Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Maj. Dewey J. Fournet: The Man Who Knew Too Much But Not Enough

"On the other hand, I'm positive that the public was frequently fed misleading statistics and examples of reports that were atypical, intended only to make the subject appear to be entirely asinine." -- Dewey J. Fournet, Jr.

Dewey J. Fournet, Jr. at last found time to answer my list of questions (see), and his razor-sharp responses reminded me of his importance to the U.S. government UFO investigation in the early fifties. I think we tend to hear more about Al Chop and Capt. Edward Ruppelt when famous UFO incidents of those years come to mind, but, all things considered, Maj. Fournet ran the show. The true chain of command for Project Blue Book (see chart from "U.F.O." movie publicity photo) clearly indicates Fournet's role (though it would have been nice if those responsible for painting signs for the movie knew how to spell "liaison"). Too bad he never wrote the intended book he mentions in his cover letter (see); his memoir could have been far more than substantial.

Fournet's gradual acceptance of UFOs as a legitimate subject for study wasn't quite as clear-cut as Chop's feeling that perhaps an extraterrestrial intelligence was responsible, but Fournet did come to believe that something disturbing was afoot, and that its unknown identity demanded military cognizance and scientific investigation. In re-reading Fournet's 1976 answers, I find sections where his words almost seem dismissive of the UFO subject, but then he follows up with rock-solid thinking portraying him as anything but. I only knew Dewey (since deceased) through correspondence, but I immediately had the impression that he was an absolutely no-nonsense man and I've no doubts that he treated his role as a military intelligence officer with utter conviction.

Like Chop, Fournet wanted an all-out scientific investigation and, also like Chop, knew from the get-go that the Colorado University UFO project was a disaster. Both men had worked with the UFO organization NICAP in an effort to focus public and congressional attention on the serious matter of UFOs, but ultimately each departed NICAP and abandoned their attempts because misinformation and unscrupulous people associating themselves with the UFO field created contempt and ridicule amongst many of the very scientists and congressional members whose expertise and influence were so desperately needed.

Where Seldom Was Heard an Encouraging Word

Information stone walls popped up regularly, but I was grateful for anything directing me toward the movie's production qualities, and kind words were always welcome. Even author John Keel, flying high with his book, The Mothman Prophecies, took a few minutes to advise me about finding Al Chop (see letter) and his own opinion about the motion picture ("amateurish" was by no means an unusual description of the acting in the film).

Bernard O'Connor, the first editor of Official UFO, had given me the go-ahead to write the article on "U.F.O." Bernie tried from the start to make the magazine a diamond of UFO journalism and speculation, reaching out for the best that UFO research had to offer. Earlier, I was thrilled when he published a piece I wrote about UFOs and their possible relationship with ultrasonics, for this was my first national magazine article.

In January of 1976 he wrote (see letter) with encouragement about the movie project, though sorry that he had a small budget and not much that he could share toward my research. However, this would be the last time O'Connor could be upbeat about his magazine, for just weeks later he sent out a letter to all of his writers, stating that he was resigning from the magazine. His reasons were unclear at the time, but as a succession of editors who assumed his position for brief periods quit themselves, the problem became clear: The publisher wanted to raise magazine circulation by injecting wild and fictitious stories dressed up as fact into the magazine. Official UFO began printing fantastic garbage even before my movie article appeared on the newsstands, and every editor with a sense of integrity resigned in a huff once they realized what utter nonsense they were supposed to pass off as truth to a UFO-hungry readership. Throughout this unsettled period my movie article's chances were placed in jeopardy, and at one point I even contacted a competing publication when Official UFO temporarily kicked my efforts to the curb and a further editorial relationship seemed impossible. But the article, " 'U.F.O.' Revisited," ultimately did find a home in the eventually otherwise sullied pages of Official UFO.

Incidentally, Bernie O'Connor's mention of classes references a non-credit course about UFOs I was teaching at a small college during this time.

Alphabetically Speaking

What a difference a "P" and a "T" make, especially when one overstays its erroneous welcome as the other remains helplessly frozen in dejected repose. It turns out that I wasn't the only person annoyed with printed TV listings referencing the "star" of the motion picture as Tom Powers -- Tom Towers had been aware of the widespread mistake for years and wanted to do something about it.

In January of 1976 I sent off a letter to TV Guide and requested a correction, though I rather expected that a popular magazine of that size probably couldn't be bothered with the trivial whining of disgruntled readers. At the same time, Towers was also making attempts to right the wrong amongst as many publications as he could.

At the same time, whatever would occur with name changes, it was obvious that one aspect of the many and varied TV movie listings around the country would probably never change: The description of the movie itself. Some listings stated that the main role involved a military intelligence officer, which was blatantly untrue (Al Chop was a civilian, working from the Air Force press section at the Pentagon). Other blurbs insisted that roles were portrayed by U.S. military personnel -- again, untrue, because roles were filled by Los Angeles law enforcement personnel. Still others claimed the movie was about unidentified "missiles from space," which certainly added to the film the very science fiction flavor it neither deserved nor desired.

The inception of the name error appeared to originate from the original United Artists publicity material, and specifically on a press book page which misspelled his name as Powers. The fact that there already was an actor named Tom Powers who appeared regularly in motion pictures merely complicated the issue. Was a resolution in sight? Indeed there was, and we'll explore the result in a future blog entry.

Tom Towers Remembers - Part 2 of 2

Scattered reviews of "U.F.O." rarely fail to mention the stiffness of the acting or the slow progression of plot, and if some reviewers were unhappy with the "plodding" action, the experience was no less frustrating for those movie participants who disagreed with producer Clarence Greene's insistence that dramatic effect take a back seat to authenticity and credulity. Tom Towers was chief amongst them (see no. 8).

Yes, Towers admits (no. 9), "U.F.O." was his movie debut, and his anecdote about director John Ford as it related to Tom's attempt to tell another actor how to play a role (no. 10) is a priceless addition to his recollections. In the years following the motion picture, he made no specific attempts to remain current on the UFO issue (no. 10).

Regarding section no. 16, I was looking for any additional comments. In the next (no. 17), I mentioned photos and United Artists' procedures for renting out the motion picture. To my surprise, Towers added a few comments relating to his disdain for the studio system. Yes, that's Tom in the familiar newspaper-in-bed photo from the movie, and in his role as Al Chop he awakens to news of the first UFO sightings over Washington in 1952. When the strange objects appeared over D.C. a week later, officials went on high alert and a defining moment in the government's UFO investigation was reached.

Tom Towers Remembers - Part 1 of 2

A brand new year had just rolled into Los Angeles when Tom Towers apparently dictated responses to my initial set of questions for his secretary, and on January 2, 1976 the seven-page result was mailed off. Today, I've posted the first four.

Towers elaborated a bit on 12 years as, initially, a crime reporter for the Los Angeles Examiner, and his relationship with aviation. I had no idea previously of his WW II role as an intelligence officer. His recollections of performing the day-to-day work of a journalist profiling "Mafia-type gangsters" and chronicling a break-up of the Ku Klux Klan in Southern California almost points us into the noir realm of detective fiction and craving to learn more.

When asking about using photos depicting him in my article, Tom replies by offering pictures of his name in lights at the KRIM Theater. He only sent one (shown in this blog's very first entry), though evidently there are others.

It's interesting that Towers was almost chosen to play the part as a sheriff in the motion picture, "The Well," and intriguing how fate decreed that sound-alike actor Tom Powers ultimately had a role in the movie as the mayor. In fact, decades of confusion over Powers' and Towers' names caused a movie star-sized headache for Towers, a dilemma we finally solved and which is discussed in future blog entries. Incidentally, the 1976 TV Guide listing shown here raises an eyebrow for another reason -- the use of the word, Negro. I can't recall the last time I saw that word in a TV listing and, actually, I'm a little surprised to find it used as recently as 1976. In 2008, the word just seems a little archaic, but it isn't up to me to debate semantics.

While highly respectful of aviation experts, Towers is extremely critical of contactees who claimed rides in "saucers," and I agree, yet I wonder what path his journalistic nose for news would have taken him if confronted with a truly puzzling Barney & Betty Hill case or the like. I did inquire how his role in "U.F.O." as Al Chop influenced Towers' relationship with the public (no. 7), but there seemed to be no particularly overwhelming cause-and-effect result. I've no trouble believing Tom's assertion that "the freaks" avoided him!

Searching for Captain Sperry

American Airlines pilot Capt. Willis T. Sperry (retired) freely discussed his UFO encounter over the years, but finding him was another story. Despite advice from other movie participants, going straight to American Airlines proved to be the best course of action -- that is, once I discovered what division of American Airlines could assist.

Tom Towers Returns

Absolutely, I was in awe of both Al Chop and Tom Towers, Chop because he was so honest, integral to and opinionated about the early government UFO project, and Towers because he was the epitome of the newspaper writer whose thoughts we want to read.. Further, Towers had ascended to become aviation editor for The Los Angeles Examiner and turned out some great articles. From the UFO aspect, he wrote a piece about the late Senator Richard Russell's possible UFO encounter, brilliantly executed simply by letting the senator's words in a letter to Towers tell a story that otherwise might have remained unknown; Towers' article regarding Russell is freely available and written about on the Internet.

His newspaper days behind him by the seventies, however, he then held the prestigious position of executive assistant at LA's Dept. of Airports -- and he apparently didn't mind taking a little time at the office to answer me on airport letterhead.

The letter posted today was very informative for my attempts to find Clarence Greene, Capt. Sperry and others, but I can't vouch for his friend whom he claims coined the term, "flying saucers" because I've encountered so many variations of who-was-first over the years.

Chasing the Wind

To some of you, this will be boring stuff, but for others it will serve to demonstrate how one stone wall can lead to another during attempts to round up the ingredients for a magazine article. Yes, it was a low-budget effort on my part, but the frustration is no less. Script writer Francis Martin, for instance, was not to be easily found. Had I not been so young, maybe endowed with a little more experience in lost & found, I might have succeeded more in the people search area. (Note to self: Don't ever let me catch you again writing that I'm "presently" working on an article, when the proper word is "currently." Good grief, that's just a step away from all those barely literate radio and TV news folk who report that a fire-engulfed building was "completely destroyed.")

Project Blue Book Lists the Movie

Dr. David Michael Jacobs wrote many years ago in his great book, The UFO Controversy in America, that there indeed was official government concern about the potential public impact of Clarence Greene's movie, "U.F.O." before it hit the nation's theater screens in May of 1956. Al Chop tended to downplay concern of the higher-ups, and I have been informed over the years that Al's one "bone of contention" with my original article on the motion picture was my mention of government worries over the production. Even producer Greene denied any government interference whatsoever.

In any case, some officials did not merely look the other way, and they did keep tabs on the film's release. As we now realize from Project Blue Book's own records, once they were put on microfilm in the years following Blue Book's closure, at least one review of the movie was found in the files, as shown here on the third page of these film roll log entries.

Al Chop Clarifies

This is another note from Albert M. Chop, grateful to have an opportunity to reconnect with Dewey J. Fournet, Jr. After all the time and effort Al put into providing information for my article, I was happy to give something back.

Notice, too, his casual attitude about "off the record" quotes. Chop consistently believed that anything he said to the press or public should be carried as is. His honesty and openness in this regard goes all the way back to his earliest years with the government UFO investigation in the fifties.

Obviously, Al was also a proponent of nuclear energy, tough and determined enough to motivate its leaders and research personnel, despite considerable public controversy over safety issues at that time. As nuclear technology continues to appear even more indispensable as increased safety precautions become available, maybe his determination and multiple services performed on behalf of the nation will be even more apparent.

Purely Coincidental

Is it just me? Well, of course it is, but I wonder how many people ever took a close look at the ads for two different movies and saw a resemblance in advertising procedure? I vote for "unintentional," but the comparison is too interesting to pass up.

Just as a routine visual for the movie, "U.F.O." shows the darkness of a radar scope, its sweeping hand and bright UFO images, the major poster for Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" relies upon the dark of night, an emitted light source and brilliant stars in the sky.

Two movies about UFOs, one fiction (with a cameo appearance by Dr. J. Allen Hynek) and the other a documentary (with appearances by and about several people involved with UFO investigations) made 21 years apart -- and each begs our attention with a mix of foreboding darkness and mysterious images of light.

Sometimes, studio publicity divisions seem to speak a common language, yes?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Al Chop's True Confessions: Part 2 of 2

Unlike my list of questions for "U.F.O." producer Clarence Greene, to which he responded with single-word or brief one-line answers, the numbered concerns I sent off to Al Chop received his full attention and detailed comments. So complete were his answers, in fact, that I shouldn't have to list all questions separately because he neatly wraps most questions into his responses. However, I will comment a little about some of the five pages shown here (Chop numbered the pages by hand, see left upper corner of each page).

You might believe that my apparent preoccupation with the movie transcended everything else, but I really haven't pulled out and tried to organize all of my notes, correspondence and visuals for over 30 years. Therefore, my memories were a bit rattled when I read Al Chop's sentence (no. 3) where he stated, "Captain Ed Ruppelt played his own part in the film UFO." In fact, Ruppelt's role was played by Lt. Robert Phillips, whom I assume was a member of the L.A. Sheriffs Dept. But I didn't know that in the mid-seventies, and was perfectly confident to write for publication that Ruppelt played Ruppelt. In the interim, I forgot that Chop was my "final word" at that time, and for the life of me I don't know why he made such a statement. Chop had worked with and knew Ruppelt very well during the days when Ruppelt headed up Project Blue Book, and the two men consulted in depth on the motion picture script. Even post-production, Al Chop surely realized when watching the film that Ruppelt was portrayed by another. This glaring error remains an anomaly to me, and maybe the best thing I can do is to chalk it up to Chop responding to my questions at a time when he was tired or stressed out with the immense responsibilities of his new government job. Al had a reputation for concern with the facts as a careful reporter, and many of the points he makes in the pages shown here were confirmed by others.

Regarding point no. 4, I asked about an unsigned piece Chop had written for Newsweek about the widespread use of helicopters in the Korean conflict during the early fifties.

Regarding point no. 5, I was glad that Al mentioned the General Mills balloon incident, but when I wrote my article for Official UFO an editor, apparently unfamiliar with a dictionary, changed the word "rent" to "dent," thus distorting the ripping effect caused by the UFO. At another place in that article, where I stated the movie did not "make bucks" at the box office, the editor changed the word "bucks" to "bricks" inexplicably, which I'm sure caused many readers to scratch their heads and wonder what planet the author was from, to have written something so nonsensical.

Regarding point no. 6, this is where I asked Chop to describe that chaotic night when UFOs reappeared over the nation's Capitol and he rushed off to the radar scope. Note that, unlike the scene portrayed in the movie, Mrs. Chop did not remain at home. She accompanied Al to Washington that night, but did exit the radar room when reporters were asked to leave prior to UFO intercept attempts (in "U.F.O." no members of the media are shown at the radar scope at any point).

Regarding point no. 14, pay special attention to Chop's assertion that he left the Air Force press desk because "it was apparent the lid was back on the (UFO) project." This official maneuver, with no small thanks to 1953's CIA-instigated Robertson Panel, dictated the future of UFO-related secrecy in the U.S.

Al Chop's True Confessions: Part 1 of 2

Some 10 years had passed since receiving my first and only two letters from Al Chop, and it really felt a bit strange to realize that my high school graduation, four Air Force years and a continuing college education had taken up space in the meantime. Yet, here I was again, searching for Al. Probably still with NASA, I thought, and off went the new inquiry.

But NASA kindly forwarded my letter to Al Chop at his new address. Not only had Al left NASA, he and his wife had moved to the state of Washington, where he now worked for the Atomic Energy Commission (see the two letters shown here). Of considerable interest to me, because I vividly remember the day when the U.S. lost three astronauts in an unspeakably tragic accident and fire on the ground, Al and other NASA personnel had been so strongly affected by the Apollo spacecraft disaster that he felt he had to do more. Ultimately, Chop relinquished his routine public affairs position and turned his talents to motivating NASA personnel, and eventually undertook the same duties on behalf of nuclear energy personnel, whose morale suffered because of the public's negative attitude about nuclear technology. Al sent along a couple of morale-boosting decals (see), brochures and other publicity information in an AEC envelope (shown), and I've taken the liberty of scanning a page from the industry's newsletter, "Awareness," which clearly mentions Al Chop in his position as its editorial manager. His role in starting the "Snoopy the Astronaut" program at NASA is a story in itself because he literally had to visit "Peanuts" creator Charles Schultz at home to gain permission for use of the popular doghouse-piloting canine's likeness.

With his November 11, 1975 letter, Chop also enclosed five single-spaced typed pages of responses to my list of questions, and this is a fascinating document. I'll post the whole thing in the next entry.

You Can Call Him Al: Starring Tom Towers

Tom Towers probably wasn't too difficult to find in the seventies, if you lived in California. But I was in New York, clueless except for the knowledge that he had written for The Los Angeles Examiner, so imagine my surprise and disappointment when I discovered The Examiner had folded years ago. My first hint to that effect arrived in the mail when my letter of inquiry to the newspaper was returned as undeliverable.

However, when Al Chop managed to sit down at the typewriter and pound out a lengthy response to my questions, he mentioned that, last he heard, Towers was working for the Department of Airports in L.A. Hoping for the best but expecting nothing, I mailed off a brief note to L.A. and enclosed the customary self-stamped, addressed envelope, a necessity that often makes the difference between getting a response and being ignored. In the meantime, at least I was happy to have located Dewey Fournet, for Chop had lost track of Fournet long ago and appreciated knowing of his current address in Louisiana.

As November of 1975 prepared for surrender to December and the country's preoccupation with the Christmas season and holiday slowdowns in the workplace, I felt almost certain that Towers had more important things to do than reply to somebody who claimed to be a writer in search of information on a now relatively obscure motion picture. Imagine my amazement, then, when my self-stamped envelope arrived with a Los Angeles postmark, and there was something small inside -- a business card (see). "The lost has been found," L.A. Dept. of Airports executive assistant Tom Towers assures me. He had certainly experienced quite a job change since those days as a reporter and columnist for The Los Angeles Examiner.

Thrilled though I was to get a response, I feared an uncertain correspondence relationship with Towers. After all, if the best he could do was send along a business card with a few autobiographical words scribbled on it, what could I expect in attempting to get some in-depth answers from him? Not to worry. As it turned out, Tom Towers ended up writing me more than any of the other "U.F.O." participants, even after the article saw publication, and he gracefully and candidly answered every question I addressed.

We'll explore Tom's correspondence in weeks to come, but today I wanted to post a few photos in way of introduction. One black-and-white publicity photo depicts a typical pose for Towers as he sits at the Air Force press desk in his role as Al Chop. The other b&w picture portrays Chop (Towers) and his wife (played by actress Marie Kenna) in a dramatic moment as a phone call alerts them to the return of UFOs over Washington, D.C. for the second time in a week. This scene leads up to the dramatic climax of the movie as UFOs are tracked by radar and seen visually high over the nation's Capitol in 1952.

The two small color snapshots of Tom Towers on the tennis court actually were sent on the spur of the moment because I really pressed him for photos and those were the most convenient for him. They aren't very clear and I wasn't really looking for the athletic pose (!), and they never did run with any of my articles about the movie, but I'm pleased to include them here. Tom seemed most at home on the tennis court, on the golf course or on a bowling excursion with friends. These pictures were taken approximately 20 years after Tom's performance in "U.F.O." He never acted in another movie -- but could have. More on that later.

Recently, a mysterious somebody updated information on Tom Towers for the imdb.com Web site and I wish I knew that person's identity, for I never knew much about Towers' personal life. I was surprised, frankly, to find additional imdb information because I had originally added a blurb about Towers to his otherwise vacant movie celebrity page and never dreamed anybody was out there to add, or care to add, what seemed some out of the ordinary updates. I really suspect a family member provided this kindness in memory of Tom, who, from all accounts, was a wonderful and charming man who cared about his work, the people who knew him and the environment (in terms specifically of jet aircraft noise).

Researcher Barry Greenwood, co-author of Clear Intent, one of my favorite books of all time about UFOs, offered more information about Towers a few weeks ago, and imparted data confirming that Thomas H. Towers was born in 1913 in Kentucky and died in L.A. in 1995 at age 82. The updated imdb site related that Towers was 6'1" in height and had enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps at the Santa Ana Army base on December 14, 1942. Towers had already told me that he was a captain working in military intelligence during World War II.