Alamogordo has a vast history and was a city of significant and strategic importance to the US Military establishment in the 1940’s through the 1970’s. During that time some would say that was the peak of Alamogordo. It was the center of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Following Hitler’s fall in 1945, the United States brought 177 German rocket scientists and technicians to White Sands Testing Range under Operation Paperclip. Some would say this “Operation Paperclip” is what put Alamogordo on the world map and brought about a period of peak prosperity. From the 1940’s to the 1970’s Alamogordo was a prosperous city with a lively nightlife full of nightclubs, cultural arts, live theater, and a robust retail environment. The school system at that time was ranked in the top 10 in the nation and it paid its teachers better than almost any school system in the country. Science, education and prosperity reigned on the city of Alamogordo and it loved its relationship with the scientist and the military. However, there was temporary fear in the air due to an incident in 1947. But a little history before we get there…
Following Hitler’s fall in 1945, the United States brought 177 German rocket scientists and technicians to White Sands Testing Range under Operation Paperclip. White Sands Missile Range is the largest overland military test range in the United States, occupying some 3,200 square miles of southern New Mexico. With more than 80 years’ experience in rocket and weapons system test and development, it has earned the title “Birthplace of America’s Missile and Space Activity.”
First known as White Sands Proving Ground (renamed White Sands Missile Range in 1958), this installation was established on July 9, 1945, as the place to test rocket technology emerging from World War II.
The first atomic bomb (code named Trinity) was test detonated at Trinity Site near the northern boundary of the range on 16 July 1945, seven days after the White Sands Proving Ground was established.
After the conclusion of World War II, 100 long-range German V-2 rockets that were captured by U.S. military troops were brought to White Sand Proving Ground. Of these, 67 were test-fired between 1946 and 1951 from the White Sands V-2 Launching Site. (This was followed by the testing of American rockets, which continues to this day, along with testing other technologies.)
A launch complex, now known as Launch Complex 33, was built in the desert sand dunes six miles east of the post. It featured a concrete blockhouse with 10-foot-thick walls and a 27- foot-thick roof. A WAC Corporal launch tower was also erected. A year later, a gantry was added.
The first rockets crafted by Americans to blast off from the launch complex, the nation’s first large-scale launch facility, were WAC Corporals. Built by the fledging Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the 16-foot, 660- pound rockets were designed to carry a 25-pound weather package to an altitude of 20 miles. Since the WAC Corporal was under-powered, JPL engineers used a solid-fueled rocket booster dubbed “Tiny Tim” to get the rocket out of its launch tower and up to speed. The booster generated 50,000 pounds of thrust for a half second. By the time, the WAC Corporal was out of the 100-foot tower it was going almost 275 mph. During a series of tests in 1945 and 1946, the WAC Corporal was phenomenally successful, ultimately attaining an altitude of 43 miles. However, there were incidents. Documents in the New Mexico Museum of Space History archives detail the classified project, and how the military also sent 300 railroad boxcars crammed with V-2 parts into southern New Mexico and as the Germans began building the United States Army’s rocket program many early launches either blew up on the pad or crashed on base.
After multiple successful tests one with over 100 Newspaper reporters present and news around the world floating of US gaining in rocket research a series of crashes occurred. The first crashed May 15, 1947 in the city of Alamogordo. The crash occurred on the site of what is now New Mexico State University and the Space Hall of Fame.
After the May 15 disaster, the May 22 Alamogordo News reported “the people of Alamogordo got a thrill and incipiently a scare as some sort of body flew over the town in erratic flight and exploded at least once before dropping to earth.”
The book “We Develop Missiles, Not Air!” by Mattson and Martyn Tagg, (Air Combat Command, USAF/Cultural Resources Publication No. 2/June 1995) said the launch took place at 4:08 p.m. from Launch Complex 33. The liquid fuel was programmed to burn for 63.6 seconds and thrust the 9,827-pound rocket to 4,696 feet per second or 3,202 mph, attaining 76 miles in altitude. However, technicians noted “steering was a trouble from liftoff,” and “We Develop Missiles, Not Air!” said the V-2 “began tumbling end over end through the atmosphere. The pressure broke the missile apart.” Pieces fell near 13th Street and Cuba Avenue, and along the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks.
The Alamogordo News reported residents “got into cars and hastened to the vicinity” of the crash above Indian Wells Road, about 35 miles from LC 33. Citizens also “guarded a portion of the apparatus the rocket was carrying” that had plummeted down to First Street.
Bob Callaway, a high school freshman in 1947, said in a 1995 NMMSH oral history that he and a friend were tossing a ball at Michigan Avenue and 15th Street when the power lines “started shaking violently. About that time, we got the sound wave from the explosion of the V-2.” Callaway and four friends rushed to the scene in a truck and watched personnel load wreckage onto a trailer. He said security permitted them to take non-hazardous material, and they carted off a “bonanza” of wiring and steel tanks. They used the wires to build model airplanes, and the tanks to make “portable welding units,” he said.
Callaway knew of one person who found cameras. That night “OSI started knocking on doors, and believe it or not, by midnight had recovered all five cameras,” Callaway said.
An Army release stated the payload was benign: “scientific equipment” for the Naval Research Laboratory, “two spectrographs and four 16mm gunsight aiming point cameras a cosmic ray count recorder camera and two other aircraft cameras.” Also aboard was “a quantity of rye seed, which will be tested for effect on fertility of exposure to the upper atmosphere.”
An international incident nearly occurred when the V-2 plowed into a cemetery south of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
The El Paso Times reported the incident:
V-2 Rocket, Off Course, Falls Near Juarez May 30, 1947
El Paso and Juarez were rocked Thursday night when a runaway German V-2 rocket fired from the White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico crashed and exploded on top of a rocky knoll three and a half miles south of the Juarez business district.
The giant missile burst in a desolate area of jagged hill, gullies and bondock.
No one was injured.
Lt. Col. Harold R. Turner, White Sands commanding officer, said failure of the rocket’s German-made gyroscope caused it to swerve from its set northerly course.
He said there was an error in judgment on the part of the safety control department in not shutting off the rocket motors as soon as it was determined the missile had swerved off course.
The violent blast, which shook virtually every building in both El Paso and Juarez, startled citizens of the two cities, who swamped newspaper offices, police headquarters and radio stations with anxious telephone inquiries.
The missile, of the type which terrorized wartime England, landed about a half-mile south of Tepeyac Cemetery.
CRATER 50 FEET
WIDE, 24 FEET DEEP
The terrific impact of the rocket, which contained only telemetering equipment, scooped out a perfectly rounded crater, about 50 feet in diameter and 24 feet deep. Only a few scraps of metal were around the crater when nearby residents reached the scene.
Army authorities form White Sands and Fort Bliss rushed to the spot as soon as they learned of the rocket’s fall and expressed to Mexican officials their regret at the rocket falling on Mexican soil.
Colonel Turner said the missile was fired at 7:30 p.m. Thursday. He said the rocket reached an altitude of 40 miles and was in flight five minutes.
He said the V-2 was being used to test certain component parts in American-made rockets.
Colonel Turner explained that the explosion actually was concussion caused by the force of the four and a half ton V-2 ramming the earth at 12 miles per minute.
The alcohol and liquid oxygen with which the rocket is fueled would only burn and would not explode, the colonel explained.
Mexican soldiers were ordered in the rater to mount guard. They were stationed on the rim, aiding American Military policemen to keep sight-seers and souvenir hunters from the area.
The site is half a mile from Buena Vista airport, where 13 planes were shaken by the blast, and a mile and a half from an oil plant. Many Juarez citizens at first believed the oil plant had exploded.
Wild rumors circulated in El Paso before cause of the blast was ascertained. One man said a “box car full of dynamite” had exploded in South El Paso, devastating the section, while another was certain “an underground gasoline storage dump” had blown up.
Many El Pasoans spotted the rocket’s vapor trail after the missile was fired at White Sands, about 500 airline miles north of El Paso, and a few minutes later heard a terrific explosion and smoke rising in the direction of Juarez.
Lt. Col. John Carroll, former R.O.T.C. commander of El Paso schools was just leaving Fort Bliss when he saw both the vapor trail and the blast.
SAW ROCKET FLIGHT,
Morris J. Boretz, who was en route to Southwestern General Hospital to visit his daughter, said he was at Brown street and Rim Road when he saw the rocket leaving White Sands and saw the crash south of the Rio Grand, looking like a miniature atomic bomb explosion.
Others who saw the spectacle were R.E. Nelson, 5801 Auburn street; Frank Moltans of the Times circulation staff; Wencis Tovar, 3703 Pera Street; Mrs. S.C. Cox, 3660 Douglas Street.
Lt. Col. George F. Pindar, commanding officer, First Guided Missile Battalion, White Sands, made the first official investigation into the rocket crash. He sped to the scene at about 8 p.m.under orders of Major Gen. John L. Homer, Fort Bliss commander.
Colonel Pindar was in El Paso at the time of the firing. He said he watched the rocket rise with a long tail of flame. Then the rocket appeared to hesitate and almost fade from view. Colonel Pindar looked away for a moment and when he next looked at the rocket it was moving overhead at a high rate of speed, traveling south toward El Paso. A moment later he heard the explosion that rocked the city.
Meanwhile Thursday night an emergency squad of eight Fort Bliss soldiers were searching the western slope of Mount Franklin for evidence of a second explosion reported seen by General Homer.
He told Colonel Pindar that he Saw a smaller explosion just prior to the Juarez blast several miles over the crest of Mount Franklin on the west side. Colonel Pindar said it was possible that a portion of the rocket had sheared off and dropped on Mont Franklin.
SHOCK FELT IN ANTHONY, FABENS
Detective W.D. White of El Paso Police Department, another eyewitness to the explosion, was at the corner of Mesa Avenue and Ninth Street looking in the direction of Juarez when the rocket landed.
“Flames shot into the air like a mushroom,” White said. “It looked just like a haystack on fire.”
Victor Robinson, 3907 Fort Boulevard said, “I saw the rocket go right over our house. It looked like it was going to land in the middle of town.”
Three windows were broken in Fire Chief Joe Boone’s office by the concussion. An electric clock in the Sheriff’s was stopped at exactly 7:32 p.m. by the shock.
Sheriff’s Deputy William Stoddard reported that the shock was felt as far west as Anthon, N.M. and south to Fabens.
The May 29 disaster was never listed in “the official White Sands firing summary,” What occurred with the second crash was it launched from LC 33, the rocket was supposed to fly north, but instead turned south. “The missile ultimately arced over El Paso and landed” (impacted) south of Juarez near a cemetery. “A few hours after the wayward missile landed (impacted), the U.S. Army showed up and found that enterprising Mexicans were selling any old piece of scrap metal they could find and claiming it was V-2 debris. The United States ultimately apologized to Mexico for the incident and paid for all damages incurred.
Subsequently, V-2 launches resumed in July 1947 after safety procedures had been developed to prevent the rockets from endangering civilian populations again.
Article Sources: Wikipedia, White Sands Military Archives, Department of Defense Records, University of New Mexico, US Space Hall of Fame, Alamogordo Town News, El Paso Times, Oral Accounts of Bob Calloway per the Space Hall of Fame and the Alamogordo Daily News.