LEXINGTON, KY (FOX 56) — Saturday marks the 75th anniversary of the death of Thomas Mantell in what is now known as the Mantell UFO incident.
Mantell, born on June 30, 1922, in Franklin, was a U.S. Air Force officer and World War II veteran who airdropped the 101st Airborne Division into Normandy on D-Day.
He also won a Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions during Operation Market Garden, which was a military operation executed over the Netherlands in September 1944 with the goal of creating an invasion route for allied forces into northern Germany.
Flash-forward to 1948, Mantell was serving in the Kentucky National Guard as a fighter pilot when he was called to investigate strange claims of an unidentified flying object.
Kentucky State Police Highway Patrol said at 1:20 p.m. on Jan. 7 troopers were taking a number of calls about a flying object over Maysville. Additional reports came in from Madisonville, Owensboro, and Irvington.
Mantell was asked to investigate at 2:45 p.m., as the object was reportedly hovering for a while before resuming what witnesses described as a very slow-moving flight. Reports indicated the object was circular and about 250 to 300 feet in diameter.
According to the NICAP, Mantell radioed Godman Tower at Fort Knox and said “I see something above and ahead of me and I’m still climbing.” He was credited with describing the object as metallic and “tremendous in size.”
Mantell continued climbing with the object in his P-51 plane up to 20,000 feet.
Mantell’s grandson, Terry Mantell, spoke with FOX 56 and confirmed Mantell told his men to go back to base and arm the plane with hot guns, a military term which means prepare to fire.
Randle reported that at 3:10 p.m. Mantell was the only pilot left and had climbed to around 23,000 feet in the air. The NICAP reported Godman Tower lost sight of the object by 3:50 p.m. and received word Mantell had crashed and died a few minutes later.
Randle’s report indicated Mantell was believed to have lost consciousness due to lack of oxygen at around 25,000 feet and began a spiraling dive to the surface shortly after.
He crashed to the ground just south of Franklin near the Kentucky-Tennessee border and died.
Mantell was wearing a watch during his pursuit of the object and a watch was found on his body at the crash scene. It was said to have stopped at 3:18 p.m., which is believed to be the time his plane crashed.
As to what Mantell was pursuing, the Air Force released an official report connecting the object identified as a weather balloon affiliated with the Navy’s research into atmospheric radiation under Project Skyhook.
Another Air Force report speculated Mantell might have been chasing the planet Venus. This was largely debunked by 1952 after Dr. J. Allen Hynek, an astronomer at Ohio State University, affirmed Venus wasn’t bright enough to be seen.
Terry has qualms with how his grandfather’s legacy has been handled.
“For him to come back home from World War II and die the way he did was very painful, and the government has not done Thomas justice,” Terry told FOX 56. “He wasn’t some crop-duster joyriding who saw a UFO, he was instructed by Fort Knox to chase this thing and check it out.”
Mantell after death
Mantell was survived by his wife, Peggy, and their two sons, Thomas and Terry Mantell. A historical marker was erected to honor Mantell in Franklin off I-65.
He was buried in the Zachary Taylor National Cemetary in Louisville.
A special thanks to Kevin Randle and his report “An Analysis of the Thomas Mantell UFO Case” and the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP) for their contributions to this story.