By Trish Long
El Paso Times
Recently, I was asked about Operation Paperclip and Wernher Von Braun.
A group of German scientists, including Wernher von Braun, were brought to Fort Bliss. The secret mission was dubbed Operation Paperclip because a paper clip was attached to the files of scientists chosen to participate in the program.
A 1971 article by Art Leibson, "Famed Scientists First Greeted With Suspicion," tells the story of the Von Braun.
"Soon after the end of World War II El Pasoans began hearing suspiciously Germanic sounds in stores, shops and in the streets. They knew something was up but the government clamped down on any attempt to probe behind the secrecy of the visitors.
"But a quarter-century ago next Friday, the curtain was lifted. El Paso newsmen were invited to White Sands Proving Ground to meet the leaders of a 118-man group of German scientists who had developed the deadly V-2 rocket that came too late to win the Battle of Britain and were working on a bigger and more deadly A-10 that would carry a 30-ton warhead 3,000 miles, far enough to reach New York and beyond for the Peenemunde headquarters in Germany.
"Wernher Von Braun, who helped guide the American space program in the intervening years, was head of the rocketry group that had surrendered to U.S. forces rather than face capture by the Russians at the time the European war ended. Von Braun always insisted he was not interested in producing a weapon of death, but he accepted the money, materials and technical skill to forward his research in space travel.
"At that interview, on an occasion when visiting newsmen also witnessed a firing of a captured V-2 rocket, Von Braun told the El Paso Times that if he had unlimited financial backing, and could call on all available brains, he could reach the moon within 10 years. It all sounded like something out of science fiction, especially as the years seemingly rolled by without any serious effort to reach the moon. But the time came for the spectacular performance that sent men to the moon and back, at a cost a few billion dollars more than the comparative trifle Von Braun wanted -- to drop a metal ball on the moon.
"When the Germans first came to El Paso they were lodged in annex buildings of William Beaumont General Hospital. As it became apparent that they would be working for the War Department for a long time, about 400 of their dependents were brought to the U.S. to be with them, and a start was made on developing White Sands into one of the top rocket centers in the space race.
"In Germany, newsmen were told, there were fewer than 5 percent failures among the rockets hurled into Britain, while those tested at White Sands had a 33 percent failure rate. One later ran wild and landed near a cemetery outside Juárez, where it did no more damage than to create a giant crater. Von Braun blamed the failures here on damage done to parts brought with them from Germany. At the Nordhausen launching site, he said, most of the rockets fired at White Sands never would have passed inspection.
"During a three-hour question period, Von Braun told of the hasty evacuation of the underground laboratory at Peenemunde ahead of the Russians, storming down the Baltic toward the island base. With conflicting orders as to the action to be taken, Von Braun called a council of his 'brain trust' and the decision was made to leave. On the trip to the Bavarian interior, to meet the U.S. forces, Von Braun's car plunged over a 60-foot cliff and his arm was broken in three places. He was recuperating in the Bavarian Alps when the war ended. His arm in a sling, he arranged to meet the Allied counter-intelligence officers and worked out arrangements to bring his team to the U.S.
"Each member of the team was carefully screened as to previous political connections with the Nazis. Finally those given clearance left for America.
"During the interview, an Army Ordinance public relations officer made the statement that in the opinion of the military it would cost about $100 million to place a piece of iron the size of a fist on the surface of the moon. Getting it back again, newsmen were told, was something beyond their wildest guess.
"With the presence of the Germans finally disclosed, they appeared much more in public and began socializing with others in the area. In a year Von Braun would bring his 'hochgeboren' 18-year-old fiancée to El Paso, and there were other marriages.
"And that's the story behind the first successful moon shoot."
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• If you want to know about El Paso's history, send Trish an email at tlong@ elpasotimes.com or comment at her blog by visiting elpasotimes.com/blogs
Trish Long is the El Paso Times' archivist and spends her time in the morgue, where the newspaper keeps its old clippings and photos. She shares some of this history in her blog, Tales From The Morgue.