One of the most famous and puzzling incidents in UFO history is the Ubatuba, Brazil case, in which debris said to have been retreived after the
explosion of a UFO was determined to be magnesium metal of unusual composition.
But there is another, surprisingly similar incident that occurred in the US at the dawn of the modern UFO phenomenon. This incident directly or
indirectly involved a host of people and organizations that were later to have a major impact on the study of UFOs in the United States, and points
out that there is still much to be learned concerning the early investigation of the phenomenon by the military, the intelligence community and even,
perhaps, by the corporate world.
Project Blue Book's detailed case file on the earlier incident tells a weird and fascinating tale. According to Dow documents preserved in the file,
the event began just after 5:00 on the afternoon of July 9, 1947, as a forty-five year old electrician named Raymond Lane and his wife were picking
huckleberries near Midland, Michigan. A strange sizzling noise abruptly drew their attention to a bizarre mass of bright white, fiery sparks hovering
about a foot above the ground and about a hundred feet away. It reminded them of a Fourth of July sparkler, but it was much bigger -- the size, as
they later put it, of a bushel basket. The fireball burned brilliantly for about fifteen seconds before dying out. When the smoke drifted away, there
was nothing left except some hot, light-and-dark-colored metallic-looking debris on the sandy soil. Lane collected fragments of the material in a tin
can and considered whom to tell.
The mysterious fireball had appeared in a uniquely appropriate place. Midland happened to be the home of one of America's most well-equipped
materials analysis facilities: the laboratories of Dow Chemical company, well known for its metallurgical expertise and a world leader in magnesium
Shortly after World War I, Dow metallurgists had developed an alloy that the company called "Dowmetal" -- refined magnesium to which was added about
six percent aluminum and one-half percent manganese. Dowmetal was widely promoted for automotive and aviation uses and was highly profitable for the
company, eventually giving it a virtual monopoly on magnesium production in the US. In 1933 the company was approached by Belgian scientist Jean
Piccard with a request to design and build a Dowmetal cabin for a record-setting high-altitude balloon flight. The design was highly successful and
eventually enabled flights to over 70,000 feet.
During World War II Dow's extremely lightweight, strong magnesium alloys became an indispensable ingredient of aircraft and missile structures. The
company also became a contractor for an unusual flight test program that had a direct link to Project SIGN, the Air Force's 1948 UFO research
One of the most significant figures behind Dow's success was a chemist named John Josef Grebe [pronounced "gree-bee"]. Born Hans Josef Grebe in
Uerzig, Germany in 1900, he emigrated to Ohio in 1914 and became a US citizen in 1921. Grebe graduated from the Case School of Applied Science in 1924
and was immediately hired by Dow. Considered a genius by his colleagues and known as the "Idea Man," Grebe was given free rein to work on projects
of his own devising. He established the company's Physical Research Laboratory, an organization that produced a steady stream of valuable inventions,
particularly in the field of plastics. Chemists under his direction were responsible for the discovery of several now-universally used plastics, such
as styrene, Styrofoam, and polyvinyl chloride, and also developed a synthetic rubber that was vital to the US military in World War II.
Dow illlustration detailing products of Grebe's Physical Research Lab.
Grebe even perfected a method of extracting magnesium from sea water, a process that became Dow's main source of the metal. After Japan's surrender
Grebe was assigned to work with the Oak Ridge nuclear laboratory, and in 1946 he was an observer at the Operation Crossroads nuclear tests. He also
worked closely with the US Army's Chemical Corps on the highly classified toxicological and radiological warfare programs (in fact, by 1948, Grebe
would be named the Chemical Corps' chief technical advisor).
The morning after the fireball incident, Lane took his can of sandy debris to Robert S. Spencer, a senior researcher in Grebe's laboratory, whom Lane
had met when he was a Dow employee some years before. Spencer contacted Edward Fales, the company's internal security chief, and together the men
went to the site to investigate. Lane told the Dow officials that he thought the object had been a flying saucer, or possibly a meteorite, and that
some small lumps of silvery metal in the debris he had scooped up might be platinum. (Ironically, there is no evidence that he or anyone else ever
reported seeing an object in flight prior to the appearance of the fireball). Spencer immediately arranged to have the material analyzed. The
Spectroscopy Laboratory quickly reported that the shiny pellets in the material were largely silver mixed with a few percent silicon, which probably
came from the sand on which the molten material had solidified. The sample was checked for radioactivity, but did not blacken photographic plates.
According to a report by Fales,
Preliminary tests of the material show the contents to be as follows: ordinary sand, not radio active [sic], but giving off an ammonia gas. A silver
nugget, almost pure except for sand mixed in it, not radio active. Melted or fused sand which gives off ammonia, has little droplets of silver melted
in the sand and some other material which is not radio active. The fused sand has some characteristics of the Los Alamos sand [i.e., the glassy
material created by the Trinity nuclear explosion] but is not believed to be the same
A portion of Dow's analysis of the July 9, 1947 'flying saucer debris' from Project Blue Book case file.
By the end of September the Lab had run more spectrographic tests on a small quantity of a fine, light, ash-like powder laboriously sifted from the
debris. The powder turned out to be a material called thorite, which was discovered to be somewhat radioactive. The remaining portion of the debris
yielded traces of iron, aluminum, magnesium, and other metals. There was also evidence of a significant amount of magnesium hydroxide, which some
analysts took to be the remains of the combustion of a sizable amount of magnesium.
Interestingly, Dow handled the case as a purely internal matter at first. Fales' inquiries concerning Lane led him to conclude that he was a somewhat
peculiar individual who was known to have basic technical expertise. On balance, the incident seemed likely to be the result of some kind of home-made
fireworks experiment. The FBI was eventually contacted and an agent conducted a basic inquiry. As will be seen, there was no Air Force involvement
with the case in 1947.
Activity surrounding the Midland fireball incident became dormant by the autumn of 1947 but was revived dramatically a year later, when on September
17, 1948, Grebe, then working with the Chemical Corps at Edgewood Arsenal, Maryland, requested an update on the investigation from Dow. An examination
of Fales' dossier set him to speculating. In an October 11 memo to one of his Army superiors, he wrote that
The only technical point that would tend to discredit the report in a very slight way is that the particular spectrum analysis that was made of the
sand that was supposed to have been picked up with the sample of the fused mineral matter, which contained nuggets of silver, had a different analysis
from the sand picked up in the general area. It had rained, however, in the meantime, which would remove any magnesium hydroxide that might have been
around. As a whole, it would appear to me that, every bit of evidence found should be considered seriously as an indication that a self-consuming
missile capable of producing a considerable amount of smoke and fire and leaving behind only the minimum residue required to produce a battery and
radio transmitter is feasible and was probably observed.
This concept - that the small Midland fireball had represented the self-destruction of some kind of instrumented projectile - marked a drastic change
in the official approach to the incident, bringing it in line with the fears in 1946 and 1947 that some anomalous meteor-like events were actually a
type of "self-consuming missile" experiments.
It is not apparent from the available source material exactly why Grebe chose this juncture to reopen the case, but there are indications that similar
studies were being performed at the time on other samples of apparent UFO debris that were considered to be possibly the remains of missiles. For
example, on November 26, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover sent a memo to the Air Force's Director of Special Investigations (IG), concerning a case
similar to the Midland incident.