Seventy-five years ago, White Sands Proving Ground flirted with disaster when two German V-2 rockets, just two weeks apart, crashed very close to local communities. Fortunately no one was hurt, but the accidents brought a lot of attention to the rocket testing industry, but not of the kind the military wanted.
The first incident occurred on May 15, 1947 just after 4 p.m. with the crash of a V-2 carrying Naval Research Lab instruments to measure cosmic radiation, atmospheric pressure, solar spectrograph and the composition of the ionosphere. The Associated Press reported that the rocket was also carrying rye seeds to see if their “fertility” would be affected by radiation exposure in the upper atmosphere. The V-2 certainly propelled the seeds high enough when the rocket reached an altitude of 80 miles, but the crash destroyed them.
In addition to studying rocket technology and its military application, the V-2 program was directed to transport instruments and scientific experiments. This was one of those flights.
It was rocket number 26 in the series that was to be launched by General Electric, the contractor hired to assemble and fire V-2 rockets. According to GE, the rocket “followed a remarkably straight path about 40 degrees east of north.” Unfortunately, this eventually brought the White Sands V-2 to an impact point about four miles northeast of Alamogordo – close to where the New York Space Museum now stands. Mexico. In 1947, Alamogordo had fewer than 6,500 inhabitants, so there was no development in the area yet and no one was nearby.
In 1995 Bob Callaway was interviewed by George House for an oral history with the New Mexico Museum of Space History. Callaway was a high school student in 1947, just finishing his freshman year. He and a friend, Bill Price, were on the streets after school in Michigan and 15th Street, playing catch. They heard and felt the shock wave from the rocket as it passed and shattered, hitting the ground in several pieces several miles away.
The next morning he said they were released early from school because it was the last day and they were heading to the crash site. They were denied access to the site because soldiers were cleaning up the wreckage. So the boys looked. When the cleanup crew left, one of the men told the boys they should beware of spilled hydrogen peroxide and spun wool insulation. Apart from that, everything they found belonged to them.
Callaway said they were able to salvage steel tanks which were then used to make portable welding units and wiring which they put to good use in building model airplanes.
Exactly two weeks later, on Thursday, May 29, at approximately 7:30 p.m., a highly modified V-2 was launched at White Sands as part of the secret Hermes II program. Like the Alamogordo rocket, this one flew quite well but also had a small guidance problem. Instead of traveling north, it went south and ended up crashing just beyond Juárez, Mexico, less than half a mile from Tepeyac Cemetery. The site was about five and a half kilometers south of the business district of Juárez.
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Unlike the Alamogordo V-2 which shattered and splashed to the ground, this V-2 fell first and struck at supersonic speed. The kinetic energy released on impact created a huge explosion. The next day, the El Paso Times reported that the explosion left a crater 24 feet deep and 50 feet wide, which is significant given that it hit a rocky mound and had no warhead. Lieutenant Colonel Harold Turner, the commanding officer of White Sands, was quoted in many stories as saying the explosion was simply the impact of a heavy object (several tons) traveling at over 2,000 miles per hour . In fact, doing the math reveals that the V-2’s impact could have been equal to the 1,800-pound high-explosive warhead rockets carried during World War II.
The newspaper also reported that the concussion shook buildings across Juárez and El Paso. They reported that an electric clock in the El Paso sheriff’s office had stopped at 7:32 p.m., marking the time of impact. The El Paso Fire Chief reported three broken windows in his office. People who quickly drove to the crash site said smoke was still rising from the crater, nearby shrubs were smoking, and the ground was still warm.
Some of these early curious people collected souvenirs from the site. Based on similar V-2 impacts on White Sands, there wasn’t much to remember, certainly not whole components like Callaway found at Alamogordo. It would be mainly charred fragments. Mexican and American military personnel eventually secured the site to prevent further debris theft.
There are many stories about what went wrong. Most focus on the gyroscope used for guidance and the belief that it was wired backwards. So instead of making a slight bank to the north after takeoff, the V-2 banked slightly to the south and followed that path.
What is unclear is why the safety officer decided not to terminate the flight once it was determined that the rocket was heading south. The El Paso Times reported that Lt. Col. Turner said “there was an error in judgment on the part of the Security Screening Department in not shutting down the rocket engine.”
“Too close for comfort”
Due to the proximity of two major cities, one being in a foreign country, and the power of the explosion, this was a much more serious incident than the Alamogordo accident. On May 30, the front page of the El Paso Times was covered with photos, reports and explanations from various military officials. Plus, there was an opinion piece basically saying the crash was “too close for comfort.”
Within weeks, George Godfrey, president of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, requested that army missile testing be moved to Bikini Island in the Pacific Ocean. He was quoted as saying, “sooner or later one of these bombs is certain to kill hundreds or possibly thousands of people in the South West.” In support, New Mexico Senator Carl Hatch sent a message to the Secretary of War asking him to find a better location for the tests.
Not everyone was so worried. On June 1, Orren Beaty, in the Las Cruces Sun-News, said: “The fact that two V-2s recently went astray is no reason to condemn the guided missile program or to worry about the possibility that one of them lands in Las Cruces. He went on to suggest that since Las Cruces was 60% vacant land, even if a hit was inside the city limits, the chances of it causing damage were low.
The Alamogordo Chamber of Commerce sent a message to Senator Hatch asking him to withdraw his request to transfer the White Sands testing business. According to the Alamogordo Daily News on June 12, the note read, “Who’s Afraid?
The worry quickly disappeared when White Sands halted V-2 launches so security personnel could design a better system to track missiles in flight and predict where they were heading. Sky Screen was the result, and V-2 launches resumed on July 10.
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An interesting sidebar of the Juárez V-2 is that the rocket was a modified V-2 built at Fort Bliss by German Paperclip scientists and engineers. With the blessing of the US Army, Wernher von Braun and his crew were working on ramjet technology and this V-2 was number zero in the Hermes II project.
In theory, a ramjet-powered vehicle could go farther, faster, and carry more payload than any other delivery system at the time. It’s the kind of technology that would give a country a big advantage in an arms race. The Hermes project sought to create a vehicle capable of traveling over 2,000 miles per hour at an altitude of 65,000 feet.
Because it was a classified test piloted by Fort Bliss scientists, it was not under General Electric’s contract and does not appear on GE’s master list of V-2 launches at White Sands. Some conspiracy theorists noticed that the Hermes V-2 was not on the list and accused the military of trying to cover up the fact that a V-2 crashed on foreign soil. They seem to have missed all the media coverage and quotes from White Sands and Fort Bliss officials about the event.
There have now been over 45,000 rocket and missile launches at White Sands Missile Range since 1945. No one has ever been injured outside of missile range during this time.
Jim Eckles is a member of the White Sands Missile Range Hall of Fame and is the author of “Trinity: The History Of An Atomic Bomb National Historic Landmark”.