What Really Happened in Area 51?
What Really Happened in Area 51?
September 12, 2011
by Earl Swift
Up in the desert above Las Vegas hides a dusty air base ringed by towering mountains, buffered by an atomic testing preserve and guarded around the clock. It isn't much to look atâ€”a knot of hangars, fuel tanks and prefab living quarters beside a dry lakebed and a long runway. The parched ground sprouts little but creosote, scorpion weed and the odd Joshua tree.
But for generations, this lonely outpost has itched some people like a bad case of poison ivy. Secrecy about what goes on there has fueled all manner of speculation: It's a port for visiting spacecraft, or a venue for alien autopsies, or a lab where captured UFOs are reverse-engineered to America's military advantage. An industry has sprung up around this guessworkâ€”TV tell-alls, books and websites by the dozens. The public appetite for conspiracy theories involving Area 51â€”aka Groom Lake, Dreamland, Homey Airport, Paradise Ranch or Watertownâ€”appears insatiable. Reasonable people, smart people, eat them up.
So when a book comes along that promises to really, truly explain the place, and said book is by a contributor to the Los Angeles Times Magazine and put out by a major publisher and wins praise from The New York Times, NPR and national TV shows (Fox & Friends called it "an incredible piece of journalism"), we can't help but take notice.
For much of its 523 pages, Annie Jacobsen's Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base is the story of the men who, starting in 1955, developed and tested secret Cold War reconnaissance aircraft at Groom Lakeâ€”the CIA's U-2 and A-12 Oxcart, the latter of which flew with modifications as the Air Force's SR-71 Blackbird. Jacobsen interviewed 74 people, including 32 who lived and worked on the base. Many of them belong to Roadrunners Internationale, the alumni association of Groom Lake pilots, engineers, mechanics and such. The Roadrunners gladly spoke to her: Their Cold War activities had recently been declassified; they were getting on in years; they wanted their achievements recorded.
"We were very, very happy with what she was doing," T.D. Barnes, a radar expert and the Roadrunners' president, told us. "She did a great job of researching. She did everything a good journalist would do." Retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonels Roger W. Andersen and Francis J. Murray were also impressed; Murray said Jacobsen "was constantly taking notes" and "really seemed to be making sure that what we told her was correct." But for all of Jacobsen's apparent diligence, the men were surprised, and not happily, by the finished product: After Barnes read Area 51, for instance, he denounced her in a blog post as "an author who refuses to repent her literary crimes and errors."
The focus of the Roadrunners' criticism is a UFO conspiracy theory so fantastic that it makes the infamous and historically discredited tale about a 1947 crash of a flying saucer in Roswell, N.M., seem tame. The bottom line of the traditional Roswell story is that the purported extraterrestrial UFO wreckage was taken to Area 51 and subsequently became the object of a massive government coverup. Relying on the testimony of a single unnamed source, Jacobsen's book repeats the claim that some sort of UFO crashed at Roswell. But in her telling, the craft wasn't of alien origin. Instead, it was a saucer built by the Soviets using technology they'd obtained from German engineers at the end of World War II. And there's more. According to her unnamed source, the craft was manned by human teenagers who had been medically altered to look like aliens, with giant heads and eyes like wraparound Oakleys.
Who would do such a thing to children? Why, notorious Nazi death camp doctor Josef Mengele, Jacobsen writes, quoting her source quoting another source or sources, also unnamed. Seems that Mengele was working for Soviet boss Josef Stalin, who needed the mutants for a special project: scaring the daylights out of America with a fake alien visitation. Yes, it was all a hoax_ the most lavish prank in history.
Jacobsen reports that the wreckage was moved from Roswell to Wright Field (now Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, near Dayton, Ohio), where it was kept until 1951, then moved to the Nevada desert. There, her unnamed source was part of a team studying the saucer. They discovered that it ran on "electromagnetic frequency, or EMF," Jacobsen quotes him as saying, and he claims America has had the technology since. She offers no details on how this "EMF" propulsion might work, and the term could mean almost anything. All forms of electromagnetic radiationâ€”radio waves, visible light, X-rays and moreâ€”operate at particular frequencies. The notion that devices such as airplanes might be powered remotely by electromagnetic energy is at least a century old. But the concept has never worked on a large scaleâ€”the quantity of energy required would be unimaginably large.
One more thing: Two "child-size aviators" from the craft, alive but comatose, wound up in the desert too. They were stored in gel, the unnamed source told Jacobsen, and they moved their mouths as if trying to speak. Why would America hide the fact that Mengele had produced these sad creatures at Stalin's behest? "Because," the source tells Jacobsen, "we were doing the same thing... We performed medical experiments on handicapped children and prisoners," and we did it "at least through the 1980s."
Jacobsen offers no corroboration for this; instead, she presents irrelevant information that has been trotted out for many years by Roswell alien UFO conspiracy theorists. She writes that she pressed her source for details of the horrors he saw at Area 51, but he wouldn't budge. "He said he was hurting," Jacobsen writes. "That soon he would die. That, really, it was best that I did not learn any more because I didn't have a need-to-know."
Could this be true? Could any of this be true?
Let's start with the flying saucer, which Jacobsen ascribes to German aeronautical engineers Walter and Reimar Horten. It's a fact that before and during the war, the Horten brothers built a series of ever more sophisticated all-wing aircraft, culminating with the jet-powered Horten 229, a boomerang-shaped contrivance that bore a passing resemblance to Jack Northrop's YB-49 bomber prototype of the late '40s, as well as to the U.S. Air Force's much more recent B-2 Spirit stealth bomber.
Jacobsen writes that the brothers might have been at work on something more ambitious at war's end, and that the invading Soviets might have seized their blueprints. Within a few pages, she refers matter-of-factly to "the Horten brothers and their advanced flying saucer." Jacobsen cites postwar German sources who described and even sketched what she calls "saucer-like" craft. One was shaped like a half-moon, another, according to "Professor George," was "very much like a round cake with a large sector cut out."
We searched for evidence, finding none, that the brothers created a true flying saucer. (The book includes a photograph of the Hortens' Parabola, an all-wing, parenthesis-shaped craft with rounded edges; the photo is suggestive but its relevance to the story not explained.) We consulted with David Myhra, an aviation expert whose books include four on the Hortens, and who spent several weeks with Reimar Horten at his ranch in Argentina in the 1980s. "The Horten brothers never, ever went to any kind of a circular aircraft design," Myhra said. "There were no flying saucers in the Horten line, at all."
Jacobsen spoke with Myhra several times while writing Area 51. When Myhra read the book's claim about the Horten disc, he told us, "I thought, this is a piece of science fiction."
Next up: the mutant pubescents inside the crashed saucer. Quoting her unnamed source, Jacobsen writes that Stalin tapped Mengele, the infamous "Angel of Death" at the Auschwitz concentration camp, to create the faux aliens "shortly before or immediately after the end of the war," and that in exchange the Soviet leader offered the Nazi safe haven and a place to work, but later reneged on the deal.
There's a lack of common sense in this yarn. The clichÃ© that aliens are small, Twizzler-limbed beings with outsized noggins and buggy eyes came along years after Roswell, thanks notably to Steven Spielberg's 1977 film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Until then, they were almost exclusively portrayed as proportionally humanoid, robotic or (in the case of H.G. Wells's 1898 book, The War of the Worlds) tentacled. So why would Stalin place children with surgical makeovers in the saucer? He could have incited a panic, if that had been his aim, using a seasoned Soviet pilot who'd undergone a little nip and tuck.
Then there is historical fact. No evidence exists that Mengele had the medical skill to perform such transformations, much less the time to do them. He arrived at Auschwitz in May 1943 and served as chief doctor in the Birkenau subcamp, where he selected incoming prisoners for slave labor or the gas chamber. He also conducted horrific medical experiments, including some on dwarfs and twins. His activities during this time are extremely well-documented. He was not building aliens.
With the Red Army nearing Auschwitz in January 1945, Mengele fled to another camp, Gross-Rosen, then retreated farther west with a field hospital unit until his capture by American troops. After several weeks in custody, Mengele was released and devoted himself to keeping his head down, first as a farmhand in Bavaria and later near his hometown of GÃ¼nzburg. He stayed there until he slipped off to South America, in 1949. To sum up: According to Mengele biographer Gerald L. Posner, the doctor was fully occupiedâ€”sorting potatoes and baling hay in rural Germanyâ€”during the nearly two years before the supposed Roswell crash.
Now, about the saucer's hardware. Jacobsen writes that Stalin wanted to scare the States because he was lagging in the Cold War arms race: Two years away from being able to field an A-bomb, he deployed the saucer as "a warning shot across Truman's bow," she quotes her unnamed source as sayingâ€”a nudge to the U.S. president that the Soviets had technological tricks of their own.
This raises several questions of logic. If the Soviets were struggling with nuclear fission, how likely is it that they'd mastered the EMF technology that supposedly drove the saucer? If they had mastered EMF, why would they crash or land the saucer on U.S. soil, thereby making a gift of the technology to their greatest rival? If both the U.S. and Russia have had EMF technology for 60-plus years, why are we still flying old-school, fuel-chugging planes? Why did we use Hueys in Vietnam? Why didn't we use EMF to power the space shuttle?
But onward: Jacobsen writes that her unnamed source was one of five engineers to eyeball the crashed saucer at a secret research facility in the desert in 1951, four years before the Groom Lake air base opened a short distance away. He saw Cyrillic lettering "in a ring running around the inside of the craft," she reports. There were controls in the cockpit, but the craft was apparently flown by remote control.
We called Peter W. Merlin, an aviation historian who's written much about Groom Lake, including X-Plane Crashes: Exploring Experimental, Rocket Plane, and Spycraft Incidents, Accidents and Crash Sites. (It's safe to say he knows his stuff about the downing of some very unusual flying machines.) Merlin shared with us an October 1952 aerial photo of the area shot by the U.S. Geological Survey. The photo, he noted, "shows nothing there" but an abandoned World War II airstrip. "All the well-documented historical narratives show that Area 51â€”not by that name, but as a facilityâ€”was built in 1955," Merlin said. As for who was piloting the alleged saucer: Wireless, remote-control technology was just a few years old in 1947; it wasn't yet available on American TVs. So does it make sense that the Soviets would have used it to guide an aircraft from thousands of miles away?
When we first spoke with Jacobsen, three days after the book's release, we asked whether she realized this story might strike some people as "pretty nutty" (our exact words). She answered that she did. "The whole thing sounds so preposterous, [but] the reason I chose to include it in my book is that I believe in the veracity of my source," she said. "I've worked with him now for two years."
Mr. X is a man with impeccable credentials and a storied career, she told us: He'd devoted his adult life to serving the Manhattan Project and the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), much of it as an engineer for defense contractor EG&G. "I've examined his Atomic Energy Commission awards and certificates," she said. "I examined his war record, his military records, his medical records."
She wouldn't tell us his name, of course. She'd promised to stay mum about his identity and those of the four now-deceased engineers with whom he'd worked. Jacobsen said she realized that using an unnamed source had earned her some skepticism, but argued it was "part of journalism, historically."
Skepticism or no, Jacobsen's book was enjoying a lot of friendly press at the time. Within a few days of our conversation, the hosts of CNN's American Morning said they "couldn't put it down" and found it "riveting." MSNBC's MorningJoe heralded the book's runaway sales. The New York Times praised Jacobsen's "dogged devotion to her research" and called the Roswell passages "a hasty-sounding addendum to an otherwise straightforward investigative book about aviation and military history."
But the tide turned. On May 26, when Jacobsen appeared on ABC's Nightline, reporter Bill Weir challenged her Soviet saucer tale, asking, "How can you believe this?" He requested to meet her unnamed source, and did so. Weir reported that he was as esteemed as Jacobsen had described, but Weir opted to keep the man's name and image off the air because he'd seemed "confused."
Meanwhile, speculation about the identity of Jacobsen's source proliferated on the Web. Well, actually, on dozens of websites. The man in question figures prominently in Jacobsen's book, and, indeed, the details she put down about him jibe with her descriptions of Mr. X to us and to others. So we phoned his home. His wife answered. Upon hearing what we wanted, she referred us to a publicist at Little, Brown and Company, Area 51's publisher. She then said that her husband was in the hospital after suffering a fall, and that she'd take our number to him. "I doubt if he'll talk," she said. "Everybody says he's the man, but he'll say he's not."
"Is he?" we asked.
"No, no, I believe that he's not," she said. "This whole thing has just got out of hand." He never called, and our subsequent attempts to contact him have been unsuccessful.
When we spoke to Jacobsen again in early June, we mentioned that Mr. X's name had been bandied about on the Internet. "I imagine there's a zillion websites that are speculating about who my source might be," she said, "but I have no idea. I don't read them, and I don't know about any of that."
We asked whether it had occurred to her, while talking with her source, that his story had some problems. "If I ever had a question like that of the source, I asked him," she replied.
We asked whether she'd come to harbor any misgivings about his account since. "I believe that what the source told me is true, to him," she replied. "In other words, everything that he told me, I believe in his veracity as an individual."
Her book's endnotes, she reminded us, did raise "the possibility that perhaps some of the information that he was told could have been misinformation." Her source didn't think so, however, and was "surprised and upset by the idea that no one believes this," she said.
In our second conversation, Jacobsen complained that her critics were fixated on "the last seven pages" before the epilogue, rather than the hundreds previous chronicling the impressive military aircraft development at Groom Lake. And indeed, the most sensational elements of the Roswell-Soviet-Mengele bombshell come in an ending that took the Roadrunners by surprise.
"The general reaction of most of the guys I know is: Wow. We didn't see this one coming," Roger Andersen said. "We really got back-doored on that last chapter." Roadrunners vice president Harry A. Martin offered a more forceful assessment. "We don't go along with that crap," he said. "I don't appreciate it, really." Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Tony Bevacqua, who flew the U-2, called the book's last chapter "flat-out unbelievable." Francis J. Murray branded it "BS."
Some Groom Lake alums, mindful that the book contained their story, decided they'd back it anyway, and have appeared with the author at book signings and TV tapings. Barnes is among them, though he said he was "horrified" when he read Area 51 and regretted introducing Jacobsen to some of her other sources. On Memorial Day he made the blog post decrying Jacobsen's "literary crimes and errors." (He has since removed the page containing that quote.)
Meanwhile, Jacobsen is unwavering. "Everybody has opinions about what journalists write, but I stand by everything I wrote in the book," she said. She added that she'd met with Mr. X since the book came out, and that he was "clear on everything I've written."
None of the foregoing should be taken to mean that the text preceding Area 51's big finish is free of kinks. For one thing, the Soviet flying-saucer story is not restricted to seven pages: The groundwork for it is laid throughout the preceding narrative, beginning on page 4. And the sections that do pass for straight history include material about nuclear tests that took place in the Nevada desert, but not at Area 51; the secret base had nothing to do with them.
What's more, the straight history, nuke and Area 51 stuff alike, is sprinkled with errors. A 1957 nuclear safety test is labeled the first of its kind (page 111), when four similar tests had occurred in 1955 and 1956, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. The same test is described as research into "the dirty bomb menace" that "posed a growing threat to the internal security of the country" (page 100), when it was really aimed at collecting data on the extent of nuclear contamination that would result if the detonating charge failed to cause an atomic explosionâ€”again, according to the DOE.
That's just a sampling of the 35 errors that Peter Merlin found in the book. Perhaps the biggest mistake appears on the dust jacket and again in the prologue, where Jacobsen says "the U.S. government has never admitted [Area 51] exists." In truth, various agencies have acknowledged the base's existence. Evidence can easily be found on the Web, where links abound to January 1996 news-conference footage, captured by KTNV-TV, the ABC affiliate in Las Vegas, of then defense secretary William Perry. "We do have a military operation going on at Groom Lake, highly classified and highly important to U.S. security," he says. Also, in the mid-1990s, federal lawsuits brought by former workers from the area alleging that they'd been exposed to hazardous waste on the job forced President Bill Clinton to acknowledge the "Air Force's operating location near Groom Lake." Ultimately, the base's presence has been an open secret from the start. Merlin has turned up government maps, none secret, bearing the "51" or "Area 51" designation. And in May 1955, the AEC's Las Vegas field office issued a press release announcing its construction.
A month after the book's publication, we traded email with John Parsley, the Little, Brown and Company editor who handled Area 51. He did not answer some of our questions: on whether he knew Mr. X's identity; on his (Parsley's) methodology in deciding whether an unnamed source is reliable; and on whether he took a role in corroborating the book's assertions or left that to Jacobsen. (As the company's executive director of publicity, Nicole Dewey, explained: "We do not, as a matter of policy, disclose legal vetting procedures and policies.") "Annie is a seasoned and well-respected journalist, and I'm fully confident in all of her reporting," Parsley said. "The book always promised to be a groundbreaking work on a fascinating place, and it isâ€”just as it is a tribute to each man who worked on his particular part of the base."
"Tribute" isn't the word some Roadrunners use to describe the book, and, as it happens, we ran across something that made pieces of the saucer-teen yarn seem not so groundbreaking, either. The July 1956 edition of the magazine Astounding Science Fiction contains a short story by James Blish, a fairly popular writer in his day. "Tomb Tapper" is about a strange craft that crashes in a small town in upstate New York, and that might be extraterrestrial; the people who find it can't tell whether it's Soviet or from outer space.
They break into the hull to find the pilot, dying in the cockpit. The pilot's helmet falls off. Lying before them is a blond-haired girl, maybe 8 years old.
To be sure, any similarity to the account of Jacobsen's unnamed source is coincidental, because Blish's story is fiction. It's fantasy. And as Jacobsen states on Area 51's cover: "This book is a work of nonfiction. The stories I tell in this narrative are real."