Sputnikfest 2014


Rahr-West Art Museum - click HERE for more info!

Saturday, August 18, 2012

“Don’t you just hate people who drop in unexpectedly?”  So went the text on the poster for the 1966 move “The Russians Are Coming.”  The Russians dropped in on Manitowoc unexpectedly on September 5, 1962.    
   About 4:30 AM Central Time on September 5, 1962 Sputnik IV broke up and plunged to earth over Wisconsin.  Law enforcement officers in Eagle River Wisconsin reported seeing “24 flaming pieces flash across the sky.”  A bus driver traveling between Escanaba and Green Bay saw the spectacle and recounts “As we watched, the lights began to spread out, one behind the other.  I continued to drive south until I was about a half mile from the intersection of highways 41 and 141.  The time was about 5:00 AM.  The lights became brighter and we counted 25 or 30 of them passing almost directly over the bus; they were traveling at a great rate of speed.  As the first one disappeared over the bus, I looked out the windshield, but could not see them.  I looked out the left side window and saw them in the direction of Manitowoc.”
   Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Wisner of Kellnersville on their way to milk cows, saw objects in sky and heard five explosions.  The Reverend Vernon Anderson’s wife was awakened by the sound of an impact, but after going to the window and not seeing anything she went back to bed. 
   At 5:45 AM Manitowoc police officers Marvin Bauch and Ronald Rusbolt saw something laying in the road in front of the museum.   An hour later, at 6:45 AM they took another look, realized it was metal and decided to pick it up to get it out of the street.  Finding it too hot to handle, they pushed it to curb with their feet, assuming it was a piece of slag fallen off a truck from one of the local foundries.  At noon they heard news reports of the re-entry of the satellite and went back to recover the piece. It was brought to the police station, where a fire department Geiger counter was used to determine the item did not have a dangerous radioactive reading.  Government authorities were notified and police barricaded the area, awaiting arrival of officials from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington who took custody of the item.  The piece was flown to government labs at Los Alamos for testing, which confirmed it was part of Sputnik IV. 
   In the days following the event additional smaller pieces of debris were found in the area, including on the property of the nearby Lutheran Church, with several pieces recovered on the church annex roof. 
   These improbable events plunged Manitowoc into the Space Age and made international headlines.  It was voted The Top News Story of the year in Manitowoc for 1962.  The question as to just how to commemorate the event for posterity is something that has been struggled with for many years.  Immediately following the crash someone actually suggested changing the name of the city to Sputnik, Wisconsin.   One prescient alderman suggested observing September 5 each year as “Aero-Space Day” in Manitowoc.  Other Aldermen saw no reason to “pay tribute to a piece of aerial garbage made in Russia” or have anything to do with “anything communistic.” 
    We have to remember that these events took place during the height of the Cold War – the “Red Scare” was a very real thing to Americans in those days.  In fact, “Red Nightmare” – an anti-communist propaganda Armed Forces Information Film was shown on American television in 1962.  It is posted below, if you are interested - a little under a half-hour long and very "Twilight-Zone-esque." (Narrated by Jack Webb - of "Dragnet" fame - and watch for a brief appearance by Robert Conrad, who would later star in the popular sixties show "The Wild Wild West.")
    A brass ring was placed in the street in 1964 to mark the site of the impact and in 1987 a stone marker was placed in the curb between the sidewalk and the street.  See the brass ring and the stone marker up close – and be here and help us “pay tribute to a piece of aerial garbage made in Russia” – we promise it’s nothing "communistic."    See you on September 8! Planet Terry

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