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Decades later, two military veterans still awed by the black swan
With an assist from cousin Dennis Force, Bill Schroeder mapped out the scenario of their reality-altering evening of March 31, 1967.
Fifty-six years later, they no longer shy away from a story they once feared might’ve wrecked their civilian careers. In 2016, they put it on the record in a book called Unknown Down, by Jack Roth. And as they reconvened for a recent retelling at a bayfront eatery in Palmetto, details from that white-knuckle spring night in south Florida flashed back in fresh gestures and flourishes.
The enormity of it all informs their cynicism over recent public optimism about military transparency concerning UFOs.
“Can you imagine the U.S. Air Force or Space Force or whoever the hell, going on TV and saying yes, there’s unknown vehicles flying over the United States all the time but we can’t do anything about it?” Bill Schroeder scoffed. “It’s never gonna happen.”
“It’s just a show to make everybody happy,” said Dennis Force of formal congressional inquiries into UFOs. “They’re not going to get the truth.”
But as unforgettable as were the events of March 31, 1967, the full scope of what happened that evening wouldn’t register until more than 40 years later, when the two military veterans were winding up their civilian careers in collaring crooks and murderers. Force was with the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation. Schroeder spent 27 years in law enforcement, largely working homicides with various agencies.
“We’d always thought there was one group (of UFOs) we were looking at, because Dennis had said yeah, I’ve got four targets and I said yeah, I’ve painted four targets too. Then, when we finally started breaking out maps to plot it all out,” Schroeder recalled, “I said mine were here. And Dennis said no, mine were here. This is in 2010, OK? And then, after comparing notes, we went, holy shit, there were two groups!”
Tossed in a wave
But there was more. Within a week of their hair-raising encounters, a UFO wave splashed across southeast Florida, often in broad daylight, engaging hundreds of witnesses. Local media jumped on it. On April 1 at Crestview Elementary School near Hialeah, the Miami Herald reported, “Little girls screamed, boys pointed, and teachers followed anxious fingers to the object above the treetops.”
Long after they left the military, Force and Schroeder would also discover they might well have been on the front end of a deadly UFO encounter that could’ve triggered an international Cold War incident. It involved a Cuban MiG-21 in March 1967, when the jet and its pilot were lost in pursuit of an unknown.
What gave Schroeder and Force their cross-referenced perspectives were family ties – they’re close cousins, less than two years apart in age. Today, outside Tampa, they live just miles apart.
In March ’67, Force was attached to the USAF’s 644th Radar Squadron in Homestead; some 120 miles to the south, Schroeder was on duty with B Battery, an Army HAWK surface-to-air missile unit in Key West. Around 10:30 on a slow evening on the last day of the month, things went sideways.
Force was on the phone with his cousin when he put Schroeder on hold to take a call from North American Air Defense Command, requesting the duty officer. Force listened in as NORAD alerted the 644th to the approach of a formation of eight bogeys they’d been tracking from Canada, now closing in on Miami airspace at high speeds, maybe 1,500 mph.
Keeping Schroeder posted, Force watched the blips leave tadpole tails on the scopes at Homestead with each sweep of the radar. From his perch inside the Battery Control Center (BCC) down south, Schroeder began searching for the intruders on pulse-acquisition radar (PAR). Both were certain they had locked onto the same targets – both sets of bogeys were moving in the same methodical manner, traveling from west to east, then north to south, then back again.
In pursuit of empty space
“PAR doesn’t give you speed, but in my mind, they were subsonic at this point, maybe 550 miles an hour,” said Schroeder. “But it was the same pattern I’d seen the Coast Guard use many times when they’re looking for lost ships. They flew back and forth, cover X number of miles, then go back to a different corner of the grid and start all over again. But these guys weren’t banking; I mean, it was bang! They never stopped, they just made these impossible turns — anyone aboard would’ve turned to Jell-O — and went the other way.
“It was like they were running a search-and-rescue operation.”
Force was watching the same scenario unfold; only, his four targets were running patterns in the Atlantic, anywhere from three to 60 miles offshore, spanning Fort Lauderdale to Biscayne Bay. Meanwhile, Schroeder’s B Battery PAR was tracking an entirely different set of objects southwest of Force’s concentration. Schroeder’s four targets also stayed over water, from Florida Bay into the Gulf of Mexico.
With B Battery techs priming the HAWKs for launch, just in case, the Air Force dispatched three F-4 Phantoms from Boca Chica to challenge the bogeys. As the interceptors headed north out of the Keys, Force and Schroeder watched the UFOs simultaneously blink off their screens. “They didn’t disappear in a lateral direction, they just disappeared, like they went straight up or straight down into the water,” Force recalled.
In fruitless pursuit of empty space, the jets headed back to base after 15 minutes. And that’s when the UFOs popped hot again. They resumed their repetitive grid-pattern activities – until one of them over the Gulf broke formation and made a beeline towards Key West.
“I have another radar system called the illuminator, used for missile targeting, which gives me speed, altitude and all that crap,” Schroeder said. “We got the crew into the J box to keep them from getting fried when the fighters launch, and he’s, I don’t know, maybe 35 miles out. He’s heading straight at me and starting to slow down and I put the cursor on him and in my mind, I’m going, I’ve got you now, sucker. And as soon as I hit that friggin’ radiate button – oh boy!
“The whole system shut down, the whole thing, the whole system went dark, midnight dark, and the BCC was black. There was just me in there, and everyone in the ready room came running out because the power was gone.
“My launcher sergeant came up and said, ‘Bill, what was that?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know, man, but it wasn’t from around here!’ He said it went right overhead, it looked like a meteor but it was flying level, how the hell could that happen? I said, ‘Man, I have no idea.’ But basically, it hit us with ECM – electronic countermeasures. He knew he’d been locked in on and he shut us down.”
Meanwhile, in Homestead, having lost contact with his cousin, Force watched the bogeys on his screen accelerate east and vanish over the Atlantic.
Just forget about it
The next day, Force and his roughly 16-man radar team were debriefed by a major and “two men dressed in suits,” whom he assumed to be FBI. He said they were all informed they had witnessed a NORAD exercise, and were threatened with imprisonment if they talked about it. All radar data was confiscated.
In Key West, Schroeder’s squad was informed by superiors that they had been spoofed by a NORAD test – so shut up and forget about it.
Within three months, Force was transferred to an Air Force base in Newfoundland. “I was top secret crypto and they had me doing DJ work on the radio,” he said.
Within three months, Schroeder was transferred to South Korea. “On the plane on the way over, I saw a sergeant who was with me at B Battery – he’d been down there with us because he was a language specialist who was doing Russian interceptions in Cuba,” Schroeder said. “Anyway, they made him a mess sergeant, and I was a launcher crew mechanic and they sent me to be a dog handler with the military police. That tickled the shit outta me.”
Force and Schroeder didn’t see each other again until a Thanksgiving reunion in Florida. The 3/31/67 incident came up only briefly before they dropped it. In fact, largely due to professional concerns, they were reluctant to discuss it among themselves, even after they left the military.
“Can you imagine, back then,” Schroeder said, referring to his career as a homicide investigator, “a criminal defense attorney saying, ‘Oh, so you saw a flying saucer in 1967?’ . . .”
But the case took a twist in 1978, when an Air Force specialist who’d served with the 6947th Security Squadron at Homestead AFB told UFO researcher Stan Friedman about having eavesdropped on Cuban military air traffic in March 1967, exact date unspecified. In what became known as the Cuban MiG incident, two Soviet-made jets on patrol were ordered to confront a bogey piercing Cuban airspace in a southbound direction, at 33,000 feet.
Americans monitoring the communist island’s air defense chatter tuned in as the MiGs closed to within five miles of the UFO, described as a bright metallic sphere with no visible markings. No sooner had one pilot announced he had a weapons lock-on than his startled wingman reported the lead plane was falling apart and going down. The survivor was ordered back to base.
As part of the Air Force Security Service, the 6947th sent a formal intelligence report to the National Security Agency, but was given no receipt in return. Upon requesting an acknowledgement, the 6947th was ordered by the NSA to forward all data to the Agency, and allegedly told to attribute the loss of the MiG to equipment malfunction.
Dennis Force, left, and Bill Schroeder say the magnitude of the technology they witnessed prohibits the Pentagon from hosting an honest conversation about UFOs.
The controversy wound up with National Enquirer reporter Robert Todd getting a visit from the FBI, and a futile attempt by the nonprofit Citizens for UFO Secrecy to pry documentation from the NSA. But given the southbound trajectory of the UAP as it approached B Battery on 3/31/67, plus the disabling of his unit’s electronics, Schroeder said “I would rate my confidence at 80 percent” that the destruction of the Cuban MiG was part of the same event.
After retiring from his civilian career, Schroeder joined NICAP and became a Florida field researcher for MUFON. He has cultivated significant leads over the years and taped interviews with former NORAD operators from Alaska to Louisiana to Florida. “I’ve even got a (NORAD) guy who has given me his testimony (about UFO activity) as a dying declaration,” Schroeder said. “That’s evidence – that’s evidence you can use in court.”
Even so, he and Force have shrugged off lawmakers’ attempts to part the veil, however well intentioned. Schroeder consoles himself with having borne witness to a once-in-a-lifetime black-swan encounter, when he was just a kid in the Army and the world was undiscovered. It reminds him of a passage from Richard Bach’s 1970 novella Jonathan Livingston Seagull. He recited a classic exchange between two seagulls almost verbatim, but the entire quote goes like this:
“You will begin to touch heaven, Jonathan, in the moment that you touch perfect speed. And that isn’t flying a thousand miles an hour, or a million, or flying at the speed of light. Because any number is a limit, and perfection doesn’t have limits. Perfect speed, my son, is being there.”
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