Located in Rockingham County, New Hampshire, United States, and founded in 1638, the town of Exeter is known for its considerable inventory of structures by prominent architects and its various historical buildings, including several recognized as National Historic Landmarks. It is a quiet, peaceful place where one can walk through history and get a feeling for what life was like back in 17th century America, and not the sort of place one would immediately link with extraterrestrial forces from beyond our understanding. Yet in 1965 this sleepy town would be ground zero for a series of UFO incidents that would thrust it into the public consciousness and become some of the most famous UFO sightings out there.
In 1965, the area began having several reports of strange things in the skies. In particular, beginning in August of that year the number of UFO sightings in the area saw a sharp increase, but this was mostly not really covered in the news at the time, and it would not be until September of that year that a spectacular encounter would launch the phenomena into the news. The report in question would come from then 18-year-old Norman Muscarello, who had just graduated from high school and was just three weeks away from leaving for service in the United States Navy. On September 3, 1965, Muscarello was making his way back to Exeter after visiting his girlfriend at her parents’ home in nearby Amesbury, Massachusetts. With no car, Muscarello was hitchhiking, which for him was a totally normal thing to do, and at the time there was nothing out of the ordinary about this at all. Indeed, the area was considered to be very safe and many youths in the era hitchhiked. However, the night was about to get very bizarre, indeed.
On this particular evening, Mescarello was not having much luck. It was in the early morning hours at 2 a.m. and so there were few cars and so he had walked most of the 10 miles from Amesbury to Exeter when he noticed something odd in the sky just outside of the town of Kensington, located a few miles outside Exeter. He could see what looked like five flashing bright red lights out in the distance, which he at first took to be maybe the lights of a police car, but as he approached he could see that the lights were actually hovering over the trees at a farm owned by the Dining family, who were not at home at the time. It seemed that the mysterious lights were all part of one very large, very bright object that illuminated the field below it and which he estimated as being around 80 to 90 feet (24 to 27 m) in diameter. He was then startled when whatever it was began to rapidly approach him. He would say of what he experienced in an in-depth exclusive interview for Seacoastnh:
I observed pulsating lights coming from the north, heading in a southwesterly direction, towards where I was. I assume the speed must have been something terrific because it came up on me all of a sudden, like this! (Snaps his fingers.) Very distant, pulsating erratically I couldn’t make out any distinct pattern, circles or anything like that. It was just very bright. Could not make out a silhouette at all. I didn’t know what it was. There was absolutely no sound, other than the fact that I heard horses in Dining’s field, raising holy hell, kicking the barn. Crickets seemed to just quit…. My attention was fixed on these lights. I didn’t know what it was. Passed over, kind of like disappeared. I don’t know what direction it went in. I was kind of dazed. My eyes were like, you know, seeing spots you go through when somebody takes your picture with a camera. Got my eyes cleared — son of a gun — here it comes again. I don’t have to tell you, you get kind of nervous out there. I mean I’m all alone; there’s nobody else standing there to refer to. I mean, is this guy smoking something? I just froze up. I didn’t know quite what to do. I got scared.
I ran across the street. I didn’t actually dive, I fell, because I tripped on something and I fell into the ditch, and I lay there with my head down. And I looked up, and it was like the whole side of this house which was next door, the next house down from Dining’s — I didn’t know the people at the time, but I found out that it was Mr. Russell later — the whole side of the building seemed to turn out like a blood red. And yet the lights weren’t completely all red either. It was a white house and these lights were still pulsating in erratic positions. I couldn’t make out any design or silhouette at all, and then (he whistles), it took off. I don’t even know what direction it took off in because I had my head down after that. I got up out of the ditch and ran to that house, pounding on the door. Later on I discovered that Mr. Russell was awake. Mrs. Russell told me later that they were awake and they heard me pounding, but they’re not going to answer the door with this crazy nut pounding at two o’clock in the morning, no car out front or anything like that. So they didn’t bother answering, but they did remember me. Well, no response there.
He then saw the headlights of an approaching car and wildly flagged it down, after which the couple in the vehicle took him to the nearest police station. There he told the police what had happened, and rather than being met with outright ridicule, the officer there at the time, a Reginald Toland, told him he had just received several scattered reports of something in the sky that sounded very much like what Muscarello had seen. In fact, one of the witnesses had even claimed that the object had chased her in her car. Another officer, Eugene Bertrand Jr., had also radioed in that he had come across a woman just sitting in her car by the side of the road, who claimed that a UFO had hovered right over her before flying off. Upon hearing Muscarello’s story, Bertrand decided to take the boy to go check out the Dining farm, where things would get weird.
At first there was nothing to see. The farm and field were quiet, no one was home at the Dining farm to confirm anything, and the skeptical Bertrand was pretty convinced Muscarello had just seen a helicopter. They were about to leave when some horses in a nearby corral suddenly went nuts, kicking, bucking, and making a ruckus as the surrounding area erupted with the sound of dogs barking. As the startled Bertrand and Mucarello tried to figure out what was going on, they both saw slowly rising above the trees “a brilliant roundish object as big as a barn, without a sound,” which had a ring of red lights around it that “seemed to dim from left to right, then from right to left, in a 5-4-3-2-1, then 1-2-3-4-5 pattern, covering about two seconds for each cycle.” The object went into a series of erratic maneuvers, dipping and rising and zig-zagging back and forth, and Bertrand radioed for back-up, at one point actually pointing his firearm at it, but thought better of firing. The object then began to move off into the night, but not before Exeter Patrolman David Hunt arrived and also saw it. When they returned to the police station to give their own reports on what had transpired, Bertrand and Hunt learned that reports had been pouring in of UFO sightings in the same general vicinity, with the phone practically ringing off the hook. It got so bad that they even alerted the Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth.
The sightings by Muscarello and the two policemen soon hit the news to receive national publicity. This all caught the attention of journalist and filmmaker John G. Fuller, who came to Exeter to look into the case and interviewed numerous witnesses personally as reports continued to come in. He would eventually write a book on the incident called Incident at Exeter, widely considered to be one of the most in-depth accounts on it there is. Considering all of these sightings, it was not long before the U.S. Air Force took notice and began their own investigation, sending in a Major David Griffin and Lieutenant Alan Brandt. They would conduct their own interviews, particularly with the three main witnesses, and submit a report to Project Blue Book, which was the official Air Force research group assigned to investigate UFO reports. Griffin would say in his report:
At this time I have been unable to arrive at a probable cause of this sighting. The three observers seem to be stable, reliable persons, especially the two patrolmen. I viewed the area of the sighting and found nothing in the area that could be the probable cause. Pease AFB had five B-47 aircraft flying in the area but I do not believe that they had any connection with this sighting.
Despite this, the Air Force had already rushed to provide a pat explanation to the media, at first saying that all of the sightings could be explained away by misidentified stars and planets made to look more mysterious by a temperature inversion at the time. After this, Project Blue Book would chime in, saying, despite Griffin’s assertion that it was not normal aircraft, that it had in fact been due to five B-47 aircraft flying in the area on training missions during this period. Muscarello, Bertrand, and Hunt all strongly disagreed with the Air Force explanation. Bertrand in particular had had experience with Air Force refueling, and insisted that he could discriminate between a UFO and anything else in the air, commercial or military. Indeed, he even claimed to have seen one of the B-47s at the time, and that it was clearly nothing like the UFO he had seen. Bertrand would personally send a complaint to Project Blue Book, in which he stated:
As you can imagine, we have been the subject of considerable ridicule since the Pentagon released its ‘final evaluation’ of our sighting of September 3, 1965. In other words, both Patrolman Hunt and myself saw this object at close range, checked it out with each other, confirmed and reconfirmed that it was not any type of conventional aircraft … and went to considerable trouble to confirm that the weather was clear, there was no wind, no chance of weather inversion, and that what we were seeing was in no way a military or civilian aircraft. It was absolutely silent with no rush of air from jets or chopper blades whatsoever. And it did not have any wings or tail … it lit up the entire field, and two nearby houses turned completely red.
Project Blue Book did not respond. In the meantime, John G. Fuller also called out the Air Force explanation as absurd, claiming that he too had seen the UFO and that it had in no way been a conventional aircraft of any kind, and in fact it was being chased by an Air Force jet fighter at the time. Raymond Fowler, the New England investigator for the National Investigations Committee On Aerial Phenomena (NICAP), also disagreed with the official explanation, and after much criticism and continued letters from Bertrand, the Air Force finally came forward and meekly admitted that “we have been unable to identify the object you observed on September 3, 1965.” They would also eventually issue an apology for the ridicule the three men had faced. Muscarello, Betrand, and Hunt have all since passed away, but for the rest of their lives they insisted that what they had seen at Exeter was no normal aircraft.
In the years since, the Exeter Area Kiwanis Club has hosted a yearly Exeter UFO Festival as a fundraiser for the organization’s charitable programs. It has remained a persitently talked about and debated piece of UFO lore, and there is much to ponder here. What did all of these otherwise rational and respectable people see out there? Was this misidentified celestial phenomena or military planes, or was it perhaps something else? Why did the Air Force so quickly try to brush it all aside only to later come forward and admit that they had no idea what was going on? Whatever the case may be, the case of the “Exeter Incident” has gone on to become one of the most talked about UFO flaps ever, and it remains a mystery.