Capt. Thomas Mantell Jr.

Jim Heald

The Ashland Beacon


   There was something in the sky on January 7, 1948, that got a lot of attention from the Kentucky Highway Patrol. Near Madisonville, an object reported to be approximately 250 to 300 feet in diameter was seen traveling in a westerly direction. People in Owensboro and Irvington reported seeing the object, as well.

   In the early afternoon, a sergeant at Fort Know was on duty in the control tower at Godman Army Airfield at Ft. Knox when he saw the object. Other witnesses of the event included the base commander, Col. Guy Hix.

   The object got around the area, as it was seen at the Clinton County Army Air Field and the Lockbourne Army Air Field, both located in Ohio.

   During a training mission, four fighters from the 165th Fighter Squadron of the Kentucky Air National Guard were sent to investigate the reports.

   Captain Thomas Mantell, flight leader of "C" Flight, was piloting one of the F-51D "Mustang" fighters.

   Thomas Francis Mantell Jr. was born on June 30, 1922, in Franklin, Kentucky. About two weeks before his 20th birthday he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. After completing flight training, the newly commissioned officer was assigned to the 96th Troop Carrier Squadron of the 440th Troop Carrier Group. He flew members of the 101st Airborne into Normandy on June 6, 1944.

   On Sept. 18, the second day of the invasion of Holland, Lt. Mantell piloted a C-47 "Skytrain" named Vulture's Delight. As he towed a glider to the drop zone, his plane came under heavy anti-aircraft fire. The elevator and rudder controls were damaged and the tail of the Skytrain was on fire, and yet he stayed on course to the drop zone and completed his mission. He then flew the plane back to England. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism as well as the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters for aerial achievement.

   After World War II ended, Mantell returned to Kentucky and joined the Kentucky Air National Guard which was being formed prior to the establishment of the United States Air Force.

   Mantell switched from transport planes to fighters, and trained to fly the P-51D "Mustang," and was assigned to the 165th Fighter Squadron. He was also promoted to the rank of captain.

   The four fighters were in communication with Sgt. Quinton Blackwell, the first witness of the object over Godman Airfield. One plane reported being low on fuel and returned to base. Soon after, one of the other pilots reported an oxygen shortage. Both pilots returned to base after reaching the altitude of 22,500 feet. That left Mantell chasing the object, climbing to 25,000 feet where things turned sideways rather quickly.

   Due to the lack of oxygen (hypoxia), Mantell blacked out, resulting in the plane crash near Franklin, Kentucky.

   There have been many attempts to explain what it was that was seen over Kentucky that day. Some military officials insisted that it had been the planet, Venus. Others speculated that it was a Skyhook weather balloon, which during this time was a classified project. A third explanation was that Mantell, who had over 2000 hours of flight time, didn't have enough experience flying the Mustang. To date, no explanation for what the object was has been given.

   Mantell was the first casualty for the Kentucky Air National Guard. He was buried in Zachary Taylor National Cemetery in Louisville.