The Cairo Jaycees Flying Saucer Stunt of 1950

The Post Office Buildings in Cairo, Illinois. Photo by Michael Huntington – Spring, 2016.

by Michael Huntington
     At the very tip of Southern Illinois, where the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers meet, is the small town of Cairo (Kay-row). It was once a bustling, up-and-coming city at the trade junction of America’s biggest rivers. But, decades of economic decline, corruption, crime, and incessant flooding has decimated this once prosperous place – leaving behind some beautiful architecture amidst the numerous abandoned and boarded-up buildings. It feels like a ghost town at times – a locale where one might film an episode of the Walking Dead.
     During it’s hey-day in the 1950s, Cairo was the model American small town. Almost cliche, it reveled in it’s Americana: family, community, civic duty, church, patriotism, small-town values, a healthy dose of Cold War paranoia. The men bowled and attended Lodges, ladies tended to their households, children rode their bikes about the the neighborhood with little fear. Post War America. Baby boom.
     The culture of Cairo was led by it’s times, and in the post-War world of 1950, the times told tale of Buck Rogers and Flying Saucers flown by Weird Creatures from Outer Space Worlds. The influence also came from REAL stories being told – through the media and local grapevine – of recent encounters with strange discs in the sky. FLYING SAUCERS OVER AMERICA! The nation was a-buzzed by aliens psychologically and in reality. Kenneth Arnold, Roswell, the Mantell Crash – these were new flying saucer stories from recent years – all ablazed the pages of many-a-town’s newspapers and were sensationalized in the dominant media of radio. Sci-fi pulp magazines, no doubt, also contributed greatly to this climate. The May/June issue of Life Magazine, sure to be found on every coffee table and in the local barber shop, carried the now-famous McMinnville saucer photos by Paul Trent. Saucer talk was everywhere.
     But they knew it all was a joke, right? There are no Martians, right? And yes, to many it was all a joke and something to be made fun of, or something just for fun. A goof. But, those Commies were out there and maybe THEY were up to something…so we should keep watching the skies! Or maybe it’s a secret aircraft we have in secret – like those nukes and rockets we have, you know. Or maybe, just maybe – and especially to the young that would begin to mature in the coming decade – those Flying Saucers Are Real!
     On July 26, 1950, the news spread quickly through the streets of Cairo: a FLYING SAUCER with Little Green Men inside had landed or CRASHED down by the Post Office Building and it was being GUARDED by the Army! Folks headed down in droves and beheld what the rumors conveyed: a silvery disc on the Post Office lawn with four uniformed military personnel standing nearby, keeping the growing crowd from approaching too closely! No one (except maybe a few) knew what was really going on or what was happening at this curious scene. But, a carnival-like excitement was in the air and it was growing with each minute. Someone notified the Press…and calls started flooding into local police and military switchboards. What the heck is going on in Cairo? Have aliens landed? Are creatures from Another World invading Southern Illinois? 
     Okay, so…in actuality, those that did go down to “see the flying saucer” – and got close enough for a decent look – knew what was up after closer examination: the so-called “saucer” proved to be a man-made affair constructed out of maybe plywood, or perhaps sheet metal, and probably brushed with some shiny silver paint! The “craft” wasn’t a large vehicle by any means, it could provide maybe just enough room for a kid or two! It had a wire antenna coming out of the top…that looked like it was maybe just a stretched-out metal hangar! And the military cordon? Well, those fellas guarding the spaceship didn’t look like stiff-and-proper Army soldiers: their uniforms didn’t match, they didn’t have correct insignias and patches, their khakis seemed not to fit, and “hey, wait a minute, I think I bowl with that guy…or, isn’t that Mary’s boy? I didn’t know he was in the Army…I thought that kid was still in High School!”
     So it was a bunch of baloney. But what was up with all of this? Who was behind all of this and are they gonna get in trouble? WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN NEXT? This was entertainment gold for folks living in a small American town in 1950…there wasn’t much else to do. So they waited. Meanwhile, word still spread to other towns – by passersby traveling through Cairo – that there was a flying saucer in the town.
     After a few hours, when the time arrived (or maybe after being pressed to wrap it up by Authorities who had begun to think that maybe things were getting just a bit out of hand), there was finally some movement. A khaki-ed young guard broke ranks and walked towards the alien craft and proceeded to open the cardboard hatch which led into the saucer’s interior. Perhaps in a startled fashion, the soldier moved back away from the craft just as a small, green “Martian” leaped out – or slithered out – of the craft carrying a sign marked with a greeting of some kind! Moving towards the crowd, the “alien” – who was obviously just someone’s face-painted kid dressed in a jumpsuit adorned at the top with the short end of a couple of car antennas – held up the sign for all to read in plain-old American English: I FLEW DOWN FROM MARS JUST TO SEE THE JAYCEES MINSTREL SHOW!
     Yes, it was all a prank. A publicity stunt. But, within a day or two, the dust-up that this event caused for the region was made apparent. Word and rumors spread so quickly that the Army itself had to respond – and they were not happy with the prank. They suffered a deluge of inquiries and concerns, “thousands of phone calls,” many critical of the military for being involved in such a stunt (which they weren’t). A number of local papers wrote pieces detailing the whole affair…all unclear if any one was ultimately held responsible for this distracting “scare.” Eventually things went on as normal…the Jaycees held their show (at which I’m sure many chuckled, getting a big kick out of the whole ruckus that was caused) and the story faded into the past – becoming a handed-down tale, becoming an urban legend, becoming altogether forgotten.
     Looking back through the veil of history, perhaps we missed something, though. Maybe we overlooked the five men and women who, perhaps, watched the saucer prank unfold that day from across the street and who didn’t think that the affair was funny at all. You see these folks, just a few weeks before on June 28th, witnessed two shiny chrome discs fly across the skies of Cairo – hover for a time – and then speed off to the southwest towards the Missouri Bootheel. At least that is what was officially reported.
     But who knows for sure? Maybe they were actually in on the stunt and were laying the groundwork for the Jaycee event and all were in cahoots? Guesswork. Alas, such is the way with the past: long-dead stories, from long-dead people and all that is left now are old newspaper clippings that are but pieces of the puzzle… our re-tellings becoming stunts in their own right. The mystery forever remains, only occasionally to be dusted off and given a fresh coat of paint…maybe silver, like on Cairo’s home-made saucer from long ago. 



Just another bogus flying saucer “publicity stunt!”



Major General Harry L. Bolen, 44th National Guard: “I got thousands of phone calls…” – AP article



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