, before speeding away “amid a bright shower of sparks.”

The second object, sighted about 15 minutes later, was seen by Macke and Putnam County Civil Defense chief David Spencer, both of whom saw it after hurrying to the GOC observation tower at the state highway garage on state Route 65 after the first object was sighted. They described it as “cigar shaped” and, unlike the first object, it did not hover but moved swiftly across the sky at low altitude.

As in most such incidents, a report was written on the Ottawa sightings and sent to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, near Dayton, for further investigation. And, as in most incidents, that was the last anyone heard of it. A spokesperson at the base told the Citizen after the Ottawa sightings “that such reports flow into it regularly … sometimes as many as 100 within a few days from throughout the nation.”

Reports of unidentified objects hovering, whirring, speeding, glowing or just generally behaving weirdly became common in the decades after World War II. Newspapers in the 1940s and ‘50s often described the first sighting every year as the beginning of “flying saucer season.”

The Citizen, which gave the Ottawa sightings front-page coverage in late April 1958, included it in a compilation of weird news items a week later. “The supposed invaders from outer space rode the skies over Ottawa recently – flaming, smoking tail and all,” the newspaper wrote in a column attributed to “Dizz Pfefferneuse,” the supposed “Citizen Whatchamacallit Editor.”

The attempt at levity didn’t fly with some readers. Noting the article implied that those who reported the sightings were “cuckoo” or “zany,” a Lima woman took the Citizen to task. “Mr. Spencer and the other qualified observers over there, who had the courage to report what they saw, would have the right to resent the tone of the article,” she wrote, adding, “It seems peculiar that a newspaper reporter would not know that the Air Force has for years been investigating all ‘flying saucer’ reports, of which there have been many thousands.”

There had been many thousands of reports to investigate, particularly since June 1947, when businessman and private pilot Kenneth Arnold claimed he saw nine crescent-shaped objects moving at unbelievable speed near Mount Rainier in Washington. Arnold, according to accounts at the time, described the objects as moving “like saucers skipping on water.” Subsequent news reports mistakenly stated the objects were saucer shaped and the flying saucer was born.

Although mysterious objects in the sky had been reported sporadically since ancient times, Arnold’s sighting sparked an explosion of UFO sightings around the country. “The nation was baffled today by ‘flying saucers’ reported seen in 28 states by hundreds of persons and conjectures came from scores of named and unnamed sources throughout the country,” the Associated Press (AP) wrote July 6, 1947, several weeks after Arnold shared his story.

Shortly after that, reports began circulating that the remains of a “flying disc” had been recovered near Roswell, New Mexico. The Army Air Force quickly refuted the reports, claiming the recovered remains were of a weather balloon. Such apparent dithering, however, provided just enough uncertainty to spawn conspiracy theories, which continue to this day.

On January 7, 1948, a UFO was sighted over Fort Knox, Kentucky, and four fighter jets were sent to intercept it, but only Capt. Thomas F. Mantel was able to get close, the Dayton Journal-Herald wrote in an April 1949 recounting of the incident. “I’m closing in to take a good look,” the newspaper quoted Mantel as saying. “It looks metallic and of tremendous size. It’s going up now as fast as I am. That’s 360 miles an hour. I’m going up after it. At 20,000 feet, if I’m not closer, I’ll abandon chase.” Mantel’s plane crashed minutes later, and he was killed.

Lima, it turned out, had to wait for its first encounter. “It has been a long wait,” the Lima News wrote in early June 1950, “but we finally have a report on flying saucers in the Lima area.” Two women on Greenlawn Avenue, the newspaper reported, “saw a silver disc move slowly across the sky. It appeared to be spinning rapidly, they report.”

Local saucer sightings picked up after that. “I was sighting down the barrel of my air rifle when I saw a bright round shiny object in the sights,” a 15-year-old Norval Avenue boy told the News on August 4, 1950. “I swear I was looking at one of those flying saucers I’ve heard so much about.” Nine of the boy’s friends, who were with him at the time, made similar claims. “It went along for a while and then shot out puffs of smoke that looked like golf balls,” one of them said. Two months later, a man and his companion driving south on Main Street south of Vine Street reported seeing an object resembling a “round ball of fire” headed southeast across the sky.

On November 16, 1950, the News wrote that a Lima man had become a believer after sighting an “object racing across the night sky from the southwest.” The man told the News, “It didn’t make a sound” and was up so high he couldn’t discern its shape or size. “Yes, sir, I think those saucers are real,” he said.

Ohio Northern University decided to find out for certain. ONU, the News wrote August 14, 1952, “became the world’s first university formally to undertake a study of flying saucers. … Prime object of the study is to settle the question of the reality of the elusive saucers, reported across the country for the last five years.” The university, the News explained, “will mobilize the full abilities of its faculty to gather, correlate and evaluate all possible reports on flying saucers.”

After months of gathering, correlating and evaluating reports, ONU announced that Project A, as the effort was known, hadn’t really settled anything, although it determined – as similar efforts over the years by entities from the Air Force on down have determined – that some of the sightings just couldn’t be explained.





This feature is a cooperative effort between the newspaper and the Allen County Museum and Historical Society.


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Reach Greg Hoersten at [email protected].