“They flew very close to the mountaintop,” reported Boise businessman and pilot Kenneth Arnold, in the summer of 1947. There were nine of them, he said, as he flew near Washington’s Mount Rainier, “a chain of saucer-like things at least five miles long, swerving in and out of the high mountain peaks.”
It was the first recorded sighting of a flying saucer.
A decade later, a half-dozen Malmstrom Air Force Base jets were scrambled after multiple reports of a UFO were received at the Air Force “Filter Center” in Helena.
The object, described as triangular with a bright yellow glow, seemed to hover in the sky southwest of Kalispell for six or seven hours before disappearing around 5 a.m.
Youngsters in the 1950s (today’s baby boomers) grew up hearing such reports. It was a time when everything space-related dominated public discussion, with newspaper reports of UFOs, Sputnik and rocket development.
In the summer of 1958, the kickoff to the state convention of the American Legion in Missoula featured the mock firing of a 15-foot rocket at Higgins and Broadway.
The Legion’s entertainment director Don Boifeuillet, a local car salesman, played the part of an American spaceman.
“Bidding friends goodbye,” reported the Missoulian newspaper, “earthling Don Boifeuillet stepped into the base of the American sputnik.”
The miniature rocket model had been shipped in a few days earlier for the Legionaires’ parade. “Three times there was a boom and a flash of fire from the tail of the missile and three times it moved skyward – with the help of a forklift.”
Finally, as the “X-27” descended, the door flew open with a loud boom and “out flew Boifeuillet minus his clothing – except for some lace-trimmed panties.”
Light-hearted moments like that were somewhat rare, though, in an era dominated by nuclear threats and nuclear exercises.
In one such exercise, the Federal Civil Defense Administration conducted “Operation Alert 1958,” in early May of that year. The simulated nuclear attack involved communities across the country – except Missoula.
While President Eisenhower was hunkered down in a D.C. area bomb shelter, Missoula officials were left out of the loop and had no advance notice of any such exercise.
Then-Mayor Alan Bradley sent a wire to Helena demanding, “How do you explain the uncoordinated and mismanaged conduct on the state level of today’s nationwide alert. … I am grateful this was not the real thing.”
The finger-pointing lasted a few days.
The positive aspect of atomic energy was being promoted by the government at the same time.
The “Atoms for Peace” traveling exhibit arrived in Montana in July 1958, with stops in Whitefish, Libby, Columbia Falls and Missoula.
The walk-through exhibit, housed in an Atomic Energy Commission bus, was set up at 316 North Higgins avenue in Missoula. Visitors could measure the radioactivity of their luminous watches with a geiger counter and learn about the growing use of radiation in medical applications and its potential in generating electricity.
Meantime, with the launch of Sputnik, scientists worldwide speculated on the possible future uses of man-made “moons” circling the earth.
Equipping satellites with TV cameras to monitor weather or putting telescopes onboard to look at far-away stars were among the wild ideas put forward.
Maybe we could even go to the moon – though University of Chicago physicist John Platt worried the dusty surface might be dangerous after eons of exposure to solar radiation.
But of course, all of that was just science fiction; it would never actually happen.
Fast-forward to today. Weather satellites and computer modeling are now the basis of daily forecasts, space-based telescopes now show us the magnitude of the universe, the moon has been explored and attention has turned to Mars and beyond.
But human fascination and fear remain unchanged today when it comes to technology, space, rocketry and nuclear weapons.
But we’ve also seen much progress in peaceful, humanitarian use of modern technology.
Let’s hope Plato was right: “To prefer evil to good is not in human nature …”
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org.