“This is all an insoluble mystery to me,” said I. “It grows darker instead of clearer.”
“On the contrary,” he answered, “it clears every instant. I only require a few missing links to have an entirely connected case.”
–Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes, in The Sign of the Four
A few days ago, I felt almost like Holmes. The 50-year-old mystery of the mass UFO sighting over Westall High School, in the Melbourne (Australia) suburb of Clayton, seemed to be clearing every instant. Add “a few missing links,” and one of the most important and instructive sightings in UFO history would yield its secrets.
But now the Dr. Watson feeling is creeping over me. As if Westall has depths I’d barely suspected.
I posted on Westall four weeks ago, in my review of the 2010 Australian documentary “Westall ’66.” Until I watched the film, I’d never heard of the Westall UFO. It’s indeed flown under the radar–pun more or less intended–as Shane Ryan, the Canberra teacher and investigator featured in the documentary, put it in a 2013 interview. Jerry Clark’s monumental UFO Encyclopedia, the second edition of which was published in 1998 and includes six articles by Bill Chalker on the Australian UFO scene, has not a word to say about Westall.
In my post, I suggested a theory of what happened at the high school that day in 1966, near the beginning of the Australian school year. Here are my thoughts, in a slightly more developed and explicit form:
Yes, something unusual was seen in the sky late on the morning of April 6, autumn in the southern hemisphere. It may have been a weather balloon or it may have been a “target drogue” used by the Australian military to practice air-to-air firing, as two explanations floated at the time had it. Possibly both were involved.
Whatever the object was, it wasn’t especially dramatic. If you and I had been there, we might not even have noticed it.
The witnesses’ view of the object seems to have been blocked for a time by the tall pines of the area called “the Grange,” just to the south of the school. But no, the UFO was not seen to land among those trees; and the idea that it was responsible for flattened areas of grass in the Grange–which one UFOlogist who investigated the sighting said could have been caused by strong winds over the previous week–was conjecture after the fact.
Yes, there was excitement among the students at Westall High (which included the grades that we’d now think of as middle school), and it seems to have been concentrated among the younger kids. The excitement was apparently enough to call forth a special assembly, at which Westall’s stern headmaster Frank Samberle made sure the boys and girls knew there are no flying saucers, and what they saw was just a weather balloon.
But no, the mass stampede from the school into the Grange, so vividly depicted in “Westall ’66”–“all the students were just running all over the place, hysterical”; “like a whole lot of zebras being terrified by crocodiles,” to quote two of the witnesses–didn’t happen.
But then how to account for the memories of the dozens of intelligent, articulate, obviously sincere–not to mention courageous–men and women who’d been Westall students in the 1960s, whom Shane Ryan interviewed in the course of his investigation from 2005 onward? Several of these people tell their stories in “Westall ’66,” and it’s hard not to come away with the impression of a dramatic, multiply witnessed “close encounter of the second kind,” suppressed by military authorities in collusion with the Westall headmaster.
My hypothesis: these recollections are heavily tinctured with memories or fantasies of forbidden adolescent activities at the Grange—a favored place for “illicit smoking and steamy liaisons,” according to Ryan—for which the UFO and its suppression became a tangible representation.
Or, as I sometimes like to put it: the stimulus, the trigger for the UFO was something in the sky. The UFO came from inside.
The mystery of that UFO is a mystery of the human soul. The twists of human memory–not random, not unmeaningful–are an essential part of that mystery.
It’s a testament to Shane Ryan’s open-mindedness and generosity that, despite our considerable differences of interpretation, he reached out to me and guided me toward rich sources of information. These include the page of the Facebook group Westall Flying Saucer Incident–an excellent resource which I’d encourage all my readers to join–and the treasure trove of data posted to the Project 1947 website by veteran Australian UFOlogist Keith Basterfield. This in turn led me to posts on Basterfield’s “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena – Scientific Research” blog, arguing for the Westall UFO’s having been a high-altitude balloon and insisting on the crucial distinction between 1966 sources on the incident vs. post-2005 recollections of it.
Thanks to the gracious support of these two researchers, I’ve found much data that “confirms my diagnosis, as you doctors express it” (Holmes to Watson, in The Sign of the Four).
Also some that goes against it. But we’ll get to that presently.
“Pro” item #1: Basterfield’s notes from a tape recording, transferred to CD by the Special Collections of the library of the University of Arizona (Tucson), of Dr. James E. McDonald’s interview with Westall science teacher Andrew Greenwood, 28 June 1967. (Basterfield, Source 15.) This is a precious resource: a near-contemporary account of the incident by an adult observer. Nearly all the testimony in “Westall ’66” is from people who were students at the time, and what they remembered after a 40-year interval. With a few possible exceptions soon to be noted, Greenwood was the only grownup who actually saw the UFO.
“AG said that a girl student raced into class saying ‘Flying saucer outside.’ She left the room, then 5-10 minutes later it was morning recess time, so AG went outside to take a look. … He couldn’t see the object at first due to the lack of contrast (the kids pointed it out to him).” The object was gray against a blue-gray sky; “if it wasn’t pointed out to you, you might not see it.” (This was the explanation Greenwood gave for the Dandenong Journal‘s inability to find anyone in the area who’d noticed it.)
“The object was airborne at all times,” and although “at one stage the object disappeared behind a tall row of pine trees,” there’s no hint that Greenwood saw it land or come anywhere close to doing that. The landed UFO, the “close encounter of the second kind,” belongs to the psychological rather than the physical reality of the episode.
(Much of Australian UFOlogist Bill Chalker’s argument against a “balloon” explanation for Westall loses its force, once we doubt that the thing was ever seen to come to earth.)
Two other teachers witnessed at least part of the sighting, according to what Greenwood told McDonald: a phys ed teacher named Jeanette Muir, an English teacher named Claude Miller. Significantly, Greenwood made no mention of Barbara Robins, a chemistry teacher who appears in “Westall ’66” as having taken multiple photos of the object, only to have her camera confiscated by Samblebe in the company of two uniformed men from outside the school. (We’ll come back to her in a moment.)
“AG saw students go over the fence while he watched the object.” Yes, a few students must have done that. But if anything like the stampede portrayed in “Westall ’66” had taken place, that surely would have been Greenwood’s most vivid memory of the incident, given that he was among those charged with maintaining order at the school.
Also unmentioned in Greenwood’s testimony to McDonald: the visit paid to his home one week later by two Royal Australian Air Force officers, which he was to describe to Shane Ryan many years later. These officers threatened Greenwood under the Official Secrets Act, threatened to spread rumors he was an alcoholic (“Westall ’66”), threatened him with the loss of his teaching career if he talked about what he’d seen (Ryan in the 2013 interview). More than 40 years after the event, speaking to Ryan, Greenwood remembered that ominous visit. Speaking with McDonald hardly more than a year afterward, he’d evidently forgotten it. Or else he didn’t think it was worth mentioning.
1966 was Greenwood’s first year teaching at Westall. Apparently it was also his last. (In Australia, with its southern-hemisphere seasons, the academic year is nearly the same as the calendar year, running “from late January or early February to early or mid-December.” December-January is summer vacation.) When he spoke with McDonald in June 1967, he was teaching science at a place called Haileybury College.
It’s hard not to think that there were substantial tensions between Greenwood and Samblebe, who was then in his first year as headmaster (Basterfield, Source 24)–under considerable pressure, no doubt, to establish his authority–and that the UFO served as vehicle for these tensions. To which the fledgling teacher soon fell victim.
“Pro” item #2: the chemistry teacher Barbara Robins. On May 9, I posted a query about her on the Westall Flying Saucer Incident Facebook page, and received the following reply from Shane Ryan:
“Several witnesses recall that it was Andrew Greenwood who took the photos, and that the camera was confiscated from him. Andrew says that it was not him. Barbara, unfortunately, is now unwell, and when she was interviewed several years ago by ‘Westall ’66’ director and writer Rosie Jones, she could no longer recall any details of the Westall Incident – only that she had been there that year and that something had happened. So, although there are some witness memories of a camera being taken away, this has not been substantiated.”
To me, it’s completely inconceivable that Barbara Robins would have forgotten so dramatic and outrageous a happening as this, her camera seized by uniformed strangers with her headmaster’s collusion. I have to suppose that the “confiscated camera”–Greenwood’s? Robins’?–is another feature to be assigned to the psychological, not historical, truth of the incident.
(And the other two teachers mentioned by Greenwood, Jeanette Muir and Claude Miller? In his reply to my May 9 query, Ryan wrote that “Jeanette died before she could be interviewed.“ Miller also?)
“Pro” item #3: Basterfield’s “Source 2” is a report form of the Victorian Flying Saucer Research Society, filled out on 7 April 1966 by or on behalf of a Westall student named Joy Tighe. It describes “circular 2 UFOs flying in various directions” at a 45-degree elevation, and speaks of there having been “flattened waist high grass for 10 yds diameter 600 yds from school.” The UFO (singular?) “turned edge & disappeared fast.” Joy Tighe plainly assumed that the flattened grass was caused by one or both of the UFOs.
But if she or any of her schoolmates thought they had seen it come down–wouldn’t her report have made some reference to that?
“Pro” item #4: the mysterious “Tanya.”
She’s remembered by one of the women interviewed in “Westall ’66” as a girl who’d raced after the landed UFO in the Grange, got to it first, saw it landed on the ground. She went back to the school afterward but somehow suffered a breakdown, was taken off in an ambulance. “That was the last time I ever saw her.”
(“I was trying to keep up when suddenly Tanya came racing back towards me, petrified,” runs an even more dramatic version of the story that appeared in April 2016 in the Woman’s Day magazine, the link provided on the Westall Facebook page. “She was screaming and crying, talking gibberish. She ran straight past me like I wasn’t there. … I watched as paramedics tried to get Tanya into the ambulance. She didn’t want to go and put up a fight. I could still hear her screams as it drove away. That was the last time I saw her.”)
A query posted to the Facebook page on April 9 asks “what happened to the girl who ran ahead of her friends and got right up to one of the crafts … fainted, was taken away by ambulance and was never seen again.” There’s a remarkable response from one Lance Brown:
“In that 2 month period I’d been at school Tanya had been quite notorious to say the least. But when she vanished I didn’t relate it to the ufo, more her wild ways.”
Questions posed to this Lance Brown, by Basterfield and by Ryan, seem to have gotten no further responses. My guess is that he figured he’d already said too much, and clammed up. There’s indeed a suppression that operates in UFO matters, but not necessarily of their unearthly, otherworldly aspects. It may be precisely their all-too-earthly aspect, like what the UFO stands for in the fate of this “notorious” young lady–“much faster” than the other girls, as one witness put it–that calls for concealment.
Thus far the evidence that “confirms my diagnosis, as you doctors express it.” It’s a fine diagnosis, don’t you think?
But alas! It was T. H. Huxley (1825-95) who defined “the great tragedy of science” as “the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.” And there’s other evidence that isn’t quite so cooperative.
Evidence that suggests that what I’ve assumed to be a legend, gestating through the four decades that elapsed between when the UFO supposedly appeared over Westall High School and when Shane Ryan began his inquiries, was in full-blown existence by the summer–sorry, in Australia it’s the winter–of 1966. At the latest.
This evidence appeared in a school publication called The Clayton Calendar for “Term One,” 1966, reproduced as Basterfield’s “Source 10.” A photograph of the publication’s cover, taken from Wikipedia, is posted below.
I’ll talk about this evidence two weeks from now. And see whether my “beautiful hypothesis” is really slain, or if it might respond to resuscitation.
by David Halperin
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