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

Post-World War II and the Early Cold War

In September 1945, Wernher von Braun and the first group of German scientists arrived in Paris. They were flown to Newcastle AFB in
Wilmington, Delaware, transferred to Fort Strong near Boston, and then to Fort Bliss, Texas. The remainder of the 118 “Paperclippers”
arrived aboard the transport liner Argentina in November and reached Fort Bliss by January 1946.

The Army Blockhouse at Launch Area 1 (LC-33) was completed in September 1945. On September 26, a modified Navy Tiny Tim rocket (configured as a booster for WAC Corporal) became the first missile launched by the Army at the new Proving Ground. The first full WAC Corporal A was fired less than one month later, on October 11, reaching an altitude of 44 miles. That same day, the 1st Guided Missile Battalion was constituted and stationed at the Proving Ground. Later that month, a contract was awarded to construct the first (100,000 pound thrust; 100-K) static test stand, and the Chief of Ordnance invited the Navy to participate in the WSPG’s new guided-missile program. The Air Force had initiated a guided missile program of its own at Wendover AFB, Utah, and had begun construction of its first high-speed test tracks: K–2 at China Lake and the 2,000-foot track at Edwards AFB. By November 1945, troopers from the 1st Guided Missile Battalion were guarding captured German materiel at railway sidings near Las Cruces, and at WSPG, General Electric employees had begun to identify, sort, and reassemble V–2 components in the re-erected hangar (Building 1538), designated as Assembly Building 1.

The Army Blockhouse located at Launch Complex 33 (formerly Launch Area 1) under construction in 1945.
German “Paperclipper” scientists at White Sands Proving Grounds, 25 January 1946.

The Hermes project was assigned the task of assembling captured V–2 rockets (and, by 1947, supervising Bumper). Between 1947 and
1954, Hermes utilized four modified German V–2 missiles [redesignated Hermes B–1], five Hermes A–1s [based on the German Wasserfall antiaircraft rocket], and 13 Hermes A–3s. As the Project Hermes V–2 program neared readiness at the close of 1945, its scientific potential began to eclipse its original, purely military purpose. In December 1945 – January 1946, the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) had established a Rocket-Sonde Research Branch. In early January 1946, after Office of the Chief of Ordnance (OCO) offered the NRL use of captured V–2s for research, NRL invited other military and university programs to join the V–2 Upper Atmosphere Research Panel (originally the V–2 Panel; later the Rocket and Satellite Research Panel), chaired by Dr. James A. VanAllen, Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) (who later directed the Aerobee program). The panel membership included Ernest H. Krause, NRL; W. G. Dow, University of Michigan; M. H. Nichols, Princeton; Fred Whipple, Harvard; Colonel James G. Bain, OCO; Colonel Holger N. Toftoy, Army Ground Forces; and representatives of the Air Materiel Command, the Army Signal Corps, Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and General Electric. In April, the Army Air Corps contracted with Consolidated Vultee (later General Dynamics) to study a long-range ballistic missile (known as MX–774) as a back-up program for the SM-64 Navaho I missile, which was to succeed the Hermes B–1. The program was canceled the following year, but three launches of the MX–774 Hi-Roc took place in 1948 at LC–33.

The V–2 program began in earnest with the full onset of the Cold War, an era that actually started at Trinity, but is usually marked by Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech on March 5, 1946. Assembly Building II (Building 1558; a Mills building, later known as “The Mill”) was erected in 1946. On March 15, the first V–2 was static-test fired on the new 100-K Test Stand, which had been designed by the German rocket team, based on earlier examples in Germany. The following day, Operation Overcast was officially renamed Operation Paperclip. The Strategic Air Command (SAC) was created on March 21, and the Air Materiel Command began developing the XB–63 Rascal, a subsonic air-to-ground pilotless parasite bomber, under contract with Bell Aircraft. Rascal was used in the first off-range firing at WSPG 10 years later. Aberdeen Proving Ground’s Ballistic Research Laboratory (BRL) organized a permanent White Sands Annex the same month. On April 2, the Signal Corps Engineering Laboratories (SCEL) in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, dispatched personnel to establish Field Station No. 1 at WSPG. Alamogordo Army Air Field, temporarily deactivated since February, was reactivated in April to support the increased missile firing schedule. OCO established the Ordnance Research and Development Division Sub-office (Rocket) at Fort Bliss to provide facilities for a select group of German scientists who were engaged in the new Hermes II project to develop a two-stage missile based on a modified V–2.

After one unsuccessful launch attempt on April 16, the first successful V–2 firing took place on May 10, 1946, reaching an altitude of 70 miles. On May 17, the Naval Bureau of Ordnance, already envisioning the need to replace its small supply of V–2s, contracted through the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) at Johns Hopkins University with Aerojet for 20 XASR–1 Aerobee sounding rockets (originally called Venus) and established the U.S. Naval Ordnance Missile Test Facility at WSPG. In July, the USN Bureau of Ordnance began constructing the Navy Cantonment Area at the Proving Ground.

Dr. George Gardiner, head of the Physics Department at New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (NMAMA, later New Mexico State University) had met with Col. J. G. Bain, OCO, in January 1946 to discuss the possibility of providing student labor for data reduction of ballistic Askania films. The resulting contract with the Army’s Ballistics Research Laboratory, effective in May, led to the Regents of the College to found the Physical Science Laboratory (PSL, originally the Laboratory of Applied Science) in September. A second contract for similar services with the Johns Hopkins Applied Sciences Laboratory, acting for the Navy Bureau of Ordnance, was negotiated that fall. After a historic meeting in early 1947 between Lewis Del Sasso and NMAMA’s Harold Brown at the Amador Hotel in Las Cruces, a third contract was undertaken, this time with the Naval Research Laboratory. PSL has continued to supply support, research, data reduction, and a wide range of other services to WSMR and its tenant organizations.

During the summer and fall of 1946, PSL student crews began surveying baseline instrumentation stations A through Z to provide position data for missile test firings. On September 17, Bell engineers static-test fired the first Nike SAM at LC-33. By October, the Bell Nike No. 1 was successfully fired to an altitude of 28 miles. The same month, von Braun’s German rocket team arrived at WSPG to assist General Electric engineers with V–2 testing. Several sources indicate that 39 scientists led by von Braun spent six months at WSPG, billeted in Building H (which may have been the H-shaped, single-story Officer’s Quarters fronting B Street, shown on the June 1945 cantonment map). Starkweather notes that members of the team used Army buses for weekend trips to Ruidoso and Cloudcroft in the Sacramento Mountains. The German team apparently numbered approximately 200 before mid-year 1947.

The first motion pictures of the earth from space were taken from V–2 No. 13, which reached an altitude of 65 miles on October 24, 1946. Construction at LC-33 continued, and the Gantry Crane was completed in November. On December 17, V–2 No. 17 made the first American night rocket flight.

A captured German V-2 rocket being erected and prepared for launch at WSPG.
A V-2 rocket takes off from Army Launch Area 1 (LC-33) in front of the Army Blockhouse.

By 1947, the need for an accurate, three-dimensional coordinate system became apparent. The requirements for measuring vertical angles were unprecedented, and eventually a modified transverse-mercator projection was developed and anchored to the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Texas-California Arc at Kent Peak in the San Andres Mountains and Elephant Mountain near Orogrande. Because no suitable survey equipment was then available, local personnel cannibalized three damaged Zeiss theodolites, shipped to WSPG with the loads of V–2 missile parts, and built two usable instruments. The original ORDCIT WAC Corporal program was nearly complete by early 1947. On February 24, WAC Corporal B No. 17 reached a record altitude of 45.5 miles. The final WAC launch took place on June 12. Blossom, another V–2 program, began firing in February under the auspices of the Air Force’s Cambridge Research Center. Blossom’s mission was to study ionospheric conditions and develop an instrument-package parachute-recovery system. The Blossom program continued through 1951. Five Blossom experiments, carrying four rhesus monkeys, all named Albert, and a mouse, were conducted for the Wright Patterson AFB Aero-Medical Laboratory. However, only the first of a total of 11 Blossom launches was fully successful. Blossom I (V–2 No. 20), fired February 20, carried a canister containing fruit flies and various seeds to an altitude of 68 miles and returned safely to Earth by parachute. In February, shortly after the first Blossom flight, AAAF was transferred to the Air Materiel Command in return for transfer of Wendover AFB to the new Strategic Air Command. In March, the Air Force guided-missile program — including Boeing’s GAPA (Ground to Air Pilotless Aircraft), North American’s NATIV (North American Test Instrument Vehicle), and the Tarzon Vertical Bomb — was moved from Wendover to AAAF, which was rechristened Holloman AFB the following year. On July 26, the National Security Act created the Department of Defense with three separate departments, and the U.S. Air Force was established as an independent service. The Act also set up the National Security Council (NSC), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). The following day, Lieutenant Colonel Turner, WSPG, and Colonel Paul F. Helmick, AAAF, executed a cooperative-use agreement locally integrating the New Mexico Guided Missiles Range. The new Air Force missile program at AAAF expanded rapidly—in its first year, AAAF fired the first GAPA, three early Falcon air-to-air missiles (AAMs), and the first Firebird AAM; launched the first OQ–19 drones; began the first high-altitude balloon operations; and started the first dummy missile drop tests for the Snark ICBM. The Navy guided-missile program began construction of two tilt-able, 140-foot Aerobee launch towers and the Navy Blockhouse at Launch Complex 35 in May. On November 24, the Navy launched the first fully configured Aerobee sounding rocket (No. A–4), which carried cosmic-ray instruments to an altitude of 36.7 miles. Earlier in May, Douglas Aircraft launched a Corporal E, the first American designed, engineered, and fabricated surface-to-surface missile (SSM), and the first ORDCIT test vehicle with command guidance. This first Corporal E reached an altitude of 24.4 miles, impacting 62.5 miles downrange within 2 miles of its target after receiving and executing a radar course correction signal. In September, the Navy tested the V–2 at sea during Project Sandy, successfully launching from the Midway’s carrier deck in the Atlantic Ocean. At WSPG, in Operation Pushover, the Navy intentionally toppled and exploded a fully fueled V–2 on a segment of carrier flight deck.

The OCO approved the Bumper V–2 program in June 1947. Under the direction of JPL, Bumper was the first multistage rocket system, wedding a WAC Corporal to a V–2, an idea originally suggested prior to July 1946 by Colonel Holger Toftoy, who had organized Special Mission V–2 to acquire captured missiles for testing at the Proving Ground. (The first Bumper flight took place in May 1948. Less than one year later, Bumper No. 5 penetrated outer space.) Following two near-mishaps with off-course missile impacts, steps were taken to increase range safety. On May 15, steering trouble developed in V–2 No. 26, causing an off-range impact near Alamogordo. Two weeks later, on May 29, the first Hermes B–1 (Hermes II) impacted outside Juarez, Mexico. In October, Air Force Captain Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in the Bell X–1. Two months later, Major John Stapp made the first two rocket-sled runs at the Edwards AFB Test Track. In August, efforts to secure a more permanent test range had resulted in 52 co-use and full-use agreements with local landowners. In November, the Army Corps of Engineers, Albuquerque District, prepared the first feasibility study for a northern Range expansion. In December, plans were approved for a new Loki anti-aircraft free-flight rocket (based on the German Taifun). Bendix Aviation and JPL contracted for Loki to after initial feasibility studies were completed in 1948–1949. Loki was first test fired at WSPG in June 1951.

A Corporal E rocket sits in the Gantry Crane at LC-33.
“The Loki Missile. The Loki Program was stopped in September 1955.”

The AAAF was re-designated Holloman Air Force Base (HAFB) in January, effective the following month, with a formal dedication in September. Missile programs continued to expand at both WSPG and HAFB. Between 1946 and 1950, the Army and Navy launched 235 missiles and the Air Force launched 329, in addition to 604 drone flights, 111 parachute-recovery drop tests, 157 bomb drops, and 52 miscellaneous missions. On February 6, General Electric launched the first successful, electronically controlled missile, V–2 No. 36. On June 11, USAF Blossom III (V–2 No. 37) carried the first rhesus monkey, Albert I, to a height of 39 miles, but failed to reach recovery altitude.

By the end of 1948, the Air Force at Holloman AFB had initiated 11 new missile and drone test programs, in addition to the three original Wendover programs (GAPA, JB–2, and Tarzon) transferred in 1947. The first of four NATIV flights was launched in May. In July, USAF Project MX–774 commenced with the first Consolidated Vultee Hi–Roc launch from LC-33. Project MX-774 led to the Atlas rocket, the first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). By December, the first fully powered Ryan Firebird air-to-air missile, which used plastic in the nose, fore, and aft fins, was launched.

Bumper, designed to demonstrate the feasibility of multistage rockets, began the first of six WSPG test firings on May 13. Bumper’s WAC Corporal / V–2 stood 58 feet in height. The first successful flight demonstrated stage separation and reached an altitude of 70 miles. The WAC Corporals for this and the second test (where the V–2 booster failed), contained only a separation charge. Bumper No. 3 achieved 93 miles with its first stage, but its WAC Corporal booster exploded before separation. A fully successful multistage flight was not achieved until the following year.

A crowd listens to a presentation on the Bumper rocket, located in front of the assembly building.
Photographers and journalists record Bumper-5 just after ignition.
Bumper 5 continues to gain altitude. The rocket is identified by the “B-5” located on its tail fin.

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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