Just before 10 AM on July 16, 1952, U.S. Coast Guard photographer Shell R. Alpert sighted four luminous objects in a “V” formation outside his photo lab window in Salem, Massachusetts.
Alpert quickly grabbed the camera he was cleaning, which was on his desk. He was unsure if it had any film in it, but, luckily it did. Perplexed by what he was seeing, he suddenly noticed that the lights were suddenly dimming. Alpert then ran outside and called in a colleague, Thomas E. Flaherty. They went back into the photo lab, which is where Alpert took the now-famous photo. Due to Alpert’s occupation in 1952, it is considered an official U.S. Coast Guard photo.
Alpert described the sighting by stating, “I was sitting in the photo office filing negatives with my back toward the window when I turned slightly in the direction of the window and noticed something bright outside. I observed the sky and saw what appeared to be several bright, almost brilliant lights slightly on the starboard side of the power plant smokestacks.“
(Shell R. Alpert with his camera)
The story of Alpert’s photo made waves as it was told in newspapers throughout the U.S. by the end of July 1952. Many papers reported that the Air Force was checking on the authenticity of the image. Attention on the saucers was at its highest when a Pentagon press conference was held on July 29, 1952, with General John A. Samford speaking publicly on the phenomena. This historic conference featured Donald Keyhoe and was the result of numerous sightings of unidentified aerial phenomena in Washington, D.C., just weeks after Alpert’s photo was taken in Salem.
Samford did not address any cases specifically; however, his face was featured in several newspapers that reported on the Salem sighting. In almost every report, it was stated that the Air Force assured that the objects were no menace and posed no danger. Many reported that the objects were merely the result of weather phenomena or optical and radar illusions.
After he turned the photo over to his superior, Alpert was told to classify it as top-secret. He was then visited by Air Force officials, intelligence officers, and even a Harvard astrophysicist. Alpert recalled the experience by saying, "these people interviewed me till I was going out of my head."
With no other earthly explanation at the time, Alpert and Flaherty believed that what they sighted were just reflections from nearby cars or the ocean.
Although he never said he saw a flying saucer, Alpert was eventually pushed to the point of making a statement recanting his initial encounter. He said, "I cannot, in all honesty, say that I saw objects or aircraft, merely some manner of lights." Some believed the whole ordeal was hoaxed; however, the source of the objects has been determined as "unidentified."