It was 7:30 local time in El Paso on May 29, 1947. Crews at White Sands missile range were preparing to launch a Hermes II two-stage rocket. The Hermes II research project was based at Ft. Bliss. The Army’s first missile battalion, the 1st Anti-aircraft Guided Missile Battalion, was established on October 11, 1945 at the El Paso army base.
The Hermes II rocket was a development test bed for a ground-based long-range missile to be used against ground troops and high-altitude aircraft. Former Nazi scientists had been clandestinely brought to the United States by American officials in violation of immigration laws. Under Operation Paper Clip, over 100 Nazi aerospace engineers were brought to Fort Bliss starting in late 1945.
Among the Nazi scientists was Wernher Magnus Maximilian Freiherr one of the leading Nazi scientists behind the Nazi V-2 rocket that terrorized Great Britain during World War II. Today Freiherr is better known as Werner von Braun the chief architect of the Apollo program that landed men on the moon.
On May 29, the Hermes II rocket was supposed to fly to the north. Instead, it flew south towards El Paso, Texas. The range safety officer was prevented by one of the scientists from self-destructing the rocket when it became apparent that it was headed the wrong way. Some reports identified the scientist as Ernst Steinhoff.
The scientist argued that the rocket propellent should not be wasted.
The rocket, dubbed the Bliss Zero, reached an altitude of 49.3 miles as it made its way towards El Paso.
But it didn’t stop in El Paso. It continued towards Cd. Juárez where it crashed near the Tepeyac Cemetery five minutes after it was launched. It created a 50-foot crater.
According to reports, the errant rocket flew the wrong way because the German gyroscope was wired backwards.
One of the German scientists gleefully said, “we were the first German unit to not only infiltrate the United States, but attack Mexico from U.S. soil.”
In total, about 68 V-2 rockets were launched from White Sands between 1946 and 1951.
- Perry Jamieson, “A Survey History of Fort Bliss 1890-1940,” Historic and Natural Resources Report No. 5, Cultural Resources Management Program, Directorate of Environment, United States Army Air Defense Artillery Center, Ft. Bliss, Texas, 1993.
- C. McCleskey and D. Christensen, “IAA-01-IAA-2.1.08, Dr. Kurt H. Debus: Launching a Vision,” 52nd International Astronautical Congress, Toulouse, France, October 1-5, 2001.
- Joel Powell and Keith J. Scala, “Historic White Sands Missile Range, Conservation Division, Office of Directorate of Environment, U.S. Army Defense Artillery Center, Ft. Bliss, Texas.