By Jim Eckles, Editor, Hands Across History Newsletter, White Sands Missile Range Historical Foundation
Editor’s Note: An abbreviated version of this story appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News in March 2021. This unabridged version originally appeared in the May 2021 edition of the Hands Across History Newsletter.
For a 15 March 1946 German V-2 rocket demonstration, Lt. Col. Harold Turner, first commander of White Sands Proving Ground, invited 500 military personnel and 100 Las Cruces community leaders to watch. Although it was a static firing, meaning the rocket was bolted down, it was the first time a V-2 rocket motor was ignited on American soil. After hearing so much about the German vengeance weapon during WWII, visitors expected to see and feel a show of power. They got more than they expected.
By inviting Las Cruces civilians like mayor Edwin Mechem and city manager Jesse Isaacks, as well as members of the Chamber of Commerce, Rotary, Kiwanis and Lions Clubs, Turner was trying to make up for the Army’s poor public relations effort when White Sands was being established in the summer of 1945. Using economic good news, he was quick to point out that the 100K Static Test Stand, where the test would take place, was built by Las Cruces contractor Hayner and Burn.
This facility had a steel framework on top to hold the V-2 rocket in place. It stood on a huge concrete block with a channel in it that would deflect the engine’s flames and exhaust into the desert. With the engine expected to run for 60 seconds and exhaust gases reaching 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, to keep the concrete from literally melting and eroding away, White Sands engineers bolted heavy steel plates in the channel. They were overlaid with each other like shingles on a roof with each plate being three feet by three feet and a half-inch thick. They weighted about 185 pounds each. Robert Bolles, a General Electric engineer working on the V-2 program at White Sands, called it a “brute force” effort.
On the 15th, The V-2 engine burned perfectly for 57 seconds and visitors standing 300 yards away could feel the heat and vibration as the supersonic exhaust gases sent shock waves out from the stand. Unfortunately, the steel plates quickly started to glow red-hot and the incredible pressures from the exhaust ripped the bolts and plates right out of the concrete walls. Cherry-red steel plates were thrust sailing out into the desert toward the visitors who scattered like quail. The Las Cruces Sun-News reported the plates were blown into the desert “like so many straws.” The plates landed short but did start brush fires within 200 yards of the test stand.
Lt. Col. Turner was closer and standing with Maj. Gen. Gladeon Barnes, his Washington-level boss within the Ordnance Corps. Later Turner said he had never seen a General dive under a truck so fast.
Given that Barnes was the upper-level overseer for White Sands Proving Ground it made sense that he was there for this “first.” He would retire the next month after a long career in the Army. Also attending was Col. Holger Toftoy, one of the officers involved in the program to extract V-2 scientists and equipment from Germany at the close of WWII. Tofty would eventually reach the rank of major general and command Redstone Arsenal during the 1950s when von Braun and most of the German Paperclip scientists took up residence there after being secluded in the Southwest for several years.
For a later test in the stand, Bolles said they lined the concrete throat with tank tracks. Bolles reported it was a tactic he learned from consulting the Germans after the steel plate fiasco. It didn’t work as the bottom of the tracks were not anchored and the exhaust blew them around like laundry on the line during a spring wind storm. Eventually General Electric found the more refined technique of spraying copious amounts of water into the exhaust plume and cooling it. The sprinkler system could deliver 900 gallons of water per minute.
The next step in the new V-2 program was to actually launch a rocket from the newly construct-ed firing facility six miles east of the main post, now called Launch Complex 33. The complex was the site of WAC Corporal firings in October of 1945, the first vehicles launched at White Sands. By the way, if you’ve never looked at a map of the area, the complex sits right on the eastern edge of the Dona Ana County. If you walk a hundred feet east of the old V-2 Gantry, you are in Otero County.
Community reps were not invited this time. Turner told the news media he was hoping the first V-2 would reach an altitude of over 100 miles with a firing on April 15. Because this was the first launch, he said that only a small number of military witnesses would be allowed since the protective concrete blockhouse was quite small inside.
Also, the Las Cruces Sun-News quoted Turner as saying the April flight was “a preliminary to a demonstration scheduled for newspapermen the next month.” Obviously, Turner and the Army were anxious to show off the German technology that was captured at the end of the war. Information was freely given.
On April 17, the Sun-News reported some civilians who were caught in the roadblock on U.S. Highway 70, five miles east of San Augustin Pass, got to see the test. They reported they saw the V-2 lift off, wobble as it got up a few miles and then fall to the ground east of the launch area. In fact, the rocket only reached an altitude of 3.4 miles after officials remotely shut off the fuel flow because it was behaving erratically. It crashed with a resounding two-step explosion – first was the kinetic impact of the vehicle (an intense, quick explosion like TNT going off) and then the explosion of the alcohol and oxygen propellants as their tanks were ripped open, vaporized and ignited (a slower explosion with far less overpressures).
Those few dozen witnesses in the blockhouse got quite a surprise. The blockhouse walls are 10-feet thick with only two windows at that time, far too small for more than three or four people to look out. Also, because of the wall thickness, it is like looking out through a tube and as soon as the V-2 rose a hundred feet in the air it was out of sight. So, the crowd headed for the door to get a better view outside.
By the time the first people got outside and looked up, the V-2 had been terminated and was heading back down. With no visual reference points in the big empty sky, the first group thought the rocket was headed back at them. They rushed to re-enter the blockhouse, while others were still trying to get out. It was a moment of chaos. Luckily, the V-2 crashed miles to the east and no one was hurt. The incident did result in an order that no one could leave the blockhouse until the safety officer approved. An armed guard was placed at the door to make sure the edict was obeyed.
For the second V-2 launch, on May 10, the Army and Lt. Col. Turner invited the world to watch – through the eyes of the news media. According to Turner, “nearly 100 newspapermen and photographers, representing many of the nation’s leading newspapers, newsreels, magazines and press associations” were there to be briefed on Army plans and watch the firing. KOB radio in Albuquerque was even scheduled to broadcast it live. Visiting military VIPs included Britain’s Field Marshal Henry Maitland Wilson, Sixth Army Commander Gen. Joseph Stilwell, Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Dewitt Ramsey and the Army Air Force’s Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay. News of the event would be featured all across America in the days following the launch.
On May 9th and the morning of the 10th, the media were briefed on the V-2 and Army plans for their use. There was also speculation on the future of guided missiles as weapons to be used by the United States. Because of the sensitivity of the surrounding communities to the idea of vengeance weapons being fired at White Sands, officials went to great lengths to assure the public that V-2s would not have warheads. One thing Turner did not tell the news media was that a V-2 returning to earth after a high-altitude flight and expending all of its propellants could impact the ground with a kinetic energy explosion equal to almost 2,000 pounds of TNT – if it came down pointy-end first the whole way.
At 2:13 p.m. the V-2 blasted off with the visitors watching from the sand dunes only 1,000 yards to the southwest – no room in the block-house. The rocket did exactly what it was sup-posed to do, reaching an altitude of 75 miles and crashing to the ground 39 miles north, in the heart of the proving ground. The rocket was allowed to simply burn up all of its fuel, which took 59 seconds, and continue free flight to the north.
Officials said it was certainly an altitude record for a man-made object sent aloft by the United States and speculated it went even higher than any German launch as they used a flatter trajectory. The event announced that America had entered the Space Age and the news reporters were excited by what they saw. Stories appeared nation-wide and across much of the world.
Jack Doherty, writing for his readers back in New York City, said the sound was like “a hundred Seventh Avenue express trains converging on Times Square at once.”
Others took information from the Army briefings and wove it into their stories. William Strand, the Chicago Tribune, expanded on the fact that White Sands was going to build a bigger static test stand to handle 150-ton rockets. He hypothesized that such a rocket could deliver a warhead 2,500 miles away. He was describing what would be-come intercontinental ballistic missiles which were just a decade away.
That larger static test stand turned into the 500K Static Test Stand that was active at the base of Granite Peak near the El Paso gate during the 1950s. It took a couple of years to construct and was the largest in the world when completed. Remarkably it was out of business by 1960. Another reporter, Edward Bomar, in an As-sociated Press story recounted that the Army was already looking at using missiles equipped with proximity fuses and directed/guided by radar to kill incoming vehicles like V-2s. That would take decades to make a viable reality.
Also, many reporters wrote about the planned scientific efforts to put instruments and experiments aboard future V-2s to gather data on temperatures, winds, air density, biological effects, pressure and cosmic rays. Some wondered what the Earth would look like from a hundred miles up.
Maybe the most humorous story to come out in May 1946 was that Mark Ridge of Dorchester, MA volunteered to ride the V-2 rocket. He was quoted as saying, that with a special suit, he could survive a ride inside or attached to the outside. The newspapers went looking for comments and found that experts felt there was room in the V-2 for a human being and he probably could survive the 3,500 mph top speed. However, as there was no known means of escaping alive before the rocket crashed to earth there would be no way to survive the flight. There wouldn’t have been a thimble full of Mark Ridge to send home to his family if he’d been onboard.
In a report, General Electric described the May 10th impact crater as being 30 feet deep. They said, “No parts of the rocket were to be found in the crater. Most of the parts were found at distances up to a thousand feet. All together, a two-hour search netted about 50 pounds of scrap parts.”
Lost in most of the coverage of the demonstration on May 10 was that a WAC Corporal, an American sounding rocket, was launched for the visitors two hours after the V-2 flight. Jet Propulsion Lab personnel lost contact with the rocket at 10 miles up and the flight faded into obscurity.
At the time, the Army announced it would re-assemble and launch a total of 25 V-2s at White Sands. In the end, more than 60 were fired over the next five years.