It was 1964. Late at night. The Northern California man had lost his hunting buddies in the woods near Lake Tahoe and climbed a tree to sleep.

Awakened by a glowing object landing on a nearby ridge, the man was soon fighting for his life against two neckless creatures and a robot before the beings emitted a noxious gas and knocked him out.

A tall tale? Drunken binge? Drug-induced hallucination? No matter. That UFO sighting and thousands more were studiously collected and meticulously researched as part of the Air Force’s strange, long-shuttered Project Blue Book.

For 22 years, the military seemed to spare little expense in chronicling humans’ reported otherworldly encounters with glowing orbs, spinning spheres, flying ice cream cones, and more. All of it was hidden away in archive files until a UFO enthusiast posted 130,000 documents worth of Blue Book material in a free online database for the first time last month.

The project was launched in 1947, two years after the end of World War II and just as the Cold War was gearing up. It concluded in 1969 without offering definitive proof of either aliens visiting Earth or advanced spycraft launched by our enemies. But the gold mine of reports – witness names redacted – provides a snapshot of a nervous, suspicious era that drove our government to consider even the most fanciful reports.

“UFO investigations were taken very seriously,” said Alejandro Rojas, editor of Open Minds magazine, who points to a 1947 report of an unidentified flying object near Mt. Rainier in Washington by private pilot Kenneth Arnold as the mother of modern UFO sightings. “He was a credible person, and it hit the press and became a really, really big story,” Rojas said.

Add a dash of postwar paranoia, and the Air Force dove in head first, he said.

“The public’s imagination went wild with (UFOs),” said Jeff Underwood, historian of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. “It was a serious attempt to find if there was any validity to a UFO crisis or just mass hysteria.

“For the Air Force, it was driven more over concerns the Soviets created a super secret weapon than if there were little green men,” he said.

In the end, many of the more than 12,000 sightings diligently investigated by the Air Force were chalked up to weather phenomena, meteors, satellites, a bright planet, balloons, birds or overactive imaginations.

The latter category would seem to fit the story told in 1964 by the lost hunter near Lake Tahoe, who swore he spent the night in a tree, firing arrows at three white “robot”-looking creatures, setting scraps of his clothing afire and hurling the pieces at the glowing aliens below.

UFO witnesses ranged from grandmothers to amateur astronomers and even military pilots, who should have known a weather balloon when they saw one. Several reports included sketches, charts and purported photographs of the objects.

Bay Area newspapers had a field day with one mysterious craft spotted by dozens of people as it drifted over the region on Feb. 7, 1950, including two nurses who swore they were “non-drinkers.”

“Flying ‘Ice Cream Cone’ Reported Over Alameda,” a San Francisco Chronicle headline screamed. The article featured a cartoon drawing of the flying confection with a Navy officer looking through binoculars yelling “Vanilla!” while a young boy said: “I say it’s chocolate!”

A San Jose man eventually wrote to the Air Force explaining that his own close look at the object revealed a single-engine airplane with a reddish vapor trail behind it. Mystery solved, investigators concluded.

Popular culture drove the reports, Underwood said, and it ultimately slowed them down in the late 1960s.

“As soon as Star Trek started, I lost interest in UFOs,” he laughed.