When it comes to flying saucer stories, the “Roswell Incident” is the grandaddy of them all. Crashed spaceships, dead alien bodies, secret bases, government cover-ups and conspiracies, disappearing witnesses–the Roswell story has it all.
There are several different versions of the “Roswell Incident”, which vary according to which “witnesses” one believes–the UFO community itself is divided over such significant aspects as how many “crash sites” there were, how many “alien bodies” were recovered –or even if any at all were found–and what happened to them. Nearly all of the “witnesses” did not give their stories until at least 30 years later, and some did not say a word for over 60 years. All of them got basic details (such as where or what year the “incident” happened) wrong. As a result, putting together the outline of “what happened at Roswell” is a confusing challenge. But here is the basic story.
In early 1947, a man named Kenneth Arnold was flying a light plane near Mt Hood, in Oregon, when he saw nine objects flying past him at a great speed: he described their motion as “like a saucer skipping over water”. The term “flying saucer” was born. Arnold’s story received extensive press coverage, and provoked a wave of new “sightings”. Today, “unidentified flying objects” are usually associated with extraterrestrial spacecraft, but in the pre-space race days of the 1940’s, they had a different implication: the Cold War was raging, and it was widely assumed that the “discs” were some sort of secret Soviet aircraft, on surveillance missions over the US. Within months, reports of “flying discs” had come in from some 30 different states.
Sometime around June 14, 1947, a rancher named WW “Mac” Brazel found some pieces of odd-looking material on his land, about 75 miles northwest of the town of Roswell NM. Thinking it might be pieces from these “flying discs” he had heard about, Brazel and his son Vernon took the material to the local sheriff. By July 7 some of the material had made its way to Jesse Marcel, the Intelligence Officer for the 509th Bomb Group stationed at nearby Roswell Army Air Force Base. The 509th was no ordinary unit: it was the squadron that had trained to drop the atomic bombs on Japan, and in 1947 it was still the only US air group that was qualified to use specially-modified “Silverplate” B-29 bombers to deliver nuclear weapons. By some accounts, Marcel was given some material by Brazel: in other accounts, Marcel visited the ranch and found additional “wreckage” there.
Brazel and Marcel later described the material they examined as some sort of lightweight shiny stuff that looked like tinfoil (but didn’t crumple like tinfoil), some rubber-like material, some pieces of what looked like paper, and some thin wooden sticks shaped like a steel I-beam. The beams had layers of tape on them, with purple drawings of flowers and other figures on it.
Apparently the base commander, Colonel William Blanchard, agreed with Brazel’s assessment that he had found a Soviet spycraft, and he ordered the Public Relations Officer, Lt Walter Haut, to send out a press release announcing that a crashed “flying disc” had been recovered. The story ran in the local papers on July 8, and was briefly picked up by other newspapers around the country.
But then pieces of the “wreckage” were sent to other facilities, including Wright-Patterson Air Base in Ohio and the Eighth Army Air Force headquarters in Ft Worth TX. Here, the material was identified as a balloon. The Eighth Air Force Commander, General Roger Ramey, issued a new press release identifying the alleged “flying disc” as the remnants of a weather balloon, and photos appeared depicting typical balloon cloth and pieces of radar target. As that story was published by newspapers, the incident ended. No one thought about it again for the next 30 years.
Then, in 1978, the supermarket tabloid National Enquirer ran a story claiming that the material that had been found at Roswell in 1947 had actually been the wreckage of a crashed extraterrestrial spaceship. The story prompted “UFO investigators” Stanton Friedman, William Moore and Charles Berlitz to interview Marcel. After running newspaper advertisements, they were then contacted by other “witnesses”–most of whom hadn’t said a word about the “incident” until then.
Since the “witnesses” were contradictory (not surprising, as they were describing memories from 30 years earlier) and since some “UFO investigators” reject the testimony of different witnesses, there is no straightforward agreed-upon account. In some versions, the UFO crashed at Brazel’s ranch, and all of the wreckage was carted away by the US military. In other versions, the crash happened in another place entirely, about 150 miles northeast of Roswell in an area known as San Agustin; other versions have the “crash site” 150 miles northeast of Roswell; still others have the crash just north of the city. Some “investigators” try to unify the accounts by postulating two crashes–a “partial” impact at “Site 1” followed by a “final crash” at “Site 2”. In all of the various versions, though, the US military showed up, gathered all the “wreckage”, threatened all the witnesses into secrecy, and whisked the “crashed UFO” away to some secret location. As a cover story, the military gave out the “weather balloon” story and faked some photos using balloon pieces which they substituted for the “real” spaceship debris.
In 1980, Moore and Berlitz published The Roswell Incident, which declared their conclusion that an alien spaceship had crashed in New Mexico in 1947. Shortly afterwards, the tabloid TV show “Unsolved Mysteries” ran a story on “the Roswell UFO Crash”, and, as always, ran a blurb at the end of the show asking anyone with new information to contact them.
It wasn’t until then, 40 years after the fact, that the most spectacular–and controversial–part of the Roswell narrative appeared.
It wasn’t until the books and TV shows had popularized “The Roswell Crash” that the first reports of “alien bodies” began to appear. Most of these accounts were secondhand, of the “somebody told me that they had seen X, Y and Z” type. But two accounts came from purported “eyewitnesses”. Both accounts describe seeing a crashed craft of some sort, with two or three alien bodies which were taken away by military teams.
But these accounts have their problems. Not only was neither “witness” sure what year the incident had happened, but they both gave different locations, some 200 miles apart, for the “crash”. One of the witnesses, Gerald Anderson, was only five years old in 1947–and he gave detailed descriptions of identifiable Army and Air Force equipment that was not actually in use until the 1950’s. He was also clear that the “aliens” looked to him like “dolls”. The other “eyewitness”, James Ragsdale (who was in his 90s when he came forward), repeatedly described the “aliens” as appearing like “dummies”–details which would become significant later.
The star Roswell “witness”, however, is W Glenn Dennis, who didn’t give his account until 1989. He told “UFO investigators” that he was working in a Roswell funeral home in 1947, and was contacted by the military to see if he had “child-sized caskets” available. Later that day, Dennis was called to accompany a traffic accident victim to the Roswell Army Air Force Hospital. Once there, he says, he parked next to an ambulance filled with “wreckage”, and then happened to run into a nurse that he knew, who told him to leave before he “got into trouble”. Minutes later, Dennis says, he was confronted by military officers who threatened him if he revealed anything he had seen and ordered him to leave. The next day, Dennis met with the nurse, who told him that three “little black bodies” had been brought to the hospital for an autopsy. Within days, Dennis says, the nurse was shipped out to England, where she later died in an accident.
But Dennis’s account has problems (aside from the fact that it appears almost 50 years after the fact, and he himself did not see any actual “alien bodies”). No nurse such as he described could be found to have served at Roswell. (conspiracy fans declare that the records have been removed.) Several other specific people that Dennis said he saw at the hospital that day were not actually assigned to Roswell in 1947–they all arrived later, in the 1950s.
In 1994, at the request of a New Mexico Congressman, the Air Force undertook a study to declassify all of its documents regarding “The Roswell Incident” as well as any documents that might help explain what had happened. In their conclusions, they present an account that not only matches the details reported by witnesses, but explains the various time discrepancies in the witness stories.
First, the “spacecraft”. In 1947, the Soviet Union was working on its first atomic bomb. The US was frantic for a way to monitor Russian atomic tests from the United States, and developed a top secret program called “Project Mogul” to do this. Mogul used a long string of balloons which were specially modified to maintain a constant altitude and stay aloft for days at a time. In addition to standard radar reflectors for tracking, the Mogul balloon carried a small box of monitoring instruments. One of the places Mogul balloons were launched was Alamogordo, near Roswell, and in June 1947 one of the Mogul balloons was lost while being tracked. The Air Force concluded that it was the missing Mogul balloon that Mac Brazel found on his ranch. The descriptions matched Mogul exactly: the Mogul balloon was made of thin aluminized rubber that looked like tinfoil; the radar reflectors, manufactured under contract by a toy company, were made with paper and that was taped to wooden I-beams with toy tape that had been printed with flowers, hearts, and other figures. When the balloon wreckage was sent to Texas, it was probably recognized as part of Project Mogul, and to protect the top secret program a cover story was put out attributing it to a weather balloon.
Next, the “alien bodies”. The Mogul balloons did not carry any passengers. But in the 1950’s the Air Force was carrying out a series of experiments to test high-altitude parachuting. These projects, called Man High and Excelsior, used large balloons to carry rubber “anthropomorphic dummies” (essentially, crash dummies) to very high altitudes before releasing them to parachute to the ground. The dummies often drifted long distances on the way down, and the recovery teams had to chase after them. The equipment and procedures that Gerald Anderson described were typical of Man High recoveries carried out near Roswell in the 1950’s, as well as accounting for the descriptions given of “dolls” and “dummies”. The Air Force concluded that the witnesses were recalling a Man High recovery that had happened in the 1950’s, not an alien crash that had happened in 1947.
Finally, the “alien autopsy”. The Air Force concluded that W Glenn Dennis was also not recalling an incident from 1947, but was actually conflating two separate events that had happened in the 1950s. In June 1956, an airplane crash at Roswell killed the crew of a KC-97, and three of the badly-burned bodies were taken to the Air Base Hospital for autopsy. And in May 1959, during an Excelsior manned balloon parachuting test, an accident resulted in the injury of a balloonist who was taken to the base hospital for treatment: his head had been caught in the balloon frame and was swollen to several times its normal size, giving him an odd alien-like appearance. Dennis’s description of people and equipment was a close match for those known to have been present at these two incidents.
The True Believers will, of course, simply yell “cover-up!” and continue to believe what they want to believe. But the Mogul and Excelsior experiments account for all of the details usually attributed to the “UFO Crash”.
Today, Walter Haut (the Public Relations Officer who wrote the original Roswell “flying disc” press release) and W Glenn Dennis (the “star witness”) run the “International UFO Museum” in Roswell, which presents “evidence” for crashed spaceships, alien bodies, ancient astronauts, and crop circles.