Huntsville and the von Braun Rocket Team

Placide D. Nicaise


Part 1: From one Life to Another

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Germany was one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world. The German people had a tradition of engineering and craftsmanship that produced some of the most precise and innovative machines ever built. But, they also had a tradition of militarism and authoritarian rule that led them into two world wars.

The Wehrmacht rolled across Europe in the opening years of the Second World War, defeating every army on the continent that opposed them. Although the English Channel protected Britain from a ground invasion, the Luftwaffe flew devastating raids against London and Coventry. These raids became increasingly expensive to German aircraft and were not able to take Britain out of the war. The huge Russian Army to the east and the vast industrial capacity of United States were even a more serious threat to Germany. They needed a long-range weapon that they could use against their enemies. The Treaty of Versailles had forbidden Germany the use of long-range artillery, so they had turned to the development of unmanned aircraft and rockets.

The first "vengeance" weapon was the V-1 buzz bomb, a small, pulse-jet powered aircraft that could fly an explosive warhead into enemy territory. Many of these were launched at Britain, but they were slow and vulnerable to defending fighter planes and anti-aircraft fire. Officers from the Wehrmacht were immediately interested in another type of weapon when it was learned that some Germans civilians had been experimenting with rockets. These rocket-powered craft had the potential of sending warheads on a ballistic trajectory into enemy territory at supersonic speed. Because of their high speed and high altitude approach, they were invulnerable to any defense available at the time.

One of the members of a German Rocket Society was Wernher von Braun, a bright, enthusiastic young man from an aristocratic German family. The German Army hired von Braun when he was only 20 years old. He soon earned his doctorate in physics and went on to lead the effort to develop a ballistic missile for military use. Von Braun's Rocket Team worked at Peenemünde, a secret laboratory on the Baltic coast. They eventually developed a reliable, liquid-fueled rocket engine, and a guidance system that could place a warhead on target up to 320 km (about 200 miles) away. This V-2 was the first ballistic missile, and the forerunner of those Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) that threatened the world during the cold war years.

Hitler initially had no confidence in rockets as weapons, but changed his mind when the Allies achieved air superiority. London and other European cities were bombarded with the V-2, but by then it had come too late to save Germany. Von Braun was imprisoned briefly by the Gestapo because they felt he was spending too much time talking about rockets for space travel when they wanted him concentrating on weapons. In the spring of 1945, as the war approached an end, von Braun led his team out of their base in Peenemünde toward the west. They had decided to surrender to the American Army rather than risk the hardships and possible execution by the Russians that were advancing from the east.

At the time of their surrender, Colonel Holger N. Toftoy, served as the chief of the Ordnance Technical Intelligence team in Paris. He advised his superiors that the von Braun Team, as well as its hardware and paperwork were vital to the U.S. Army. On July 23, 1945 Toftoy met with von Braun and offered a one-year contract for him and 127 members of his team. They all accepted and by early 1946 had been moved to Fort Bliss, Texas in what was called Operation Paperclip.

This operation also moved enough hardware to White Sands Proving Grounds to fill 341 railway cars and to build about 100 V-2 missiles. Concurrent with the transfer of hardware was the search for and transfer of vital documents. Von Braun had implemented a critical plan before leaving Peenemünde. He had ordered a vast archive of documents hidden in a tunnel near the town of Dorten. These documents were recovered and moved to the USA. (History of Rocketry by Cliff Lethbridge) (

The Germans soon earned the respect and acceptance of their Army overseers. Von Braun had always been more interested in using rockets for space flight than as weapons of war. Perhaps he sensed that he was finally working for someone with the resources to make that dream come true. His military supervisors must have as quickly realized that he was not only the world’s greatest rocket scientist, but also the world’s greatest salesman for rocket programs. In the years to follow, he would demonstrate that he was also the most capable director of these programs that his adopted country would ever have.

As the German team successfully fired longer-range rockets on the nearby White Sands Proving Ground, they began to attract media attention all across the country. Everyone began to realize that an atomic warhead would make these rocket powered missiles the preeminent offensive weapon. Whatever nation possessed such a weapon would have military superiority. The Army was eager to use their German team to develop a more sophisticated ballistic missile program for the USA, and the Germans were eager to get out of the desert and into a climate more like their native land. Their chance came in 1950 when the Army decided to move the team away from Fort Bliss to make room for activities supporting the Korean War effort.

One trip to the green mountainsides of Huntsville, Alabama convinced the Germans that this was a place they could live in comfort and rebuild lives shattered by war. It was a small town—the 1950 census indicated only 16,437 residents, but it was much more like rural Germany than the desert of West Texas. The Army’s Redstone Arsenal was nearby that could provide the facilities and room for growth that a high priority military program would require. They would also be close to the new test range that had just opened up at Cape Canaveral, Florida. So in the spring of 1950, the renowned von Braun Rocket Team moved to the sleepy, mill town in North Alabama known as the "Water Cress Capital of the World."

Huntsville has always held itself a bit above most of the towns in the state. After all, its pioneers had included aristocrats from Georgia and the Carolinas. They came in and displaced the original settlers around the Big Spring. They built their big mansions up on Echols Hill and large plantations out on the north edge of town. Throughout its history Huntsville seemed to have more class and more visionaries than most towns in Alabama. It prides itself on a rich history that seems graced with good fortune. It didn’t suffer any major destruction during the Civil War. It had no major upheavals during the Civil Rights demonstrations. It attracted industrial development but these were not like the smoke stack industries that blighted Birmingham. It has the benefits of the nearby mountains, the encircling Tennessee River and cheap TVA power. Huntsville citizens seem to be more broadminded and tolerant than others in Alabama. The politicians and city planners were capable, ambitious people that had long dreamed of making Huntsville a modern city of the Old South.

It is hard to imagine how the residents of even this liberal-minded Southern town would accept these strangers from an alien culture. Old men still sat on benches around the courthouse square, whittling away their Saturday afternoons. The statue of the Confederate Soldier on this same courthouse square was a reminder of another bitter war that they had fought generations before. They still despised the Yankees. No one could predict how these people that had lost brothers or sons so recently fighting the Germans would accept these strangers from an enemy nation. How could the Germans who had suffered such devastation and loss ever be comfortable living among their former enemies?

Perhaps Huntsville city fathers recognized this as a golden opportunity to build the city of their dreams. Perhaps von Braun and his team were determined to start anew in this adopted land. Perhaps the Army felt that this project was so vital to national security that they had to make it work. Whatever grave doubts existed beforehand, this may have turned out to be one of the most successful social experiments in history. The Germans settled in quietly, many of them on Monte Sano and others in established neighborhoods in the valley. Huntsville provided the relaxed, small-town environment that the Germans had not seen in years, and their adopted city came to enjoy fame and fortune like it had never seen before.

The dissention that developed in the coming years was not between the Germans and Huntsvillians, but between the Army, Navy and Air Force who fought savage turf battles over who was to control the development of military rockets. The Army had a strong hand because von Braun was a magician when it came to promoting his projects and grabbing funds from his competitors. He and his ideas about space flight were in a national magazine almost every month. He and his team even put out their own magazine titled, The Space Journal. He was an advisor to Walt Disney. A movie was made about his life titled; I aim at the Stars. Of course his critics quipped, "He may have aimed at the stars, but he hit London!" None of the snipping mattered because he was untouchable. He could walk into congress and they would shower him with more money than he could carry away. His big, handsome head was constantly in view in newspapers, newsreels and on TV.

The Navy and Air Force simmered with jealousy that the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) could sit out in the middle of a cotton patch in North Alabama and monopolize the national spotlight. The Army reassigned promising young military engineers and recruited from local state colleges to expand their in-house civil service team. They sent many of them to some of the best schools in the country for advanced degrees. It would not be an all-German team any longer, but one integrated with Americans who learned from the Germans and followed in their footsteps. This team designed, built and tested their own rockets in their own way. In contrast, the Navy and Air Force turned most of their design, building and testing over to giant aerospace corporations with thousands of employees stretching from coast to coast.

The other services initially decided to build air-breathing cruise missiles, which were bigger versions of the original German V-1. They felt that ballistic missiles would never have the range and payload capacity of these rockets with wings. These short-lived creations were given the fanciful names of Snark and Navaho. The Rocket Team would chuckle about "the Snark infested waters off the Cape", and "the Never-Go Navaho." It drove their competitors into distraction when a Redstone Rocket lifted off vertically, then thundered down range. The citizens of Huntsville watched the contest and rejoiced in every success.

Von Braun and his rocket team reported to Major-General John B. Medaris, the commander of ABMA. Medaris fought the other services day and night, but it eventually became clear that he was losing the war. Even with von Braun’s charisma and the most successful rocket program in the country, political power and money were winning. The Army belatedly realized that many contractors and widely distributed contracts had overwhelming influence on congress. Also, the powerful aerospace corporations opposed the German approach of doing their own in-house design, providing close technical supervision, then testing everything the contractors built. The Germans built the first units in-house so they were able to specify how much it should cost to build and how long it should take. If one bidder wouldn’t meet their terms, they would find another one or they would build it themselves.

It was difficult for the Army to make much of a public case for their rocket program because most of the comparative data were classified. Although they felt their missiles were more reliable and more accurate, they were not permitted to release the numbers. Perhaps in frustration, Col. John C. Nickerson, who worked for the Army at ABMA, released some classified information and a memo critical of the Defense Secretary’s decision to restrict the Army’s role to short range missiles. Instead of making his case, Nickerson received a general court martial in Huntsville on 25 Jun 1957. He was found guilty and was transferred to the Panama Canal Zone where he could not get his hands on any more rocket test data. He was a local hero for his efforts, but his military career was tarnished. He never returned to the Rocket Team and was killed in an automobile accident in New Mexico in 1964. (History of Rocketry by Cliff Lethbridge) (

In the late 1950’s Eisenhower was still president and understandably may not have had a lot of fondness for Germans, or for Colonels who didn’t follow orders. Whatever the case, national policy shaped up with the Air Force getting responsibility for developing all long range ICBM’s (Inter-continental Ballistic Missiles). To make matters worse, the Navy got the go-ahead to develop a completely new Vanguard booster for launching the first artificial satellite. The Army was specifically directed not to put a payload into orbit. This left the Army and their German team with only battlefield missiles with a range of 200 miles (320 km) or less. This was a devastating setback. Simpler, solid propellant motors had obvious advantages for these shorter-range missiles. It seemed that the Army was sure to lose the liquid propellant engine expertise that was the German’s forte, and the key to von Braun’s dreams for space travel.

Huntsville had been expanding dramatically, but it’s hopes for becoming a shining metropolis of technology were beginning to fall apart. It was a single industry town, and that industry was severely threatened by decisions made in Washington DC. There was even talk of Germans leaving the team and going to work for higher paying jobs in industry. However, von Braun held most of them together even in the darkest days. Perhaps they had been through so much together for so long that they had developed an intense loyalty toward him. Yet, even the young American engineers showed this same loyalty. He was a natural leader who earned the respect of his entire team by his ability, his consideration for them, and his single-minded determination to build the machines to take man into space.

Suddenly in the midst of all this turmoil and uncertainty, an event occurred that shocked the nation like nothing since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—the Russians put up an artificial satellite, called Sputnik, on Oct. 4, 1957. The entire nation was shocked. The public was frightened, realizing that a rocket which had the power to put up a satellite could as easily put a warhead anywhere in the country. The talk of a "missile gap" had become a reality. The Soviets had rounded up a few of the German rocket engineers that remained at Peenemünde and the Mittelwerk (the underground V-2 production facility). They eventually took them to Russia and used them to beat us at our own game. Americans did not like to lose, and certainly not in a race to develop science and technology. The politicians were beside themselves and the news media were frantic.

The eyes of the whole country were focused on the launch of the Navy’s new Vanguard rocket that was to attempt to put up the first American satellite on December 6, 1957. At the instant of liftoff, the slender, pitiful looking Vanguard was enveloped in flames and crumpled slowly back onto its pad. The rocket and the launch pad were destroyed in the explosion that followed. The mood of the nation was dark and furious. The politicians were desperate, so desperate that they finally called on the Army and asked them if the Von Braun Rocket Team would make an attempt at orbiting a satellite.

The Army team had secretly been preparing a rocket just for this eventuality. It was an elongated Redstone rocket with some solid propellant rockets arranged in a rotating canister. It was called a Jupiter-C rocket in order to steal a bit of funding from the legitimate Jupiter rocket program. This hybrid rocket was taken out of hiding and rushed to Cape Canaveral. Even some members of the rocket team doubted that this strange combination of solid rockets mated to a modified Redstone would work. The whole country was watching, and the city of Huntsville was holding its breath on January 31, 1958 as the clear-burning Redstone hybrid lifted off and thundered out across the Atlantic Ocean. No one knew if it had really worked for about an hour and a half. Then as its trajectory came back around the Earth, the ground stations suddenly began to pickup the beep-beep of America’s first orbital satellite.

Jubilation broke out in the blockhouse and people were soon dancing in the streets back in Huntsville. Citizens began calling it Rocket City, USA. Von Braun and his team were instant celebrities and national heroes. Mobs of people were waiting for them to get back from the Cape. A large celebration was planned around the Courthouse Square. Crowds filled the square and stretched out down the adjoining streets. Von Braun got to say only a few words to the crowd before he was hoisted onto the shoulders of James Record and other local politicians and paraded around to the cheers of a new class of citizens. The sons and daughters of enlisted men, mill workers and cotton farmers were now citizens of the space age. It must have been a heady moment for this man that had risen from the ashes of his old fatherland to find such acceptance and acclaim in a new homeland.

The Army and the citizens of Huntsville saw this success as a clear-cut victory, but it was only one battle in a long war. In some circles, there was dark muttering about the Krauts and Rednecks down at "Hunts-patch." The future for the Army rocket program, its Von Braun Rocket Team, and the plan for a great new city built around high technology was floundering. The Air Force still had all the ICBM development and probably any future effort toward space flight. The Navy had decided not to use the ABMA developed Jupiter missile at sea. They would develop their own Polaris missiles and submarines taking up much of what was left of the defense budget. The Army was forced to concentrate on solid rocket motors being used in new missiles such as Pershing. The space race with the Russians was in full swing and the von Braun Rocket Team was sidetracked with an organization restricted to missions of small, short-range surface to surface missiles. The dreams of the Army missile engineers and the citizens of the Rocket City were being replaced by the bitter taste of defeat and frustration.

General Holger Toftoy, the man responsible for bringing the Von Braun Rocket Team to the USA retired from the Army due to ill health in 1960. He was a close friend of von Braun and a strong advocate of the Army missile program. He died on April 19, 1967, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

General John Medaris, the energetic and forceful commander that had been in the forefront of the fight for Army missile programs retired on January 31, 1960. He moved to North Carolina where he was ordained an Episcopal Priest. He died in 1990 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Serious rumors began to circulate that von Braun was planning to leave his position with the Army and take a job in private industry. Some even speculated that all the German team would probably leave Huntsville. The Alabama politicians were trying but it seemed that they just didn’t have the power to compete with Silicon Valley, and the giant aerospace industries in California. Meanwhile, the Soviets continued to make space flight history, first putting up a dog—Laika, then finally sending Air Force Major Yuri Gararin into orbit around the Earth on April 12, 1961. The US seemed hopelessly behind and powerless to match the Soviets in this period when the cold war was at its coldest, and the fear of communism was at its greatest.

But, the machinery of the US government had began to move back in 1958. A whole new agency called the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) had been created. This was a civilian agency that would take over all non-military space research. A major NASA center, the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), was formed on Redstone Arsenal on July 1, 1960. The von Braun Rocket Team, including their civilian workers and a few hand-picked Army personnel were transferred from the Army and formed the basis of the new center, with Wernher von Braun as its first director. The nation had placed their hopes for overtaking the Soviets with this 48-year-old icon of the space age and his newly integrated German/American Rocket Team. The Army was suddenly out of the space business, but MSFC was at center stage, and Huntsville, Alabama was to be that stage. They had both achieved what only a few months before had seemed like an impossible dream.