The term was borrowed from a comic strip named “Smokey Stover” by a radar operator named Donald J. Meiers. Meiers and a pilot named Lt. Ed Schleuter had encountered a red ball of fire during a mission, and Meiers was extremely agitated. He pulled out a copy of the comic strip, slammed it down on the desk and said, “It was another one of those fuckin’ foo fighters!” The term stuck and was later sanitized to just “foo fighters.”
Pilots who encountered the foo fighters described them as fast-moving round glowing objects that followed their aircraft, glowing in various colors such as red, white, and orange. Some pilots even reported that the objects seemed to be playing with their aircraft, making wild turns before simply vanishing. Despite their strange behavior, the foo fighters never displayed any hostile behavior towards the aircraft, and they could not be outmaneuvered or shot down.
The military took these sightings seriously and initially suspected that the foo fighters might be secret German weapons. However, further investigation revealed that German and Japanese pilots had also reported similar sightings. The Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force in Paris officially described the phenomenon as a “new German weapon” in a press release on December 13, 1944, which was featured in The New York Times the next day.
Finally, the Air Command sent officers to look into the strange sightings, but their findings were lost after the end of the war. In 1953, the Central Intelligence Agency assembled a group of six renowned scientists knowledgeable in experimental aviation technology to assess if the mysterious lights posed a security risk to the nation. The panel, referred to as the Robertson Panel after its chair, Caltech physicist Howard P. Robertson, failed to provide any official explanation.
The postwar Robertson Panel noted the foo fighter reports and suggested that they might be electrostatic phenomena similar to St. Elmo’s fire, electromagnetic phenomena, or simply reflections of light from ice crystals. The Panel’s report also stated that if the term “flying saucers” had been popular during the war, these objects would have been labeled as such.
One of the earliest reported sightings of foo fighters took place in September 1941 in the Indian Ocean, where two sailors reported a “strange globe glowing with greenish light”. A New Zealander flying with the No.3 Squadron’s Night Flight encountered two amber-colored lights that followed him over northern France in December 1942, and other pilots from the same unit reported similar encounters with green lights. The RAF crew from No.178 Squadron reported seeing lights following their aircraft over Hungary during a night raid in October 1944.
In one of the first encounters with foo fighters over the Belgium/Netherlands area, Charles R. Bastien of the US Eighth Air Force described the lights as “two fog lights flying at high rates of speed that could change direction rapidly”. Career U.S. Air Force pilot Duane Adams also claimed to have witnessed two occurrences of a bright light that paced his aircraft for about half an hour and then rapidly ascended into the sky. Senator Ted Stevens described an encounter from the time he was a US Air Force fighter pilot in Europe, where he saw an object that appeared to follow him no matter how fast or slow he flew.
In December 1944 and early January 1945, the Intelligence Officer of the 415th Night-Fighter Squadron, Captain Ringwald, sent a report to the intelligence section at XII Tactical Air Command, listing 14 separate incidents of Foo Fighters sightings. When the intelligence section at XII TAC was unable to provide any answers, they requested assistance from Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) in Paris. The Air Ministry in London was eventually able to provide an explanation, stating that the Foo Fighters were likely a result of flak rockets or the new German Me 262 aircraft, but that the evidence was “very sketchy and varied” and that “no definite and satisfactory explanation can yet be given.”
At the end of the year, an Associated Press war correspondent, Robert C. Wilson, celebrated New Year’s Eve with the 415th and wrote a story on the foo fighters that was featured on the front page of newspapers across the country. This prompted investigations into the phenomenon, with amateur psychologists, military aviation buffs, and conspiracy theorists offering explanations, but none that the airmen found credible.
In the early autumn of 1945, a group of scientists, engineers, and former high-ranking Luftwaffe officers were questioned about the wartime “Balls of Fire” reports by staff from United States Air Force in Europe’s intelligence section. None of the thirteen interviewed claimed any knowledge of a German secret weapons program that could have explained the sightings.
In recent years, author Renato Vesco has revived the theory that the Foo Fighters were a Nazi secret weapon, claiming that they were a form of ground-launched, automatically guided, jet-propelled flak mine called the Feuerball. Vesco alleges that the Feuerball was intended to have both a distracting and disruptive effect on bomber pilots and an offensive capability, as its electrostatic discharges would interfere with the ignition systems of the bombers. This theory, however, has been widely discredited due to its single-sourced nature and lack of evidence.
During April 1945, the U.S. Navy began to experiment on visual illusions as experienced by nighttime aviators in an effort to better understand and explain the phenomenon. Flight psychologist Dr. Edgar Vinacke summarized the need for a cohesive and systematic approach to the study of aviators’ vertigo, stating that pilots often had only a vague understanding of their own feelings and that a great deal of the peril was due to the lack of information about phenomena of disorientation.
Many of these sightings were reported by the 415th Night-Fighter Squadron, with historian Richard Ziebart hearing directly from the crew members. Although the pilots were professional in their reporting, they still found the sightings unnerving.
The airmen didn’t believe the lights were hallucinations caused by battle fatigue, and due to the fact that they caused no damage, they doubted they came from remote-controlled German secret weapons. St. Elmo’s fire, a discharge of light from sharp objects in electrical fields, was also considered unlikely due to the extreme maneuverability of the foo fighters.
Ziebart, the historian, can not offer an explanation either. He believes the reason why the foo fighters were not picked up by radar was due to their lack of physical form. Radar requires a solid object. If there was any hostile presence, the pilots would have definitely been able to detect it.
In conclusion, the mystery of the Foo Fighters remains unsolved to this day, with various explanations ranging from secret weapons to natural phenomena being put forward. Despite the efforts of the military and scientific communities to provide a definitive explanation, the Foo Fighters remain one of the most intriguing and unexplained phenomena of World War II.