THE REVEREND AT ROSWELL: A CHAPLAIN AT THE CRASH? by Anthony Bragalia
The enormity of suddenly being confronted with sky-fallen craft and beings from another world near Roswell, NM in July of 1947 was no doubt spiritually shattering. The psychological impact of such an event had to have been deep and lasting. Everything must have come into question relative to man's place in the universe. Newly-acquired information indicates that the Roswell Base Chaplain at the time -Reverend Elijah H. Hankerson- may have provided needed support to those that were not prepared to deal with such a momentous event. There are three telling elements to the Hankerson saga:
- Just days after the crash Reverend Hankerson was shipped out of Roswell Army Air Field and was replaced by a Catholic priest of higher rank
- Hankerson and his wife Annie kept from their children the fact that he was ever even stationed at Roswell. The family is stunned.
- Hankerson may have made a "silent confession" to them at the end of his life, possibly hinting at his involvement
THE CHAPLAIN AND THE TRAUMA
We can only guess at the "coping mechanisms" that had to be instantly developed by those who viewed the crash. The Chaplain would have likely been there to help cope with this sudden trauma. Chaplains in the U.S. armed services have a special role in our nation's military. Two very important functions of the Chaplain are to provide spiritual counseling and assistance in emergency situations. Required to be available whenever called upon, they help individuals in times of continuing crisis as well as in ministering to those distraught by a sudden and recent event causing physical or mental challenge. In the 1940s. there were no "trauma psychologists." This role was assumed by men of the cloth. As part of the team of "first responders" to an air accident, they provide needed support, hope and encouragement. They pray over the dead- and they calm and assure the living who are suffering from a traumatic incident.
What could have been more traumatic than seeing dead non-human pilots who commanded a craft of entirely unknown construction, spread out in pieces on the desert floor?
The trauma was measurable.
- Dee Proctor, the child-witness to the crash with rancher Mac Brazel died a morbidly obese, divorced, raging alcoholic who rarely spoke and hid behind his mother Loretta for decades like he was still a child. Dee died young of coronary attack, holding in his heart a secret to great to bear.
- CIC Agent Sheridan Cavitt (at the scene with Marcel) was affected. His lawyer-son Joseph Cavitt said his father would get angry whenever the Roswell incident was brought up. He said his father had "issues" and that "it was like having half of a father."
- Other psychological casualties included RAAF Intelligence Agent Jesse Marcel Sr. himself. In his recent book "The Roswell Legacy" Marcel's son Dr. Jesse Marcel Jr. revealed for the first time that Roswell had impacted his father adversely- Marcel Sr. became an alcoholic after the crash!
- Rancher Mac Brazel left the area after the crash moving to Tularoosa. Many (including interviewed ranch hands) said that Mac was never the same afterwards. He "steamed" when the crash was brought up -even years later- refusing to utter a word about it.
- Roswell Sheriff George Wilcox appears like a "deer in the headlights" in a photo of him appearing in the Roswell Daily Record after the crash. He never ran for office again, never sought another term. Deputies B.A. Clark and Tommy Thompson said that he was never the same. Inez Wilcox ran for the office instead- loosing the election and her husband's attentions after the crash. Neighbor Rogene Cordes told me that George was "a changed man with a changed marriage because I understand he was made to do things he did not want to do."
But what of the military men at the scene? In the newly revised "Witness to Roswell" book, author Tom Carey relates the story of PFC Elias Benjamin. Benjamin replaced an MP for guard duty that has seen the bodies. Benjamin said the MP "had gone crazy." Scars were left and emotions were tattered. Memories were forever emblazoned with the sight of the unearthly- and lives were forever changed in an instant.
REVEREND ELIJIAH H. HANKERSON
The role of a Chaplain at Roswell was an aspect that was not considered or examined by early Roswell researchers. Though military officers, ranchers and others were contacted about their possible knowledge of event surrounding the 1947 crash, no one ever considered the Chaplain, and what he knew. Given the significant role that a Chaplain would have played, I decided to track down any information that might lead to the identity of the Roswell Army Air Field Base Chaplain at the time.
Recently, through working with the US Army Chaplain Corps -and with assistance from the Executive Director of the US Army Chaplain Museum at Ft. Jackson, SC- I have conclusively identified the Base Chaplain at RAAF in July of 1947 as Reverend Elijiah H. Hankerson. Rev. Elijah Hankerson was a Black man and a National Baptist. Hankerson began his military career in 1944 and passed in 1990. However, I have located and contacted his daughter- Esther.
Elijah and his wife Annie lived off-base at 601 E. Summit in Roswell. Though Hankerson is mentioned in the RAAF Yearbook, he is not pictured.
Hankerson was replaced as Base Chaplain of RAAF on July 10, 1947 (just days after the event.) Hankerson was shipped out to a location in the South Pacific after the crash. He was replaced by a Catholic Priest, Captain/Father William B. Benson. Benson spoke five languages. His appointment to the base to replace Hankerson was sudden and not planned. The timing of this is interesting, to say the least. Less than a week after the crash, Hankerson was told he had to leave- and base officials brought in someone new.
AND WHY THEIR FATHER WAS REPLACED AT ROSWELL
The late Mrs. Annie Hankerson, wife of Rev. Elijah Hankerson of RAAF
I began an extended dialog with Esther Hankerson (daughter of Annie and Elijah) to see if she or other Hankerson family members could shed light on Elijah's time at Roswell.
This was a problem. She and her brother Tommy were entirely unaware that Annie and Elijah had ever even lived in New Mexico! Her father and mother had never even told her or her brother (both born after the crash) that they were stationed at RAAF in 1947! Esther was astounded to learn of the fact when she was contacted by me. She was uncertain how it was at all possible that this could be! She indicated that "the later '40s was a time my parents never spoke about- it was as if someone had taken an eraser to that time period. I have no photos of them during that time- and I've always wondered why. I know about the rest of their lives, but not about this!" She asked me if I had photos of him during this period. Family records and photos somehow simply "skip" this entire time frame. Esther was hugely overwhelmed by all of this when confronted by me with the evidence that her own father was there at RAAF during the time of the crash. Esther (who says that she and her family had been aware of the Roswell incident since the 1980s) stated: "If I ever had known what I know now, I would have asked him about it!" She adds though, that it may not have mattered. Her father was both a military officer and a Reverend.
She indicated that her father (and mother Annie) were the types that could be entrusted to keep secrets. He took his military oath and his Chaplain oath very seriously and her mother Annie also honored this.
Father Benson (who replaced Hankerson directly after the crash) was confirmed by Chaplain Corps records to have been in NJ at Camp Kilmer through July 3, 1947. Records indicate that his first day at RAAF was on July 10, 1947 when he was named the new Base Chaplain. When Father Benson left military service he became pastor of the Sacred Heart Church in Baldwin, LA. His last residence is listes as the Sacred Heart Rectory. The current pastor of the church, Father Gregory Cormier, was also not aware that Father Benson had ever been stationed at RAAF. Like the Hankerson's, Benson seemed to want to keep his assocation with the base during that time period to himself. Father Cormier states, "I do not think that your phone call about this is unusual. I believe that life exists throughout the universe, reflecting God's glory. I am familiar with Roswell and I think I can add to why Father Benson was brought in to replace a Baptist Chaplain. Catholic priests take confessions."
Incredibly, Father Cormier indicates that he had a parishioner many years ago who has since passed who told him that he was stationed at Roswell during 1947. He said that the parishioner (who was close to Father Benson) would always ask of Cormier, "Do you believe in life on other planets? How does the Church feel about this?"
THE SILENT CONFESSION?
Esther Hankerson recounts how, when she was a child, she remembers her father having been "called out at all hours" to act as a "first responder" to air accidents. He did tell her about these events and it left an impression on young Esther. Esther herself became a "first responder" and became certified in administering pre-hospital care for medical emergencies! She laments though that he, and mother Annie, never mentioned Roswell. She says that "he would have to have been involved. Given what he did on other bases when I was growing up, it would have been his job -his duty- to respond to the Roswell crash. Why didn't he tell us he was at Roswell?"
Asked if there is anything that he ever said during his life that would possibly indicate his knowledge of the Roswell incident, Esther thought about it and replied, "Yes, there is. Towards the end of his life in 1990, before he became entirely unable to speak, he said some things over and over that made no sense at the time. But they do now."
Asked what it was that her father said that she found unusual, Esther replied: "There were a few things that he kept repeating as he drifted in an out. My father kept saying over and over "I'm just a Man. But in my Father's house there are many mansions." When she asked him "what do you mean?" he replied to her, "Dear, knowing too much is not always a good thing." This was something she did not understand at all. Her father had a PhD and was also a Doctor of Divinity. She said that her father kept on referring to "the Universe and man's place in it. He kept on repeating to us, "I'm just a Man, but the Universe, oh the Universe..."
She never knew what to make of these statements, they made no sense- until now. Clearly upset by the implications, Esther said, "Oh dear God, I'm realizing that he was trying to say something to us without saying. My father kept his oath till the end!"