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Welcome to Watertown: The Documentary Film About Area 51 That You Never Knew Existed

From the desert wastelands of Watertown, it’s but a matter of hours to anywhere in the world where reconnaissance might be desired.” 

The line quoted above–almost reminiscent of the opening quips of radio legend Art Bell’s late-night dispatches “from the high desert” back in his days as host of the popular program Coast to Coast AM–is actually from a short documentary film, and a very special one at that.

At just over twenty minutes in length, the film in question remained undisclosed for decades, after providing a rare glimpse at the inner workings of America’s most secretive reconnaissance aircraft during the Cold War. The subject of the film had been Lockheed’s now-famous U-2 high altitude reconnaissance aircraft–or as Lockheed aeronautical engineer Kelly Johnson had called it, the “Angel.”

Lockheed’s Kelly Johnson with fighter pilot Gary Powers in front of a U-2, circa 1965.

Even more incredible had been the location where the film was made: an obscure airstrip in the middle of a massive dry lake bed called Watertown, Nevada. It has been known by many other names over the years, which includes Homey Airport, Groom Lake, the Nevada Test and Training Range, and “Dreamland” (a particular favorite that was occasionally borrowed by the late-night broadcaster referenced earlier). However, the location of the film is more commonly known as Area 51.

Many would scoff with disbelief at the idea that there had ever been a film made about Area 51–and on location, no less–but that’s precisely what happened in 1960.

The short film was produced by the Hycon MFG. Company of Pasadena, California, and was written and filmed by Don Downie and Jim Jarbee. It was made primarily to be shown to family members of employees working at the clandestine site at that time, whose attention put toward the U-2 project required the workers often to have to spend long periods away from home.

The entire short production was made available on the CIA’s YouTube Channel all the way back in December 2012 (with the exception of the first few seconds of footage, which are missing from the film):

Who knows how many families were shown the film over the years, and for how long it remained in use. However, after several decades, the film finally made its way to public release, as part of a booklet of similar materials disclosed by the CIA under the name, “CIA Analysis of the Warsaw Pact Forces: The Importance of Clandestine Reporting.”

According to a CIA summary of the booklet:

“This study examines the role of clandestine reporting in CIA’s analysis of the Warsaw Pact from 1955 to 1985. The Soviet Union established itself as a threat to the West at the end of World War II by its military occupation of eastern European countries and the attempts of its armed proxies to capture Greece and South Korea. The West countered with the formation of NATO. While the West welcomed West Germany into NATO, the Soviets established a military bloc of Communist nations with the Warsaw Treaty of May 1955.”

“This study continues CIA’s efforts to provide a detailed record of the intelligence derived from clandestine human and technical sources from that period,” the CIA summary goes on to say. “This intelligence was provided to US policy makers and used to assess the political and military balances and confrontations in Central Europe between the Warsaw Pact and NATO during the Cold War.”

In addition to its broader relevance to history and the geopolitical nuances of the Cold War period, the film offers a remarkable look into one of America’s most secret installations… further emphasizing an idea I expressed in a previous article where I argued that Area 51 was never really all that secret.

Secret or not, Area 51’s history offers a pretty remarkable story of espionage and American achievement. In other words, we know an awful lot about the place at this point… no additional “strength in numbers” Naruto-running meme-marches are necessary.

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Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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