Aliens in Roswell
Pop culture says it was an alien spaceship -- but history tells us what was really found in the New Mexico desert.
by Brian Dunning
December 18, 2007
Hang onto your tinfoil helmet, because today we're going to rocket into the history books and see for ourselves exactly what fell out of the sky in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947.
In July of that year, a balloon train came down on the Foster Ranch, 75 miles northwest of Roswell, New Mexico. Rancher "Mac" Brazel, who had been reading about flying saucers, reported it to the local Sheriff, who in turn reported a crashed flying saucer to a Major Jesse Marcel at Roswell Army Air Field, but not before the local press heard about it. The debris, totaling some five pounds of foil and aluminum and described in detail by Mac Brazel, was recovered by officials from Roswell Army Air Field. These balloon trains were long ultra low frequency antennas designed to detect Soviet nuclear tests, held aloft by a large number of balloons, and were known as Project Mogul. With Marcel's press release in hand, the Roswell Daily Record reported that a Flying Saucer was captured, and the following day, printed a correction that it was merely a weather balloon, along with an interview with Mac Brazel, who deeply regretted all the unwanted publicity generated by his misidentification.
It should be stressed that this was the end of the incident, and nothing further was said or done by anyone, until 1978 (that's 31 years in which nobody remembered or said anything), when the National Enquirer, on what must have been a slow news day, reported the original uncorrected news article from the Roswell Daily Record. UFO fans went nuts. Stanton Friedman, a longtime UFO proponent, started interviewing everyone he could find who was still alive who had been connected with the incident and began constructing all sorts of elaborate conspiracies. These primarily centered around Major Marcel, who agreed that Friedman's assertion was possible — that the government was covering up an actual alien spacecraft.
Two years later in 1980, UFO proponents William Moore and Charles Berlitz published The Roswell Incident. There wasn't much new information in this book, it was essentially a collection of suppositions and interviews with a few people who were still alive, or their relatives. Even so, by this point, it's important to note that the story really had not grown beyond the question of what debris had actually been recovered from the Foster Ranch in 1947.
Upon the book's publication, the National Enquirer tracked down Marcel and published their own interview with him. This was all well and good, but since there still wasn't any new information or any evidence that Roswell was anything other than the Project Mogul balloon, things quieted down for a long time.
The story finally started to break open for real in 1989. The TV show Unsolved Mysteries devoted an episode to an imaginative "reconstruction" of what some of these authors had written. The national exposure of a TV show reached a man named Glenn Dennis, who was quite elderly by now but who had worked as a young mortician in Roswell in 1947, and had provided contract mortuary services to Roswell Army Air Field. Dennis contacted Stanton Friedman, and told him the story that was to become the basis for almost all modern UFO lore.
Virtually all popular details of the story of an alien crash at Roswell are based upon the personal recollections of Glenn Dennis. He hadn't thought about the subject for 42 years, until he saw the TV show. Suddenly he started putting two and two together, tying together bits and pieces of this and that from his memory, and with the help of Stanton Friedman, connected the dots and wove the fabric of modern Roswell mythology. Authors Schmitt and Randle published Friedman's interview in UFO Crash at Roswell, published in 1991. This was the point that all the best-known details were invented: the multiple crash sites, the alien bodies recovered, the child-sized coffins, aliens walking around the base, a red-haired colonel making death threats, and the disappearance of a nurse who knew too much. 1991, sports fans; not 1947.
What's worse is that Glenn Dennis' memory doesn't seem to handle dates very well. Air Force researchers have successfully been able to corroborate nearly all of Dennis' recollections, but what they found was that while nearly all the events he remembered did in fact happen, they happened over a span of 12 years; not around a single incident in 1947. Let us now go through a few of the most significant points from the pop history of the Roswell incident, one by one:
- At his mortuary in Roswell, Dennis received a call asking him to give a ride to an airman injured in a traffic accident.
- At the base, Dennis noticed an ambulance filled with wreckage that looked like the bottom of a blue canoe, guarded by MP's.
- Dennis was ejected from the base by a big red-headed colonel who threatened him with death if he revealed anything of what he had seen.
- Dennis tried to telephone a nurse that he knew, but was rebuffed by a head nurse nicknamed Slatts, and whose real name was Captain Wilson.
- The next day, Dennis successfully met with his nurse friend, who was quite upset over an autopsy on three bodies which she described as black, mangled, and little.
- Dennis learned of the inability of staff to perform an autopsy due to overpowering fumes from the bodies, which were then hastily moved.
- All further efforts to reach the nurse were unsuccessful, he was told she was deceased, and Dennis never saw her again.
- A creature with a huge head was seen walking into the base medical center "under its own power".
And now let's look at what each of these events really was, and why they couldn't possibly have all been part of something that happened in July 1947:
- Dennis' trip to the base to deliver the injured airman is not likely to have happened in July of 1947, as the rank of airman did not exist until the United States Army Air Forces became the United States Air Force in September of 1947. Note that Roswell Army Air Field was renamed Walker Air Force Base at that time as well.
- Dennis' description of the contents of an Air Force ambulance are consistent with its normal appearance, which includes two steel panels shaped like the bottom of a canoe and painted Air Force blue.
- Only one tall captain or colonel with red hair was ever assigned to the base, and that was Col. Lee Ferrell, who began his service at the base in 1956. Dennis also remembered that the threatening colonel was accompanied by a black sergeant, which is also virtually impossible for 1947. The Air Force did not begin racial integration until 1949. Dennis was probably recalling some episode that happened in or after 1956, and keep in mind he was still stretching his memory over 30 years.
- The head nurse, Captain Wilson, has been identified as Idabelle Miller, who later married and became Major Wilson. She did not begin her service there until 1956. "Slatts" was well known to be Lt. Col. Lucille Slattery, a different person, who also did not arrive at Roswell until after the Roswell Incident. In her case the timing was much closer, only one month afterward; but one month too late is still too late.
- Dennis' nurse friend has been positively identified as Lt. Eileen Mae Fanton, who was in service there during the Roswell Incident. More on her in a moment.
- In 1956, a KC-97G aircraft crashed, killing all 11 crewmen in an intense cabin fire. Most were missing limbs and were largely burned away, resulting in small, black, mangled corpses. Due to intense fumes from the fuel soaking the bodies, the procedure had to be hastily moved to a refrigerated unit at the commissary. Three of the bodies were autopsied at Dennis' mortuary in Roswell, which Dennis described as small, black, and mangled. It's entirely likely that Dennis' encounter with the angry redheaded colonel took place during this exceptionally emotional and difficult time for the small local Air Force community.
- The reason Dennis ceased being able to reach Lt. Fanton was that she had been taken to Brooke General Hospital in Texas for emergency treatment of a pre-diagnosed medical condition which ultimately led to her medical retirement in 1955. This information was withheld from Dennis simply due to patient privacy laws.
- The sighting of a creature with a huge head walking into the hospital is consistent with the injury of Captain Dan Fulgham in 1959, who was struck on the head by a balloon gondola. His forehead and face developed an extensive hematoma which swelled to quite a magnificent size. He said he didn't feel too bad, and actually hung out smoking a cigarette and walking around with a head the size of a beachball.
Now, obviously I have to leave a lot of details out since this is a 10-minute podcast and can't possibly address the billions of data points that the UFO proponents have thrown out there (if you remember my episode on logical fallacies, you'll recognize that technique as Proof by Verbosity). If you're truly interested in the actual explanation of some detail you've heard, download the Roswell Incident PDF report from the Air Force at af.mil, or get a copy of the free Roswell Report: Case Closed book by Captain James MacAndrew and published by the Air Force. These publications are not a desperate coverup by the Air Force, they were required by the General Accounting Office's official inquiry made to address the clamor of Freedom of Information Act demands from UFO proponents. They contain a tremendous amount of detail and are quite entertaining reading for anyone interested in Roswell or the Air Force's early history.
But about every year or two, someone else pops up with some new claim about what happened in 1947. Just this year, a Lieutenant Walter Haut died, leaving a written story about having been shown a crashed alien spacecraft, but he lacks credibility. The stories he told about his experience at Roswell grew and grew over the years. And, as the president of the International UFO Museum, he had a clear commercial interest in promoting these stories. Even less believable are the stories of Philip Corso, who co-authored a fictionalized retelling titled The Day After Roswell. Among Corso's claims are that lasers, Kevlar, fiber optics, and integrated circuits all came from the Roswell spacecraft. Since the true origins of all of these technologies are well established in the real world, even other UFO researchers discount most of Corso's fancy tales.
So when you look at a story like Roswell, look at it skeptically. One account is of mundane everyday activities, that are fully supported by hard evidence at every step; and the other version is wild, far out, and comes in many conflicting versions, none of which have any supporting evidence whatsoever. What does a responsibly skeptical process support?
Correction: An earlier version of this referred to Friedman as an "obsessed UFO wacko". Whatever the accuracy of that characterization, it was not appropriate to be included here.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Aliens in Roswell." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
18 Dec 2007. Web.
17 Jul 2018. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4079>
References & Further Reading
Berlitz, C., Moore, W. The Roswell Incident. London: Granada, 1980. 1-176.
Muller, Richard. "Chapter 7." Physics for Future Presidents. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, 7 Sep. 2007. Web. 9 Nov. 2009. <http://muller.lbl.gov/teaching/Physics10/PffP_textbook/PffP-07-waves-5-27.htm>
Nickell, Joe. Real-life X-Files: investigating the paranormal. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001. 117-121.
Randle, Kevin D., Schmitt, Donald R. UFO Crash at Roswell. New York: Avon Books, 1991. 1-327.
Saler, Benson, Ziegler, Charles Albert, Moore, Charles B. UFO crash at Roswell: the genesis of a modern myth. Washington DC: Smithsonian, 1997. 1-193.
Weaver, Richard L. Col., McAndrew, James 1st Lt. "Roswell report: fact versus fiction in the New Mexico Desert." Air Force History Program. United States Air Force, 1 Jan. 1995. Web. 2 Nov. 2009. <http://www.airforcehistory.hq.af.mil/Publications/Annotations/roswellreport.htm>
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