The Philadelphia Experiment is one of the most enduring paranormal conspiracy theories in American history. In this episode we examine this theory, its sociological and cultural impact, why the Pentagon refused to help make a movie based on the story, and why it has persisted for so long.
Today we’re going to take a hard left turn and look at something a little different, mostly for fun but also because there is a point to this, which I’ll get to at the end.
I assume most of us heard at least something about the Philadelphia Experiment years ago, but for anyone who needs a reminder, this is the alleged US Navy experiment in World War Two which supposedly rendered the USS Eldridge invisible. And/or teleported it to Norfolk and back, which is over 200 miles. And possibly transported it to another dimension where the crew met some aliens or ultraterrestrials or somesuch.
Of course, I do not believe this story but this is one of those paranormal conspiracy theories that I find quite entertaining, and relatively harmless. The experiment supposedly took place in late October 1943, though some accounts say this was a followup to experiments carried out over that summer. As the story goes, the USS Eldridge was fitted with special equipment by the Office of Naval Research (who didn’t actually exist at the time), in the Philadephia shipyard. It was then rendered invisible, or semi-invisible, and possibly transported to Norfolk and back, possibly travelling through time by a few minutes in the process.
On the fact of it, this doesn’t sound very plausible, and according to the records the Eldridge was never in Philadelphia in October 1943, and the ship whose crew supposedly saw it appear and then disappear near Norfolk, Virginia wasn’t actually in Norfolk at the time. The two ships were never closer than 1500 nautical miles apart during this period, so the notion that anyone on board the second ship could have witnessed any of this is – according to the Navy – completely untrue.
But of course, if ships are teleporting around then official records of where they were and when are an irrelevance – for one thing, the Navy would have fabricated those records if they were covering up the experiment, and for another if teleportation and time travel are possible then that renders any linear account of spacetime a little dubious. If we ignore the official records, which is fine by me, then we’re left with a very strange story of largely anonymous witnesses, the key one of which appears to be mentally unwell, though that doesn’t necessarily mean that what he claimed isn’t true.
The tale begins in 1955, when Morris K Jessup published his book The Case for the UFO, wherein he made arguments for the existence of UFOs and speculated about what kind of exotic propulsion systems they might have. He subsequently received two letters from a ‘Carlos Miguel Allende’, who claimed to have witnessed the Philadelphia Experiment. ‘Allende’ said the ship was teleported to New York (not Norfolk) and back, sent to another dimension where it encountered aliens, and was sent through time. His letters said that several sailors died during these experiments, including be being fused with the ship’s hull.
If this is all starting to sound a bit like Event Horizon and The Cloverfield Paradox, that’s not a coincidence. These two letters have had a massive impact on popular culture, and are the origin for the entire theory about the Philadelphia Experiment.
Jessup dismissed ‘Allende’, and didn’t believe a word he said, and I can see why. How do events that happened during 1943, involving a Navy ship that should have been witnessed by hundreds of people, stay secret for 12 years before being revealed in two letters sent by a man using a pseudonym? Maybe you can shut up the sailors on the Navy ship, fake the records, do an official cover-up, but what about the other witnesses? Presumably this ‘Allende’ character was not the only person to have seen this happen, if it did happen.
A couple of years later, Jessup was contacted by the Office of Naval Research, who said they’d received an annotated copy of his UFO book. In the margins there were writings in three different shades of pink ink, apparently a correspondence or exchange between three people, discussing the merits and demerits of Jessup’s work and talking in an authoritative tone about peoples from outer space.
Jessup examined the annotations and concluded that at least one of these three people was ‘Allende’, since the handwriting style and comments were very similar. Ultimately, it seems the Navy concluded all three people were, in fact, ‘Allende’. Amusingly, according to the Wikipedia page on all this it was ‘Allende’ himself who claimed that the Navy paid for a short print run of the annotated edition of Jessup’s book. But in a file from the Suid archive there are internal military documents referring to this edition of the book, so it definitely happened. A couple of years after this, Jessup killed himself, having struggled to publish further books about UFOs.
Aside from one fairly generic book about paranormal events, which recounted the version from the annotations on Jessup’s book, not a lot was published on this story until 1978, when the novel Thin Air came out. It tells a fictional story of a Naval Investigative Service detective who looks into wartime invisibility experiments and stumbles onto a conspiracy involving matter transmission technology.
The following year Charles Berlitz and William Moore published The Philadelphia Experiment: Project Invisibility – the first supposed expose of the experiment, largely based on the ‘Allende’ letters to Jessup, but also plagiarising many fictional plot points from Thin Air and passing them off as fact. ‘Allende’, who also called himself ‘Carl M Allen’ in some of his correspondence, was identified as a mentally unwell man with a history of fabrication.
Despite this fairly resounding rebuttal, the Philadelphia Experiment remains a subject of interest. In 1984 there was a movie of that title, which spawned a sequel in 1993, and in 2012 there was another film version. Likewise, there have been documentaries exploring this conspiracy theory and claim of a paranormal event, and there are endless youtube videos talking about it. Despite being widely considered a hoax, and being largely irrelevant to the modern world even if it was true, interest in the Philadelphia Experiment has persisted.
Media Breakdown: Youtube and The Philadelphia Experiment
Naturally, my interest in this story has persisted, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing and talking about this, but I’m not interested in it in the sense of wondering whether it is true – like most conspiracy theories, I’m fairly sure this isn’t a true tale. What I find somewhat captivating is how people are still reacting strongly to this, when there’s basically nothing at stake. So let’s look at some typical examples of modern reactions to the Philadelphia Experiment.
We’ll start with a not very hot take from We Are The Mighty, which is one of those ‘news and commentary’ outlets which is obviously a front for the US military. Unlike Task and Purpose, which often offers a critical perspective on military life, foreign policy and the like, We Are The Mighty says nothing that couldn’t have come from a DOD PR office, and it’s the same with this video.
There are a few things I want to pick up on here – first, that they branded this theory ‘creepy’. Not ‘misleading’ or ‘factually baseless’, but ‘creepy’. They’re trying to instigate an emotional response, not just to this specific theory but towards the entire category of conspiracy theories involving the military. As though the military never conspires and then covers things up. I can’t wait for their upcoming video on the My Lai Massacre.
The presenter brings up the striking imagery of bodies being fused together with the hull of the ship, and attributes the theory’s longevity to this, by way of Jacques Vallée’s analysis. Certainly, this is true, the human mind’s imprinting function is very powerful, once an impression has been made on a person it can remain for the rest of their life.
However, I think there are some other reasons for the lifespan of the Philadelphia Experiment theory. One is that it supposedly involved Albert Einstein, or at least his Unified Field Theory, a theory he never actually completed. Einstein has an almost mystical place in Western history, as though he was some sort of magi unlocking the secrets to the universe, rather than just a very intelligent guy who helped move maths and physics forwards. Same with Tesla – the myths we’ve built up around these men means that their names alone add credibility.
For example, if I told you that physicist Sean Carroll at Caltech was developing a time travel machine, you’d probably ask me who Sean Carroll is. He’s quite famous, but still, most people don’t know him. Tricia interviewed him for our superhero movie book because he consulted on several Marvel films, and he has a very good podcast, but nonetheless, his name doesn’t add much plausibility to the claim.
Whereas if I said that Einstein or Tesla were developing a time travel machine, a lot more people would find that instantly compelling, they’d be more prone to believing it. It’s the same with the Philadelphia Experiment. It is true that Einstein was working with the US military in WW2, though officially that was on explosives and munitions, not invisibility cloaks or teleportation.
I do want to pick up on a couple of other things from the video – the presenter says that Jessup became obsessed with the letters from ‘Allende’, but that isn’t true. She then calls him ‘disturbed’ and recounts how he took his own life, when in reality it was due to problems with his publisher and in his personal life. Again, it’s this characterisation of fringe researchers as emotionally disturbed crackpots – certainly true some of the time, but not when it comes to Jessup.
Also, she notes that it was possible to quickly travel from Philadelphia to Norfolk and back, as though that somehow explains how the Eldridge was somehow seen at Norfolk in late October 1943. But it never made that journey in that period, according to its logs and action reports, so this is just a misleading and silly distraction.
So this is a typical example of a video seeking to debunk the Philadelphia Experiment theory by largely reiterating the Navy’s version of events. Let’s go to the other end of the spectrum, the Lady White Rabbit youtube channel, where she talks about various paranormal and otherwise edgy or fringe topics.
I do like how she openly admits she enjoys the emotional nature of this story, and this isn’t really a video claiming the theory is true. The presenter mentions the oft-repeated explanation that the Navy were trying to make ships invisible to magnetic mines and torpedoes, and this may be the origin of the story about a green fog and other weirdness at the shipyard in Philadephia.
But this degaussing shouldn’t have produced a green fog, as far as I can tell, or visually disguised the ship at all. So this may be more an issue of a rumour mill within the military – a sailor in Philadelphia hears about invisibility experiments, tells an old school friend who is posted in Norfolk, he then tells someone else and through the creative magic of Chinese whispers, this becomes a vastly different story.
But this doesn’t explain why no one said anything about this rumour for a decade after the war, or why no one came forward publicly after it gained media coverage and then became a movie in the 70s and 80s. All those sailors in the 20s and 30s during the war would have been in their 60s and 70s by that time, a lot of them would have still been alive. And yet no one has been able to find a single, nameable witness.
Likewise, these stories about horrifically injured sailors, people who went insane, caught fire, got fused with the ship, went invisible. Supposedly, some of the sailors periodically suffered involuntary invisibility for years after the experiment. And yet, no records of these injuries have become available, not a single person suffering from any of this has spoken out, no one who knew the sailors on the Eldridge at the time have said anything about them randomly disappearing or phasing in and out of visibility.
All of which leads me back to the issue of why this seemingly totally baseless theory still has some kind of cultural capital. Aside from the reasons we’ve already looked at, another possibility occurs to me. What if this is a weaponised conspiracy theory, invented and propagated by the US Navy themselves?
This is one of the explanations about Roswell and the entire UFO – reverse engineered experimental aircraft story, whereby the crashed UFO from Roswell contained technology that the Navy and/or Air Force have used to create experimental fighter aircraft, and that is what most people are seeing when they see UFOs. The suggestion is that these ideas have been encouraged, especially by the Air Force, as a form of intimidation propaganda, a kind of warning to Russia or China about ultra-hi-tech secret weaponry in the US arsenal.
To illustrate this point, here’s a clip from the History’s Mysteries episode on the Philadelphia Experiment:
Notice the name-dropping of Einstein, the shocking tale of the injuries suffered by the sailors on board the Eldridge, and the characterisation of the story. Bear in mind that when someone did come forward – Allan writing his letters to Jessup – Navy officers had his handwritten annotations typed up and produced their own version of Jessup’s book.
Why do that if they weren’t trying to add credibility to this theory, if they weren’t trying to encourage it and propagate it? It’s one thing to have those annotations typed up into a report, but to produce a new edition of someone else’s book, and a book on UFOs no less, is downright weird.
So, an alternative narrative emerges – what if the Navy came up with this whole invisibility/teleportation story and deliberately put it out there among the ranks, knowing it would leak back to the enemy via their spies and informants. The aim would be intimidation, making the Japanese and the Nazis think that the US was so far ahead technologically that any conflict with them would be futile, and hence surrender.
But if that’s true, why would they still be working the theory decades after the war? The answer would be the Cold War, that the new subject for this intimidation propaganda was the Soviet Union. In the mid-20th century, superior technology was widely considered the hallmark of a superior way of life, hence the Philadelphia Experiment is the ultimate proof that capitalism is better than communism.
The Cultural Impact of the Philadelphia Experiment
This is where things get a little complicated. Set against that explanation of where this theory came from and why it has persisted, there’s the fact that the Navy rejected the first major movie to be made based on Moore and Berlitz’s book, the first supposedly factual account of the experiment.
As the DOD’s database on Hollywood says:
THE DEPARTMENT FELT THAT A MOVIE OF THIS NATURE WOULD PERPETUATE THE MYTH OF THE PHILADELPHIA, AND THE ROLE OF THE NAVY IN IT. MYTHICAL AND BASED ON A FABRICATED STORY. THE NAVY’S PROBLEM IN ASSISTING WAS THE SAME ONE THE AIR FORCE FACED IN DEALING WITH “CLOSE ENCOUNTERS.” HOW COULD AIR FORCE ASSIST ON A FLYING SAUCER MOVIE WHEN IT HAS ALWAYS SAID UFOS DO NOT EXIST. HOW COULD THE NAVY HELP PORTRAY AN INCIDENT WHICH IT SAID NEVER HAPPENED. FILMMAKERS USED THE YORKTOWN IN CHARLESTON.
Likewise, a file from the Suid archive on the 1984 film version of The Philadelphia Experiment shows how the producers pitched it to the Navy and DOD. One memo from the director says:
I am familiar with the Navy’s stance concerning the title and content of a book by the same name, but I can assure you that the screenplay does not in any way follow the book. However, the idea does eminate from it. “The Philadelphia Experiment” is a fictional drama that will be entertaining to audiences.
The director concluded:
I’m sure once you read “The Philadelphia Experiment” you will realize that it will be a visually exciting piece of entertainment only, and not a documentary.
A followup from one of the producers said:
We decided long ago that the so-called “Philadelphia Experiment” never happened. However, the basic idea that it could have happened provided us with what we think is a great premise for a fictional motion picture. I hope you agree.
The Navy reviewed the script, and gave it a thumbs down. Their assessment says:
Even though the planned film would imply the fictional character of the experiment, references are made to real-life people, places and facilities connected with the project. We feel that a movie of this nature would perpetuate the myth of the Philadelphia Experiment, and the role of the Navy in it.
Don Baruch wrote back to the producers informing them of the decision, adding:
This office has reviewed the screenplay and concurs with the Navy comments that the film probably would perpetuate the myth about such an experiment during the WWII era and the Navy’ s role in it. Strictly as fiction, the screenplay does not portray anything that can be considered positive or in the best interest of the Department of Defense.
Where this gets interesting is when we compare this film, 1984’s The Philadephia Experiment, to 1980’s The Final Countdown. You may remember the episode I did on The Final Countdown, which was rewritten numerous times while trying to get Navy support. It’s the one about the aircraft carrier that goes through a wormhole and goes back in time to the day before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
In one of the earlier scripts it is an accident with a nuclear device that causes the ship to time travel, but there was no way Don Baruch was having that, so it got changed to a mysterious blue shiny wormhole. Surely it was obvious that this story in The Final Countdown was based on the legend of the Philadephia Experiment? A US Navy ship gets transported through time and space, and ends up in WW2?
And yet, it seems no one at the entertainment liaison office figured this out. Eventually, they approved support to The Final Countdown but rejected The Philadelphia Experiment a couple of years later. In this context, we could interpret this double standard as either no one in Baruch’s office making the connection, or that they weren’t really in on the subterfuge of covertly encouraging the Philadelphia Experiment theory. If they were, presumably they would have supported the movie explicitly about that theory, rather than rejecting that and supporting a film that’s implicitly about that theory.
Going back to the database entry, which ask how the Navy could support a film whose story is contrary to their official position – they did turn down Courage Under Fire, Crimson Tide and The Caine Mutiny because their position is that there has never been a mutiny on board a US navy ship. This isn’t actually true, but it’s their position.
We should also consider that the Air Force’s attitude on UFOs has changed drastically in recent years, as has the Navy’s, and over the last decade they’ve supported no end of alien invasion movies, presumably they see them as good PR for Space Force, and they help to sell the idea that the next threats are coming from space. Indeed, we’re at a point whereby the existence of UFOs has been confirmed by multiple branches of the US military, and tons of documents and a fair amount of video footage has been released.
There was a report a few months back based on documents released under FOIA which specifically referred to tests being done on materials recovered from crashed spacecraft, materials which had properties unlike anything humans have manufactured.
Now, we should always bear in mind that documents, photos, videos can all be forged and even if this evidence is authentic, we have to wonder why there has been a change in attitudes towards this topic. For decades UFOlogists were ridiculed and their calls for disclosure were ignored, or worse. Now, UFO disclosure is mainstream news (though being covered in a drip-drip way that fails to tease out any of the implications).
I am not saying that in time the US Navy is going to admit that the Philadelphia Experiment was real – that’s not going to happen, and it almost certainly wasn’t real. I’m simply observing how topics that are considered fringe don’t always stay at the margins, they can become part of the centre.
Which poses another possibility regarding the question of why the Navy turned down The Philadelphia Experiment but supported The Final Countdown, when they’re based in the same source material. By the late 70s they may have exploited the legend of the experiment to the extent that they could, and now wanted the story to die. So they supported a film sort of like the story of the experiment, to help fudge everything over and confuse people about whether the story is a rumour about the real world or merely the plot of a not very well made sci-fi movie.
The Cinema of the Philadelphia Experiment
And speaking of not very well made sci-fi movies, I have to say that the 1984 version of The Philadelphia Experiment is not a good film. It isn’t an especially bad film either, not bad enough to simply laugh at, but not good enough to enjoy on its own merits. In essence, the story starts the same way as the legend – the USS Eldridge is being used for experiments to try to turn ships invisible, but something goes wrong. The ship disappears, and two sailors dive overboard, ending up in 1980s Utah.
The rest of it plays out like every other culture and time shock story, though there’s a nice bit where one of the sailors recognises Ronald Reagan on TV at a press conference, and assumes it’s a movie. This is presumably where the Reagan joke in Back to the Future comes from, since it came out the following year.
Indeed, the most interesting thing about the movie is that the director of photography’s name is Dick Bush. There is a nice element whereby one of the sailors keeps experiencing some sort of phasing on different parts of his body, and he is pursued by random electrical storms, all caused by the experiment.
This suggests another way of answering the question as to why this legend has endured for so long – because it taps into fears about high technologies. Remember, the legend emerged in the mid-50s, after the invention of nuclear weapons. Anything seemed possible, ranging from technologically-enhanced utopias to the instant destruction of the entire world. We went from barely being able to fly in the 1900s to landing on the moon in the late 60s – people’s perceptions of what was possible, or even plausible, were having to rapidly change.
In this context it is perhaps not surprising that so many people took this outlandish myth seriously, and thought it not just possible, but credible.
In 1993 we also got a sequel, unimaginatively titled The Philadelphia Experiment II. Set 9 years on from the original, another military experiment aimed at teleporting a stealth bomber from the US to Germany succeeds, but also sends the bomber back in time to 1943, when Ramstein Air Base was controlled by the Nazis. In 1993 reality undergoes a massive change, and it is revealed that in this alternate reality the Nazis won the war by using the aircraft to carry out nuclear attacks on the US East coast.
The film is even worse than the original in every respect but the imagination of its plot. I felt it had some strong concepts in the script, about the blowback from using technology we’ve invented but don’t properly understand, about meddling in the space-time continuum, and as a thought experiment about what the US would look like under Nazi rule.
Through a very convoluted third act involving time travel paradoxes the situation is resolved, so as a cautionary tale about wanting to change the past and unintended consequences it doesn’t really work. The production values are weak, which is always an issue in an ambitious fantasy sci-fi story because it requires the suspension of disbelief for the audience to buy into the story and care what happens.
Thus, the movie is basically a failure – a good script with some compelling ideas, turned into a sub-par film due to lack of budget and creative vision. It is thematically interesting, but simply not a good movie.
Moving on, in 2012 we got a made-for-TV movie also called The Philadelphia Experiment and based in this same legend. A weapons manufacturing firm tries to recreate the 1943 experiment, which has the unintended consequence of making the Eldridge reappear, after it supposedly disappeared in the 40s.
Somewhat amusingly, one of the stars of the original film appears in this one as a henchman, and I am pleased to report that this movie is so bad that you can laugh at it. The moment when the Eldridge reappears, it lands on a small runway at a private airstrip and a guy flies smack into it.
Then, the ship goes on a sort of rampage through space, disappearing and reappearing at inopportune moments, including rematerialising above downtown Chicago and falling onto a skyscraper, getting wedged several floors down. It is deliciously silly. Naturally, this being a TV movie, the characterisation and acting is poor, even though they roped Malcolm McDowell into this turd. The main character is the ship, just like in The Final Countdown. You spend your time wondering what the ship will do next. The people, not so much.
It is curious that in this version of the story it is a private contractor, not the military themselves, who conduct the experiment that causes havoc. They then set about killing everyone who knows about it in an attempt to cover it up. I don’t think the producers had any discussions with the DOD, but this version is entirely in keeping with the military’s habit of civilianising the bad guys and the fuck ups. If they can pin it on someone outside of the military, they will, and it seems these screenwriters copied that behaviour in their rewriting of this legend.
I trust you all realise by now that even though this is a ridiculous piece of conspiracy mythology, it has played and continues to play a surprisingly influential role. The most recent example was in an episode of Loki, the Marvel TV series about Thor’s brother. In the episode we get to see the Void, a place that exists at the end of time, and there is a bunch of debris from different places and timelines, including the USS Eldridge.
While I cannot offer you any proof that all of this is because of a deliberate effort by the US Navy to propagate this conspiracy theory, or at least manage its emergence into popular culture, I suspect that this is why the Philadelphia Experiment has survived for so long, despite the total lack of evidence.