A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Did a flying saucer crash near Roswell, New Mexico in the 1940s? What's with this "alien autopsy" movie?

May 31, 1996

Dear Cecil:

I saw the movie Roswell the other day and am quite taken with the revelation that: (1) aliens crash-landed in New Mexico back in the 40s; (2) one or two survived long enough to be observed and analyzed; (3) metal never before seen on earth, which looked like aluminum but was as strong as titanium, was recovered; and (4) the government is covering this up. Any truth to this?

Dear Cecil:

What's the straight dope on this "alien autopsy" movie making the rounds? From what I saw of it, the purpose of the filming seemed to be to convince viewers that the event actually occurred rather than to document an autopsy. I've seen and heard of autopsy notes and even photographs being made, but is filming of the procedure ever done? What possible value would it have?

Cecil replies:

Just guessing, but considering that Fox built an entire TV show around it, I'd say the value had to be at least a hundred grand. The chance to cash in big is the only thing that could have kept this lame story alive.

The "Roswell incident" began on June 14, 1947, when rancher Mac Brazel found some debris on the spread he managed about 75 miles northwest of Roswell, New Mexico. The junk included sticks, metallic paper, and tape with mysterious writing on it. Total weight: five pounds.

The makings of an alien spacecraft? More like the makings of an alien kite. Brazel probably wouldn't have given the matter much thought, except that 11 days later the first sighting of a "flying saucer" occurred in Washington state. Brazel decided to report his find to the local sheriff, who called the military intelligence office at the Roswell army airfield.

The military guys didn't know what to make of the stuff they collected from Brazel's ranch. But they'd read about flying saucers like everybody else and, let's face it, after you've been stationed a while in an isolated outpost you get a little desperate for excitement. They sent out a press release saying they'd found the wreckage of a flying saucer. The army's top brass went nuts. They immediately confiscated the Roswell junk and held a press conference at which they declared it was the remains of a weather balloon.

The truth wouldn't come out till years later. In 1947 the government was conducting Project Mogul, an attempt to use high-altitude balloons to detect expected Soviet atom-bomb tests. Periodically researchers in Alamogordo, New Mexico, sent up a "balloon train," a string of balloons carrying electronics plus a sticks-and-tinfoil radar reflector. The remains of one of these balloon trains was undoubtedly what Brazel found. In fact, contact with one had been lost when it was less than 20 miles away from his ranch.

The clincher: the tape with mysterious writing. According to Charles Moore, a Project Mogul scientist, the radar reflectors had been made during World War II by a company in New York City's garment district. When early models proved too flimsy, the company did a quick fix by reinforcing the reflectors using tape with stylized flower designs on it.

We now fast-forward to the late 1970s. Renewed interest in UFOs has led researchers to reexamine the Roswell case. Various parties obligingly come forward with tales about having seen or heard about alien crash victims 30 years earlier.

Having consulted with Philip Klass, a noted UFO debunker who's written extensively about Roswell, I'd say what we've got here is a bunch of people who spent too much time in the desert without a hat. Nonetheless entrepreneurs have used this unpromising material to create a veritable industry of Roswell books, films, museums, and more.

Now it's 1995. An English TV producer — a TV producer, for God's sake — comes up with what he claims is a film of an autopsy conducted on the aliens' bodies. Doctors, Hollywood special-effects guys, and even many UFO buffs who see it pretty much roll their eyes. The thing obviously depicts a bunch of actors in space suits with no idea how a real autopsy is done fumbling over a reject from a Steven Spielberg flick. One giveaway, reported in the July/August 1997 Skeptical Inquirer, was that a standard-issue "danger" sign visible on the wall was in a graphic format not adopted until 1967.

But who cares? The honchos at Fox surely figured: hey, the shroud of Turin fooled 'em for 600 years. All we've got to do is keep 'em watching till the last commercial break.

Late news

To the Teeming Millions:

In 1997 the U.S. Air Force issued a report attributing the 1947 incident to Project Mogul and in addition ascribing sightings of alien bodies to a bunch of dummies. Just like I said.

He's a believer

Dear Cecil:

Regarding your column on the Roswell UFO incident, I was executive producer and co-writer of the movie mentioned in the letter to you, called "Roswell" starring Kyle MacLachlan and Martin Sheen. I have also produced a commercial video ("Reply to the Air Force Report on the Roswell Incident") which contradicts everything you wrote, most of which you collected from Phil Klass, a now well-past-the-age-of-retirement debunker who has never even passed muster as a dispassionate skeptic and who is reviled by everyone I know as a disingenuous and intellectually dishonest writer on UFO's. Here are the known facts which your readers — and you — deserve to read:

The Government Accounting Office (the GAO) recently reported that the military documents that could have explained the Roswell Incident (outgoing messages from the commanding officer and others at the Roswell Army Air Field 1947) were destroyed without proper authorization decades ago. The Air Force never 'fessed up to that in their 1994 report. …

Charles Moore's attempt to explain the "strange writing" on the Roswell debris as being flower designs on tape that held together a flimsy balsa wood radar reflector is disputed by the only living witness who has testified about the writing he saw on the debris: Dr. Jesse Marcel, Jr. He categorically states that the symbols he saw on the debris were embossed on metal, they were not designs on tape. He is a flight surgeon and practicing physician, and has investigated crashes for the military. His father was Jesse Marcel, a Roswell intelligence officer who described the Roswell debris in about 1978, on videotape, as having been "not made on this earth."

The dates of the Mogul launches and the written records of the then-secret program do not indicate any launch with instrument packages that coincides in time with the Roswell Incident....

Three generals have publicly gone on record as supporting key aspects of the fact that there was a major coverup, and that includes (1) Sen. (and Gen.) Barry Goldwater, former head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who has written letters stating and has stated on TV that he takes the "crashed spaceship" explanation very seriously, (2) Brig. Gen. Arthur Exon, former base commander of Wright Patterson Air Force Base (where the debris and alien bodies were reportedly taken), who confirms on tape it was an extraterrestrial crash with bodies and that "the coverup won't end until all those originally involved with the coverup are deceased," and (3) Brig. Gen. Thomas DuBose, who said the "revised explanation" in 1947 that it was a weather balloon was a cover story concocted on orders that came down from those reporting directly to the Commander in Chief, President Truman, and that false debris that had nothing to do with the Roswell Incident was shown to reporters in Gen. Ramey's office and passed off on the public as the Roswell debris.

I have been personally informed by astronaut Gordon Cooper that Roswell did involve the recovery of a crashed extraterrestrial spaceship, that our movie (which he saw) was largely accurate, that there has been a half century of official denial and official lies about it continuing to this day, and that he has a very close friend who saw the alien bodies. Gordon Cooper was one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts. He filmed a flying saucer that even landed at close range while in the service and said the filmed evidence of the inexplicable and technologically advanced craft was "buried" by the Pentagon and ignored by Project Blue Book, which said it could find no credible evidence for the existence of flying saucers.

Astronaut Edgar Mitchell, who walked on the moon, believes the weight of the evidence is that Roswell was an extraterrestrial event and he publicly suggested, recently, that those who knowingly withheld the facts from astronauts who went to the moon are "criminally liable" for essentially using astronauts as guinea pigs while not telling them the truth about what is known about alien life forms visiting earth....

Former Command Sgt. Major Bob Dean, formerly of SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe) states that as part of his job in the military in Europe he was shown a classified document, "The Assessment," that revealed that the military has evidence and exhibits of numerous extraterrestrial craft conducting a surveillance of the earth, and that this certain knowledge has demoralized those of high rank who are in the know.

Mr. Adams, may I suggest you change the name of your column to "The Dope," unless you're prepared to show some hubris and admit in print that you leaped before you looked.

Cecil replies:

I think the word you're looking for in your last paragraph is "humility," not "hubris." But let's not nitpick. I've attempted to address some of the contentions in your letter below.

1. Phil Klass is intellectually dishonest, reviled, etc.

Nonsense. I spoke with two prominent UFO researchers, Karl Pflock and Kevin Randle. Both have written books about Roswell and believed there was some basis to the stories about crashed spaceships. Pflock no longer believes these stories but Randle still does and in fact he was a technical consultant for your movie. Although both men had fundamental disagreements with Phil Klass, they spoke well of him and said he was a person of integrity. Both said they found you rather credulous.

2. The military destroyed key documents relating to the case without authorization.

Three years' worth of outgoing messages from Roswell were destroyed during housecleaning, apparently when the military records center was moved from Kansas City to St. Louis. The destruction of records was handled somewhat casually but government archivists doubt this can be attributed to a conspiracy. In any case indications are that the Roswell affair was handled largely by telephone.

There is no question that the military was genuinely concerned about UFOs during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Secret documents declassified in the mid-1980s reveal anxious discussions on the subject among high-level officials. However, none of these documents indicate that the government had any physical evidence of crashed saucers or the like. On the contrary, a number of documents lament the lack of such evidence.

3. Jesse Marcel, Jr., says the strange symbols he saw on the debris were embossed on the metal, not printed on tape.

Jesse Marcel, Jr., was a child at the time of the incident. Nearly 50 years have passed. Marcel's statements regarding the debris have made him a celebrity on the UFO circuit. 'Nuff said.

4. The dates of the secret Project Mogul balloon launches do not coincide with the Roswell incident.

Baloney. A 600-foot-long string of two dozen weather balloons and several kitelike radar reflectors was launched from Alamogordo, N.M., on June 4, 1947. Contact with the balloons was lost when they were less than 20 miles from the Brazel ranch. Mac Brazel found the mysterious debris June 14. Contemporary descriptions of the debris suggest its appearance was similar to that of a wrecked balloon train.

5. Barry Goldwater takes the "crashed spaceship" explanation very seriously.

So? Sen. Goldwater has no personal knowledge of Roswell. Neither do any of the other famous names you cite.

6. Gen. Exon says it was an extraterrestrial crash with bodies.

Gen. Exon's statements were based on hearsay. He did not become commander at Wright Patterson until many years after the Roswell incident. He never saw any debris.

7. Gen. Dubose says the "weather balloon" story was concocted on orders from above.

Of course. The weather balloon story was intended to conceal the Project Mogul experiment, a secret Pentagon project to develop a means of detecting anticipated Russian atom bomb tests.

8. Former Sgt. Bob Dean says he saw a secret memo saying the military has evidence of extraterrestrial spacecraft.

Neither Pflock nor Randle found Dean's statements believable.

Although I don't suppose there's much chance of persuading you, Paul, others may be interested in Karl Pflock's story. He describes himself as skeptical about Roswell but says "there's still a chunk of [UFO] data that can't be explained by known science."

Pflock initially was inclined to believe the Roswell UFO stories and spent nearly four years researching them. However, "when I got into it, a whole lot of what had been claimed turned out not to have been true at all," he says.

Pflock says he now doesn't think Roswell had anything to do with aliens. "The congruence between the Project Mogul equipment and what we know about the [Roswell] debris is just too great to be dismissed." He plans to discuss the matter in a book to be published on the 50th anniversary of the incident entitled, "The Roswell UFO Mystery: Legend and Reality."

Everybody says you know how to make an entertaining movie, though.

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