Two crashes in two weeks: In 1947, rockets launched from White Sands landed in Alamogordo, Juárez

·8 min read
This is the modified V-2 rocket, number zero, being prepped for flight on May 29, 1947 at White Sands Proving Ground. It was number zero because the Army told Wernher von Braun they could go up to number five as part of the project. Being experienced bureaucrats, the Germans realized an extra rocket by starting at zero instead of one. The fins at the tail of the rocket are much larger than a normal V-2 and the wings at the top simulate the ramjet vehicle they were hoping to eventually build.
This is the modified V-2 rocket, number zero, being prepped for flight on May 29, 1947 at White Sands Proving Ground. It was number zero because the Army told Wernher von Braun they could go up to number five as part of the project. Being experienced bureaucrats, the Germans realized an extra rocket by starting at zero instead of one. The fins at the tail of the rocket are much larger than a normal V-2 and the wings at the top simulate the ramjet vehicle they were hoping to eventually build.

Seventy-five years ago, White Sands Proving Ground flirted with disaster when two German V-2 rockets, just two weeks apart, crashed very near local communities. Luckily no one was injured but the crashes brought the rocket testing business a lot of attention, just not the kind the Army wanted.

The first incident occurred on May 15, 1947 just after 4 p.m. with the crash of a V-2 carrying instrumentation from the Naval Research Lab to measure cosmic radiation, atmospheric pressure, the solar spectrograph, and the makeup of the ionosphere. The Associated Press reported the rocket also carried rye seeds to see if their “fertility” would be affected by exposure to radiation in the upper atmosphere. The V-2 certainly propelled the seeds high enough as the rocket reached an altitude of 80 miles but the crash destroyed them.

As well as investigating rocket technology and its military application, the V-2 program had a directive to carry scientific instruments and experiments. This was one of those flights.

It was rocket number 26 in the series to be launched by General Electric, the contractor hired to assemble and fire V-2 rockets. According to GE, the rocket “flew a remarkably straight course approximately 40 degrees east of north.” Unfortunately, that ultimately took the V-2 off of White Sands to an impact point about four miles northeast of Alamogordo — up in the vicinity of where the New Mexico Space Museum is now located. In 1947, Alamogordo had less than 6,500 residents so there was no development yet in the area and no one was close by.

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 completing his freshman year. He and a friend, Bill Price, were in the street after school at Michigan and 15th Street, playing catch. They heard and felt the shock wave of the rocket as it flew past and broke apart, hitting the ground in multiple pieces several miles away.

The next morning, he said they were released early from school because it was the last day and they headed to the crash site. They were barred from the site because military personnel were cleaning up the wreckage. So, the boys watched. When the cleanup crew left, one of the men told the boys that they should beware of the spilled hydrogen peroxide and the spun wool insulation. Outside of that, anything they found was theirs.

Callaway said they were able to retrieve some steel tanks which were later used to make portable welding units and some wiring they put to good use in building model airplanes.

Exactly two weeks later, on Thursday, May 29, around 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 fairly well but also had a small guidance problem. Instead of traveling north, it went south and ended up crashing just beyond Juárez, Mexico within a half mile of Tepeyac Cemetery. The site was about three and a half miles south of the Juárez business district.

Today: White Sands Missile Range activates new training center

Unlike the Alamogordo V-2 that broke apart and splattered on the ground, this V-2 came down pointy-end first and hit at supersonic speed. The kinetic energy released on impact created a whopper of an explosion. The next day the El Paso Times reported the blast left a 24-foot-deep and 50-foot-wide crater which is significant considering it hit on a rocky knoll and had no warhead. Lt. Col. Harold Turner, the White Sands commander, was quoted in many stories saying the explosion was simply the impact of a heavy object (several tons) traveling over 2,000 miles an hour. In fact, doing the math reveals that the V-2 impact could have been equal to the 1,800-pound high-explosive warhead the rockets carried during WWII.

The paper also reported the concussion shook buildings all through Juárez and El Paso. They reported an electric clock in the sheriff’s El Paso office stopped at 7:32 p.m., marking the time of impact. The El Paso fire chief reported three windows broken in his office. People who got to the crash site quickly said smoke was still rising from the crater, nearby shrubs were smoking, and the ground was still hot.

Some of those early curiosity seekers collected souvenirs from the site. Based on similar V-2 impacts on White Sands, there wasn’t much to pick up, certainly not whole components like Callaway found in Alamogordo. It would have been mostly charred fragments. Mexican and U.S. military personnel eventually secured the site to prevent further theft of the debris.

There are many stories about what went wrong. Most focus on the gyroscope used for guidance and the belief it was wired backward. So, instead of doing a slight pitch to the north after liftoff, the V-2 pitched slightly to the south and followed that path.

What is not clear is why the safety officer decided not to terminate the flight once it was determined the rocket was headed south. The El Paso Times reported that Lt. Col. Turner said “there was an error in judgment on the part of the safety control department in not shutting off the rocket motor.”

'Too close for comfort'

Because of the proximity of two large 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 El Paso Times front page was covered with photos, news reports and explanations from various military officials. In addition, 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 called for the Army’s missile testing to be moved to Bikini Island in the Pacific Ocean. He was quoted as saying, “sooner or later one of these bombs is certain to cause the death of hundreds or perhaps thousands of persons in the Southwest.” In support, New Mexico Sen. Carl Hatch sent a message to the secretary of war asking that they find a better location for the testing.

Not everyone was so concerned. On June 1, Orren Beaty, in the Las Cruces Sun-News, said “the fact that two V-2s have gone astray recently is no reason to condemn the guided missile program or to worry over the possibility that one of them might land in Las Cruces.” He went on to suggest that since Las Cruces was 60% vacant land, even if one hit inside the city limits the chances of it causing any harm were low.

The Alamogordo Chamber of Commerce sent a message to Sen. Hatch asking him to withdraw his request to move the White Sands testing business. According to the Alamogordo Daily News on June 12, the note said, “Who’s afraid?”

The concern quickly blew over as White Sands shut down V-2 launches so safety personnel could devise a better system for keeping track of missiles in flight and predicting where they were headed. Sky Screen was the result and V-2 launches resumed on July 10.

More from E: White Sands could have been the launch site for the nation's lunar program; NASA chose Cape Canaveral instead

An interesting sidebar to the Juárez V-2 is that the rocket was a modified V-2 built at Fort Bliss by the German Paperclip scientists and engineers. With the blessing of the U.S. 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 is the kind of technology that would give a country a big advantage in an arms race. The Hermes Project was looking to create a vehicle capable traveling over 2,000 miles per hour at an altitude of 65,000 feet.

For a ramjet to operate it has to already be going very fast. You can’t launch a ramjet propelled vehicle from a dead stop. The German answer was to put it on the front of a V-2 which would accelerate it to an operating speed. V-2 number zero was a test flight of the basic idea for the pusher vehicle, to see how the modifications would affect its performance.

Because this was a classified test driven by scientists at Fort Bliss, it did not fall under the General Electric contract and does not show up on GE’s master list of V-2 launches at White Sands. Some conspiracy theorists have noticed the Hermes V-2 is not on the list and have accused the Army of trying to cover up the fact that a V-2 crashed on foreign soil. They seem to have missed all the newspaper coverage and quotes from White Sands and Fort Bliss officials about the event.

There have now been well over 45,000 rocket and missile launches at White Sands Missile Range since 1945. There has never been an injury to anyone outside the missile range in that 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."

This article originally appeared on Las Cruces Sun-News: In 1947, rockets launched from White Sands landed in Alamogordo, Juárez