Toward the end of June 1967, the American physicist James E. McDonald visited Australia. His ostensible purpose: to do research on cloud physics.
McDonald had another aim as well. He’d become convinced that UFOs were a scientific problem of the first magnitude, to which orthodox science had blinded itself to its own detriment. So while he was in Australia he sought out the witnesses, as he later reported, to “almost all of the ‘classic’ Australian episodes.” One of those “classic” episodes was the mass sighting at Westall High School in a Melbourne suburb on April 6, 1966, just over one year earlier.
The Australia trip, with its dual agenda and its government funding, brought down on McDonald the vindictive rage of UFO debunker Philip Klass. It’s thus a link in the dismal chain of events that led, four years later, to this bold maverick scientist’s taking his own life. Jerry Clark tells the tragic story, masterfully, in his UFO Encyclopedia. But that’s not the story I want to tell here.
At his death, McDonald left a 27-minute tape recording of an interview he conducted while in Australia (June 28, 1967) with Andrew Greenwood, formerly science teacher at Westall High. This is a most extraordinarily precious testimony: the single, solitary contemporary (or near-contemporary) account of the Westall UFO event, by an adult participant. Whose honesty, moreover, is beyond question.
The tape is now among the “James E. McDonald papers” in the Special Collections of the library of the University of Arizona, Tucson. With the gracious assistance of Special Collections librarians Patricia Ballesteros and Wendel Cox, and Bob Nichol of Ping Pong Media–and special thanks to Australian UFOlogist Keith Basterfield for pointing me in their direction–I was able to obtain a CD of it.
The tape is not of the highest quality. It seems to have been made in a public place, most likely a cafeteria–at one point Greenwood seems to use an actual plate to convey to McDonald the UFO’s appearance–and there’s a rumble of voices in the background. Words, sometimes crucial words, are often inaudible. Basterfield’s notes on the interview, posted as “Source 15” to the Project 1947 website, are useful but don’t convey the back-and-forth of the conversation, and omit some vital details. Among these are essential clues to what happened at Westall–clues that I missed in my earlier posts.
So, at the cost of repeating a lot that Basterfield has already said, I’ll use this two-part post to give a detailed synopsis of the interview, with some commentary. It’s not all exciting. But for those of us who want to penetrate to the heart of the Westall mystery, it’s of supreme importance.
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McDonald starts out by telling Greenwood that he’s read some of the material “Paul” and “Peter”–whom Basterfield identifies as Paul Norman and Peter Norris–have sent him, so he knows something about the incident. He has to remind Greenwood of the date: April 6, 1966. He asks where Westall is and Greenwood replies, spelling out the name of the school. He asks, how did the whole thing unfold? and hears the following story.
I was teaching, says Greenwood (and, unless I use quotes, what you’re reading is a close paraphrase of his words). It was most unusual for another child to run into the class without warning, but that’s what happened. A girl ran in, said, “Quick, quick, flying saucer outside, etc. etc.” Greenwood repeats: I wasn’t someone one normally did that to; and I begin to wonder if he’s defending himself against a charge of being a lax disciplinarian, someone the kids can walk all over. In part 2 of this post, we’ll see who might have made that charge and why it’s relevant to the UFO.
The girl left. But recess was in five or ten minutes, and Greenwood thought he’d wander out and take a look even though she was an excitable kind of kid and he didn’t take her too seriously. (Basterfield seems to have heard the tape differently at this point.) He found more than half the school, 300 students, on the oval outside the school buildings.
McDonald: “The object was still airborne?”
Greenwood: “Yes, yes. We were never sure at any stage that it was anything but airborne. Some of the children say”—
Here his voice sinks to a deprecating murmur, and even after listening over and over I can’t make out the words. But I think the drift is clear. This is the first of several references in the interview to an “underground version” of the incident that must have circulated among the Westall students soon after it happened, side by side with the far tamer “official version” that Greenwood knew first-hand. This is, of course, the version that surfaced in their memories 40 years later, collected by Shane Ryan in the documentary “Westall ’66.”
Greenwood makes clear that he doesn’t take the “underground version” too seriously. Apparently McDonald doesn’t either–in his questioning, he all but ignores it.
The UFO, says Greenwood, was gray against a blue-gray sky. “It took me a while to see it”–a point to which he will return. Asked about its size, he compares it to the small airplanes, Cessna-size, that later joined it: it was about 2/3 the length of one of these.
How far away were they? McDonald asks. Greenwood starts to say, When the planes were circling it, but lets the thought drop. He says the UFO was cigar-shaped, with a bulge in the middle, like a plate seen on the edge. (This is where he seems to use an actual plate to demonstrate.) McDonald repeats the question of the distance; Greenwood estimates 1000 yards. Half a mile? says McDonald. Greenwood: that was when it was farthest from us. At its closest it would have been half that distance.
Was it hovering motionless? says McDonald. Greenwood explains that it did several things. It did hover at times. It could accelerate and disappear from sight, then reappear 30 degrees away, then move back again. It came toward us, he says–not that we could see it coming toward us, but that it was closer now than it was before. It hovered; it went up and down. It could move slowly, but mostly it seemed either to hover or move quickly.
The next thing we saw, says Greenwood, it was accompanied by one of those light planes. The UFO moved rapidly to another part of the sky, followed by the plane. Then it moved back again, “playing cat and mouse” with the plane. Then more planes arrived, until there were a total of five. Yet nearby Moorabbin Airport, he tells McDonald, denied it had any planes in the air. There was no other airport from which they might have come. You haven’t a clue to why they would deny it? McDonald says, and Greenwood says that it’s rather silly they would deny it, given that there’s never a time when there’s no plane taking off or coming in to the airport. “I drive past it several times a day, going back and forth between the two schools. I’m at a different school now, Haileybury College.” (This is the first mention of what Greenwood will later say explicitly, that he’s now teaching at a different school. Which I take to mean that as of 1967 he’s no longer at Westall, and the reason why he’s not there will become clear in part 2. But I have to admit, I don’t understand what he means by “going back and forth between the two schools.” Does this suggest some continued affiliation with Westall?) And “we saw them, all right,” Greenwood adds, referring to the planes. “300 of us.”
“I forgot to mention,” he says, that at one point the UFO disappeared behind a tall row of pine trees, “and it would appear it went reasonably close to these pine trees.” (He doesn’t explain why he assumes this.) The trees would have been 100 yards away, a figure which he at once corrects to 600 yards.
“We later went over–a member of the staff [later identified as English teacher Claude Miller] and myself walked over to that vicinity, had a look to see what we could see. Lots of the kids, of course, leapt the fence, for which they [a few unintelligible words, which I assume to be “got into trouble with” or the like] the headmaster. We went too; we tried to see what we could find. There were reports from several groups of the children later on that they’d seen one of those typical nests. I didn’t see one, myself. It would have been the perfect area to see one in–lots of long grass–but I didn’t see one myself though I looked around for quite a while.”
Once again, the “underground” as opposed to the “official version”: the UFO landed and left ground traces, vs. there were no traces and “we were never sure … that it was anything but airborne.” By “one of those typical nests,” Greenwood means a swirling circle left in tall grass by a landed or low-hovering UFO, which came to be called “UFO nests” in the wake of a well-known incident at Tully, Queensland, on January 19, 1966. (Bill Chalker, an Australian UFOlogist who’s written about Westall, contributed the article “Tully and Other UFO Nests” to Jerry Clark’s UFO Encyclopedia.)
The Tully episode happened less than three months before Westall. Had the Westall students heard about it when the UFO appeared in their own skies, and therefore knew to go looking for “typical nests”? Had Greenwood?
Is it possible that the students knew about Tully through Greenwood, that he’d been something of a UFO aficionado even before April 6 and had spoken to his classes about the Tully “nest”? The girl’s bursting into his classroom with her “Quick, quick, flying saucer outside” makes more sense if she had some reason to think her intrusion would be welcomed.
(You’ll see in part 2 why these questions are important, when we turn our attention to headmaster Frank Samblebe’s ferocious clampdown on the UFO, and ask what that was all about.)
Greenwood reiterates that he didn’t notice the UFO, silvery against the sky, until it was pointed out to him. (“It’s one of those things that, once you see it, you go on seeing it. Hard to pick up.”) How long did you see it? McDonald asks. Greenwood answers: 10 minutes, and then it disappeared; it was in sight roughly 25 minutes. How did it disappear? McDonald asks. Just don’t know, Greenwood answers. It vanished; it did a sudden acceleration and no one could pick it up again, so fast they couldn’t follow it. Were the aircraft still there? McDonald asks. Yes, says Greenwood; but he can’t remember what happened to the planes, and that inability seems to puzzle him.
The two men review the object’s appearance. Cigar-shaped or finger-shaped–like the middle finger, Greenwood says; and it occurs to me to wonder if in Australia as in the US, the middle finger carries an overtone of obscene defiance. Its length was 4-5 times its width, its color silvery-gray. No sound? asks McDonald, and Greenwood replies:
“No. Now, there were all sorts of reports of different things–one girl said that she’d seen the thing on the ground, that it was this sort of shape, with windows around it and all the rest of it, but I really don’t know how much faith we can put in her story. There was a report of some sound from it [inaudible word or two] from one girl who was supposedly close to it. I heard nothing, from here where we were all standing in a large group watching it. But as I say, lots of them jumped the fence and went off after it. I only jumped–leapt the fence–after it had disappeared.”
McDonald asks: When it went behind the grove of trees–this is supposedly when they got close to it? And Greenwood says: Yes, allegedly. How cautious these grownups are. Supposedly. Allegedly. They know of the “underground version”; neither of them trusts it. It’s the children–the middle-aged men and women of “Westall ’66”–who remember a landed UFO that’s neither “supposed” nor “alleged,” but real beyond any possibility of denial. With a presence and power far surpassing anything that the half-visible oddity in the sky, witnessed by the multitudes, could have evoked.
Where did that “underground” UFO come from? Not from heaven …
by David Halperin
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