(Vol. 17, No. 8, Fall 1995, pp. 90-99,127)
By Dava Sobel
Flying saucers made their first official appearance in the summer of 1947. On June 25, Kenneth Arnold, a Boise, Idaho, rescue pilot working for the U.S. Forest Service, flew over the Cascade Mountains of Washington State, searching for a missing plane. He spotted nine disc-shaped craft, which he guessed to be moving at a speed of 1,200 miles an hour and at an altitude of 10,000 feet. When Arnold described their motion as resembling "a saucer skipping over water," a newspaper headline dubbed them "flying saucers." Almost instantly, believable witnesses from other states and several foreign countries reported similar sightings--enlivening wire-service dispatches for days.
Within two weeks, on July 8, 1947, the United States Army announced that it had recovered a flying saucer from the New Mexican desert, near a town called Roswell. The morning after, the Army corrected itself: The "saucer" had been a misidentified weather balloon.
Thus began the infamous "Roswell Incident," the mother of all UFO scenarios. At first, it seemed to be a burst of excitement over nothing--a story of "Man Bites Dog" that quickly faded into "Dog Bites Man." But over decades, the event at Roswell has been repeatedly remembered, reevaluated, and retold, so that it now boasts seminal importance in the annals of contacts with extraterrestrial civilizations.
According to several residents of Roswell who claim to be eyewitnesses, at least one alien craft crashed there that summer of 1947. However, they say, military and government parties--including the Air Force, the FBI, and the White House--intentionally covered up the facts. As a former employee of the local funeral parlor recalls, the humanoid bodies of the saucer's crew were autopsied at the Roswell Army Air Field Hospital immediately after the crash. Then their remains were flown to Dayton, Ohio, to the site of what is now Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where they were frozen for future study.
Rumors circulated that one of the creatures had even survived the accident. It lived for over a year, sequestered and cared for in a specially built top-secret facility, before succumbing to an Earth-acquired infection.
Now, nearly half a century after the precipitating event, New Mexico Congressman Stephen H. Schiff has asked the General Accounting Office (GAO), which is the investigative arm of Congress, to investigate the incident.
Did the military act appropriately at the time--or did it move to suppress information, spread lies, and silence the residents of Roswell, some of whom claim they received death threats warning them never to reveal what went on there in July 1947? GAO spokesman Cleve Corlett insists his agency is not investigating Roswell, as many students of the case contend. "We don't talk about our work till it's finished," Corlett said. But whatever the truth, thanks to publicity from Schiff and others, Roswell has spawned interest from many quarters indeed.
For example, a recent Showtime movie called ROSWELL, based on the book UFO CRASH AT ROSWELL, paints a vivid picture of charred aliens on operating tables, amid a Watergate-style cover-up masterminded by four- and five-star generals, scientists, super-spies, and Cabinet members. The film celebrates the twin themes of the Roswell Incident--the arrival of extraterrestrial visitors and the paranoia regarding government conspiracy. With documentary verisimilitude, Roswell depicts UFOs as the vehicles that ferry aliens to Earth, and the governments of the world as the powers that conceal the alien presence.
At the opposite extreme, the U.S. Air Force has completed its own internal review of the events and allegations. Its "Report on Roswell," which was released in September 1994, identifies the so-called "weather balloon" as part of a once-top-secret experimental program, "Project Mogul," for monitoring Russian nuclear bomb tests. A page-one story in the New York Times of September 18, 1994, heralded this explanation as the long-awaited denouement of the Roswell Incident. Project Mogul, the Air Force and the Times agreed, dismissed the alien-spaceship tale as a modern myth. Proponents of the alleged saucer crash and subsequent cover-up, however, remain unconvinced by the Air Force account.
How good is the evidence on each side of the Roswell Incident? What really happened there? And if all that landed was a glorified weather balloon, why won't the legend die?
I came to this story prejudiced, as all journalists are, with my own preconceived notions. As the co-author of a book about the scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) through radio astronomy, I firmly believe that other civilizations share our galaxy, and may even be trying to contact us. But I do not think that flying saucers are landing here. The alien presence would have to be ubiquitous to explain all the claims of contact I have heard. Nevertheless, the Roswell Incident intrigued me because it was born practically at the moment of my birth, in June of 1947. Maybe Roswell was as real as I am. I mean, if the entire universe could happen once--rise whole cloth out of one Big Bang--why not admit the arrival on Earth of a lone flying saucer?
Part of me was wide open to that possibility when I started exhuming the incident's history. I read six books about it, along with miscellaneous reports on Roswell published by the Mutual UFO Network (an international contingent of UFOlogists). I read the Air Force report, of course, with all its supporting documentation, as well as numerous magazine and newspaper articles, plus back issues of newsletters devoted both to promulgating and debunking UFO sightings. I also viewed several hours of videotapes on the Roswell Incident, reviewed selected Internet files, and interviewed a dozen individuals on the telephone. Then I went to Roswell to meet some of the witnesses face to face and to see the place where the saucer is said to have landed.
To begin at the beginning, the Roswell of 1947 was a small town in a big desert, surrounded by acres of undeveloped land and sheep ranches stretching over the mostly flat terrain as far as the eye could see. At the south end of the business district stood the Roswell Army Air Field, home base for the fighting 509th--the world's only combat unit trained to handle and drop nuclear bombs. About 100 miles west of Roswell, at Alamogordo, the first atomic bomb explosion had shot up its mushroom cloud just two years prior to the Roswell Incident. And although secrecy shrouded the activities at nearby White Sands Proving Ground, Roswell residents were aware that captured German V-2 rockets routinely penetrated the arid sky. What's more, Robert H. Goddard, the father of American rocketry, had moved to Roswell from Massachusetts, and launched 56 flight tests there from 1930 until shortly before his death in 1943. You could say that Roswell stood closer to outer space than any other town in the world.
The stories of flying discs that spread across the country in the summer of 1947 fell on receptive ears in New Mexico. Sheep rancher W. W. ("Mac") Brazel overheard the talk in a Corona bar on Saturday night, July 5. According to his own later account in the local press, he wondered if the strange debris he'd found on the ground during his ranch rounds might be part of some such flying disc. He hoped it was. A prize of $3,000 had been promised by a national news outfit to anybody who recovered one. Brazel drove some of the shiny litter into Roswell and showed it to the county sheriff, who showed it to the Army base's intelligence officer, who retrieved the rest of the pieces back at the ranch.
That Army intelligence officer, Major Jesse Marcel, had never seen anything quite like the debris that lay in scattered scraps and tatters over an area some 200 yards wide. Though plentiful, it was so lightweight that Marcel and a helper could pick it all up and load it in the backs of their cars. Brazel, the rancher, estimated in a newspaper interview that the whole lot couldn't have weighed much more than five pounds. Although Marcel's description of what he had found did not appear in any press reports published at the time, he later recalled that the material bore no resemblance to any aircraft he had been trained to recognize.
"I saw...small bits of metal," Marcel told a reporter years after the fact, "but mostly we found some material that's hard to describe." Some of it was porous, he remembered. He also mentioned "stuff that looked very much like parchment," as well as long, slender solid members--like square sticks, the largest of which was between three and four feet long. These pieces resembled wood, felt as light as balsa, and carried undecipherable markings that Marcel called "hieroglyphics."
On Tuesday, July 8, 1947, a press release announcing Marcel's catch was distributed to the local newspapers and radio stations by Walter G. Haut, then-public relations officer at the base. The Roswell Daily Record spread the word under a banner headline: "RAAF Captures Flying Saucer on Ranch in Roswell Region."
The story began, "The intelligence office of the 509th Bombardment group at Roswell Army Air Field announced at noon today that the field has come into possession of a flying saucer." It is not clear from the article who termed the debris a flying saucer. The words do not appear in quotes, and they are not attributed to either Marcel or to the base commander, Colonel William H. Blanchard. They are used matter-of-factly, as though such things would be well known to readers of the Record--and indeed they were.
"After the intelligence office here had inspected the instrument," the article went on to say, "it was flown to `higher headquarters."' Indeed, Marcel took the debris on a plane to Fort Worth, where General Roger M. Ramey identified it to Marcel and the press as the remains of a downed weather balloon carrying a radar target. The next day, in an even larger headline than it had used to announce the find, the Record reported, "Gen. Ramey Empties Roswell Saucer."
The Army's announcement of the "weather balloon" explanation ended the flying saucer excitement. All mention of the craft dropped from the newspapers, from military records, from the national consciousness, and even from the talk of the town in Roswell.
Thirty years passed with no further mention of the Roswell Incident.
Then, Stanton T. Friedman of Fredericton, New Brunswick, in Canada, rediscovered Roswell. Friedman had been working as a nuclear physicist (although he does not hold a doctoral degree in that discipline) for General Electric, Westinghouse, and other companies. He devoted his spare time to reading widely about flying saucers, including the reports of Project Bluebook--the Air Force's official investigation, from 1952 to 1969, into UFO sightings.
"In the 1970s, when the bottom fell out of the nuclear physics business," Friedman told me in a telephone interview, "I went full time as a lecturer."
Friedman has delivered his lecture, "Flying Saucers ARE Real!," at some 600 college campuses and to many professional meetings. Although Friedman never saw a flying saucer himself, his work made him a lightning rod for people with their own UFO stories to tell. They would seek him out after his talks and share bits of information. Over the past 17 years, by following leads from such sources, Friedman has become the self-styled impresario of the Roswell Incident. He has ferreted out several self-professed witnesses, and he believes that the cover-up of the crash continues today at the highest levels of secrecy within the federal government, although his evidence for this claim is hotly contested.
Friedman received his first important Roswell tip in 1978 while appearing on a news program in Baton Rouge. The station manager mentioned that his ham radio buddy--a fellow named Jesse Marcel--had once handled the wreckage of a flying saucer.
Intrigued, Friedman called Marcel the very next day. The former major had retired from the Army and was working as a television repairman in Houma, Louisiana. Friedman ascribes great weight to that initial conversation. Writing about the encounter, and describing himself in the third person, he gauged its import as follows:
"Marcel described the material to Friedman over the phone, giving the veteran UFO investigator the first indication of the nature of what could possibly turn out to be the most important discovery of the millennium."
Friedman used his contacts to set up an interview for Marcel with the National Enquirer. In that 1979 interview, 32 years after the original discovery, Marcel said of the debris, "I'd never seen anything like that. I didn't know what we were picking up. I still believe it was nothing that came from Earth. It came to Earth but not from Earth."
Marcel continued to express puzzlement about the Roswell debris till his dying day in 1986. But he never called it a flying saucer. And he certainly never mentioned any bodies lying in or near what he had found. Nor did the original discoverer of the debris, Mac Brazel, ever claim that he had seen extraterrestrial aliens, dead or alive.
Friedman added that part--the corpus delicti. The crashed saucer and its alien crew were the gifts of Vern and Jean Maltais, who attended a Friedman lecture, and stayed late to tell him a flying saucer story related by their late friend, Grady ("Barney") Barnett. Barnett said he had seen a saucer wreck near Socorro, New Mexico, where he worked in the 1940s as a government engineer. The Maltais couple couldn't remember what year the crash might have taken place, and Barney was long dead, so there was no way to find out. But they assured Friedman that Barney was much too upstanding a citizen to have fabricated such a tale--complete with sunlight glinting off a great, metallic disc, some 25 or 30 feet in diameter. That was enough for Friedman to go on--in his preliminary reconstruction of the events, the 1947 craft dropped some of its pieces on the sheep ranch near Roswell, then continued flying in a northwesterly direction before it crashed. Friedman contributed these insights to the first volume in the Roswell literature--THE ROSWELL INCIDENT (Grosset & Dunlap), by Charles Berlitz and William Moore.
With the book's publication in 1980, the Roswell Incident took on new proportions. First it spread from the debris field on the sheep ranch to a site far away where Friedman thought the rest of the saucer must have landed. He put this "crash site" at Corona, about 90 miles northwest of Roswell. Since Brazel's ranch sprawled over desert that lay between the two towns, the "Roswell Incident" might just as well be called "The Crash at Corona." Indeed, Friedman later took this title for his own book, CRASH AT CORONA, co-authored with Don Berliner and published by Paragon House in 1992. Friedman didn't stop at Corona, however, but continued westward, straight across central New Mexico for another 150 miles--to a second crashed saucer site on the Plains of San Augustin. Here, just past Socorro, was where Friedman figured Barney Barnett's craft must have touched down.
Struggling to understand the connection between the two sites, Friedman pondered various possibilities: There might have been several craft in the area. Two could have collided in midair, sprinkling debris, saucers, and bodies in a wide swath. Or one craft could have crashed at Roswell/Corona, while another got shot down over the Plains of San Augustin by military fire from the White Sands Missile Range. There seemed to be enough room in the desert for almost anything to have occurred.
Friedman eventually found a live eyewitness who could corroborate his second site on the Plains of San Augustin. This was Gerald F. Anderson, a mere boy of five in 1947, who saw Friedman on a 1990 national television program called Unsolved Mysteries. Right after the show, Anderson phoned the network's toll-free number from his home in Missouri. He said he remembered coming upon the very craft that Friedman had mentioned, with its alien corpses ejected onto the sand, while out rock-hunting with his family.
"We headed straight toward it," Anderson later told Friedman in person. "There was a big gouge mark where it had cut a furrow across the arroyo. It tore up a lot of the sagebrush and there were fires smoldering here and there. "That's when my brother said, `That's a goddamn spaceship! Them's Martians!"'
Anderson's vivid memories of the hot, humid morning are stunning in their detail. Likewise his estimates of the distances between objects on the ground, and his total recall of the dialogue that engaged his father, his brother, his Uncle Ted, and his Cousin Victor. In all, Anderson's account, which fills six pages in Friedman's book, strains my belief to the breaking point. And I say this even though I know that Friedman had Anderson take a polygraph test (a de rigueur step in serious UFO investigations), and Anderson passed it.
Friedman, ever on the case, continued to look for another eyewitness to back up Anderson's outstanding memory. He never found one. Thus, Anderson stands alone against the attacks from other Roswell researchers, all of whom seek to discredit his testimony.
For example, Kevin D. Randle and Donald R. Schmitt, authors of two books
published by Avon--UFO CRASH AT ROSWELL and its sequel, THE TRUTH ABOUT THE
UFO CRASH AT ROSWELL (in which the date of the crucial crash is corrected
from July 2 to July 4)--denounce Anderson's story. They summoned a forensic
scientist to examine the 1947 diary purportedly kept by Anderson's Uncle Ted.
This document, which supported Gerald Anderson's oral history, was duly found
to be written on bona fide 1947-vintage paper. However, the ink upon that
paper had not become available until 1974.
(Continued in The Truth About Roswell (Part 2))