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A tale of Nazi flying saucers and Roswell in a new book about Ares 51 is strikingly similar to a science fiction story published in 1956.

Roswell that ends well

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Annie Jacobsen must have a great agent. She has written a poorly-sourced, error-filled book about Area 51 and yet has gained tremendous publicity. The book has been reviewed in The New York Times and numerous websites. She has appeared on The Daily Show, NPR, morning talk shows, and even Nightline (although she probably wishes she had skipped the last one).

People should have been wary of Jacobsen from the start, based upon a breathless and unsubstantiated claim she made in 2004 that some Syrian men were on a “dry run” to hijack the commercial airliner she was on. It turned out that they were musicians traveling to a gig near San Diego. So she has a reputation for spinning tales.

Now a normal, sane person would read that claim and conclude that Jacobsen is, at the very least, pretty gullible. Unfortunately, we don’t live in normal, sane times.

Although many reviewers claim that her research on atomic weapons tests and classified aircraft projects in the Nevada desert is well-researched and informative (it isn’t), the part of her book that the critics end up tripping over comes near the end of the 523-page book. That is where Jacobsen claims that children, perhaps as young as 13 years old and genetically or surgically altered by Nazi doctor Joseph Mengele, flew a Nazi “flying disk” into the United States as part of a plan by Joseph Stalin to cause mass panic of an alien invasion. The plane crashed in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. The United States then engaged in unethical Mengele-like research at Area 51.

Read that paragraph again. I’ll wait.

Now a normal, sane person would read that claim and conclude that Jacobsen is a nut, or, at the very least, pretty gullible. Unfortunately, we don’t live in normal, sane times, and various reporters have been eating this up with Cool Whip and a cherry on top and acting as if the book is so well-researched that Jacobsen at least deserves the benefit of the doubt about the mutant Nazi teenage big-headed pilots, no matter how crazy that story seems. The New York Times even referred to the book as “levelheaded.”

Jacobsen claims that her sole source for this information is an elderly man who she says has impeccable credentials, but whom she refuses to reveal. Now I’ve read All The President’s Men, about the Watergate investigation, and one of the things that I picked up there is that good editors insist that their reporters have two sources for any piece of inflammatory or controversial information. I know that journalism standards have fallen a lot in the decades since then, but it would still be nice if Jacobsen’s editor had insisted that she find confirmation for this ridiculous story or leave it out of the book. When pressed about it on Nightline by Bill Weir, the only reporter who seems to remember what his job is, Jacobsen stated that as long as a source is credible to her, anything that source says is automatically credible and doesn’t require questioning—even if it defies common sense.

It is possible that the tale came from a July 1956 short story in Astounding Science Fiction called “Tomb Tapper” and written by James Blish.

Bill Weir actually talked to her source, although he would not appear on camera or allow his name to be used because—get this—he fears that al Qaeda will try to kidnap him. Weir found him to be confused, and his story was inconsistent with hers. Apparently the source also said that he told the story “to help Annie’s book.” (My own theory is that he was either pulling her leg, or seeking to discredit her.)

But where did the story come from?

It is possible that the tale came from a July 1956 short story in Astounding Science Fiction called “Tomb Tapper” and written by James Blish. If you’re a science fiction fan you may recognize Blish’s name as the author of the “Cities in Flight” novels of the 1950s. If you’re a Trekkie (guilty!) you may recognize him as the author of the rather disappointing novelizations of original series Star Trek episodes published in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

In “Tomb Tapper” two men, McDonough and Martinson, fly out to the site of a crashed Soviet airplane, with a device that allows McDonough to read the mind of the dying pilot, called “tomb tapping.” But what they encounter leads them to believe that the craft is actually something not of this Earth:

“I know what I’m doing,” McDonough insisted, watching the scene in the goggles. “There’s a live brain in there. Something nobody’s ever hit before. It’s powerful. No mind in the books ever put out a broadcast like this. It isn’t human.”

“All the more reason to call in the AF and quit. We can’t get in there anyhow. What do you mean, it isn’t human? It’s a Red, that’s all.”

“No, it isn’t,” McDonough said evenly. Now that he thought he knew what they had found, he had stopped trembling. He was still terrified, but it was a different kind of terror: the fright of a man who has at last gotten a clear idea of what it is he is up against. “Human beings just don’t broadcast like this. Especially not when they’re near dying. And they don’t remember huge blue sheep with cat’s heads on them, or red grass, or a white sky. Not even if they come from the USSR. Whoever it is in there comes from someplace else.”

“You read too much. What about the star on the nose?”

McDonough drew a deep breath. “What about it?” he said steadily. “It isn’t the insignia of the Red Air Force. I saw that it stopped you, too. No air force I ever heard of flies a red asterisk. It isn’t a cocarde* at all. It’s just what it is.”

“An asterisk?” Martinson said angrily.

“No, Marty, I think it’s a star. A symbol for a real star. The AF’s gone and knocked us down a spaceship.”

It turns out that the pilot is small, wearing some kind of spacesuit, and suspended in a vat of liquid to enable it to survive massive accelerations.

The pilot lay slumped and twisted at the bottom, like a doll, his suit glistening in the light of the C.O.’s torch. “Help me. By the shoulders, real easy. That’s it; lift. Easy now.”

They are joined by their commander, Andy Persons, and upon closer examination, it turns out that the pilot is not at all what they suspected.

Of course the brain was powerful out of all proportion to its survival drive and its knowledge of death; it was the brain of a genius, but a genius without experience. And of course, this way, the USSR could get a rocket fighter to the United States on a one-way trip.

The helmet fell off the body, and rolled off into the gutter which carried away the water condensing on the wall of the tunnel. Martinson gasped, and then began to swear in a low, grinding monotone. Andy Persons said nothing, but his light, as he played it on the pilot’s head, shook with fury.

McDonough, his fantasy of space ships exploded, went back to the hand truck and kicked his tomb-tapping apparatus into small shards and bent pieces. His whole heart was a fuming caldron of pity and grief. He would never knock upon another tomb again.

The blond head on the floor of the tunnel, dreaming its waning dream of a colored paper field, was that of a little girl, barely eight years old.

Maybe you don’t believe in coincidences. (I actually do.) And I’ll admit that I don’t have another source to back this up. But many of the elements that Annie Jacobsen’s source used in his Roswell story are there in Blish’s short story: a child, in a spacesuit, piloting a craft that is mistaken for a spaceship, but is actually a Russian long-range vessel after all. Maybe Jacobsen’s source read the Blish story many years ago, or maybe it got turned into a campfire story that guys in the classified airplane world told each other during long nights in the desert—“what if an advanced plane crashed in the US and we thought it was aliens, but it was actually… commies?!” And maybe Jacobsen should have done a little more research before heading off to Roswell.

Calling Agent Scully…

* Note: A “cocarde” is a French tricolor symbol that was painted on airplanes.