Lightning flashed over Corona, New Mexico, and thunder rattled the thin windowpanes of the small shack where ranch foreman Mac Brazel slept. Brazel was used to summer thunderstorms, but he was suddenly brought wide awake by a loud explosion that set the dishes in the kitchen sink dancing. Sonofabitch, he thought to himself before sinking back to sleep, the sheep will be scattered halfway between hell and high water come dawn.
In the morning, Brazel rode out on horseback, accompanied by seven-year-old Timothy Proctor, to survey the damaged. Accoring to published accounts, Brazel and young Proctor stumbled across something unearthly--a field of tattered debris two to three hundred yards wide stretching some three-quarters of a mile in length. No rocket scientist, Brazel still realized he had something strange on his hands--so strange that he decided to haul several pieces of it into Rosewell, some 75 miles distant, a day or two later.
For all its lightness, the debris in Brazel's pickup bed seemd remarkably durable. Sheriff George Wilcox reportedly took one look at it and called the military Army Air Field, then home to the world's only atomic-bomb wing. Two officers from the base eventually arrived and agreed to accompany Barzel back to the debris field.
As a consequence of their investigation, a press release unique in the history of the American military appeared on the front page of the Rosewell Daily Record for July 8, 1947. Authored by public-information officer Lt. Walter Haut and approved by base commander Col. William Blanchard, it admitted that the many rumors regarding UFOs "became a reality yesterday when the intelligence officer 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."
Haut's noon press release circled the planet, reprinted in papers as far abroad as Germany and England, where it was picked up by the prestigious London Times. UFOs were real! Media calls pour in to the Roswell Daily Record and the local radio station, which has first broken the news, demanding additional details.
Four hours later and some 600 miles to the east in Forth Worth, Texas, Brig. Gen. Roger Ramey, commander of the Eighth Air Force, held a press conference to answer reporters' questions. Spread on the general's office floor were lumps of a blackened, rubberlike material and crumpled pieces of what looked like a flimsy tinfoil kite. Ramey posed for pictures, kneeling on his carpet with the material, as did Maj. Jesse Mercel, flown in from Roswell for the occasion. Alas, allowed the general, the Roswell incident was a simple case of mistaken identity; in reality, the so-called recovered flying disc was nothing more than a weather balloon with an attached radar reflector.
"Unfortunately, the media bought the Air Force cove-up hook, line, and sinker," asserts Staton Friedman, a nuclear physicist and coauthor with aviation writer Don Berliner of Crash at Corona, one of three books written about Roswell. "The weather-balloon story went in the next morning's paper, the phone calls dropped off dramatically, and any chance of an immediate follow-up was effectively squelched."
Ramey's impromptu press conference masks the beginning of what Friedman refers to as a "'Cosmic Watergate,' the ongoing cover-up of the government's knowledge about extraterrestrial UFOs and their terrestrial activities." By contrast, says Friedman, the original Watergate snafu and cover-up pales in significance. In fact, if Friedman and his cohorts within the UFO community are correct, military involvement in the recovery of a crashed flying saucer would rank as the most well-kept and explosive secret in world history.
Of course, not all students of the subject see it that way. "You have to put Roswell in a certain context," cautions Curtis Peebles, an aerospace historian whose treatment of UFOs as an evolving belief system in Watch the Skies! was just published by the Smithsonian Institute. "And the relevant context is the hole of government and its relationship to the governed. Americans have always been suspicious, if not actively contemptuous, of their government. On the other hand, forget what the government says and look at what it does. Is there any evidence in the historical record that the Air Force or government behaved as if it actually owned a flying saucer presumably thousands of years in advance of anything on either the Soviet or U.S. side? If there is, I didn't
Regardless of its ultimate reality, however, Roswell symbolizes the difficulties and frustrations Friedman and fellow UFOlogists have encountered in prying loose what the government does or does not know about UFOs. Memories fade, documents get lost or misplaced, witnesses die, and others refuse to speak up, either out of fear of ridicule or, according to Friedman, because of secrecy oaths. Despite a trail that lay cold for more than 30 years, UFOlogists still consider Roswell one of the most convincing UFO cases on record. In 1978, for example, Friedman personally interviewed Maj. Jesse Marcel shortly before his death. "He still didn't know what the material was," says Friedman, "except that it was like nothing he had ever seen before and certainly wasn't from any weather balloon." According to what Marcel reportedly told Friedman, in fact, th featherlight material couldn't be dented by a sledgehammer or burned by a blowtorch.