I admit it, I frequently dip into the tart, opaque candy bowl of skepticism, filled with lemon drops of doubt and sour-chews of crotchety fact-checking. That said, I like my sour sweets to end with an upbeat aftertaste, a smidgen of optimism that my aforementioned leeriness will be heartily disproven. Deep down, I don’t believe in the hibber-jabber of ghosts, of karmic energy tallies or Earth-snooping alien life, but even deeper down, I kind of hope I’m wrong.
If this miasma of rambling self-reflection seems like a hopelessly clunky introduction to a kilograph on one of the greatest rock bands of the past two decades… well, it would be. But while the caliber of Dave Grohl’s rocktastic ass-kickery certainly merits a lengthy diatribe of praise (hell, I could do a thousand words on nothing more than the rib-clenching, cerebrospinal-throttling bridge of “Monkey Wrench”), that’s not what today is about.
Today we look at the original foo fighters: no foot-swiveling grooves, no cinematic videos and no capital ‘F’s. These foo fighters transport us back in time, into the goose-feather fury of the second World War, then up into a nebulous sky filled with illusionary aberrations – gravelly bumps in the smooth road of logic and comprehensible reason.
The word ‘foo’ was a popular nonsense word of the 1930’s, much like any of Doctor Seuss’s whimsical wordage or much of what you’ll hear on Fox News today (hey! A topical joke! Three points for me!). It grew from the work of popular Chicagoan cartoonist Bill Holman and his Chicago Tribune strip known as Smokey Stover. Foo was an anarchic dalliance into the lexicon of imagination. It functioned as a noun, an adjective, and a G-rated exclamation of disbelief. Did it morph into the 1940’s-era military term FUBAR? Perhaps. But it certainly held ground in the American military landscape at that time.
After an evening mission on November 27, 1944, Donald J. Meiers of the 415th Night Fighter Squadron was frantically describing the odd balls of red fire that had appeared in mid-air whilst he was conducting some high-speed maneuvers. He and Ed Schleuter were both in a panic over these mysterious orbs, which appeared to pursue them before suddenly vanishing. Meiers, in explaining this phenomenon to Fritz Ringwald, his unit’s Intelligence Officer, pulled a Smokey Stover comic out of his back pocket, slammed it on the desk and yelled, “It was another one of those fucking foo fighters!”
This was not the first instance of unexplainable airborne spheroids within the frenetic, bullet-speckled skies during this bloody war and it would certainly not be the last. The term ‘foo fighters’ stuck, and became part of the parlance among military pilots who experienced such weirdness. And so it was – ‘foo fighters’ never meant ‘those who do battle with foo’, but rather ‘fighter jets made of that ethereal proto-mist known as foo’.
Reports of foo fighters came in from all over the war – though in the European Theater they were also known as ‘kraut fireballs’. Sometimes the orbs were red, sometimes yellow and sometimes white. Military intelligence handled the reports with grave seriousness. Could these be some sort of weapon? Had the Germans developed a sentient fire-robot that could down enemy fighters with no use of human manpower? Might they have figured out how to harness pure energy and deploy it as a weapon? We were already pretty sure they were attacking us from space.
These perplexing light-balls were spotted in the Pacific Theater as well, which suggested that either the Germans were sharing their Last-Airbender-esque technology with the Japanese, or else maybe it wasn’t a weapon. Sure enough, reports came in from German and Japanese pilots who had observed similar oddities in the skies – clearly this was something else.
Some pilots described them like Christmas lights, detailing their playful wild turns before they vanished from sight. These things would join in with a squadron’s formation, but would never engage as a hostile force. Pilots could swoop and swivel to the squeaky brink of their jets’ technology, but they could never outmaneuver these things, nor could they shoot them down. Well, except for one guy.
One B-29 gunner in the Pacific actually scored a direct hit on what his squad had described as a ‘ball of fire’. The thing exploded into several large pieces of brilliant light, which tumbled upon the buildings below, setting them on fire. One possible explanation for this weirdness was that it was part of the Japanese fire balloon plan. Throughout WWII, Japan unleashed over 9,300 large hydrogen balloons, armed with several antipersonnel bombs and incendiary devices. These were taken into the jet stream and some wound up meandering into North American airspace, where they caused a small amount of damage and even a few deaths.
Was it a fire balloon? Or something otherworldly? Like any skeptic worth his or her disapproving squint, the first place one should look for an explanation is to science. Ball lightning? Probably not. Reflections of sunlight upon ice crystals? Perhaps some optical residue exploding in the pilot’s eye cones – a fireworks display for the optic nerve’s summer picnic?
These seem unlikely, but when we’re dealing with agile airborne light-balls, we might need to get elbow-deep in the bucket of the unlikely.
One plausible explanation involves the phenomenon known as St. Elmo’s Fire. This is when the electric field around an object – in this case, perhaps the proud wings of the aircraft – causes ionization of the surrounding molecules, inviting an office party of plasma to drunkenly convene around that object. This creates a dull glow that can be seen in low-light conditions. You might see this in a lightning storm, atop a well-placed lightning rod that percolates with a subtle incandescent glow.
Perhaps these luminous globoids are merely afterimages of flickering flak-bursts, toying with the fringes of pilots’ eyes and concocting an otherwise unobservable hallucination. Author Renato Vesco believes the foo fighters to have been Feuerballs, gas-powered glowing drones developed by the Third Reich to distract pilots, and even to mess with their ignition systems to send them into a nosedive. This is a longshot, as there’s nothing more tangible than suspicion and speculation holding up this theory.
The US Navy began researching aviator’s vertigo in 1945, deducing that a substantial heap of anomalous goings-on reported by those pilots who ventured out past sundown were merely symptoms of a struggling psyche coping with low light and the incalculable horrors of uncertainty.
There you have it. Foo fighters are empyrean spheres of mystifying peculiarity – a figment of the eye, the mind, or a flickering red flag of some nefarious Nazi conspiracy. Something to contemplate next time you’re cranking up “Everlong” on the radio.