In mid 1947, a United States Air Force balloon, mistaken for a UFO, crashed at a ranch near Roswell, New Mexico, prompting claims that the crash was of an extraterrestrial spaceship. Following wide initial interest, the military stated that the crash was merely of a conventional weather balloon. Interest subsequently waned until the late 1970s, when ufologist’s began promoting a variety of increasingly elaborate conspiracy theories, claiming that one or more alien spacecraft had crash-landed, and that the extraterrestrial occupants had been recovered by the military, who then engaged in a cover-up.
In the 1990s, the US military published reports disclosing the true nature of the crashed aircraft, a surveillance balloon from Project Mogul. Nevertheless, the Roswell incident continues to be of interest in popular media, and conspiracy theories surrounding the event persist. Roswell has been described as “the world’s most famous, most exhaustively investigated, and most thoroughly debunked UFO claim”.
Events of 1947
The sequence of events was triggered by the crash of a Project Mogul balloon near Roswell. On July 8, 1947, the Roswell Army Air Field (RAAF) public information officer Walter Haut, issued a press release stating that personnel from the field’s 509th Operations Group had recovered a “flying disc”, which had crashed on a ranch near Roswell.
The military decided to conceal the true purpose of the crashed device – nuclear test monitoring – and instead inform the public that the crash was of a weather balloon. Later that day, the press reported that Commanding General of the Eighth Air Force Roger Ramey had stated that a weather balloon was recovered by the RAAF personnel. A press conference was held, featuring debris (foil, rubber and wood) said to be from the crashed object, which matched the weather balloon description. Historian Robert Goldberg wrote that the intended effect was achieved: “the story died the next day”.
Subsequently the incident faded from the attention of UFO enthusiasts for more than 30 years.
On June 14, 1947, William Brazel, a foreman working on the Foster homestead, noticed clusters of debris approximately 30 miles (50 km) north of Roswell, New Mexico. This date—or “about three weeks” before July 8—appeared in later stories featuring Brazel, but the initial press release from the Roswell Army Air Field (RAAF) said the find was “sometime last week”, suggesting Brazel found the debris in early July. Brazel told the Roswell Daily Record that he and his son saw a “large area of bright wreckage made up of rubber strips, tinfoil, a rather tough paper and sticks.” He paid little attention to it but returned on July 4 with his son, wife and daughter to gather up the material. Some accounts have described Brazel as having gathered some of the material earlier, rolling it together and stashing it under some brush. The next day, Brazel heard reports about “flying discs” and wondered if that was what he had picked up. On July 7, Brazel saw Sheriff Wilcox and “whispered kinda confidential like” that he may have found a flying disc. Another account quotes Wilcox as saying Brazel reported the object on July 6.
Wilcox called RAAF Major Jesse Marcel and a “man in plainclothes” accompanied Brazel back to the ranch where more pieces were picked up. “[We] spent a couple of hours Monday afternoon [July 7] looking for any more parts of the weather device”, said Marcel. “We found a few more patches of tinfoil and rubber.”
As described in the July 9, 1947 edition of the Roswell Daily Record,
The balloon which held it up, if that was how it worked, must have been 12 feet long, [Brazel] felt, measuring the distance by the size of the room in which he sat. The rubber was smoky gray in color and scattered over an area about 200 yards in diameter. When the debris was gathered up, the tinfoil, paper, tape, and sticks made a bundle about three feet long and 7 or 8 inches thick, while the rubber made a bundle about 18 or 20 inches long and about 8 inches thick. In all, he estimated, the entire lot would have weighed maybe five pounds. There was no sign of any metal in the area which might have been used for an engine, and no sign of any propellers of any kind, although at least one paper fin had been glued onto some of the tinfoil. There were no words to be found anywhere on the instrument, although there were letters on some of the parts. Considerable Scotch tape and some tape with flowers printed upon it had been used in the construction. No strings or wires were to be found but there were some eyelets in the paper to indicate that some sort of attachment may have been used.
A telex sent to a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) office from the Fort Worth, Texas office quoted a Major from the Eighth Air Force (also based in Fort Worth at Carswell Air Force Base) on July 8, 1947 as saying that “The disc is hexagonal in shape and was suspended from a ballon [sic] by cable, which ballon [sic] was approximately twenty feet in diameter. Major Curtan further advices advises [sic] that the object found resembles a high altitude weather balloon with a radar reflector, but that telephonic conversation between their office and Wright field had not [UNINTELLIGIBLE] borne out this belief.”
Early on Tuesday, July 8, the RAAF issued a press release, which was immediately picked up by numerous news outlets:
The many rumors regarding the flying disc became a reality yesterday when the intelligence office of the 509th Bomb group of the Eighth Air Force, Roswell Army Air Field, was fortunate enough to gain possession of a disc through the cooperation of one of the local ranchers and the sheriff’s office of Chaves County. The flying object landed on a ranch near Roswell sometime last week. Not having phone facilities, the rancher stored the disc until such time as he was able to contact the sheriff’s office, who in turn notified Maj. Jesse A. Marcel of the 509th Bomb Group Intelligence Office. Action was immediately taken and the disc was picked up at the rancher’s home. It was inspected at the Roswell Army Air Field and subsequently loaned by Major Marcel to higher headquarters.
Colonel William H. Blanchard, commanding officer of the 509th, contacted General Roger M. Ramey of the Eighth Air Force in Fort Worth, Texas, and Ramey ordered the object be flown to Fort Worth Army Air Field. At the base, Warrant Officer Irving Newton confirmed Ramey’s preliminary opinion, identifying the object as being a weather balloon and its “kite”, a nickname for a radar reflector used to track the balloons from the ground. Another news release was issued, this time from the Fort Worth base, describing the object as being a “weather balloon”.
Growing interest, 1978–1994
Between 1978 and the early 1990s, UFO researchers such as Stanton T. Friedman, William Moore, Karl T. Pflock, and the team of Kevin D. Randle and Donald R. Schmitt interviewed several hundred people who claimed to have had a connection with the events at Roswell in 1947. Hundreds of documents were obtained via Freedom of Information Act requests, along with other documents such as Majestic 12 that were supposedly leaked by insiders. Their conclusions were at least one alien spacecraft crashed near Roswell, alien bodies had been recovered, and a government cover-up of the incident had taken place.
Over the years, books, articles, and television specials brought the 1947 incident significant notoriety. By the mid-1990s, public polls such as a 1997 CNN/Time poll, revealed that the majority of people interviewed believed that aliens had indeed visited Earth, and that aliens had landed at Roswell, but that all the relevant information was being kept secret by the US government.
According to anthropologists Susan Harding and Kathleen Stewart, the Roswell Story was the prime example of how a discourse moved from the fringes to the mainstream according to the prevailing zeitgeist: public preoccupation in the 1980s with “conspiracy, cover-up and repression” aligned well with the Roswell narratives as told in the “sensational books” which were being published.
Friedman’s initial work
In 1978, nuclear physicist and author Stanton T. Friedman interviewed Jesse Marcel, the only person known to have accompanied the Roswell debris from where it was recovered to Fort Worth where reporters saw material which was claimed to be part of the recovered object. The accounts given by Friedman and others in the following years elevated Roswell from a forgotten incident to perhaps the most famous UFO case of all time.
The Roswell Incident (1980)
The first conspiracy book about Roswell was The Roswell Incident (1980) by Charles Berlitz and William Moore, authors who had previously written popular books on the Philadelphia Experiment and on the Bermuda Triangle.
Historian Kathy Olmsted writes that the material in this book has come to be known as “version 1” of the Roswell myth. Berlitz and Moore’s narrative holds that an alien craft was flying over the New Mexico desert observing US nuclear weapons activity, but crashed after being hit by lightning, killing the aliens on board; a government cover-up duly followed.
The authors claimed to have interviewed over ninety witnesses. Though he was uncredited, Friedman carried out some research for the book. The Roswell Incident featured accounts of debris described by Marcel as “nothing made on this earth.” Additional accounts by Bill Brazel, son of Mac Brazel, neighbor Floyd Proctor and Walt Whitman Jr., son of newsman W. E. Whitman who had interviewed Mac Brazel, suggested the material Marcel recovered had super-strength not associated with a weather balloon. The book introduced the contention that debris which was recovered by Marcel at the Foster ranch, visible in photographs showing Marcel posing with the debris, was substituted for debris from a weather device as part of a cover-up. The book also claimed that the debris recovered from the ranch was not permitted a close inspection by the press. The efforts by the military were described as being intended to discredit and “counteract the growing hysteria towards flying saucers”. Two accounts of witness intimidation were included in the book, including the incarceration of Mac Brazel. The book also introduced the secondhand stories of civil engineer Barney Barnett and a group of archeology students from an unidentified university seeing alien wreckage and bodies while in the desert.
Berlitz and Moore’s narrative was dominant until the late 1980s when other authors, attracted by the commercial potential of writing about Roswell, started producing rival accounts.
UFO Crash at Roswell (1991)
In 1991, Kevin Randle and Donald Schmitt published UFO Crash at Roswell. They added 100 new witnesses, altered and tightened the narrative, and included several “sinister” new twists.
Some new details were included, including accounts of a “gouge […] that extended four or five hundred feet” at the ranch and descriptions of an elaborate cordon and recovery operation. Several witnesses in The Roswell Incident described being turned back from the Foster ranch by armed military police, but extensive descriptions were not given. The Barnett accounts were mentioned, though the dates and locations were changed from the accounts found in The Roswell Incident. In the new account, Brazel was described as leading the Army to a second crash site on the ranch, at which point the Army personnel were supposedly “horrified to find civilians [including Barnett] there already.”
Glenn Dennis was produced as a supposedly important witness in 1989, after calling the hotline when an episode of Unsolved Mysteries featured the Roswell incident. His descriptions of Roswell alien autopsies were the first account that said there were alien corpses at the Roswell Army Air Base.
Randle and Schmitt’s book sold 160,000 copies.
Crash at Corona (1992)
In 1992, Stanton Friedman re-entered the scene with his own book Crash at Corona, co-authored with Don Berliner – an author of books on space and aviation. Goldberg writes that Friedman too introduced new “witnesses”, and that he added to the narrative by doubling the number of flying saucers to two, and the number of aliens to eight – two of which were said to have survived and been taken into custody by the government.
The Truth about the UFO Crash at Roswell (1994)
Randle and Schmitt responded with another book, updating their previous narrative with several new details, including the claim that alien bodies were taken by cargo plane to be viewed by Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was curious about their appearance.
The Day After Roswell (1997)
Former Lt. Col. Philip J. Corso reported in his autobiographical book that the Roswell Crash did happen and that when he was assigned to Fort Riley (Kansas) in July 1947, 5 trucks of 25 tons and some semi trailers entered the base from Fort Bliss Texas. He claimed while he was patrolling the base he was brought into the medical facilities by Sgt. Brown and shown the remnants of bodies that were from an “air crash”. Philip Klass analyzed his claims line by line and exposed many inconsistencies and factual errors.
The existence of so many differing accounts by 1994 led to a schism among ufologist’s about the events at Roswell. The Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS) and the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), two leading UFO societies, disagreed in their views of the various scenarios presented by Randle–Schmitt and Friedman–Berliner; several conferences were held to try to resolve the differences. One issue under discussion was where Barnett was when he saw the alien craft he was said to have encountered. A 1992 UFO conference had attempted to achieve a consensus among the various scenarios portrayed in Crash at Corona and UFO Crash at Roswell, however, the publication of The Truth About the UFO Crash at Roswell had “resolved” the Barnett problem by simply ignoring Barnett and citing a new location for the alien craft recovery, including a new group of archaeologists not connected to the ones the Barnett story cited.
Don Schmitt held that variations in narratives between different writers was not however an essential problem, commenting by way of comparison “We know Jesus Christ was crucified, we just don’t know where.”
Problems with witness accounts
Hundreds of people were interviewed by the various researchers, but critics point out that only a few of these people claimed to have seen debris or aliens. Most witnesses were repeating the claims of others, and their testimony would be considered hearsay in an American court of law and therefore inadmissible as evidence. Of the 90 people claimed to have been interviewed for The Roswell Incident, the testimony of only 25 appears in the book, and only seven of these people saw the debris. Of these, five handled the debris. Pflock, in Roswell: Inconvenient Facts and the Will to Believe (2001), makes a similar point about Randle and Schmitt’s UFO Crash at Roswell. Approximately 271 people are listed in the book who were “contacted and interviewed” for the book, and this number does not include those who chose to remain anonymous, meaning more than 300 witnesses were interviewed, a figure Pflock said the authors frequently cited. Of these 300-plus individuals, only 41 can be “considered genuine first- or second-hand witnesses to the events in and around Roswell or at the Fort Worth Army Air Field,” and only 23 can be “reasonably thought to have seen physical evidence, debris recovered from the Foster Ranch.” Of these, only seven have asserted anything suggestive of otherworldly origins for the debris.
As for the accounts from those who claimed to have seen aliens, critics identified problems ranging from the reliability of second-hand accounts, to credibility problems with witnesses making demonstrably false claims, or multiple, contradictory accounts, to dubious death-bed confessions or accounts from elderly and easily confused witnesses. Pflock noted that only four people with supposed firsthand knowledge of alien bodies were interviewed and identified by Roswell authors: Frank Kaufmann; Jim Ragsdale; Lt. Col. Albert Lovejoy Duran; Gerald Anderson. Duran is mentioned in a brief footnote in The Truth About the UFO Crash at Roswell and never again, while the other three all have serious credibility problems. A problem with all the accounts, charge critics, is they all came about a minimum of 31 years after the events in question, and in many cases were recounted more than 40 years after the fact. Not only are memories this old of dubious reliability, they were also subject to contamination from other accounts the interviewees may have been exposed to. The shifting claims of Jesse Marcel, whose suspicion that what he recovered in 1947 was “not of this world” sparked interest in the incident in the first place, cast serious doubt on the reliability of what he claimed to be true.
In The Roswell Incident, Marcel stated, “Actually, this material may have looked like tinfoil and balsa wood, but the resemblance ended there […] They took one picture of me on the floor holding up some of the less-interesting metallic debris […] The stuff in that one photo was pieces of the actual stuff we found. It was not a staged photo.” Timothy Printy points out that the material Marcel positively identified as being part of what he recovered is material that skeptics and UFO advocates agree is debris from a balloon device. After that fact was pointed out to him, Marcel changed his story to say that that material was not what he recovered. Skeptics like Robert Todd argued that Marcel had a history of embellishment and exaggeration, such as claiming to have been a pilot and having received five Air Medals for shooting down enemy planes, claims that were all found to be false, and skeptics feel that his evolving Roswell story was simply another instance of this tendency to fabricate.
Air Force reports, 1994–1997
In response to these reports, and after United States congressional inquiries, the General Accounting Office launched an inquiry and directed the Office of the United States Secretary of the Air Force to conduct an internal investigation. The result was summarized in two reports. The first, released in 1994, concluded that the reported recovered material in 1947 was likely debris from Project Mogul. The second report, released in 1997, concluded reports of recovered alien bodies were likely a combination of innocently transformed memories of military accidents involving injured or killed personnel, innocently transformed memories of the recovery of anthropomorphic dummies in military programs like Operation High Dive conducted in the 1950s, and hoaxes perpetrated by various witnesses and UFO proponents. The psychological effects of time compression and confusion about when events occurred explained the discrepancy with the years in question.
The Air Force reports were dismissed by UFO proponents as being either disinformation or simply implausible, though skeptical researchers such as Philip J. Klass and Robert Todd, who had been expressing doubts regarding accounts of aliens for several years, used the reports as the basis for skeptical responses to claims by UFO proponents. After the release of the Air Force reports, several books, such as Kal Korff’s The Roswell UFO Crash: What They Don’t Want You To Know (1997), built on the evidence presented in the reports to conclude “there is no credible evidence that the remains of an extraterrestrial spacecraft was involved.” In the 1990s, skeptics and even some social anthropologists saw the increasingly elaborate accounts of alien crash landings and government cover ups as evidence of a myth being constructed.
Although there is no evidence that a UFO crashed at Roswell, believers firmly hold to the belief that one did, and that the truth has been concealed as a result of a government conspiracy. B. D. Gildenberg has called the Roswell incident “the world’s most famous, most exhaustively investigated, and most thoroughly debunked UFO claim”.
Pflock said, “[T]he case for Roswell is a classic example of the triumph of quantity over quality. The advocates of the crashed-saucer tale […] simply shovel everything that seems to support their view into the box marked ‘Evidence’ and say, ‘See? Look at all this stuff. We must be right.’ Never mind the contradictions. Never mind the lack of independent supporting fact. Never mind the blatant absurdities.” Korff suggests there are clear incentives for some people to promote the idea of aliens at Roswell, and that many researchers were not doing competent work: “[The] UFO field is comprised of people who are willing to take advantage of the gullibility of others, especially the paying public. Let’s not pull any punches here: The Roswell UFO myth has been very good business for UFO groups, publishers, for Hollywood, the town of Roswell, the media, and UFOlogy […] [The] number of researchers who employ science and its disciplined methodology is appallingly small.”
B. D. Gildenberg wrote there were as many as 11 reported alien recovery sites and these recoveries bore only a marginal resemblance to the event as initially reported in 1947, or as recounted later by the initial witnesses. Some of these new accounts could have been confused accounts of the several known recoveries of injured and dead servicemen from four military plane crashes that occurred in the area from 1948 to 1950. Other accounts could have been based on memories of recoveries of test dummies, as suggested by the Air Force in their reports. Charles Ziegler argued that the Roswell story has all the hallmarks of a traditional folk narrative. He identified six distinct narratives, and a process of transmission via storytellers with a core story that was created from various witness accounts, and was then shaped and molded by those who carry on the UFO community’s tradition. Other “witnesses” were then sought out to expand the core narrative, with those who give accounts not in line with the core beliefs being repudiated or simply omitted by the “gatekeepers.” Others then retold the narrative in its new form. This whole process would repeat over time.
Prominent skeptics Joe Nickell and co-author James McGaha identified a myth-making process, which they called the “Roswellian Syndrome”. In this syndrome a myth is proposed to have five distinct stages of development: Incident, Debunking, Submergence, Mythologizing, and Reemergence and Media Bandwagon Effect. The authors predicted that the Roswellian Syndrome would “play out again and again”, in other UFO and conspiracy-theory stories.
Shoddy research and unreliable witnesses
The Air Force reports on the incident suggested that basic research that was claimed to have been carried out was not in fact carried out, a fact verified in a 1995 Omni magazine article.
Glenn Dennis, who testified that Roswell alien autopsies were carried out at the Roswell base, and that he and others were the subjects of threats, was deemed one of the “least credible” Roswell witnesses by Randle in 1998. In Randle and Schmitt’s 1991 book UFO Crash at Roswell, Dennis’s story was featured prominently. Randle said Dennis was not credible “for changing the name of the nurse once we had proved she didn’t exist.” Dennis’s accounts were also doubted by researcher Pflock.
Scientific skeptic author Brian Dunning concurs that Dennis cannot be regarded as a reliable witness, considering that he had seemingly waited over forty years before he started recounting a series of unconnected events. Such events, Dunnings argues, were then arbitrarily joined together to form what has become the most popular narrative of the alleged alien crash.
Some prominent UFOlogists including Karl T. Pflock, Kent Jeffrey, William L. Moore, have become convinced that there were no aliens or alien space craft involved in the Roswell crash.
Alien autopsy hoax
In 1995, film footage purporting to show an alien autopsy and claimed to have been taken by a US military official shortly after the Roswell incident was released by Ray Santilli, a London-based video entrepreneur. The footage caused an international sensation when it aired on television networks around the world.
In 2006, Santilli admitted that the film was mostly a reconstruction, but continued to claim it was based on genuine footage now lost, and some original frames that had supposedly survived. A fictionalized version of the creation of the footage and its release was retold in the comedy film Alien Autopsy (2006).
In an attempt to produce fresh evidence, some researchers used new technology to try to re-analyze photographs of the telegram held by General Ramey during his 1947 press conference. Goldberg writes that the results proved inconclusive: while some claimed they could discern wording like “victims of the wreck”, others claimed they saw “turn out to be weather balloons”. Overall, there was no consensus that anything was legible.
US political interest
On October 26, 2007, Bill Richardson (who at the time was a candidate for the Democratic Party nomination for U.S. President) was asked about releasing government files on Roswell. Richardson responded that when he was a Congressman, he attempted to get information on behalf of his New Mexico constituents, but was told by both the Department of Defense and Los Alamos Labs that the information was classified. “That ticked me off,” he said “The government doesn’t tell the truth as much as it should on a lot of issues.” He promised to work on opening the files if he were elected as President.
In October 2002, before airing its Roswell documentary, the Sci-Fi Channel hosted a Washington UFO news conference. John Podesta, President Clinton’s chief of staff, appeared as a member of the public relations firm hired by Sci-Fi to help get the government to open up documents on the subject. Podesta stated, “It is time for the government to declassify records that are more than 25 years old and to provide scientists with data that will assist in determining the true nature of the phenomena.”
As time wore on, it became harder for Roswell researchers to find new evidence to publish; there was potential though in the prospect of deathbed confessions from those originally involved in 1947. In 2007 Donald Schmitt and Tom Carey published the book Witness to Roswell, which prominently featured a document said to be a sworn affidavit written by Walter Haut, who had written the first Army press release about the Roswell crash in 1947. The document, apparently kept under seal until Haut’s death in 2005, described how the 1947 crash debris had been discussed by high-ranking staff and how Haut had seen alien bodies. The claims, however, drew an unimpressed response even from ufologists: Dennis Balthaser said that the document was not written by Haut, and that by 2000 Haut’s mental state was such he could not recall basic details about his past, making the detail contained in the affidavit seem dubious. Physicist and skeptic Dave Thomas commented: “Is Roswell still the ‘best’ UFO incident? If it is, UFO proponents should be very, very worried.”
The “other Roswell”
The 1948 Aztec, New Mexico, UFO incident was a hoaxed flying saucer crash and subject of the book Behind the Flying Saucers (1950) by Frank Scully. The incident is sometimes referred to as the “other Roswell” and parallels have been drawn between the incidents.
Area 51 (2011)
American journalist Annie Jacobsen’s Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base (2011), based on interviews with scientists and engineers who worked in Area 51, dismisses the alien story. She quotes one unnamed source as claiming that Josef Mengele, a German Schutzstaffel officer and a physician in Auschwitz, was recruited by the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to produce “grotesque, child-size aviators” to be remotely piloted and landed in America in order to cause hysteria similar to Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds (1938). The aircraft, however, crashed and the incident was hushed up by the Americans. Jacobsen wrote that the bodies found at the crash site were children around 12 years old with large heads and abnormally-shaped, over-sized eyes. They were neither aliens nor consenting airmen, but human guinea pigs. The book was criticized for extensive errors by scientists from the Federation of American Scientists.