Newspaper article The Tuscaloosa News

DON NOBLE: Book on "Our Germans" in Space Race Will Interest Alabamians

Newspaper article The Tuscaloosa News

DON NOBLE: Book on "Our Germans" in Space Race Will Interest Alabamians

Article excerpt

German Rocketeers" was published by Yale University Press. Monique Laney, raised in Tuscaloosa and Germany, is now an assistant professor of history at Auburn University, and this book was her Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Kansas, but do not be afraid. This book is accessible, clearly written with an easily forgivable amount of jargon and should be of considerable interest to citizens of Alabama.

To begin with what everybody knows: When NASA placed the development of the Saturn V rocket at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, the research and development team of German rocket scientists, technicians of many kinds really, headed by Wernher von Braun, was moved from Fort Bliss, Texas. These German scientists had surrendered to or been captured by U.S. forces near the end of World War II. Their work for the Third Reich had been to develop the V-2 rocket, which Hitler ordered launched in large numbers from Peenemunde, an island in the Baltic. The V-2s landed mostly in England and mainly in London, but were also aimed at targets in Belgium. The war was essentially already lost and these rockets were a kind of last-ditch effort, even an act of spite.

The German scientists in Huntsville, affectionately known as "our Germans," had been at work on ballistic missiles in Texas. Now they would be a part of the space race and indeed make huge contributions toward the U.S. landing on the moon in 1969. The German scientists scooped up by the Soviets were doing the same work. It was generally considered that, except when we fell behind in the early innings and they launched Sputnik in 1957, "our" Germans were better than "their" Germans.

Over time, Huntsville and indeed all America made heroes of "our" Germans. But there was, as they say, always an elephant in the room.

Exactly what had they been up to back in '44 and '45? Were they ardent Nazis or purely scientists? Many claimed they had always been working on rockets for space exploration, but that was clearly applesauce. The V-2 rockets were assembled, the general population learned over time, by slave labor, some in fact POWs. Did the scientists know their factories treated workers cruelly and thousands died?

Huntsville was growing and thriving. The city that had called itself "The watercress capital of the world" became known as "Rocket City, U.S.A." and then as "Space Capital of the Universe."

Between 1950 and 1969, the population rose 8.5 times, to 137,802.

Amid this growing prosperity, the scientific community also was a powerful force in the cultural life of the city, promoting the arts, especially music. In 1970, the new civic center was named the Von Braun Center.

Everything was going so well. Why mess with it? In these years, the natives and the Germans all engaged in what was a truly massive game of don't ask, don't tell. …

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