July 7, 2022

The Roswell UFO Incident

The Roswell UFO Incident

July 7, 1947. The discovery of mysterious debris on a sheep ranch near Roswell, New Mexico sparks a national obsession with UFOs.


Cold Open

It’s a midsummer afternoon on June 24th, 1947.

A small private aircraft flies through the skies above Mount Rainier in Washington state. The amateur pilot, Kenneth Arnold, is a 32-year-old fire extinguisher salesman. But today, Kenneth is on the lookout for a U.S. Navy transport plane that recently crashed somewhere in the area. He hopes to find the wreckage and claim the $5,000 reward.

So peering out of the windshield of his plane, Kenneth scours the mountainside, circling low above the treetops, his eyes peeled for a flash of gray metal amongst the evergreens. But Kenneth doesn’t see anything. And eventually, he decides to give up. 

Kenneth pushes the throttle and steers the aircraft up and away from Mount Rainier, climbing higher and higher into the cloudless blue sky.

When he reaches the right altitude, Kenneth levels out the aircraft and flies eastward, admiring the panoramic vista of snow-capped mountains and glassy lakes.

But suddenly, there’s a bright flash of light up ahead.

Kenneth whips off his sunglasses and squints into the distance.

Then he sees it again: several brilliant flashes of light. And alongside them, Kenneth spots something strange. Clearly visible against the blue horizon, the sunlight glinting off their reflective surfaces, is a chain of flying objects. Kenneth’s jaw goes slack. He doesn’t know what they are, but they’re headed straight toward him…

A split second later… the objects zoom past Kenneth’s plane at an unfathomable speed.

Quickly, Kenneth steers the plane around to get a closer look. The disc-shaped objects travels strangely, gaining sudden bursts of speed, and changing directions, somewhat like stones skipping across a pond. Kenneth watches, awe-struck, as the objects weave through the mountains, before suddenly accelerating upwards and vanishing from sight.

After landing in Oregon, Kenneth reports his sightings to a local newspaper. He describes the mysterious flying objects as disc-shaped, almost like saucers. He shares his belief that the objects were extraterrestrialin origin. Some find Kenneth’s story impossible to believe. Others believe he’s telling the truth. Either way, the story spreads like wildfire. Soon, reporters across the country are knocking down Kenneth’s door for an interview. And as time goes on, other sightings are reported, remarkably similar descriptions of what quickly become known as “flying saucers”. The resulting UFO craze will whip America into a frenzy of paranoia, until the phenomenon reaches a fever pitch following the report of a crashed flying saucer in Roswell, New Mexico on July 7th, 1947.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is July 7th: The Roswell UFO Incident.

Act One: Roswell

It’s July 6th, 1947, the day before the Roswell Incident is reported to the police.

A pickup truck bumps along a dirt road in the New Mexico desert. Behind the wheel is a rancher named W.W. “Mac” Brazel. Mac tilts the brim of his cowboy hat, shielding his eyes from the fierce sun. He and his family own this land, where they raise cattle and sheep. He knows every inch of its barren, sun-scorched terrain.

But suddenly, Mac sees something out of place. He slams on the brakes. The truck skids to a halt in a cloud of red dust. He opens the door and climbs out. There, scattered amongst the sagebrush, is a pile of what looks like industrial debris – pieces of rubber, aluminum foil, and wooden poles.

Mac came across this very same debris three weeks ago. He didn’t think much of it at the time; he assumed some trash had blown across from a nearby army airfield. He didn’t give it another thought until last night when he was drinking at the local dive bar. There, Mac overheard somebody talking about seeing strange “silver discs” flying through the night sky. Following the sighting of a flying saucer above Mount Rainier in Washington last month, the nation has been plunged into a “UFO craze”, with hundreds of similar reports emerging about unidentified flying objects. As soon as Mac heard about the sightings of “silver discs”, he thought about the debris he’d discovered, and concluded that perhaps it wasn’t so innocent after all… 

So today, Mac approaches this new batch of debris, his eyes narrow with suspicion. He kneels on the ground and begins inspecting the material. The metal is too heavy to have blown across from the airfield. It dawns on Mac that he could be looking at the wreckage of a UFO. Mac loads the debris into his truck and drives off.

The following day, July 7th, Mac drives to the nearby town of Roswell. He walks into the police precinct and greets Sheriff George Wilcox, telling him that he has something in his truck that might be of interest and he wants to bring it inside.

Moments later, Mac and Sheriff Wilcox are standing in the office, staring at the debris sitting on the desk. Wilcox wonders “what is it?” And Mac tells him his theory – it’s debris from a crashed extra-terrestrial vessel, an unidentified flying object, a “flying saucer”.

Sheriff Wilcox scratches his head. Mac’s story is far-fetched, but the Sheriff Wilcox doesn’t want to take any chances. So he picks up the phone and dials.

Major Jesse Marcel is sitting behind his desk in the Roswell Army Airfield. Hearing somebody clear their throat, Marcel glances up to see a young private standing in front of him. Stuttering, the private explains that he’s just received a phone call from the local sheriff, reporting the discovery of some unidentified debris on a nearby ranch. The sheriff wants Major Marcel to go down to the station and investigate.

Marcel sighs. This hardly seems like military business. Last year, Marcel was in the south Pacific, testing the nuclear bomb. And now, he’s in New Mexico picking up trash. But despite his vexation, Marcel turns up at the sheriff’s office just a few hours later. He briefly examines the debris and admits it’s irregular. Like all military personnel in 1947, Marcel is highly suspicious of anything that could be a Soviet weapon or surveillance device. The Cold War is in full swing, and paranoia is on the rise. So, Marcel decides to confiscate the materials immediately. 

But not before began to spread around town. Soon enough, the local press has picked up the story. And the following day, the front cover of the Roswell Daily Record is splashed with the headline: “Air Force Captures Flying Saucer on Ranch!”

Meanwhile, Marcel arrives at the airfield with the debris loaded into a bag. He shows it to the base commander who reports the finding to his superior, General Roger Ramey at Fort Worth Airfield in Texas. The UFO discovery gradually makes its way up the chain of command. And within hours, Major Marcel boards a plane to Fort Worth.

When he lands, Marcel disembarks and salutes General Ramey, who stands on the runway, his arms folded. Ramey is a tough, no-nonsense military man. If this debris is Soviet in origin, Ramey thinks, then the Russians will pay a heavy price. But as Marcel removes the debris from the bag, Ramey stares at it, and looks at Marcel with disdain and snarls: “it’s a goddamn weather balloon.”

The military will quickly issue a press release explaining that the alleged Roswell UFO was nothing more than an instrument used to gauge wind pressure. But despite their best attempts to quell national paranoia about UFOs, the American public will continue to report sightings of flying saucers, ultimately forcing the military to step in – and try to put an end to the conspiracies once and for all.

Act Two: A Question of National Security

It’s the spring of 1948 in Columbus, Ohio; one year after the Roswell incident.

An astronomy professor at Ohio State University stands in an empty lecture theater, wiping the blackboard clean after another poorly-attended seminar. Dr. J. Allen Hynek is thirty-seven years old. The studious and introverted academic is well on his way to tenure here at Ohio State. But recently, Dr. Hynek has been feeling disillusioned with teaching. His students just don’t share his passion for astronomy, and Dr. Hynek has started to wonder if he made a mistake entering academia.

Hynek puts down the blackboard eraser, and then he hears a knock on the door. Assuming a student has forgotten their bag, he shouts, “come in!” But when he turns around from the blackboard, Dr. Hynek sees that it’s not a student, but three men dressed in military fatigues. The three men introduce themselves as officers from the Air Force base in Dayton. One of the officers then comments on the nice weather they’ve been having. Dr. Hynek nods, growing increasingly perplexed by the presence of these military men. Finally, one of the officers says: “what do you think about UFOs?”

Ever since the Roswell incident last year, UFO sightings have risen steeply. All around the country, people have been spotting metallic disc-shaped objects flying through the sky. The majority of these reports are likely false, but due to heightened caution amid escalating tensions with the Soviet Union, the U.S. military isn’t taking any risks. So last year, the Air Force launched an official program to monitor UFO sightings and evaluate their threat level in the interest of national security. The program is named Project Sign, and today, three officers from Project Sign have come to recruit Dr. J. Allen Hynek, whose expertise will help them determine the authenticity of the reports.

Dr. Hynek agrees to help, eager to inject some more excitement into his career. And soon, the astronomy professor is often reporting to the Air Force base in Dayton, giving his professional opinion on the latest UFO sightings. As a scientist and a skeptic, Dr. Hynek believes most of the sightings have perfectly obvious explanations. But even Dr. Hynek has to admit – some of the reports are harder to categorize. When he presents his overall findings, Dr. Hynek explains that a small minority of sightings cannot be chalked up to freak weather events or passing airplanes. Therefore, he says, he cannot rule out the possibility of extraterrestrials.

Dr. Hynek’s official intelligence report is sent to the Air Force’s Chief of Staff, General Hoyt Vandenburg. Vandenburg has heard a lot of what he considers to be nonsense about aliens and UFOs. He was hoping Hynek’s report would finally put the matter to rest. But instead, it was inconclusive. Vandenburg is concerned that the hysteria around “flying saucers” is detrimental to the country. In the face of a very real Soviet threat, he feels it’s vital to national security that Americans remain calm and collected. So Vandenburg decides to terminate Project Sign.

When Dr. Hynek learns the news that Project Sign has been shuttered, he is disappointed, but not surprised. During his time working with the Air Force, he realized that while some military personnel took the possibility of UFOs seriously, the majority dismissed the idea as nonsense. And with such widespread skepticism, the Project was never going to become a meaningful investigation.

But while Project Sign is over, in 1951, the UFO craze is just beginning. All across the country, hysteria is on the rise. So the US Air Force decides to launch a new initiative, under a different name and under new leadership. Project Blue Book intends to pick up where Project Sign left off. And the man hired to lead the program is Edward J. Ruppelt, an Air Force captain known for his fair-mindedness. Under Ruppelt, Project Blue Book compiles tens of thousands of reports on UFO sightings – over 700 of which are still unsolved today. Dr. Hynek is brought back to act as a consultant. And together, Ruppelt and Hynek work diligently to document and explain every sighting, taking every report seriously.  

In July 1952, air traffic controllers in Washington D.C. notice some unusual blips on their radar screens. Pilots and stewardesses also report seeing strange flashing lights above the airport. Word gets out, and before long, local newspapers are emblazoned with sensational headlines about “SAUCERS SWARMING OVER THE CAPITAL!”

Ruppelt receives a concerned telephone call from the White House. President Harry S. Truman listens while an aide questions Ruppelt over possible causes of the mysterious phenomena. Ruppelt provides some potential explanations. But by now, the hysteria has descended over Washington. Hundreds of reports flood into the Project Blue Book headquarters.

And anxious to maintain order, the CIA establishes the Robertson Panel – another committee of scientists and military intelligence experts tasked with controlling the UFO hysteria. Ruppelt and Dr. Hynek present the committee with their Project Blue Book’s findings. But after lengthy deliberations, the Robertson Panel concludes that to restore order in America, UFO research needs to be focused exclusively on debunking the sightings. In that vein, Project Blue Book may be allowed to continue; but it must no longer treat “flying saucers” as a serious threat.

Edward Ruppelt and Dr. Hynek are demoralized by the Panel’s decision. Project Blue Book will operate for another sixteen years, but concentrating its efforts on debunking rumors and myths. But rather than suppress the conspiracies, this approach will arouse anger from UFO research groups in the public. They will accuse Project Blue Book of participating in a systematic cover-up – and they will demand that the government finally reveal the truth.

Act Three: The Truth is Out There

It’s February 1978, in an unknown location; 31 years after the Roswell Incident.

A squat, bespectacled man stands behind a film camera, adjusting the angle of the lens.

Stanton Friedman is a UFO researcher and a nuclear physicist. Many years ago, he came across a publication entitled The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects by Edward J. Ruppelt – the former director of the Air Force’s top-secret UFO monitoring program, Project Blue Book. Friedman became convinced that many of the incidents cataloged by Project Blue Book are clear evidence of extraterrestrial activity. He couldn’t believe the government kept such revelations secret, so he embarked on a personal crusade to educate the public about the verifiable existence of UFOs.

Today, Friedman is shooting a documentary called UFOs Are Real, and he’s managed to track down a man whom he believes is key to solving the mystery – a sixty-year-old retired Air Force officer named Major Jesse Marcel. Over thirty years ago, Major Marcel witnessed the discovery of mysterious debris on a ranch near Roswell, New Mexico. At the time, Marcel was under orders from his commanding officer not to divulge sensitive information regarding the debris – which he was told came from a top-secret weather balloon. But at the time, Marcel was not convinced. He’s always believed he knows the true origin of the debris, but loyalty has compelled him to stay quiet. Now that he’s retired, Marcel believes it’s finally time to speak out.

Friedman gives Marcel a thumbs-up, and the former Air Force officer begins to speak. He reveals that his commanding officers lied when they said the debris came from a weather balloon. In fact, Marcel insists that whatever he saw on that ranch in the New Mexico desert – it wasn’t of this world. He’s convinced it came from a UFO. When Marcel stops speaking, Friedman shuts off the camera and peers around in amazement at his interviewee’s astonishing revelations.

To this day, the issue of the existence of UFOs divides public opinion. Still, the UFO phenomenon will spawn an entire industry – inspiring Hollywood movies, theme parks, and tourist attractions across the country. But it will also give rise to a number of serious research groups, like the Center for UFO Studies – founded by former skeptic, Dr. J. Allen Hynek, in 1973. Such organizations are still active today, dedicated to solving the mystery of UFOs; a mystery that first gripped the nation following the report of the Roswell Incident on July 7th, 1947.


Next onHistory Daily.July 8th, 1776. Colonel John Nixon gives the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.