Saturday, February 16, 2013

A Meteor over Cajun Louisiana: Window on Atomic-Age Anxieties

The recent explosion of a meteor (or "bolide") near Chelyabinsk, Russia, reminded me of a similar incident that took place over south Louisiana in the late 1950s.

A meteor streaking through the atmosphere.
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In my book The Cajuns: Americanization of a People I used this incident to illustrate how atomic-age anxieties had infiltrated Louisiana's traditionally French-speaking parishes — a region that at one time had been fairly isolated from the currents of mainstream American history. Some fellow historians bristle at the suggestion that south Louisiana was ever particularly isolated: but "isolated" is a relative term, and compared to, say, contemporary downtown Peoria, suburban Cincinnati, or midtown Manhattan, or any number of other mainstream American places, it was without doubt relatively isolated during the pre-World War II era.

This changed on a rapid, widespread basis with the coming of World War II, an event that finally immersed south Louisiana in mainstream American culture. As such, I demonstrated in The Cajuns that when a meteor lit up the region's night sky in the late 1950s, many Cajuns suspected they had just been attacked by the Soviet Union. As I concluded about their terrified response to the meteor, "Obviously, Cajuns were as susceptible to Cold War anxieties as other segments of American society."

Cover of my book
The Cajuns: Americanization of a People (2003)

Given the present interest in meteors, I excerpt here the section of my book dealing with that astronomical event over south Louisiana:
Around 10 p.m. on March 15, 1957, a fiery meteor emitting a shower of red sparks hurtled over south Louisiana, turning darkness to broad daylight before slamming into West Côte Blanche Bay. Windows rattled, some shattered, and police throughout central Acadiana [the Cajuns parishes of south-central Louisiana] fielded calls from hundreds of frantic citizens. No, they replied, it wasn't a mid-air collision, an oil-rig blowout, a "space ship from Mars," or "la fin du monde," the end of the world. It was only a chunk of rock from outer space. 
Significantly, some Acadiana residents assumed that what they had witnessed was an incoming missile and the flash of an atomic blast. They believed that the Soviets had launched a nuclear attack on Baton Rouge or New Orleans. According to the Abbeville Meridional, for example, a local resident "who prefers not being identified" said he thought the meteor was a guided missile . . . sent to this area by the Russians for some destructive purposes." The same article cited Vermilion Parish resident Preston Broussard as describing the meteor's impact as "like the explosion of weapons used in warfare." Lafayette's Daily Advertiser stated "Some thought it was . . . 'an atomic bomb dropped over New Orleans.'" In the rural community of Kaplan, school teacher Earl Comeaux was putting his daughter to sleep when he observed "the yard light up as in daytime." At first the event puzzled him, but as he recalled, "It dawned on me that that was the flash of an A-bomb exploding. Since it was in the east, I immediately thought of Baton Rouge, a prime target of the Russians. They would be after the petroleum plants there."
Newspaper article from March 1957
about the meteor.
(Source: Altus [Okla.] Times-Democrat/Google News)
Comeaux knew more than most locals about atomic warfare: a few years earlier he had served with Strategic Air Command, flying on B-50 bombers that carried nuclear warheads targeted for Moscow rail yards. Waking his wife anxiously, Comeaux told her about the mysterious flash, and explained that if the capital had indeed been bombed, the resulting shockwave ought to reach Kaplan at any moment. "Well, no sooner was that said than a great boom shook the house," he recalled. "I was convinced that we had been attacked by the Russians." Gathering their children, the Comeauxs huddled around their television, awaiting official word of doomsday. After a long night they learned about the meteor that had crashed nearby. "How terrified I had been for my family and myself!" he recalled. "How ridiculous my reaction to a natural occurrence." . . .
A follow-up note: I have tried unsuccessfully on occasion to coax both scientists and treasure hunters into searching for the meteorite in question. A large chunk of the object reportedly fell to Earth just off an easily identifiable spot on the Louisiana coast — the amusingly named Point No Point, which sits directly between East and West Côte Blanche bays. As I told a journalist in 2007:
I once spent a good deal of time researching this meteor, and three fishermen from Baldwin [in St. Mary Parish] reported that the meteor (or at least an automobile-sized part of it) crashed between their boat and the shoreline, which was located only a short distance away (a hundred yards or so, I recall). . . . They had been fishing near the division between East and West Côte Blanche Bay[s] at a place called Point No Point. The impact of the meteor hitting the water was so loud that their ears were still ringing days later, and they felt fortunate to be alive. Another, smaller chunk of the meteor landed on an inland oil rig near Houma, and the oil-field worker who saw it fall out of the sky and roll up against some equipment took the rock home as a keepsake. Who knows where it is now?

Approximate reported impact site
of meteor off Point No Point.
(Source: Google Maps)

The three fishermen in question drew a map showing precisely where this large chunk of space rock crashed into the water near Point No Point. This map still exists, and it seems to me that someone with an underwater magnetometer might use it to find the meteorite — assuming the meteorite is made of iron or some other easily detectable metal — and raise it to the surface.

Location of Point No Point (aka Marone Point).
(Source: Google Maps)

But what do I know about such things, really? I'm not a geophysicist, but a historian. And for all I know the rock, or what is left of it after possibly rusting beneath the waves for over a half-century, is buried under fifty feet of sludge.


  1. Thank you for this article Dr. Bernard. I remember this night. I was 4 1/2 and in bed in Opelousas and my bed shook and it woke me up. My dad got on the phone and called the police. This is the only article I have ever seen on this event.

  2. I was in Crowley, standing in Dad's outdoor kitchen facing a south jalousie window, during a party; when the sky lit-up bright bluish-green for over a minute. We didn't know what to think. Thank you for reminding us of this event.

  3. A magnetometer would probably be useless in that area. Have you ever seen a map of the petroleum pipelines in East Côte Blanche Bay? It's like spaghetti, only messier.

  4. I don't know if this was the same one that I experienced in the 1950's as we lived north of the area shown. Between Leesville and Alexandria. It was in the Summer and had just turned almost dark. I was as usual outside doing something when suddenly the sky lit up just like daylight. The light only lasted for a few seconds. I heard no explosion nor did it shake the house. I heard the next day that a meteorite had fallen somewhere not too far away. Yes the brightness scared the heck out of me as a young teenager..

  5. Dale, That could very well have been the same meteor: I recall reading it could be seen several states away from Louisiana, even as far as Tennessee.

  6. I was looking up possible stories about a meteor my family saw in the late 1950s. We were traveling what would become I-10?west between the Trinity River and Anauac. It was traveling west to east. The meteor itself was visible, changing colors moving much slower than one would expect. It was widely reported that it landed in the Louisiana swamp. This may be the same meteor although what we saw would probably not have been visible in Tennessee.
    Also, the bombers stationed in Lake Charles were B-52s

    1. Hi, I responded to your posting, but I forgot to do so as a reply. See below or go to my blog site.

  7. "although what we saw would probably not have been visible in Tennessee." I think the meteor that landed just off the Louisiana coast in 1957 could have been seen as far away as Tennessee when it was at its highest altitude. Also, I seem to recall that the report in Tennessee was made by pilots in the air, which also might in part explain how it was seen so far away. (I say this, but it's been several years since I read my files on the subject.)