This month marks the 50th anniversary of the day President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed while riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas, on Nov. 22, 1963. White Sands Missile Range remembers his visit to WSMR on June 5, 1963.
Reprinted from “Pocketful of Rockets” by Jim Eckles, with permission
A Demonstration for the Commander in Chief
On June 5, 1963 President John F. Kennedy visited White Sands to watch a series of missile firings. The event was called Project MEWS or “Missile Exercise White Sands.”
The visit was just one of a long string of weapon demonstrations over the history of White Sands done for a bigger reason than the edification of a very important person. When you put them in their historical context, most seem to be sending a message. For instance, for Kennedy’s visit you have to recognize that the Cuban Missile Crisis took place a few months earlier in October 1962.
There was a good deal of fear generated in the showdown between the Soviets and the United States over the placing of missiles in Cuba. Many Americans were panic stricken. Khrushchev said the Communists would bury the United States and many believed he could.
So, in 1963, the President went about bolstering American confidence in our ability to defend ourselves. In February he made a very public visit to Redstone Arsenal in Alabama to shine the spotlight on Army missiles. He followed that with the visit to White Sands in June to show off some of those missiles in action. After these demonstrations, it was evident the United States had the muscle to deal with the Soviets.
For Kennedy’s visit, White Sands launched seven missiles against a variety of targets including another missile, a hillside and several remotely controlled jet aircraft. Also, there were briefings, a speech to be made, presentations of mementos, and some goodwill handshaking. Normally that is a lot of activity and would probably take the better part of day. Not so when it involves the President. All of this was scheduled for exactly 139 minutes.
The President, along with Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and numerous generals, flew into Holloman Air Force Base. They were then flown by helicopter to the White Sands main post where the clock started ticking.
Dan Duggan was a young captain and project officer stationed at White Sands at the time and was assigned to give two of the briefings. He said that the missile range went through 90 days of preparation for those 139 minutes. As well as his two briefings, Duggan helped coordinate some of the shots.
Duggan said the announcement of the visit, “immediately called for an ad-hoc group of some 15 principals headed by a major who was supervised daily by the deputy commander and the chief of staff and no telling how many others spreading like a web from the center.”
He added, “I personally gave a total of 93 formal briefings, ‘dry runs,’ to everyone from the janitor to the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. Every one of them had ‘suggestions’ on how to say it. I felt sorry for the Navy briefer who was told three weeks before the event that he could not use a script because the Army Zeus briefer didn’t use a script. I don’t think he liked me too much after that.” Duggan was the Zeus briefer.
Kennedy and his party were scheduled to be seated at the parade field at 2:45 p.m. but ran a little late. The White Sands workforce attended this portion and Kennedy talked to them for about 10 minutes. The official party then went to Launch Complex 32 by car to begin the briefings and missile launches.
The first firing was an Honest John. According to the schedule, the briefer had two minutes to explain the system’s capabilities and what the soldiers were doing to fire it. The missile was fired against a hillside target north of U.S. Highway 70.
Next, the Little John and Sergeant ground-to-ground missiles were fired from the same place. Finally, a HAWK air defense missile shot down an F-80 jet fighter. By the way, the HAWK replaced the Nike air defense missiles and the name is often thought to be an acronym instead of a bird of prey. It is widely accepted that the acronym “Homing All the Way Killer” was dreamt up after the system was dubbed Hawk.
The group next moved to Launch Complex 37 where they witnessed a Nike Hercules launch against another Nike Hercules missile, a Navy Talos fired against another F-80 jet, and a Nike Zeus launch.
After the demonstrations, representative soldiers from the various missile crews presented JFK with a Sergeant missile model.
The last thing on the agenda was a 20-minute briefing for just the presidential party on the Nike Zeus system. The Nike Zeus was the new super-duper missile killer designed to knock out Soviet Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) by exploding a large nuclear weapon near them. Its name was changed to Spartan as it morphed in the Sentinel System and then into the Safeguard System.
Duggan was the briefer for the Nike Zeus firing and then participated in the longer classified briefing. In his own words, this is how the classified briefing went:
Not sure of just how smart this young captain was in discussing system capabilities and strategy with the president, the White House gave me plenty of support. My immediate backup was the Chairman of AT&T, followed by the president and CEO of Bell Telephone Lab, someone from Douglas Aircraft, a gaggle of more ‘expert’ contractors and, of course, our ever-present commander, Major General Thorlin.
I pointed out to the President that we had some refreshments, even Heineken Beer (his favorite) should he like one. He declined, reminding me with that ever-present grin, that he and I were still working.
I was ready to proceed with the classified briefing when he said, ‘I know you have worked on this briefing for some time. How many dry runs did you make?’
‘Ninety-three times,’ I replied.
General Thorlin turned a bit purple and then red.
‘I am sure you are thoroughly prepared and have an outstanding briefing ready but we are running a bit late. Would you mind just sitting down and let’s talk about a few things on my mind?’ JFK asked.
Wow. I still can’t believe I was able to answer his questions and discuss the program intelligently without having to call on one of my many backups. Upon his departure he shook my hand and said ‘My thanks to you and everyone for their hard work in making this an outstanding informative day. Now you can enjoy that after-action party.’
Pretty much back on schedule, the visitors flew to El Paso where the President spent the night.
Some people see Kennedy’s visit in a different light. White Sands National Monument has an administrative history of the monument posted on their website. It is called “Dunes and Dreams” and was written by Michael Welsh in 1995. In it Welsh states Kennedy’s “primary concern (for the visit) was the fitness of WSMR for the Apollo program.”
In the early 60s, and many other decades for that matter, the Park Service was concerned about encroachment on the monument by the Army and Air Force. In fact, when you read the history there are many examples of the two services more or less bullying White Sands. After a while, the Park Service developed a deep mistrust of the military and exaggerated many threats or simply imagined some. Any rumor that came along became a call to action.
In this instance, the Park Service clearly feared NASA would end up on Alkali Flats and would loom over the north boundary of the monument. Nothing is mentioned in their history about the President watching missile launches in a huge display of firepower that took months to prepare and was openly covered by the national news media.
When the president didn’t go flying out to the supposed Apollo launch site, Welsh concluded they ran out of time and had to move on. That conclusion seems unlikely if JFK’s prime reason for visiting WSMR was to see the Apollo site. Instead, he took the time to shake hands with WSMR and Holloman personnel.
It is true politicians like New Mexico Senator Clinton Anderson, at the time, were politicking for Apollo-related work in their home states. Anderson and others proposed WSMR as a launch site for Gemini and Apollo vehicles. The main advantages sited for White Sands were the reasonably good weather and the fact the launch site would already be almost 4,000 feet above sea level.
Welsh’s argument is also very questionable because presidents don’t fly around to take a personal look at a potential facility site. It is a bit ludicrous to think Kennedy was weighing in on the selection process.
When you look back on it in the cold and harsh light of fiscal and political reality, there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that NASA was moving its operations to New Mexico. Florida already was conducting Mercury launches and was equipped with a tremendous infrastructure for support. Plus the political support from a state like Florida and the needs of the administration to hold the Southern states outweighed any clout from tiny New Mexico.
Then there was this huge technical problem. The planned launch inclination to put the men into orbit required a basic west-to-east flight path. That meant for launches from White Sands, the Saturn rocket’s first stage, weighing around 280,000 pounds after burnout and separation, would have hit the ground some 400 miles or so east of White Sands – somewhere in Texas. “Watch out Abilene!” Launches in Florida simply meant dropping boosters in the Atlantic.
Another clue here that the Park Service had nothing to worry about was the agency’s own experience with the Army. From 1946 forward, the Army and WSMR always fought the Park Service’s proposal to make Trinity Site a national monument or other kind of historic park. The Army’s reasoning was that a monument would cut out the top portion of the missile range and effectively eliminate WSMR’s capability to test many long-range missiles for the Army, Air Force and Navy.
Now imagine an Apollo launch complex in the very middle of the missile range with hundreds of people working there. It is a quantum leap worse than a national monument as far as encroachment on the missile range. Given such a scenario, WSMR would just about disappear as a test site for weapons.
Given these circumstances, the events provide an insight into how American politics work. Nobody in their right mind thinks Senator Anderson actually would have pushed to shut down WSMR to acquire the Apollo program. Also, he wasn’t naïve enough to think New Mexico actually had a chance. So what was he up to?
By keeping the public and local supporters beating the drums for New Mexico for the space program, Anderson was able to dip his hand into the pork barrel and deliver a NASA Apollo spin-off.
It wasn’t the whole program, but it was something useful, reasonable to New Mexico, and something that continues to this day. It came in the form of the White Sands Test Facility, established in 1963.
The facility is located on the very west edge of WSMR, out of the way so it does not encroach on the military mission at all, or the national monument either.
In 1964, the facility began testing the smaller rocket engines that were used in the Apollo program. Its mission has expanded over the years to include space shuttle support, hazardous materials testing, high-pressure oxygen systems and a number of laboratories.
Of course, there are some totally whacko claims about Kennedy’s visit. Some say JFK used the visit as a smoke screen to go see Victorio Peak and decide what to do about all the gold bars and other treasure stored there. Cue the Twilight Zone music.
The book is available for purchase on post at the Museum Gift Shop. It is also available from Amazon.com.