Retrobituaries: Leonard Stringfield, Ufologist

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How to spot a UFO from the ground: Look up. Do you see something that you cannot identify? You have spotted a UFO. Leonard Stringfield did a little better than that. Back in his Air Force days, he was a passenger on a cargo plane flying from Ie Shima to Tokyo on official business when he looked out of the window and saw something he could not identify. Several somethings. Several “brilliantly white, like burning magnesium” somethings.

“I remember looking out through one of the portholes,” he wrote, “and to my surprise, seeing three unidentifiable blobs of brilliant white light, each about the size of a dime held at arm’s length.” Leonard Stringfield had spotted a whole squadron of UFOs. If that wasn’t enough, the UFOs (presumably) caused the plane’s instrument needles to move like wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube men. Then the cargo plane’s engines faltered, and it started losing altitude. But when the pilots ordered everyone to prepare to bail, the UFOs ascended into the clouds. The plane recovered, the instruments settled down, and everyone survived. 

Stringfield discounts theories that the UFOs were some kind of secret new aircraft. “No nation, in defeat or in victory, in my opinion, would have been so foolhardy as to use a secret weapon during the delicate period of surrender.” He concluded that the objects “could not have possibly been earthmade.” It’s probably a coincidence that space aliens might have been interested in humanity’s first offensive use of atomic weaponry. (Hiroshima and Nagasaki had only just been bombed three weeks before.) But maybe the aliens were a scouting party. I don’t know. What I do know is that Leonard Stringfield didn’t let this thing go. Not after he received word a few years later of strange bodies recovered from suspicious wreckage in a tiny town in New Mexico. 

He started a newsletter called ORBIT where he could get the word out and maybe collect a few stories. His modest plans changed when a major radio broadcast mentioned his work. “Twenty-four hours later—with the first impact of mail—the life of Leonard H. Stringfield was changed! What had been a simple pursuit erupted into the brute of big business. I ate my dinner at the telephone and entertained guests while I typed. Bookkeeping nearly replaced romance, and my only rest was in the sanctum of the bathroom.”

Six thousand letters had suddenly poured in, and ORBIT went big. Even the Air Force wanted a part of it. Stringfield’s first book, Inside Saucer Post, 3-0 Blue [PDF], details his cooperation with the Air Defense Command, in which he was to report any sightings that might warrant the military’s attention. He notes in the book that his house was designated a “UFO reporting post” (its codename was 3-0 Blue) and his telephone line was made secure. (The Air Force would later disavow the partnership, though Major General John Samford, director of the National Security Agency, wrote Stringfield thanking him for “the interest which you and your organization, as well as others, have taken in the Unidentified Flying Object program... A continuation of this assistance is indeed welcome.”) 

The thing about Leonard Stringfield is that he wasn’t some kook living in an RV with the windows covered in tin foil. He was systematic and did sober, serious investigations and built an impressively detailed database of unexplained sightings. He was instrumental in forming a community of UFO observers and in establishing and keeping honest the organizations that formed around the phenomenon. Among the associations of which Stringfield was a part: Civilian Research, Interplanetary Flying Objects (CRIFO, which he founded); National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP, which is still around); the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON, which is of course still active as any fan of the X-Files can attest); Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS); and the University of Colorado UFO Project.

He died in 1994 of lung cancer. In 2012, his 60 volumes of papers were donated to MUFON, which is now in the process of digitizing them. If the mystery of UFOs is ever solved, we can thank Leonard Stringfield for his hard work. If it isn’t solved, we can’t say he didn’t try.

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March 27, 2013 - 1:00pm
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