Rancher WW ‘Mac’ Brazel had no idea what he had found on his remote property in New Mexico, nor where it had come from. Three weeks later, when he visited the nearest settlement and told people about his discovery, he was impressed upon to report it immediately to the authorities.
To Brazel, ‘it’ amounted to a puzzling collection of metallic fragments, rubber, wood, tape and paper, but to those with access to radio, television, newspapers and a telephone, the debris sounded very much like the component parts of a “flying saucer”.
This was the name given by excited journalists the previous month to the unidentified objects seen by civilian pilot Kenneth Arnold as they flew past Mount Rainier, near Seattle.
Duty-bound, Brazel travelled the 75 miles to the town of Roswell, and on July 7 1947, 75 years ago today, presented the sheriff with the mysterious debris.
The sheriff contacted Roswell Army Air Field (RAAF was an army flight school base), who assigned Major Jesse Marcel – an intelligence officer with the world’s only atomic-bomb squadron – to visit the ranch and collect the debris.
Marcel flew everything to General Roger Ramey at Fort Worth; in the meantime, an official press release had been issued that read, in part: “The many rumours regarding the flying disc became a reality yesterday when the intelligence office… was fortunate enough to gain possession of a disc.”
It was, as the author Anna Whitty tells in a new documentary, Roswell 75: The Final Evidence, “the ‘Big Bang’ of modern day UFO phenomena”.
On Saturday July 2, at Roswell’s 26th UFO Festival, 45,000 enthusiasts descended to celebrate World UFO Day and the 75th anniversary of what has become known as the “Roswell Incident”.
Yet while they were able to dress up as extraterrestrials, eat at a UFO-themed McDonalds, queue for the International UFO Museum and Research Center, listen to talks by “ufologists” and even enter an Alien Chase fun-run, there was no “captured flying saucer” on display. In fact, many of those in attendance would have doubted whether there was a UFO in the first place.
This is because, before the world’s media could arrive in New Mexico in July 1947 to cover the biggest story in recorded history, Gen Ramey and his chief of staff, Col Thomas Dubose, announced to the US press that, after close examination, the debris belonged to a crashed weather balloon. There was officially “nothing to see here”.
The Roswell Daily Record, which had declared “RAAF Captures Flying Saucer on Ranch in Roswell”, printed a retraction, Brazel declared himself embarrassed, and the story disappeared for decades. There were no books, no TV programmes, no films. The events were set to become a footnote in the history of an unremarkable American town.
So how did Roswell become the global capital of the UFO and alien tourism industry, and arguably the principal generator of the annual $6.6 billion that New Mexico receives from visitors to the state?
It makes perfect sense that Jesse Marcel and Stanton Friedman became the first two inductees on Roswell’s new UFO Walk of Fame.
Friedman, a former nuclear physicist and “clear-cut unambiguous ufologist”, was the man who breathed life back into the Roswell story by convincing the retired Marcel to admit publicly in 1978 that he still believed the debris he had handled in 1947 to be “nothing made on this Earth” and added a cover-up had been orchestrated.
More research and the unearthing of other witnesses led to the best-selling 1980 book The Roswell Incident, co-written by Charles Berlitz and William Moore.
It mentioned “alien bodies” at the crash site for the first time, and tapped into a post-Watergate America suspicious of authority, as well as a post-Moon landing, Space Race zeitgeist represented by the success of films such as Close Encounters of The Third Kind.
People began looking again at UFO sightings dating back decades, then in 1989 one Bob Lazar claimed that he had been hired by the US government to reverse-engineer extraterrestrial technology on one of nine flying saucers held at a secret site in Nevada called “S-4”, near the United States Air Force facility now widely known as “Area 51”.
His credibility has been repeatedly called into question, but the dam was broken.
The International UFO Museum and Research Center opened in Roswell in 1991, with co-founder Glenn Dennis claiming that a nurse he knew who had worked on the base told him that she had participated in an autopsy on an alien in 1947 (but sworn him to secrecy).
Dennis worked as a mortician, and also claimed that at around the same time, he had been asked by the base about the chances of procuring “hermetically-sealed” child-sized caskets.
In 1994, as the multi-million dollar UFO industry was getting into its stride – the TV movie Roswell, starring Kyle MacLachlan and Martin Sheen, kicked off a love affair between the story and screens big and small – and after United States congressional inquiries, the first “Report of Air Force Research Regarding the ‘Roswell Incident’” was released.
It acknowledged that the “weather balloon” story was indeed a cover-up, but one conducted for the purposes of national security. The debris discovered by Brazel, it claimed, was from Project Mogul, a military surveillance operation designed to detect Soviet nuclear testing.
The explanation failed to convince. Eyewitness reports of dead aliens, and a grainy video of an alleged alien autopsy, which leaked in 1995 and would eventually be acknowledged as a hoax, had not been addressed, and would not be until a second report in 1997 introduced the less-than-convincing notion of crash-test dummies being found at the site.
The official conclusion was, and remains: “No credible evidence from any witness has turned out to present a compelling case that the object [found at Roswell] was extraterrestrial in origin.”
Predictably – especially given the admission that the US Government had already been involved in one cover-up – the story continued to propagate in the fertile soil of websites and chat-rooms online. It thrives there to this day.
“[The official reports] just fed into the belief that there was actually more to this than they said there was before,” Whitty tells me. “They’ve tried so hard to kibosh it several times, but one of the things that’s really great about Roswell is that there’s just nothing conclusive that can knock it out of the park.
“Didn’t Einstein say the universe is not just weirder than we think, but weirder than we can think? It’s just beyond our [understanding].”
As if to prove the point, Dr Shirley Wright, a former assistant to the great theoretical physicist Einstein, claimed on audio tapes recorded in 1993 that she had accompanied him to “Area 51”, witnessed spacecraft and telepathically conversed with aliens.
Later, in 2011, investigative journalist Annie Jacobsen suggested that Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin had recruited Nazi scientist Josef Mengele after the war to create alien-like children in a eugenics experiment and then flown them to America in a remote-piloted plane to create mass hysteria, as per the infamous Orson Welles “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast in October 1938. The plane, however, crashed, and was discovered at Roswell before everything was hushed up.
“It was a kind of ‘What the f---k?” moment when that came out,” smiles Dr David Hall, an analytical thinker who has held board level positions in a range of engineering and forensic science companies and also appears in Roswell 75: The Final Evidence.
“One [option] is that it’s a straight-off-the-bat weather balloon, and everything else is a figment of everyone else’s imagination. Two, it’s an extraterrestrial visitation. Three, could the Russians have been playing psychological war games with Mengele and developing their own aliens from young children?
“Yes, but isn’t it more likely that, four, a US development programme at a nuclear site led from air-balloon capability into doing tests with various life forms and ended up using humans because they needed to know what the impact [of fallout] was going to be? If you line those up, the least probable for me would be the extraterrestrial visitation. I don’t think it’s impossible, just the most unlikely.”
And yet the story persists. “Well, it’s in everyone’s interests to keep the story going,” Hall says. “For the US Army Air Force, it was a major diversionary tactic that covered up the fact that they were doing some nuclear tests that were highly covert and maybe morally questionable.
While for the town of Roswell, it’s no different from Loch Ness, is it? It’s a huge tourist money spinner.
“If you go back over millennia, people have always been interested in what’s happening up in the sky… People would look up and worship gods because events were taking place and they assumed they were up there, but I don’t think it’s out of romanticism. I think it’s out of trying to explain the unexplained.”
Roswell 75: The Final Evidence airs tonight on Blaze at 9pm