Published: 4:46 PM 4/16/2012
Two figures were visible inside the object...
Date: April 18, 1961 11:00AM
Joe Simonton heard a whining sound and saw an object, 10 m in diameter, 4 m high, with exhaust pipes around the periphery, land near his house. A door was opened and a man appeared.
About 1.50 m tall, he wore a black, turtle-neck pullover with a white turtleneck belt, and black trousers with a vertical white band along the side. Two figures were visible inside the object. Simonton filled a jug with water, returned it to the man, who gave him three ordinary pancakes, and the craft took off.
Wisconsin's strangest close encounter of the third kind must surely be the incident during which Joe Simonton was given three pancakes by "Italian-looking" aliens.
Despite the unlikely manner in which the story unfolded, the episode survived a rigorous assessment by the U.S. Air Force and is carried in their files as "unexplained."
In 1961, Joe Simonton was a plumber; auctioneer and Santa Claus - annually, for the Eagle River Chamber of Commerce. He reported his age as 55 or 60, depending on the interviewer: At 11 a.m., April 18, Simonton was having a late breakfast when he heard a sound like that of a jet being throttled back, something like the sound of "knobby tires on wet pavement." He went into the yard and saw a flying saucer drop out of the sky and hover over his farm.
It was silver and "brighter than chrome," 12 feet in height and 30 feet in diameter. On one edge were what appeared to be exhaust pipes, 6 or 7 inches in diameter.
The disc landed and a hatch opened. Inside were three dark-skinned aliens, each about 5 feet tall and weighing about 125 pounds. They appeared to be between 25 and 30 years old and were dressed in dark blue or black knit uniforms with turtleneck tops, and helmet-like caps. They were clean-shaven, Simonton said, and "Italian-looking."
The aliens did not speak in his presence, but they had a silvery jug with two handles, heavier than aluminum but lighter than steel, about a foot high. It seemed to be made out of the same material as the craft. Simonton said it was "a beautiful thing, a Thermos jug-like bottle quite unlike any jug I have ever seen here [on Earth]."
Through ESP or something, Simonton got the idea that the aliens wanted water. He left the visitors, filled the jug from the water pump in his basement, then returned to the craft and gave the jug back. To do this, he had to brace himself against the UFO's hull and stretch up. From the subsequent Air Force report:
"Looking into the [saucer] he saw a man 'cooking' on some kind of flameless cooking appliance." The alien was preparing pancakes.
The interior of the UFO was dull black, even the three "extremely beautiful" instrument panels, and had the appearance of wrought iron. The contrast between the dark interior and shiny exterior so fascinated Simonton that he later said that he "would love to have a room painted in the same way."
In return for the water, one of the aliens - the only one with narrow red trim on his trousers - presented Simonton with three of the pancakes, hot from the griddle. As he did so, the alien touched his own forehead, apparently a salute in thanks to Simonton for his help. Simonton saluted back. Each of the pancakes was roughly 3 inches in diameter and perforated with small holes.
The head alien then connected a line or belt to a hook in his clothing and the hatch closed. The saucer rose about 20 feet and took off to the south, at a 45-degree angle. Its wake left a blast of air that tossed the tops of nearby pine trees. The craft took only two seconds to disappear from view.
Simonton ate one of the pancakes, ostensibly in the interest of science. "It tasted like cardboard," he told the Associated Press. The other two pancakes he gave to Vilas County Judge Frank Carter, a local UFO enthusiast.
Carter, who called the aliens "saucernauts" ("I prefer Italians"), said he believed Simonton's story since he could not think of any way in which the farmer might profit from a hoax. Carter's son, Colyn, today a lawyer in Eagle River, told me, "I recall as a youngster that my dad took it very seriously."
Judge Carter sent the pancakes to what was then the country's top investigative group, the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP). They refused the opportunity to check it out. That put a damper on Judge Carter's plans; he had wanted to hold a seminar on the incident.
By this time, Simonton said, he was "irked by reporters making fun of the situation and laughing."
In response to all this, the Air Force dispatched its civilian UFO investigator, J. Allen Hynek. Hynek at the time was an astronomer at Northwestern University. He later became convinced that UFOs are real, and founded his own investigative agency, which took over NICAP's files after that group folded.
Thanks to Hynek, a Northwestern University committee and the Air Force's Technical Intelligence Center analyzed one of Simonton's pancakes and found it to be made of flour, sugar and grease; it was rumored, however, that the wheat in the pancakes was of an unknown type.
The official Air Force assessment of it all: This case is unexplained. "The only serious flaw in the story is the disappearance of the craft in 'two seconds.' The rest of the story did not contain any outrages to physical concepts," reads the report.
Simonton "answered questions directly, did not contradict himself, insisted on the facts being exactly as he stated and refused to accept embellishments or modifications. He stated he was sure that we wouldn't believe him but that he didn't care whether he was believed. He stated simply that this happened and that was that."
The private Air Force response was unearthed after a little detective work. It comes from a UFO handbook for Air Force personnel, written by Lloyd Mallan and issued in a popular edition by Science and Mechanics Publishing Co. In the book, Mallan refers to "J.S., a highly regarded, much respected citizen of Eagle River, Wis. -- a small rural community noted for its attractiveness to tourists."
(Unless there are more space-pancake recipients in Eagle River than otherwise reported, we can safely see through Mallan's clever attempt at disguise and positively identify "J.S." as Joe Simonton.)
One Air Force investigator, according to Mallan, said that Simonton "appeared quite sincere to me, did not appear to be the perpetrator of a hoax." But an Air Force Aeronautical Systems Division psychiatrist believed that Simonton had suffered a hallucination and subsequent delusion. The Air Technical Intelligence Center investigator said, "cases of this type could be injurious to the mental health of the individual if [he] became upset due to the experience. ...It was pointed out that experiences of this type, hallucinations followed by delusion, are not at all uncommon and especially in rural communities."
Additionally, according to Mallan, the Air Force took to heart an unsubstantiated rumor circulated by, among others, Raymond Palmer, a publisher of pulp flying-saucer and science-fiction magazines. Palmer reported to the Air Force his belief that Simonton had been hypnotized by an Eagle River real estate broker and was fed the pancake story so that he would repeat it and appear truthful. The motivation for this was economic, for the purpose of "a miniature Disneyland that is or was being built in the area."
To understand how incredible the rumor was, it is useful to look at the credibility of Palmer himself. One of his favorite theories was that flying saucers came from a secret hollow-Earth civilization ruled by a race called Detrimental Robots, which he abbreviated as "Deros."
According to Palmer, the Deros manipulated humanity with their projected thought rays. Palmer's primary source -- actually, his only source -- was a Pennsylvania welder who drew upon "racial memory" for his accounts. (There apparently is no mention in Air Force files of the possibility that the Deros' thought-ray had been turned upon real estate agents, or Palmer, or even the Air Force, though I believe there is as much evidence for that as for an Eagle River Disneyland.)
But based on such sound "evidence," the Air Technical Intelligence Center, which headquartered Air Force UFO investigations, let the matter drop. Publicly, it was a mystery. The classified reason, revealed to Mallan, was that the Air Force would not pursue the matter "due to the possibility of causing [Simonton] embarrassment which might prove injurious to his health."
This was an uncharacteristic kindness on the part of the Air Force; they regularly had been dismissing reports from pilots - even their own - as misidentifications or, worse, hallucinations. "There are sufficient psychological explanations for reports not otherwise explainable," concluded the Psychology Branch of the Air Force's Aeromedical Laboratory in 1949. Pilots, police, professors, besides regular folks -- all nuts.
In the 60's, though, for a brief, shining moment, the Air Force took on a human face and it its collective tongue, bending over backwards to carry the case of a part-time Santa and full-time chicken farmer as unexplained. Some may smell a conspiracy here.
As for Simonton himself, in the end he was left with a bitter taste in his mouth, and it wasn't from the pancakes. "I haven't been able to work for three weeks," he told United Press International. "I'm going to have to start making some money." He said that the next time he saw a flying saucer he would keep it to himself.
He lied. In 1970 Simonton was visited by Lee Alexander, a UFO enthusiast active in a Detroit-based investigative group. Simonton told Alexander that he had had more visits from the aliens, but he had not told anyone because of the way his first report had been received.
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