As we look back on the Fourth of July—a day traditionally commemorated with loud sounds, bursts of color, and dizzying motion—we are reminded of other, even more mysterious objects in the night sky. For it was right around Independence Day in 1947 that the Tri-Cities began to witness UFOs.

Tri-Cities UFOs
The author poses with one of the Tri-Cities’ UFOs at Chamna Natural Preserve in Richland. The city has since removed this image. Photo credit: Emily Leist

The Nordman family was setting off fireworks when they saw a “flying disk” above their Richland home. “It was a little bright thing, going fast and turning over and over,” Mrs. Nordman told the Richland Villager. “We never would have noticed it if we hadn’t suddenly looked up.” The same article reports that a few days after the Nordmans’ July 4 sighting, an entire neighborhood saw the UFOs.

Leo Bernier was the first Tri-Cities resident to see and report the flying disks on Tuesday, June 24. He had been reluctant to disclose his sighting, he told the Villager but came forward after reading other accounts. “I was worried that people might just laugh,” he explained. But he needn’t have worried. Many people reported UFO sightings that summer, both statewide and across the country, and it is likely to these accounts which Bernier referred.

The summer of 1947 was a high point for UFO sightings, so much so there is an aptly named organization, Project 1947, documenting them. But civilians were not the only ones who noticed and reported these phenomena. The Tri-Cities’ military personnel also took an interest in UFOs, among them Colonel Franklin Matthias. He was the officer-in-charge of the Hanford Engineer Works during the war effort and was also responsible for the press briefing which occurred after the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. This briefing shared defense details, including how radar was installed “when we saw or thought we saw unidentified aircraft operating.” He elaborated upon this and described an agreement between Hanford and the Navy in which the 9th Service Command’s fighter pilots defended the site from aircraft of any kind.

Tri-Cities UFOs
A UFO and other drawings adorn a traffic box in Kennewick. They can be seen at the corner of Steptoe Street and Clearwater Avenue. This and other traffic box artwork is a joint project between the City of Kennewick and STCU. Artwork by Jason Watson. Photo credit: Adam Whittier

It appears that the 9th Service Command was kept busy. In late 1944 and early 1945, multiple unknown radar “blips” were detected over Hanford. In a letter obtained by Project 1947, Commander R.W. Hendershot described his experience investigating these blips. In each case, fighter pilots were “vectored out” or instructed to fly specific headings, only to find nothing there. Commander Hendershot explained that various types of blips were associated with different types of craft. In this case, the blips were similar in size and speed to Piper Cubs, which were small two-seater planes in common use at the time.

The pilots responded to more frightening events in January 1945, when UFOs were reported over Hanford’s plutonium production plant on at least three separate occasions. In an interview with former fighter pilot Clarence R. Clem, he described them as “bright, reddish-orange fireball[s]…[with] no form, no substance.” Just as in Commander Hendershot’s account, the fireballs managed to evade capture or destruction.

An additional incident involving Colonel Matthias was revealed by Robert Franklin, a local source on all things Hanford-related. Among other roles, Franklin is president of the B Reactor Museum Association and an archivist and oral historian at the Hanford History Project. He shared with the author a declassified message which Colonel Matthias sent to Oak Ridge, Tennessee. (Oak Ridge was one of the three main sites of the Manhattan Project; the others included Hanford and also Los Alamos, New Mexico.)

Tri-Cities UFOs
Although no photos exist of the balloon bomb that detonated over the Hanford site, it was similar to the one shown here. This balloon was shot down and later reinflated at Moffett Field, California. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons contributors, March 1, 2015

In this message, the colonel described a “mysterious white light,” first seen drifting in the sky southwest of Hanford’s 200 East Area. After floating for over an hour, the light fell to the ground, where it changed from white to amber before burning up. Search parties were unable to find the object at the time, and Franklin doubts it was ever recovered. When asked if this counts as a UFO, Franklin agreed that it fits the term’s “unidentified” definition. But he does not believe that extraterrestrial visitors have ever visited Hanford and is generally skeptical of their existence. There is no way to know what Colonel Matthias thought the light’s origin to be.

Occasionally, UFOs are successfully recovered and identified. Franklin recounted one such event on March 10, 1945, during which a Japanese “balloon bomb” detonated over Hanford. The bomb hit a power line and temporarily shut down the reactor. These bombs were similar in appearance to hot-air balloons and only caused damage in a few places, most infamously in Bly, Oregon.

The balloon bomb is notable because it’s one of the few local cases where the UFO’s origin was discovered. In most instances, people are left with unanswered questions and have no choice but to fall back on hearsay, observation, and imagination. These remain the UFO enthusiast’s most alluring tools; perhaps they are reason enough, every once in a while, to look up at the stars.

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