In November, 1939, a mysterious package was discovered in the office of the British Naval Attaché in Oslo, Norway. Contained in the package was highly secret information on the latest weapons being developed within Germany. These documents were passed on to the British Secret Service Office (MI-6) and were deemed authentic. The documents mentioned Peenamünd where the latest V2s were being developed and tested. Details were given about the 'smart' bomb Fritz-X, cruise missiles, anti-aircraft missiles, jet engines and rocket powered planes. This information helped the British to develop measures to combat these missiles from reaching their target i.e. Electronic Beams etc. To this day, the identity of the person who delivered the package to the Naval Attaché in Oslo has never been discovered but assumed that he was a high ranking officer in the Luftwaffe.

Peenemünde was bombed by the RAF on August 17/18, 1943, (Operation Hydra). In its first raid on the island, 560 planes took part, dropping 1,800 tons of bombs. About 180 German technicians and scientists were killed and around 550 foreign workers, mostly Polish, lost their lives. The RAF lost 40 planes. The bombing caused the Germans to move the whole rocket research facility to underground tunnels in the Hartz mountains, near Nordhausen. All this took up precious time and by the time full production was attained; the Allies had landed in Normandy (Operation 'Overlord') Seven days later the first rocket, the V1 'Doodlebug', was fired against London.

It was Hitler's last great hope to win World War II. Developed over ten years at a cost equivalent to $5 billion, the V-2 rocket was the world's first liquid fuel ballistic missile. But when the British bombed the top-secret factory on the Baltic coast where they were made, the Germans decided to create a new, more secure facility. Prison labor--mostly Russian, Polish and French--was used to modify and enlarge an underground oil storage depot near the town of Nordhausen, creating a factory complex in a seven-mile-long network of tunnels. Life at Nordhausen was brutal, with the SS using torture to keep order. The prisoners produced as many as 600 rockets a month, but the horrific conditions claimed the lives of 25,000 workers. In the end, it was the United States that profited the most from Nordhausen, bringing priceless hardware, reams of files and many of Germany's top scientists and engineers, including Wernher von Braun, to the United States under "Project Paperclip

The CIA, the State Department, and U.S. Army intelligence each created special programs for the specific purpose of bringing selected former Nazis and collaborators to the United States.... The government employed these men and women for their expertise in propaganda and psychological warfare, for work in American laboratories, and even as special guerrilla troops for deployment inside the USSR in the midst of a nuclear war.... Hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of such recruits were SS veterans; some had been officers of the bloody Sicherheitsdienst (SD), the Nazi party's security service.

~Mark Weitzman, before the Nazi War Criminals Interagency Working Group, National Archives and Records Administration

Braun’s arrest by the Nazi regime

There are three different versions of von Braun's arrest. André Sellier, a French historian and survivor of the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp, offers as good an explanation as any. Himmler called von Braun, an SS officer, to come to his Hochwald HQ in East Prussia sometime in February 1944. To increase his power-base within the Nazi régime, Heinrich Himmler was conspiring to use Kammler to wrest control of all German armament programs, including the V-2 program at Peenemünde. He therefore recommended that von Braun work more closely with Kammler to solve the problems of the V-2, but von Braun claimed to have replied that the problems were merely technical and he was confident that they would be solved with Dornberger's assistance.

Apparently von Braun had been under SD surveillance since October 1943 and a report on him and his colleagues Riedel and Gröttrup was being prepared. In it von Braun and his colleagues were said to have expressed regret at an engineer's house one evening that they were not working on a spaceship and that they felt the war was not going well (a 'defeatist' attitude). A young female dentist later denounced them for their comments and combined with Himmler's false charges that von Braun was a Communist sympathizer and had attempted to sabotage the V-2 program, this lead to his arrest. Kammler, highly dedicated to Himmler, was also instrumental in von Braun's arrest by the Gestapo.

The unsuspecting von Braun was arrested and on March 22 (or March 14[5]) 1944 and was taken to a Gestapo cell in Stettin (now Szczecin, Poland), where he was imprisoned for two weeks without knowing the charges leveled against him. It was only through the Abwehr in Berlin that Dornberger was able to obtain von Braun's conditional release and Albert Speer, Reichsminister for Munitions and War Production, convinced Hitler to release von Braun so that the V-2 program could continue.

In 1932 a young artillery captain, Walter Dornberger, had recruited an even younger scientist, Dr. Wernher von Braun, to experiment on military rockets for the German Army. During the 1930's the two directed an expanding team of scientists in the development of a series of rockets, beginning with the A-1, a short projectile weighing 330 pounds, and culminating in the A-4 (V-2), a 50-foot-long, 13-ton projectile which seemed to be the ultimate in artillery weapons. After Germany went to war, they assembled upwards of 200,000 people for their project at the world's most advanced experimental station, Peenemünde on the Baltic seacoast, and continued to perfect the A-4 through 65,000 modifications. But the war bedeviled their work. Shortly after the British raid of August 1943, Professor Albert Speer, Reichmininister for Munitions and War Production, met with General Dornberger to prepare for the dispersion of functions throughout the Reich. The main assembly facilities went to a network of tunnels in the Harz Mountains in central Germany near the small town of Nordhausen. On New Year's Day 1944, with the benefit of ten thousand slave laborers and convicts under the control of the S.S., the Central Works produced its first three prfected V-2's.

At the end of January 1945, more than four thousand personnel still remained at Peenemünde, and due to the approach of the Russians, S.S. General Hans Kammler ordered their evacuation to the Harz Mountains. Kammler, brutal and treacherous, was an engineer who had to his credit the construction of numerous concentration camps, including Auschwitz, and had served as the dedicated tool of Heinrich Himmler to win control of all armaments programs. He was responsible for injecting slave labor into the rocket program; he was instrumental in the arrest of von Braun for failing to make a clear distinction between space travel and weapons development; and, by virtue of sinister infiltration, he finally gained control of the secret weapons projects. His order to disperse was one of the few that met with the approval of von Braun and his staff; their preference, bolstered by the tales of Russian brutality told by the melancholy parade of refugees, was to surrender when necessary to the British or the Americans. General Dornberger quickly moved his headquarters to the village of Bad Sachsa; Dr. Kurt Debus, director of the test stands, took his team to Cuxhaven on the North Sea; and during February the entire organization moved with its documents and equipment to the cotton-mill town of Bleicherode, twelve miles from Nordhausen.

Under the code-name "Mittelbau Construction Company," the rocket experts made an attempt to install their laboratory equipment and continue their work, but conditions allowed for little more than meetings and discussions. Even those ended on April 1; in response to a rumor that American tanks were in the vicinity, Kammler ordered Dornberger and von Braun to hide the technical data and move with 450 of the best personnel to Bavaria.

Von Braun entrusted the documents to an aide, Dieter Huzel, who buried them in an abandoned mine shaft in the mountains. Fearing extinction from the S.S. guards, most of the scientists scattered to nearby villages. Von Braun joined Dornberger at Oberjoch near the Adolf Hitler Pass, and on the rainy afternoon of May 2, the two leaders surrendered with five of their associates—Magnus von Braun, Hans Lindenberg, Bernhard Tessmann, Dr. Herbert Axster, and Dieter Huzel—to American authorities near Reutte. [1]

During the next several weeks, the Americans assembled four hundred Peenemünde personnel for interrogation at the beautiful ski resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. After a preliminary interview, approximately half of them—designated by von Braun as of lesser importance—were released and returned to their homes. The others remained in detention for several months. The AAF officer in command, Lieutenant Colonel John O'Mara, provided them with technical lectures and an excellent library; the captives formed orchestral and theatrical groups for their own amusement; and numerous teams conducted investigations. In view of the conditions, the questioning was necessarily brief and usually disorganized, but the Germans were noticeably eager to discuss their achievements. They spoke not only of the V-2, but of many other projects, some only concepts on the drawing board, others in the test stage. They mentioned the tiny rocket Taifun, only 75 inches long, designed for massive use against aerial targets, and the A9/10, a two-stage intercontinental ballistic missile which would reach New York from western France. They talked about their role in the development of the antiaircraft missiles—the Schmetterling, a subsonic weapon launched by two auxiliary rockets; the Rheintochter, a two-stage missile using solid fuel for the take-off and liquid fuel for flight; and the Enzian, propelled by a 3,530-pound-thrust Walter engine to an operational height of 8 1/2 miles. They described a test in 1942 in which they fired rockets from a U-boat at a depth of 40 feet, and a more recent and very secret project to attack England and the United States with V-2's launched from a floating container behind a submarine. And they told of more wondrous possibilities for the future—a manned earth satellite, an observation platform in outer space, weather control by a space mirror, and a moon rocket. [2]] Meanwhile, Navy Lieutenant Commander Maurice Biot captured the former Peenemünde wind tunnel specialists, headed by Dr. Rudolf Hermann, who had moved in early 1944 to the lakeside village of Kochel, twenty-five miles south of Munich. At the Aerodynamics Ballistics Research Station, the staff of two hundred had installed their powerful wind tunnel, capable of testing the flight qualifications of missiles up to 4.4 Mach number (4.4 times the velocity of sound), and made all of the calculations for the V-2 and the Wasserfall. When Biot arrived, he found the installation in as unmolested a state as any in Germany; the scientists had conveniently disobeyed orders from the S.S. to destroy the equipment and documents.

Colonel Ranger decided to remove sixty specialists and their families to Heidelberg, and helped them resume their research activities in an empty schoolhouse.(3) The officers' uncertainty about the legality of the evacuations was understandable in view of the absence of well-defined policies to govern the first months of the occupation. The Big Three had agreed at Yalta to establish an Allied Control Council to define common policies, and subsequently appointed General Eisenhower, Marshal Zhukov, and Field Marshal Montgomery as members. But at the first meeting of the group on June 5, Zhukov insisted that the council could not function until the armies had retired to their respective zones. In effect, this left the commanders with absolute authority over the areas which they then occupied. Furthermore, the declaration to the German people which emerged from the conference gave implicit approval to the continued acquisition of military materiél; it ordered them, among other things, to surrender all research records and equipment to "the Allied representatives, for such purposes and at such times and places as they may prescribe." For the Americans, still at war with Japan, necessity demanded that they seize and utilize all materiel and personnel which might be of future military value.(4) They did so up until the last moment.

During the first three days of July, the American forces withdrew to their zone of occupation. The First and Third Armies, as they rolled back along the highways over which they had fought some three months before, transferred several hundred industrial and academic experts to scattered locations in Greater Hessia. The Seventh Army removed twenty-three aircraft engineers from Halle to Darmstadt, and two hundred university professors to Zell-am-See near Salzburg. The advanced guards of the Russian army, according to a prearranged plan, followed the American withdrawal at a distance of three to five kilometers. When the commander of the Soviet 129 Rifle Corps arrived in Merseburg, he learned that the Americans had given permission to Krupp to remove a synthetic fuel plant. He was in time to stop the removal of the equipment, but reported that "all the principal technical staff had been taken away." His experience was general. The Russians found the fertile countryside of Saxony and Thuringia plentiful with crops and cattle, but most of the men who had staffed its universities and industries were gone.(5)

1. Irving, The Mare's Nest, 143-145, 204-206; Ernst Klee and Otto Merk, The Birth of the Missile: The Secrets of Peenemünde (New York, 1965), 69, 103, 109; Dieter Huzel, From Peenemünde to Canaveral (Englewood Cliffs, 1962), 127-188.

2. Peenemünde East: Through the Eyes of 500 Detained at Garmisch, no date, AFM; Huzel, From Peenemünde to Canaveral, 189-199.

3. Personal letter, August 12, 1960.
4.Foreign Relations, European Advisory Commission; Austria; Germany, 1945, Vol. III (Washington, 1968), 212, 323-330.
5. Foreign Relations, The Conference of Berlin, 1945, Vol. II (Washington, 1960), 907

Evacuation of Peenemünde

As the Russian Army closed in from the east in 1945, it became apparent to von Braun and his staff that things were coming to an end at Peenemünde. Von Braun's staff was now under the direct command of the SS, Hitler's elite army. SS General Hans Kammler would surely have used the scientists as a bargaining chip or have the scientists killed to keep them from being captured by the Allies.

Von Braun had received several contradictory orders from German command, which was in mass confusion at the time. As von Braun later stated, "I had ten orders on my desk. Five promised death by firing squad if we moved, and five said I'd be shot if we didn't move." Since he was damned either way, von Braun called a meeting in mid-January 1945 with the other top officials at Peenemünde. The rumor was the the Russians were fast approaching from the south and that the path of escape might be closed soon. If the scientists and engineers remained at Peenemünde, they would either be killed in combat or taken prisoner by the Russians. They certainly did not want that.

They all decided that they wanted to surrender to the Americans. If nothing else, they were more likely to be able to continue their research after the war. They knew that somehow they had to smuggle all their research papers and important equipment out of Peenemünde. They certainly could not allow a decade's worth of work to be destroyed or fall into the wrong hands again.

As the Third Reich collapsed, there was no chance that Peenemünde would be saved. That is why von Braun was utterly amazed when he received an order from the local army defense commander to become soldiers and fight the Russians when they arrived at Peenemünde. This would almost guarantee their demise. But another set of orders came from General Kammler stating that the engineers and scientists were to move to central Germany, close to the Mittelwerk factory. Von Braun was still wary of Kammler's real intentions. Kammler might be moving the scientists to a location where he would have the ability to turn them, along with the technology at the underground Mittelwerk, into hostages. But von Braun knew it was the best option for their continued freedom.

Von Braun prepared to evacuate thousands of engineers, scientists and their families to central Germany. It was a tremendous task, but von Braun insisted that it be done in an orderly fashion. He was the consummate leader at this time also. For ten years he had showed his leadership abilities with staff, technical problems, and in dealing with politicians, but this move south really showed the determination of von Braun. German command and society was crumbling all around them, yet somehow the organization held together.

They went to work rapidly. Almost all of the coordination went through von Braun's close staff. Simple things such as procuring boxes became a daunting task at this point in the war. They invented a color-coding system to make it easier to identify the contents of what they were moving. A convoy was organized, in which thousands of workers, engineers, and other Peenemündians would be transported by train, truck, car, and any method available. Moving this many people was bound to draw attention. Von Braun knew he would be questioned about the move by local authorities. As luck would have it, a recent shipment of stationary from the SS, which identified Peenemünde personnel as a branch of the SS, was badly mangled at the printer. The letterhead was supposed to read BZBV Heer, the name of an organization within the SS. Instead, it read VABV, in initials of a nonexistent organization. Von Braun's staff quickly invented a top-secret agency with the initials VABV, translated in English meaning Project for Special Dispositions.

The initials VABV were painted and marked on boxes, vehicles, and armbands, anything that might be checked by SS inspectors or other authorities. All of the material and equipment was then packed into trucks and cars. The convoy headed south and along the way SS agents stopped the caravan frequently, but the VABV trick worked and they were allowed to continue.

On February 27, 1945, von Braun and his driver were leaving Peenemünde for the last time, speeding through the mountainous terrain when they both fell asleep. The vehicle plunged down the cliffside, killing the driver. Von Braun suffered a broken arm and fractured shoulder. He awoke to find himself in a hospital bed. Even though he was in no condition to be up and moving around, von Braun insisted that his arm be set in a cast and he was back to supervising the convoy. Soon they arrived at their first destination, an area called Bleicherode.

Later, they received word that Peenemünde had been captured by the Russians. A few weeks after that, the Americans captured the Mittelwerk. General Kammler ordered von Braun and 500 of the top scientists to be separated from their families and moved to the village of Oberammergau. They were placed in a small internment camp that was, in von Braun's words, "...extremely plush, not withstanding the barbed-wire around it." Kammler was indeed holding the scientists hostage. They were surrounded by SS guards constantly. One day von Braun pointed out to the head of the SS guard that the Oberammergau camp could be easily bombed by Allied aircraft. One attack could wipe out all of the Third Reich's top rocket scientists. Any guard that allowed that to happen would surely be shot.

The guard agreed and let the scientists out of the camp and into the streets of Oberammergau. He also agreed to let the scientists dress in civilian clothing so American troops would not suspect that they were of any importance. Von Braun quickly arranged for vehicles from Bleicherode to come get the scientists. They were really free at this point. Now all they had to do was surrender to the Americans.

Patton's army was still far away. The supply of fuel, or lack of it, to the Allied columns was slowing the advance of the Americans. Needing food and supplies, the scientists again used the VABV ruse to requisition the items from army supply posts. The scientists then moved to the resort hotel, Haus Ingeborg, in the border town of Oberjoch, near Austria. There von Braun met up with General Dornberger from Peenemünde. Von Braun's brother Magnus was also there.

There was not much to do except wait for the Americans. The scientists played cards and listen to the radio. They heard of the fall of Berlin on May 1st along with the news that Hitler was dead. As the Americans finally drew near, it was decided that Wernher von Braun's brother, Magnus, would go out to greet the troops and surrender for everyone. The reasoning for this was that Magnus could speak broken English and it was thought that a large group of German men marching toward the Americans would seem hostile or threatening.

Young Magnus pedaled off on a bicycle to meet the Americans. The first soldier that he encountered was a sentry with the 324th Infantry Regiment, 44th Infantry Division, Private First Class Frederick Schneikert. Magnus was ordered to drop the bicycle and come forth with his hands up. In a smattering of English laced with bits of German, Magnus tried to explain his mission. The young soldier was not really sure what to do with this boyish figure claiming to be a rocket scientist, so he turned the matter over to his commanding officer, First Lieutenant Charles L. Stewart. Stewart at first thought that Magnus was trying to "sell" his brother and the other scientists to the Americans. The communications were soon cleared up and Lieutenant Stewart gave Magnus passes for the Germans, to ensure their safe passage to the American encampment.

Wernher von Braun, General Dornberger, and several other scientists were so excited after Magnus returned, that they piled into three vehicles and immediately headed for the American camp. The Americans were struck by Wernher von Braun's young, handsome good looks, and his charm. He did not look the part, or resemble the image they had imagined of a top German rocket scientist. The Americans did realize the importance of their prize and soon reporters and newspapers flooded in to see the rocket scientists.

A few months later, von Braun and the other scientists would sign a contract to come to America and detail their work to the U.S. Army at White Sands, NM, - just what they wanted all along. It would be a new phase of von Braun's life, one that would climax with an American walking on the moon.

Despite the stigma of having worked for the Nazis during World War II, the German scientists led by Wernher von Braun became heroes of the U.S. space program in the 1950s and '60s.They were...

Apollo's Rocketeers
The Associated Press

Konrad Dannenberg, pauses during an interview at the Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala. He is one of 30 to 40 surviving scientists of the 118 the U.S. brought over from Germany after World War II.The men were key players in the American space program culminating in the forst manned moon landing on this date 30 years ago.

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- Rudi Beichel is still crunching numbers for a better rocket engine.

Ernst Stuhlinger is still writing about rocket science. So is Gerhard Reisig.

And Konrad Dannenberg is still going to launches and organizing space confabs, only now they're really just reunions, and they are getting smaller and fewer each year.

These men are Apollo's rocketeers, old and overlooked but as passionate as ever about the frontiers they blasted open, with the world's first space shot in 1942, and then by helping put human beings on the moon 30 years ago July 20.

At best guess, only 30 of the 118 original rocket men who came here from Hitler's Germany are still alive. Many are too frail to leave home because of strokes and arthritis. Those who can -- Dannenberg, most notably -- speak for all when they say that what NASA needs is another Wernher von Braun.

Yet many of them fear there will never be another von Braun, the mastermind who led them to America and America to the moon.

And even now, in their late 70s to early 90s, they have yet to outlive the Nazi taint, and they feel deprived of the recognition they deserve.

The fact is that these scientists have led two very different lives: first as loyal subjects of the Third Reich, then as loyal Americans.

Wernher von Braun's wartime rockets indiscriminately killed thousands of people and were built with slave laborers provided by concentration camps. But as World War II ended, the Soviets and Americans found themselves in competition to acquire Germany's rocket expertise. The moral debate was sidelined and von Braun and his men were transformed from servants of Hitler's war machine to heroes of America's race to space.

Von Braun died of cancer in 1977, at age 65, without realizing his fondest dream: leading America to Mars.

Five of his team's sturdier souls gathered last month at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, their adopted hometown and birthplace of the Saturn V moon rocket, to celebrate their achievements and reminisce in fluent but still German-accented English.

"This work we did changed the whole society, the whole life, the whole technology," said the small, smiling Beichel. At 85, he had traveled all the way from Sacramento, Calif., for the big event and was savoring every moment.

"We go to the moon, the biggest industrial revolution the world has ever seen ... and that's only the beginning, ja."

Although as many as 400,000 Americans worked on the $24 billion Apollo program, the Germans contend that without them, the nation never would have put men on the moon by the end of 1969 as President Kennedy decreed.

"It was von Braun's initiative and his drive and motivation and his gift of persuasion, of interesting other people, which enabled us to go to the moon at that relatively early time," said Stuhlinger, also 85, who was von Braun's chief scientist.

As incredible as man's journey to the moon was, so too was these men's journey: launching the first rocket to skim space, the German V-2, V for Vengeance, in 1942; the first American satellite, Explorer I, in 1958; the first American into space, Alan Shepard, in 1961; the first men on the moon, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, who blasted off on July 16, 1969.

Of all the launches, the one that stands out most for Dannenberg, an 86-year-old propulsion expert, was the first successful test flight of the V-2.

The rocket took off Oct. 3, 1942, from Peenemünde, a German Army research center north of Berlin on the Baltic Sea. It soared 53 miles high (space officially begins 50 miles up) and 118 miles downrange. The army officer in charge of rocket research proclaimed:

"Today the spaceship has been born!"

"At that time, it was clear it would be used by the military," Dannenberg explained. "On the other hand, of course, it was a big step ahead and if you look at the V-2 today and see it next to the Saturn V, you probably think it's tiny. But for us, it was a HUGE rocket, much bigger than any amateur rocket I'd ever seen or even imagined."

The V-2 was 47 feet tall. The Saturn V was 363 feet, more than twice the height of the space shuttle and the biggest, mightiest rocket that ever carried a human being. A 6.4 million-pound monster, it had up to 5 million parts.

Within months of the first successful V-2 launch, Adolf Hitler ordered the production of thousands of these "wonder weapons" and put the SS in charge. Production moved to an abandoned mine near the Harz Mountains of central Germany after Peenemünde was bombed by the Royal Air Force in 1943. Slave labor was used in the underground factory.

In an attempt to lure him over from the army, the SS made von Braun an honorary second lieutenant, then major. He accepted for fear of retribution but stuck his SS uniform in a closet, Stuhlinger said.

The Gestapo, nonetheless, arrested von Braun in 1944. The charge: He intended his rockets for space travel, not weaponry. He spent only two weeks in jail.

By the fall of 1944, V-2's were being launched at Paris and London. But Germany was losing the war and in May 1945, following Hitler's suicide, von Braun and his team surrendered to the U.S. Army. That September, the exodus began under the code name Operation Paperclip; 118 Germans were brought to America along with blueprints and enough parts to build 100 V-2's. Twenty-four more Germans eventually followed.

They quietly settled in Fort Bliss, Texas and helped the Army launch rebuilt V-2's from White Sands, N.M. (One accidentally soared across the border into a hill next to a Mexican graveyard.)

When the rocket and missile effort moved to the Army's Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville in 1950, so did the Germans. They became U.S. citizens five years later. When NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center opened at Redstone Arsenal in 1960, von Braun was its first director.

The Germans' presence initially posed a public relations challenge to the U.S. government. On one occasion soon after their arrival, to avoid inflaming the fresh wounds of World War II, they were passed off as a Hungarian Gypsy band.

Later, when von Braun emerged as America's top rocket scientist, Tom Lehrer, the satirical songwriter, lampooned him as an opportunist tailoring his loyalties to whoever employed him: "Don't say that he's hypocritical, say rather that he's apolitical. `Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That's not my department,' says Wernher von Braun."

Irene Willhite was walking with her husband, a missile instructor, and their five children through a dark parking lot in Huntsville in 1957 when she first saw the Germans.

"I can see this to this day: four long, black, leather coats. And I thought, they didn't even leave the coats behind," she recalled. "I had total resentment. And I'll tell you the truth, only since I have come to work here, I know their contributions."

"Here" is the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, a visitor complex and Space Camp hub, where she has been the archivist for four years.

She counts the Germans as good friends, and they are entrusting their most valuable possessions to her: books, journals, anything to do with rocketry.

Reisig, 90, wants her to get a truck to empty his house. Stuhlinger and Dannenberg already have sent over loads of boxes.

Stuhlinger published a definitive biography of von Braun in 1994 and still writes scientific essays. Reisig recently published a book about rocket technology in German. Dannenberg is collaborating on a book about early rocketry. Beichel is a consultant for Aerojet, a California-based aerospace and defense company, and works on calculations for future generations of rockets.

Cartons of their work crowd the hallway outside Willhite's cluttered office. Some 3,800 books already fill ceiling-to-floor shelves. There are six V-2 parts, as well as the Army's microfilm of the translated V-2 documents and albums filled with photos of a smoldering Peenemunde.

The subject of Nazis and World War II never came up during the space race, said Ed Buckbee, a NASA PR man in the 1960s who went on to direct the center.

It wasn't until after the rocketeers had retired that stories resurfaced linking at least one of them to the slave labor at Mittelwerk, the underground V-2 factory. Old and ailing, Arthur Rudolph relinquished his U.S. citizenship and returned to Germany in 1984 rather than fight war crimes charges, which he denied. He died in 1996 at age 89.

Of the survivors, Reisig is most distressed by the accusations. He refuses to talk to reporters, saying he has been "back-stabbed."

"It's a situation which is very depressing for us old-timers," Stuhlinger said.

After everything the Germans did for NASA and America, it seems terribly ungrateful, Buckbee thinks.

"We were all working as a team, working day and night," he said. "As von Braun used to say, 'Late to bed, early to rise, work like hell and advertise.' "

Dan Heald was a young Army corporal assigned to von Braun's team in the early 1950s.

"I don't know if I can judge genius. What I can judge is hard-working and thorough," said Heald, 71, a retired engineer. "Often a boss, particularly a big boss like von Braun, will sit in an office and act important. These guys never were sitting and doing nothing.

They were always checking on every single little detail, asking questions. 'Is that right? Is that right?' Even in the shop."

They still take pride in their meticulousness. When name tags issued at the reunion kept falling off, 86-year-old rocketeer Dieter Grau remarked with a chuckle that they should have been sent to his lab for a checkout.

Their painstaking approach paid off in six moon landings from July 1969 through December 1972. Three additional missions were canned; President Nixon had had enough, especially after the harrowing Apollo 13. President Bush tried to resurrect the program on the 20th anniversary of Apollo 11 in 1989, but his pitch for moon colonies and a Mars expedition went nowhere.

Nothing has been officially done -- or said -- since.

"To make it happen that somebody went to the moon and came safely back to Earth ... it was amazing that it all worked," said Ursula Mueller, 77, who worked with von Braun in Berlin.

"And then what we have now is the shuttle to go a little bit around." She sadly shook her head.

Müller went alone to the reunion; her husband, Fritz, 91, one of the 118 original rocketeers, was under doctor's orders to stay home.

The official reason for the get-together was a rare visit by von Braun's thirtysomething nephews (his niece, their sister, just moved to Huntsville), not to mention the 30th anniversary of that giant leap for mankind.

The real reason, Elizabeth von Braun confided, was that the only other excuse to gather the old-timers is a funeral, "and we just felt that we need to get them together, as many as we can ... it may be the last time."

The five rocketeers in attendance seemed as much a relic as the artifacts surrounding them, only far more fragile.

A Saturn V rocket lay majestically on its side, collected piecemeal by von Braun in the late 1960s for exhibit at the Space & Rocket Center. Nearby, ground had recently been broken for a full-scale, vertical model.

Down the hall from the gathering was a recreation of von Braun's 1960s office at Marshall Space Flight Center; two of his slide rules were displayed in a quaint, quiet reminder of the times.

Hardly any NASA brass attended the reunion, but Jim Dunn, one of two latter-day space station engineers who dropped by, couldn't help but marvel at the Germans' accomplishments.

"And they did it without computers!"

By Linda Hunt

In 1969, Americans cheered as our astronauts took their first steps onto the moon. The giant rocket that blasted them into space was Arthur Rudolph's crowning achievement as NASA's project director for Saturn V.

Fifteen years later, Rudolph relinquished his U.S. citizenship and left the country rather than face Justice Department charges that he had committed war crimes while working in an underground factory that had used Dora concentration camp prisoners as slave labor. The charges stemmed from Rudolph's "complicity in the abuse and persecution of concentration camp inmates who were employed by the thousands as slave laborers under his direct supervision," according to former Justice prosecutor Eli Rosenbaum, who directed the Rudolph case.

Dora played a significant role not only in Hitler's efforts to win the war, but in the lives of Rudolph, Wernher von Braun, and other German rocket scientists who are now touted as American heroes in our history books. Ironically, except for two books by French survivors, Dora's history has been totally ignored by Holocaust historians. Rudolph's supporters, however, currently use every opportunity to claim there were no Jews at the factory, prisoners were "well fed," and reports of "alleged" deaths were nothing but KGB propaganda.

As a result, publicity surrounding Rudolph's case reeked with Holocaust revisionism, perpetuating what survivor Jean Michel describes in his book Dora as the "monstrous distortion of history" that "has given birth to false, foul, and suspect myths."

Dora's camp records, however, quickly dispel those myths. Sixty thousand prisoners passed through Dora in the brief year and a half the camp existed. United Nations and U.S. Army records reveal that at least 25,000 never got out alive. They were starved, beaten, hanged, and literally worked to death building Hitler's secret weapon, the V-2 rocket. "The method of extermination was not the gas chamber, but .of working them to death," said a U.S. Army prosecutor in 1947.

This account is based on records from U.S. Army v. Kurt Andrae, Albert Speer 's Inside the Third Reich, U.S. Army 104th Infantry reports, personal interviews, and documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act from the National Archives, Army Intelligence and Justice Department Office of Special Investigations (OSI).

Dora's history began as a result of British air attacks in 1943 that blasted the Peenemünde rocket base into ruins. Peenemünde, located on the Baltic Sea, was a testing ground for Nazi "buzz bombs" and the V-2 rocket. With its building leveled and rocket engineers scattered into the hills, the Nazis sought a safer location to mass-produce V-2 rockets, a site guaranteeing both secrecy and protection against further air attacks.

In the Hartz mountains, located near the city of Nordhausen in central Germany, two enormous tunnels ran parallel through Kohnstein mountain, providing a perfect location for the new factory, called Mittelwerk (Central Works). WIFO, a government company, excavated the tunnels as a bomb-proof storage place for oil and gasoline. Two railroad lines ran the entire length of both tunnels, with enough space for trucks and huge, intricate machinery to line the walls.

Mittelwerk was a combined effort of the Armaments Ministry and the SS. The engineering staff was headed by technical director Albin Sawatzki, an engineer who produced the Tiger tank. Rudolph, who worked at Peenemunde on rocket development and production, was named operations director in charge of V-2 production. When Rudolph was told by Peenemünde's director, Army General Walter Dornberger, "You go with Sawatzki," he and his staff dismantled a pilot production plant and moved to Mittelwerk.

One underground tunnel was complete; the other, partially finished, opened out on the northern side of the mountain. SS General Hans Kammler, who headed the SS construction branch that build Auschwitz, Treblinka, and the gas chambers, was in charge of completing Mittelwerk's tunnels in order to make room for the factory.

Dora was founded as the out-camp of Buchenwald to supply the slave labor to reconstruct Mittelwerk's tunnels and work under SS and civilian engineer supervision building rockets. According to armaments minister Albert Speer, using concentration camp prisoners, who had no contact with the outside world, was SS chief Heinrich Himmler's way of guaranteeing that the plant would be kept secret. "Such prisoners did not even get mail," said Himmler.

Beginning on September 3, 1943, a steady stream of convoys into Dora unloaded 60,000 prisoners from 31 nations - Russians, Poles, Belgians, Italian prisoners of war, members of the French resistance, Jewish children, even a black American flier named Johnny Nicholas. According to Army records, Nicholas told other prisoners he was captured when his plane crashed in France. He worked as a doctor in Dora's hospital. "he was to everybody a mystery, someone unusual because we had never seen a black person in Europe," remembers Dora survivor Sam Taub.

Yves Beon was a member of the French resistance when he was arrested, sent to Buchenwald, and then to this secret place beneath the mountain where he worked as an SS slave. For months, Beon was one of as many of 4,000 prisoners at a time who lived in the freezing cold tunnels, amid lice and filth, digging and carrying huge boulders to clear area for a rocket factory. "We were in the center of the mountain with no air," Beon recalls. "We slept there, we ate there, we spent months there before going outside."

The prisoners - called Häftlinge, "men in arrest" - lived and slept in barracks in the tunnels, surrounded by choking dust and fumes. Hundreds were crushed by rocks, beaten to death, starved, or died from tuberculosis and other diseases. After a December 10, 1943, visit to Mittelwerk, even Speer described conditions as "barbarous" and said his men "were so affected that they had to be forcibly sent off on vacations to restore their nerves."

Bodies of the dead were taken to Buchenwald for burning until Dora's own crematory was built. Dora camp records describe Buchenwald prisoners as so horrified at seeing bodies crushed by boulders or mangled from beatings that they committed suicide upon learning they were to be sent to Dora.

On November 1, 1944, Dora became an independent camp located near the tunnel entrance, with 31 sub-camps scattered around the mountains. While the Häftlinge now lived outside the tunnels, living and working conditions grew worse. Prisoners were hanged, beaten, and terrorized by brutal SS guards from the moment they arrived. A transport of Hungarian Jews, arriving half-dead from Buchenwald, were forced to carry heavy boards to build their own barracks until many dropped dead from exhaustion. Children who arrived with the group were beaten to death in the camp yard because they were too young to work.

Eli Pollach, 16, who lost his family at Auschwitz, worked on the "Sawatzki commando" team in the tunnels loading rocket parts on wagons. Before working a 12-hour shift in the tunnels, Pollach and other prisoners were forced to stand for hours in the camp yard for roll call, then walk for miles under SS guard into the mountain. "We had to go in at six o'clock in the morning into the tunnel," said Pollach. "Some didn't come out, because they died in there."

Mittelwerk's management changed after the Dora camp was built. In the spring of 1944, prisoners and engineers assembled in the tunnels as Georg Rickhey, dressed in full Nazi uniform, announced that he was Mittelwerk's new general manager. Rudolph gained more influence when Sawatzki returned after a month of illness and was transferred to V-1 production. "I was free of his darn interfering," Rudolph told OSI.

Rudolph said he walked through the tunnels once or twice a day and even visited Dora's SS camp commandant Otto Foerschner for a glass of schnapps on a few occasions. Army records show he received daily reports containing information about prisoner's deaths. "I knew that people were dying," he told OSI.

One department subordinate to Rudolph was the Prisoner Labor Supply Office, which West German court records show was responsible for "the quantity of food" the prisoners received, which was "completely inadequate." The department also was in charge of requesting "the required prisoner labor supply" from Dora's SS labor allocation office headed by SS officer Wilhelm Simon. When asked by OSI if he had gone to the SS and requested that more prisoners be taken from Dora and brought down into that subterranean hellhole to be used as slaves, Rudolph replied, "Yes, I did."

Rudolph claimed that he and Simon tried to improve the prisoners' conditions. In 1947, Simon used that defence when he was tried for war crimes by the U.S. Army. It is significant to note that Army prosecutors rejected his defence, convicted him for being a "sadistic" killer, and sentenced him to life imprisonment.

There is extensive evidence that civilian engineers subordinate to Rudolph beat prisoners and caused some to be hanged. Army records identify Rudolph's subordinates, including his deputy, Karl Seidenstucker, by name as abusers of prisoners. Georg Finkenzeller testified, "practically all civilians who were working in the Prisoners' Labor Allocation" either ordered the punishment of prisoners or "carried out beating on their own."

Abuses by civilians became so widespread that on June 22, 1944, Mittelwerk personnel, including Rudolph, were warned in writing by the SS and Rickhey that punishment of prisoners was supposed to be the SS's exclusive domain. Dora's camp doctor had complained that prisoners were being hospitalized for being "beaten or even stabbed with sharp instruments by civilian employees for any petty offense."

Peenemünde officials were well aware of Mittelwerk's deplorable conditions. Army documents show that Wernher von Braun, whose brother Magnus was in charge of gyroscope production at Mittelwerk, frequently visited the factory. "I saw Mittelwerk several times, once while these prisoners were blasting tunnels in there, and it was really a pretty hellish environment," said von Braun in a 1971 interview. "The conditions there were absolutely horrible."

Knowing about the conditions didn't stop von Braun from attending a meeting in Rickhey's office on May 6, 1944, to discuss slave labor, according to documents found by Eli Rosenbaum. Other Nazis on the list as attending the meeting, and who later lived in America, include Rudolph, Rickhey, General Walter Dornberger, Hans Friederich, Ernst Steinhoff, and Hans Lindenberg.

The group discussed bringing more innocent civilians from France to Mittelwerk as slaves and the requirement that Frenchmen wear striped prisoner uniforms. "it will be possible to utilize French workers in the Mittelwerk only if dressed in appropriate clothing," notes the menu, which does not indicate any objections to the proposal.

Despite vicious living and working conditions, Dora prisoners found subtle ways to fight back. When the V-2s produced at Mittelwerk were test-fired at a proving ground in Poland, many of the missiles disintegrated soon after launch. Dieter Grau, a Peenemünde engineer, was sent by Wernher von Braun to Mittelwerk to find out why the rockets failed to operate properly. During an inspection, Grau found that prisoners had sabotaged the rockets. "They knew where they could tighten or loosen a screw, and this way tried to interfere with the proper function of the missile," Grau said in a 1971 interview with another author.

The prisoners sabotaged rockets by urinating on wiring, removing vital parts, and loosening screws. "It was common practice," says Beon, who sabotaged the rockets he worked on as a welder by making his welding appear sound when, in fact, the rocket parts were not welded at all. Beon believes their sabotage saved Americans' lives - U.S. troops landing at Normandy would have been killed if the rockets had functioned. "It would have been terrible for the Allies and for the American Army," says Beon.

More than 200 prisoners suspected of sabotage were hanged at Dora or on overhead electric cranes in Mittelwerk's tunnels, in some instances as a direct result of civilians reporting them to the SS. Cecil Jay described to Army prosecutors how one prisoner was caught making a metal spoon, accused of sabotage, and hanged over his workbench. "The order was given from the civilians to the SS that the prisoners be punished for sabotage, and it was carried out," Jay said.

In one case, 12 prisoners were simultaneously hanged on an overhead crane near Rudolph's office. With their hands tied behind their backs and wooden sticks in their mouths to stifle screams, the electric crane slowly lifted them above a crowd of engineers and prisoners gathered in the tunnel. "Instead of letting them drop and killing them on the spot immediately, they let them hang very slowly with pain that's absolutely horrible," says Beon, who knew if he was caught sabotaging rockets he could be hanged next. "But as I knew I would never get out of Dora, what's the difference?"

When they died, prisoners were taken to Dora's crematory and burned. Bodies were emaciated to such an extent that the oven could take as many as four at a time. "They would pull out from the hospital hundreds of people," remembers Taub. "They were put into the crematory - it was going day and night, burning."

As the war progressed, frantic work speed-ups to mass produce more rockets caused prisoners to drop dead like flies. Those who became ill or too weak to work were sent to other camps and killed. Dora hospital records show from January 6 to March 26, 1944, 3,000 "sick and exhausted liquidation camp Lublin. Reports note that except for a few, there was "no chance" for prisoners, riding in cold freight cars in the middle of winter with no food, even to live out the trip.

Jean Michel had been a leader of the French resistance in Paris before his imprisonment at Dora. In late 1944, he organized a French underground movement among prisoners. "Everybody knew that the SS had decided to kill everybody at the end of the war," Michel said in an interview. "So, I decided to try to do something about it."

The group was caught, arrested by the SS, and jailed. Some of the group were beaten to death by the SS during interrogations in a small cell. "I would have been hanged if the end of the war didn't arrive as it happened," says Michel, who was awarded the French Legion of Honor and the American Medal of Freedom after the war.

In the beginning of April 1945, as American troops advanced rapidly into the area, Mittelwerk's civilian engineers fled into the mountains amid rumors that the SS would kill them rather than let their secrets fall into Allied hands.

For some, such as Arthur Rudolph, the end of the war was the beginning of a new adventure and life in America, where he would eventually work for the U.S. Army and NASA. For the Häftlingen, it was a massacre. The SS planned to force the prisoners into the tunnels, wall them in, and gas them. Instead, 2,000 were taken from Dora and its sub-camps under heavy SS guard on foot, by cart and train, westward to the town of Gardelegen. Less than half survived the trip after days of being starved, beaten, and shot.

On the afternoon of April 13, 100 SS. Luftwaffe, and labor front soldiers forced the 1,100 remaining prisoners inside a barn. SS troops spread gasoline on the straw-covered floor and locked the prisoners inside. For the rest of the night, the troops threw hand grenades, shot flares, and fired bullets into the barn, burning it to the ground. Two days later, American troops found charred remains and fewer than 20 prisoners left alive.

Meanwhile, the city of Nordhausen surrendered after American attacks on April 11, 1945. The battle-tired men of the 104th "Timberwolf" Infantry Division were combat wise - blood and all kinds of hell were daily routine - but what the Timberwolves found on the outskirts of Nordhausen made them howl with rage.

Colonel James L. Collins was leading an infantry unit when his liaison officer called over the radio. "Colonel," he said, "you'd better get up here and see what we've got. It's terrible." Collins moved ahead of the unit and went into the camp.

On the hill was the huge cavelike entrance to the factory; 6,000 bodies covered the ground as far as the eye could see. Rows upon rows of skin-covered skeletons were frozen solid in grotesque shapes, bearing bruises and wounds from beatings. "They had been starved to death," said Collins. "Their arms were just little sticks, their legs had practically no flesh on them at all."

Army medic David Malachowsky heard machine guns fire. When he went over the hill, he found the SS frantically trying to finish the job. "They had a bunch of prisoners lined up against the fence and were gunning them down," said Malachowsky.

As an infantryman, Hugh Carey saw Nazi cruelty when fighting SS divisions, but was unprepared for Dora. Survivors, barely alive, wandered around lost and dazed; others lay as they had fallen - starved, stacked like cordwood, discolored, and lying in indescribable filth. "We had never seen civilian human beings put into a mass torture shop in order to build weapons," said Carey.

Bombs from Allied air attacks had ripped large holes in the two-story structures used to pen the prisoners. The bombs had ground flesh and bones into the cement floor. As the soldiers moved through the choking stench of death, they found the still-smouldering furnaces of Dora's crematory. "The doors were open when we got there, where they had been shoveling people in and burning them up," said Collins.

As more American troops entered the area, Malachowsky and other medics fed and cared for those few prisoners who survived. Another unit stood guard as 100 Nordhausen townspeople and captured SS moved the dead and dug graves with their bare hands. In the tunnel, a special American unit called "T-Forces" loaded V-2 rockets on truckbeds, then searched the mountainside for Arthur Rudolph and other rocket scientists. Many of these scientists escaped prosecution for war crimes by being sent to the United States to work in its fledgling space program.

Exactly 40 years after the liberation of Dora, in April 1985, the Alabama Space and Rocket Museum paid tribute to 40 Germans who stood surrounded by the press, in front of old V-2s and the Saturn V rocket they helped build for the United States. Inside the museum, dozens of awards lay encased in glass as a memorial to Wernher von Braun.

There is no monument to Dora - Americans do not wish to be reminded of what Jean Michel said about the day that U.S. astronauts first walked on the moon: "I could not watch the Apollo mission without remembering that that triumphant walk was made possible by our initiation to inconceivable horror."

Linda Hunt is a Washington DC, based investigative reporter. She won the 1986 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her article "U.S. Cover-up of Nazi Scientists" in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (April 1985). She is former executive producer of Cable News Network's investigative unit. Her book "Secret Agenda" details this horrible story and "Operation Paperclip" that brought over 1,600 Nazi scientist to the U.S. to work for the Pentagon.