A Brief History of White Sands Proving Ground, 1941-1965

World War II and the Tularosa Basin


The U.S. Army Air Corps began planning for rapid expansion of existing aircraft training facilities throughout several western states in 1941. The Air Corps was rechristened the U.S. Army Air Force (USAAF) on June 20. Anticipating the inevitable fall of Europe to the Axis and direct American participation in World War II, military planners recognized the need for a fallback position for the Royal Air Force (RAF). In April, Major General H. H. “Hap” Arnold, USAAC, met with Vice Marshall Sir Guy Garrod, RAF, to establish the British Overseas Training Program, which would use new air bases built in the vast, open spaces of the American West. Alamogordo Army Air Field (AAAF) was officially established on Easter Sunday, April 13, 1941. By October, the government ordered local ranchers to begin disposing of livestock in anticipation of the establishment of the proposed bombing range. In December, following the air attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States declared war on Japan, Germany, and Italy, and ranchers in 55 townships in four New Mexico counties were rapidly notified that grazing leases on public lands had been canceled to accommodate the newly established Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range.

General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, US Army Air Force.
Vice Marshall Sir A. Guy Garrod, British Royal Air Force.


By early 1942, new construction was underway at the Alamogordo, Carlsbad, Deming, Clovis, and Roswell Army Air Fields, resulting
in a massive increase in the military presence in southern New Mexico. Five of the 14 major bombardier training bases in the United States, designed to accommodate 45,000 trainees, were located in New Mexico. Five additional bases were located in Texas, and one was built in each of the states of California, Colorado, Arizona, and Louisiana. Ten practice ranges had also been established in the New Mexico Texas Southwest. Most of these ranges lay within Doña Ana, Otero, and neighboring counties within or close to the current White Sands Missile Range (WSMR) and U. S. Army Fort Bliss reservations. Construction began at AAAF on February 6, and the base was elevated to full status on June 1. In June, the Manhattan Project, initiated the previous year, was transferred from its original headquarters at the Manhattan, New York, Engineer District, to the U.S. Army, under the command of (then) Colonel Leslie Groves, who supervised its relocation to the secret site of Los Alamos, New Mexico, the following year. Groves, promoted to Brigadier General on September 22, continued to command the Manhattan Project until its transfer, in March 1947, to the new Atomic Energy Commission.

Robert Goddard’s rocket research group, the only such effort in the United States prior to World War II, had been operating in nearby Roswell, NM (about 200 miles northeast of WSMR and Fort Bliss, TX), since 1930, under the sponsorship of the Guggenheim Foundation. Goddard’s program relocated to the Naval Engineering Experiment Station in Annapolis, Maryland, in July 1942, just three years before the fruits of his early research arrived at the new Proving Ground with the captured V–2 program. Goddard, who had flown the first liquid-fueled rocket in 1926, had failed to interest the War Department in rocketry until September 1941, when he finally obtained contracts with the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics and the Army Air Corps. Ironically, Goddard’s success in obtaining military sponsorship and the subsequent relocation permanently removed him from participation in the first major U.S. rocketry programs that took place in the western United States.

On October 3, 1942, Goddard’s early rocketry research bore fruit in Peenemünde, Germany, with the first successful launch of an A–4 (V–2) missile for the German Army. This rocket was larger but almost identical to missiles Goddard tested years earlier at Roswell. In December, the German Air Force pulse-jet propelled V–1 was also successful in tests at Peenemünde, although this first flight only achieved a distance of 3,000 yards.

Dr. Robert Goddard, Father of American Rocketry.
A German V-2 sitting on a transporter erector launcher (TEL), World War II.


U.S. Army and Air Force histories suggest that by 1943, the Alamogordo Army Air Field (AAAF, now Holloman Air Force Base) was already being informally considered as a guided-missile development site. The Rocketry Branch, under the U.S.Army Ordnance Corps, was officially established in September of that year. In August, the Luftwaffe in Italy began attacks on allied combat ships with Fritz X, the first successful air-to-surface missile (ASM). On September 9, a 1,400-kilogram armor-piercing Fritz X sank the battleship Roma and severely damaged the Italia in the Strait of Bonifacio. The following week, Fritz X sank two cruisers, damaged two others and a battleship, and sank several merchant ships off Salerno.

A B-24 flies over Alamogordo Army Air Field. Photo courtesy of the 49th Wing History Office.
A Fritz X radio-guided missile being dropped by the German Luftwaffe.

In May 1944, the USAAF, through the Office of the Chief of Ordnance (OCO), contracted with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) of the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory, California Institute of Technology (GALCIT), for the Army’s first ballistic missile program to “develop long-range rocket missiles and ramjets and…associated guidance and launching equipment.” This project became known as ORDCIT, an acronym for Ordnance-California Institute of Technology, also used as the name of the original range. Between 1944 and circa 1960, the ORDCIT program produced the Private A and F, the WAC (Without Attitude Control) Corporal, Corporal E, Bumper-WAC (two-stage V–2/WAC combination to demonstrate launch and separation using available components), and Sergeant missile series. Historian William Burrows suggests an alternative explanation for the name. He states that WAC was “named after the Women’s Army Corps because its developers
thought of it as Corporal’s little sister.”

Also in May, the search began for a location to test the Manhattan Project’s atomic bomb. Eight potential locations were originally identified: one in Colorado, one in South Texas, two in California, and four in New Mexico. The final choice was narrowed to three: the Grants, NM, Malpais (lava flow); the Rice, CA, Desert Training Area; and the Jornada del Muerto, NM. The Grants Malpais was eliminated because of the difficulty of moving Jumbo (the plutonium-containment vessel) across the lava. Between the Desert Training Area and the New Mexican location, the Jornada del Muerto (Journey of the Dead) was chosen. Col. Roscoe Wriston, Commander of the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range, turned over an 18-by-24 square mile area to the Manhattan Project, and construction began in November.

On June 13, one month after the ORDCIT project was initiated, German V–1 Buzz Bombs began to strike London. Within three weeks of the first impacts, American engineers had “reverse-engineered” a V–1 copy, JB–2 (Jet Bomb–2), from parts recovered at unexploded crash sites in occupied Europe and England. The JB–2 was tested between 1944 and 1946 at Muroc Army Air Field (later Edwards AFB) in California, Eglin AFB in Florida, and Wendover AAF in Utah. It was finally transferred to Holloman Air Force Base (the former Alamogordo Army Air Field) in 1948, when both HAFB and White Sands Proving Ground (WSPG) missile programs began to expand.

During the summer of 1944, less than one month after the Normandy D–Day invasion, the first Allied radio-controlled Aphrodite drone aircraft missile, carrying 20,000 pounds of TNT, struck German rocket launch-site targets in the Pas de Calais. During the fall, selection of a suitable missile test range began under the command of Major General G. M. Barnes, Chief of the Research and Development Service, Office of the Chief of Ordnance (OCO). The selection criteria required a large, level, uninhabited area within the continental United States— with clear skies and access to water, rail, and power facilities—near a permanent Army post. WSMR historian Tom Starkweather believes that initial alternatives were identified in Utah, Nevada, California, and Texas. A Corps of Engineers team, led by Colonel G. W. Trichel, Chief of the Rocket Development Division, OCO, visited the alternative locations. The selection team, under the command of Col. L. R. Skinner, OCO (co-inventor of the bazooka), identified the Tularosa Basin in south-central New Mexico as the best of several available sites. The following February, the OCO directed the Corps of Engineers to acquire the lands necessary for establishing the ORDCIT Range, Area 3.

On November 20, OCO contracted with General Electric to undertake the Army’s second missile program, the Hermes Project, to develop long-range surface-to-surface guided missiles (SSM). By December, OCO had decided to include the V–2 rocket within the Hermes Project and began planning the capture of 100 V–2 rockets after the liberation of Europe. That same December, the first of 24 JPL “Private A” missiles was fired at Camp Irwin, California.

A Hermes rocket kicks up a cloud of gas as it begins its ascent.
A Private A missile on its launcher rails and ready to fire.

2 thoughts on “A Brief History of White Sands Proving Ground, 1941-1965

  1. Having been stationed at Stallion site Jan. 1962 until Sept. 1963, I found this article extremely interesting as well as educational. Thank you authors for a fine job.

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