December 29, 2017
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MSTS Holiday Welcome Reception
The National Atomic Testing Museum Board of Trustees and staff hosted a welcome reception for senior leaders of the new NNSS management contractor Mission Support and Test Services (MSTS) at the museum on Saturday, Dec. 16.
More than 70 people attended the reception and were given tours of the museum. NTSHF Vice Chair Nelson Cochrane gave an overview of the museum, its history, and programs, and introduced the Board of Trustees. MSTS President Mark Martinez introduced his senior leaders to the museum board, and shared his interest in engaging the company in STEM education in partnership with the museum. We look very much forward to working with everyone at MSTS, and are grateful for the company’s support of our mission and programs!
Attention Members: Board Ballots and Annual Membership Meeting
Foundation/museum members, ballots will be arriving in your mail in the next week for board of trustees election. Please review the candidates and mail back your ballots in the enclosed envelope by Friday, Feb. 2.
Also, please save the date for our Annual Membership Meeting on Thursday, Feb. 22 at 6 p.m. Invitations will be forthcoming. We are thrilled to welcome former U.S. Senator and Nevada Governor Richard H. Bryan.
Holiday Hours at the NATM
A reminder that the museum will be closed on Monday, Jan. 1, for New Year’s Day. We will reopen at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 2. The entire NATM staff and board sends you our best wishes for a healthy, prosperous 2018!
NATM to Feature on “Mysteries at the Museum”
On Thursday, Jan. 11, the museum will feature in a segment on Travel Channel’s program “Mysteries at the Museum.” The show is set to air at 10 p.m. ET/PT, so plan to stay up late or set your recorders! Curator Natalie Luvera assisted in securing the artifact featured in a segment about the search for a Nazi stockpile of radioactive materials.
This marks the third time the National Atomic Testing Museum will be featured on a Travel Channel segment; thanks to Natalie, executive director Michael Hall and trustee Jack Doyle for making themselves available to support this programming!
Museum Store Product Highlight:
Area 51 Warning Sign
Pick up one of our Area 51 Warning Signs to commemorate your visit to Nevada; also a great warning for people to stay out of your protected spaces, secret labs, etc.! It retails for $18.00.
You can purchase your sign online here. Your purchases in our store go directly to supporting the museum’s programs and mission–we appreciate your support!
Remember: you can visit the Museum Store any time during museum hours without purchasing admission to the museum. Come on down and shop for some unique gifts!
In the News
To help keep you up to date on local and global current events in the nuclear world, we share links to relevant items in the news. The National Atomic Testing Museum does not endorse any views or opinions expressed in these stories; we are sharing for informational purposes only.
Newsweek writes about the possibility of North Korea testing a missile with a live nuclear weapon in 2018. Read the full story here.
It is our mission at the National Atomic Testing Museum to document the history of and current events in nuclear testing. We never take a political stance on any issue; rather, we do strive to keep you informed. In each newsletter, my Spot On column will highlight history and happenings in the nuclear world and at the museum.
The Smithsonian Affiliated National Atomic Testing Museum
“Using lessons of the past to better understand the present.”
What Would Have Happened If the Martians
Really Invaded Grover’s Mill, New Jersey?
I intended to run this article during Halloween as a treat for our many Area 51 patrons who give so much support to this museum. Unfortunately, important developments in the North Korean situation then took precedent. So, we will now provide this as a holiday treat instead. I first worked on this paper when doing post-graduate studies at Purdue University while interning at the United States Air Force Museum many years ago. It is a not-so-serious, although interesting, tale for our holiday season.
The War of the Worlds radio broadcast written by Howard Koch and inspired by H. G. Wells’ 1898 novel of the same name. Performed by Mercury Theater On the Air, directed and narrated by Orson Welles, Sunday, October 30, 1938, 8 p.m. to 9 p.m.
On Oct. 30, 1938, Orson Welles shocked the world with a dramatic radio play based on the popular novel by H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds. The show convinced many with its news-like broadcasting style that a Martian invasion had taken place at Grover’s Mill, N.J. It, of course, was just a fictional story, but what would have happened if the Martians really landed in Grover’s Mill? Believe it or not, a young lieutenant in United States Air Force Intelligence was actually tasked with answering that question in the spring of 1952. We do not know the conclusions he reached, but the thought process behind his assignment is a very interesting one about which to speculate. UFO buffs are very familiar with the man involved in that assignment. He then headed the UFO investigative group called Project Blue Book for the first two and a half years of its 18-year tenure. That earlier period in UFO investigations was somewhat different from officialdom’s lackluster attitude of later years. The Director of Air Force Intelligence in the Pentagon then asked some critical and sincere questions about the phenomenon.
Maybe it was due to that increased “official” interest in UFOs in 1952 that Blue Book chief Edward J. Ruppelt was tasked with such a curious assignment. The odd job entailed none other than writing a report on the fallout caused by the famous radio drama. Few details are available to give us any insight into his task. In fact, the only evidence at all of this assignment comes from a brief passage in Edward Ruppelt’s unedited manuscript of what became a best-selling 1956 book titled The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects. I thank Professor Michael Swords of Western Michigan University for the rare access to that unedited version. (In 2001, I had the pleasure of writing the first biography to be published on Edward Ruppelt. He had a notable Second World War service record. Thanks to the generous assistance provided by his surviving family members and his personal papers, I feel I gave a complete picture of his very interesting life.)
Edward Ruppelt traced the story back to Halloween eve of 1938 when the dramatic stage and radio artist Orson Welles narrated a CBS radio drama based on H.G. Wells’ 1898 book, The War of the Worlds. Like the classic account of a Martian invasion, the radio play was a frightening success. Unfortunately for many East Coast listeners, it seemed so real that thousands flew into a “panicked frenzy.”
The actual “panic” caused, however, is exaggerated. Orson Welles and his producer John Houseman were being told even before the radio play had ended that bodies were littering local roadsides from the many accidents caused by the radio-play-induced panic. Welles may have thought his career was over at that moment, although in actuality it was being made. There were some notable and almost humorous accounts of how people reacted to that realistic newscast-like radio play. The details have been examined in numerous scholarly articles through the years and even in Ph.D. dissertations. Yet, despite many sensational stories, no serious harm seems to have ever come to anyone from that event. Nevertheless, it made world headlines at the time and is widely remembered to this day.
The point of how many people actually reacted in an irrational manner or even believed the radio drama to be a real newscast is not relevant. What is relevant is that it became a popular impression that the drama did cause a vast panic. That is the perceived legacy of this incident. That perception, after all, is why Ruppelt relates that the Air Force tasked him with making a study of the repercussions of the radio play. Military officials, in keeping with popular lore, believed there had been a panic, and they wanted a study to find out how extensive it was.
Ruppelt does not relate the contents of the report he eventually filed with the Air Force Directorate of Intelligence. It probably was not all that of an extensive study as his time was soon being overwhelmed by a wave of sightings during the summer of 1952. At most his “report” probably filled less than two pages and might have resembled more of a hurried high school term paper. It does not even seem Ruppelt did his homework very well because he cites in his private notes that two suicides were caused by the radio play for which there is no documentation.
As interesting (or amateurish) as his report may have been to read, the report itself is not important. The whole point of this article is that the Air Force would not have given Ruppelt that task if they did not believe that there was something of substance that might actually recreate the events akin to The War of the Worlds broadcast. Now I am not talking about an invasion or anything that dramatic. However, it appears they were serious enough about the subject of UFOs to fear that a panic could occur if the reported phenomena proved to be of an extraterrestrial nature. That sounds crazy to say today, yet it characterized how they were thinking.
Documentation has already been provided in many scholarly articles of recent years that there were high ranking officials in the military in 1952 who believed in an extraterrestrial connection to some of the reported phenomena. I, in fact, interviewed a mid-level Air Force officer while researching my biography on Edward Ruppelt in 1999. He confirmed this perception. I frankly never met anyone I had so much respect for as Colonel Nathan Rosengarten. He had a long and distinguished career serving many years at Wright Patterson Army and then Air Force airfield bases. Colonel Rosengarten had attended a spirited Pentagon meeting in 1951 focusing on a very troubling report from senior Air Force pilots who had encountered an extremely exotic performing flying object or “flying saucer” over Sandy Hook, N.J..
At that meeting, Major General Charles Cabell, then director of Air Force Intelligence, presided. Colonel Rosengarten confided to me that he had the clear impression during that meeting that General Cabell believed “flying saucers came from outer space.” The General, a highly distinguished veteran of World War II, did not consider UFO reports a joke, and he sent word down to his intelligence operations that they were to be taken seriously. He knew his pilots. And he believed that they had been seeing actual flying craft of some kind ever since the strange reports started back in 1947. He tasked Colonel Rosengarten to revamp a then stagnate UFO investigation that was quartered at Wright Patterson and get it back on track. Colonel Rosengarten played a part in assigning Edward Ruppelt to a new and reorganized effort that became named Project Blue Book.
Numerous sources document that there were other senior Air Force officials during that period who believed in the extraterrestrial nature of UFOs. Ed Ruppelt clearly stated as much in his own book recalling those years. His private notes name names. So, there is no disputing the point. Now, we may never know what led certain officers to that conclusion. Maybe they knew far more about the phenomenon than has been reported. Maybe they even had a warehouse full of crashed saucers. Or maybe they simply had done a serious assessment of the many good sighting reports then being compiled by the Blue Book office that we see today in the declassified files. As someone who has spent a lot of time looking at the files created by the early Air Force UFO research projects Sign, Grudge and then Blue Book, I can state that there are some amazing reports filed by highly credible observers detailing some highly incredible phenomena. The reports, in many cases, come from very experienced and ranking military officers or qualified pilots, both military and civilian. It should also be noted that although there were a significant group of senior officials in the Air Force in 1952 who took the subject seriously, there were also those in the Pentagon and Wright Patterson AFB who worked hard to derail or diminish the reports.
Thus, it is interesting to speculate why officials worried about a panic scenario. I am convinced from doing a number of interviews with early Air Force veterans from the time that “panic” simply became a catch word. I do not know why, but the one common denominator of every source I interviewed always came back to the catch phrase “panic.” That became the excuse sources would fall back on when asked why there was not more direct action exhibited by the Air Force in UFO investigations. I believe their perception was sincere, and I believe it originated from a 1950s era unspoken policy that military officials quietly observed. In other words, I do not think the military or government ever had any answers to what UFOs were, but I do believe they came to the conclusion that they were a real phenomenon and that if they gave too much attention to that line of talk it could unintentionally lead to a panic, which had been thought to have happened in 1938.
Beyond that, as far as why the Air Force did not do anything about UFOs—there simply was nothing they could do because it was such an unpredictable and evidently non-threatening phenomenon that it just became easier to ignore it. Also, there were serious concerns the subject could obstruct or confuse focus on a real enemy at hand, the Soviets. We know, in fact, the CIA and Air Force convened selected scientists together in January of 1953 in the form of the “Robertson Panel.” Their report led to an unofficial, but effective, debunking and de-emphasizing of UFO reports that has prevailed to this day.
There certainly were studies already available in the 1950s that suggested contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence could challenge many social conventions. A number of Ph.D. dissertations have used the The War of the Worlds broadcast as a basis for a study of human society. Some of these were published by 1952. Today the concept of extraterrestrial life is not that novel even to a skeptic. However, it is difficult with our 21st Century view of popular culture to consider a time when no extensive set of preconceptions existed on extraterrestrial life. Without a Steven Spielberg to help us dream, or a Star Wars trilogy and a thousand other such productions dating back to the late 1940s, we would not have the present-day mindset that we do. Yet, that is not to say there was not already some basis for the consideration of alien visitation prior to the 1938 broadcast or for that matter the first “flying saucer” sightings of 1947.
Some researchers have used the “panic” caused by Orson Welles’ radio drama as a foretelling explanation for later UFO sightings. In other words, a belief has arisen that the radio drama planted a seed in the public’s mind—a self-fulfilling prophecy for extraterrestrial visitation. Some have even speculated the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon radio serials of the 1930s could have impacted the American psyche in subsequent years. Perhaps popular science fiction was an issue Ruppelt addressed in his study. Ruppelt, who was an avid reader since his youth, should have known from his own background that the concept of extraterrestrial life had already been firmly ingrained in the public’s mind long before that 1938 radio drama ever aired.
H.G. Wells’ original 1898 book may have even been inspired by earlier influences. Percival Lowell comes to mind, who founded the Lowell Observatory near Flagstaff, Ariz. In 1894, Lowell believed he saw signs through his huge telescope of canals on the Martian landscape—proving to him the existence of intelligent life there. Of course, Lowell himself had been inspired by Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli who first observed what he thought were signs of lines on Mars he called “canali” and were later misinterpreted for the word canals. Some scientists agreed while others were skeptical. Yet, until the first Mars probes of the 1960s and 1970s showed just how lifeless the surface was, many people kept an open mind. To this day there are a segment of people who still contemplate scenarios in which Mars may have at one-time hosted life of some sort.
It would be nice to end this article with some sort of great revelation. I cannot do that because the firm evidence for UFOs is not there. I can, however, give the reader a few interesting insights into The War of the Worlds drama that are often overlooked. For example, the radio broadcast was not a true retelling of H.G. Wells’ book, The War of the Worlds. The radio play turned out to be something much more unique— only loosely inspired by the original tale. The radio play is the sole creation of Orson Welles’ associate Howard Koch. Koch is now remembered as the famous co-screenwriter of Casablanca and later as a suspected communist sympathizer. 1 And he really did not use much of the late 19th Century story at all. In fact, being inspired by radio news flashes of that summer of the brewing Czechoslovakian crisis in 1938, Koch turned the tale into a simulated real-time equivalent of a modern-day CNN “breaking news” story. The war in Europe was still a year away that fall, but Americans were just as nervous about those radio news stories as we are today when we see breaking headlines about growing tensions caused by North Korea. Americans then feared they would soon be impacted by Hitler’s madness.
Koch moved the location of the Martian invasion from England, as it was set in the classic story, to a real area in New Jersey. (Most scholarly articles on The War of the Worlds Broadcast incorrectly state that Grover’s Mill is a fictional name. It is very real and still exists as an unincorporated community in New Jersey.) Koch carefully studied road maps he purchased from a gas station during his daily commute to New York in order to interject the story with real localities. When CBS attorneys reviewed his final script, as all radio scripts were routinely subjected to before rehearsal, the implications were clear. Both Orson Welles and his producer John Houseman were firmly warned by CBS executives to make numerous changes. Koch’s creation simple read too realistic. Welles and Houseman indeed significantly toned down the original script.
The problem, however, remained because Koch was a brilliant writer and Welles and Housman were gifted dramatists and the product they turned out simply could not help but be a work of dramatic art. The play continues to this day to stand the test of time. All of the Mercury Theater broadcasts, which retold many classic tales, were in fact works of great dramatic art. The problem was no one then appreciated the work being produced, and the show was in the process of being cancelled. That all changed on the night of the famous broadcast. The War of the Worlds episode sky-rocked the weekly radio drama show into stratospheric ratings. Within a few years Welles, Housman and Koch along with most of the Mercury Theater players were off to Hollywood. Their careers had been made.
They did indeed convince many Americans, for a short while, that aliens were real. Unfortunately, Welles’ broadcast told us aliens were dangerous and destructive. Hopefully, if the aliens ever do land, or have already landed, this will not be the message. So what good is The War of the Worlds analogy? Maybe none. Yet, there is one final point that leaves a chilling message. Little known—there were two other similar radio dramas akin to what Welles did. Both radio dramas were based on the H.G. Wells story but told in the Orson Welles tradition. Those dramas did cause a real panic, and in both instances people were hurt.
Just a few years later a second War of The Worlds panic was unleashed on an unsuspecting listening public. At 9:30pm, on November 12, 1944, a number of Chilean towns and cities were convulsed with panic when a radio station in Santiago staged their own localized version of The War of the Worlds. That script was written by an American named William Steele who had worked in radio broadcasting and had scripted episodes of The Shadow, a show that Orson Welles had starred in for a period of time.
Steele and his assistant Paul Zenteno did exactly as Welles’ writer Howard Koch had done and decided to plot the conquest of Chile using familiar place names. The fictional landing site was some 15 miles south of Santiago in the town of Puente Alto. The same device of relaying the action as a series of news flashes was also employed. It met with identical devastating effects to the 1938 broadcast, according to a Newsweek report of the time. According to that Nov. 27, 1944, issue, an electrician named Jose Villarroel, a resident of Valparaiso (70 miles northwest of Santiago) was so frightened that he died of a heart attack. Villarroel seems then to have earned the dubious honor of becoming the first person on Earth to be killed in an alien invasion, something that even Welles’ Martians failed to do.
The broadcast also hit home because it contained realistic references to organizations such as the Red Cross and actors impersonating well-known voices such as the Interior Minister. (Welles did this himself in his 1938 broadcast. For example, he was warned not to use the personality of the President, so he instead inserted an address by a government secretary. However, the mischievous Welles allowed a Franklin Roosevelt impersonation for the voice of the government official. And this, of course, convinced many to their utter astonishment that FDR was speaking live during the radio broadcast.)
In the Chilean broadcast the Santiago Civic Center was reported destroyed, as were air bases and army barracks. The play was broadcast countrywide on the Cooperative Vitalicia Network, and as the play fictitiously reported roads jammed with refugees—so too in reality, thousands of listeners apparently fled into the streets or barricaded themselves into their homes. It is even said that the governor of one province telegrammed the Minister of War to tell him that he had placed his troops and artillery on alert to repel the invaders.
The broadcasters had given a week’s on-air notice of their intentions, and mentioned the fictional nature of the broadcast twice during its proceedings, but, of course, the same blind misconceptions that had engulfed America in 1938 took hold. In an odd coincidence, a law had been passed only a year previously in Chile banning the use of incendiary radio broadcasts. Yet for many of those affected by the broadcast, the fines imposed on the station in no way alleviated their later embarrassment at being fooled by a fictional play.
The other panic came from the year 1949. The date Feb. 12, and the place Quito, the capital city of Ecuador and home at the time to some 250,000 people. By the end of that evening, the local newspaper offices would be burned to the ground as people became outraged by the mayhem caused by the realistic play. Many, once again, had been fooled into believing an alien invasion had begun. One group of people became so panic struct during the event that a local priest started taking open-air confessions and their transgressions were heard by all. The sinners were certain they would not survive the night, but when daybreak came their spouses and neighbors were not as forgiving as they had been the previous night.
The best story traces back to Orson Welles himself. During his long and famous career that included Citizen Cane, he occasionally spoke about the play that had so dramatically catapulted him to national attention. He, however, always downplayed the effect of the play as you might think any great actor would. Welles, after all, became one of the greatest talents of the 20th Century. He knew he was good, and his career could have easily made itself even without The War of The Worlds drama. So, he justifiably could play it down. Yet, on one occasion he was asked late in his life how he really could have been so naive to think his dramatic portrayal at the microphone that Halloween eve of 1938 could have been so innocent. How could he have thought that his performance would not shock the world and in the process, save his failing radio show and ignite his reputation? Welles looked thoughtful, and then just smiled.
1 Screenplay to Casablanca was written by Julius J. & Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch
Based on the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison.
December Membership News
A very warm welcome to our new members!
Mary Ann Novak
A continued and grateful THANK YOU to our renewing members!
Charles Van Acker
To become a new member or renew your existing membership, please call 702.794.5151 or visit our membership page.
You may also purchase a gift membership from the Museum Store and have it sent with a recent copy of The Blast, the museum’s newsletter. For more information regarding museum memberships, please visit our FAQ page here.
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