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.
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. ] 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.
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!"