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Thursday, October 4, 2007

October 4, 1957, after half a century

It must have been around 3 a.m. Mountain Time, October 5, 1957, at Fort Bliss, Texas. Members of Overseas Package 5, the Second Guided Missile Brigade, did not have restricted hours. They came and went as they pleased, as long as they were present for roll call at 6:30 a.m. dressed in the uniform of the day, which was usually fatigues. On this night, all the men were asleep in the billets. It was Saturday morning, and they had been having a G.I. party for the weekly Saturday barracks inspection they needed to pass before they went off on their weekend.

The Soviet R7 rocket that launched Sputnik October 4, 1957

Later that day, most would venture across the Rio Grande to Juarez, Mexico, in search of their entertainments of choice—the $1.25 filet mignon, stage shows, and the inexhaustible supply of Carte Blanche, rum, tequila, and prostitutes. This was to be a big weekend. The unit had spent the week preparing to go to the Red Canyon missile range on Monday where it would assemble and fire missiles as the culminating test after six months of schooling. After the missile firing test, they would pack up and be shipped to West Germany to deploy Nike Ajax missiles as part of the NATO air defense of Europe.

The guided missile school ranged from 8 to 12 hours a day, at least five days a week and the men were expected to pass a constant battery of tests, so the cadre did not mess with them much in the evening and nighttime hours. That Saturday morning was the first time the loud speakers in the barracks blared in the middle of the night to order the troops to be ready to fall out in ten minutes—except for the times some drunk returning from Juarez commandeered the microphone and thought it would be funny to hold an impromptu formation of the troops. But this time, no sergeant of the guard or officer of the day came on the loud speakers to cancel the order.

As we stumbled into formation, tripping over boot laces and tucking fatigue shirts into pants, we knew something must have happened. Soon a jeep with a brigadier general’s one-star banner on it whined up to the formation, and we were called to attention as the brigadier dismounted. He held us at attention while he made an announcement.

About twelve hours earlier, the Soviets had put a space satellite into orbit. They had beat the Americans in the race into space, but also, presumably, in the technology of guided missiles which would decide who held dominance in space and on earth. As Sen. Lyndon Johnson said at the time, whoever controlled space controlled the world.

The general was no orator. He told us we were like a football team behind in the closing moments of a game, and we needed to get possession of the ball and carry it to victory. With rockets.

After exchanging salutes with the formation, the general climbed back into his jeep and went into the Texas night. We were left to wonder why missile men whose rockets went only about 50,000 feet high and chased down aircraft were being told we needed to compete with an ICBM that shoved a 184-lb. aluminum ball 500 miles above the earth where it traveled at 18,000 mph to circle the earth once every 96 minutes. At three in the morning, the general’s little pep talk did not make much sense. The talk of the troops as they returned to the barracks was not of conquering space, but of invading Juarez.

The Nike Ajax surface-to-air missile (SAM)

Overseas Package 5 performed flawlessly at Red Canyon. In November, the Soviets launched another much larger satellite that contained a dog. Later that year as Overseas Package 5 got off the transport planes that flew it to Frankfort, Germans were demonstrating outside the airbase with signs that said “Sputnik, go home,” However, when the German government explained that our units were to protect them from air attacks from the Soviet Union, the people changed their attitude.

Once we deployed our missile batteries and were operational, we began to get procedures for using our surface-to-air missiles as short-range surface-to-surface missiles. After a year and a half, the Nike Ajax batteries were upgraded to Nike Hercules. The Hercules versions were capable of carrying nuclear war heads.

The Cold War got hot. But 1957, as a recent edition of U.S. News reported, was a year in an era of intense creativity, multiple scientific breakthroughs, such as polio vaccine, and great advances in social progress. The Civil Rights movement made its initial advances during that time. The world was tense, but America was determined to remain at peace, although alert and watchful. Our self-esteem was asserted by launching our own satellite in early 1958 and improving the prospects of freedom and life, not searching for pretexts to go to war and expending our troops, our resources, and our moral resolve on vanity exercises.

America has changed.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States