What has come down through history as the “Maury Island Incident” remains a matter of investigation, speculation and debate through the retelling of the story in pop culture, investigations and beer-fueled discussions.

The incident involved a reported sighting of flying saucers zooming in the skies off the shores of Commencement Bay’s Maury Island on June 21, 1947, and has fueled conspiracy theories, dives into government archives in search of lost evidence, provided the basis for a movie and is mentioned during walking tours around Tacoma largely because the story is just too juicy to not to be repeated.

Maury Island UFO
The story of the “Maury Island Incident” often arises on Tacoma Ghost Tours. Photo credit: Steve Dunkelberger

“I talk about it all the time,” Tacoma Ghost Tours operator Andrew Hansen said, noting that while some walking tour attendees sometimes know tidbits of the legend, he tries to tell just what is known rather than what is believed. “I try to stick with as many of the facts as I can.”

That can be a tough job since the conspiracy-filled tale makes for a great story that raises more questions than answers.

The most common retelling of the story has it that Howard Dahl was captaining a boat on the afternoon of June 21, 1947. He was searching the waters for floating logs that he could salvage from the water and sell to the local mills that lined Tacoma’s tideflats. It was an otherwise normal day, when he and his son spotted six flying discs in the sky. Two reportedly collided, damaging one of them. It began to sputter and emit smoke. Chunks of the craft fell from the sky, either splashing in the water or peppering the deck of his salvage boat. Dahl’s son Charles was burned by the falling bits of metal, and his dog was reportedly struck and killed. The mysterious aircraft then flew away and disappeared.

UFO Float 1955
Flying saucers were all the rage between 1945 and about 1965, even the fodder of floats in the Daffodil Parade through Tacoma. Photo courtesy: Tacoma Public Library

There were other local “sightings” of flying saucers that summer as well. A businessman and avid pilot Kenneth Arnold, for example, then told a story of his own saucer sighting. He reportedly saw nine saucers while flying around Mount Rainier. Stories of flying saucer sightings were in the news, both mainstream newspapers and pulp publications, all with varying degrees of conspiracy and coverup with little evidence to support their claims.

In the story of the sightings by Dahl and Arnold, federal investigators interviewed the two, collected samples of the “saucer slag” the damaged disc had dropped onto Dahl’s boat and left with a warning against telling their stories anymore. Their accounts were later retold in Gray Barker‘s book “They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers,” and gave rise to the term “men In black” in mainstream culture as a reference to secretive government agents setting out to hide evidence and coverup alien encounters because Dahl stated the investigators wore the standard “G-man” black suits.

UFO Skate Party
“Paris in Orbit” was the theme of a rollerskating dance party in 1959 at the Tacoma Roller Bowl along South Tacoma Way. Photo courtesy: Tacoma Public Library

Further fueling the fire of conspiracy was “the fact” that the investigators would later die in a plane crash while transporting the evidence for analysis at Hamilton Field in California. As fate would have it, the crash outside of Kelso was the first plane disaster of the newly formed Air Force, following its separation from the Army to be its own branch of military service.

Here’s where the story begins to fall apart, however. No damage to Dahl’s boat could be found. His son showed no sign of injuries. No evidence that a dog even existed was ever found. The fragments of the saucer that were reportedly recovered were traced back to the nearby copper smelter. The mysterious “men in black” could have easily been investigators calling the whole thing a hoax and warning against Crisman and Dahl retelling the story or face fraud charges for wasting their time. Cap that with the fact that the story wasn’t widely known until after the more famous “Roswell Incident” in New Mexico made national news a few weeks later.

Maury Island UFO Sighting
Maybe it is just a coincidence that there is an artwork in the shape of a saucer that overlooks the Winthrop Hotel. Photo credit: Steve Dunkelberger

To make the story even weirder, Crisman would later be questioned about him being one of the men on the “grassy knoll” at John F. Kennedy’s assassination. He would later reinvent himself as “Dr. Jon Gold,” an ultra-rightwing talk show host on KAYE Radio that aired in Tacoma in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

“We referred to it as radio hate,” former Tacoma Mayor and president of the Tacoma Historical Society Bill Baarsma said of Crisman’s style of radio commentary. “Everything was ‘fake news’ that promoted conspiracy theories about local government and secret deals that were based on secret sources and tips rather than facts and logic.”

What actually happened in 1947 remains a matter of speculation and research to this day. Facts are few and stories are plenty, but whatever the case the Maury Island Incident proves to provide colorful characters, tales of missing evidence and a twist of fantasy wrapped around truth – all the making of a great mystery that will never be solved.