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Originally published March 27, 2010 at 10:05 PM | Page modified March 28, 2010 at 5:29 PM

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Area 51 vets break silence: Sorry, but no space aliens or UFOs

Newly revealed stories from people who used to work at Area 51 shed light on a site still shrouded in mystery.

Seattle Times staff reporter

VANCOUVER, Wash. — After nearly five decades, guys like James Noce finally get to tell their stories about Area 51.

Yes, that Area 51.

The one that gets brought up when people talk about secret Air Force projects, crashed UFOs, alien bodies and, of course, conspiracies.

The secrets, some of them, have been declassified.

Noce, 72, and his fellow Area 51 veterans around the country now are free to talk about doing contract work for the CIA in the 1960s and '70s at the arid, isolated Southern Nevada government testing site.

Their stories shed some light on a site shrouded in mystery; classified projects still are going on there. It's not a big leap from warding off the curious 40 or 50 years ago, to warding off the curious who now make the drive to Area 51.

The veterans' stories provide a glimpse of real-life government covert operations, with their everyday routines and moments of excitement.

Noce didn't seek out publicity. But when contacted, he was glad to tell what it was like.

"I was sworn to secrecy for 47 years. I couldn't talk about it," he says.

In the 1960s, Area 51 was the test site for the A-12 and its successor, the SR-71 Blackbird, a secret spy plane that broke records at documented speeds that still have been unmatched. The CIA says it reached Mach 3.29 (about 2,200 mph) at 90,000 feet.

But after September 2007, when the CIA displayed an A-12 in front of its Langley, Va., headquarters as part of the agency's 60th birthday, much of the secrecy of those days at Area 51 fell away.

Advance warning to UFOlogists: Sorry, although Noce and other Area 51 vets say they saw plenty of secret stuff, none make claims about aliens.

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Secrets included payroll

But on to the secrecy part.

Noce remembers always getting paid in cash, signing a phony name to the receipt, during his several years of working security at the site. It was, in CIA parlance, "a black project."

Noce says he has no paperwork showing that he worked at Area 51 for the CIA. He says that was common. Others who got checks say they came from various companies, including Pan American World Airways.

But Noce is vouched for by T.D. Barnes, of Henderson, Nev., founder and president of Roadrunners Internationale, membership 325. Barnes is the one who says he got checks from Pan Am, for whom he had never worked.

Roadrunners is a group of Area 51 vets including individuals affiliated with the Air Force, CIA, Lockheed, Honeywell and other contractors.

For the past 20 years, they'd meet every couple of years at reunions they kept clandestine. Their first public session was last October at a reunion in Las Vegas at the Atomic Testing Museum.

As age creeps up on them, Barnes, 72, an Area 51 radar specialist, wants the work the vets did to be remembered.

And Barnes himself has someone quite credible to vouch for him: David Robarge, chief historian for the CIA and author of "Archangel: CIA's Supersonic A-12 Reconnaissance Aircraft."

Robarge says about Barnes, "He's very knowledgeable. He never embellishes."

Barnes says that the way membership in the Roadrunners grew was by one guy who worked for the CIA telling about another buddy who worked at Area 51, and so on. Barnes says other Area 51 vets vouched for Noce.

Noce was a 1955 Vancouver High grad who went right into the Air Force and was trained in radar.

Leaving the service in 1959, he worked as a produce manager for the Safeway in Camas, 17 miles east of Vancouver.

Sometime in late 1961, Noce got a phone call at the grocery store. It was from a buddy of his from the Air Force days, who now worked for the CIA.

"He knew I had classified clearance from working at the radar sites," remembers Noce. "He asked me how would I like to live in Las Vegas."

Noce agreed to drive to Las Vegas and call "a guy" who worked for "the agency."

Comings and goings

And so Noce began doing security.

Most of the time, it was routine stuff.

On Monday mornings, a Lockheed Superconstellation would fly in from the "Skunk Works" in Burbank, Calif., bringing engineers and others who were working on the A-12. They'd stay there during the week and return home on weekends.

Skunk Works was the nickname for Lockheed's Advanced Development Projects, which had the A-12 contract.

The routine stuff included checking badges and making sure nobody had weapons or cameras. Security workers also made sure only those with proper clearance would witness a test flight.

And what a sight it was.

According to the CIA, its late former chief Richard Helms recalled visiting Area 51 and watching a midnight test flight of an A-12.

"The blast of flame that sent the black, insect-shaped projectile hurtling across the tarmac made me duck instinctively. It was as if the devil himself were blasting his way straight from hell," said Helms, according to former CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden.

Other times, the routine got very exciting.

Noce remembers when "Article 123," as one of the A-12s was called, crashed on May 24, 1963, after the plane stalled near Wendover, Utah. The pilot ejected and survived.

Noce says he was among those who flew to the crash site in a giant cargo plane loaded with several trucks. They loaded everything from the crash into the trucks.

He remembers that a local deputy had either witnessed the crash or had quickly arrived at the scene. There also was a family on a vacation car trip who had taken photos.

"We confiscated the camera, took the film out," says Noce. "We just said we worked for the government."

He says the deputy and the family were told not to talk to anybody about the crash, especially the press.

"We told them there would be dire consequences," Noce says. "You scared them."

As an added incentive, he says, the CIA arrived with a briefcase full of cash.

"I think it was like 25 grand apiece, for the sheriff and the family," says Noce.

Robarge says of cash payments to cover things up, "It was common practice."

Noce also remembers providing security in 1962 as a disassembled A-12 was trucked along back roads from Burbank to Area 51.

At one point, a Greyhound bus traveling in the opposite direction grazed one of the trailers. Wrote Robarge, "Project managers quickly authorized the payment of nearly $5,000 for damage to the bus so no insurance or legal inquiry would take place ... "

Stories about aliens

About the aliens.

Noce and Barnes say they never saw anything connected to UFOs.

Barnes believes the Air Force and the "Agency" didn't mind the stories about alien spacecraft. They helped cover up the secret planes that were being tested.

On one occasion, he remembers, when the first jets were being tested at what Muroc Army Air Field, later renamed Edwards Air Force Base, a test pilot put on a gorilla mask and flew upside down beside a private pilot.

"Well, when this guy went back, telling reporters, 'I saw a plane that didn't have a propeller and being flown by a monkey,' well, they laughed at this guy — and it got where the guys would see [test pilots] and they didn't dare report it because everybody'd laugh at them," says Barnes.

Noce says he quite liked working at Area 51.

He got paid $1,000 a month (about $7,200 in today's dollars). Weekdays he lived for free at the base in admittedly utilitarian housing — five men assigned to a one-story house, sharing a kitchen and bathroom.

Something that all Area 51 vets remember about living at the base, he says, was the great food.

"They had these cooks come up from Vegas. They were like regular chefs," Noce remembers. "Day or night, you could get a steak, whatever you wanted."

Lobster was flown in regularly from Maine. A jet, sent across the country to test its engines, would bring back the succulent payload.

On weekends, Noce and other contracted CIA guys would drive to Las Vegas.

They rented a pad, and in the patio plumbed in a bar with storage for two kegs of beer. It was a great time, barbecuing steaks and having parties, Noce says.

Noce has two pieces of proof from his Area 51 days: faded black-and-white snapshots taken surreptitiously.

One shows him in 1962 in front of his housing unit at Area 51. The other shows him in front of what he says is one of two F-105 Thunderchiefs whose Air Force pilots overflew Area 51 out of curiosity. The pilots were forced to land and were told that a no-fly zone meant just that.

Noce worked at Area 51 from early 1962 to late 1965. He returned to Vancouver and spent most of his working life as a longshoreman.

Noce remembers once in recent years talking with fellow retired longshoreman pals and telling them stories about Area 51. When they didn't believe him, he says, "Well, there was nothing I could do to prove anything."

Collecting memories

Mary Pelevsky, a University of Nevada visiting scholar, headed the school's Nevada Test Site Oral History Project from 2003 to 2008. Some 150 people were interviewed about their experiences during Cold War nuclear testing. Area 51 vets such as Barnes also were interviewed.

The historian says it was difficult to verify stories because of secrecy at the time, cover stories, memory lapses and — sometimes — misrepresentations.

But, she says, "I've heard this cloak-and-dagger stuff, and you say, 'No way.' Then you hear enough and begin to realize some of these stories are true."

In October, Noce and his son, Chris, of Colorado, drove to Las Vegas for that first public reunion of the Area 51 vets. He and his old buddies remembered the days.

"I was doing something for the country," Noce says about those three years in the 1960s. "They told me, 'If anything should ever come up, anyone asks, 'Did you work for the CIA?' Say, 'Never heard of them.' But [my buddies] know."

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

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