Remember the time we bombed Mexico with German rockets?

Illustration for article titled Remember the time we bombed Mexico with German rockets?

Germany spent the end of the 1930s and half the 1940s inventing and perfecting missiles. They made so many, they still had a ton of them left over after the end of World War II. So of course, the leftover weapons were confiscated by the United States. And here's one of the things we did with them.

Anyone who knows the details about a V-2 rocket has to wonder how any nation managed to make so many of them. The V-2 ran on alcohol and liquid oxygen, only one of which was easy to get. It was a giant behemoth, standing forty-six feet high and weighing fifty-six thousand pounds. It moved through the air at 3,500 miles per hour. Production started on these models in the mid-1930s, but the first one wasn't actually launched as a military weapon until September 1944, when the Germans bombed London with it.

Wernher von Braun, one of the head developers, never wanted to make a missile. He was jailed, briefly, for continuing to talk about the V-2 as a space-going rocket instead of a bomb delivery system. Nevertheless, as the war was winding down, von Braun was fairly sure that no one who had a country within the possible range of the V-2 would welcome him, and so he and a team sought out American soldiers to surrender to. The Americans grabbed all the V-2s and V-2 parts that they could, and carted them back to the United States to do exactly what von Braun had originally wanted to do with the rocket: go to space.

Illustration for article titled Remember the time we bombed Mexico with German rockets?

Or, at least, that was the plan. The V-2s were the free spoils of war, and so they were treated as mad money by the early space scientists. They used the rockets to figure out payload capabilities, to conduct upper-atmosphere experiments, and to kill scads of monkeys in the most expensive way possible. Since the monkeys were intended to survive their rides, it's clear that these tests didn't always go exactly as planned, but on one occasion they went very wrong indeed.

One night, a couple of rockets went entirely off course. And set off what could have been politely referred to as an international incident — and, not so politely, as America bombing a friendly country with Nazi rockets.

An article in The El Paso Times, published on May 30th, 1947 had this to say about it:

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.


That's it, Colonel Turner. Blame the Germans. The paper goes on to say that the rocket scooped out a crater fifty feet wide, and twenty-four feet deep. It was not a good way to welcome a neighbor to the space age. Despite the giant smoking crater, America got pretty lucky with its mistakes. No one was hurt.

The explosion did cause momentary panic, though. People who didn't see the actual bang, which shook nearby planes, thought that an oil plant in the area had exploded. Others, who saw the blast, mistook it for a small atomic bomb. It sent up a mushroom cloud. Still, when officials "expressed their regret" about the rocket, Mexican officials were what can only be termed exceptionally cool about the whole thing. The army had to fix some light damage to windows of nearby buildings, but otherwise there was little fuss one way or another. No one even insisted that they stop testing pirated missiles nearby. The crater, which is still there, turned out to be another souvenir of the early space race. The V-2, fortunately, is gone.


Top Image: National Archive

Image: US Government

Via and El Paso Times.


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The German rocket scientists were also "spoils of war". Von Braun and some of his staff were holed up in Oberammergau, Bavaria with crates of rocket plans. Their main goal was to not be captured by the Russians, who were very very put out with Germany. The sent out scouts to find American forces and surrendered to them, offering the location of the buried documents in return for a promise of asylum in the US.

The Army simply brought them here as "wards of the Army", without going through emigration procedures. There is no such thing as a "ward of the Army"; they just made that phrase up and did it. The process was called Operation Paperclip.

Warner Von Braun became very well known in the US as one of the originators of the space program and the builder of the Saturn V. Back in the Fatherland he had been a Sturmbannführer in the SS and a member of the Nazi party. That's him in his SS uniform right behind Himmler. He supervised work performed by slave laborers and personally inspected the factory on at least one occasion. So, the whole New Mexico rocket thing was an exercise in expediency; we needed the Nazis and just chose to look the other way.