PETALUMA’S PAST: 1947’s ‘Roswell Incident’ had Petalumans talking

In July of 1947, Petalumans were talking about Roswell, New Mexico.


I’ve recently come across a 2014 Press Democrat front page with an eye-catching heading.

“Blimplike Radar Craft seen as two white dots hovering in the sky.”

The story contains references to local contractor sources declining to be interviewed about the mysterious sighting.

It reminded me of the notorious Roswell Incident of 1947.

The world, at that time, really wanted to believe in flying saucers, UFOs and a vast government cover-up of creatures from outer space, who many believed had landed that summer in Roswell, New Mexico.

Seventy years later, that story is still hot.

The date was July 8, 1947, when a strange airborne craft crashed in the desert of New Mexico. A local rancher there, William Brazel, had stumbled across some unusual wreckage and told the Roswell Sheriff that, he “may have found a flying saucer.”

And, folks, that was all it took.

Petaluma’s Argus-Courier, over the following month, ran the following headlines and remarks:

“Eyewitness reports of an alien craft,”

“Secret kept by U.S. Government.”

“It was nothing made on this earth!”

“There was a 400 foot gouge in the desert floor.”

“Eight alien corpses at crash site!”

“Some possibly alive!”

“Armed military police surround object.”

“Aliens and craft quickly shipped to Edwards Air Force Base.”

Well, it was great press. And highly entertaining.

At any other time, the story might have just been reported as a downed weather balloon. However, just prior to the incident, this kind of headline in the Argus-Courier was making a lot of people very jumpy:

“Flying discs are reported over 37 states!”

“Saucer-shaped object may be disc.”

“FBI says: No further comment.”


Around that time in Petaluma, a front page article appeared with the headline, “A drunk aviator was arrested in Sonoma County for doing dangerous acts over a county field.” Then came this caveat: “This was NOT a flying saucer.”

Elsewhere in 1947, Mahatma Gandhi had started his world peace campaign, Harry Truman had announced his Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan, Senator Joe McCarthy began his nasty-but-short reign as chief interrogator, and Howard Hughes had just flown his infamous “Spruce Goose,” the largest plane ever built.

Closer to home, Petaluma’s California Theater was featuring the film “The Egg And I” starring Fred MacMurray and Paulette Goddard. The marquee boasted, “See Petaluma girls on the screen, in a film made in Petaluma!”

We watched a lot of movies that year, and all the time, in the back of their minds, people were wondering if aliens from space were possibly watching the planet Earth.

Which brings us back to that crash landing in the desert.

What really happened in Roswell, New Mexico?

The whole truth, not revealed until after the Cold War was over, was that the U.S. military had been conducting a top-secret operation dubbed “Project Mogul.” It was the flight-testing of a spy balloon, designed to listen-in on Soviet atomic tests, and one prototype had errantly drifted off-course and crashed. When Rancher Brazel reported that strange wreckage, the military immediately denied it was theirs.

And then something very interesting happened.

The media jumped all over the idea of the event being extra-terrestrial — and the government let that preposterous story stand as a cover-up of their secret spy balloon! They even orchestrated their own security leaks to fuel those UFO rumors.

And the world bought it as fact.

National security, it seemed, had been saved by aliens.

And, what about that 2014 story of “white dots hovering in the sky?”

It was, indeed, another spy balloon, this time designed to track incoming missiles, and its very existence was criticized by Civil Liberties groups, which called such craft an “invasion of privacy.” Meanwhile, The U.S. Department of Defense has spent seven billion dollars on those surveillance systems over the past six years.

Personally, I like the flying saucer idea better than the balloon story.

And, by the way, even though our government, many years later, did explain what had happened in Roswell in 1947, what about all those other 36 states that reported flying discs that year?

Uh oh.

Still no explanations for those.

For now.

(Historian Skip Sommer is an honorary life member of Heritage Homes and the Petaluma Historical museum. Contact him at