Before David Grohl’s famous rock band took on the name from a UFO history book, a “foo-fighter” was a relatively unknown term. Sometimes called “Kraut Fireballs”, the mysterious balls of light in the skies of World War II agitated pilots with their ominous presence.
When Allied airmen in World War II started reporting sightings of strange glowing and intelligently controlled spheres in pursuit of their aircraft, they blamed the fantastic advances in German aeronautics and rocketry, assuming the spheres were a secret weapon of Axis forces. The press picked up on the story, and was able to disclose a surprising amount of detailed information about the strange experiences giving us a candid and transparent record in a time before “government cover-up” was protocol.
The lights’ first documented appearances were recorded in the flight journals and intelligence of the Royal Air Force (RAF) as early as 1940 near the beginning of the war. The RAFs difficulty in accurately labeling the phenomenon was only a precursor for the enigma they would become for British and American forces as the war progressed.
The majority of UFO sightings taking place over European airspace were noted in the war diaries of the U.S. 415th Night Fighter Squadron. Their hazardous assignment at that time was to search the night skies for German aircraft and shoot them down.
Keeping a low profile, the airmen would fly without lights and by guidance of ground radar which made for perfect viewing conditions of luminous aerial phenomenon. It wasn’t long before the 415th would start to report their strange sightings during their routine night flights from their operations in Algeria, Italy, Corsica, and France from 1943-1947.
“We have encountered a phenomenon which we cannot explain; crews have been followed by lights that blink on and off changing colors etc. The lights come very close and fly formation with our planes. They are agitating and keep the crews on edge when they encounter them, mainly because they cannot explain them. It is requested further information be furnished on this subject, such as similar experiences of other night units”.
2. Further information is requested.
Leavitt Corning, Jr.,
The aerial phenomenon the 415th witnessed were characteristically luminous objects, appearing more as a fire ball than a physical craft. The objects were scrutinized heavily by the pilots who were studying the baffling experiences to make sure they weren’t a threat to them or their mission.
Reports from the pilots describe the crafts as intelligently controlled and non-threatening, although disturbing. Their ability to suddenly appear behind piloted aircraft and hold pursuit in strange formation was a common concern among pilots.
Night of 16-17 December 1944 – “20 miles North of Breisach (W-0173) at 800 ft. observed 5 or 6 flashing red and green lights in “T” shape. Thought they were flak. About 10 minutes later saw the same lights much closer and behind me. We turned port and Starboard and the lights followed. They closed in to about 8 O’clock and 1000 ft. and remained in that position for several minutes and then disappeared.”
The lights were becoming a well known feature, but the terms “flying saucer” and “UFO” wouldn’t be conceived for another 4 years following Kenneth Arnold’s famous sighting near the mountains of Washington, June 1947. The tiresome description of multicolored lights in their reports would soon take on a shorthand allegedly inspired by the nonsense of a comical fire fighter.
“Foo Fighter” UFOs
The airmen of the 415th weren’t the first to witness the “foo fighters”, but history shows them as the ones who coined the name.
The most prominent story about the origin of the name starts with Donald Meiers, a 415th pilot and radio operator from Chicago Illinois. Meiers was an avid reader of the comic strip “Smokey Stover”, a goofy fire firefighter with the nonsensical catch phrase “Where there’s foo, there’s fire!” which appeared weekly within the Chicago Tribune. During a debrief following a UFO experience, an agitated Meiers slammed a copy of the comic on the table in outburst and exclaimed, “It was another one of those fuck’n foo fighters!” before storming out of the room.
The stories told of foo fighters were normally accepted with a sense of humor by headquarters information officers, despite being a frequent and recurring happening. The men of the 415th needed a name for the lights, and foo fighters were a catchy nickname among the flight crew.
Night of 29-30 January 1945 – “At about 00:10 hrs. sighted a Foofighter about half way between Weissembourg and Landau. Foofighter was off to the starboard and rear at Angels 2. Lights were amber and one was 20 -50 ft. above the other and of about 30 seconds duration. Foofighter was about 1000 ft. away and following. The lights were about a foot in diameter. Lighter disappeared when Travel 34 turned into them.”
2. In every case where pilot called GCI Control and asked if there was a Bogey A/C in the area he received a negative answer.
F. B. Ringwald,
* Foofighters is the name given these phenomenon by combat crews of this Squadron.
News on the Homefront
To mobilize the war effort back home and keep morale high, media censorship and war propaganda was crucial to sway public opinion. This is all to often seen as an authoritarian strategy with sinister motives, although during the war effort it was primarily used to conceal important strategic information from the enemy while invigorating the people for continued support.
War censors in America were surprisingly indifferent about the release of information regarding the foo fighters which made for interesting stories to ignite interest back home. This oversight left a significant paper trail of information in articles, magazines, and intelligence reports exhibiting an unprecedented amount of military witness accounts of strange lights in the sky.
Media that published the stories grappled with conventional explanations that could account for the bizarre fire balls, which easily ended with accusations of Nazi secret weapons.
The Germans have thrown something new into the night skies over Germany — the weird, mysterious “foo-fighter,” balls of fire that race alongside the wings of American Beaufighters flying intruder missions over the Reich. American pilots have been encountering the eerie “foo-fighter” for more than a month in their night flights. No one apparently knows exactly what this sky weapon is.
…The pilots of this night-fighter squadron–in operation since September, 1943–find these fiery balls the weirdest thing that they have yet encountered. They are convinced that the “foo-fighter” is designed to be a psychological as well as a military weapon, although it is not the nature of the fire-balls to attack planes. – New York Times: Balls of Fire Stalk U.S. Fighters in Night Assaults Over Germany
The most comprehensive journalistic study of the time was published in American Legion Magazine, by author Jo Chamberlin after the end of the war, December 1945. In his investigation he was able to draw on the expertise of the airmen to disprove a great amount of speculative causes that are common even today.
Various explanations were offered for the phenomena -none of them satisfactory, and most of them irritating to the 415th. It was said that the foo-fighters might be a new kind of flare. A flare, said the 415th, does not dive, peel off, or turn. Were they to frighten or confuse Allied pilots? Well, if so, they were not succeeding and yet the lights continued to appear.
…What about jet planes? No, the Germans had jet planes all right, but they didn’t have an exhaust flame visible at any distance. Could they be flying bombs of some sort, either with or without a pilot? Presumably not – with but one exception no one thought he observed a wing or fuselage. Weather balloons? No, the 415th was well aware of their behavior. They ascended almost vertically, and eventually burst.
Could the lights or balls of fire be the red, blue, and orange colored flak bursts that Eighth Air Force bomber crews had reported? It was a nice idea, said the 415th, but there was no correlation between the foo- fighters they observed and the flak they encountered. And night flak was usually directed by German radar, not visually.
In short, no explanation stood up.
The men of the 415th were quickly dismissive of the many presented explanations and began to grow agitated toward offerings of commonplace occurrences. Their occupational expertise and ability to reason with common sense was being challenged with every offered answer.
Their pride was already shaken a year earlier after an intense interview with Bob Wilson of the Associated Press. He printed a story in the New York times that attempted to explain the foo fighters as an electrical phenomenon well known to pilots as “St. Elmo’s fire.”
The 415th blew up. It was thoroughly acquainted with St. Elmo’s fire. The men snorted, “Just let the sons come over and fly a mission with us. We’ll show ’em.” – Jo Chamberlin, The Foo Fighter Mystery
Stories from the 415th baffled the scientific minds of America who struggled to find a logical solution. Unfortunately their rationale would only lead to more questions after the war ended in May, 1945.
The lights seemingly vanished immediately after Allied forces on the ground captured Nazi bases of operation East of the Rhine river near Rees and Wesel Germany. This location was notorious for its experimental activities with weapons and technology during wartime, and was long thought to be the source of the foo fighters.
After the victory in Europe many of those installations were kept under guard and rummaged for valuable technological information. The seizure provided designs for many examples of advanced aircraft but found no evidence for the capability to produce remotely guided craft capable of the advanced flight maneuvers reported by Allied pilots at operating altitudes.
Further confusion surfaced after renowned British physicist and intelligence expert Dr. Reginald Victor Jones referenced in his reports stories of German pilots witnessing the very same phenomenon to their own bewilderment.³ This suggested that the fascination with the foo fighter mystery was not exclusive to the Allied forces, but included the entire war theater.
Post War Analysis
A few years later in 1953, scientific officer of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) Bob Robertson took part in a foo fighter sighting review to determine the threat level UFOs had toward national security. The report in its entirety did not survive, but in summary the panel labeled the phenomenon as ultimately “unexplained but not dangerous”.
The study referenced the years of sightings without incident of explosion, assault or any aggressive characteristics, which led Air Intelligence to drop further analysis to focus their time and efforts on more critical studies. But Robertson wasn’t happy leaving the perplexing research unfinished, and was later quoted saying,
“if the term “flying saucers” had been popular in 1943-45, these objects [foo fighters] would have been so labeled.”
The foo fighters of World War II were a fascinating episode in history with multiple sightings from military personnel spanning multiple countries over a span of at least 3 years. Their mysterious disappearance after the end of the war have driven some to speculate their origin to be terrestrial, while others connect their appearance to an affinity toward charged events in Earth’s history.
Unknown to the men of the 415th, they may well have been the first military group to endure mass public scrutiny of their documented UFO experiences. With a stack of articles, briefs and military notes on the persistent sightings taking place during those years, it’s definitely clear something was flying with wartime pilots in the skies at night.
What do you think the Foo Fighters of World War II were? Natural phenomenon, Nazi Technology, or legitimate UFOs? Please leave your comments below!