The Roswell crash is the Holy Grail of American conspiracy-theory folklore, but what if the little grey men were actually little grey Russians in Nazi-designed aircraft? Somehow, that still isn't the craziest theory out there. Area 51 by Annie Jacobsen explains.
During the first week of July 1947, U.S. Signal Corps engineers began tracking two objects with remarkable flying capabilities moving across the southwestern United States. What made the aircraft extraordinary was that, although they flew in a traditional, forward-moving motion, the craft - whatever they were - began to hover sporadically before continuing to fly on. This kind of technology was beyond any aerodynamic capabilities the U.S. Air Force had in development in the summer of 1947. When multiple sources began reporting the same data, it became clear that the radar wasn't showing phantom returns, or electronic ghosts, but something real. Kirtland Army Air Force Base, just north of the White Sands Proving Ground, tracked the flying craft into its near vicinity. The commanding officer there ordered a decorated World War II pilot named Kenny Chandler into a fighter jet to locate and chase the unidentified flying craft. This fact has never before been disclosed.
Chandler never visually spotted what he'd been sent to look for. But within hours of Chandler's sweep of the skies, one of the flying objects crashed near Roswell, New Mexico. Immediately, the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or JCS, took command and control and recovered the airframe and some propulsion equipment, including the crashed craft's power plant, or energy source. The recovered craft looked nothing like a conventional aircraft. The vehicle had no tail and it had no wings. The fuselage was round, and there was a dome mounted on the top. In secret Army intelligence memos declassified in 1994, it would be referred to as a "flying disc." Most alarming was a fact kept secret until now - inside the disc, there was a very earthly hallmark: Russian writing. Block letters from the Cyrillic alphabet had been stamped, orembossed, in a ring running around the inside of the craft.
In a critical moment, the American military had its worst fears realized. The Russian army must have gotten its hands on German aerospace engineers more capable than Ernst Steinhoff and Wernher Von Braun - engineers who must have developed this flying craft years before for the German air force, or Luftwaffe. The Russians simply could not have developed this kind of advanced technology on their own. Russia's stockpile of weapons and its body of scientists had been decimated during the war; the nation had lost more than twenty million people. Most Russian scientists still alive had spent the war in the gulag. But the Russians, like the Americans, the British, and the French, had pillaged Hitler's best and brightest scientists as war booty, each country taking advantage of them to move forward in the new world. And now, in July of 1947, shockingly, the Soviet supreme leader had somehow managed not only to penetrate U.S. airspace near the Alaskan border, but to fly over several of the most sensitive military installations in the western United States. Stalin had done this with foreign technology that the U.S. Army Air Forces knew nothing about. It was an incursion so brazen - so antithetical to the perception of America's strong national security, which included the military's ability to defend itself against air attack - that upper-echelon Army intelligence officers swept in and took control of the entire situation. The first thing they did was initiate the withdrawal of the original Roswell Army Air Field press release, the one that stated that a "flying disc . . . landed on a ranch near Roswell," and then they replaced it with the second press release, the one that said that a weather balloon had crashed - nothing more. The weather balloon story has remained the official cover story ever since.
The fears were legitimate: fears that the Russians had hover-and-fly technology, that their flying craft could outfox U.S. radar, and that it could deliver to America a devastating blow. The single most worrisome question facing the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time was: What if atomic energy propelled the Russian craft? Or worse, what if it dispersed radioactive particles, like a modern-day dirty bomb? In 1947, the United States believed it still had a monopoly on the atomic bomb as a deliverable weapon. But as early as June 1942, Hermann Göring, commander in chief of the Luftwaffe, had been overseeing the Third Reich's research council on nuclear physics as a weapon in its development of an airplane called the Amerika Bomber, designed to drop a dirty bomb on New York City. Any number of those scientists could be working for the Russians. The Central Intelligence Group, the CIA's institutional predecessor, did not yet know that a spy at Los Alamos National Laboratory, a man named Klaus Fuchs, had stolen bomb blueprints and given them to Stalin. Or that Russia was two years away from testing its own atomic bomb. In the immediate aftermath of the crash, all the Joint Chiefs of Staff had to go on from the Central Intelligence Group was speculation about what atomic technology Russia might have.
For the military, the very fact that New Mexico's airspace had been violated was shocking. This region of the country was the single most sensitive weapons-related domain in all of America. The White Sands Missile Range was home to the nation's classified weapons-delivery systems. The nuclear laboratory up the road, the Los Alamos Laboratory, was where scientists had developed the atomic bomb and where they were now working on nuclear packages with a thousand times the yield. Outside Albuquerque, at a production facility called Sandia Base, assembly-line workers were forging Los Alamos nuclear packages into smaller and smaller bombs. Forty-five miles to the southwest, at the Roswell Army Air Field, the 509th Bomb Wing was the only wing of long-range bombers equipped to carry and drop nuclear bombs.
Things went from complicated to critical at the revelation that there was a second crash site. Paperclip scientists Wernher Von Braun and Ernst Steinhoff, still under review over the Juárez rocket crash, were called on for their expertise. Several other Paperclip scientists specializing in aviation medicine were brought in. The evidence of whatever had crashed at and around Roswell, New Mexico, in the first week of July in 1947 was gathered together by a Joint Chiefs of Staff technical services unit and secreted away in a manner so clandestine, it followed security protocols established for transporting uranium in the early days of the Manhattan Project.
The first order of business was to determine where the technology had come from. The Joint Chiefs of Staff tasked an elite group working under the direct orders of G-2 Army intelligence to initiate a top secret project called Operation Harass. Based on the testimony of America's Paperclip scientists, Army intelligence officers believed that the flying disc was the brainchild of two former Third Reich airplane engineers, named Walter and Reimar Horten - now working for the Russian military. Orders were drawn up. The manhunt was on.
Reprinted from the book AREA 51 by Annie Jacobsen. Copyright © 2011 by Annie Jacobsen. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.
Top image courtesy of Shutterstock
Annie Jacobsen is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times Magazine and writes a weekly column called "Backstory," which can be read at latimes.com.
Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base is available from Amazon.com