Did a flying saucer, piloted by alien creatures, really crash in New Mexico in 1947? Tony Barrell flew in 50 years later, to examine the truth behind the Roswell Incident
THE SUNDAY TIMES, 1997
I am in the barrio, the Hispanic part of town. It is about 8.30pm on the first day of July, and something has landed in Ynes and Aurora Jaramillo’s front garden. It is a broad silver disc on sturdy, diagonal legs. Lights flash: white round the middle; green, orange, red and blue round the top. The scorching sun is setting fast, but I can still make out a few eerie, stunted figures lurking in front of the craft, which has a narrow ramp leading from its belly to the lawn below. They are little green men with huge, staring black eyes, and they seem to be hovering slightly above the grass. The children across the road show no interest in the phenomenon, scampering around and letting off premature Independence Day fireworks. The saucer has been here for a whole week, so they’re used to it by now.
“It took about six days to build it,” says Ynes, grinning under his broad-brimmed hat. “About six of us did it – neighbours, family.” The top section of the garden UFO started life as a large satellite dish (“We’ve got cable now”); the legs are steel pipe sheathed in PVC drainpipe; the ramp is a children’s slide; the illuminations are Christmas lights. Aurora, Ynes’s wife, explains the mysterious black symbols painted on the side of the craft: “They’re just made up. But they’re supposed to say, ‘Where are we? Don’t ask!’” The aliens were made by a neighbour out of balloons, papier-mâché and paint, and are attached to poles stuck in the ground.
Some say it was a crashed spaceship, that there were alien bodies inside, and that the military whisked it off
It is all too easy to laugh if you don’t know Roswell, New Mexico. Fifty years ago, something happened that lent this ordinary southwestern ranching and industrial town a weird new dimension. What seems certain – and there are precious few certainties in this very American enigma – is that something fell to earth in the desert out of town. Some say it was a crashed extraterrestrial spaceship, that there were alien bodies inside, and that the military whisked it off and have kept the whole incident hushed up ever since. A recent survey for the newspaper USA Today concluded that around 65% of Americans believe this story. The percentage is undoubtedly higher in Roswell itself, where it is hard to find anyone to support the government’s more sober line: that what came down in 1947 was a cold-war surveillance balloon. And the strange bodies? Parachute dummies, is the Pentagon’s latest guess.
But the town has made its mind up, and it’s celebrating. “Aliens crashed here in 1947. Now it’s your turn,” announces a sign outside one of the full-to-bursting hotels on Main Street. (Rooms are so scarce this week that CNN reporters have had to hole up in the Alzheimer’s ward of a local hospital.) Eateries and bars advertise “alien fry bread” and out-of-this-world margaritas, and there are so many flying saucers and skinny, big-eyed ETs in shop windows and on T-shirts, jewellery, lollipops and cookie boxes, that if there was a real visitation, nobody would notice.
In the dead of night you can almost hear the sound of massed needles puncturing tinfoil as entrants prepare their outfits for the grand alien costume contest. On an early visit to the UFO convention centre I meet Morgianna the Intergalactic Belly Dancer, a sylphlike being in titanium jewellery, silver body paint and little else. “I sometimes leave this make-up on all day,” she reveals, “but it turns to goo in the heat, and I can’t touch anything. My assistants have to feed me and I can’t go to the toilet.” A costume designer, she announces, created her “electronic brassiere”. A couple of days later, I encounter her again. “Hi,” I say, “I see you’re still wearing your total sunblock.” She stops in her tracks – bemused, unamused – then shimmies away.
There was a dramatic thunderstorm over the desert outside Roswell on the night of July 4, 1947. In 1993, two years before he died, Jim Ragsdale told UFO researchers that he was on a weekend camping trip when he saw a bright blue-grey object shoot overhead at around 11.30pm, and heard it hit the ground about a mile away. Reports from a group of archaeologists and a pair of Franciscan nuns apparently corroborate this sighting. Ragsdale drove off to investigate, found something odd stuck in the side of a cliff, and decided to return in daylight. The term “flying saucer” had only just been coined, but this was no saucer, he said: it looked like an aeroplane with peculiarly narrow wings, and its nose was crumpled. Nearby, he claimed, there were midget-like bodies. He drove off when a fleet of trucks appeared, and watched from a distance as military policemen threw a cordon round the area.
Roswell was home at that time to the 509th Bomb Group, the elite US Air Force squadron that had dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki two years before. Frank Kaufmann, who was working as a security officer at the air base in 1947, has described the little bodies as “smooth-looking individuals” with no hair, small noses and ears, each one wearing “a silver type of uniform”. He said the “heel-shaped” craft was split open and one of the five bodies had been thrown clear, and they were all starting to deteriorate. He noticed the skin was “trying to shrivel up”. Other reports say they looked as though they had been set upon by predators – perhaps the buzzards and coyotes that lurk in this desert. Some say one of the aliens was still alive.
The major noted that some of the debris had strange foreign symbols on it, like hieroglyphics
On the same night, July 4, a rancher called Mac Brazel heard a loud crash, unlike a thunderclap, and the next day he found one of his fields strewn with strange, metallic-looking debris. He took some of the stuff to show the local sheriff, who then notified the military. An intelligence officer, Major Jesse Marcel, visited the field and was so impressed with the material that he took it home to show his wife and 11-year-old son. He noted that the debris was very light and thin but incredibly resilient, and some of it had strange foreign symbols on it, like hieroglyphics.
The 509th then did a strange thing: it told the press it had recovered a flying saucer near Roswell – only to have that statement swiftly overturned by the commander of the Eighth Air Force at Fort Worth, Texas, who declared that Mac Brazel’s debris was nothing but the remains of a weather balloon. UFO believers say Marcel became the fall guy, posing for photographs with paper-backed foil, sticks and other meteorological detritus that bore no relation to the original debris. In 1994 the USAF changed its story slightly, claiming that the Roswell “UFO” had not been a mere weather device, but a balloon launched from nearby Alamogordo under the banner of Project Mogul, a classified initiative to detect Soviet H-bomb tests.
But Roswell this week is full of Fox Mulders – people who want to believe – and to them the balloon explanation is just a lot of hot air. Only one man here is bold enough to stand up for it. “The USAF report is right,” says Karl Pflock. “The debris that started the brouhaha was not thrown from outer space but from Alamogordo.” Pflock, a writer and researcher with former links to the Pentagon and the CIA, is holding a balloon debate with another author, Kevin Randle, who is firmly sticking up for the little grey men. The audience are on Randle’s side; they are as hungry for aliens as the buzzards and coyotes. One fidgety man stands up and shouts: “Can we talk about bodies? All we’ve been talkin’ about is freakin’ balloons!”
In a way, the Roswell incident is ideal compensation for the failure of the American Dream. Not only does it provide another reason to damn the government, but it also gives people something different and exciting – alien contact – to believe in. Do any of the JFK assassination theories or Monroe postmortems offer that kind of hope, that kind of otherness?
Few people here are credulous enough, though, to have swallowed the famous “autopsy” footage that surfaced in 1995. This fuzzy, 15-minute black-and-white film, part of which was shown in a Channel 4 documentary on Roswell, claims to show an alien under the knife 50 years ago. Strange, dark organs are removed by surgeons as the rubbery creature lies there, open-mouthed and displaying a nasty case of beriberi. When I ask Kevin Randle what he thinks of the film, he throws his head back and laughs melodramatically. Then he gets serious. “No,”he says, “it’s not funny. It’s done a lot of damage to legitimate research.” But the cameraman who ostensibly shot the film, or the person claiming to be him, has made Roswell history in another, more powerful way. A recent statement delivered via a third party has him claiming he also filmed the crashed UFO with the aliens beside it. They were “circus freaks, creatures with no business here. Each had hold of a box… They just lay there crying, holding those boxes… but we managed to get one loose with a firm strike at the head of a freak with the butt of a rifle”.
Two girls, aged 12 and 14, have come from Colorado to place flowers on the crash site
This colourful new story, despite the anonymity of its source, is the one I hear tourists being told at rancher Hub Corn’s property, 30 miles out of town – the supposed site of the crash. The cliff where the UFO is said to have come to rest is roped off and marked with wee Star-Spangled Banners. Two girls, aged 12 and 14, have come from Colorado to place flowers on the spot. A young couple from Georgia scoop up some earth and put it in an empty mineral-water bottle.
And yet some ufologists say this is not where the thing came down; they point to another site, about 40 miles to the west. It doesn’t take long to realise that nobody speculates and hypothesises quite like American UFO conspiracy theorists. Some say what crashed was a rocket from Earth. After the second world war, the Americans snatched V-2 mastermind Wernher von Braun and other Nazi scientists out of Germany and set them to work on what would become the US space programme. Some of the top-secret test flights, from nearby White Sands, involved monkeys – whose body hair might have been sufficiently singed by a crash to create the appearance of little aliens. Another strictly terrestrial idea is that the “aliens” were Japanese pilots helping the Americans to develop a new, improved version of the Fugo high-altitude balloon bombs that were launched from Japan during the war. Perhaps the pilots were biologically altered to withstand high-speed flight, and President Clinton can’t quite bring himself to apologise yet.
What if this was a time machine? Could we be seeing time travellers from the profound future of the world?
The author Whitley Strieber has the wackiest theory of all. “What if this was a time machine?” he asks. “It’s not all that unreasonable.” Say humans become extinct, he suggests, and another species comes along a billion years later and develops time travel. “Could we be seeing time travellers not from our future but from the profound future of the world?”
With Roswell expecting 35,000 visitors and something like $2.5m in extra revenue during the week of the convention, cold-hearted cynics might add a very down-to-earth possibility to the list. The story could have been manufactured to please the tourism department. A century ago, this town was a dusty dive for gambling cowboys. Later, the USAF base came to dominate the place. Now, with the sharpshooters and air aces long gone, it has transformed itself into a model American town, churning out wool, beef, alfalfa, buses and mozzarella cheese, and providing parks, golf courses, hiking trails and a retirement village for its modest population of under 50,000. But if it wasn’t for 1947 and all that, it would probably have a hard time pulling in the tourists. “We don’t have beaches, or the underground caverns that Carlsbad has,” says convention organiser Stan Crosby.
Feverish speculation and a lack of hard evidence inevitably breed folklore, in all its forms. So it isn’t too surprising to discover that the Roswell incident has become a folk song. “Someone reminded me of the story a couple of years ago and I thought, ‘That is the quintessential subject for a traditional folk ballad,’” says the American singer Suzanne McDermott. “But when I started performing ‘The Roswell Incident’, I thought, ‘Hmmm, how are people going to take this? I sing about aliens and a UFO crash.’ And then I was thinking, you know, why should I feel so weird? I grew up in a culture where aliens were all-pervading. My TV culture was The Outer Limits, Lost in Space, My Favorite Martian…” The lyrics of the 20-verse song – “It’s an epic!” – take the viewpoint of Bessie Brazel, 12-year-old daughter of Mac. “It’s a little girl talking about what happens to her father, the result of which is that a wall comes between them. He never spoke again about what he found. It destroys communities when we’re forced to keep secrets.”
I’m a lifelong abductee. Most times, I’m taken aboard a craft, and I’m on a platform, like in a doctor’s examining office
Revelations can shatter families just as violently as secrets, says Leah Haley. “My first husband divorced me. One of my children is getting married this month and I am not invited to the wedding, because I have brought embarrassment on the family,” she says. Haley is one of a growing band of people who believe they have been abducted by aliens. She sits behind her bookstall in the convention centre and tells me her strange story, in a fragile Southern voice that calls to mind Blanche DuBois. “I’m a lifelong abductee. Most times, I’m taken aboard a craft, and the room is round. I’m on a platform, much like in a doctor’s examining office. The aliens are off-white. They are the ones with the big, almond-shaped black eyes, with two little holes for a nose, no hair, no ears; I never remember seeing a mouth. All the communication takes place, mind to mind, through those big black eyes. They stick a needle through the abdomen into the ovary and extract ova. That is painful. One time they actually removed my right eye. That didn’t hurt. They told me telepathically that they were doing these things to ensure our species continued – and they meant theirs and ours.
“I’m a logical, rational-minded person – I was an accountant by profession – so I tried to find a scientific explanation. Initially I explained it away as a dream. Then in 1990 I started having other abduction experiences, and flashbacks of earlier experiences.”
The most sinister detail of Haley’s story is that she claims she has been abducted by human beings, too. “One time, I was picked up and taken to a military base. I think they wanted to find out what the aliens had done to me. At least when I was with the aliens, they comforted me. But the military abduction was not like that at all: it was an M-16 pointed at my head, and ‘You talk about this and I’ll blow your head off!’”
Roswell seems to be crawling with abductees; the murmur of strikingly similar stories, featuring the alien “greys” with their big eyes and surgical instruments, is everywhere. Sceptics say the cause of this phenomenon is often temporal-lobe epilepsy or sleep paralysis, but these people seem so adamant, so convinced, that I start to become spooked. Is abduction catching? When I return to my hotel room that night, I check behind the curtains for greys before falling asleep.
One woman claims her twin sister was abducted from the womb, and now communicates with her from a spaceship
The next day I meet a woman who claims that her twin sister was abducted from the womb, and now communicates with her from a spaceship. I am almost moved to buy insurance against extraterrestrial kidnapping. Cover costs around $20, explains Mike St Lawrence of the UFO Abduction Insurance Co, and Shirley MacLaine is one of his policyholders. But do they really pay out? Sure they do – as long as the claimant’s form is countersigned by the abducting alien.
The grand alien costume contest draws a massive crowd. Most entrants fall into three categories. First there are the classic showbiz aliens – ET, a sexy Supergirl, a Star Trek Klingon, a couple of armed Men in Black. One little girl seems to have created her Princess Leia hairstyle by applying Danish pastries to each side of her head. Then there are countless greys, including a very funny Wild West husband and wife, the latter taking advantage of her disguise to flirt with anything in trousers. Finally, there are several sad cases obviously made out of random remnants. The last lot really tax the descriptive powers of the compere – a loud, brassy blonde well past her Southern-belle-by date. “Whoaa!” she roars at one point, faced with a shapeless heap of fabric. “Cool stripy thing!”
A huge black cloud rolls overhead, shedding isolated raindrops and threatening to turn the whole scene into a quagmire of papier-mâché. The compere becomes impatient when the Grey Elder tries to steal the show by staging his own death scene, monopolising the catwalk as he rolls over and over. “Okay, you’ve had your fun!” she barks. There is a dead heat between the leather-clad Klingon and a tiny girl in Neptunian netting; cruelly, the Klingon wins on audience applause.
The next day, it really does rain. Boy, does it rain. It is Friday, July 4 – exactly 50 years after that stormy night when the thingamyjig came down in the desert – and a banquet is in progress in the aeroplane hangar where the craft and the bodies are said to have been taken by the military. Whitley Strieber walks up on stage. This white-haired, bespectacled science-fiction writer is the Big Daddy of abductees, though he is said to prefer the term “close-encounter witness”. He is the author of Communion – that 10m-selling book whose cover showed the world what the greys are supposed to look like – and a string of sequels elaborating on his otherworldly experiences.
Tonight he is playing the alien evangelist, urging ex-military people to come forward and tell the truth about the Roswell crash, and lashing out at the “depths of denial within the media”. Parachute dummies weren’t even invented until 1953, he says, and the people need the truth more than the government needs its laws.
Rain rattles like hell on the metal roof; lightning flickers in the high, gridded windows; thunder rumbles malevolently
He touches on the big techno-nerd theme of the week, which is that the military have for many years been reverse-engineering alien technology – taking it apart to see how it works, and trying to reproduce it. He acknowledges Philip Corso, a retired colonel whose new book claims that technologies such as lasers, microchips and night-vision goggles came from captured UFOs. Strieber soon flies right off the weirdness scale, rabbiting about abductees glimpsing dead friends and relatives and “turning up in doctors’ offices with strange objects embedded in their bodies”, and about the next big war being an interplanetary one. Rain starts to rattle like hell on the metal roof; lightning flickers in the high, gridded windows; thunder rumbles malevolently. “This is wonderful up here!” he cries. “The thunder seems to come at the right moment!”
As Strieber talks about people being fed LSD by the CIA, water gushes across the floor towards the PA, and it looks as if we will have to get out PDQ. “If I begin to spark, you’ll know what happened,” he wisecracks. He carries on stoically (being poked about by freaky creatures must be worse than this, after all) and speculates spookily about aliens living in the realm of the soul, donning purpose-built space-travelling bodies like humans put on scuba gear to go diving. “They’re not here to buy cars and sell shoes, believe me,” he says. “They obviously agree with the government policy of secrecy, or they’d land in Central Park.” When Strieber’s speech ends, so does the storm. Weird.
On Saturday, the day after the flood, I go to church. I want to hear some good old-fashioned, down-to-earth common sense. At Christ’s Church, a squeaky-clean venue on the edge of town, fundamentalist Bible-bashers Dr Mark Eastman and Chuck Missler are ranting like there’s no tomorrow. But the message is not a heartening one. You see, they believe too. The Bible, they say, prophesies all this alien-contact palaver: it is all part of the End Times, before the Second Coming and the Rapture that will whisk all the true believers off the planet and into God’s blue heaven. “For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders,” it says in Matthew 24:24. Aliens, says Missler. “And I saw three unclean spirits like frogs,” it says in Revelation 16:13. Aliens again.
Eastman talks about “the interdimensional nature of UFOs” and his belief that “fallen angels” have the ability to “manipulate matter in our space-time dominion”. What, he asks, is the aliens’ purpose? “To distract you from Jesus Christ, and convince you that the biblical world view is not true.” Such naughty creatures.
I am wondering whether the whole town has gone mad when I encounter a man who may be the sanest, and funniest, human being in Roswell. Bear Barker, a hulking Jerry Garcia lookalike who admits to being a former junkie, biker and convict, is the pastor at Body of Christ, a shambolic heavy-rock “mission” on Main Street. He sees the UFO convention as an opportunity rather than a problem: “These people are looking for something, and I want to introduce them to Jesus Christ. You know, you look a bit like John Lennon. He was a great guy. Do you like Mexican food?” If aliens exist, says Barker, they were made by God, like everything else. “If an alien came into my church now, I’d ask him if he wants a hot dog and tell him about Jesus.”
It is Sunday afternoon, and all the ufologists, authors, Klingons, T-shirt vendors, intergalactic belly dancers and abductees are packing up and heading home. Once again, Roswell is starting to look like the quiet, ordinary town that it really is. But one out-of-this-world idea remains with me and keeps cracking me up. It is the image of big Bear Barker preaching to a cute little grey guy eating a mustardy sausage. ♦
© 2014 Tony Barrell