Roswell incident celebrates 63rd birthday

Brett Michael Dykes

Sixty-three years ago, the Roswell Daily Record reported that a local couple had recently spotted a "large glowing object" darting through the sky over the New Mexico town — and that an Army intelligence office confirmed at noon July 8 that the Roswell Army Air Field "has come into possession of a flying saucer" after a local rancher reported finding a disk on his property.

But the following day, the Army narrative shifted dramatically. Officials at the Roswell base announced that they'd just cleaned up after a crashed weather balloon.

And thus was born one of our age's most hotly debated conspiracy theories.

The Roswell Daily Record initially trumpeted the discovery in bold words familiar to connoisseurs of Cold War-era sci-fi films: “RAAF Captures Flying Saucer On Ranch in Roswell Region,” read the headline on July 8, 1947. The article featured the account of “Mr. and Mrs. Dan Wilmot,” who were “apparently the only persons in Roswell who have seen what they thought was a flying disk”:

"They were sitting on their porch at 105 South Penn. last Wednesday night at about ten minutes before ten o'clock when a large glowing object zoomed out of the sky from the southeast, going in a northwesterly direction at a high rate of speed.

"Wilmot called Mrs. Wilmot's attention to it and both ran down into the yard to watch. It was in sight less than a minute, perhaps 40 or 50 seconds, Wilmot estimated.

"Wilmot said that it appeared to him to be about 1,500 feet high and going fast. He estimated between 400 and 500 miles per hour.

"In appearance it looked oval in shape like two inverted saucers, faced mouth to mouth or like two old type washbowls placed together in the same fashion. The entire body glowed as though light were showing through from inside, though not like it would be if a light were merely underneath.

"From where he stood Wilmot said that the object looked to be about 5 feet in size, and making allowance for the distance it was from town he figured that it must have been 15 or 20 feet in diameter, though this was just a guess.

"Wilmot said that he heard no sound but that Mrs. Wilmot said she heard a swishing sound for a very short time.

"The object came into view from the southeast and disappeared over the treetops in the general vicinity of six-mile hill."

In relaying this extraordinary sighting, the paper took pains to tell readers that Dan Wilmot was "one of the most respected and reliable citizens in town."

Today, of course, the name Roswell is synonymous with UFO and alien conspiracy theories, and it has received the greatest tribute America can pay to a historic event: an eponymous TV show. But amid all the incident's  latter-day renown, it's easy to forget that the Army's official effort to walk back the initial reports succeeded for more than 30 years.

It wasn’t until 1978 that all the fervid speculation began in earnest: Maj. Jesse Marcel, one of the soldiers involved in the 1947 recovery operation, came forward with his view that the wreckage he'd helped clean up was "not of this world."  (Marcel also helped egg on the conspiracy-minded with his firm insistence that the U.S. government had conspired to hide the existence of alien life.)

With that testimony, the Roswell episode catapulted from its former status as early Cold War curiosity to the front ranks of conspiracy culture. It became a full-fledged "incident," as most retrospective accounts put it — something to be explained, re-interrogated and, above all, debated.

So while the occurrence at Roswell may be technically approaching retirement age, we can confidently predict that it will forever be a byword for extraterrestrial mysteries and dark governmental machinations.

That's just how history is made in the new millennium.