FRANKLIN, Ky. – Nobody knows what Capt. Thomas F. Mantell Jr. was chasing through the winter sky on Jan. 7, 1948.
His pursuit of the “flying saucer” cost him his life. The 25-year-old Kentucky Air National Guard pilot from Louisville died in the crash of his P-51 “Mustang” fighter plane near Franklin, the Simpson County seat.
A county historical marker just off Interstate 65 in Franklin commemorates the aviator’s death. “Because he was killed trying to catch an unidentified flying object, the story made headlines around the world,” said John Trowbridge, manager of the Kentucky Military History Museum in Frankfort. “There is a real X-Files twist to this, too. Mantell lived almost his entire life in Louisville. But he was born in a hospital in Franklin, only a few miles from where he was killed.”
A World War II hero, Mantell is buried in Zachary Taylor National Cemetery in Louisville. The Louisville Male High School graduate is probably all but forgotten except to family members and friends, Trowbridge said.
“But the investigation of Mantell’s crash became part of Project Sign,” Trowbridge added. “Project Sign later became Project Blue Book, the Air Force’s official investigation into UFOs.”
Mantell and three other pilots, also in single-seat P-51s, were flying near Fort Knox when their radios crackled with a strange request from the control tower at nearby Godman Field. “They were asked to investigate an unidentified flying object which had been seen in the area,” Trowbridge said. Col. Guy F. Hicks, Godman Field commander, “said he observed the flying saucer for some time,” according to an Associated Press story at the time.
One of the warplanes, evidently low on fuel, flew on to Louisville. Hicks said in the news account that the air base lost contact with the other three fighters “in about 20 minutes. Two of the planes later called back and reported no success.”
The other P-51 was Mantell’s. His fighter was not equipped with oxygen for high-altitude flight, Trowbridge said, adding, “He apparently flew too high, blacked out and crashed.”
Glenn Mayes, who lived near Franklin, claimed “he saw Mantell’s plane flying at an extremely high altitude shortly before it apparently exploded in the air,” the AP story said. “The plane circled three times like the pilot didn’t know where he was going, and then started into a dive from about 20,000 feet,” Mayes said. “About halfway down there was a terrific explosion.”
The wreckage of Mantell’s doomed plane was “scattered over an area two miles wide,” according to Mayes. “None of the craft burned,” he said.
Many aviation historians say the speedy, machine gun-armed Mustang was the best propeller-driven fighter of World War II. Mantell, who joined the Army Air Force in 1942, piloted troop transport planes in the global conflict.
“He participated in the Normandy invasion and many other European operations,” according to the AP account. He earned a Distinguished Flying Cross and four Air Medals for bravery, according to the Kentucky Air Guard.
Many people apparently saw the “saucer,” including “several other pilots” who flew after it, the story at the time of the crash said. Two of the aviators, James Garret and William Crenshaw, both from Hopkinsville, thought the UFO was a balloon. “Astronomers at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn., reported they saw some object in the sky…which they believed to be a balloon but the Nashville Weather Bureau said it knew of no balloons in that vicinity,” the AP story said.
In Ohio, “a flaming red cone” was reportedly spotted close to the air base at Wilmington. “Army spokesman said they had no information on the object or its origin,” the AP story said.
It was suggested that the “UFO” was a huge Navy “Skyhook” balloon. “Whatever it was, it gave Capt. Tom Mantell his 15 minutes of fame,” said Trowbridge, who helped get the marker for Mantell in Franklin. The blue and gold plaque stands outside the Simpson County Tourist office.
BERRY CRAIG, Associated Press