CECOM History: Dr. Walter S. McAfee

By Susan L. Thompson, CECOM Command HistorianFebruary 22, 2021

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Dr. Walter S. McAfee is one of the most renowned African American scientists who served for more than 42 years. Most famous for his pioneering work on Project Diana in 1946, and what is considered to be the beginning of the Space Age, Dr. McAfee broke barriers throughout his life. Battling the common societal racism that could have prevented him from finding meaningful work in his field, he persevered, and worked throughout his career to help others achieve knowledge and success.

Dr. Walter S. McAfee served the community as a scientist, educator, supervisor and mentor. From 1942 until his retirement in 1985, Dr. McAfee helped to create a vigorous, inclusive scientific community that was dedicated to advancing communications and electronics research, as well as paving the way for the advancement of minorities in the Federal workplace. In 1971, Dr. McAfee was the first African American employee of the U.S. Army to be promoted to GS-16, a “super-grade” civilian position with his appointment as Scientific Adviser to the Deputy for Laboratories, Army Electronics Command (ECOM). The final position before his retirement was as Scientific Advisor to the U.S. Army Electronics Research and Development Command (ERADCOM), a position he held from 1978 to 1985.

Dr. McAfee had a long and varied professional career. After earning his master of science degree at Ohio State University, he taught general science and math in secondary schools of Columbus, Ohio from 1937-42. He joined the Army Signal Corps Radar Laboratory at Camp Evans in 1942, where he was employed as a physicist in the theoretical studies unit of the Engineering Laboratories, Army Electronics Research Command. At the time, Fort Monmouth was one of the few places that didn’t require a photograph to be included in a job application, allowing an applicant to be judged on merit rather than skin color. He gained special recognition in 1946 while with Project Diana at the Evans Signal Laboratory. This small team of scientists helped put man’s imprint on the moon for the first time with radar. This experiment made headlines on January 10, 1946, when the first contact occurred between earth and its satellite. Project Diana bounced an electronic echo from the moon’s surface back to an antenna at the Evans Signal Laboratory. McAfee’s theoretical calculations determined the feasibility of this original radar “moon bounce.”  Soon after, he was sent to Cornell University as a Rosenwald Scholar, where he earned his doctorate in theoretical physics in 1949, under Dr. Hans A. Bethe, who later received a Nobel Prize in 1967.

Dr. McAfee held a number of supervisory positions during his 42 years at Fort Monmouth, where he guided the development of both new technologies and the scientists who worked on them. He believed in cross-training, and helped develop and teach Internal Training Program classes available to anyone who was interested. While working as Director of the Passive Sensing Technical Area from 1966 to 1968, Dr. McAfee directed work on developing acoustic, seismic, magnetic, electromagnetic, and infrared sensors, many of which were used as part of the “McNamara Line” to detect and track enemy movements during the war in Vietnam. The RAIS (Remote Intelligence Acquisition Study), known now as REMBASS (Remotely Monitored Battlefield Sensor System), was another program under the direction of McAfee.

Dr. McAfee’s citations and awards include the Rosenwald Fellowship in Nuclear Physics and the Secretary of the Army Fellowship, which was presented to him by President Eisenhower at a White House ceremony. This fellowship enabled him to spend two years studying radio astronomy at Harvard University. He also was one of the first recipients of the U.S. Army Research and Development Achievement Awards. In 1997, Dr. McAfee was honored by the community with the naming of McAfee Center at Fort Monmouth, the first building on post to be named for a civilian. The C5ISR community chose to continue to honor his legacy by naming McAfee Hall (Building 6003) after him on the C5ISR Campus at Aberdeen Proving Ground in 2011. He was the first African American inducted into the AMC Hall of Fame in 2015. In 2019, the Belmar, New Jersey post office was named in his honor.

Dr. McAfee died on February 18, 1995, leaving a legacy of success that continues to inspire the community today.