On January 28, 1954, Wilhelm Reich «happened accidentally to observe 2 bright yellow-orange lights moving in front of a mountain range toward a lake.» The encounter was the opening salvo of a «war» with UFOs that would occupy the final phases of Reich’s troubled medical and scientific career.
At the time, Reich — a trained psychoanalyst who had once belonged to Sigmund Freud’s inner Vienna circle — was already facing what he called «emotional and physical misery» caused by his more terrestrial battle with the U.S. Food & Drug Administration over the use of «orgone» — a controversial form of ambient «life energy» that he claimed to have discovered.
Reich found an inexhaustible range of uses for his discovery, touting orgone as everything from the secret of anti-gravity to a tool for weather control (especially rainmaking). Most importantly, he found that he could use orgone to «interfere» with UFOs.
But to the FDA, orgone simply did not exist, rendering Reich’s orgone-based therapies prosecutable under quackery statutes. Even today, 4 decades after the controversy, Reichian therapists claim to be able to manipulate the energy for a wide variety of healing effects — including the cure for cancer — without resorting to drugs, radiation, or chemicals. Instead, Reichians work to build up a current of orgone within the patient’s vicinity in order to strengthen and heal the underlying life force itself.
Nevertheless, Reich’s legal fight with the FDA ended with his death in prison after defying a federal injunction against the use of orgone for medical purposes.
Whatever the official status of his medical theories, Reich expected a response when he wrote to the U.S. Air Force about his UFO sighting. He reasoned that «the U.S. Air Force is the natural organization in the Western World responsible» for dealing with such phenomena because «it operates in the atmosphere and watches the frontier upward toward outer space.» When the military didn’t deal with his report to his satisfaction, Reich took matters into his own hands.
The Encounter and the Air Force
In his letter to the Air Force — reproduced in his last book Contact With Space — Reich described his sighting as «a brightly shining light» moving from west-to-east through the forest outside Rangeley, Maine. A second, similar phenomenon soon joined the first, both moving steadily in front of Spotted Mountain. He concluded that the objects were not stars due to their course and the mountain intervening between their apparent motion and the sky, but the possibility that they were military vehicles or other objects of a terrestrial type did not seem to occur to him.
At around the same time, Reich’s secretary Ilse Ollendorff also reported seeing «a similar but brighter and bigger, because closer, object.» Like the aerial phenomena observed by Reich, Ollendorff’s sighting hovered in front of a mountain but then «was seen rising once vertically upward, settling down again and then disappearing.»
The Air Force, for its part, was either unaware of Reich’s running battle with the FDA or was intrigued enough by his encounter to overlook the controversy. Lt. Steven J. Hebert, stationed at the Presque Isle Air Force Base, wrote back telling Reich that the «subject officer notified this organization to take whatever action necessary since this unit is interested in investigating unidentified aerial phenomena.»
Hebert enclosed a copy of “Technical Information Sheet Form A” (the Air Force’s UFO reporting questionnaire) for Reich and Ollendorff to fill out and return. As Contact With Space ruefully notes, Reich received the letter only 5 days before the FDA obtained the injunction forbidding the distribution of orgone equipment as medical devices.
Reich returned the questionnaire along with a copy of a short essay «Survey on Ea«, providing background on other unusual occurrences around the Orgonon research facility including the revelation that friends had told Reich «of saucers having been seen over Orgonon in 1951″. However, he had taken little personal interest in the reports until 1953 when his discovery of Donald Keyhoe‘s book made him wonder whether UFOs — or in his terminology, «Enigma Alpha» or «Ea» — might be propelled by orgone.
The Air Force did not reply, perhaps put off by the impenetrable nature of the «basic orgonometric equations» included as an appendix to «Survey on Ea«. In the book, Reich includes a rather coyly self-important note saying «not all can be revealed» about his relationship with the Air Force. But there is no evidence in Contact With Space that Reich was in communication with the military until October, a full 6 months later.
Instead, during that time, Reich writes that he busied himself with appealing the FDA injunction and preparing a research trip to Arizona where he hoped to investigate the role played by orgone reactions in the formation of deserts.
Watching for hostile signs in the sky
In looking toward space to explain his sighting, Reich showed himself to be anything but an uncontaminated witness. Like most U.S. citizens in the 1950s, exposed to years of speculation that flying saucers were not native to the Earth, Reich already believed that unknown aerial phenomena were — in his words — most likely «contacts with visitors from outer space.»
Reich was familiar with Donald Keyhoe’s groundbreaking 1953 book Flying Saucers from Outer Space,leaving him predisposed to look for extraterrestrial explanations for the unknown lights weaving across the sky near his Maine research facility. Moreover, the fact that he had seen “War of the Worlds” only 3 weeks before reporting his sighting was also likely a contributing factor — as Reich called the film «a rather realistic approach to the planetary emergency,» it evidently made quite an impression.
Furthermore, the cultural climate of the 1950s not only predisposed Reich to look beyond the Earth but also to look for evidence that his UFOs were engaged in «warlike» behavior.
The threat of war was in the air, both in Reich’s embattled personal life and in the broader political framework. The Keyhoe book popularized several apparently hostile encounters between Air Force pilots and unidentified aerial phenomena, while no less a personage than General Douglas MacArthur would warn only a year after Reich’s sighting that «all countries on Earth will have to unite to … make a common front against attack by people on other planets.»
With that in mind, the Austrian refugee who had fled to the United States from the Nazis considered it not only a scientific but also a patriotic duty to alert Air Force Intelligence to the encounter at once.
This policy of full disclosure was typical to Reich, who had taken care to keep the White House informed about developments in orgone research since 1951. While his critics point to this as another symptom of what long-time skeptic Martin Gardner called Reich’s «paranoid egoism», Reich himself seems to have considered the matter a «major responsibility» and seems to have downplayed the potential uses of his encounter as a self-promotional vehicle.
Just before the war with the UFOs
In May, however, Reich made an accidental discovery that a few Air Force officers — including General Harold Watson, chief of intelligence at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base — would find very interesting.
As Reich was scanning the sky with a «cloudbuster» — a device he had designed to draw orgone out of the sky in order to induce rain — he saw a star «fade out» in the presence of 3 other witnesses. He pointed the cloudbuster pipes at a second blinking light, which also faded in brightness. Meanwhile, the first star reasserted itself once the cloudbuster was pointed away from it.
Reich repeated the experiment three more times in quick succession, reporting identical effects each time. As it was scientifically impossible that his device could have interacted with actual stars — even in orthodox Reichian literature, the cloudbuster’s range was measured in kilometers not light-years — he concluded that his device had interfered with 2 UFOs.
Having concluded that his cloudbuster could also function as a «spacegun«, Wilhelm Reich began to outfit his Arizona expedition as though preparing for a war with outer space.
In October 1954, Wilhelm Reich was under siege. Not only had the Food and Drug Administration stripped him of his livelihood, but also almost daily UFO sightings were leaving his friends and family exhausted and frightened.
«There is no doubt that I am at war» with the UFOs, Reich wrote hours after four bright pulsating lights hovered for hours over Orgonon, his research facility in rural Maine. «What seemed only a possibility 1-year ago is certainty now.»
The UFOs had been menacing Orgonon since Reich began experiments with super-charging his «cloudbuster» weather-control device with small amounts of radioactive material. Reich had learned in May that the cloudbuster not only apparently pulled rain out of clouds but also drained energy from lights in the sky, making it — in his words — a «spacegun» effective against UFOs.
Like the cloudbuster, the Austrian psychiatrist turned «natural scientist» was convinced that UFOs operated on orgone — an ambient energy source that interacts with life and organic matter. Reich’s claims to the contrary, the FDA had determined that orgone did not exist and so had obtained an injunction against any medical treatment purporting to effect cures through orgone manipulation.
However, Reich stayed devoted to the reality of his discovery. He trained the «spacegun» on 2 aerial objects as they hovered ominously over Orgonon, causing both to retreat. One «disappeared after weakening, waning, and blinking, leading Reich to conclude triumphantly that «tonight, for the first time in the history of man, the war waged for ages by living beings from outer space upon this Earth … was reciprocated.»
As above, so below. On that same day, Reich informed the authorities in Portland that he would resume his orgone-oriented publishing efforts. This defiance would lead to his death in prison less than 3 years later.
An odd meeting with Air Force Intelligence
Convinced that the aliens were waging their «war» against Earth by poisoning its orgone and creating deserts, Reich decided to test his spacegun in the drought-wracked wastes north of Tucson, AZ. According to his final book Contact With Space, it had not rained in Tucson for 5 years, making the desert a perfect proving ground for both the cloudbuster’s rainmaking and UFO-weakening abilities.
Meanwhile, in order to share his findings with the Air Force, Reich sent his assistant William Moise ahead to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. As Reich bitterly noted, Orgonon «had received no direct help from the Air Force, financial or otherwise». But he remained eager to keep the military posted on theextraterrestrial-combat uses of orgone.
Moise, however, got a guarded reception at Wright-Patterson. General Harold Watson, chief of Air Force Intelligence, had initially seemed eager to speak with Moise about Reich’s claim to have «disabled» 2 UFOs, even insisting that Moise could arrive late in the day and the 2 men could «continue the conference after supper.»
Traveling cross-country, Moise was concerned that accidental factors could get in the way of the meeting and confirmed his appointment with Watson twice. Still, by the time he got to Dayton, Watson was unavailable due to «unexpected important business.»
Instead, a «Dr. W. H. Byers» and Harry Haberer greeted Moise at the base. Moise hated Byers on first sight, calling him «a man with a flabby handshake and eyes that don’t look at you.» As Watson had expressed concern that a group from the CIA would be visiting that week, it is a tantalizing possibility that Byers was a member of that delegation. Haberer, meanwhile, is known to UFO research as «a crack Air Force public relations man.»
Moise refused to talk to the 2 men and instead waited until the next day when he briefed the base’s deputy commander, who reportedly became «excited» by the revelation of a weapon against UFOs. Haberer and Byers were apparently less impressed but took notes.
The battle of Tucson begins
According to Reich, the Air Force continued its tacit interest in his work, sending numerous jets to fly by his cloudbusting experiments but making no overt gestures because the spacegun was «hot because it wasn’t official, and the reason it wasn’t official was because it was so hot.»
When his group arrived in Tucson from heavily-wooded Maine on October 19, they were shocked by the Arizona desert which was apparently much more severe than it is today. «We were impressed by the bare ground, giving a general impression of whiteness, hardness,» Reich wrote. «The river beds had all been dry for about 50 years … No prairie grass was to be seen anywhere.»
Over the next few weeks, the party — composed of Reich, his daughter Eva and son Peter, Moise, and another assistant — suffered almost immediately from dehydration, exhaustion, and general discomfort, all of which they attributed to poisonous «deadly orgone radiation». However, harassment from UFOs was sporadic-but-persistent, leading Reich to theorize that the «thirsty» aerial phenomena were actively fighting his rainmaking efforts.
The researchers fought back throughout November, apparently encouraging a rich growth of winter prairie grass but no rain. Transportation difficulties had forced Reich to leave his supply of radioactive material behind at Orgonon, leaving the cloudbusters at a sharp disadvantage against the UFOs. Without the radioactive charge, Reich’s team could only annoy the lights in the sky but not hinder their inscrutable activity in any real sense.
Meanwhile, the UFOs kept making the researchers miserable. One of Reich’s assistants suffered a «breakdown» while training his cloudbuster on the sky, forcing him to return to his family for a month of recuperation. In his absence, Reich speculated that the man had drawn too much poisonous orgone from a lurking alien object.
By December 7, Reich decided it was time to strengthen his hand by sending for his radioactive hole card — 2 radium needles charged with orgone. After a plane trip marked by misadventure and bad weather, the needles arrived a week later.
«A planetary Valley Forge»
Once Reich had his radium, he was ready to retake the offensive against the UFOs and the desert simultaneously.
«On December 14 about 16:30 hours, a full-scale interplanetary battle came off,» he wrote. «A battle which would have appeared incredible as well as incomprehensible to anyone who knew nothing about the (UFO) problems or who adhered to the illusion» that neither UFOs nor orgone existed.
First, the Orgonon team had to shake off «a special kind of deadly orgone attack» that left them «in very bad shape … sick … dulled, somehow out of balance.» A «tremendous black cloud — looking like smoke from a huge fire» — grew over Tucson, eventually taking on an angry reddish-purple coloration and triggering readings of 100,000 counts-per-minute on Reich’s Geiger counter. All of the researchers «suffered from nausea, quivering, pain in the upper abdomen, and discoloration of movements» while «about a dozen Air Force planes of various kinds» flew over the team’s camp.
Matters of orgone — beneficial or poisonous aside — Reich’s description of the event is reminiscent of a nuclear bomb test: a strong military presence, radiation, smoke, queasiness. However, it is unlikely that the Government would set off a bomb apparently targeted directly on Tucson — a thriving regional center of commerce.
Reich brought his radium needles into contact with the cloudbusters and started firing away at the cloud to dissipate its power. The operation took about 20 minutes, at which time the cloud had broken up and the Geiger count returned to normal.
It rained 3 weeks later. In the meantime, Reich’s journal is filled with dozens of UFO sightings — «red-white-blue pulsations», «yellow pulsations», «silvery disks», «green-yellow steady» — on which to train his spacegun sights. Most «grew fainter», were «extinguished» or «blinked out». The grass covering the desert grew to a height of «several inches to a foot deep», encouraging local ranchers to drive cattle into the region in herds.
After a brief side trip to Jacumba, CA, the team headed home to Maine at the end of April, 1955. «Our job in Arizona was done,» Reich said.
He was dead 18 months later, and all available copies of his books were burned by court order. Only a few copies survived, forcing his scattered disciples to rely on private printings of his works — including Contact in Space — for direction.
by Robert Scott Martin SPACE.com staffwriter