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Encounter in Rendlesham Forest
In the early hours of December 26, 1980, there's little outward sign of activity at the twin US AF bases of Bentwaters and Woodbridge. The bases lie a few hundred yards from each other. Between them lies Rendlesham Forest. The twin bases are much as you'd expect military bases to be – though they hide a secret that would horrify most people in the area, who were blissfully unaware of the bases' true mission. Bentwaters and Woodbridge lie in the sleepy county of Suffolk, on the cold, exposed coast of the East of England. For most of the young men and women here, it's their first experience of a foreign country. To soften the blow, the bases have all the comforts of home – a bar, a burger joint and other stores – they're like small American towns nestling in the heart of the English countryside.
The events started when Airman First Class John Burroughs spotted strange lights in the forest. Burroughs had been patrolling Woodbridge and was close to the East Gate (sometimes colloquially referred to as the back gate). The lights were due east from that location and were red and blue. The red light was above the blue light and they were flashing on and off. Burroughs alerted his supervisor, Staff Sergeant Bud Steffens. Both men watched in amazement as despite being familiar with the area (Burroughs had been based there for seventeen months), they had never seen anything like it before.
Their first thought was that an aircraft might have crashed in the forest. Not one of the A-10s (there was no military flying activity on the night concerned) but perhaps a civilian light aircraft. Their first and most basic instinct, of course, was to investigate and to render assistance if it was needed. Also, there was the question of security. If some unexplained activity was going on so close to the twin bases, was there a threat – actual or potential?
Burroughs unlocked the combination lock on the East Gate and he and Steffens drove out of the gate and a couple of hundred yards or so down to a small public road. There, they turned right and drove another 10 or 20 yards, before reaching a left hand turning where a small track led into the forest. At this point, a white light was visible, in addition to the red and blue lights. This white light was particularly odd and at one point appeared to be coming closer to them, down the small track. The color, configuration and movement of the lights were like no aircraft or vehicle they were familiar with.
Despite the urge to press on, they realized they needed to call-in this incident, so drove back to the East Gate, where they phoned in a brief report – using the landline in the guard shack, as opposed to their pocket radios, which were known to be insecure and susceptible to scanners, which could be used to pick up conversations.
Burroughs spoke to the Law Enforcement duty desk sergeant, Sergeant 'Crash' McCabe and explained what was happening. McCabe wasn't sure what to make of this and briefly wondered whether some sort of practical joke was being played on him. He asked to speak to Steffens, who confirmed what Burroughs had said was true and that he too had witnessed the strange lights. McCabe also suspected that an aircraft crash might have occurred and called through to Central Security Control, passing the problem to Staff Sergeant David Coffey.
Coffey called the on-duty flight chief at RAF Woodbridge, Staff Sergeant James (Jim) W. Penniston. Penniston wasn't briefed on the nature of the situation but was told to proceed with his rider, Airman Edward N. Cabansag, driving to the East Gate with blue lights on to rendezvous with "Police 4" and "Police 5" – the call signs for Burroughs and Steffens. This was highly unusual and Penniston was somewhat flustered and annoyed that he wasn't briefed on what to expect, but was simply told to rendezvous with Burroughs and Penniston at the East Gate, where he'd be told the nature of the situation. This departure from standard procedure was one of the first indications that this was a highly unusual and sensitive situation. It also raises the possibility that at least some people in the chain of command already knew more about this than they were saying, or had been instructed not to give details of the situation over the communications systems. Otherwise, why not simply say to Penniston something along the lines that a patrol is investigating a possible aircraft crash in the forest? Coffey could have been even vaguer and used a phrase such as "possible security situation", or that phrase so beloved by police all around the world, "an incident". There was no problem in terms of jurisdiction and USAF personnel were certainly allowed to patrol off-base ("outside the wire", as it's called in the military) in a wide range of circumstances.
While there's some confusion over the exact time, Jim Penniston recalls that it was just after midnight.
Burroughs and Steffens were still waiting at the East Gate when they were joined by Penniston and his driver, Airman First Class Edward Cabansag. They quickly briefed Penniston and once again, the view of the experienced flight chief was that this must have been an aircraft crash.
But it was the middle of the night, at Christmas, and there was certainly no military aircraft activity. And while the possibility of a civil aircraft was still being considered, nobody had heard an explosion or any sounds. And that's when Steffens made an odd remark that caught everyone's attention:
"It didn't crash. It landed".
Despite that disconcerting observation, Penniston felt the aircraft crash theory was still the most likely explanation and with this in mind, radioed Central Security Control and asked to speak to the overall flight chief for both bases, Master Sergeant J. D. Chandler.
If all this 'A calls B, who then checks with C' procedure seems somewhat labored, especially in a situation where those involved might have been dealing with an aircraft crash, there are three important points to bear in mind. Firstly, while looking at a written account might lead readers to think valuable time was being wasted, most of the actions set out above are relatively quick and easy ones and – in the case of the telephone calls and radio conversations – take only seconds. Secondly, the military is a notoriously hierarchical organization where everybody is very rank conscious; in such a culture, clearing a non-routine action with your supervisor, or at the very least informing him or her, is rather more important than it is in most civilian organizations – "getting your top cover" as it's sometimes referred to. Finally, the security police and law enforcement specialisms tend to be very process-driven in many respects. Initiative is still encouraged, but a lot of tasks are performed by following a set procedure that's learned by heart and then constantly tested and reinforced through training.
With the aircraft crash theory in mind, Chandler checked the position with regard to aircraft activity with the control tower at Bentwaters. Somebody in the control tower checked the radar and also placed calls to RAF Bawdsey, RAF Watton and Heathrow Airport in London. The key piece of information that came back was that a "bogey" – or "bogie" – (defined by the US AF as "a radar or visual air contact whose identity is unknown") had been tracked around 15 minutes previously, but that the target had been lost when it disappeared from the radar screen directly over the Woodbridge base. Chandler contacted the shift commander and gave Penniston the OK to continue the investigation. Perhaps because he sensed trouble, or knew something was amiss, Penniston requested back-up. In response to this request, Chandler decided to come out himself.
With the somewhat troubling piece of news about the radar return having been relayed to them, Penniston, Burroughs and Cabansag drove out into the forest to resume the investigation that Burroughs and Steffens had started shortly beforehand. There is some confusion about why Steffens didn't go out into the forest. One possibility was that with personnel about to go off-base, weapons needed to be left with someone – though in fact, weapons can be taken off-base in some circumstances, e.g. where an immediate and serious security threat is perceived. Indeed, there's a suggestion that some of those who went into the forest didn't leave their weapons behind, even if they should have done!
Penniston, Burroughs and Cabansag took the same route as had been taken before: they drove the couple of hundred yards or so from the East Gate to the small road that ran through the forest. They turned right, drove for a few yards, then turned left down a small track that led deeper into the forest. These tracks are not proper roads and are very narrow and bumpy. You can't drive a vehicle – even a sturdy one like a military Jeep – that far down them, so after maybe no more than 50 yards or so, they had to stop the car and proceed on foot.
As they advanced into the forest with – as Cabansag described it – "extreme caution" – all three men could see the strange lights. Cabansag described them as being "blue, red, white and yellow".
Though not formally classified as such, it was clear that the event was now being treated as a potential security situation. While the only theory that had been discussed so far was that this was a potential crash of a light aircraft, the facts simply didn't add up. And by this time, none of those involved thought this was what they were dealing with: the obvious proof of this is that nobody had called for an ambulance (or even a first aid kit!) or called out the fire brigade. Another clue was Cabansag's admission that they proceeded with "extreme caution" – hardly the actions of a patrol engaged on an urgent search and rescue mission.
By this time, the back-up they'd requested had arrived. This consisted of Master Sergeant Chandler (who Penniston had spoken to earlier) in another vehicle. There's confusion about who arrived first. Chandler says that when he arrived, Penniston, Burroughs and Cabansag "had entered the wooded area just beyond the clearing at the access road", while Cabansag said that Chandler was already "on the scene". Such inconsistencies may seem minor, but they're indicative of something wider, because while four men were in the forest that night, all came back with different memories of what happened next.
At about this time, all four men's radios began to malfunction. Or rather – given the small chance that four separate radios would simultaneously malfunction – something began to interfere with communications, which seemed only to be working over a short distance. To deal with this, the four men adopted a low-tech solution and set up a radio relay. In other words, Chandler stayed with the parked vehicles and from there was able to relay messages between the men who went deeper into the forest and his colleagues back on the base, in Central Security Control. Cabansag went forward, but when he and Chandler could hardly hear each other, he too stopped, leaving only John Burroughs and Jim Penniston to push forwards to try to find the source of the lights.
Burroughs and Penniston soon realized there was something seriously wrong. The air was filled with static electricity and the hairs on their arms and on the back of their necks were standing on end. It was difficult to walk properly and they described the experience as being akin to wading through deep water. All the time, the lights were ahead of them, getting brighter and more clearly defined as they ventured deeper into the forest, closer to whatever was out there.
Up ahead was a small clearing, brightly illuminated. They had reached their goal. Suddenly, as they approached, there was a silent explosion of light. They instinctively hit the ground, fearing they'd be hit by debris from the bright flash of light. Penniston, seeing no apparent harm from the immense flash of light, stood up and what came clearly into view was clearly nothing to do with an aircraft crash.
Penniston looked to his right and saw Burroughs engulfed in a huge beam of light which appeared to be coming from above. The light encompassed Burroughs. Then Penniston saw that what had first appeared to be a sphere of light in front of him had dissipated and now had the appearance of a craft of some sort.
Staggered, Penniston took stock of the situation. In the clearing was a small, metallic craft. It was about three meters high and maybe three meters across at the base. The craft was roughly triangular in shape and appeared to be either hovering just above the ground, or perhaps resting on legs at each edge of the object, as if it was on a tripod, like a lunar landing module (only with three legs and not four). It had a bank of blue lights on its side and a bright white light on the top. There was no sound whatsoever.
As Penniston approached the object he saw strange symbols on the side. They were unlike anything he'd seen before and the nearest match he could come up with was that they were like ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Penniston had the presence of mind to take a number of photographs and sketch both the craft and the symbols in his police notebook.
Finally, Penniston plucked up the courage to touch the object. It felt hard and smooth. This, combined with the look of the hull, close up, made him think of a smooth, opaque black glass. He then moved to touch the symbols. He recalls the sensation thus:
"The skin of the craft was smooth to touch. Almost like running your hand over glass. Void of seams or imperfections, until I ran my fingers over the symbols. The symbols were nothing like the rest of the craft, they were rough, like running my fingers over sandpaper."
As Penniston touched the symbols, the white light on top of the craft flared up and became so intense that Penniston was fear-struck and temporarily blinded by what was before him. Penniston removed his hand from the craft and as soon as he did so, the light dimmed and the sense of panic receded.
After some time, and to Penniston's utter amazement, the craft lifted slowly off the ground. Again, everything seemed to move in slow motion, with the craft taking two or three minutes to rise up above the trees around the edge of the small clearing. All the time, even with the object rising above the ground, there was no noise. Because the clearing was small and the trees were dense, at times the object seemed as if it had to manoeuvre through the trees. Finally, when it had cleared the trees, it accelerated away in an instant. Penniston, methodical and professional in the face of everything, wrote the following observation in his police notebook:
"Speed – impossible".
Burroughs has few coherent memories of what happened after the explosion of light. After he threw himself to the ground, he recalls seeing a red, oval, sun-like object in the clearing, but does not recall the craft. For him, the time from hitting the ground until seeing the UFO depart seemed like a few seconds, whereas for Jim, the inspection of the craft took many minutes. Even today, this is troubling for Penniston:
"I entered the bubble field (the area immediately around the craft) first; John was over to my right about ten feet and a couple feet back. The silence was then the most prominent part of it; the area or field seem dead; the air: no sound; no rustling of air or wind; no distant sounds, no animals or nothing - a dead silence. A strong static on clothes, hair and skin - being pulled toward the light. Then dissipated - I was alone. And from John's perspective, he has no memory. John is standing still and motionless. I yelled at him, of course. No reaction; he does not move. He, of course, cannot hear me and I then turn and focus on the craft and the matter of security for the bases. It has been always the case that John does not have a memory of this. But when we were being debriefed and writing statements in Colonel Halt's office, less than 72 hours after the first night, John in his statement (which was hand written) has the drawing of the craft he saw with me. This has always made me wonder about John's memory. Why could he do this within 72 hours and today has no memory? Definitely food for thought!"
Food for thought indeed. Especially when combined with one cryptic comment Burroughs made when pressed on where he was while Jim examined the craft and why their memories are so different at this point:
"The only possibility is that I was in the light when he was doing his examination."
Penniston and Burroughs – still in a state of considerable shock – attempted to relocate the UFO and had a number of further sightings of strange lights on the horizon. At one point the object was so close they thought it was going to land again. But it didn't and the UFO eventually departed to the East, out over the coast.