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| On October the 16th, 1973, the United States Air Force’s (USAF) Chief of Staff, General George S. Brown, who was later appointed as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, delivered a press conference in Illinois. When the UFO matter was raised, Gen. Brown curiously stated:
“I don’t know whether this story has ever been told or not. They weren’t called UFOs. They were called enemy helicopters. And they were only seen at night and they were only seen in certain places. They were seen up around the DMZ in the early summer of ’68. And this resulted in quite a little battle. And in the course of this,
By Paul Dean
an Australian destroyer took a hit and we never found any enemy, we only found ourselves when this had all been sorted out. And this caused some shooting there, and there was no enemy at all involved but we always reacted…”
Candid statements like this were somewhat of a rarity in the 1970’s. The USAF had announced the closure of Project Blue Book in January, 1970, officially closing the doors in the Spring of 1970. But over in Vietnam, UFO reports were consistently being collected and investigated, in various forms, with the primary purpose being to determine whether or not these events were related to enemy activity. Often they were not.
Of all the reported sightings of unusual aerial activity, none have proved more controversial than those of June the 17th, 1968. There has been much written about this event, so further narrative is not needed beyond this brief summary. During the early hours of the morning, a Royal Australian Navy’s (RAN) guided missile destroyer, the HMAS Hobart, was patrolling the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) near Tiger Island. A USAF F–4 Phantom Fighter–Bomber fired three missiles on unknown aerial targets, suspected to be North Vietnamese M–14 Hound helicopters. The missiles, however, struck HMAS Hobart, killing Ordinary Seaman R.J. Butterworth and Chief Electrician R.H. Hunt and wounding several others. This was, it seemed, a classic case of “friendly fire”, but rumours started filtering out that the F–4 Phantom hadn’t merely mistaken HMAS Hobart for offensive enemy helicopters, and, that unusual, unidentifiable aerial activity was the intended target. Some of those who were there even use the term “UFOs”.
Finding official USAF or RAN records which discuss this event is not too difficult. Finding the term “UFO” in such records is nigh impossible. Luckily, like so many pieces of history, nothing stays hidden for ever.
Recently, while painstakingly scouring through the online archives of America’s huge Defence Technical Information Center (DTIC) holdings, I honed in on a series of USAF publications which specifically discuss the UFO topic in relation to aerial activities during the Vietnam War. It’s no surprise that few unusual records – whether administrative in nature, or, actual reports – would be hiding in Vietnam War–era military documents. In fact, it would be very odd if there wasn’t – especially when one considers the gigantic quantity of material already begrudgingly released by the US government over the last forty years. Just last year, researcher Barry Greenwood discovered that the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) had made available myriad Vietnam War files, including US Army records and thousands of pages of USAF “Combat Air Activities” (CACTA) papers – many of which contained references to UFO’s. The records Greenwood and I are finding are a variety of “Daily Staff Journals”, “Histories”, “Chronologies”, “Mission Reports” and so–called “Lessons Learned” publications. These files have only been declassified recently. We know there is much more which is apparently too sensitive to be released, even after forty years or more.
In the 1960’s the USAF ran “Project CHECO” which produced hundreds of detailed reports examining the USAF’s aerial operations in South East Asia. “CHECO” stands for “Contemporary Historical Examination of Current Operations”. Most of these reports have a standard introduction, which states:
“Project CHECO was established in 1962 to document and analyze air operations in Southeast Asia… …Project CHECO and other US Air Force Historical study programs provided the Air Force with timely and lasting corporate insights into operational, conceptual and doctrinal lessons from the war in SEA.”
The report that mentions the HMAS Hobart is titled Project CHECO South East Asia Report: Air War In The DMZ September 1967 – June 1968. It was produced by the 7th Air Force’s (7AF) Directorate of Tactical Evaluation, Headquarters, Pacific Air Forces (HQ PACAF), and was published on the 1st of August, 1969. Signed off by Col. Warren H. Peterson, the report was originally classified SECRET/AIR FORCE EYES ONLY, the report was only declassified on the 17th of August, 2006. In relation to the HMAS Hobart and UFO’s, on pages forty–five and forty–six it states:
“The several direct hits or near misses on friendly vessels by the Air Force missiles obviously raised the question of what went wrong with target acquisition. The pilots, based on their radar and visual sightings, fired at what they thought were helicopters. The joint service conference on the UFO problem took note of one possibility…”
This passage ends with an endnote, namely, number “128”. The next passage of text is a quote taken directly from raw USAF records, and it states:
“It is important to note that only in the case of the Hobart were the recorded targets in close proximity to ships. It is possible that targets fired on were airborne and that missiles subsequently [were] guided on the stronger radar return from ships in the vicinity.”
(I have imaged, above, top, the two pages that contain this startling text).
It is important to reiterate that the information used by the author of this Project CHECO report was sourced directly from two raw USAF documents. These are listed under endnote 128 at the end of the report. They are titled “20 June Helicopter Conference” and “Memo, Brig Gen George W. McLaughlin, TACC, 7AF to Comdr, 7AF, ‘Air Attacks on Naval Surface Vessels’, 18 Jun 68”. Both are listed with an “(S)” next to them, meaning they were, and probably still are, classified SECRET.
As for the text itself, the first sentence highlights the issue of faulty target acquisition and the accidental hits on HMAS Hobart. The second sentence indicates the pilots of the USAF combat jets had a mix of “radar and visual sightings” and fired on “what they thought were helicopters”. But it is the third sentence where things get interesting. Note that it reads, “The joint service conference on the UFO problem took note of one possibility…”. Clearly stated here is that there was a “conference” on the “UFO problem”, and a “joint services” conference at that. This may mean that all branches of the US armed forces attended, not just components of the USAF. More importantly, the “UFO problem” strongly indicates that there was an ongoing issue with UFO’s in the region; which is what weary UFO researchers have been saying for years.
The next passage of text, quoted from raw administrative records, discusses HMAS Hobart directly. Key here are the sections that read “…only in the case of the Hobart were the recorded targets…” and “It is possible that targets fired on were airborne…”.
Questions need to be raised here. The USAF’s official UFO study, “Project Blue Book”, which closed in 1970, was not being informed of this “UFO problem”. We know this because Project Blue Book files have been publicly available since 1976, and there are comparatively few Vietnam War sourced cases or investigations. As for the “UFOs” themselves, it could be argued that the term “UFO” was a catchphrase for all aerial oddities and unknown aircraft, but ’researchers experience with other caches of military documents often tells us the opposite. “UFOs” are often dealt with as distinct from helicopters, planes, flak, etc. Barry Greenwood’s work last year shows that there the term “UFO” was being used very regularly, including instances where the phrases “UFO landing” and “UFO chase” are used within combat and intelligence assessments.
Other questions must also be asked. Did the “joint service conference” on the “UFO problem” include Royal Australian Navy (RAN) officers? After all, it was an Australian ship that was struck. If so, where are those records? Were any technical studies completed by the USAF’s 7AF science and technology directorates? What about the source documents used in compiling this Project CHECO report, which, I state again, are listed on Page as “20 June Helicopter Conference” and “Memo, Brig Gen George W. McLaughlin, TACC, 7AF to Comdr, 7AF, ‘Air Attacks on Naval Surface Vessels’, 18 Jun 68”? One can only imagine how many records like this must be languishing – still classified – in permanent archives across the continental United States.
There are other overt references to UFO’s amongst the pages of Project CHECO South East Asia Report: Air War In The DMZ September 1967 – June 1968. On Page 47, it is stated:
“Another facet of target identification involved confirming the many visual, radar, and infrared sightings. No ‘hard evidence’ such as photographs or wreckage was obtained. On three successive August nights, RF–4s flew a total of 12 sorties against 34 radar–plotted UFO targets. The photos showed no helicopters despite several runs which, according to the radar, passed directly over the targets. On 28 August, an RF–4C using photo flash cartridges ran controlled tests to photograph a friendly helicopter at night. Of 38 exposed frames made on four passes, only two frames showed the helicopter. The summary of results to the 7AF Command Section said…”
The author then quotes directly from classified USAF records, which reads:
“This test confirms previous opinion by DOCR that chances of photographing one of the UFOs in the DMZ is extremely remote… …Even the two successful exposures required last minute flight correction by a DOCR representative riding in the lead helicopter.”
The page continues with:
“Two special projects were established to observe the UFOs from Con Thien, the highest hill in the eastern DMZ area. The primary mission of project HAVE FEAR did not concern the helicopter reports, but this Air Force Weapons Laboratory project had laser range finders and night observation devices (NOD) that offered some chance of identifying the sightings. HAVE FEAR personnel saw red lights and got video blips. The UFOs usually traveled at speeds from 30 to 80 mph at altitudes from 1,200 to 1,600 feet. After several days of tracking, the red blinking lights would extinguish when under HAVE FEAR surveillance. The project ran from 4–12 August 1968 and resumed from 18–31 August.”
Within the above text there are three endnote listed. Endnote 132 is listed as a document titled Msg, 7AF to COMUSMACV, ‘Summary Report of UFOs in DMZ, 19 Sep 68.”. Endnote 133, is listed as “Memo, Col Michael J. Quirk, DOC, 7AF, ‘Test–Night Photo of Helicopters,’ undated (About 30 Aug 68).”. The final endnote, 134, references a document titled “Msg, Det 1, 620th TCS to 7AF, ‘HAVE FEAR,’ 25 Aug 68; (S/NF) Memo, ‘Intelligence Annex (Enemy Helicopters),’ undated (Late Aug 68).”. This leaves no doubt that the content of the page was gleaned directly from raw, established USAF authority. The page in question is imaged below.
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So what can we take from this? The fact that USAF attempted to make sense of these elusive “visual, radar, and infrared sightings”, by organising the photographing of them, is something that we scarcely see in the established official record. The statement “…On three successive August nights, RF–4s flew a total of 12 sorties against 34 radar–plotted UFO targets” demonstrates clearly the urgency of the situation. The statement about the “…chances of photographing one of the UFOs in the DMZ is extremely remote…” indicates that a fair degree of discussion must have taken place over the matter. If that is not enough, note the passage of text which states “…two special projects were established to observe the UFOs…”. There is no question that something odd was going on. To use the frowned–upon term “UFO” so readily implies that US forces had few clues as to what they were visually witnessing and plotting on radar systems. Also, as I mentioned at the beginning of this entry, the term “UFO” is utilised as distinct from terms like “hostile aircraft”, “flak”, “rocket barrage”, “formation of planes” and so forth.
Most compelling is the fact that the author of this Project CHECO report was able to reference a classified document which, again I want to highlight, titled Msg, 7AF to COMUSMACV, “Summary Report of UFOs in DMZ,” 19 Sep 68. Quite simply, this means that there was a 7th Air Force “Report Of UFOs in the DMZ”. There is most definitely no mention of this is the Project Blue Book files, which were supposed to be the last word on UFO’s by the USAF. It would be amazing if this was the only record of its type. Where are these raw records, and, more importantly, in what volume are they? As I have raised before, there was also a “joint service conference on the UFO problem” at nearly the same time.
These situations – where sensitive UFO–related records are found far outside Project Blue Book – keep coming up all the time. Anyone who clings to the notion that there is nothing more to be found, no more mysteries, no more classified files, is living in the early 1970’s. There always seems to be some recorded fact, some official opinion, or some unseen report that departs massively from the USAF’s public relations stance that UFO’s have never been an issue for national security or something worth seriously considering in future policy or plans.
In Part 2 of this series, I will present another bevy of US military documents, as well as some Australian records, that relate to the UFO matter in Vietnam, including, specifically, the strike on HMAS Hobart. Finally, I have imaged below the front page of Project CHECO South East Asia Report: Air War In The DMZ September 1967 – June 1968 to further establish the provenance of this hitherto classified paperwork.
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