A mysterious crash, dead extraterrestrials littering the landscape, a government cover-up. Today the incident near Roswell, N.M., is an elaborate tale, growing ever more so with time and mythic imagination. But when it happened, it was almost imperceptible.
The wreckage was strewn over a 200-yd. swath and consisted largely of rubber strips, tinfoil, wood sticks, Scotch tape, other tape with a floral design and what rancher W.W. ("Mac") Brazel described as a rather tough paper. On the day Brazel chanced upon the strange debris, June 14, 1947, he was making his rounds at the J.B. Foster sheep ranch, 85 miles northwest of Roswell. As he later recalled, he was in a hurry and didn't pay much attention to the scattered assortment.
Ten days after Brazel's chance discovery, pilot Kenneth Arnold was flying near Washington State's Cascade Mountains when he spotted what he described as nine disklike objects flying in formation at about 1,200 m.p.h. Arnold's report, yet unexplained, immediately gave rise to other sightings, and by July 4, newspapers were heralding literally hundreds of reports of "flying saucers" in skies across the nation.
But Brazel had no radio in his ranch shack and was unaware of the sightings until July 5, when he drove to the nearby town of Corona, heard about the saucers and may have learned of a rumored reward for anyone who recovered one. By then, Brazel later told the Roswell Daily Record, he had already returned to the littered field with his wife and two children, gathered the debris and taken it home. On July 7, while in Roswell to sell wool, Brazel dropped by the office of Sheriff George Wilcox, where, he recalled, he "whispered kinda confidential-like" that he might have found a flying disk. Sheriff Wilcox immediately phoned nearby Roswell Army Air Field, home of the 509th Bomb Group, and notified Major Jesse Marcel, the group intelligence officer.
Barely able to control his excitement, Marcel sped into town with counterintelligence corps officer Sheridan Cavitt, picked up Brazel and headed out to the ranch. After collecting the debris--which Brazel later reported weighed no more than 5 lbs.--they stowed it in the trunk of Marcel's Buick. On his way back to Roswell, Marcel stopped at his home to show off the booty. Marcel's son Jesse Jr., now 60 and a doctor in Helena, Mont., remembers being awakened by his father and shown tinfoil, plastic, "beams or struts" that seemed metallic, and some strange markings that he thought resembled "hieroglyphics." The younger Marcel was only 10 at the time, but, he told TIME last week, he recalls that his father "was pretty excited, and I kind of think he said 'flying saucers.'"
That is most likely the description Major Marcel used when he returned to the airfield. As Walter Haut, who was then the 509th's press officer, tells it, he was ordered by Colonel William Blanchard, the group commander, to issue a press release. Haut, now 75 (he and his wife have license plates that read MR UFO and MRS UFO), remembers Blanchard's saying, "We have in our possession a flying saucer. This thing crashed north of Roswell, and we've shipped it all to General Ramey, 8th Air Force at Fort Worth."