The What Do We Know About? series explores the mysterious, the unknown, and the unexplained. Will we ever learn the truth about what actually landed at Roswell?
From the #1 New York Times Best-Selling Who Was? series comes Where Is?, a series that tells the stories of world-famous landmarks and natural wonders and features a fold-out map!
In 1947, an unusual object crashed in the New Mexico desert and was recovered by the Roswell Army Airfield officers. People everywhere began to speculate what the object could be. Could it possibly be a flying saucer? Would that be proof of aliens and life beyond Earth? Even decades later, some people still believe that the Roswell Incident is the most famous UFO sighting ever. Still, those who worked at the airfield insist it was just a weather balloon that had fallen from the sky. Was the Roswell Incident evidence of alien life, a government cover-up, or just a myth? Here are the facts about what we do know about Roswell.
About the authors
Ben Hubbard is an accomplished author who has written many children’s titles on a wide variety of subject matter, from Vikings and gladiators to pop music and planes.
Andrew Thomson arrived at Wilfrid Laurier University in the fall of 1976 as an impressionable young high school graduate and left four years later as a Bachelor of the Arts. In the following years he added an M.A. from Laurier and earned a Ph.D. at the University of Waterloo. After teaching his first course in Canadian History at Laurier in 1989, he has been employed there regularly as a contract academic. Thomson is an enthusiastic and popular instructor with the Laurier Association for Lifelong Learning. In 2011 he was nominated for a Teaching Excellence Award at the Schulich School of Business at York University.
Excerpt: What Do We Know About the Roswell Incident? (by (author) Ben Hubbard & Who HQ; illustrated by Andrew Thomson)
What Do We Know About the Roswell Incident?
One hot July night in 1947, a strange thunderstorm struck the small town of Roswell, New Mexico. A local rancher saw lightning strike the same place repeatedly. Other residents reported a glowing object speeding across the sky. Some people heard thunderclaps, followed by an explosion. Was it possible that the explosion came from the nearby Roswell Army Air Field? Was this a storm, or something more frightening?
There was nothing reported about the night’s events until a few days later. Then, the Roswell Daily Record newspaper printed an astonishing front page headline: “RAAF Captures Flying Saucer on Ranch in Roswell Region.” The twenty-five thousand residents of Roswell were shocked. The RAAF meant the Roswell Army Air Field. But what did they mean by Flying Saucer? Had the army found a spaceship? Were extraterrestrials—alien beings—now on Earth? And why had they chosen to land in Roswell? There were few details. The article said the flying saucer had crashed on a local ranch and was in army hands. Now, the residents of Roswell—and the world—wanted to know more.
Suddenly, everyone wanted to report on the story. The sheriff’s office, military personnel at the RAAF, and the local newspapers and radio stations were swamped with calls from across America and beyond. National and international reporters were sent to Roswell to investigate. Overnight, the small town of Roswell seemed to become the center of the world’s attention. But within twenty-four hours, everything changed.
The very next morning, the Roswell Morning Dispatch newspaper published a new front-page story: “Army Debunks Roswell Flying Disk as World Simmers with Excitement.” This article said that the flying saucer had turned out to be the remains of a weather balloon. The balloon must have crashed to earth during the recent thunderstorm.
The weather balloon story made many people suspicious. It seemed like the army had accidently told the world about a crashed spaceship and now wanted to “cover it up.” What then, had really happened during that stormy July night in Roswell? For over seventy years people have been trying to get to the bottom of this mystery. We know it today simply as “the Roswell Incident.”
Chapter 1: Seeing UFOs
Roswell is no stranger to thunderstorms. The New Mexico city is a hot, dry place surrounded by dairy farms and dusty prairies. In summer, the daytime temperature often soars above 100°F. The heat can bring thunderstorms, tornadoes, and torrential rainfall. But aside from occasional extreme weather, Roswell in 1947 was a slow, sleepy place. Its main claim to fame was as the “Dairy Capital of the Southwest.” But it was also home to one of the most secretive army airfields in the United States.
The RAAF was the headquarters of the 509th Bombardment Group—the world’s only atomic strike force. It was the 509th Bomb Group that dropped two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945. This action marked the end of World War II. Two years later, the 509th Bomb Group was still stationed at the RAAF. Around three miles from the town, the airfield was well known to the residents of Roswell. They also knew the RAAF was a secretive place. No one could be sure what really went on there.
Nuclear weapons were not the only thing of interest to New Mexico’s army bases in the 1940s. Unidentified flying objects (UFOs) were another. Today, we think of UFOs as spaceships from other planets. But in the 1940s, a UFO simply meant an unrecognized object in the sky. At that time, there were many reports from civilians who saw things they could not identify.
One of the most famous early reports of a UFO sighting came from airplane pilot Kenneth Arnold. On June 24, 1947, Arnold was flying his small, one-engine plane near Mount Rainier in Washington State. Suddenly, several blue lights flashed in front of him. Then, nine triangular-shaped craft pulled up alongside his plane. The craft weaved from side to side and skimmed through the air “like a saucer if you skip it across the water.” Arnold calculated that it took these nine craft one minute and forty-two seconds to fly the fifty miles between Mount Rainier and Mount Adams. This would mean their speed was about 1,700 miles per hour—three times faster than any aircraft of that time! Arnold said the objects did not seem to have pilots, and that the whole experience gave him “an eerie feeling.”
Not everybody believed Arnold’s account. Professional pilot E. J. Smith was skeptical. He said that he had never encountered a UFO, and what Arnold probably saw was “the reflection of his own instrument panel.” But a few days later, Smith had an experience which changed his mind. E. J. Smith and his copilot Ralph Stevens were on a routine passenger flight between Idaho and Washington State when five disk-like objects appeared beside them. The pilots reported that the disks flew in formation and then split off and disappeared. Four more flying disks then appeared and did the same thing. Could these have been the same nine craft that Kenneth Arnold had seen?
After Smith’s and Arnold’s accounts, other people began saying they had also seen UFOs. Some said the UFOs looked like “long cigars,” while others were “saucer” or “disk” shaped. Afterward, the term “flying saucer” was often mentioned in newspaper articles about unidentified flying objects. Before long, saying “UFO” and “flying saucer” became common ways of describing what could be spaceships from other planets. Soon, lots of people in the United States began talking about UFOs. Many believed that extraterrestrials might be visiting Earth. The incident that took place in Roswell just a few weeks after the Arnold sighting greatly increased this belief.
Chapter 2: Crashed Wreckage
On July 2, 1947, the residents of Roswell, New Mexico, had no idea their town was about to become the UFO capital of America. Most residents were simply trying to stay cool on a particularly hot night. But nothing would prepare them for what came next. At around ten o’clock at night, Mary and Dan Wilmot were relaxing on their front porch. Suddenly, the couple saw a glowing object speeding across the sky. The object looked “like two inverted saucers” and was around twenty feet wide. Dan estimated it was traveling between four hundred and five hundred miles per hour.
A few miles southwest of Roswell, James Woody and his son, William, had also seen something strange in the sky above their farm. The object was large, bright, and had a long red light trail behind it. It moved fast and soon passed beyond their view. Woody assumed it was a meteorite crashing to earth.
On another farm outside Roswell, rancher William “Mac” Brazel watched with interest as a thunderstorm moved across the horizon. But it was a strange storm. Lightning kept striking the same place over and over again. There were thunderclaps and then one loud explosion. Was this a storm, or a bomb, or a plane crash, he wondered? The next morning, he set out to investigate. A couple of miles from the ranch, Brazel found strange objects strewn across the land. There was silver metallic foil, lightweight wooden beams, and various pieces of plastic, rubber strips, and paper. The objects covered an area three quarters of a mile long by a few hundred feet wide. It looked like something had crashed and broken into pieces. Brazel collected a few of these pieces in his truck and drove back to the ranch.
Mac Brazel’s neighbors were surprised by his find. Loretta and Floyd Proctor told Brazel about the recent reports of UFO sightings. They suggested he contact the local sheriff. The Proctors looked at the pieces Brazel had gathered. Loretta Proctor said there was a wooden beam that looked like plastic or wood. Proctor said Brazel described other objects he had found. These included “metallic looking stuff that when you crushed it, it wouldn’t stay crushed . . . and beams with pinkish-purple printing on it,” Proctor said.
When Mac Brazel next drove into town on July 7, he brought the strange pieces of wreckage to show Sheriff George Wilcox. Wilcox thought the wreckage might have been connected with the army and called the airfield. The RAAF sent 509th Bombardment Group intelligence officer Major Jesse Marcel to investigate.
Marcel and Brazel drove to the place where the pieces of wreckage had been found. Major Marcel bundled up as many pieces as he could into bags. On the way back to the RAAF, Marcel stopped by his house.
Although it was late at night, Marcel wanted to show the discovery to his wife, Viaud, and son, Jesse Jr. He brought the bags into the house and emptied their contents onto the kitchen floor. He told Jesse Jr. that these may be parts of a flying saucer. Jesse Jr. later remembered the material consisting of a “thick, foil-like, metallic-gray substance” and wooden beams with “pink or purple” characters on them. The Marcels had not seen anything like them before.
Marcel delivered the bags of wreckage to the RAAF the next morning. From there, some of the bags were flown to Fort Worth Army Air Field in Texas, and on to Andrews Army Air Field in Washington, DC. Important, high-ranking officers were now taking an interest in what had been found at Roswell. Meanwhile, back at the RAAF, Commanding Officer Colonel William “Butch” Blanchard examined the wreckage. On July 8, a press release was sent to the local radio stations and newspapers. It said that a flying saucer had been discovered.
When the Roswell Daily Record newspaper published their article based on the press release, the town was stunned. There were hourly bulletins on the local radio stations KSWS and KGFL. The story quickly broke across the United States and then around the world. Everyone wanted details about the extraordinary news. Roswell Morning Dispatch Editor Arthur McQuiddy was swamped with calls. He said, “I am a small editor in a small city in New Mexico talking to Paris, Rome, London, Tokyo . . . there was a lot of excitement.”
But just as suddenly as the news broke, it was over. General Roger Ramey of the Fort Worth Army Air Field called a press conference. On the floor of his office, Ramey displayed what he said had been found at Roswell. The bits of foil, wood, and rubber belonged to a crashed weather balloon, Ramey explained. There had been no flying saucer from another planet.
Newspapers across the world accepted what Ramey said and published the updated weather balloon story. There seemed little else for reporters to investigate. As quickly as it had started, the flying saucer story had died. But some Roswell residents now found the US military behaving strangely.
George “Jud” Roberts, co-owner of radio station KGFL, said he received a call from a someone in a senator’s office in Washington. Roberts was told that if KGFL put out any more stories about the incident, then the radio station would lose its broadcasting license.
There were greater threats. According to Sheriff George Wilcox’s granddaughter, Barbara Dugger, Wilcox was visited by soldiers at his home. Dugger said that her grandmother told her that Wilcox was told he might be harmed if he talked about the incident.
Another of Mac Brazel’s sons, Bill, said that his father was held for several days at the RAAF. He was questioned repeatedly about the find and sworn to secrecy. Bill said his father barely mentioned the incident afterward. However, the military had been too late to stop an interview Brazel had already given to reporters. In the interview, Brazel was clear about his discovery on the ranch. “I am sure what I found was not any weather observation balloon,” Brazel said.