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It is the most famous military installation in the world. And it doesn't exist. Located a mere seventy-five miles outside of Las Vegas in Nevada's desert, the base has never been acknowledged by the U.S. government-but Area 51 has captivated imaginations for decades.
Myths and hypotheses about Area 51 have long abounded, thanks to the intense secrecy enveloping it. Some claim it is home to aliens, underground tunnel systems, and nuclear...
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It is the most famous military installation in the world. And it doesn't exist. Located a mere seventy-five miles outside of Las Vegas in Nevada's desert, the base has never been acknowledged by the U.S. government-but Area 51 has captivated imaginations for decades.
Myths and hypotheses about Area 51 have long abounded, thanks to the intense secrecy enveloping it. Some claim it is home to aliens, underground tunnel systems, and nuclear facilities. Others believe that the lunar landing itself was filmed there. The prevalence of these rumors stems from the fact that no credible insider has ever divulged the truth about his time inside the base. Until now.
Annie Jacobsen had exclusive access to nineteen men who served the base proudly and secretly for decades and are now aged 75-92, and unprecedented access to fifty-five additional military and intelligence personnel, scientists, pilots, and engineers linked to the secret base, thirty-two of whom lived and worked there for extended periods. In Area 51, Jacobsen shows us what has really gone on in the Nevada desert, from testing nuclear weapons to building super-secret, supersonic jets to pursuing the War on Terror.
This is the first book based on interviews with eye witnesses to Area 51 history, which makes it the seminal work on the subject. Filled with formerly classified information that has never been accurately decoded for the public, Area 51 weaves the mysterious activities of the top-secret base into a gripping narrative, showing that facts are often more fantastic than fiction, especially when the distinction is almost impossible to make.
"A compelling narrative of 50 years of covert operations by the CIA, the U.S. military, and the mysterious "Atomic Energy Commission".... Her meticulous research makes for a fascinating read, as it intersperses the accounts of secret government projects with anecdotes from the people who made those projects happen."—Rachel Larimore, Slate
"An informative history...about the creativity, political acumen and courage of the high-flying Cold Warriors who sought to protect the free world in the decades after World War II."—Andrew Dunn, Bloomberg
"Jacobsen's take veers from the standard conspiracy narrative in just about every imaginable respect."—Earl Swift, Popular Mechanics
"What Jacobsen believes happened in the New Mexican desert is more frightening than UFO conspiracies..."—Elizabeth Bair, Dallas Observer
Weird doings are afoot, aliens are among us and so is Raytheon—all stories that figure inLos Angeles Times Magazinecontributing editor Jacobsen's supremely odd book on that most classified of American military installations.
Acting on tips and leads by those who were there, the same kinds of fighter jocks and spam-in-a-can aeronauts that figure in Tom Wolfe'sThe Right Stuff, Jacobsen set out a few years ago to uncover what could be uncovered about Area 51, the huge military/intelligence base in the desert of southern Nevada. Huge is right—it's "just a little smaller than the state of Connecticut"—and it's carved into subdomains so secret that one agency, whether the CIA or the Air Force or the Atomic Energy Commission, often doesn't know what the next one is doing. Indeed, Vice President Johnson didn't know about Area 51 until after he became president—and we can guess that Joe Biden hasn't been briefed on the odd things that happen there. Famously, as Jacobsen notes, Area 51 has been associated with UFOs, and some of the earliest sightings thereof, beginning in 1947, have taken place in or near the facility. As for the spooky-faced aliens so beloved ofX-Filesfans and so feared by the Whitley Strieber fans in the audience? Well, the big news in Jacobsen's book is...no, it'd be stealing her thunder, and perhaps inviting a probe, to say much in specific, except to say that the grays are real, if tinged red. Jacobsen's expansive, well-written narrative takes in the sweep of Cold War history, from the Bay of Pigs to Francis Gary Powers to Joe Stalin to Vietnam to the Nazi doctors pressed into service by U.S. and USSR alike—and none of it is pretty.
As readers will see, it'll be hard to double-check Jacobsen's reporting, so leaps of faith are required. But Jacobsen provides an endlessly fascinating—and quite scary—book.
This book is a work of nonfiction. The stories I tell in this narrative are real. None of the people are invented. Of the seventy-four individuals interviewed for this book with rare firsthand knowledge of the secret base, thirty-two of them lived and worked at Area 51.
Area 51 is the nation’s most secret domestic military facility. It is located in the high desert of southern Nevada, seventy-five miles north of Las Vegas. Its facilities have been constructed over the past sixty years around a flat, dry lake bed called Groom Lake. The U.S. government has never admitted it exists.
Key to understanding Area 51 is knowing that it sits inside the largest government-controlled land parcel in the United States, the Nevada Test and Training Range. Encompassing 4,687 square miles, this area is just a little smaller than the state of Connecticut—three times the size of Rhode Island, and more than twice as big as Delaware. Set inside this enormous expanse is a smaller parcel of land, 1,350 square miles, called the Nevada Test Site, the only facility like it in the continental United States. Beginning in 1951, on the orders of President Harry Truman, 105 nuclear weapons were exploded aboveground at the site and another 828 were exploded underground in tunnel chambers and deep, vertical shafts. The last nuclear weapons test on American soil occurred at the Nevada Test Site on September 23, 1992. The facility contains the largest amount of weapons-grade plutonium and uranium in the United States not secured inside a nuclear laboratory.
Area 51 sits just outside the Nevada Test Site, approximately five miles to the northeast of the northernmost corner, which places it inside the Nevada Test and Training Range. Because everything that goes on at Area 51, and most of what goes on at the Nevada Test and Training Range, is classified when it is happening, this is a book about secrets. Two early projects at Groom Lake have been declassified by the Central Intelligence Agency: the U-2 spy plane, declassified in 1998, and the A-12 Oxcart spy plane, declassified in 2007. And yet in thousands of pages of declassified memos and reports, the name Area 51 is always redacted, or blacked out. There are only two known exceptions, most likely mistakes.
This is a book about government projects and operations that have been hidden for decades, some for good reasons, others for arguably terrible ones, and one that should never have happened at all. These operations took place in the name of national security and they all involved cutting-edge science. The last published words of Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, were “Science is not everything. But science is very beautiful.” After reading this book, readers can decide what they think about what Oppenheimer said.
This is a book about black operations, government projects that are secret from Congress and secret from the people who make up the United States. To understand how black projects began, and how they continue to function today, one must start with the creation of the atomic bomb. The men who ran the Manhattan Project wrote the rules about black operations. The atomic bomb was the mother of all black projects and it is the parent from which all black operations have sprung.
Building the bomb was the single most expensive engineering project in the history of the United States. It began in 1942, and by the time the bomb was tested, inside the White Sands Proving Ground in the New Mexico high desert on July 16, 1945, the bomb’s price tag, adjusted for inflation, was $28,000,000,000. The degree of secrecy maintained while building the bomb is almost inconceivable. When the world learned that America had dropped an atomic weapon on Hiroshima, no one was more surprised than the U.S. Congress, none of whose members had had any idea it was being developed. Vice President Harry Truman had been equally stunned to learn about the bomb when he became president of the United States, on April 12, 1945. Truman had been the chairman of the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program when he was vice president, meaning he was in charge of watching how money was spent during the war, yet he’d had no idea about the atomic bomb until he became president and the information was relayed to him by two men: Vannevar Bush, the president’s science adviser, and Henry L. Stimson, the nation’s secretary of war. Bush was in charge of the Manhattan Project, and Stimson was in charge of the war.
The Manhattan Project employed two hundred thousand people. It had eighty offices and dozens of production plants spread out all over the country, including a sixty-thousand-acre facility in rural Tennessee that pulled more power off the nation’s electrical grid than New York City did on any given night. And no one knew the Manhattan Project was there. That is how powerful a black operation can be.
After the war ended, Congress—the legislators who had been so easily kept in the dark for two and a half years—was given stewardship of the bomb. It was now up to Congress to decide who would control its “unimaginable destructive power.” With the passing of the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, a terrifying and unprecedented new system of secret-keeping emerged. The presidential system was governed by presidential executive orders regarding national security information. But the newly created Atomic Energy Commission, formerly known as the Manhattan Project, was now in charge of regulating the classification of all nuclear weapons information in a system that was totally separate from the president’s system. In other words, for the first time in American history, a federal agency run by civilians, the Atomic Energy Commission, would maintain a body of secrets classified based on factors other than presidential executive orders. It is from the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 that the concept “born classified” came to be, and it was the Atomic Energy Commission that would oversee the building of seventy thousand nuclear bombs in sixty-five different sizes and styles. Atomic Energy was the first entity to control Area 51—a fact previously undisclosed—and it did so with terrifying and unprecedented power. One simply cannot consider Area 51’s uncensored history without addressing this cold, hard, and ultimately devastating truth.
The Atomic Energy Commission’s Restricted Data classification was an even more terrifying anomaly, something that could originate outside the government through the “thinking and research of private parties.” In other words, the Atomic Energy Commission could hire a private company to conduct research for the commission knowing that the company’s thinking and research would be born classified and that even the president of the United States would not necessarily have a need-to-know about it. In 1994, for instance, when President Clinton created by executive order the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments to look into secrets kept by the Atomic Energy Commission, certain records involving certain programs inside and around Area 51 were kept from the president on the grounds that he did not have a need-to-know. Two of these programs, still classified, are revealed publicly for the first time in this book.
One of the Atomic Energy Commission’s former classifications officers, Donald Woodbridge, characterized the term born classified as something that “give[s] the professional classificationist unanswerable authority.” Area 51 lives on as an example. Of the Atomic Energy Commission’s many facilities across the nation—it is now called the Department of Energy—the single largest facility is, and always has been, the Nevada Test Site. Other parts of the Nevada Test and Training Range would be controlled by the Department of Defense. But there were gray areas, like Area 51—craggy mountain ranges and flat, dry lake beds sitting just outside the official borders of the Nevada Test Site and not controlled by the Department of Defense. These areas are where the most secret projects were set up. No one had a need-to-know about them.
And for decades, until this book was published, no one would.
Area 51 is a riddle. Very few people comprehend what goes on there, and millions want to know. To many, Area 51 represents the Shangri-la of advanced espionage and war fighting systems. To others it is the underworld of aliens and captured UFOs. The truth is that America’s most famous secret federal facility was set up in order to advance military science and technology faster and further than any other foreign power’s in the world. Why it is hidden from the world in southern Nevada’s high desert within a ring of mountain ranges is the nexus of the riddle of Area 51.
To enter Area 51 requires a top secret security clearance and an invitation from the uppermost echelons of U.S. military or intelligence-agency elite. The secrecy oath that is taken by every individual who visits the base before arriving there is both sacred and legally binding. For those without an invitation, to get even the slimmest glimpse of Area 51 requires extraordinary commitment, including a ten-hour block of time, a four-wheel-drive vehicle, and a pair of good hiking boots. Through binoculars, from the top of a mountain called Tikaboo Peak, located twenty-six miles east of Area 51, one can, on occasion, see a flicker of activity. Daylight hours are bad for viewing because there is too much atmospheric heat distortion coming off the desert floor to differentiate airplane hangars from sand. Nighttime is the best time to witness the advanced technology that defines Area 51. Historically, it has been under the cover of darkness that secret airplanes and drones are flight-tested before they are sent off on missions around the world. If you stand on Tikaboo Peak in the dead of night and look out across the darkened valley for hours, suddenly, the Area 51 runway lights may flash on. An aircraft slides out from inside a hangar and rolls up to its temporarily illuminated runway. After a brief moment, it takes off, but by the time the wheels leave the ground, the lights have cut out and the valley has been plunged back into darkness. This is the black world.
According to most members of the black world who are familiar with the history of Area 51, the base opened its doors in 1955 after two CIA officers, Richard Bissell and Herbert Miller, chose the place to be the test facility for the Agency’s first spy plane, the U-2. Part of Area 51’s secret history is that the so-called Area 51 zone had been in existence for four years by the time the CIA identified it as a perfect clandestine test facility. Never before disclosed is the fact that Area 51’s first customer was not the CIA but the Atomic Energy Commission. Beginning in 1951, the Atomic Energy Commission used its parallel system of secret-keeping to conduct radical and controversial research, development, and engineering not just on aircraft but also on pilot-related projects—entirely without oversight or ethical controls.
That the Atomic Energy Commission was not an agency that characteristically had any manner of jurisdiction over aircraft and pilot projects (their business was nuclear bombs and atomic energy) speaks to the shadowy, shell-game aspect of black-world operations at Area 51. If you move a clandestine, highly controversial project into a classified agency that does not logically have anything to do with such a program, the chances of anyone looking for it there are slim. For more than sixty years, no one has thought of looking at the Atomic Energy Commission to solve the riddle of Area 51.
In 1955, when the Central Intelligence Agency arrived at Area 51, its men brought with them the U.S. Air Force as a partner in the nation’s first peacetime aerial espionage program. Several other key organizations had a vested interest in the spy plane project and were therefore briefed on Area 51’s existence and knew that the CIA and Air Force were working in partnership there. Agencies included NACA—the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NASA’s forerunner)—and the Navy, both of which provided cover stories to explain airplanes flying in and out of a military base that didn’t officially exist. The National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC), the agency that would interpret the photographs the U-2 collected on spy missions abroad, was also informed about the area. From 1955 until the late 1980s, these federal agencies as well as several other clandestine government organizations born in the interim—including the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), the National Security Agency (NSA), and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA)—all worked together behind a barrier of secrecy on Area 51 programs. But very few individuals outside of an elite group of federal employees and black-world contractors with top secret clearances had confirmation that the secret base really was there until November of 1989. That is when a soft-spoken, bespectacled, thirty-year-old native Floridian named Robert Scott Lazar appeared on Eyewitness News in Las Vegas with an investigative reporter named George Knapp and revealed Area 51 to the world. Out of the tens of thousands of people who had worked at Area 51 over the years, Lazar was the only individual who broke the oath of silence in such a public way. Whether one worked as a scientist or a security guard, an engineer or an engine cleaner, serving at Area 51 was both an honor and a privilege. The secrecy oath was sacred, and the veiled threats of incarceration no doubt helped people keep it. With Bob Lazar, more than four decades of Area 51’s secrecy came to a dramatic end.
That Bob Lazar wound up at Area 51 owing to a job referral by the Hungarian-born nuclear physicist Dr. Edward Teller is perfectly ironic. Teller coinvented the world’s most powerful weapon of mass destruction, the thermonuclear bomb, and tested many incarnations of his diabolical creation just a few miles over the hill from Area 51, in the numbered sectors that make up the Nevada Test Site. The test site is America’s only domestic atomic-bomb range and is Area 51’s working partner. Area 12, Area 19, and Area 20, inside the test site’s legal boundaries, are just some of the parcels of land that bear Dr. Teller’s handprint: charred earth, atomic craters, underground tunnels contaminated with plutonium. Area 51 sits just outside.
Bob Lazar first met Edward Teller in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in June of 1982, when Lazar only twenty-three years old. Lazar was working at the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory in radioactive-particle detection as a contractor for the Kirk-Mayer Corporation when he arrived early for a lecture Teller was giving in the lab’s auditorium. Before the lecture, Lazar spotted Teller reading the Los Alamos Monitor, where, as coincidence would have it, there was a page-1 story featuring Bob Lazar and his new invention, the jet car. Lazar seized the opportunity. “That’s me you’re reading about,” he famously told Teller as a means of engaging him in conversation. Here was an ambitious young scientist reaching out to the jaded, glutted grandfather of mass destruction. In hindsight it makes perfect sense that the ultimate consequences of this moment were not beneficent for Lazar.
Six years later, Lazar’s life had reached an unexpected low. He’d been fired from his job at Los Alamos. Terrible financial problems set in. He and his wife, Carol Strong, who was thirteen years his senior, moved to Las Vegas and opened up a photo-processing shop. The marriage fell apart. Lazar remarried a woman named Tracy Murk, who’d worked as a clerk for the Lazars. Two days after Bob Lazar’s wedding to Tracy, his first wife, Carol, committed suicide by inhaling carbon monoxide in a shuttered garage. Lazar declared bankruptcy and sought advanced engineering work. He reached out to everyone he could think of, including Dr. Edward Teller, who was now spearheading President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars. In 1988, Teller found Lazar a job.
This job was far from any old advanced engineering job. Edward Teller had recommended Bob Lazar to the most powerful defense-industry contractor at Area 51, a company called EG&G. Among the thousands of top secret and Q-cleared contractors who have worked on classified and black projects at the Nevada Test Site and Area 51, none has had as much power and access, or as little oversight, as EG&G. On Teller’s instruction, Lazar called a telephone number. A person at the other end of the line told him to go to McCarran Airport, in downtown Las Vegas, on a specific date in December—to the EG&G building there. Lazar was told he would be flown by private aircraft to Groom Lake. He was excited and followed orders. Inside the EG&G building, he was introduced to a man called Dennis Mariani who would soon become his supervisor. The two men went to the south end of the airport and into a secure hangar ringed by security fences and guarded by men with guns. There, EG&G ran a fleet of 737 airplanes that flew back and forth to Groom Lake—and still do. Because they flew with the call sign Janet, this private Area 51 commuter fleet had become known as Janet Airlines. Lazar and his supervisor passed through security and boarded a white aircraft with no markings or logo, just a long red stripe running the length of the airplane.
Fly to Area 51 on a northerly course from Las Vegas and you’ll see a Nevada landscape that is classic American Southwest: snowcapped mountains, rolling hills, and desert valley floors. Bob Lazar would not have seen any of this on his approach to Groom Lake because the window curtains on his Janet Airlines flight would have been drawn—they always are when newcomers arrive. The airspace directly over Area 51 has been restricted since the mid-1950s, which means no one peers down onto Area 51 without authorization except satellites circling the globe in outer space. By the time Lazar arrived, the 575-square-mile airspace had long been nicknamed the Box, and Air Force pilots at nearby Nellis Air Force Base know never to enter it. Distinctly visible at the very center of Area 51’s Box sits a near-perfect six-mile-diameter endorheic basin, also known as a dry lake. It was the lake bed itself that originally appealed to the CIA; for decades it had doubled as a natural runway for Area 51’s secret spy planes.
Almost everything visible on approach to Area 51 from the air is restricted government land. There are no public highways, no shopping malls, no twentieth-century urban sprawl. Where the land is hilly, Joshua trees and yucca plants grow, their long spiky leaves extended skyward like swords. Where the land is flat, it is barren and bald. Except for creosote bushes and tumbleweed, very little grows out here on the desert floor. The physical base—its hangars, runways, dormitories, and towers—begins at the southernmost tip of Groom’s dry lake. The structures spread out in rows, heading south down the Emigrant Valley floor. The hangars’ metal rooftops catch the sunlight and reflect up as the Janet airplane enters the Box. A huge antenna tower rises up from the desert floor. The power plant’s cooling tower comes into view, as do the antennas on the radio-shop roof, located at the end of one of the two, perpendicular taxiways. Radar antennas spin. One dish is sixty feet in diameter and always faces the sky; its beams are so powerful they would instantly cook the internal organs of any living thing. The Quick Kill system, designed by Raytheon to detect incoming missile signals, sits at the edge of the dry lake bed not far from the famous pylon featured in Lockheed publicity photos but never officially identified as located at Area 51. Insiders call the pylon “the pole”—it’s where the radar cross section on prototype stealth aircraft is measured. State-of-the-art, million-dollar black aircraft are turned upside down and hoisted aloft on this pole, making each one look tiny and insignificant in the massive Groom Lake expanse, like a bug on a pin in a viewing case.
As a passenger on the Janet 737 gets closer, it becomes easier for the eye to judge distance. Groom Mountain reveals itself as a massive summit that reaches 9,348 feet. It towers over the base at its northernmost end and is rife with Area 51 history and lore. Countless Area 51 commanding officers have spent weekends on the mountain hunting deer. Hidden inside its craggy lower peaks are two old lead and silver mines named Black Metal and Sheehan Mine. In the 1950s, one ancient miner hung on to his federal mining rights with such ferocity that the government ended up giving him a security clearance and briefing him on Area 51 activities rather than continuing to fight to remove him. The miner kept the secrecy oath and took Area 51’s early secrets with him to the grave.
At the southernmost end of the base sits a gravel pit and concrete-mixing facilities that are used to construct temporary buildings that need to go up quick. Against the sloping hills to the west sit the old fuel-storage tanks that once housed JP-7 jet fuel, specially designed for CIA spy planes that needed to withstand temperature fluctuations from −90 degrees to 285 degrees Fahrenheit. To the south, on a plateau of its own, is the weapons assembly and storage facility. This is recognizable from the air by a tall ring of mounded dirt meant to deflect blasts in the event of an accident. Behind the weapons depot, a single-lane dirt road runs up over the top of the hill and dumps back down into the Nevada Test Site next door, at Gate 800 (sometimes called Gate 700). Old-timers from the U-2 spy plane days called this access point Gate 385, originally the only way in to Area 51 if you were not arriving by air. On the Area 51 side of the gate, the shipping and receiving building can be found. In the height of the nuclear testing days, the 1950s and 1960s, trucks from the Atomic Energy Commission motor pool spent hours in the parking lot here while their appropriately cleared drivers enjoyed Area 51’s legendary gourmet chow.
In December of 1988, had Lazar been looking out the Janet 737 aircraft window just before landing, off to the northwest he would have seen EG&G radar sites dotting the valley floor in a diagonal line. Part of the Air Force’s foreign technology division, which began in 1968, these radar sites include coveted Soviet radar systems acquired from Eastern-bloc countries and captured during Middle East wars. Also to the north lies Slater Lake, named after Commander Slater and dug by contractors during the Vietnam War. Around the lake’s sloped banks are trees unusual for the area: tall and leafy, looking as if they belong in Europe or on the East Coast. This is the only nonindigenous plant life in all of Area 51. Move ahead to December of 1998, and five miles beyond Slater Lake, across the flat, dry valley floor, an airplane passenger would have seen a crew of men dressed in HAZMAT suits busily removing the top six inches of soil from a 269-acre parcel contaminated with plutonium. Set inside Area 51’s airspace but in a quadrant of its own, this sector was designated Area 13. What the men did was known to only a select few. Like all things at Area 51, if a person didn’t have a need-to-know, he knew not to ask.
The airplane carrying Lazar would likely have landed on the easternmost runway and then taxied up to the Janet terminal, near the security building. Lazar and his supervisor, Dennis Mariani, would have gone through security there. According to Lazar, he was taken to a cafeteria on the base. When a bus pulled up, he and Mariani climbed aboard. Lazar said he could not see exactly where he was taken because the curtains on the bus windows were drawn. If Lazar had been able to look outside he would have seen the green grass of the Area 51 baseball field, where, beginning in the mid-1960s, during the bonanza of underground nuclear testing, Area 51 workers battled Nevada Test Site workers at weekly softball games. Lazar’s bus would have also driven past the outdoor tennis courts, where Dr. Albert Wheelon, the former Mayor of Area 51, loved to play tennis matches at midnight. Lazar would have passed the swimming pool where CIA project pilots trained for ocean bailouts by jumping into the pool wearing their high-altitude flight suits. Lazar would have passed the Area 51 bar, called Sam’s Place, built by and named after the great Area 51 navigator Sam Pizzo and in which a photograph of a nearly naked Sophia Loren used to drive men wild.
In December of 1988, Lazar had no idea that he was stepping into a deep, textured, and totally secret history. He couldn’t have known it because the men described above wouldn’t tell their stories for another twenty years, not until their CIA project was declassified and they spoke on the record for this book. But Lazar’s arrival at Area 51 made its own kind of history, albeit in a radical and controversial way. In making Area 51 public, as he subsequently did, Lazar transformed the place from a clandestine research, development, and test-flight facility into a national enigma. From the moment Lazar appeared on Eyewitness News in Las Vegas making utterly shocking allegations, the public’s fascination with Area 51, already percolating for decades, took on a life of its own. Movies, television shows, record albums, and video games would spring forth, all paying homage to a secret base that no outsider could ever visit.
According to Lazar, that first day he was at Area 51 he was driven on a bumpy dirt road for approximately twenty or thirty minutes before arriving at a mysterious complex of hangars built into the side of a mountain somewhere on the outskirts of Groom Lake. There, at an outpost facility Lazar says was called S-4, he was processed through a security system far more intense than the one he’d been subjected to just a little earlier, at Area 51’s primary base. He signed one document allowing his home telephone to be monitored and another that waived his constitutional rights. Then he was shown a flying saucer and told it would be his job to reverse engineer its antigravity propulsion system. All told, there were nine saucers at S-4, Lazar says. He says he was given a manual that explained that the flying saucers had come from another planet. Lazar also said he was shown drawings of beings that looked like aliens—the pilots, he inferred, of these outer-space crafts.
According to Lazar, over the following winter, he worked at S-4, mostly during the night, for a total of approximately ten days. The work was intense but sporadic, which frustrated him. Sometimes he worked only one night a week. He longed for more. He never told anyone about what he was doing at S-4, not even his wife, Tracy, or his best friend, Gene Huff. One night in early March of 1989, Lazar was being escorted down a hallway inside S-4 by two armed guards when he was ordered to keep his eyes forward. Instead, curiosity seized Bob Lazar. He glanced sideways, through a small, nine-by-nine-inch window, and for a brief moment, he says, he saw inside an unmarked room. He thought he saw a small, gray alien with a large head standing between two men dressed in white coats. When he tried to get a better look, he was pushed by a guard who told him to keep his eyes forward and down.
For Lazar, it was a turning point. Something shifted in him and he felt he could no longer bear the secret of the flying saucers or what was maybe an alien but “could have been a million things.” Like the tragic literary figure Faust, Lazar had yearned for secret knowledge, information that other men did not possess. He got that at S-4. But unlike Faust, Bob Lazar did not hold up his end of the bargain. Instead, Lazar felt compelled to share what he had learned with his wife and his friend, meaning he broke his Area 51 secrecy oath. Lazar knew the schedule for the flying saucer test flights being conducted out at Groom Lake and he suggested to his wife, Tracy, his friend Gene Huff, and another friend named John Lear—a committed ufologist and the son of the man who invented the Learjet—that they come along with him and see for themselves.
The group made a trip down Highway 375 into the mountains behind Groom Lake. With them they brought high-powered binoculars and a video camera. They waited. Sure enough, they said, the activity began. Lazar’s wife and friends saw what appeared to be a brightly lit saucer rise up from above the mountains that hid the Area 51 base from view. They watched it hover and land. The following Wednesday they returned to the site. Then they made a third visit, on April 5, 1989—this time down a long road leading into the base called Groom Lake Road—which ended in fiasco. The trespassers were discovered by Area 51 security guards, detained, and required to show ID. They answered questions for the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department and were let go.
The following day, Lazar reported to work at the EG&G building at McCarran Airport. He was met by Dennis Mariani, who informed Lazar that he would not be going out to Groom Lake as planned. Instead, Lazar was driven to Indian Springs Air Force Base. The guard who had caught him the night before was helicoptered in from the Area 51 perimeter to confirm that Bob Lazar was one of the four people found snooping in the woods the night before. Lazar was told that he was no longer an employee of EG&G and if he ever went anywhere near Groom Lake again, alone or with friends, he would be arrested for espionage.
During his questioning at Indian Springs, he was allegedly given transcripts of his wife’s telephone conversations, which made clear to Lazar that his wife was having an affair. Lazar became convinced he was being followed by government agents. Someone shot out his tire when he was driving to the airport, he said. Fearing for his life, he decided to go public with his story and contacted Eyewitness News anchor George Knapp. Lazar’s TV appearance in November of 1989 broke the station’s record for viewers, but the original audience was limited to locals. It took some months for Lazar’s story to go global. The man responsible for that happening was a Japanese American mortician living in Los Angeles named Norio Hayakawa.
Decades later, Norio Hayakawa still recalls the moment he first heard Lazar on the radio. “It was late at night,” Hayakawa explains. “I was working in the mortuary and listening to talk radio. KVEG out of Las Vegas, ‘The Happening Show,’ with host Billy Goodman. Remember, this was in early 1990, long before Art Bell and George Noory were doing ‘Coast to Coast,’ ” Hayakawa recalls. “I heard Bob Lazar telling his story about S-Four and I became intrigued.” As Hayakawa toiled away at the Fukui Mortuary in Little Tokyo, he listened to Bob Lazar talk about flying saucers. Having no television experience, Hayakawa contacted a Japanese magazine called Mu, renowned for its popular stories about UFOs. “Mu got in touch with me right away and said they were interested. And that Nippon TV was interested too.” In a matter of weeks, Japan’s leading TV station had dispatched an eight-man crew from Tokyo to Los Angeles. Hayakawa took them out to Las Vegas, where he’d arranged for an interview with Bob Lazar. That was in February of 1990.
“We went on a Wednesday because that was the day we’d heard on the radio they did flying saucer tests,” Hayakawa recalls. “We interviewed Lazar for three or four hours. He was a strange person. He had bodyguards with him in his house who followed him around everywhere he went. But we were satisfied with the interview. We decided to try and film some of the saucer activity at Area 51.” Hayakawa asked Lazar if he would take them to the lookout point on Tikaboo Mountain off Highway 375. Lazar declined but told them exactly where to go and at what time. “We went to the place and set up our equipment. Lo and behold, just after sundown, a bright orangeish light came rising up off the land near Groom Lake. We were filming. It came up and made a fast directional change. This happened three times. We couldn’t believe it,” Hayakawa says. At the time, he was convinced that what he saw was a flying saucer—just like Lazar had said.
Hayakawa showed the footage to the magazine’s bosses in Japan, who were thrilled. The TV station had paid Lazar a little over five thousand dollars for a two-hour segment about his experience at Area 51. Part of the deal was that Lazar was going to fly to Tokyo with Norio Hayakawa to do a fifteen-minute interview there. Instead, just a few days before the show, Lazar called the director of Nippon TV and said federal agents were preventing him from leaving the country. Lazar agreed to appear on the show via telephone and answered questions from telephone callers instead. “The program aired in Japan’s golden hour,” Hayakawa says, “prime time.” Thirty million Japanese viewers tuned in. “The program introduced Japan to Area 51.”
As Lazar’s Area 51 story became known around the world, Bob Lazar the person was scrutinized by a voracious press. Every detail of his flawed background was aired as dirty laundry for the public to dissect. It appeared he’d lied about where he went to school. Lazar said he had a degree from MIT, but the university says it had no record of him. In Las Vegas, Lazar was arrested on a pandering charge. It didn’t take long for him to disappear from the public eye. But Bob Lazar never changed his story about what he saw at Area 51’s S-4. Had Lazar witnessed evidence of aliens and alien technology? Was his discrediting part of a government plot to silence him? Or was he a fabricator, a loose cannon who perceived what he saw as an opportunity for money and fame? He sold the film rights to his story, to New Line Cinema, in 1993. Lazar took two lie detector tests, and both gave inconclusive results. The person administrating the test said it appeared that Lazar believed what he was saying was true.
“The odd part,” says Norio Hayakawa, “is how in the years after Lazar, the story of Area 51 merged with the story of Roswell. If you stop anyone on the street and you ask them what they know about Area 51 they say aliens.”
Or they say Roswell.
To the tens of millions of Americans who believe UFOs come from other planets, Roswell is the holy grail. But Roswell has not always been considered the pinnacle of UFO events. It too had a hidden history for many years.
“What you need to remember is that in 1978, the Roswell crash registered a point-zero-one on the scale in terms of important UFO crashes,” explains Stanton Friedman, a septuagenarian nuclear-physicist-turned-ufologist often referred to by Larry King and others as America’s leading expert on UFOs. “Until the 1980s, the most important book about UFOs was called Flying Saucers—Serious Business, written by newsman Frank Edwards,” Friedman says. “In the book, thousands of UFO sightings are discussed and yet Roswell is mentioned for maybe half a paragraph. That is not very much compared to now.”
Until Stanton Friedman’s exposé on the Roswell incident, which he began in 1978, the story was limited to a few publicly known facts. During the first week of July 1947, in the middle of a powerful lightning storm, something crashed onto a rancher’s property outside Roswell, New Mexico. The rancher, named W. W. Brazel, had been a famous cowboy in his earlier days. Brazel loaded the strange pieces of debris that had come down from the sky into his pickup truck and drove them to the local sheriff’s office in Roswell. From there, Sheriff George Wilcox reported Brazel’s findings to the Roswell Army Air Field down the road. The commander of the 509th Bomb Group at the base assigned two individuals to the W. W. Brazel case: an intelligence officer named Major Jesse Marcel and a press officer named Walter Haut.
Later that same day, Frank Joyce, a young stringer for United Press International and a radio announcer at KGFL in Roswell, received a telephone call from the Roswell Army Air Field. It was press officer Walter Haut saying that he was bringing over a very important press release to be read on the air. Haut arrived at KGFL and handed Frank Joyce the original Roswell statement, which was printed in the paper later that afternoon, July 8, 1947, and in the San Francisco Chronicle the following day.
The many rumors regarding the flying disc became a reality yesterday when the intelligence office of the 509th Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force, Roswell Army Air Field, was fortunate enough to gain possession of a disc through the cooperation of one of the local ranchers and the Sheriff’s Office of Chaves County.
The flying object landed on a ranch near Roswell sometime last week. Not having phone facilities, the rancher stored the disc until such time as he was able to contact the Sheriff’s office, who in turn notified Major Jesse A. Marcel, of the 509th Bomb Group Intelligence Office.
Action was immediately taken and the disc was picked up at the rancher’s home. It was inspected at the Roswell Army Air Field and subsequently loaned by Major Marcel to higher headquarters.
Three hours after Haut dropped off the statement, the commander of the Roswell Army Air Field sent Walter Haut back to KGFL with a second press release stating that the first press release had been incorrect. What had crashed on W. W. Brazel’s ranch outside Roswell was nothing more than a weather balloon. Photographs showing intelligence officer Major Jesse Marcel posing with the weather balloon were offered as proof. The story faded. No one in the town of Roswell, New Mexico, spoke of it publicly for more than thirty years. Then, in 1978, Stan Friedman and his UFO research partner, a man named Bill Moore, showed up in Roswell and began asking questions. “Bill and I went after the story the hard way,” says Friedman. “There was no Internet back then. We went to libraries, dug through telephone records, made call after call.” After two years of research, Friedman and Moore had interviewed more than sixty-two original witnesses to the Roswell incident. Those interviewed included intelligence officer Major Jesse Marcel and press officer Walter Haut.
It turned out that a lot more had happened in Roswell, New Mexico, in the first and second weeks of July 1947 than just a weather-balloon crash. For starters, large numbers of the military had descended upon the town. W. W. Brazel was jailed for almost a week. Some witnesses saw military police loading large boxes and crates onto military trucks. Other witnesses saw large boxes being loaded onto military aircraft. The local coroner received a mysterious call requesting several child-size coffins that could be hermetically sealed. Townsfolk were threatened with federal prison time if they spoke about what they saw. The majority of the stories relayed by the sixty-two witnesses to UFO researchers Friedman and Moore all had two factors in common. The first was that the crash, which included more than one crash site, involved a flying saucer, or round disc. The second assertion was jaw-dropping. Witnesses said they saw bodies. Not just any old bodies but child-size, humanoid-type beings that had apparently been inside the flying saucer. These aviators had big heads, large oval eyes, and no noses. The conclusion that the majority of the witnesses drew for the UFO researchers was that these child-size aviators were not from this world.
In 1980, a book based on Friedman and Moore’s research was published. It was called The Roswell Incident. The lid was off Roswell, and the floodgates opened. “By 1986 a total of ninety-two people had come forward with eyewitness accounts of what really had happened back in 1947,” Friedman asserts. Ufologists elevated the Roswell incident to sacred status; that is how it became the holy grail of UFOs.
When Bob Lazar went public with his story about flying saucers and a small, alien-looking being at S-4, just outside the base at Area 51, it would seem to follow that Stanton Friedman and his colleagues would champion Bob Lazar’s story. Instead, the opposite happened. “Bob Lazar is a total fraud,” Friedman contends. “He has no credibility as a scientist. He said he went to MIT. He did not. He called himself a nuclear physicist and he is not. I resent that. I got in to MIT and could not afford to go there. You can’t make something like that up and expect to be taken seriously.” Friedman says he does not care what Lazar says he saw. He can’t get past the false statements Lazar made about himself. It was not like Friedman didn’t try to have a face-to-face with Lazar. “I spoke with Lazar on the telephone in 1990. We arranged to have lunch [in Nevada] but he never showed up,” Friedman explains. “Scientists normally have diplomas. They write papers, they appear in directories. I wanted to ask him why none of that applies to Bob Lazar. I tried to believe him. I was not antithetic to his story. He’s obviously a very smart guy and not just because he could put a jet engine on the back of a car. But my conclusion about him is that he’s a total fraud.”
It is unfortunate the two men never had lunch. In talking, they might have realized how close to the truth—something far more earthly and shocking than anyone could have imagined—they both were. The true and uncensored story of Area 51 spans more than seven decades. The Roswell crash is but a thread, and Area 51 itself—the secret spot in the desert—has its origins in places and events far outside the fifty square miles of restricted airspace now known as the Box.
It all began in 1938, with an imaginary war of the worlds.
Excerpted from Area 51 by Jacobsen, Annie Copyright © 2011 by Jacobsen, Annie. Excerpted by permission.
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Prologue: The Secret City xv
Chapter 1 The Riddle of Area 51 3
Chapter 2 Imagine a War of the Worlds 19
Chapter 3 The Secret Base 45
Chapter 4 The Seeds of a Conspiracy 63
Chapter 5 The Need-to-Know 77
Chapter 6 Atomic Accidents 100
Chapter 7 From Ghost Town to Boomtown 124
Chapter 8 Cat and Mouse Becomes Downfall 139
Chapter 9 The Base Builds Back Up 162
Chapter 10 Wizards of Science, Technology, and Diplomacy 176
Chapter 11 What Airplane? 186
Chapter 12 Covering Up the Cover-Up 204
Chapter 13 Dull, Dirty, and Dangerous Requires Drones 214
Chapter 14 Drama in the Desert 229
Chapter 15 The Ultimate Boys' Club 248
Chapter 16 Operation Black Shield and the Secret History of the USS Pueblo 265
Chapter 17 The MiGs of Area 51 280
Chapter 18 Meltdown 296
Chapter 19 The Lunar-Landing Conspiracy and Other Legends of Area 51 317
Chapter 20 From Camera Bays to Weapons Bays, the Air Force Takes Control 333
Chapter 21 Revelation 350
Author Interviews and Bibliography 477
Reading Group Guide 525