Area 51, a U.S. military installation in the Nevada desert about 75 miles north of Las Vegas, has attracted rumor and speculation for decades, fed largely by the government’s refusal to discuss exactly what goes on there.
In “Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base,” journalist Annie Jacobsen tries to get to the bottom of these secrets. What she comes up with is an informative history of Cold War spy planes sandwiched between an outrageous -- and thinly sourced -- tale involving Josef Mengele, Josef Stalin and flying saucers.
Area 51 was organized in the 1950s under the auspices of the Atomic Energy Commission, the successor to the Manhattan Project, which used the adjacent Nevada Test and Training Range to try out atomic bombs. Because of this relationship with the U.S. nuclear program, Jacobsen says, everything that happened at Area 51 was, by default, a secret -- “born classified.”
“The essence of Area 51 was that everything that happened there happened big,” Jacobsen says. “There was a deeply patriotic sense that the free world depended on the work being performed at Area 51.”
She draws on declassified documents and interviews with the participants to paint a picture of “The Right Stuff” operating sub rosa.
The Central Intelligence Agency, Lockheed and the U.S. military developed the U-2 spy plane and its successor the A-12 “Oxcart” at Area 51, Jacobsen writes. She follows these remarkable machines, and the pioneering men who built and flew them, from drawing board to death-defying flight, including Francis Gary Powers’s ill-fated 1960 U-2 mission over the Soviet Union.
Area 51 engineers and pilots also reverse-engineered captured Soviet-made MiG fighter planes and developed the drones used over Afghanistan and Pakistan. And yes, conspiracy fans, the Apollo astronauts practiced moon-walking in the bomb craters of the testing range.
Which brings us to the Nazi-Soviet UFO. Citing interviews with a single unnamed former engineer from government contractor EG&G -- now part of URS Corp. -- Jacobsen purports to lift the veil on what really crashed near Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947 and what happened to the wreckage when it got to Nevada.
The craft, she writes, wasn’t an alien spaceship, as many have since theorized, nor was it a weather balloon, as the U.S. military alleged in its clumsy cover story. It was, according to Jacobsen, a Nazi-inspired Soviet spy plane with Cyrillic letters embossed on the hull, crewed by malformed adolescents, two of whom survived the crash.
Stalin used captured Nazi aircraft designs to build the plane, according to Jacobsen. She says he had Mengele provide surgically altered “grotesque child-sized aviators” who were supposed to climb out of the aircraft and be mistaken for visitors from Mars -- to sow the kind of confusion in the U.S. created by Orson Welles’s 1938 “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast.
The wreckage and the comatose survivors found their way to the Nevada test site, where Area 51 engineers may have experimented on them for decades, Jacobsen says.
This “revelation,” such as it is, will no doubt gratify those who already suspected as much. Unfortunately, these chapters, which diverge so radically from the rest of the book in their journalistic rigor, may turn off readers who otherwise would enjoy learning 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.
“Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base” is published by Little, Brown (523 pages, $27.99). To buy this book in North America click here.
(Andrew Dunn writes for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)