Part 1: Project Blue Book Head Thought Roswell ‘Saucer crash’ a Nuclear Accident
Whilst researching a potential TV documentary series, The Secret History of Flying Saucers, I was fortunate to speak and correspond with a number of the key surviving figures of that troubled and controversial history.
They offered some fascinating insights.
Major Robert Friend (Ret.) was head of USAF’s Project Blue Book – the public face of UFO investigations, between 1958 and 1962 – a particularly challenging time following the panic and paranoia sparked by Sputnik. With limited resources Friend strove to maintain objectivity in investigations, earning the respect of Blue Book scientific consultant J. Allen Hynek and his colleague Jacques Vallee. Major Friend had also been prepared to at least consider the extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH) even though he thought the evidence did not support it.
When he wrote to me in 1997[i] he thanked Vallee and Hynek “for their views of my effort on the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Program.”
Most interestingly he continued:
“I do have personal views of some of the cases that differ from the official explanations.
Notably I believe that an unarmed nuclear device was inadvertently released at Roswell and that initially someone felt that a story regarding a UFO landing would cover the recovery operations. There is evidence that points in this direction.
If you are interested I will provide you more detail regarding what leads me to this conclusion.”
There is a precedent for this. In 1945, whilst practising bombing runs from Utah for the atomic attack on Japan, a massive dummy warhead containing an explosive trigger was accidentally dropped from an aircraft, embedding itself several feet in the ground close to the Californian desert town of Caliapatra.[ii] A massive security operation hastily retrieved the device and bulldozed the crater in what must be the first ever ‘Broken Arrow’ incident – one that resonates as a precursor to the many ‘something strange crashed in the desert’ tales that would later form a colourful ‘crashed disc’ folklore.
Of course Friend may have evidence to refute the leading conventional hypothesis: that a Top Secret Project Mogul balloon train and acoustic package to detect evidence of Soviet atomic bomb testing from the atmosphere had come to ground. But there is certainly no evidence for an extraterrestrial origin.
‘Lacombe’ says ‘non’
The afore-mentioned Jacques Vallee, a long-time proponent of scientific research into UFO phenomena (and role model for the French scientist Lacombe in Close Encounters of the Third Kind) graciously declined my request to participate in the proposed documentary:
“Given the current level of the debate about UFOs, I am very sceptical that anything I would say would be heard in the context of the Alien Autposy fraud or the Roswell controversy. Accordingly I believe I can make a better contribution by pursuing my research behind the scenes.”
“Even in the context of your careful approach, the timing is such (with the Roswell anniversary coming up, etc.) that anything I might say would likely be lost in the noise.”
Surely a damning indictment of an event that has come to symbolise the worst excesses of UFO commercialism; hucksterism packaged in a gaudy carnival for the benefit of a town more than 70 miles away from where a sheep ranch foreman found some tin foil, sticks and deflated balloons in scrubland at Corona, NM, and waited for three weeks or more before he bothered to tell anyone about it.
Richard Hall NICAP
Richard Hall, former colleague of Major Donald Keyhoe at NICAP (National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena) – the civilian investigation group that most aggressively pursued the ETH, and volubly criticised the USAF investigations – thought my proposed documentary ‘an extremely interesting one’ but wanted to know:
“Will your ‘history’ be confined to what might be described as the rational record (facts, science, views of reputable and responsible people) or will it, as is all too often true here, feel obliged to report the utterances of kooks, con-men, and New Age airheads as well?
Having spent a good part of my life trying to show that UFOs are a serious, scientific question, there are a few people whose views and attitudes I find so onerous that I generally refuse to appear in the same venue with them. I am referring to people whom I consider either intellectually dishonest, con-men, or raving lunatics. (There are others with whom I strongly disagree about particulars, but honest and scientific disagreement is okay.)
I would like to know who else, among UFO researchers (‘ufologists’) will be interviewed for the series. Although it is not an exhaustive list, some of the most offensive and unacceptable are Philip Klass, William Milton Cooper, Robert Dean, Bob Lazar, Steven Greer, and Bob Oeschler. Not to mention Ray Santilli.”
Hall concluded with asking if I could send him an outline of the series, adding he would be “glad to recommend good people to interview” and that if I really wanted the ‘secret history’ he could ‘steer’ me ‘to important witnesses and unreported information.’
Students of UFO history will recognise all the hallmarks of NICAP’s approach in this letter, especially the need to control the myth, its presentation, and to be the arbiter of what represents ‘good’ research or not.
I was struck by the reference to Ray Santilli, a UK media producer who allegedly obtained the ‘Alien Autopsy’ footage from a former U.S. military cameraman (despite the fact that it was faked by film-maker Spyros Melaris) – clearly even hardened champions of the ETH thought the Alien Autposy film scam beneath them.
Richard Hall’s reference to Philip Klass did not surprise me. Klass was an aviation writer whose scepticism about UFO phenomena and outright rejection of the unsupported ETH marked him as the bogeyman for all ‘true believers’. His pithy response to my request to made me smile:
“I am indeeded [sic] flattered by your invitation and delighted to accept – subject to the following condition:
That the producer of the TV documentary agree to pay me the sum of $10,000,000 for my interview, or agree to provide me with a video tape of the documentary in U.S. (NTSC) format after it is shown on TV or otherwise made public – I leave the choice up to your associate.
I expect to be at home in Washington for at least the first several months of 1997 – unless abducted by a UFO.”
NASA, who resolutely avoided having to conduct any UFO investigations – despite the fact that investigators such as Maj Robert Friend at Blue Book (among others) thought their involvement would be completely legitimate – responded with a standard 3-page letter that effectively dodged the issue of making any representative available for interview. However, contacted privately, former Administrator Robert A. Frosch wrote he ‘would be willing to be interviewed about the NASA 1977 decision re UFO questions.’
Not all those involved in the USAF UFO investigations had completely discounted the ETH.
I received a charming letter from former Major Dewey Fournet, a pilot and engineer who had been intimately involved in the earliest Saucer investigations as intelligence liaison between the Air Force investigations and the Pentagon:
“Your proposal confronted me with a dilemma. Except for agreeing to be portrayed in the Greene-Rouse movie, “UFO” (because I was convinced that it was a serious attempt to document the UFO subject up to the mid-1950s)… I have consistently avoided public appearances and pronouncements relating to UFOs. I rejected out-of-hand numerous attempts in past years to involve me publicly in the subject. However, I found that I couldn’t summarily dismiss your proposal because of your obvious sincerity, apparent knowledge of the subject and factual approach – over the phone and in your letter.’
Fournet kindly agreed in principle to participate should production go ahead, subject to issues such as the health of his wife and where filming would occur.
An interesting caveat was:
“After 40+ years my memory has dimmed on many things, for example, I can recall nothing about the BMI Project Stork”
Project Stork was ostensibly a statistical analysis of UFO sightings by ‘think tank’ the Battelle Memorial Institute. Controversially the project would suggest withholding some data from the CIA’s Robertson panel in 1953, and suggested faking UFO incidents in areas where large numbers of sightings had occurred.
But most importantly, for an intelligence officer who early Blue Book head Edward Ruppelt had characterised as ‘probably the most thoroughly convinced believer that UFOs were interplanetary spaceships that I knew’[iii] and who had prepared a technical study arguing that reported flight characteristics of UFO were consistent with the possibility of extraterrestrial vehicles, Fournet was emphatic on one issue:
”It must be clearly understood that I will offer no personal opinion about the nature of UFOs.”
And he concluded:
“Incidentally, I am no longer entitled to be addressed as “Major”. I resigned my reserve commission when I was released from active duty with the Air Force in early 1953; I wasn’t eligible to retire. And this action by me had nothing whatsoever to do with my involvement with the UFO program.”
There is more to share about the research for The Secret History of Flying Saucers in a later post.
I would like to thank Philip Mantle, who was a research consultant for me on the project, David Rozalla, who championed the project at PolyGram, and sincere appreciation to the many fascinating individuals who so graciously gave their time and effort to assist, especially the memories of Dewey Fournet, Philip Klass and Richard Hall, who have all since passed away.
[i] By a quirk of fate, Friend’s letter was dated 24th June, 1997, exactly 50 years to the day since Kenneth Arnold’s sighting gave birth to the Flying Saucer myth.
[ii] Ruin From The Air – Gordon Thomas, Max Morgan Witts