Von Braun, the V-2, and Slave Labor

The Beginnings of the American V-2 Program

An American V-2 test rocket being erected for launch

The US Army Center of Military History’s White Sands Missile Range Museum holds one of the most complete, original V-2 rockets in the world today. Developed by the German rocket team led by Wernher von Braun and General Walter Dornberger, the V-2 was one of Hitler’s “Vengeance” weapons but came into use too late in the war to be of any significance. Considered one of the world’s first modern “terror” weapons, it was basically aimed at a target – such as a city like London or Antwerp – and fired. Unlike the V-1 “Buzz Bomb” which was much slower and quite audible during its approach, and which could be knocked out of the air with relative ease, the V-2 was supersonic – many victims never heard it coming. There was a tremendous explosion and half a city block was devastated.

The War Department of the United States wanted the V-2. Under General Holger Toftoy, chief of Army Ordnance Technical Intelligence, teams were assigned to Europe to seek out and evaluate captured enemy ordnance, weapons, and equipment, Special Mission V-2 was set up, commanded by Major William Bromley, to search for and acquire V-2 rockets, rocket engineers, and documents. Major James Hamill was given the responsibility to ship the material from Nordhausen to Antwerp – the 144th Motor Vehicle Assembly Company providing transportation – and from there to New Orleans and on to White Sands Proving Ground – a new test facility being developed in the southern New Mexico desert.

General Holger Toftoy
General Holger Toftoy

White Sands Proving Ground was “born” with its first flag-raising on July 9, 1945 – exactly one week before the detonation of the atomic bomb at Trinity Site – on lands that also later became part of the test range. Colonel Harold Turner commanded the new installation and, on 1 August 1945, C Battery of the 69th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Gun Battalion arrived at White Sands.

The first flag raising over White Sands Proving Ground, 1945

Their mission was to prepare the installation to test the missile. White Sands Proving Ground was “born” with its first flag-raising on July 9, 1945 – exactly one week before the detonation of the atomic bomb at Trinity Site – on lands that also later became part of the test range. Colonel Harold Turner commanded the new installation and, on 1 August 1945, C Battery of the 69th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Gun Battalion arrived at White Sands.

But the 3rd Armored Division soldiers of Task Force Welborn and Task Force Lovejoy who entered the Nordhausen area in April 1945, followed soon by the 104th and 9th Infantry Divisions, had no idea of the importance of what they were encountering or the odd-looking rockets in the mine tunnels – they just knew that something terrible had happened there.

3rd Armored Division troops cross the Siegfried Line, 1945

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