05 October 2018

INVASION! An 80th Anniversary Tribute

If you were to ask any knowledgeable historian, “when was the last time the United States was invaded by alien forces?”, the answer you would get would probably be "sometime around 1916" when Francisco “Pancho” Villa invaded the United States and attacked the village of Columbus, New Mexico during the Mexican Revolution.

They would, however, not be entirely correct. Twenty-two years later, the United States of America was invaded again. This time New Jersey was targeted and by forces much more advanced than those of Pancho Villa. This time, the invasion was not stopped by a general or by the militia, but by a lone New Jersey State Trooper sitting “on the book” and answering phones at Department Headquarters in Trenton, New Jersey.

Trooper Vincent Mason reported for duty at 4:00 in the afternoon of October 30, 1938. All was quiet, the most exciting thing happening so far was an escape from the Skillman Village, an epileptic asylum just north of Hopewell. But then all hell broke loose.

The United States in 1938 was sitting on a precipice looking over the edge at a fast approaching war in Europe. Adolf Hitler had been in power since 1933 and had already advanced his nationalist army into Austria and Czechoslovakia. Who would be next? Would the Germans come here?

What of the Japanese? They had sent their imperial forces into China and wreaked havoc in Manchuria. Would the Japanese come here?

The question was, who would get here first?

My father, who was 19 years old at the time, remembered the anxious tension of that time. In an interview with him a few years before he died he told me that he remembered listening to the radio every night. “We would hear Hitler giving his speeches over in Germany at those rallies. Then all the Germans cheering and shouting ‘Heil Hitler!’ It was really scary!” International tensions were so heightened that the slightest utterance of the word “Boo!” could trigger a panic.

Then it came. INVASION!

It was 80 years ago on October 30, 1938. It began with huge flaming objects hurtling through the sky and crashing down in the countryside. According to the news being flashed on WCBS Radio, a “huge flaming object…fell on a farm in the neighborhood of Grovers Mill, New Jersey, twenty-two miles from Trenton…The noise of the impact was heard as far north as Elizabeth.”

WCBS reporter Carl Phillips was immediately dispatched to the scene of the invasion. The yellowish-white projectile – a huge cylinder” that had the diameter of thirty yards had hit the Wilmuth Farm in Grovers Mill. Phillips reported that it had struck the ground with such “terrific force…[that] it was half buried in a pit.”

Old man Wilmuth witnessed the object hurtling through the sky. In an interview with Carl Phillips, Mr. Wilmuth explained that he first heard a hissing sound “kinda like a fourt’ of July rocket.” As he turned to look out the window “I seen a kinda greenish streak and then zingo! Somethin’ smacked the ground. Knocked me clear out of my chair!”

Was this a new type of weapon developed by Hitler’s military machine? A prelude to the Nazi regime unleashing their infamous Blitzkrieg - Lightning War - on the United States? The crowds that had gathered by now would not have to wait long to find out – the object was beginning to make noise. It was described as a scraping sound of metal upon metal. Suddenly, a piece of the cylinder fell off with a bang. To the horror of the crowd, someone began to climb out of the metal canister!

The epitome of evil that was released from the object unleashed hell’s fury, firing a flame thrower into the unsuspecting gathering of curious onlookers. WCBS’s Carl Phillips reported the carnage until he, himself, fell victim to its wrath:

"I can make out a small beam of light against a mirror. What's that? There's a jet of flame springing from the mirror, and it leaps right at the advancing men. It strikes them head on! Good Lord, they're turning into flame! Now the whole field's caught fire. The woods . . . the barns . . . the gas tanks of automobiles . . . it's spreading everywhere. It's coming this way. About twenty yards to my right . . .

Sadly, Carl Phillips did not survive the invasion of 1938. He and at least forty other people died when their bodies were “burned and distorted beyond all possible recognition."

Once news of the invasion had reached Trenton, the Governor of New Jersey immediately placed the counties of Mercer and Middlesex under martial law, and put Brigadier General Montgomery Smith in charge of the state militia. No one was permitted to enter or exit the area "…except by special pass issued by state or military authorities."

The countryside was engulfed in flames. The technologically advanced flame thrower was described by Professor Pierson of Princeton University: "It is my guess that in some way they are able to generate an intense heat in a chamber of practically absolute nonconductivity. This intense heat they project in a parallel beam against any object they choose, by means of a polished parabolic mirror…much as the mirror of a lighthouse projects a beam of light. That is my conjecture…"

Reports issued by Captain Lansing of the signal corps were relayed by WCBS Radio. Lansing was attached “…to the state militia now engaged in military operations in the vicinity of Grovers Mill. Situation arising from the reported presence of certain individuals of unidentified nature is now under complete control… adequately armed with rifles and machine guns. All cause for alarm, if such cause ever existed, is now entirely unjustified…Anyway, it's an interesting outing for the troops. I can make out their khaki uniforms, crossing back and forth in front of the lights. It looks almost like a real war.”

Captain Lansing’s cavalier attitude did not last long because what has become known in some circles as The Battle of Grovers Mill ended “…in one of the most startling defeats ever suffered by any army in modern times; seven thousand men…one hundred and twenty known survivors. The rest strewn over the battle area from Grovers Mill to Plainsboro.” The enemy was now in control of the middle section of New Jersey and had effectively cut the state through its center.

“Communication lines are down from Pennsylvania to the Atlantic Ocean. Railroad tracks are torn and service from New York to Philadelphia discontinued except routing some of the trains through Allentown and Phoenixville. Highways to the north, south are clogged with frantic human traffic. Police and army reserves are unable to control the mad flight. By morning the fugitives will have swelled Philadelphia, Camden, and Trenton, it is estimated, to twice their normal population. At this time martial law prevails throughout New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania. “

Meanwhile, back at New Jersey State Police Department Headquarters in Trenton, Trooper Mason is single handedly putting an end to this terrifying "foreign invasion" simply by answering the telephone…over and over again throughout the night. As he noted in the Station Record for that evening,

"Between 8:30pm & 10pm received numerous phone calls as result of WABC [sic] broadcast this evening re Mars attacking this country. Calls included papers, police depts. Including N.Y.C. & private persons. No record kept of same due to working teletype & all the extensions ringing at same time. At least 50 calls were answered. Persons calling inquiring as to meteors, number of persons killed, gas attack, militia being called out & fires. All were advised nothing unusual had occurred & that rumors were due to a radio dramatization of a play."

Orson Welles was the brilliant mind behind the radio dramatization of the novel The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. He, most of all, was shocked when he learned about the fear and near panic his radio play instilled in the hearts of Americans. At the end of the broadcast he stepped out of character (he had portrayed the fictional Professor Pierson) to explain:

“that The War of The Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be. The Mercury Theatre's own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying Boo! Starting now, we couldn't soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night. . . so we did the best next thing. We annihilated the world before your very ears, and utterly destroyed the C. B. S. You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn't mean it, and that both institutions are still open for business. So goodbye everybody, and remember the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody's there, that was no Martian. . .it's Hallowe'en.”

It would be another three years before the United States would face another invasion. Once more there would be a radio broadcast. This time, however, it would be for real. This broadcast would not be delivered by Orson Welles; rather by a very angry and resolute Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the President of the United States.

“Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941 - a date which will live in infamy - the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan…”

Note: This article has been revised from the original, which was published on the 70th anniversary of the broadcast in 2008.
New Jersey State Police Department Headquarters. Station Record.
Pancho Villa Expedition. Wikipedia.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pancho_Villa_Expedition. As of October 28, 2008.
The War of the Worlds. Wikipedia.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_War_of_the_Worlds_(radio) As of October 28,
Welles, Orson. The War of the Worlds. Script.
http://www.sacred-texts.com/ufo/mars/wow.htm As of October 28, 2008.