The Rocket Scientist

Last week I met a dapper and articulate World War II veteran named Henry Hoffstot.  We spoke on the phone a couple days ago, and he talked demurely of his time in the 44th Infantry Division in Europe in 1944 and 1945. 

“I suppose one noteworthy thing happened while I was there,” he finally said.  “We captured the German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, and I was one of the men who guarded him for three days before he was relocated.”

Born to an aristocratic Prussian family, Wernher von Braun was a true wunderkind who began working on ideas for space flight in his teenage years.  By age 22, he was already building rockets for the German Army.  This was in 1934, when only the prescient (largely Jewish, Socialist, and Communist observers) recognized the threat of Adolph Hitler.  Three years later, he joined the Nazi Party and the Waffen-SS (the party’s ruthless armed wing) and became director of the German offensive rocket program.  He fathered the famed V-2, the world’s first ballistic missile and spacecraft. 

The V-2 struck terror into the hearts of the British people especially, but also the French and Belgian.  Travelling faster than the speed of sound, the warhead exploded before its victims could hear it coming.  Over a six month period, V-2s killed over 7,000 people.  (Almost three times that many died in the V-2’s manufacturing plants.  Slave laborers from Buchenwald and other concentration camps built the rockets.)

Given more time and resources, the V-2 might have turned the tide of the war.  But, as it happened, in early May 1945, the Soviets and Americans were scouring Germany and Austria for the Third Reich’s rocket scientists.  Von Braun was the biggest prize, and each of the uneasy allies raced to nab him ahead of the other.  The United States and Soviet Union were already thinking of their own rocket programs–making their own V-2s–for future wars.

On May 2, the 44th Division was in western Austria.  Members of the 324th Regiment’s anti-tank company happened upon a German civilian riding a bicycle with white kerchief of surrender flapping on the handlebar.  The man dismounted and approached Pfc. Fred Schneiker of Sheboygan, Wisconsin.  “We are a group of rocket specialists up in the mountains,” the bicycle rider explained.  “We want to see your commander and surrender to the Americans.  We want to be taken to Ike as soon as possible.”

Schneiker thought the man crazy but escorted him to the 44th Division’s counterintelligence office in Reutte, Austria, just in case.  The officer in charge there, Lt. Charles Stewart, assigned a detail to take Magnus back up the mountain and bring the Germans back in the next morning.

Magnus directed the soldiers up to a ski resort hotel, where his brother and many other rocket program personnel were living in luxury and following the war’s end–Berlin’s fall, Hitler’s death, Germany’s near surrender–on the radio.  Their end-of-war experience had been harrowing, despite the excellent service at the hotel.  Die-hard SS officers had threatened to execute them rather than allowing them to fall into the hands of the enemy.  Von Braun and the others had escaped that fate, but now they had to choose their captors.  Their choices were the French, the Soviets, and the Americans.  They chose to surrender to the Americans and selected Wernher’s brother to be their emissary.  “I was the youngest, I spoke the best English, and I was the most expendable,” Magnus later explained.

Wernher and his cohort paraded down the mountain in their cars the next morning and presented themselves to Lt. Stewart, who didn’t yet fully understand the value of his prisoner.   

Henry Hoffstot, who I believe was assigned to counterintelligence, was also there.  He remembers guarding von Braun and conversing casually with him in German.  Signal Corps photographers soon showed up and snapped some photos, including one of Henry and Wernher chatting. 

Henry remembers the photo appearing years later on a television documentary about von Braun.  He doesn’t have a copy of it.  I told him I’d try to track it down.  I couldn’t find it, but I did come across some photographs of von Braun’s capture that I find quite remarkable.

Far from a shamed Nazi or humbled POW, the leather-clad German scientist appears swaggering and proud, despite his broken arm grotesquely jutted out in a cast.  He virtually mugs for the camera, as if (to put it anachronistically) he were a rock star at a press conference.  The GIs, in fact, had a tough time believing this guy was really a famous rocket scientist.  “He seemed too young, too fat, and too jovial,” recalled one Army sergeant.

Photo taken by Technician Fifth Class Louis Wintraub, U.S. Army, Austria, 3 May 1945. Its caption is: Von Braun (with arm in cast) surrenders to the Americans at Reutte, in May 1945. Left to right are Charles L. Stewart, U.S. counter-intelligence agent; Lt. Col Herbert Axter, attached to Gen. Dornberger's staff; Dieter K Huzel; Wernher von Braun; Magnus von Braun; and Hans Lindenberg.

Archival Signal Corp film footage shows the same thing.  Here’s the scene as it appears in a German documentary segment on YouTube.  Watch at the beginning and then again at 3:53.  As the narrator puts it, “the Americans look like extras.  The cameras are focused on Wernher von Braun.  He stands in the limelight and appears perfectly happy.”

Here’s another photo of von Braun apparently charming an American GI with a comment about his Combat Infantry Badge.

A smiling Wernher von Braun points at an unknown GI's CIB.

You may know how this story ends.  “Operation Paperclip” brings Wernher von Braun back to the U.S., where he joins the Army’s secret rocket program.  He not only develops missiles for the Cold War but also promotes the idea of space exploration.  With John F. Kennedy’s call to reach the moon by the end of the 1960s, Wernher von Braun becomes a rock star once again.  He spearheads the development of the Saturn V rocket and celebrates on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong takes his one small step on to the lunar surface.
For a Nazi and former SS officer, that was a pretty good fate indeed.  Perhaps von Braun knew something no one else did when he smiled so winningly for those photos in May 1945.
As for Pfc. Fred Schneiker of Sheboygan, he returned home after the war and worked for an electric utility.  In his Florida retirement, Schneiker received invitations from Wernher von Braun to view rocket launches at Cape Canaveral.

 For a famous satiric depiction of von Braun, see Peter Sellars’ portrayal in Stanley Kubrick’s film Dr. Strangelove (1964). 

The Hollywood film The Good German (2006) and the spy novel of the same title examine some of the moral issues involved in the former SS officer’s rehabilitation as an American hero of space flight.

Von Braun with Walt Disney when von Braun directed television programs on space exploration. Disney's hand rests on a V-2 model.

Von Braun and President John F. Kennedy in 1963.