The world was worrying about war when rancher W.W. Brazel walked into the sheriff's office in Corona, N.M., on a hot, dusty day 75 years ago to report a "flying disk" he might have found on his property, about 100 miles northwest of Roswell Army Air Field.
The next day -- July 8, 1947 -- the public information officer at the base issued a news release stating the U.S. Army Air Forces had recovered a "flying saucer" at the ranch. While military brass quickly retracted the statement, it was too late: The legend of Roswell as the "UFO Capital of the World" was already soaring, much like the countless bright objects many Americans claimed to have seen in the sky that summer.
The event that we know today as the "Roswell Incident" gave birth to the modern movement of UFO sightings, along with the genre of alien science fiction.
"For centuries, people have seen things they can't explain," said Roger Launius, a historian and the retired curator of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. "In earlier generations, they referred to them as angels, demons, deities or whatever. That changes with the scientific revolution, where people began to wonder if the points of light they see are alien in nature."
The fertile ground for Roswell was sown under the darkening mushroom cloud of the nuclear age. World War II had ended less than two years earlier, and the United States and Soviet Union seemed to be on the precipice of another global conflict. The term "Cold War" was coined by George Orwell in a 1945 essay and entered the modern consciousness when Bernard Baruch, an adviser to President Harry S. Truman, uttered it in a speech in the spring of 1947.
Amid this heightened apprehension came the first news of "flying saucers" -- and the term's first mention in print, according to the Oxford English Dictionary -- on June 24. Media across the country reported that a civilian pilot named Ken Arnold said he'd spotted bright objects streaking across the sky at supersonic speeds near Mount Rainier in Washington.
Some officials suggested the fast-moving lights might have been rockets or jets being tested by the military. Nonetheless, public hysteria mushroomed over the next few weeks, with more than 800 similar sightings being reported across the country, many of them deemed "copycat" events by law enforcement and military officials.
"When Ken Arnold sees this stuff, it's told in an overblown tabloid way," Launius said. "It gets hyped-up in the press and builds from there. If the present doesn't tell you that Americans love conspiracies, I don't know what does. It wasn't any different in 1947."
While all this was happening, an unsuspecting Brazel was tending the sheep and cattle on his New Mexico ranch. With no radio or newspaper, he was isolated from the outside world. The rancher gave little thought to the unusual debris he found scattered around his pastures.
On July 5, Brazel headed into Corona on a Saturday night and learned what everyone else had been talking about. He began to wonder whether there was a connection. On Monday, he gathered up the strange material and traveled back into town to inform local officials of his discovery. The sheriff visited Brazel's ranch, then contacted the military.
The debris was transported to Fort Worth Army Air Field in Texas, where military experts proclaimed it was from a crashed weather balloon. However, before that pronouncement was relayed back to Roswell, the New Mexico base sent out the news release about finding a "flying saucer." Lt. Walter Haut, Roswell's public information officer, later claimed that base commander Col. William H. Blanchard had ordered him to use that description.
For a few days, the world's attention was focused on Roswell. But most people seemed satisfied with the military's explanation, and the story quickly faded.
It would not blow up again until 1978, when the National Enquirer ran an article about the incident. All of a sudden, new versions of the event emerged, some from the original participants, with reports of an actual spacecraft, alien bodies and a government cover-up adding new layers to the legend.
"The story seems to get better with each retelling," Launius said. "Initially, there was no discussion whatsoever of alien bodies. That somehow gets wrapped in it as part of the original incident, even though there is nothing about it in the sources of the time."
The story evolved with a seemingly endless array of articles, books, movies and documentaries about what "really happened" in the New Mexico desert.
Many involved with the incident altered their descriptions of events over time, including the government. In 1947, the CIA and military were concerned that these "flying saucers" were actually new technology being used by the Soviets. When the Army Air Forces retracted its first statement, it was less than forthcoming about the debris' origins, likely because it was hiding a secret.
"The weather balloon was a cover story," Launius said. "The best evidence suggests that this was a Project Mogul listening device that they recovered pieces of."
Project Mogul was a military program designed to intercept Russian radio messages via high-altitude balloons, which would eventually deflate and fall to the Earth. Several crash sites have been identified around the country. In 1994, a U.S. Air Force report identified the top-secret project as the likely source of the debris found in New Mexico.
Launius said the UFO sightings of the summer of 1947 were the result of a world consumed by fear of an apocalypse.
"Just in the United States between 1947 and 1960, there were a total of 6,523 UFO reports," he said. "There seems to be a direct tie between public perception of the reality of space travel and these UFO sightings. I am convinced that the rapid rise in the number of UFOs reported in the early Cold War era was the result of heightened tensions as everyone watched the skies for warning of a nuclear attack."
But even if the Roswell Incident could be explained by a military program, subsequent events in the skies remain a mystery. On July 19, 1952, almost exactly five years after Brazel reported the strange debris on his ranch, a series of UFO sightings occurred over Washington, D.C. Airline pilots reported seeing flashes of light streaking across the sky, and radar operators were perplexed by fast-moving blips on their screens. The Air Force scrambled jets to intercept the objects, which disappeared and never returned. The event 70 years ago has never been explained.