Dec 24, 2007
Today we're going to pull a giant switch on the wall and activate powerful generators, which will create a mysterious force field around us and cause us all to disappear. For we're going to discuss the perennially silly "Philadelphia Experiment."
The story goes that in October of 1943, at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, an experiment was conducted aboard a US Navy Cannon-class destroyer escort called the USS Eldridge, number DE-173. The experiment involved the creation of a force field which rendered the ship invisible both to the eye and to radar. The experiment was witnessed by hundreds, possibly thousands, of sailors both ashore and on other ships nearby. Unfortunately, there were severe side effects to the crew on board ship. Some were found materialized inside the metal of the ship, others were never seen again, and still others were driven insane or plagued for years by mysterious cases of phasing in and out of existence. In typical Navy fashion, everything has been denied.
None of the above ever actually happened. What follows, did actually happen.
The secret of the mysterious experiment and its terrible aftermath was kept for 12 years, until one day when Morris Jessup, the author of a book about UFO's, was unexpectedly summoned to the US Navy's Office of Naval Research. The ONR had received, in the mail, a copy of Jessup's UFO book, filled with handwritten annotations. The notes were all in the same handwriting, but in three characters, in three colors of ink. The notes revealed all the details of the Philadelphia Experiment, and the ONR wanted to know if Jessup knew anything about who might have written these notes and sent the book to them.
Jessup recognized the crazy handwriting immediately. He had received a series of letters from a man calling himself Carlos Allende, who claimed to have witnessed the experiment from aboard a merchant marine ship nearby, the SS Andrew Furuseth. Jessup had dismissed Allende as a crackpot — among Allende's claims was that Albert Einstein had personally spent several weeks mentoring him on subjects such as invisibility and faster-than-light travel. Several copies of the annotated book were produced, and the rest is history: The Philadelphia Experiment story became part of the fabric of pop culture.
Robert Goerman, a researcher of the paranormal and a friend of mine, noticed that the return address of Allende's original mailing to the ONR came from his own home town, New Kensington, Pennsylvania. He had spent some time putting together the history of the Philadelphia Experiment story and in 1979, found to his great surprise that Carlos Allende, whose real name was Carl Allen, was the son of a close family friend. Over time, Goerman filled in the blanks and presented the complete case in magazine articles and on television shows such as History's Mysteries, Unsolved Mysteries, and The Unexplained — three show titles which by themselves lend far too much credence to Carl Allen's stories. Carl Allen was something of the dark horse of the family, a creative and imaginative loner, notorious for annotating anything and everything in the house, and sending bizarre writings and claims to everyone in the family for any occasion. Goerman also assembled all of the facts of the USS Eldridge: little things, like the ship was nowhere near Philadelphia when the experiment happened, the ship had detailed corroborated records for the normal duties that it was in fact performing at the time, and that nobody who had ever been a crewman on board the ship knew anything about any experiment. The Eldridge had been launched only two months before the experiment, and you'd think that if it was hosting Albert Einstein and the most amazing experiment in history, somebody would have known about it. Without exception, every single fact that Carl Allen presented as evidence of the Philadelphia Experiment has been easily proven to be a complete fabrication.
And therein lies the problem. The trouble with discussing government conspiracies is that the believers generally refuse to accept the factual evidence, because it becomes part of the conspiracy. It's a bit like having a debate about Creationism: believers simply say "God did it" and it's a matter of faith, not of evidence or fact. If the government is trying to cover something up, every falsified claim becomes evidence for the conspiracy. In summary, there is no amount of evidence that can be compiled that will be accepted by a conspiracy theorist. In the conspiracy theorist's mind, evidence against is actually evidence for.
Among this schizophrenic evidence is the US Navy's reply to the Philadelphia Experiment story, which is available online at http://www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq21-1.htm. As you might surmise, it simply says that they have no idea what this guy could be talking about, here's where both ships were and what they were doing at the time, and here are the statements from their officers. It's an entertaining report, but predictable.
Interestingly, there are some question marks left standing about the Philadelphia Experiment. As you might expect, two or three veterans of the Eldridge and the USS Engstrom, which was once moored alongside the Eldrige in 1943, have claimed to be a guy whom Allende saw disappear in a bar or who have found themselves transported across dimensions. It should be noted that such claims were made well after the Philadelphia Experiment became a pop-culture phenomenon, and in more than one case it turned out that these guys were not actually veterans at all. A more interesting question comes from the very genesis of the story, when the Navy ONR first summoned Morris Jessup to their office to talk about the strangely annotated book. If there was nothing in those annotations of genuine interest to them, why did they call?
Who knows. Goerman suggested that these ONR officers did this on their own time out of personal intrigue, or that some of the allusions in the annotations were similar to actual Navy research and the ONR was simply being responsible at following every lead. Conspiracy theorists maintain that this proves Allen's annotations must have been true. Whatever the truth, I happen to love that this story has this annoying little footnote that can't be easily explained away. I love a good mystery and I remember a streak of disappointment when Goerman's debunking of the case was laid out before me — like most people I'd done no thorough research of my own and only knew what the average moviegoer knows about the Philadelphia Experiment. Intellectually I know the story is silly, but I still love that little loose end. Carl Allen may have been a prankster, but I thank him for making the century just that little bit more interesting.