Being out on the water on Commencement Bay gives one time to think about things. If you are like me, you might think, “What if there were a sea monster under the boat?” or “What if I saw a Sasquatch on the land?” or “What if I saw a UFO?” These fantasies have been with us forever. We are excited by stories of the unknown and the mysterious. And I’m going to tell you just that sort of story.
It was June 21, 1947. Howard Dahl was operating a salvage boat attempting to haul in some logs near Maury Island. He had his 15-year-old son, Charles and his dog with him. He suddenly noticed six gigantic craft in the sky moving at a high rate of speed. They were at least one hundred feet in diameter. They were donut shaped and flying in formation. He watched as one of them ran into another one, damaging it. It started spewing hot slag. The slag hit the boat as the craft crashed onto the beach on Maury Island. Howard’s dog was killed by the slag. His boat was damaged. And his son received burns that had to be treated in the hospital.
Howard detailed what happened to a 27-year-old coworker named Fred Crisman. Fred was an avid fiction reader and a frequent writer of letters to Amazing Tales Magazine run by Ray Palmer. A few weeks after the incident, Fred wrote to Ray Palmer to tell him what happened.
By the time Fred’s letter had reached Palmer, there was quite a bit of excitement about UFOs. On June 22, 1947 Kenneth Arnold, a local pilot encountered nine high speed craft flying near Mr. Rainier. This was what most people knowledgeable about the subject call the very first reported UFO sighting. On July 8, 1947 the Roswell crash was reported in the media. Palmer had an idea. What if he got Kenneth Arnold to write an article about Howard Dahl’s story? He contacted Arnold. Arnold somewhat reluctantly agreed to do it.
Arnold flew out to Tacoma. He contacted Howard Dahl only to find that Dahl didn’t want to talk about it. When pressed, Dahl explained that a man in a black suit with a black hat driving a black 1947 Buick had visited him and told him that he should say nothing of the incident if he wanted him and his family to remain healthy. Arnold also talked to Crisman who was similarly reluctant to share information but eventually told him what happened.
It was at this time that Arnold decided he needed some help. He contacted the Army who sent two investigators to look into these UFO claims. Their names were Captain William Davidson and Lt Frank Brown. Arnold and the Army investigators interviewed Crisman. (Howard Dahl refused to talk to government agents.) At one point during the interview both investigators stood up and announced they were leaving. The others tried to convince them to stay but they refused claiming they had to be at an Air Show the following day.
The intrigue increased when the plane the two investigators boarded crashed and both men were killed. An investigative reporter looking into the crash also died, apparently from natural causes.
Both Crisman and Dahl told Arnold they had photos, but neither was able to produce them. One of them gave him a piece of slag. A close look at the slag showed a square rivet.
Years later after some documents were declassified, it was revealed that Howard Dahl had in fact talked to a government agent about the incident. That person was an FBI agent. During his initial interview with Dahl, Howard’s wife screamed at him to ‘stop making things up’ and threatened him with a knife. The FBI would also fail to find any evidence that Dahl’s son was harmed, that the boat was damaged, or that their dog was killed. In other words, the FBI found that there was absolutely nothing to back up Dahl’s story. What to make of Dahl saying he was threatened? I would be willing to bet that what happened was the agent heard Dahl’s silly story and said something to the effect of, “If I were you I wouldn’t tell people about this.” like one does when someone says something crazy like, “I talk to a monkey on the moon every night.”
Subsequent interviews with Dahl’s son and his sister revealed that neither of them had any recollection of anything remotely like what I have described happening. It was found that the slag likely came from the Asarco copper smelter in Ruston. It is exceptionally clear that this incident which supposedly took place before any other UFO event never happened at all.
It is said that Fred Crisman took off to Alaska after the incident fearing for his life. There were rumors he was working with the CIA and other intelligence agencies. In 1968 Jim Garrison had him come to New Orleans because he thought that Crisman might have been one of the three men on the grassy knoll when John F. Kennedy was shot. In the late 1960s and early 1970s Crisman would reinvent himself in Tacoma as ‘Jon Gold’, a controversial and opinionated local radio host.
This story known as the Maury Island Incident in UFO circles would just be a weird little local historical footnote except for one thing. Howard Dahl’s mention of being visited by the FBI agents was the very first mention I can find of Men In Black investigating UFOs. This is Tacoma’s own little contribution to American pop culture. It’s worth noting that though the story of the UFO was bogus, the FBI guy sent to investigate it was real though likely not nearly as nefarious as Dahl described.
The next time you’re out on the water in Commencement Bay, keep your eyes on the sky and think of the possibilities.
– Jack Cameron