There were a few moments when I was in Vietnam that I thought I was going to go. But, honest to God, that didn't bother me half as much as what happened that one night in Exeter. I'm not lying to you. That scared the living hell right out of me.
--Norman Muscarello, eyewitness
More than thirty years after Norman Muscarello's UFO encounter, he's still having nightmares. It wasn't just his memory of the enormity of the craft or the way it maneuvered through the sky or its eerie crimson glow. What frightens Muscarello is the unknown. He will never know what he saw or where that unearthly craft came from, because both the U.S. Air Force and the Congress have admitted that the flying object Muscarello saw over Exeter, New Hampshire, in the early morning hours of September 3, 1965, is, and will always remain, absolutely unidentified.
Before September 3, 1965, before the UFO and the media and the military, Exeter, New Hampshire, was a typically sedate New England community. "It was beautiful back then," Norman Muscarello remembers. "It was rated one of the top three nicest, cleanest, safest towns I the United States. You could leave your keys in the car. You could leave your house unlocked, go to work, and not worry about it. Come home, you'd find a note on your refrigerator that your neighbor had borrowed a loaf of bread. I can remember when you could take a sleeping bag out on Route 90 on Sunday morning around two o'clock and go to sleep and not worry about being run over." Then there was the Sunday morning at two o'clock, September 3, 1965, when everything changed for Muscarello. That was when the "thing," as he calls it, shoed up in town.
Muscarello was eighteen years old. He'd been in Amesbury visiting his girlfriend and was walking the twelve miles back home to Exeter. He didn't even bother to thumb a ride, as there wasn't anyone around. Coming over the last hill before the road dipped into town, Muscarello thought he saw a strange glow over by a country store, but he didn't think much about it. In hindsight, he believes that this was the beginning of the UFO's approach into Exeter. A few minutes later, an enormous ball of red and blue light seemed to appear from out of nowhere.
"I was walking through a field on the Dining family farm when this thing shot over the trees and come up over the Russells' house and scared me half to death. I didn't know what it was, but it was big as a house, with a red hue and flashing lights, sometimes in sequence, sometimes erratic," says Muscarello. He remembers hearing a few dogs bark and the horses whinnying in their stalls, and then there was an overwhelming, eerie silence. "That's what got me," Muscarello recalls. "Not a sound. Even the crickets stopped doing their thing--and crickets don't just stop like that for nothing. Something scared them, and something scared me." Muscarello says he dove into a ditch filled with leaves to hide from the overwhelming UFO.
"It meandered around and wobbled and yawed. I couldn't tell what it was, couldn't make out if it was metallic or anything. There was no silhouette. The lights were too bright. I couldn't make out a shape," Muscarello says. "And then it took off to the east. I watched it disappear, the light dimming out like when an old TV goes out and the light just gets smaller and smaller. That's what it did. I was stunned and just stayed there awhile, and then I went to the Russells' house and I pounded on the door. The upstairs lights came on but nobody would answer. So I ran down and stood in the middle of the road and put my arms up. I thought, "Well, the next car that comes by is either going to hit me or take me to the police station."
When a car did come over the hill, the driver knew Muscarello. "I said, 'I've got to get to the police station. Please take me there. I can't explain it.' That's all I could say to him. And he just said, 'Okay, Norman, no problem.' He drove me to the police station and when I walked in, Scratch Toland was he dispatcher on duty. His real name was Reginald, but we all called him Scratch. I think because of the sweaters he wore. I described to Scratch exactly what I saw. I told him the whole story, and he's looking at me with this dumbfounded expression. Little did I realize that reports had already come in prior to me getting there."
Exeter had two police officers on patrol duty that night. One of the officers, Eugene Bertrand, had just taken a report from a woman whom he had found sitting, shaken, in her car. She claimed that a ball of red light had chased her car, then disappeared. "So when Gene came into the station, I told him the same thing I'd told Scratch," Muscarello continues, "and he says, 'Let's get in the cruiser.' It's maybe two-thirty, three in the morning by now, and he takes me right up to the field where I had seen the UFO. We get out of the cruiser and proceed along the side of the field, and just then David Hunt, the other officer on duty, pulls up in his cruiser behind us. He's got the door open and his mike in his hand, and he's hollering down to us, making all these funny cracks like 'How many beers you had tonight?' And he's teasing Gene about what he's doing. And that's when this thing reappeared. It shows up over the tree line and stops and stays there for five minutes. And then, shooom, it's gone. That's enough to freak anybody."
Norman Muscarello and the two officers were later interviewed by Raymond Fowler, a noted UFO researcher who at the time of the incident was a technical investigator for NICAP, the nation's leading UFO watchdog organization at the time. "What made this case interesting for me was the fact that an object as large as a barn was seen within 500 feet of witnesses. This was a close encounter of the first kind. Many of the sightings we had been dealing with were discs seen at a long distance. This was a close encounter, and it was seen by reliable witnesses. The Air Force was interested; therefore NICAP was interested."
Raymond Fowler recalls Officer Bertrand's version of the Exeter UFO encounter: "He told me that they walked out into the field, and Norman yelled, 'Look out. Here it comes!' And up over the treetops comes this object right at them with red flashing lights. Bertrand's first reaction was to get down on his knee and draw his service revolver--and then he thought better of that as it got closer. He said it was as large as a barn, lighting up the whole field. The horses started kicking in their stalls, and dogs were howling. The object was making fantastic maneuvers. It was doing right-angle turns and then it left the area."
Muscarello, Bertrand, and Hut stood in the field and stared at the empty sky. "It was like it was there and then it wasn't," Muscarello remembers. "The police officers saw the same damn thing I did, and I'm glad they did. I'm glad I went there with Gene and David Hunt, because I'd be in a nut house today if I hadn't had those witnesses." A UFO investigator and expert on the Exeter sightings, Peter Geremia, attested to the veracity and credibility of the witnesses. "I interviewed Norman, and there's no doubt in my mind that what he is saying is true," Geremia says. "Eugene Bertrand was no-nonsense. He wanted to make it clear that what he saw was unexplained, but he was not calling it an unidentified flying object in the sense of an alien spacecraft. He was just describing what he saw. You can't ask for a better witness than that, a credible guy with an excellent reputation."
After the sighting, Muscarello and Bertrand returned to the Exeter police station. Shortly thereafter, a New Hampshire telephone operator phoned to inform Scratch Toland about a call she'd received from a man who claimed he had been chased by an object with red flashing lights. The operator said that the man had asked for the police, but then terminated the call before she could connect him. Later, Raymond Fowler interviewed six different people who had all seen the Exeter UFO. "After the object left the field, there was a sighting about twenty miles away," says Fowler. "A schoolteacher, a very reliable person, was coming home from Essex to Ipswich along Route 133, and as he came to the top of the hill, he felt static electricity and the air on his head and his arms just went up. Then, as he came over the hill, there to his left, hovering just off the road, was a round objet with glowing ports. He said he was so scared that he went off the road."
The UFO was gone, but the backlash from its visit to Exeter was just beginning. Norman Muscarello remembers the scene at his house when daylight broke: "That's when the crap hit the fan. People started pounding on the door. If it wasn't the neighbors, then it was the media. And then we had a knock on the door, and it was the Air Force. A major and a lieutenant who had an attaché case handcuffed to his writs came into my mother's kitchen. The major said, 'Where's Norman?' and just marched right into the living room. He told me, 'You. Shut your mouth. Don't you say another word. I'm going to make your life miserable.' He was trying to tell me that I didn't see what I saw. And I don't understand this. I'm a punk kid, fresh out of high school, and I don't know what's going on. What's this guy doing here? Why is he telling me to shut up? What are they afraid of?"
In a later interview with Norman Muscarello's mother, Raymond Fowler would learn details that might explain the major's anger and fear. "Norman's mother said one of the Air Force officers had a manual locked to his wrist," Fowler recalls. "She offered him coffee, and he unlocked the manual and put it on the kitchen counter and walked into the living room. While the water was boiling for coffee, Mrs. Muscarello started to look through the manual and saw some photographs, which seemed to be different types of imprints, landing areas involved with UFOs. When the lieutenant came in and saw her looking through it, he read her the riot act."
For Norman Muscarello, the lieutenant's harsh words were the last straw. He remembers, "This guy literally chewed my mother out in lavender. And that's when I got--pardon my French--I got pissed. I said, 'You guys get the hell out of here. That's it. I've had it.' I thought I was cracking up. I pride myself on being halfway intelligent and understanding what goes on around me, but I had seen something that was not earthly, and I wasn't watching a television set."
Although the identity of the major and the lieutenant are still not known, Raymond Fowler was able to confirm that two Air Force officers from nearby Pease Air Force Base (fifteen miles from Exeter) did visit the town on September 4, 1965. "Pease sent out a major and a lieutenant on the fourth, and they asked the police if they would just keep their UFO information confidential. But the police told the Air Force officers that the Manchester Union Leader reporter had already been there and got the story. The Air Force actually sent the lieutenant around Exeter to buy up all the newspapers with the sighting story, which I thought, was ludicrous. Then the officers went on site and investigated, asking farmers if their cows were giving the same amount of milk, the chickens still producing the same amount of eggs. And there were rumors that they investigated a burned area in the field and then asked Carl Dining to bulldoze his field."
The Air Force's first public statement regarding the Exeter UFO did little to quell the community's growing concern. "The Pease AFB commander, in his attempt to explain away the sightings, called a press conference at night right there in the field where the object was seen," Fowler recounts. "They had quite a crowd out there, and he told everyone, 'Well, the latest explanation we feel is that it was the lights at Pease. So I'm going to have the lights turned on at Pease, and everybody look in that direction. You'll see it was just the lights from Pease Air Force Base.' And everybody looked, and he radioed back to Pease and they turned on the lights. And no one saw anything."
Speculation about the extraterrestrial origin of the gigantic red UFO was rampant throughout New England, but Raymond Fowler was more tempered in his judgment. "Muscarello saw a structured object as large as a barn, silent, with red flashing lights in sequence that was under intelligent control. The object showed intelligent control by its maneuvers and by chasing specific things. You can surmise that it might have been an extraterrestrial craft or something from another dimension. But when all is said and done, what you have is an unidentified flying object that was not man-made."
After the press conference fiasco at the original site, the Air Force claimed that it was launching a thorough investigation of the Exeter UFO. According to a letter to the Exeter Police Department written by USAF Maj. Hector Quintanilla, Jr., then chief of Project Blue Book, "The investigation and evaluation of this sighting indicates a possible association with an 8th Air Force operation, 'Big Blast.' In addition to aircraft from this operation, there were five B-47-type aircraft flying in the area during this period…Since there were many aircraft in the area we might assume that the objects observed…might be associated with this military air operation." Another letter from the Pentagon written by USAF Lt. Col. John P. Spaulding suggested that a refueling operation might have been the cause of the sighting: "Refueling area 'Fur Trapper' and refueling area 'Down Date' are controlled through Loring Air Force Base and located over the area of the sighting."
In response to these "official" explanations, Eugene Bertrand and David Hunt wrote to Major Quintanilla: "As you might imagine, we have been the subject of considerable ridicule since the Pentagon released its 'final evaluation' of our sighting…Since one of us (Bertrand) was in the Air Force for four years, engaged in refueling operations with all kinds of military aircraft, it was impossible to mistake what we saw for any type of military operation, regardless of altitude. It was also definitely not a helicopter or balloon. Immediately after the object disappeared, we did see what probably was a B-47 at high altitude, but it bore no relation at all to the object we saw…We would both appreciate it very much if you would help us eliminate the possible conclusion that some people have made that we might have (a) made up the story, or (b) were incompetent observers. I'm sure you can understand the position we're in."
Whether or not the Air Force understood the position that Bertrand and Hunt were in, their explanation changed little. While maintaining that the Exeter witnesses were probably seeing military aircraft, the Pentagon did issue an additional statement suggesting that the UFO may have been a misidentified planet or star. "Anybody who's lived in the New Hampshire seacoast area has seen refueling aircraft," Exeter UFO researcher Peter Geremia says, "and they normally refuel at 30,000 feet. This is not going to cause a young man to duck because he's afraid he's going to get hit with a flying tanker. And the explanation of twinkling stars didn't even come close to answering what was seen. The Air Force lost a great deal of credibility in proposing these ridiculous answers."
Raymond Fowler agrees. "Telling the public that they were seeing stars and planets and airplanes; it was a classic case of reliable witnesses seeing an object they couldn't identify at close range---and the Air Force telling the public that there was nothing to it." In fact, it was the Pentagon's incomplete and fatuous explanation of this sighting and several others that soon followed that would lead then Congressman Gerald R. Ford to convene a special congressional hearing on the Air Force approach to UFO investigations.
"After the incident at Exeter," Fowler explains, "the public was annoyed with what the Air Force had done. Congressman Ford and other men and women in Congress felt that the Air Force was not handling the UFO problem properly, because they were getting complaints from the public. All UFO offices on all bases had a list of things to tell the public: stars, planets, weather balloons, you name it. I mean, they would just pick something out just to get the public off their back. They didn't want open congressional hearings at all, because it would bring out the fact that they were dealing with something that was violating our airspace and that they had no control over." However on April 15, 1966, under public pressure, hearings began before the House Armed Services Committee.
"My report on the Exeter sightings was put into the congressional record, " Fowler says, "and they discussed the report. The Air Force backed down and admitted that the object was unidentified and had been unidentified from the very beginning. Unidentified to the military means that we don't know what it was or where it came from, and we have no control over the situation."
While the Air Force's admission was a victory for Raymond Fowler and NICAP, it has done little to satisfy the nagging fear and embarrassment that continues to haunt Norman Muscarello. Official congressional acknowledgment that he was not crazy or drunk or ignorant has been no consolation. "Gene and I were both members of the Legion here in town. We still get heckled and angry, because I couldn't have done anything about that sighting. I saw what I saw, and all of a sudden I'm a nut. I wish it had never happened. I wish I could have just waltzed through life. Honest to God, it's been too much trouble and too much heckling and problems and waking up at night. And I don't even know what happened to me."
For further readings: see Susan Michael's book, "Sightings: UFO's" (Fireside Books, 1997); "Incident At Exeter" by John G. Fuller (G.P. Putnam's Son, New York, 1966)