How Washington State Spawned the Men in Black

A UFO sighting at Maury Island, once dismissed as a hoax, is getting a second look

  • June 6, 2024
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  • Interview
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  • By Ariana Sutherland

The story that has fascinated Steve Edmiston for over a decade crash-landed in a Des Moines coffee shop in 2012.

He and a neighbor were discussing a matter of local import: a Ken Burns documentary had revealed that Roy Olmstead, a Prohibition-era police officer who turned to bootlegging, ran his operation in their community. The pair, both longtime Des Moines residents, were surprised that they’d never heard of Olmstead.

It was then that a mysterious stranger pitched in.

“If you’re interested in local history,” Edmiston recalls him saying, “then you must know about the Maury Island Incident. A UFO flying over Puget Sound.”

Edmiston will be the first to say that he is not, and has never been, a “UFO guy.” But the locality of it all was tantalizing. Edmiston began the research process. With a historian’s care, he unearthed a story that was both local and shockingly, enduringly global. It was a story that had silently snowballed into a multi-billion-dollar movie franchise, even as it rusted in the kind of conspiracy theory junkyard that, in the public imagination, only the tinfoil hat-wearing crowd dared pick through.

The story goes like this:

On June 21st, 1947, a Tacoma man named Harold Dahl brought his son, two workers, and the family dog aboard his vessel to salvage logs from the waters of Puget Sound. The North Queen and her passengers traveled three miles north until they reached the shores of Maury Island—right across the water from Edmiston’s community. There, Dahl alleged that six flying discs appeared overhead. One seemed to be malfunctioning, flying lower than its companions, eventually spewing molten material down on the boat. The dog was so badly burned that it died, and Dahl’s son’s arm was singed to the point where he was taken to the hospital.

The morning after—June 22nd, 1947—a man dressed in a black suit knocked on Dahl’s door. He brought Dahl to a diner in Tacoma, where Dahl enumerated, detail by detail, the events of the day before. The man did what is considered typical of the Men in Black: he issued a warning that Dahl had better not tell anyone about what had happened.

Those two days comprise what has since been labeled The Maury Island Incident, but it was far from an isolated event. It was the same year—1947—of “The Summer of Saucers.” It saw Ken Arnold’s famous report of nine flying discs near Mt. Rainier—three days after Dahl’s Maury Island sighting, as well as an apparent UFO crash at Roswell, New Mexico, that was reported by the U.S. Army Air Forces two weeks later. In the midst of this extraterrestrial buzz, Harold Dahl and his Maury Island Incident were experiencing inconceivable publicity.

Then, he admitted that what he saw was a hoax.

The Maury Island Incident faded into obscurity. It was from this junkyard of history that Edmiston, with a little prompting from his coffee shop informant, picked the story up. As a lawyer, he found that the documented evidence surrounding the incident contradicted how history remembers it—and the implications of this are enormous. Edmiston turned his research into a talk for Humanities Washington, “UFO Northwest: How Washington State Spawned the Men in Black,” which he’s currently giving around the state.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

If Harold Dahl confessed to a hoax, why should we continue to take the incident seriously?

If the guy who says he saw something then says he made it up, well, we’re not going to talk about it anymore.

However, the more records I requested from the federal government, it became clear to me as a lawyer that Harold Dahl only said he made up the Maury Island Incident to make the whole story go away. The FBI agent in charge, a guy named Jack Wilcox, [wrote] this incredible historical record of what he did for about sixteen days in September of 1947. He wrote that Dahl was making up the fact that this was a hoax. The hoax was what was fabricated.

In the FBI documents, Dahl says, “Oh, I stand by what I saw—I saw what I saw—but I’m now going to pretend I’m a liar, because that’s an easier thing for me to live with than ridicule.” I just felt, at that point, it’s a story. It’s such a good story. And what really happened, nobody will know. But the story itself doesn’t deserve to be buried under a rock.

The linchpin of the whole thing for me is the document where Jack Wilcox tells J. Edgard Hoover directly that Dahl did not admit to the hoax. [Specifically, Wilcox wrote: “Dahl did not admit to [redacted] that his story was a hoax, but only stated that if questioned by authorities he was going to say it was a hoax because he did not want any further trouble over the matter.”] Hoover is maybe the most powerful man in the world in 1947, and he said, “This is a hoax; close the case.” But now this tiny Pacific Northwest FBI agent is like, “No, you’re wrong, Mr. Hoover. He did not confess to a hoax.”

I just love that. It’s a dramatic, dramatic moment.

Why do you feel dismissing the incident as a hoax is so dangerous?

The danger is in some history being buried and lost. Dahl’s story was lost to history because I think the FBI was delighted that he said it was a hoax and they could just move on. That reveals to me that the danger lies in trying to correct the record. As opposed to saying, “Oh, this is new information; how does this change how we might view these events?”

I have been surprised at the degree to which people don’t want even something as innocuous as a potential UFO sighting’s history to be revisited. That first day in 2012, when I went home from the coffee shop, I read the Wikipedia entry. It told the story, and talked about how it might have been a hoax. It was fine. But it was titled, “The Maury Island Incident.” Today if you go there, it’ll say “The Maury Island hoax.” Somebody using a pseudonym has got a vendetta, apparently, and decided the hoax is the dominant theory and that’s all this should be about. We’re going backwards, not forwards. At least just call it “the event” and have your part about the hoax.

“It’s crazy that you’d put that much detail together if you’re just trying to get in the newspaper.”

You’ve said you dwell in the world of the “admissible” and “provable.” How did that affect your approach to exploring the incident?

I took the skeptic’s position from the get-go. In writing the movie [The Maury Island Incident, 2013], it was the history that mattered. I wanted to get the history right. I wanted to make sure that we told the story just as Harold Dahl tried to tell it to the FBI agent, not portray this as if we’re selling something. The history is amazing and almost gets lost if you take a position.

What I know is that when speaking privately to the FBI agent, Dahl didn’t confess to it being a hoax. That is evidence-based. He may have lied about that, too, making this a lie within a lie within a lie. I don’t know. But I’ve come to conclude that everyone involved—the FBI, Hoover, Dahl’s wife—was happy with [Dahl publicly declaring it a hoax]. The case is closed, records sealed, loose ends tidied, end of story.

I’m not caught up in belief or disbelief about what happened. I talk about this thing called the Drake Equation. The Drake Equation is this ginormous scientific formula produced in the 1960s that basically considered how many billions of suns have billions of planets—millions of habitable planets. The idea there is to think, Who are we, in that circumstance, to believe we’re the only life? I’m very comfortable with an open mind on all that.

What intrigues you about Harold Dahl’s account of Maury Island?

The average story when someone says they saw something is just: I went into the woods, I looked up, I came out of the woods; I’m telling you, I saw a thing. No one [can really] prove or disprove that. There’s every variation of that kind of story. [With the Maury Island Incident], if you wanted to tell a UFO story, I don’t know how you’d come up with one that’s easier to disprove. There’s so much detail, it’s incredible. The dog dies, the boat’s damaged, the kid’s arm gets burned, the FBI agent shows up in all these public places, there are two more guys on the boat—I mean, it’s crazy that you’d put that much detail together if you’re just trying to get in the newspaper.

A black and white drawing of flying discs over a harbor, with a boat underneath. The disc closest to the viewer is dropping burning fragments from its center.

Artist impression of the Maury Island Incident in Shavers Mystery Magazine, 1948

What about the other witnesses? 

[When it comes to] the “day workers” recruited in Tacoma—I’ve never discovered any information about who they were. Nothing in FBI records, no interviews, etc. They seem to have disappeared into history.

Dahl’s son Charles passed away, I believe in the 70s, while living in Louisiana. Charles did not speak about the incident with one somewhat controversial exception: in an interview he said at one point said the whole thing was a hoax. However, this is problematic as far as analysis. Does that mean that it was all, even the private statements, a hoax? Or does it mean that Charles was adhering to his father’s edict of being a liar, like Charles is still keeping the “family secret?” In other words, if Harold Dahl wanted this to be deemed a hoax and be known as a liar, wouldn’t this be exactly what Charles would and should say to preserve his father’s wishes? Plus, the actual journalist that conducted the interview later said that others had misquoted what Charles actually said in the interview, and that he hadn’t even claimed the hoax. So, as with much of Maury Island, it just gets murkier.

In terms of the governmental response—do you think that was unique to that particular moment in time, or do you see the government ever taking something like this seriously again?

Theoretically there are components of the government today that deal with this topic of UFOs, although they’ve rebranded to UAPs [Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena]. We have a Department of Defense subdivision called AARO [All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office] now, that’s theoretically collecting information on UFO sightings. We’ve got Navy pilots actually capturing on their infrared scopes these tic-tac things [in videos formally released by the Pentagon in 2020]. Those are amazing to see; who knows what that is? The government is at least not just saying “weather balloon.” They’re at least saying, “There are a whole bunch of things we still don’t know.” That’s a positive.

It was really bad in the 1950s and ‘60s. The government actually did have projects, like Project Grudge and Project Sign, that historians say, in hindsight, were just attempts to discredit people who were saying they saw something. There was no attempt to try to see if they saw something unexplainable. It was simply going out there and ridiculing these people so they’d just be quiet. That was not a good thing. We’re in a better place now.

For pop-culture specifically, is the foundation of the Men in Black phenomenon the dominant impact of the Maury Island Incident?

I think one of the reasons that we’ve spent time on the Men in Black component, the launching of that legacy, is that that doesn’t garner the same resistance that the sighting of the flying saucers seems to get. Hoax or no hoax, people seem to understand, “I told a story. The Men in Black came.” We can run with that: this is the story that started that. I also talk about other people who think they started that and why it’s not true.

We started off in 2012 or 2013 with our first Burning Saucer, where we have a community party in Des Moines. My neighbor, the same neighbor from the coffee shop, finds some sort of flying saucer craft, which is burned at the end of the community party. It’s fun, it’s comedy, it’s performance art—all kinds of goofy stuff. About three years ago, it got so successful. This private party got all this publicity. Ripley’s Believe It or Not! did a story, Ancient Aliens wanted to come do a story. That points to this fascination people have with anything UFO. We realized there was a need to not have a private event, so we started something called the “Men in Black Birthday Bash,” MIBBB fest, which has now got a film festival. It’s a giant outdoor celebration, and it all celebrates that second day.

That’s maybe the most fun part. Legacy. No matter what happened, no matter what Harold Dahl saw or didn’t see, he told a story, and the story had a component, that second day, which we now remember as the appearance of the so-called Men in Black. That was the pebble in the water that rippled out, that now is Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith, that now is The X-files, that now is all that pop-culture around the Men in Black. It started with this story.

Ariana Sutherland is a freelance writer based in Seattle.

Learn more about the Maury Island Incident. Check out Steve Edmiston’s Speakers Bureau talk, “UFO Northwest: How Washington State Spawned the Men in Black,” online and around the state.

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