On this date in 1947, 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, New Mexico. Following wide initial interest in the crashed “flying disc”, the US military stated that it was merely a conventional weather balloon. Interest subsequently waned until the late 1970s, when ufologists 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. There was, indeed, a cover-up by the military although the details were more mundane than the discovery of dead space aliens. The balloon that crashed carried equipment for monitoring nuclear tests, that at the time the government wanted to conceal. Nonetheless, despite eventual full disclosure of the truth, conspiracy theories about alien visitors to earth will not go away, leading to what is sometimes called “Roswell syndrome,” the belief in something that is patently false because it fits preconceived notions.
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 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” Marcel reported. “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 [3.5 m] 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 [180 m] in diameter. When the debris was gathered up, the tinfoil, paper, tape, and sticks made a bundle about three feet [1 m] long and 7 or 8 inches [18 or 20 cm] thick, while the rubber made a bundle about 18 or 20 inches [45 or 50 cm] long and about 8 inches [20 cm] thick. In all, he estimated, the entire lot would have weighed maybe five pounds [2 kg]. 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 an FBI office in Fort Worth, Texas, 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 (6 m) 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”.
The military decided to conceal the true purpose of the crashed device – nuclear test monitoring – and instead to inform the public that the crashed object was 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 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.
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 those pertaining to the supposed Majestic 12 (or MJ-12, an alleged secret committee set up Truman to hide evidence of alien visitors). Their conclusions were that 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 a prime example of how a discourse can move from the fringes to the mainstream according to the prevailing worldview. Public preoccupation in the 1980s with “conspiracy, cover-up, and repression” aligned well with the Roswell narratives as told in the sensationalist books which were being published.
In 1978, Stanton T. Friedman, who was a nuclear physicist, and staunch conspiracy theorist, 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. 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.”
Karl T. Pflock, a former CIA operative and author of Roswell: Inconvenient Facts and the Will to Believe, wrote,
The 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.
Kal Korff in The Roswell UFO Crash: What They Don’t Want You To Know (1997), 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.
D. Gildenberg wrote there were as many as 11 reported alien recovery sites in the vicinity of Roswell 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 repeats over time. As a small example, look at the ways in which the newspaper report has been doctored with photos that are not part of the original story (lead photo).
I lived at a center for advanced study in anthropology in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for a year, and during that time I did a lot of traveling for research. In my travels I gained a lifelong love for New Mexican cuisine: posole, sopapillas, breakfast burritos, menudo, green chile stew, and the like. In fact, I have a pot of green chile stew simmering on the hob right now, because whenever I write about New Mexico I get a hankering. You can search on this blog for recipes for all of these dishes. Here I will add a recipe for pico de gallo (lit: rooster’s beak), a common accompaniment to dishes in New Mexico. There are many versions of pico de gallo in the American Southwest, but this one is specifically New Mexican because it uses green chiles, the ubiquitous condiment of New Mexican cooking. It can be made in a food processor, but you have to be careful not to process too much. It should be chunky.
Pico de Gallo
1 large onion, peeled and chopped fine
3-5 hot peppers, seeded and chopped
½ cup New Mexico green chile, diced fine
2 large tomatoes, seeded and chopped fine
¼ cup fresh cilantro, chopped
Combine the onion, tomato, green chile, hot chile, and cilantro in a large bowl and stir well to mix thoroughly. Add salt and lime juice to taste. Serve separately in a bowl as a dip with tortilla chips, or use as a garnish for burritos, huevos rancheros, etc.