By Jim Eckles, Hands Across History Newsletter Editor
Originally published in the November 2020 edition of the Hands Across History Newsletter
As a curious retiree with some time on my hands this year, I started thinking about the photo shown below that is usually labeled as the “first flag raising” at the new White Sands Proving Ground. The date that usually accompanies this image is July 9, 1945, the day White Sands was “officially established.”
I wrote a history piece this summer for the Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce about the 75th anniversary of White Sands. The article ended up in a chamber insert in the Las Cruces Bulletin. The newspaper pulled this photo out of their archive and ran it with the July 9 date. It appears that way on many websites now as well as popping up in any number of publications.
After much digging, I’ve come to the conclusion that the photo is indeed the first flag raising but it did NOT happen on July 9. The photo and another from a different angle were taken on Sept. 29, when post construction was complete and LTC Harold Turner, first commander, held an open house and public flag raising to mark that White Sands was open for business. Let me explain.
I started with a basic question. If White Sands was established on July 9, how likely was it that there would already be buildings in place that very day, a staff already on site, a flag pole surrounded by a circle of rocks, ambulances for the ceremony and spectators? It dawned on me that we are talking about magic for that to be true – the kind of thing you see in cartoons. The Army was certainly good at construction by the end of WWII but there is no way they could accomplish all of this in a few days.
Now look at the second photo, below, taken at the same ceremony but from a different angle. This one shows what looks like a complete post with buildings everywhere, power poles in place, a large crowd with lots of civilians and, if you look closely at the right side near the hutment, there appears to be a band. It really would have been magic for this photo to be taken on July 9.
Some naysayers will probably propose that construction simply took place at the post in the weeks and months before July 9. The reality is that there was no construction then. From newspaper reports we get some idea how work on the post began. On July 1, 1945 the Las Cruces Sun-News reported that contracts for construction had just been awarded to local companies. The Sun-News quoted Lt. Col. R.E. Cole from the Albuquerque Corps of Engineers office on June 30. According to the paper, Hayner and Burn of Las Cruces were awarded a contract worth $238,510 for installing a water system for the new camp. Work was to begin immediately. The article doesn’t mention it but that included a sanitary sewer system. It is difficult to have water going into kitchens, bathrooms and other facilities and not do something with it when it comes back out.
According to “White Sands History,” a document generated in 1959 by the missile range to cover the history of White Sands during the first 10 years, six shallow wells were to be drilled. At the beginning of July, the only well water available came from one of James Cox’s wells used to water his livestock east of his ranch headquarters. It was, however, conveniently located near the main gate but didn’t produce enough water for a modern military base. Drilling wells and installing the casings, pumps and the pipelines to carry it from place to place and to a storage tank located on some high ground took weeks to accomplish. Initially, for the water needed for grading and smoothing the desert landscape, building roads, etc., non-potable water was pumped from abandoned mines near Organ and hauled to the site in tanker trucks.
That same Sun-News article on July 1 also said a contract for $219,069 was awarded to R.E. McKee of El Paso for the construction of housing and an electrical distribution system. On July 8, the newspaper reported this work was starting. I also found that construction on a real road from Highway 70 to the new post didn’t start until July 7. Before that road would be completed, everything had to come in via the Cox ranch road. Large trucks delivering building components would have had a difficult time using it.
If the two ceremony photos were taken on July 9, it would mean the post was ready for occupation. However, in August, Turner was quoted in the newspaper as saying they should occupy the new post sometime in September. Also, he said he had a few troops on hand assisting in construction.
It turns out these two photos are nice records of the public open house and “official flag raising” that White Sands held on Sept. 29, 1945. The evidence is clear because Sun-News advertised it and covered it.
By the end of September, the initial post was pretty much complete and ready for business, as predicted by Turner. Offices were furnished with desks and chairs, barracks got cots and lockers and mess halls were set up for the officers and the enlisted men. To mark the occasion White Sands invited the public to attend a flag-raising ceremony at noon on Saturday, Sept. 29. The invitation ran in the Sun-News on Sept. 24 and Lt. Col. Turner said “with the official raising of the flag, the camp takes on the regular rules and regulations of Army establishments.” Not only was the public invited to the flag raising, they were invited to come out early and look around. Also, members of the Ft. Bliss band played a variety of music before the ceremony as entertainment for the crowd.
Also during this week leading up to the flag-raising ceremony, the Associated Press ran a story announcing the proving ground’s first test that would require a roadblock on Highway 70. It was going to be conducted on Oct. 9 and the highway would be blocked from 6 to 10 a.m. That WAC Corporal launch was eventually delayed by weather considerations and finally accomplished on Oct. 11.
On Sept. 30, the Sun-News reported extensively on the first flag-raising ceremony from the day before. Turner spoke to the crowd and announced a different schedule for Highway 70 roadblocks from what was originally said. In fact, during the first months of operation, White Sands management had to change their roadblock procedures several times. The article also mentioned that there were about 50 scientists and technicians working on “rocket bombs” at the facility.
Another clue to the ceremony actually being conducted on Sept. 29 is how the people are dressed. Many have real coats on and the sky in both photos is overcast. When I looked at weather records, I found that July 9 was a typical summer day with a high around 92. Not a good day for coats. However, on Sept. 29, the region was in the middle of a cold wave that blew through the day before. There was snow up north and rains in southern New Mexico. The low in El Paso on Friday night was something like 45 degrees. People went to the ceremony dressed for chilly temperatures – not exactly arctic but, with the obvious breeze, a little cool.
As in any story more than a few years old, this one has a variation. When Gerry Veara found good copies of these two photo in the WSMR Museum Archive for me, he found a piece of paper for the one on page 4 that indicates the ceremony was on Oct. 29, 1945. Holy cow, now what?
The piece of paper is a caption that was written for the photo when it ran in the Wind and Sand newspaper on Aug. 2, 1957, on page 4. The caption notes that the ceremony is the official opening of White Sands and shows Army personnel, civilians and specifically points out the dog.
Being an author and newspaper / newsletter editor for years, my first thought, given all this other evidence, is that it is just a typo. It is amazing how my mind will think “mind” and my fingers will spit out “mine.” It happens all the time to everyone.
Also, by Oct. 29, the proving ground had already blocked Highway 70 for rocket launches. This was a sensitive issue at the time and Turner went out of his way to assure local businessmen, the chambers of commerce, the public and travelers that the Army wasn’t eliminating Highway 70. It was only going to be closed for a few hours for a few tests.
It makes no sense whatsoever to have an open house and official post opening after you’ve started this controversial action on Highway 70.
Also, I looked at issues of the Las Cruces Sun-News from that last week in October. There is absolutely no mention of a public open house or official flag raising ceremony on the 29th. The photo is attributed to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory so either someone there or someone in the Public Information Office got their wires crossed.
In addition to all of the above, the photo [below] helped eliminate the July 9 date for the first flag raising because of what is missing. In the process, I think we now have a reasonable date on this aerial photo and the matching one that is looking west across the new post.
I’ve seen these aerial pictures around for decades with dates ranging from late 1945 to sometime in 1946. Based on a few details, I’d say the photos were taken sometime in the first two weeks of August 1945. For starters, obviously the post is almost complete. However, missing from the front of the Headquarters Bldg., the one above the hanger, is a flagpole and its stone circle. That means that the flagpole for the ceremonial opening of the post was erected sometime after this photo was shot.
The other thing missing in this photo is all the V-2 material (240 train cars of it) that was hauled from Las Cruces to the post in early August. We have later photos of V-2 tail sections, fuselages, noses and propulsion units stored all around the hanger building. None of that is present. In a national Associated Press story dated Aug. 19, Turner was quoted as saying the V-2 material had already been moved to White Sands. Ergo, the aerial photos were taken at least some days before the 19th. Anytime after the move and the yards would have been full of material. Given that the post is almost complete, indications are that the photos were taken after Aug. 1. That is how I came up with a two-week window. It should be pointed out that McKee Construction did a remarkable job putting all those structures together in a mere six weeks or so.
Of course, if you have evidence that I’m all wet, please let me know. If you’d like to read a more detailed story about the few months before July 9 and what happened through mid-October, look for my article in the Southern New Mexico Historical Review in January 2021. The Review is published annually by the Dona Ana County Historical Society.