By Gary WarthSomething happened in Roswell, New Mexico, 60 years ago this summer.
North County Times
North County Times
In June or early July 1947, a farmer found strange debris while working on a ranch about 70 miles north of Roswell. He put some of it in a box and drove to the local sheriff. Neither man knew what to make of it, so the sheriff called Roswell Army Air Field, which sent two men to investigate.
On July 9, 1947, the Roswell Daily Record, a newspaper, printed a story with the alarming headline: "RAAF Captures Flying Saucer On Ranch in Roswell Region."
Other than those facts, there appear to be few things people agree on regarding what has become known as "the Roswell incident."
Six decades later, competing UFO enthusiasts promote their own theories, skeptics dismiss the spaceship claims as outrageous, and the military, which originally claimed all the fuss was over a weather balloon, now sticks to its story that it was an experimental spy craft.
Escondido resident Milton Sprouse, 85, said he knows what happened in Roswell ---- not because he favors one theory over another, but because he was there.
As for the outrageous stories of mysterious metal, alien corpses and a military coverup?
It's all true, he said.
From atom bombs to flying saucers
Before arriving at Roswell Army Air Field in 1945 as a corporal and engine mechanic, Sprouse already had participated in an undisputable historic event.
As a member of the 393rd Bomb Squadron assigned to the 509th Composite Group, Sprouse worked on the ground crew of Big Stink, one of the B-29 bombers stationed on the Pacific island of Tinian, where the two atomic bomb missions on Japan were launched to end World War II.
After the war, the 509th Composite Group was reassigned to Roswell, where they were renamed the 509th Bomb Wing. Sprouse continued to lead the ground crew of Big Stink, which had been renamed Dave's Dream after the pilot.
"There was nothing there but tumbleweeds blowing for miles," he said about arriving at Roswell in November 1945.
Sprouse first learned that something odd was going on at Roswell after returning from a three-day trip to Florida aboard Dave's Dream.
"I was there the day they announced a UFO had crashed," he said. The next day, it was published in the Roswell Daily Record, and that night, all the generals said the story was untrue."
Farmer William "Mac" Brazel had found debris on the J.B. Foster Ranch, where he was a foreman, sometime in June or early July. Brazel took some of the material, which reportedly included sticks, rubber strips, metallic foil and sturdy paper, to Sheriff George Wilcox, who called the air base.
Intelligence Officer Jesse Marcel was sent to the sheriff's station. Marcel reported what he saw to Air Force commanding officer Col. William Blanchard, who told him to go with Brazel to the ranch and examine the crash site.
After spending the night at the ranch, Marcel and another officer loaded their vehicles with debris, some of which reportedly was marked with mysterious symbols, and drove back to the base. Blanchard then ordered a press release stating that the base had captured a flying saucer.
The original story ran in the local paper July 8. That same day, the debris was loaded onto a B-29 and sent with Marcel to an Air Force base in Texas. Marcel was photographed with what was said to be the debris, and the military issued a statement saying that it was in fact a weather balloon.
Search for the truth
Meanwhile, Sprouse said, all copies of the Roswell newspaper were collected by officers, and hundreds of men from the 509th were taken to the crash site and told to walk shoulder-to-shoulder through the field, looking for debris pieces.
Sprouse himself did not go because he was told he was needed for Dave's Dream, but five men from his ground crew went to the ranch.
"They said it was out of this world," Sprouse said about what the crew reported finding. Among the objects it reported seeing was a metallic foil that, when crumpled, unfolded without a crease.
But what was the debris? Was it really something from another world, or just the product of overactive imaginations fueled by the monotony of a desolate 1950s desert town?
One thing that is agreed upon now: It was not from a weather balloon.
In 1995, after years of questions about the incident, the U.S. Air Force admitted the weather-balloon story was fabricated to cover up a top-secret project called Project Mogul designed to detect atomic activity over the Soviet Union with high-altitude balloons.
Some of the launches in the project contained more than two dozen neoprene balloons strung across more than 600 feet.
Charles Moore, a Project Mogul scientist interviewed in the Air Force report, has spoken in public about the project and described striking similarities to what was found at the ranch outside of Roswell and the Project Mogul material, which used sticks, metallic paper and strangely marked tape.
The strange markings that had seemed like cosmic hieroglyphics may have had a much more mundane explanation: Moore said the project used tape made at a toy factory.
The balloons were launched in June and July 1947 from Alamogordo Army Air Field in New Mexico. One flight was launched June 4 and tracked to Arabela, N.M., about 17 miles from the Foster ranch, before its batteries ran down and contact was lost.
But if the debris did come from a Project Mogul craft, how could a string of balloons create the types of gouges on the ground some witnesses have reported?
Then again, maybe there were no gouges; skeptics of the UFO theory have noted that some witnesses changed their stories about what they saw on the crash site.
The Project Mogul explanation also does not address why some people reported seeing alien bodies at the site. Those were explained in another report in 1997 that concluded the bodies actually were anthropomorphic dummies used to test high-altitude parachutes.
UFO believers found the explanation a little too convenient. There also was a timing problem, as the parachute tests were not conducted until the 1950s. The timing discrepancy has been explained as the result of people who over the years confused the two incidents and compressed memories of them into one event.
Sprouse, however, said he recalls people speaking about "alien bodies" immediately after the debris discovery.
"They took the bodies to a hangar, and there were two guards at each door with machine guns," he said.
Sprouse said one witness, a barracksmate, was an emergency-room medic who reported seeing what he called "humanoid" bodies in the hospital.
"They went to the ER room and two doctors and two nurses were called in, and they dissected two of those humanoid bodies," he said. "Then the doctors and nurses were transferred.
"My friend said he saw the bodies, and I believed him," Sprouse said. "He said, 'We don't think the humanoid ate food.' I don't know why he said that. The digestive system wasn't designed for food or something."
Like the other doctors and nurses, Sprouse said, his friend suddenly was transferred, and he never heard from him again. Others on the base, however, kept the story alive.
"I heard it so many times, it had to be true," he said.
Sprouse said he knew Marcel, but he never spoke to him after the incident.
"From that day on, I could never get close to him," he said.
The story lives on
After the story about the UFO crash was retracted, the rest of the world largely forgot about Roswell and accepted that what had been discovered was just a misidentified weather balloon.
The men stationed at the base, however, did not easily forget.
"They were still talking about it when I left, and I left in
'56," Sprouse said.
In 1978, Marcel was interviewed by a researcher and appeared in a documentary, "UFOs Are Real," the following year. The National Enquirer interviewed Marcel in 1980 for an article in which he said the woodlike debris could not be burned and the thin metal could not be bent. "The Roswell Incident" was released in 1980 as the first of a string of books on the subject.
As interest grew in the Roswell UFO incident, so did the number of detractors. Some have questioned Marcel's credibility, saying he got caught up in UFO hysteria and was known to exaggerate his own military past.
Jesse Marcel, Jr. published his own book this year, "The Roswell Legacy," defending his father, who died in 1986.
Sprouse has not kept up with all the books and documentaries on Roswell and did not go to Roswell in July for the 60th anniversary of the discovery.
He does, however, attend annual reunions with the 509th, which attracts 25 to 30 veterans.
"The Roswell incident comes up every year, but there's nothing really new," he said.
Sprouse also speaks about his experience at Tinian to about five high schools a year, and he often is invited to speak to other groups. He usually ends his talk with his memories of Roswell, often to the surprise of his audience.
At a talk in Tucson, Ariz., earlier this year, Sprouse said a man came up to him afterwards and said, "I don't believe a damn thing you said."
"I told him, 'You can believe what you want, but I know it's true,'" Sprouse said.