Is it nonfiction or science fiction?
For the most part, the new book "Area 51 — An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base" portrays real accounts of work by CIA contractors testing high-flying Cold War spy planes at the classified Groom Lake installation.
But former workers at the base, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, say some stories in the book — such as the genetically engineered Soviet aviators whose flying saucer crashed in Roswell, N.M. — never happened.
Three of Area 51’s former CIA contractors — T.D. Barnes, Roger Andersen and Harry Martin — discussed their concerns about the book by Annie Jacobsen with the Las Vegas Review-Journal to "set the record straight."
"To her credit, I think she provided a lot of accurate information in her book, but there are areas that are completely foreign to me," said Andersen, 81, of Las Vegas, a retired Air Force pilot who worked at Area 51’s command post in the 1960s.
He said the part that puzzled him most "had to do with human engineering, that sort of thing. When you start talking about (Josef) Mengele and Hitler and Stalin, and you tie these things all together with an incident in New Mexico, to tie all that together it just didn’t make any sense to us at all."
Barnes, 74, a retired CIA radar expert who lives in Henderson, said the trio opened doors for Jacobsen by giving her access to once-classified information and putting her in touch with their CIA colleagues.
They thought she was documenting the history of Area 51 and the top-secret development of the A-12 spy plane, known as the Oxcart Project.
Instead, she exaggerated the boundaries of the secret location and changed history by writing that it became the home of the Roswell aliens in 1951, four years before any facilities were built at Area 51, Barnes said.
"They threw us under the bus just to make a story," he said of Jacobsen and the book’s publisher, Little, Brown and Company.
"This book stood 100 percent against what we believe in. It did a horrible amount of damage to us," he said. "There’s no way people at Nellis (Air Force Base) can be affiliated with what we’re charged with, charged with a blanket of sins in the book."
Martin said he was sad that the 523-page book stooped to the level of little green men.
"Parts of the book are very good, I think. But she didn’t have to do a hatchet job. There were so many things she could have added to make it what we believed it was going to be," said Martin, 80, of Las Vegas, who was Area 51’s fuel supervisor in 1961.
The men belong to Roadrunners Internationale, an association of 360 former Area 51 workers. They said their historic roles in developing the predecessor to the Air Force’s SR-71 Blackbird spy plane have been fogged by Groom Lake’s alien lore.
To make the Roswell-Groom Lake connection, Jacobsen relied on an anonymous source described as a retired engineer who worked for Atomic Energy Commission contractor EG&G.
In the book’s final chapter, titled "Revelation," Jacobsen includes a first-person dialogue between her and the engineer, the last living of five EG&G employees who said they had keys to a building where equipment and remains from the Roswell flying disc were kept.
"Everything related to the crash site was sent to Wright Field … in Ohio, where it all remained until 1951. That is when the evidence was packed up and transported to the Nevada Test Site. It was received, physically, by the elite group of EG&G engineers," Jacobsen wrote. "The engineers were chosen to receive the crash remains and set up a secret facility just outside the boundary of the Nevada Test Site, sixteen miles to the northwest of Groom Lake."
Under Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, she wrote, the flying saucer had been loaded with childlike aviators with large heads and oversized eyes and flown over Roswell in a black-project propaganda operation when it crashed in 1947.
The chapter explains how the EG&G engineers were instructed by Manhattan Project engineer and World War II presidential science adviser Vannevar Bush to figure out what made the saucer fly.
"But there was the second engineering problem to solve, the one involving the child-size aviators," Jacobsen wrote.
"Because two of the aviators were comatose but still alive, the men would have to transfer them into a Jell-O-like substance and stand them upright in two tubular tanks attached to a life-support system. Sometimes their mouths opened, and this gave the appearance of their trying to speak. … What made their heads so big? … And what about their haunting, oversize eyes?
"The engineers were told that the children were rumored to have been kidnapped by Dr. Josef Mengele, the Nazi madman who … was known to have performed unspeakable experimental surgical procedures mostly on children, dwarfs and twins."
Three pages later, Jacobsen asks, "When did it end?"
"At least through the 1980s it was still going on," the EG&G engineer replies.
Jacobsen’s book has been on the New York Times best-seller list for eight weeks.
After the book’s release in May, Barnes told ABC’s "Nightline" there was "absolutely no chance that last chapter is true in any fashion." There were too many well drillers, cooks, medics and support staff who would have had knowledge of such practices to make it a well-kept secret for 60 years, he said.
The anonymous engineer has since been identified by the Roadrunners as test site pioneer Al O’Donnell.
Reached at his Henderson home Thursday, O’Donnell, 89, said, "I can’t say anything about that operation whatsoever."
When asked if the events described in the book’s last chapter were all true, O’Donnell said: "I would hope so."
He referred further questions to Nicole Dewey, the book publisher’s spokeswoman.
"We stand by our author and her reporting in the entire book," Dewey wrote in an email.
When Jacobsen was asked by the Review-Journal if she believed the events in her book really happened, she wouldn’t answer "yes" or "no."
"I believe the veracity of my source," she said. "I worked with my source for over two years, and his recollection of events over three decades always proved to be accurate down to the minutia."
As for the Roadrunners’ criticism, "everyone is entitled to their opinion," she said.
Aerospace historian Peter Merlin, who is cited in the book, said he read it twice and "found blatant factual errors throughout the whole book. The last chapter is a horror."
Jacobsen, a contributing editor at Los Angeles Times Magazine and an investigative reporter, pointed to an explanation note in the book: "One cannot rule out the possibility that the elite EG&G engineers were given false information as a means of coercing them into a morally reprehensible program; in 1951, there was no greater enemy to the free world than Joseph Stalin. Until Russia opens its UFO archives, Stalin’s side of the story will remain unknown."
Barnes, the Roadrunners’ president, said he believes the childlike aviator tale was fabricated to give the publisher something "juicy" and "sensational." The anonymous source finally caved in "to just shut her up," he said.
"This is crap," Barnes said. "It would have been ‘the’ book on Area 51. It was not."
Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers @reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308.