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Missile Range History

V-2 Rocket and Wac Corporal Combo: The Bumper-Wac at White Sands in the late 1940s

The following military history article was written by Michael Shinabery. Mr. Shinabery is an education specialist at the New Mexico Museum of Space History.

Two V-2s veer off course, one crashes in Alamo

After two rockets launched during two weeks from White Sands Proving Grounds crashed near populated areas, the Army quickly "imposed a stand-down in the testing," said Wayne Mattson

in the New Mexico Space Journal (No. 1, June 2001).

The first crashed May 15, 1947. But what Mattson called "the most infamous" of the launches crashed [22 years ago] on May 29.

"An international incident" nearly occurred when the V-2 plowed into "a cemetery south of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico."

Following Hitler's fall in 1945, the United States brought 177 German rocket scientists and technicians to White Sands and Fort Bliss under Operation Paperclip.


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.

At WSPG, the Germans began building the United States Army's rocket program. Early launches either blew up on the pad or crashed on base. But when the first V-2 went ballistic off base, a U.S. senator representing New Mexico called for a "halt" to V-2 testing, Mattson said.

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 rocket smacked into the Sacramento Mountains' foothills just behind what is now the New Mexico Museum of Space History.

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 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."

What was not in the payload was one of the V-2's "deadly" warheads, Mattson and Tagg said.

The News printed a follow-up story on June 17 after the Army towed a V-2 to Alamogordo to show the community "what nearly hit them," Mattson and Tagg wrote. The paper also stated Sen. Hatch "has announced he will recommend to the War Department that experiments at the White Sands Proving Ground be removed to an uninhabited region 'such as Bikini Atoll.'"

The May 29 disaster was never listed in "the official White Sands firing summary," Mattson said in the New Mexico Space Journal. 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."

There is no record the News ever directly reported on the second incident, but the paper did reference it in the June 17 article. The story also said the Chamber of Commerce asked Hatch to "withdraw his recommendations to the War Department."

Subsequently, V-2 launches "resumed" in July 1947 "after safety procedures had been developed to prevent the rockets from endangering civilian populations again," Mattson wrote in the Space Journal.

[End article]




To the best of our knowledge all information is current. If you should discover any errors, however, please let us know. Thanks!




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