Maury Island Madness

by Charles Lear

June 21, 1947, three days before Kenneth Arnold had his historic sighting, a man named Harold Dahl and his crew allegedly saw six one hundred foot diameter donut shaped craft while on a salvage mission in Puget Sound near Tacoma, Washington.  According to the claim, as they approached the shore of Maury Island, one of the craft seemed to experience mechanical troubles and the other five circled it and appeared to be aiding it in some way.  The craft then rained molten metal on Dahl’s vessel, injuring his son and killing his dog, before all six objects flew away.  The case was investigated by Arnold himself as well as the US Army Air Corps and Dahl claimed that a Man In Black also poked his nose in.  The story made headlines when the plane that was to carry the Air Corps investigators back to their base with a box full of saucer slag caught fire and crashed.  The papers noted that a cover-up might have been the reason.  A case with the very first saucer and Man In Black report is exciting and the fact that it comes before Arnold’s seems to add credibility to it because no one had heard of “flying saucers” before a reporter covering Arnold’s sighting coined the phrase.  It seems like a good case until one looks into the characters involved and, in particular, a man named Fred L. Crisman.  To say that Crisman was colorful is quite an understatement and that he ends up involved in the Kennedy investigation/conspiracy circus adds a red nose and fright wig to his persona.

The story was originally dismissed by a local reporter but came to light through lovable strange tale publisher and truth boundary stretcher, Ray Palmer, publisher of Amazing Stories.  Palmer was having a good run with a series of “true” stories written by Richard Shaver, involving detrimental robots, “deros” that lived inside the earth and flew through tunnels in disc shaped craft.  Palmer received a box with some metal fragments in it and an account of Dahl’s sighting from Crisman who had previously written Palmer a letter claiming he’d fought with deros himself in a Burmese cavern during World War II.  Crisman also offered to go to a cave in Texas to retrieve dero machinery if Palmer would provide $500 to cover his expenses.  In spite of his doubts, Palmer enlisted Arnold, with whom he now had a relationship, to go to Tacoma and investigate.  In addition to working for Palmer (for which he was paid $200) Arnold also seemed to have made arrangements with a local paper, the Boise Statesman in his home state of Idaho, to provide them with a story as well.

    When Arnold arrived he found all hotels were booked except the most expensive one in town.  When he went to register he was told that he had already reserved a room there.  Despite being unsettled by this, Arnold contacted Dahl and interviewed him later that day in his room.  In addition to the saucer tale, Dahl told Arnold that he’d had an encounter the day after his sighting with a muscular man in a black suit who drove a black Buick.  According to Dahl, the man knew his story despite his not having reported it and told Dahl to keep quiet about it.   Later that day, Dahl drove Arnold to a house where he said he had a piece of debris from the craft.  To Arnold it looked like an ordinary piece of lava and Dahl had been using it as an ashtray.  The next day Dahl brought Crisman to Arnold’s hotel room and Crisman took control of the story from there on.  Arnold was less than convinced and asked a United Airlines pilot friend, E.J. Smith, to come and assist him.  After conducting another interview, Arnold was contacted by Ted Morello, a UPI reporter, who told him that someone had called and given him details of Arnold’s conversations during his investigation.  Arnold suspected his room had been bugged due to the fact that it was reserved for him and took precautions to keep details of his investigation strictly among Dahl, Crisman and Smith.  After Morello called him again and gave him additional details, Arnold began to suspect he was being set up by Crisman or Dahl and contacted Lt. Frank Brown and Captain William Davidson of the US Army Air Corps for assistance.  They flew up from California and were also unconvinced by the story.  They got on a plane at 2 am the next morning to be present for ceremonies in California marking the creation of the US Air Force, under which they would now be serving.  They left with a cereal box full of slag and the B-25 that was carrying them caught fire and crashed, killing them both.  The Tacoma Times ran the headline, “Wrecked Bomber Carried Disc Secret” and the article states that Dahl was the source of the information.  Arnold decided to abandon the investigation and on his return to Boise his plane experienced engine failure.  Arnold managed to land safely but this added fuel to the conspiracy theories started by the newspaper article.

There are many who believe there was a real sighting and a real conspiracy but it’s more than likely that Crisman and Dahl had fabricated the story in an attempt to profit from the saucer craze started by Arnold’s sighting.  To begin with, Dahl told Arnold that he had pictures of the craft but when asked to produce them claimed they had been stolen from his car.  Crisman would also claim to have pictures throughout his life but also never produced them.  After the plane crash, an FBI investigation was launched and both men stated that the fragments they had sent Palmer were not pieces of the object.  Dahl would not admit that the story was a hoax but did say he would refer to it as such in the future to avoid further troubles.

Included in the investigation files, a statement by Associated Press Wireman, Ernie Vogel, adds some atmosphere to the story.  Vogel was asked by the Seattle Post Intelligencer in early June, after the first disk stories were in the papers, to check on a story that “was supposed to have originated with Fred Crisman.”  He went to Dahl’s house and Dahl took him to the kitchen and related his story in “low muffled tones.”  Dahl’s wife then entered and in a rage demanded that Dahl admit the story was a hoax.  Vogel left quickly and advised the paper that Dahl was a “mental case” and that they should never print anything he said regarding this story.  Vogel was later contacted by the Boise Statesman and pressured for details and he told them that the story was a hoax and that Arnold should not come to Tacoma.

The strongest evidence against the case came from a source that would have been the strongest evidence for the case had he actually been present at the event and that was Dahl’s son, Charles, who was supposed to have been injured.  He was found by former Washington State MUFON Director Kalani Hanohano and his wife Katiuska.  He denied being on the boat, called the story a hoax and described Crisman as a “smooth talking con-artist.”

Crisman would later become entangled in the JFK investigation when he was subpoenaed by Jim Garrison to testify before the grand jury prior to the trial of Clay Shaw.  Garrison wanted Crisman to appear because of a letter he received stating that Crisman was “the first man Clay called after being told he was in trouble.”  The letter goes on to paint Crisman as a man of mystery with friends so powerful that they had influence over the CIA and FBI.  It is thought by researcher Larry Hancock that Crisman himself may have written the letter, which fits a pattern of self-aggrandizement that can be seen in other letters he’d written.  In addition, Hancock calls Crisman a known forger who made a habit of stealing stationary with official letterheads.  Crisman’s involvement with the JFK investigation spawned many conspiracy theories that paint him as a CIA operative and one that identifies him as one of three tramps arrested on the grassy knoll.  There is proof that Crisman was teaching at a high school on that day and Crisman’s son felt that his family was too poor for his father to have been an intelligence operative.  That Crisman could have purposefully inserted himself into the investigation, incredible as it seems, does fit in with Hancock’s and other’s assessments of his character.

Crisman would keep his foot in the UFO arena for the rest of his life.  He continued to claim he had pictures of the Maury Island craft and 20 years after the event lectured on the case to a Seattle UFO group according to author Kenn Thomas.  He held numerous jobs including high school teacher and radio host, held a seat on a local library board and ran a variety of diploma mills with a dubious character named Thomas Beckham who was also subpoenaed by Garrison as a result of Crisman’s testimony.  Crisman died at 56 in 1975 in obscurity.  His life is a testament to the fact that although UFOs are strange, sometimes people are stranger.