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Nazi Rocket Scientists*

November 10, 2004

In Huntsville, Ala.,
Rocketeers' Legacy
Has Complex Echoes

Residents Embrace Scientists
Brought In After War,
But Nazi Past Still Haunts
November 10, 2004; Page A1

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- When the moon was full over Adolf Hitler's Germany, his rocket scientists would look up and dream about sending a man there. Today, some of those same scientists stand in this northern Alabama town, look skyward and think, "We did it."

How they got here, why they stayed and what they did for the U.S. space program and this community are matters of great pride in Huntsville today. These men's influences are everywhere -- in the cultural institutions, the town's Bavarian-style architecture, the giant scientific-research park. And yet, people here know there's a dark side of the moon, too: When these scientists worked for the Nazi regime, their rockets were terror weapons, built with the help of slave laborers -- political prisoners, Jews and POWs. Thousands of them died in the process.

"There is no way of changing history," says one of the scientists, Ernst Stuhlinger. "You have to take the facts as they happened." Now 91 years old, he explains that he always thought Hitler was "a madman," but he was told by those running the German rocket program: "Don't breathe a word about Hitler or you'll end up in a concentration camp, too."

Old men like Dr. Stuhlinger are the last 11 survivors of 118 German scientists brought here as self-described "prisoners of peace" by the U.S. government after World War II. Their mission: to help Hitler's rocket genius Wernher von Braun create the U.S. space program. About 200 of their descendants still remain in Huntsville, and residents have grown very protective of the men and their legacy. Many see current lessons: As the U.S. seeks help from professionals who were Baathists in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, Huntsville sees itself as proof that the U.S. can embrace former enemies to achieve greater goals. Today, with a population of 165,000, Huntsville calls itself "Rocket City USA."

Some outsiders, however, say Huntsville is a city in denial. Most, if not all, of the 118 scientists worked alongside concentration-camp inmates or were well aware of them, says Linda Hunt, a former CNN producer who since 1983 has been investigating their Nazi-era activities.

One of those slave laborers, Alex Baum, 81, now lives in Los Angeles. He worked in the underground tunnels where the Nazis' infamous V-2 rockets were built. On many mornings, he recalls, prisoners were hanged at a tunnel entrance as a warning to would-be saboteurs. He says he spent six months in the tunnels without showering, changing clothes or seeing sunlight. The scientists observed or knew about all of this, he says. And even though the scientists have long contended that they were powerless to help prisoners, Mr. Baum says, "There's no excuse for them."

Huntsville's massive U.S. Space & Rocket Center honors the scientists, but the museum includes little about their World War II activities. The scientists were lauded in September by 400 locals at a dinner at the museum. "There's a whitewash going on in Huntsville," says Ms. Hunt.

The 118 Germans began arriving here, at a dormant Army base, in 1950. Huntsville was a fading town of 15,000, with an economy tied to cotton. Some residents had lost sons in World War II and were wary of the scientists. One gas-station owner posted a sign: "No Germans served here." Still, many others sensed that these foreigners could be the ticket to the city's future.

Indeed they were. More than 27,000 people now work here for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration or at 250 aerospace or defense companies. "Those Germans made Huntsville into 'the New South' before anyone heard of that term," says David Cornutt, who designs software here for the International Space Station.

Mr. Cornutt is aware that about 80% of the scientists, including Dr. von Braun, were members of the Nazi Party. "You can't hold that against them because most had no choice," he says. He believes they "fled tyranny and became American patriots."

Mr. Cornutt, 44, went to grade school in the 1960s with several of the scientists' children, including Dr. von Braun's son, Peter. Their third-grade class went on a field trip to the office of Dr. von Braun, who jokingly apologized to the kids for having "such a heavy Southern accent." Most of the children's parents (including Mr. Cornutt's father) worked in the space program, and Dr. von Braun spoke about how proud he was of them.

Before Dr. Stuhlinger arrived in the U.S., all he knew of the American South was what he had read in "Gone With the Wind" back in Germany. Some of the scientists wondered whether the locals were "primitive people," he says, "but the Huntsvillians had a lot of hidden vigor" and embraced the rocketeers' space dreams.

Dr. Stuhlinger is renowned for his work, dating back to the 1940s, designing crafts that could reach Mars. He still uses the slide rule on which he made his calculations in Germany.

The German rocket specialists, in a late-1940s photo, before the U.S. government brought them to Huntsville, Ala.

Most of the scientists became U.S. citizens in the 1950s, and over the years they helped create Huntsville's symphony and they built a Lutheran church and the city's planetarium. Dr. von Braun, who died in 1977, was the force behind the popular U.S. Space Camp here for children and adults. The scientists also made Huntsville a welcoming community for German businesses. Just this year, Siemens VDO Automotive Corp. took over a 1,800-employee electronics plant here.

The scientists' offspring also won acclaim for the city. One scientist's granddaughter, Margaret Hoelzer, 21, swam the backstroke at this year's Olympics.

Her grandfather, Helmut, who died in 1996, told her stories about how he was also at the mercy of the Nazis. Once, he and other engineers showed SS chief Heinrich Himmler a test rocket, and it blew up. "Himmler said, 'You have 24 hours to fix it, or else,' " says Ms. Hoelzer. "The scientists were terrified, but they ended up fixing it in time."

Gretchen Schafft, an American University anthropologist, has contacted about 50 people in the U.S. who were forced to work in the V-2 rocket program. She says several told her that it's "almost unendurable" to watch these scientists being glorified. She believes Huntsville parents have an obligation to tell children that the community has thrived in part because the U.S. space program was built "on a legacy of slave labor."

But many in Huntsville feel accusations of atrocities have been sensationalized. They're still upset that the Justice Department in the 1980s charged Arthur Rudolph, an acclaimed designer of Saturn rocket boosters, with responsibility for the deaths of thousands of slave laborers. He was production director at the V-2 factory. Rather than face a war-crimes trial, he returned to Germany, where he died in 1996.

Certainly, some in Huntsville recognize Dr. von Braun's flaws. "He was a driven opportunist who felt the ends justified the means when it came to advancing rocketry," says Bob Ward, a retired Huntsville newspaper executive whose biography of Dr. von Braun is to be published next spring.

Still, Dr. von Braun is recalled by many here as charismatic, gregarious and brilliant. He knew that his space ambitions were tied to community support, says his former spokesman, Ed Buckbee, 68. Dr. von Braun spoke at countless local functions and was so admired that the city named its civic center after him.

Dr. von Braun remained haunted by his past. Mr. Ward says his research shows that in the 1960s, the rocket scientist privately told colleagues that he spoke out against racial segregation in the U.S. partly because he felt guilty for remaining silent over Hitler's treatment of Jews.

Huntsville has about 250 Jewish families, and most don't focus on the scientists' long-ago histories, says Max Rosenthal, a retired NASA engineer and board member of Etz Chayim Synagogue. "It's something you can't forget, but we had a goal to get to the moon." Richard Lapidus, former president of Temple B'nai Sholom here, tries to put himself in the scientists' shoes: "If I was German and not Jewish, what would I have done during the war?"

Meanwhile, the surviving scientists see one another at colleagues funerals, and continue to monitor NASA. Dr Stuhlinger predicts human beings won't walk on Mars before 2050, but when they do, "I will see it from upstairs." He plans to spend his remaining earthbound days in the house he built here in 1953. "I feel privileged to live in Huntsville," he says. "This is my home."

Write to Jeffrey Zaslow at jeffrey.zaslow@wsj.com1

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