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White Sands Missile Range Established

By Michael Ann Sullivan

The White Sands Missile Range lies in the Tularosa Basin, a dramatic natural geologic formation of gypsum sand dunes created by the erosion of gypsum rich rock from the San Andres and Sacramento Mountains. The Basin was exposed 70 million years ago when an event geologists call the “Laramide Revolution” lifted the Rocky Mountains and their southwestern spine. The basin stretches 150 miles in length and is on average 50 miles wide. The area of the White Sands dunes covers some 275 square miles. Approximately, 40% of the White Sands dunes belongs to the National Park Service and is the White Sands National Monument, a tourist destination that attracts people from around the world. The remaining 60% of the basin is within the boundaries of the White Sands Missile Range.

The earliest humans in the Tularosa Basin date to 500 AD and primarily lived in the mountains that surround the basin. They tended to be hunters and gatherers. A long and severe drought in 1100 AD drove humans out of the region. Around 1300 AD, the archaeological record indicates that the nomadic Mescalero Apache began traveling through the region on hunting expeditions from their homes in the mountains to the south. When the Spanish arrived, they found the Tularosa Basin as desolate as previous inhabitants, and passed through it to more desirable land farther north. It was not until 1855, when the U.S. Army built Fort Stanton above present day Ruidoso that people began to establish small outposts in the Tularosa Basin. The first Hispanic settlers began farming in La Luz, northeast of present day Alamogordo. These people first began to make use of the gypsum from the dunes in constructing their adobe homes. They found the sand deflected the sun from their homes in the summer months.

Other than the army and a few hardy souls, the Tularosa Basin did not garner a lot of attention during the 19th century by outsiders. Its aridity and remote location from other population centers in the United States did not make it an attractive area for potential development. The arrival of the railroad in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, in 1901, changed this. The El Paso and Northeastern Railroad established a new town site some fifteen miles east of the dunes, named Alamogordo. A subsidiary company of the railroad platted a village which had over 1000 inhabitants within twelve months.

Preservationists and developers alike debated the fate of the Tularosa Basin throughout the early part of the twentieth century. Enterprising citizens from Alamogordo made use of the gypsum fields for plaster of paris, agricultural fertilizer, and as a source of sulfuric acid. Others advocated setting the dunes aside as a national park to attract tourists to the area and preserve its natural resources. The dedicated efforts of Tom Charles, a leading conservationist and booster for Alamogordo, finally prevailed. In the last days of his presidency, on 18 January 1933, Herbert Hoover designated 142,987 acres of the White Sands dune fields as a National Monument. Hoover noted that the Park Service should not just preserve the natural resources of the region but also its “additional features of scenic, scientific, and educational interest.” Visitors to the White Sands National Monument exceeded all expectations. Charles estimated 16,540 in the month of August—the first month the park was open. In 1938, with the completion of a visitor center, the Monument received 110,000 visitors throughout the year.

With the start of WWII in Europe, the White Sands dunes appealed to the U.S. Army as a remote location to train troops. As early as 1939, Major James Duke of the First Calvary Division, stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas, requested permission from Charles to use the Monument and surrounding basin for camping and troop movement. Charles denied the Army use of the dunes but acceded to their request to use the roads bordering the Monument. However, the attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in 1941, led to further encroachments by the army into the Tularosa Basin. The characteristics of remoteness and desolation that had discouraged large-scale settlement in the region attracted the military strategists of Roosevelt's War Department.

Three weeks after Pearl Harbor, Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, recommended that 1.25 million acres of public land in the Tularosa Basin be given to the Army for their use. Nearly 275,000 acres belonged to the state of New Mexico, while approximately 35,000 acres belonged to private citizens. At Ickes suggestion, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9029 establishing the Alamogordo Bombing Range. Although the order included a clause promising to restore the lands when no longer needed, events in the Tularosa Basin and the world would prevent this from occurring. The Army would be a permanent and pronounced presence in the White Sands dunes from WWII on. The Alamogordo Bombing Range along with other army installations in the dunes would all become part of the White Sands Missile Range.

During the war, the Army used the Bombing Range to train pilots. Frequently, troops traversed the dunes of the Monument to simulate desert conditions and perform flying missions. The terrain of the Tularosa Basin coupled with the inexperience of pilots resulted in frequent crashes and Park Service employees often participated in rescue and recovery efforts.

The Army also pursued an accelerated program to develop missiles at this time. When they began to look for a site to test missiles—White Sands met all their criteria. The army required a remote, dry, yet accessible area surrounded by mountains. The Tularosa Basin fit the bill all the way around. Furthermore, White Sands already had two military installations nearby, Fort Bliss and the Alamogordo Bombing Range. On 20 February 1945 the Secretary of War appropriated another small stretch of the dunes from the Texas border 124 miles north and 41 miles wide east to west and designated it the White Sands Proving Ground. The army immediately began building a site. First they did the preliminary work of drilling a well, constructing a communication system, and building barracks, workshops, and assembly halls. Then they began construction of the firing site. The firing site consisted of a large concrete pad and control center. The “block house,” as the control center was called, lay 350 feet from the launch pad. It had 10 foot thick concrete walls and a pyramid-shaped roof made of steel reinforced concrete 27 ft thick. All observations of the shoot or launch occurred within these walls.

The next army incursion into the Tularosa Basin was the construction of a site, from March to July of 1945, to test the top-secret Manhattan Project weapon being developed at Los Alamos. The Manhattan Project was a multi-site military endeavor to create an atomic bomb ahead of the Germans for use in the war. General Leslie Groves oversaw the management of the far-flung facilities involved in this deadly research. J. Robert Oppenheimer directed the central laboratory at Los Alamos, a former boy’s school located 160 miles to the north. Oppenheimer and Groves selected 51,500 acres 60 miles northwest of Alamogordo in the Tularosa Basin, the heart of which belonged to the David McDonald family. McDonald relinquished his land to the federal government under protest. The McDonald ranch house became the actual assembly site for the atomic bomb. Oppenheimer code-named the site Trinity.

In the early morning on 16 July 1945, the first atomic bomb detonated in the desert, a mushroom cloud billowing 38,000 feet into the air, and the sky lighting up like sunrise. All wildlife and vegetation in the area vaporized and the white sands of the desert fused into a green-glass like rock that scientists later called Trinitite. Although few witnessed the awesome sight, the Army released a press release that stated that an ammunition magazine had accidentally exploded on the Alamogordo Bombing Range. The truth of the story only came out much later. The successful testing of the prototype led to the deployment of two atomic bombs on 7 and 9 August on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan surrendered 9 days later.

The dust in the desert had barely settled from the atomic blast when the Army announced the arrival by rail in late July of 300 of freight-car loads of V-2 rocket components captured from the Pennemuende Rocket Center on the Baltic Sea. The Germans had produced some 3,000 rockets during the war and fired them at Britain and other targets. German scientists had learned that rockets had a high rate of failure when stored for long periods of time assembled. Therefore, Americans had taken only components and their documentation with them from Pennemuende. Upon the arrival of the V-2 components, army engineers began building a rocket test-stand, essentially a long concrete shaft in the side of the cliff. The assembled rocket would sit atop the stand held down by a steel cage.

In late 1945, a team of German scientists under the direction of Wernher Von Braun began a five-year rocket research project at the White Sands Proving Ground that resulted in America’s first large rocket systems—the Corporal, Redstone, Nikes, Aerobees, and Atlas. Wernher Von Braun had directed the Pennemuende Rocket Center for Hitler during WWII. When he realized the Allies were approaching he evacuated the center but he eventually made a decision to surrender. The Secretary of War approved the emigration of 100 top scientists to New Mexico, Von Braun among them, under the auspices of Project Paperclip. The knowledge these men possessed was deemed vital to national security and they were given asylum in the United States in return for their expertise. Paperclip scientists worked in all the major scientific laboratories and universities around the country.

The first American-assembled and -adapted V-2 missile launched from the White Sands Proving Ground on 16 April 1946. The V-2 was the first high-altitude missile and the first large missile to be controlled in flight. A launched missile would hover in place for an instant and then suddenly climb into the sky with supersonic speed. Early V-2’s climbed to an altitude of between 73 and 133 miles high. In addition to giving the army experience in launching large vehicles, the V-2 missiles also captured data on every aspect of a rocket launch including vital information on the upper atmosphere.

By 1955, White Sands Proving Grounds resembled a small city with 430 housing units, 93 trailers, a Post Office, bank, daily newspaper, school, and religious facilities. In 1958, it was designated the White Sands Missile Range. At this time, the Trinity Site also became part of the missile range. In 1963, off-range launch sites and corridors, as far away as 400 miles, were built at Green River and Blanding, Utah, and Wingate and Datil, New Mexico. Athena re-entry vehicles and Pershing anti-ballistic missiles were launched frequently from these sites in the 60s and 70s. The 80s witnessed space-shuttle research and the addition of the High Energy Laser Systems Test Facility. In 1985, the National Park Service designated the original Launch site and block house a National Historic Landmark.

The White Sands Missile Range continues to provide a range of testing capabilities in radar, telemetry, optics, computers, fiber optic rings, and microwave relay to not only the U.S. military but other U.S. agencies, foreign nations, and private industry.

Sources Used:

Bower, Tom. The Paperclip Conspiracy: The Hunt for Nazi Scientists. Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1987.

Information Office. “V-2 Story”. White Sands Missile Range, June 1972.

Ley, Willy. Rockets, Missiles, and Men in Space. New York: Viking Press, 1968.

Public Affairs Office, White Sands Missile Range. White Sands Missile Range: New Mexico 2004. San Diego, Ca: MARCOA Publishing Inc., 2004.

Szasz, Ference Morton. The Day the Sun Rose Twice: The Story of the Trinity Site Nuclear Explosion July 16, 1945. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984.

Von Braun, Wernher and Frederick I. Ordway. History of Rocketry and Space Travel. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1975.

Welsh, Michael. Dunes and Dreams: A History of the White Sands National Monument. Santa Fe: National Park Service, Division of History, Intermountain Cultural Resources Center, 1995.