Sunday, March 13, 2011

Sip from the Saucer

Following up on the last blog, it should be acknowledged that many people answer the question “Where are they?” with “Right here.” According to LiveScience, “A Roper poll found that nearly half of all Americans believe that alien craft have visited Earth, and an even larger percentage feel in their heart of hearts that the government is playing dumb about these cosmic callers.” The article does not try to explain why more Americans believe the government is covering up flying saucers than believe they exist.

There seems little common ground between UFO enthusiasts and skeptics. To understand why, it is worth a brief look at the most iconic UFO incident of all, the 1947 crash in Roswell, New Mexico, since it has all the elements of the entire UFO controversy: credible witnesses, flamboyantly self-promoting hucksters, cover-ups, conspiracy theories, and a possible mundane explanation that falls short of proof. The Roswell crash has been exploited and fictionalized so often that most of us have lost track of what parts of the tale are known facts, what are mere assertions, what are speculations, and what are outright fictions. Briefly appearing as a national news story in July 1947, it quickly faded into obscurity after the US Army Air Force dismissed the object as a weather balloon; it reemerged in the 1980s when a series of books, articles, and movies revived interest in the incident. By the 80s, many of the eyewitnesses had died; for the rest, 40 years had passed. Unsurprisingly, their accounts conflicted – even the accounts of those who say they saw nothing unusual. There consequently is a debate about the dates and sequence of events, so some may quibble with the details in the story below, but this broadly is what happened – or at least what is supposed to have happened.


During World War 2 Allied fighter pilots over Europe repeatedly saw what appeared to be spherical craft moving at very high speed. They thought the objects might be German secret weapons, but the objects never acted in a hostile way. The pilots called them Foo Fighters. Allied analysts speculated they were false images created by the optical peculiarities of the canopies, but they didn’t really know. Occasional sightings continued after the war when the term UFO replaced Foo Fighter. The idea that these objects might be alien spacecraft soon began to circulate with the public. On June 24, 1947, businessman Kenneth Arnold, flying his own private plane over the Cascade Mountains, saw 9 objects moving “like saucers” in formation at extreme speed. The national news media picked up on the story and the term “flying saucer” was born. A rash of flying saucer sightings followed.

In 1947, Roswell Army Air Force Base was the site of the 509th Bomber Group, the nation’s (for that matter the world’s) only operational bomber group intended to carry atomic bombs. It consisted of B29s, which in the event of war would be dispersed to bases closer to potential targets. (The B29 had a target radius of 1900 miles.) A great deal of classified military research also was conducted in New Mexico at Alamogordo, White Sands, and, to some degree, Roswell.

The Event, True Believer’s Version:

On July 4 (possibly July 2), 1947 an alien spaceship soared over Roswell; perhaps the four alien crewmembers were curious about earth’s new nuclear stockpile. It headed northwest. The object was seen and heard by Mr. & Mrs. Wilmot, managers of a Roswell hardware store, as they sat on their front porch on Penn Street; they mentioned it to a local newspaper reporter a few days later and said it was shaped like the heel of a boot. 30 miles outside of town the spacecraft, possibly affected by defense radar, suffered a malfunction. An explosion tore a hole in the craft. Debris sprinkled down on the Foster Ranch, also known as the Debris Field. The saucer continued to fly over the desert, but lost altitude and crashed. This is the Crash Site – its precise location is a matter of dispute. Two of the aliens were killed on impact. One was badly injured and died later. The fourth died of its injuries, was shot by an army soldier, or is still alive, depending on the source.

Having tracked the craft on radar, army units arrived at the Crash Site almost immediately. So far, the military had kept a lid on news of the flying saucer crash. The army then removed the alien ship and bodies to a secure location.

Questioned years later, many people from Roswell remembered an area temporarily cordoned off by troops north of town, but nearly all were fuzzy about the date. Numerous former soldiers also remember being sent out to guard one or more desert locations, but few of these claim to have seen any wreckage and they, too, are fuzzy about the dates. A few civilians happened to be near the crash scene for one reason or another, however, and they do have specific recollections. The most credible of these witnesses is archaeologist and historian Professor Curry Holden from Texas Tech, who commonly spent his summers scouring the Southwest desert areas. Holden saw a large wedge-shaped object and peculiar-looking bodies. Military guards quickly shooed Holden and others away citing national security concerns; the guards warned them not to speak about what they had seen, and Holden obliged for many years. The military frequently chased after downed aircraft (including flying wing prototypes) and errant rockets from White Sands in the 40s and 50s, so the civilians didn’t immediately think “flying saucer.”

The Debris Field, the Press, and the Army Air Force’s Explanation

On July 5, 1947, sheep farmer “Mac” Brazel espied rubbish of some kind on the Foster Ranch (the Debris Field) and went to investigate. An area larger than a football field was covered with shredded metallic sheets, lightweight struts, and other smallish objects. He picked up some pieces and took them home. On July 6, while in Roswell on other business, he casually carried a box of the stuff into the office of Sheriff Wilcox. A reporter, Frank Joyce from The Roswell Daily Record, just happened to call the sheriff’s office right then, and he spoke on the phone to Brazel about his find. Wilcox called Roswell Army Air Force Base to report finding the debris. The response was quick. Jesse Marcel, the intelligence officer at the base, drove into town along with Sheridan Cavitt, and went home with Mac Brazel for the night. At 5 the next morning, they went out in a jeep from Brazel's house to inspect the Debris Field. Marcel and Cavitt picked up more samples and headed back to the base. The Army swiftly sent out a full recovery team with trucks, jeeps, and guards to the Debris Field to pick up whatever remained. The material was brought back to the RAAF Base.

Joyce, the newspaper reporter, tried to follow up on the story with the army. After repeated calls, Walter Haut, PR officer at the base, issued a press release saying a “flying disc” had been recovered. On July 8, The Roswell Daily Record ran its famous headline “RAAF Captures Flying Saucer on Ranch in Roswell Region.” The AP picked up the story which quickly went international. Phone lines to Roswell were flooded by calls to the air base, the sheriff’s office, and the local newspaper. An AP reporter tried to get to the Debris Field but was turned back by army guards. Meantime, back at the base, the debris was loaded into a B29 and flown to Fort Worth accompanied by Jesse Marcel; there it was examined by technical specialists flown in from Ohio. In Roswell, two army officers showed up at The Roswell Daily Record and retrieved Haut’s original press release, no copy of which currently exists. Haut was instructed not to communicate further with reporters and Mac Brazel was asked to remain on base for unknown reasons for about a week.

At 4:45 PM on the 8th at the Fort Worth air base, General Ramey ushered reporters into his office to see the debris, which he said had been identified firmly as a weather balloon. Photos were taken, including one of Jesse Marcel holding some foil. Marcel appeared angry about the press presentation though he didn’t speak to reporters. He said nothing publicly about the Roswell incident for the next 20 years that he remained in the service, but after he retired Major Marcel spoke up. He insisted that the wreckage shown to reporters in Fort Worth was not the original, but had been switched.

The story died immediately after the “weather balloon” explanation, and that pretty much was that. Every now and then some UFOlogist would question the official account, but the story didn't get real legs again until  the 1980s when Berlitz and Moore published The Roswell Incident. The book popularized the idea that there were two sites (Debris and Crash), not one. As the story became newsworthy again, many supposed witnesses came forward and further embellished the tale – such as the camper who claimed to have seen alien bodies and to have met an ET survivor, or the mortician who claimed he got a strange call from the base asking about the availability of children’s size coffins and then a second call from an army nurse who said she saw nonhuman bodies. There are credibility issues with most of these 80s stories. Not all. Brigadier General Exon, for example, recalled an officer in '47 pointing at sites from the air “where that thing we’ve been studying came down."


What intrigues so many UFOlogists is that the USAAF clearly lied -- repeatedly. There really was a conspiracy and a cover-up of something. Why did Haut issue the “flying disc” press release in the first place? (Believers say he simply told the truth.) Why all the urgency and secrecy about the debris recovery? Why keep Mac Brazel on base for a week? Why fly the wreckage off to Ft. Worth on a B29? This was not normal treatment for weather balloons which regularly were recovered without any fanfare – in fact the army gave a $25 bounty to anyone who brought one in. What are we to make of Marcel’s claim that the debris shown to reporters was not the material recovered at the site? Whatever landed on the Foster Ranch was not a weather balloon.

The Event, Skeptic’s Version:

In the 1990s at the urging of New Mexico Congressman Schiff, the USAF reopened the investigation. Most records from the base and the era were gone (it is normal to clean out military files no longer useful) and most of the witnesses were deceased, but the air force reached some conclusions.

On June 4, 1947 a large aluminized high altitude balloon was launched from Holloman air base in Alamogordo, NM. It was part of the top secret Project Mogul. In the late 40s, before the days of long range spy planes or surveillance satellites, the US was desperate to collect intelligence on what was going on in the USSR, particularly with regard to nuclear weapons development. The solution was high altitude balloons. The Mogul balloons carried high tech (for the day) electronic eavesdropping equipment. Something went wrong with the June 4 balloon and it disappeared from radar. The USAF concludes this is what fell on the Foster Ranch to be found by Mac Brazel on July 5. It explains the extraordinary security precautions during the recovery and the subsequent army cover-up. At the very least, the Mogul electronics were sequestered and Marcel was right about a switch of the materials shown to reporters in Fort Worth.

On July 4 (or 2), a military aircraft flew over the Wilmot house, perhaps banked at an angle that made its shape hard to make out. It didn’t crash. Neither did anything else. The USAF can find no record of anything that crashed anywhere in the area on the weekend of the 4th or in any reasonable time period prior. However, throughout the late 40s and 50s, the USAAF (later the USAF) did conduct experiments with ejector seats, prototype pressure suits, drone aircraft, and rockets; some experiments were dropped from high altitude balloons. The experiments employed anthropomorphic dummies and a few chimpanzees. Balloons and parachutes were at the mercy of winds, so the packages came down all over New Mexico. The air force surmises that witnesses saw the recovery of one or more of these experiments and (after 40 years) mixed up the dates – the “alien” bodies were dummies. Professor Holden, the most convincing witness, admitted he wasn’t certain about the date of his sighting. Holden, in his 90s when questioned, thought it was about the time of that Roswell kerfuffle, but he said it could have been anytime before 1952.

The question remains, why did Haut issue the flying disc statement? We don’t know, but it should be remembered that “flying saucer” was a term only a couple weeks old; it didn’t necessarily convey the popular image we have of one today. He might have meant it simply as an informal way of saying “UFO” which would have been a correct description at that point. On the other hand, the press release might have been a deliberate cover-up for Project Mogul – one that backfired when it drew so much avid press attention. Since Haut followed his orders not to talk about it anymore, and died before the story re-arose, we’ll never know.


UFO skeptics see the USAF report as one that answers all relevant questions satisfactorily (even if at this date absolute proof is elusive), so they see no reason to believe any tales about flying saucers. Believers see it as just another episode in an ongoing cover-up. Regardless of the truth, I understand the UFO Festival held in Roswell every 4th of July weekend is a really good party.

Roswell McD’s

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