It was late in the evening when Mack Brazel first saw the object. The sun had just sunk behind the horizon and he was just about to pack up and head home for the day. Work on old man Fosters place had gone slower than it should have and they were all having to put in extra overtime to make up for it.
The other ranch hands as well as his son had already taken off in the other pick-up truck and he was the only one still there. Rather than take off in his truck he decided to stay another twenty minutes or so and watch the sun go down behind the scrubby brush and tall Saguaro cacti. Out here in the desert, on a good clear night like this was, you could see a bright sprinkling of a million stars overhead. It was a sight to see, sure enough. He stretched his back, and paused a moment to gaze up at the broad misty band of the Milky Way. The night air was cool on his cheeks.
Then he looked again and frowned in puzzlement. One star in particular seemed brighter than the others. He did not seem to remember seeing it before. Even in these few seconds it seemed like it had grown brighter.
Slowly, it started to move. It drifted with dreamlike slowness across a field of stars. Was it some sort of aircraft? The war had only been over for two years. It was said that the airfield to the north had some mighty weird stuff in it they had brought back from Europe. Someone told him they had been outside another base one day, when he saw what looked for all the world like a giant cigar go straight up and vanish into the sky, flames coming out the bottom of it. Maybe this was something like that, one of them new-fangled jets maybe. It seemed to get brighter still, and larger. He could swear for a second that it was coming right toward him. Then it stopped, and doubled back on itself and went back the way it had come in a way no aircraft should have been able to, jet or no. He did not like the look of this at all. Then it elongated itself into a long horizontal shape, like a disc seen edge-on, with some sort of bulge at the leading edge. Then it stopped again. Something seemed to disturb it, for it dipped downward and began to descend rapidly at a steep angle, convulsing weirdly along its length as it did so. Then it disappeared behind the distant Saguaro. There was the sound of a distant crump as it impacted the desert floor.
Almost immediately he got back in the truck and started it up, and pointed it to where he thought it had come down. It didn’t seem like it was that far away. The desert at night is very dark; there was little or nothing to guide his way beyond the small oval of light offered by the trucks headlamps. He could only make a best guess estimate and hope he wasn’t too far off. He stopped the truck and killed the lights. He waited a minute or so to let his eyes adjust to the dark and got out slowly. He hoped there weren’t any tarantulas around here to crawl up the warm tires and get inside the axles. He went round to the back of the pickup truck to retrieve the battered old metal torch. He trained it all around, lighting up the tops of the scrub.
There. Something in the middle distance. It looked like a giant tarpaulin draped right over the tallest of the Saguaro. In the sharp torch beam it shone weirdly, like metallic or something. Some sort of parachute? There were no ropes or cables in evidence. He followed it with the torch, and found the ground there was littered all around with various sized bits and pieces of a jagged metal, like sheets of it had been torn up and tossed all around. Beyond that, there were some bent and dented metal tubes lying askew. There was also a very strange looking object indeed. It was an uneven lump, a package that had been partially flattened into the sand by the force of the impact. He bent to pick up one of the fragments. It shone like a brightly polished metal. But it had the consistency of a scrap of paper. He could bend and fold it in his fingers. But it was metal alright. Metal paper. Just what the heck is this, he thought. He trained the torch over the strange, ruined thing before him. It seemed to be made out of some sort of… paper like material, he saw. Layers of it were folded around each other intricately. Down one side were these queer black symbols, arranged in long narrow vertical lines, a bizarre alphabet the like of which he had never seen anywhere else.
Suddenly, he felt inexplicably frightened. This was not of this Earth, no, not at all. He dropped the little triangle of metal paper out of his hand and rushed back to the Buick, slammed the door firmly shut and drove like crazy out of there. He was going to have to get help. First thing in the morning he would come back here with his son and take another look over this thing, whatever it was. He might even have to bring in the military. Perhaps the folk over at the Roswell Army air field could shed some light on it.
“Yeah, what is it?” replied Major Marcel, without even looking up from his paper.
“I got the sheriff’s office on the line. He says a rancher has found something weird out in the desert, and he thinks we ought to take a look at it. He thinks it might be one of ours. He wants us to see it. He sounds real anxious. They don’t know what it is.”
“Awright,” he sighed. “Gimme the phone.” The clerk handed the receiver over the desk to the Major. One nut job after another, he thought.
“Yes, sheriff. How can I help you? Ahuh. Yeah. When was that? Coupla nights, okay. A disc, you say? A what, a parachute? Okay, I see. Where was this? Alright. No, we don’t. We don’t do any testing in these parts. I can’t really tell you that. Look, I tell you what. I’m gonna send someone down there to take a look at it, alright? We can quickly determine if it’s one of ours and what to do about it. No problem at all.”
After thinking about it for a moment or so, he decided he might as well go and take a look out there himself. At least it would provide an excuse to get away from this stuffy office for a few hours or so. Anything to break the monotony. This had to be the most boring posting of all time. Even Tokyo had been more interesting. “Emily, I’m going to be out of the office for a bit. I gotta go check on something. Hold my calls, would you?”
The Brazel homestead was about a half hours drive away. The object and all the other debris of the crash site was all stored within his barn at the back of the house. Mack and his family had gathered up from the crash site a range of materials including pieces of rubber, sticks, various kinds of paper, and fragments of tinfoil. A lot of it was held together with strips of tape, some of which had flowery designs across it, making it look like something you might see in a kindergarten.
In the center stood the object itself.
He slowly pulled the tarpaulin off it, and he saw what was written there, and his eyes widened in horror.
The lettering was Japanese.
For perhaps the first time in his life, he understood what it means to feel your blood run suddenly cold. He could not believe what he was looking at. It couldn’t be, he thought. Not here. They were supposed to have all been destroyed. How could this one have survived this far inland?
Marcel had learned enough of it during his tour of duty in Japan to pick his way through it. It was a Shinto prayer, of the kind people would hang outside their houses for good fortune.
Marcel dreaded to think what might be inside that package. He rushed back outside and pulled the door firmly shut behind him.
“It’s a good thing you called us,” he told Mack. “You got a lock for this barn?”
“Sure I have. What’s this all about? It ain’t one a them atom bombs is it? I mean, it ain’t gonna go off or nothin’, right?”
“I don’t think so.” He wished he was as sure as he sounded.
He got back in the jeep and drove like hell back to the airfield as fast as he could. As soon as he was there he marched into Colonel Blanchard’s office and demanded to see him straight away.
“What the hell do you want, Marcel?” said Blanchard irritably. “I was just about to take off for the day.”
“I’m sorry to bother you sir, but this is absolutely urgent. We’ve got an emergency on our hands.”
Something about Marcel’s tone of voice convinced the colonel this was no joke. “What’s going on, Major?”
“We need to put together a bomb disposal team right away. And a biological hazard team. We’ve got some unexploded ordinance on our hands and possibly maybe even something worse. I need them in gasmasks and hazard suits.”
“What in the world for?” Blanchard was already reaching for the phone. “Is it something on here on the base?”
No, sir. It’s outside of Roswell. Something came down in the desert and a guy called Mack Brazel found it and now he’s got it on his property. It’s, well, it’s an aerial weapon sir, and it may have some unexploded stuff on board.”
“Are you saying one of our planes has crashed?”
“No, sir. It- it’s Japanese.”
Colonel Blanchard stopped in mid dialling and looked at him. “Son, have you been drinking?”
“No colonel, I have not. It’s kind of a secret weapon.”
“Alright. You better give me the details.” The colonel got back on the phone and ordered a defusal team to the Brazel ranch.
Cutting into the object proved no problem; it was mostly made out of a tough folded paper, and silk. The explosive device they found inside, though powerful, turned out to be harmless. The wiring had long since corroded away in the damp and cold of the upper atmosphere through which it had drifted for three years. It was all then gathered up and brought back to the airfield, to be securely locked away from any prying eyes. They reported back to Colonel Blanchard that the device was secure.
“Alright,” said Blanchard, “now suppose you tell me just what in tarnation’s going on here. Why is there an unexploded Japanese bomb in the New Mexico desert?”
Major Marcel did not answer straight away. He stood and slowly went over to the door, then made sure it was closed firmly, and peered out briefly to see if anyone was in the corridor outside.
“Colonel, what I’m about to tell you can’t ever leave this room. Not ever.”
Colonel Blanchard nodded. “Go on.”
“Alright. Well, it’s a paper balloon. Full of explosives, for use against civilian targets. They launched tens of thousands of them against us in the war. They drifted through the Jetstream till they got to the west coast where they were supposed to cause havoc and panic amongst the civilian populace.”
“My god. Did any of ‘em get through?”
“Only a few. Most of them just splashed in the ocean. A few of them did cause a bit of minor damage. There were some school kids came across on that came down in forty-five. They started tinkering with it, and got blown to bits.”
“Jesus. Why weren’t we told about this?”
“Because these things are still a threat to our national security, that’s why. The press were told not to report on any that came down and it was kept on a strict need to know basis afterwards. You see, a foreign enemy, or just anyone with a grudge, could pack a balloon full of mustard gas and send it drifting over our borders. Or pack it full of incendiaries and launch a cloud of them against an oil refinery. We haven’t got any response to that form of attack. Not yet, anyway. And what if someone built one big enough to carry the A-bomb? How would you like something like coming down some night?”
“But… we’re the only ones with the bomb,” said the colonel.
“You think that’s going to be the case forever? Hell’s bell’s, it’s got to be only a matter of time before the Russians or who knows who else gets the know-how. The laws of physics that allowed us to develop these weapons are every bit as comprehensible to your Russian physicist.”
“But the Russians are our allies aren’t they?”
“Not if you believe some of Comrade Stalin’s latest speeches. He’s made no secret of the fact that he’s going to spread communism across the world any way he can. And he is desperate to get his dirty red hands on the bomb. Make no mistake about it, there’s a new conflict shaping up, and sooner or later it’s all going to cut loose in a big way. If the Japs could try a stunt like this there’s every chance the commies will do likewise as soon as they get the chance. They could send swarms of these damn things down over the North Pole. Even the best radar coverage can’t screen for stuff up that high. Jet bombers, no problem. Balloons on the edge of space? Not a chance.”
“I see,” said Blanchard gravely.
“And you wanna know the damnedest part? You know who they got to put those things together originally? School children. Grade school kids. All the adults were busy either making arms or fighting in the war. That’s how easy they are to put together. Until we have the means to detect them, no one can know about it.”
Blanchard wiped his brow with a grey old napkin. Then he reached under his desk and brought a bottle of Jack Daniels. He poured himself a generous measure. Then he poured another for Marcel.
“That rancher knows,” said Blanchard. “That Brazel guy. There’s no telling how many people he’s going to talk to.”
“We’re probably going to have to figure out some form of damage control then. There’s a General Roger Ramey, stationed over in Fort Worth. Back in the war he was the general liaison officer for dealing with this stuff. He’s the one you ought to get in touch with about this. He was the one who briefed me and a couple of others.”
“At least there aren’t any other civilians in on it. This Brazel fellow seems to have no real idea what he found.”
“Well… not really. There’s been a civilian right here on the base all day. A reporter. He’s been doing some human interest piece for the local rag.
“Whaat? Why the hell didn’t anyone tell me? Where the hell’s he now?” He got up from the desk. “We need to find me that sonofabitch.”
Unfortunately, the reporter by then was long gone. That wasn’t the worst of it, though. A few of the soldiers who had gone out there had posed with some of the strips of silver foil that the lower parts of the balloon had been sheathed in as insulation.
Over the next few days the reporter went and made hay while the sun shined, and then some. He latched onto the rancher’s description of a ‘saucer shaped object that looked like it was not of this world,’ and ran with it. He busied himself turning it all into something out of Flash Gordon. The screen of silence that had been ordered around the affair by the Pentagon only served to fuel the fire still further. Over the next few days the airfields phone system was inundated with calls from people wanting to know what had been done with ‘the Martian spaceship,’ and whether it was the vanguard of an invasion. It was Orson Welles all over again.
The official story which came back soon afterward from General Ramey at the Fort Worth army air field was that it was a crashed experimental weather balloon, sent up for climate studies. That neatly explained the balloon fabric hanging over the Saguaro, as well as its unusual construction.
It was Major Marcel who had to field most of these calls, and repeat the official line about navigation balloons. As he did so he often looked out the window and out at the bright blue sky outside. It looked deceptively peaceful. How many more of them were up there? How far would they get before finally coming down? Someone was going to have to deal with them some day. Sooner or later they would begin to menace commercial flights, and then where would they be? There’d be a tragedy, even worse than that nightmare with those poor school kids in California. Then the truth about them would come out. Then no one would be safe.
But as the years passed the story snowballed until it became an alien scout craft complete with crewmembers who had been taken to the base for autopsies, and the vanguard for future clandestine bases beneath the Nevada desert. The military as a whole never contradicted or confirmed any of these stories. It suited their purpose well to have multiple conflicting stories swirling around the Roswell Incident. The mini industry which eventually grew up around the whole affair ensured the truth about the Japanese bomb balloons was forever buried beneath ever more layers of obfuscation.
The last of the balloons was not finally brought down until the mid nineteen-fifties, with jets equipped with radar and missiles. Their full existence was not finally revealed until 1974. By then the damage had been done: sightings of them paved the way for everything from abductions to cattle mutilations to clandestine deals by government agencies which allowed the US to do everything from beat the Russians to the moon to developing stealth bombers. It all began in a quiet mesa outside the town of Roswell.