Rendlesham Forest UFO –
the witness statements Page 1 of 2
ON OTHER PAGES
Five of the main participants in the first night of the Rendlesham Forest UFO sighting (i.e. the early hours of 1980 December 26) made written statements for Col Halt in the days following the events. Three of these men (Penniston, Burroughs, and Cabansag) had gone into the forest, while the other two monitored their radio communications (Chandler and Buran). These statements allow us to trace the trio’s route into the forest and to reconstruct what they saw and did while they were there. The statements tell a consistent story of the pursuit of an unknown light which turns out to be more distant than first thought, and is eventually identified as the Orford Ness lighthouse. There is no mention of an encounter with a landed craft, no loss of radio communication, and no ‘missing time’, all of which have subsequently been added to the story by Penniston and Burroughs.
Paragraph 1 of Col Halt’s subsequent memo to the Ministry of Defence was based on these statements and his own interviews with the witnesses. Halt later presented the statements to Citizens Against UFO Secrecy (CAUS) from where they were obtained in 1997 by Scottish researcher James Easton, to whom I am grateful for providing these scans. Their authenticity has been confirmed by Col Halt, who annotated each with some personal comments about the authors. I have removed those, but they can be seen on the versions printed in Georgina Bruni’s book You Can’t Tell the People.
One of the statements is by the officer in charge at Central Security Control (CSC) on the night in question, Lt Fred ‘Skip’ Buran, who helped gather the statements from the others. It is sometimes alleged that the statements were deliberately toned down or sanitized, but Buran told me by email on 2007 December 30: ‘I did not ask anyone to edit their statements in any way. Had anything occurred other than what appeared in the statements, those facts should have been included.’
These statements, which can be found on the following page, should be read in conjunction with the report of the local Suffolk police who were called to the scene of the incident on the first night and again the following morning. The police found nothing unusual.
Some points of interest
Before turning to the original statements, a number of points are worth making about them and what they contain, particularly in view of the many stories that have grown up about the case since then.
1. The statements give the correct date for the sighting (December 26). This makes it even more surprising that Col Halt got the date wrong in his memo. Penniston’s statement is the exception, as it is undated (but see Point 5 below).
2. The only witness to claim he saw a mechanical object was Penniston. The others have only ever described seeing lights. During the incident, Penniston estimated that he got no closer than about 50 metres to the object and that every time he tried to approach it, it moved ahead of him. This was relayed at the time by radio to his supervisor, Master Sergeant Chandler, who confirms it in his own statement. There was no mention at the time of the much closer and extended encounter that Penniston has since claimed (see Point 5, below).
3. Col Ted Conrad, Halt’s superior officer, debriefed Penniston in the days after the event. Conrad told researcher David Clarke in 2010 June that Penniston confirmed that he did not get close enough to the object for a detailed look, confirming what Penniston said in his written statement. According to Conrad, Penniston said he followed the light through the trees to an open field whereupon it disappeared beyond a small rise in the direction of a farm house. That is consistent with the statements of Burroughs and Cabansag, although the detail about the farmhouse is not mentioned in Penniston’s own typewritten statement.
4. Burroughs and Cabansag confirm that they chased this unidentified light for about two miles before realizing what it was. Evidently they were not as familiar with the lighthouse as proponents of this case like to claim – see also Point 9 below. In an interview on The Paracast in 2009 Burroughs stated he had never been out in the woods before that night. Penniston and Cabansag were newly arrived on base and were no more familiar with the woods than he was (scroll to 08:40, 25:35 and 33:15 in the Paracast interview).
5. In more recent television interviews Penniston has exhibited a notebook in which he claims he made real-time notes and sketches of a landed craft for about 45 minutes (see picture below). However, there are serious problems with this claim. For one thing, the date in the notebook is December 27 and the starting time is noted as 12:20 (presumably meaning 00:20). This, as we know, does not accord with the established date and time. Burroughs, who was within a few yards of him throughout the incident and saw no craft, told me in an email on 2006 March 22: ‘Penniston was not keeping a notebook as it went down’. In a further email dated 2008 January 17 Burroughs emphasized: ‘Penniston did not have time to make any sketches in a note book while this was going on and did not walk around it for 45 min.’ Penniston now claims the date and time refer to a stream of binary digits he received telepathically and wrote down while at home the following day, but unfortunately that is not what the notebook shows.
6. Penniston’s statement and accompanying sketch map (reproduced on the next page) clearly refer to the ‘traditional’ landing site on the eastern side of the forest, where the supposed landing marks and tree damage were found and which the local police were called to see the following morning. However, on the Sci Fi channel programme mentioned above Penniston claimed there was a second landing site on the near side of the forest, only a few hundred yards from East Gate, where he approached and examined the craft. This site is not attested to by other witnesses and is not referred to in his original statement or sketch map. On the 30th anniversary of the event, in December 2010, Penniston dropped this alternative landing site in favour of one in the southern part of the farmer’s field. However, this does not accord with their story of taking a direct route towards the light, nor of seeing a light in line with the farmhouse that turned out to be the Orford Ness lighthouse.
7. In TV interviews, Burroughs and Penniston have said that the supposed object took off over the trees, but there is no hint of that in these statements, which simply refer to the light(s) moving through the trees and disappearing without explanation. Master Sergeant Chandler, who was at the edge of the forest monitoring events and would have been well placed to see anything taking off, says in his statement that he saw nothing at any time. In the more recent Paracast interview referred to above, Burroughs said it went up and back towards the coast (scroll to 21:35 into the interview). When another colleague, Chris Armold, visited the site with Burroughs about an hour later the lights were still visible in the distance (see Point 9).
8. According to Burroughs, the initial sighting of an object apparently coming down in the forest around 3 a.m. was made by Bud Steffens, with whom he was riding on patrol. Steffens did not go out into the forest and was not asked for a statement. Steffens has never spoken publicly about the event.
9. In addition to those who provided written witness statements, there was another significant participant in the events of Night One: Chris Armold, the USAF law enforcement officer who placed the call to the British police and later went out to see for himself what was happening. James Easton tracked him down in 1997. This is part of what Armold had to tell him:
I met Burroughs at the East Gate of WB [Woodbridge]. We left our guns with the guy riding with Burroughs and drove to the end of the long access road. We left our vehicle and walked out there.
There was absolutely nothing in the woods. We could see lights in the distance and it appeared unusual as it was a sweeping light, (we did not know about the lighthouse on the coast at the time). We also saw some strange colored lights in the distance but were unable to determine what they were.
Contrary to what some people assert, at the time almost none of us knew there was a lighthouse at Orford Ness. Remember, the vast majority of folks involved were young people, 19, 20, 25 years old. Consequently it wasn't something most of the troops were cognizant of. That's one reason the lights appeared interesting or out of the ordinary to some people.
Easton published the interview in full on his website (note: the original site has long disappeared; this link is to an archive version.) The first part of the linked page details the background and reaction to the initial release of the witness statements. Scroll down about two-thirds of the way to reach the section on Armold.
10. In 1998, Easton heard from Bernard Donahue, who at the time of the incident was Area Defense Counsel at Bentwaters with the rank of Captain, the lawyer charged with defending personnel charged with offences. He said: ‘Most of us on base were embarrassed by this “incident”. We didn’t believe the UFO hype for one minute. The next day, I personally read the Security Police Blotter [the Bentwaters police log] describing the incident in detail. It seemed to document hysteria rather than hard facts.’
11. In the days following the events of December 26 and 28, Halt and Penniston were debriefed separately by Col Ted Conrad, Halt’s boss. These were the only two witnesses Conrad talked to. It is sometimes claimed in UFO circles that the witnesses were subjected to interrogation by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI), including injections by the so-called ‘truth drug’ sodium pentothal. However, in 2010 January Col Conrad told researcher David Clarke that no investigations beyond his own had been conducted. Conrad stated: ‘There were no conspiracies, no secret operation, no missile accident, and no harsh interrogations by OSI. I was in a position to know about the OSI. They had their own chain of command, but in practice the OSI commander kept me informed of any ongoing investigations they had.’
Content last revised: 2021 January
© Ian Ridpath. All rights reserved
Jim Penniston’s notebook
The first page, shown here, is headed with the date ‘27 Dec 80’. Below is written ‘12:20. Response notes. A/C [i.e. aircraft] crash’. The rest is hidden behind his hand.
Penniston claims to have made these notes at the time of the incident. For a fuller discussion of this notebook and Penniston’s claims, see here.