Editor’s note: This story is part of an occasional series about local items of historic, noteworthy or unusual significance gleaned from nearly two centuries of Telegraph and Macon News archives.
In the wee hours of August 31, 1973, police in Cordele, a south Middle Georgia town that straddles Interstate 75, radioed cops 60 miles away in Macon: Be on the lookout.
There was trouble — or something — on the way.
An item in the Macon News that afternoon divulged the essence of that 2:25 a.m. alert: “A UFO was heading toward Macon.”
Nearly half a century later, the dispatch sounds almost comical. These days, flying saucer sightings are not so plentiful. Rarely do they generate the public stirs they did in the 1970s, an era soon after space flight began, when the masses turned their eyes — and their imaginations — to the stars.
The early ‘70s saw a spike in reported extra-terrestrial flybys across the South. One of the most inexplicable in these parts came on that night in late August of 1973 when Georgia skies flashed with other-worldly wonder. The Telegraph described numerous eyewitness accounts of the sightings by firefighters and police officers who saw “multi-colored lights over various areas of Macon.”
Other sightings that night stretched from Albany to Atlanta. In Macon, a pair of police officers lent credence to the reports. Officer Robert Michael Barreth was in a squad car with officer H.E. Hathaway. They were on patrol near Central High School and they had heard radioed alerts about UFOs in the area.
As they cruised up Clisby Streeet, Barreth’s partner, officer Hathaway, glanced skyward and said, “Mike, there is one of those things.”
An account of what happened next was published that afternoon in the Macon News: The two officers watched the UFO for a few minutes and then called in. Barreth said they heard a call from car 65 at Westgate (Mall) with officers there saying they saw it too. Soon, at least seven officers were with Barreth looking at the lights. ... “There was no way to judge how high they were — they looked like they were just below the stars. They must have been bigger than a basketball — maybe the size of a car,” Barreth said. Four of the lights formed a perfect baseball diamond with three lights forming a tail.
The article went on to quote Barreth, 26 at the time, saying, “I’m glad someone saw it besides me. ... Yes, I believe in UFOs. There has got to be something to them.”
Another newspaper account said firefighters who were riding that night in “a Macon Fire Department unit” saw the same thing the officers did. The firefighters, the report added, chased the UFO “as far as Interstate 75 near Hartley Bridge Road and then lost it.”
Might the heavenly beacons have been weather balloons? Possibly, but the origin of that night’s sightings was never explained.
Other celestial spottings of note from past decades include these from around the region that were noted in Telegraph and Macon News articles:
September 1973: A farmer who lived outside Griffin, between Macon and Atlanta, “fired several shots at a gold, lighted flying object ‘as big as your head’ as it drifted towards his house and vanished into the ground,” UPI reported. The farmer, Roy Lawhorn, who was with his 5-year-old daughter, Donna, said he was hesitant about reporting the sighting “for fear of being considered a fool.” He said he heard “a sound like locusts” and saw bright lights before grabbing a rifle and firing three or four shots before the object disappeared.
October 1973: In Fitzgerald, southeast of Cordele, there were reports of “a strange light, larger than any star, moving around in the sky.” Ralph Smith, who worked at the Piggly Wiggly supermarket, heard a radio broadcast of the object and watched it disappear through a borrowed telescope.
August 1974: Police in southwest Macon’s Bloomfield area reported calls of UFO sightings, and an officer told a dispatcher, “I haven’t been drinking. I see something in the sky.” There was said to have been an object “of various colors” that seemed to “have wings but no tail like an airplane.” At least two police officers saw it and a pair of school security guards did too. The Macon News reported that the UFO “dipped below the tree level in the area of Agnes Barden School.” Then it rose and took off.
March 1980: The night of March 24, Benton Evans and his wife spotted what The Telegraph described as “a bright light in the sky” over the tiny Jones County town of James. The “colored lights” swung toward their house, and Evans, a retired lawyer, said whatever it was made “a hissing sound. ... Just a shhh, shhh sound from the rear of the thing.” James Balkcom, who had a grocery store nearby, also saw the lights, which he described as “huge, tremendous,” a white ball that strobed different colors “like a disco.” The object lingered for a few minutes before whizzing toward Macon.
May 1980: Doris Wrzesinski reported seeing a “grayish” UFO as she was driving one morning near the Jones County line. “It looked similar to a tadpole, but it was a little rounder and had a shorter tail,” Wrzesinski said. She thought it might be an airplane but then realized the silent craft was not. “It was kind of floating. ... It went over my car from the driver’s side to the other. ... It looked to be about the size of my steering wheel. It flew on, but I didn’t see where it went.” The Telegraph at the time placed a call to Lt. Norma Royal at Robins Air Force Base. “As far as she knew,” the newspaper reported, “the base did not pick up the UFO on radar.”